It might surprise you to learn that personal trainers aren’t allowed to give nutrition advice, since so many of them do. Those with big social media followings do it publicly through the meal plans they sell, the supplements they recommend, and even the 1:1 nutrition coaching that they might sell.
In the gym setting, it’s not uncommon to hear a personal trainer give unsolicited nutrition advice.
(OK, maybe sometimes it’s solicited.) Things like: “Eat X grams of carbs/protein/fat per day,” or “avoid X food.” Or, the worst (and possibly most common) one: “Here’s what I eat,” with the implication that you should do the same.
(This article initially appeared in the Quit Your Diet Newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.)
And sure, a trainer giving nutrition advice might seem harmless.
This kind of talk often happens among friends, so what’s the problem with a personal trainer starting up the same conversation? Well, a number of things.
People tend to view personal trainers as authority figures who are trustworthy on matters of health and fitness.
So, they’re far more likely to take the advice without questioning it. But the reality is that trainers don’t necessarily have comprehensive knowledge on nutrition. Even if they’ve taken specialized courses, a personal training session is not the place to be providing nutrition advice.
As a dietitian, even I feel that it’s only responsible for me to give that advice to someone in a formal session, after we’ve talked through health status and concerns, mental health issues, eating disorder and dieting history (and risk), lifestyle, financial constraints, family dynamics, and so much more.
So, while you might trust your trainer—hopefully they’re really knowledgeable about fitness and focused on doing things that are accessible for your body specifically—they’re just not in a position to give you good nutrition advice, even if it’s well intentioned.
Then there’s the fact that people tend to really, really idolize trainers.
Frankly, this one idea could be a whole newsletter in and of itself, but I’ll be brief here. Fitness and wellness have exploded in recent years. Many trainers have become legitimate celebrities, while others are influencers with huge social media followings. And during this same time period, wellness culture has become synonymous with health. That makes sense at surface level, but it doesn’t add up.
Because wellness culture is often more about aesthetics and performance than it is about actual health. It’s about doing a certain workout, eating a certain diet, and aiming to look a certain way.
Health, on the other hand, is holistic, and goes far deeper. It’s about actually taking care of your body, which means feeding it properly, letting it rest, and letting it move in ways that feel good. It’s about working collaboratively with healthcare providers to properly address (or prevent) any issues. And it’s about paying attention to non-physical aspects of health: emotional, social, and even spiritual health.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s about acknowledging the fact that many things about our health are out of our control.
The thing about many experts or influencers in the “wellness” space is that they tend to ignore this part. Their businesses rely heavily on the idea that your health IS totally in your control. (And that the way to take control of it is to take their advice.) I wrote a couple of weeks back about the fake “empowerment” message of wellness culture, which you can read here, and it’s a similar idea. On the surface, the message seems positive: You can achieve anything, your health and happiness is in your hands! But below the surface, it’s much more sinister: You should be prioritizing the way your body looks, and it’s not good enough as it is, so buy my thing.
I’m not trying to pick on personal trainers. There are so many excellent ones out there, and the whole ‘giving nutrition advice that you’re not qualified to give’ thing extends into many other fields.
But to illustrate my point, let me share some of the responses I got when I asked: “What’s the worst nutrition advice you’ve ever received from a trainer?”
– “Don’t eat bread”
– “Women over 40 don’t need to eat carbs”
– “Fast for X number of days a week and strictly count macros the other days”
– “Don’t eat too much fruit”
– “Carrots have too much sugar”
– “Bananas have too much sugar”
– “Food combining!”
– “Stop eating gluten”
– “No carbs. Eat your weight in grams of protein. Eat [redacted] calories per day + exercise.”
– “Sugar is as addictive as cocaine”
– “You’ve got enough fat stores that you don’t need to eat during a 5+ hour bike ride”
People, these are awful. They’re ultimately just soundbites that the trainer likely read on the internet, or heard from a colleague or a wellness influencer. Maybe they put them into practice themselves, but that doesn’t mean that they’re effective, safe, or evidence-based. Some of these have the potential to cause legitimate physical harm. All of them are likely to really mess with a person’s relationship with food and their body.
They also reinforce the false idea that you need food rules in order to be healthy.
You don’t. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. But people gravitate towards rules, because it makes them feel in control. And when a trainer validates or prescribes those rules, it’s just more encouragement to move in a direction that’s ultimately harmful.
All of this stems out of a conversation I had last week at Current Wellness with a group of personal trainers who were learning about the Health at Every Size approach. The initial question was: “What should I do when someone asks me for nutrition advice/asks me what I eat?” Good answers to that question might be: “That’s not in my scope” Or, of course, “seek out a dietitian if you’d like personalized nutrition advice.”
I also love the idea of a personal trainer pushing back on diet culture in response.
When asked for nutrition advice, one useful thing a personal trainer could say (without overstepping, is: “Make sure you’re eating enough.” Likely, that’s not what someone expects to hear. And getting permission to eat enough, without a side of guilt or food rules, can be really powerful for someone who’s struggling. A personal trainer responding to the “what do you eat?” question with something like, “I don’t keep track of what I eat, because I don’t think that food rules or too much focus on eating is helpful” might be equally powerful.
The bottom line is that nutrition advice can cause real harm if it’s not carefully thought out (by someone who knows how to give it).
It’s not innocent conversation, because it has the power to affect someone’s health and wellbeing in a profoundly negative way.
If you’re sick of falling for terrible diets and “wellness” trends, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about my nutrition counseling, offered to clients in several states. If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.
You might also like:
What Is Orthorexia — And Do I Have It?
The Problem With Fake “Empowerment” In Wellness Culture
Drunkorexia: The Link Between Alcohol Abuse and Eating Disorders
My name is Sherwood minor, a personal trainer myself, yet not in practice any more.
Liked you’re article. Look forward to checking out your “empowerment” article or fake empowerment.
Now I’m blessed to be in the grocery retail industry. Yet the health and fitness industry is still a love of mine. So I still study and contribute to the industry.
There is a lot of truth to what you’re saying.
When I entered the industry in the early 90’s there was no talk of scope of practice when you took certifications, unless it went more into medical advice.
With nutrition and post-rehab certifications, scope of practice, do’s and don’t came in later years.
In post-rehab they realized that coaching proper movement and learning what and what night I do with certain individuals was fine. It was prescribing and diagnosing that was the main issue.
With nutrition, a lot of what you said is true. Yet they also looked at what is allowed in each state with a certification and is the personal trainer staying within government nutritional advice. Meaning info the government has slated to be “Okay” on government websites
For example, SNAP has a free nutrition certification. So you only use there resources and what’s allowed or legal.
I used to reach out to organizations and ask why they didn’t speak out on the difference between a PT and a CPT. As well as the difference between a RD and a someone who has a nutrition certification.
The governing bodies of these organizations didn’t speak out.
The only one that did was the governing body for ATC’s.
They had a PDF stating the difference between a ATC and a CPT.
Maybe the rehab, DC and RD community should do the same. Along with more professionals as yourself speaking out.
Keep it up and thanks for saying there are some good CPT’s out there. Perhaps to an article or interview with one.
This is Sherwood minor again.
I failed to mention I do have question on your take on sugars.
Like when you quoted how people speak of sugar being like cocaine.
What has your research on sugar shown you?
Personally I limit sugars, especially refined sugars to a minimum. I haven’t totally eliminated them.
I’m not speaking of naturally occurring sugars of nature. I’m speaking of keeping added sugar or foods with added sugar to a minimum and staying away from artificial sweeteners. Which I recently have been reading are not best for your intestinal tract.
Yet I would be interested in your take on sugar and sugar intake, as well as artificial sweeteners.
Lastly where do you feel naturopathic doctors fall in the healthcare and nutritional advice continuum?
I will say some certifications are like, how can I practice in a certain area without getting a degree.
This not for the professions where all you need is a certification.
I’m speaking of the ones where having a degree or license (Again depending on the state and laws) is actually better than a certification if a person wants to practice in a certain area.
That being said. If a certification clearly teaches what the professionals boundaries are and when to refer. I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with it.
There’s room for all in helping people in wellness. As long as we do it in science, common sense, legally and know our boundaries
Thank you for the reply.
Will indeed share and look into those findings you shared.
Also if you have any PDF’s, ebooks or contributed to any publications feel free to share.
Lastly if you care to look into a couple of sites that speak on the parameters Fitness Professionals should stay in when speaking about nutrition.
There is a site call Precision Nutrition (They have a couple of RD’s on staff) and another AFPA.
Both good sites in my opinion, but you are more knowledgeable in the nutrition area then I am.
I would be glad to hear your thoughts.
Thank you again and keep up the good work
Hi Sherwood! The research I’ve seen on sugar finds that while sugar does have some of the characteristics of addiction, it doesn’t have all of them. For example (and keep in mind, all of this research is done in rodents so it’s impossible to say whether it applies to humans), rats don’t keep seeking out sugar when it’s paired with an unpleasant stimulus like an electric shock, whereas they do continue to seek out addictive drugs in the same situation. I don’t think it’s helpful to think of sugars as addictive or to completely avoid them, because that tends to make you just want them more. Sure, eating lots of sugar and little else wouldn’t be nutritious, but there’s certainly room for some added sugar in a healthy overall diet.
In response to the naturopathic doctor question: I’m sure there are good ones out there, but many of the ones I see are pushing treatments, diets, and therapies that don’t have much evidence behind them, which isn’t responsible!
Thanks for sharing! Interesting to hear how the scope of practice has changed over the years. Absolutely there are FANTASTIC personal trainers out there.
I never took into account the fact that the truth is that personal trainers do not always have a thorough understanding of nutrition. I remember when I was a college student I was proudly answering the question but now I realize it was different. Thank you for helping me understand the right information about nutrition counseling.
I’m late to the party, but just wanted to say to Christine “thank you” for this post. It was long needed and overdue, especially since I can’t hit “refresh/cancel” on my random browser news feed.
I sought your blog out as a question on Google because I got some weird article in my feed about how active people need more protein. Ok, no problem. I was willing to listen. And this was from a supposed “expert” personal trainer.
Then, I read through it. Thoroughly. This article just didn’t seem right.
This so-called expert trainer listed out a sample daily meal plan at the end of the article. It was supposedly NOT a meal plan designed for any weight loss; this was just some everyday routine.
When I read it, I thought, what active person could survive on this?
It was like this: broiled or grilled meat, steamed vegetables, and Greek yogurt. All day. I thought, if I’m an active person, why is this “expert” trainer recommending I eat like…40 carbs a day??
It was terrible. If I had followed this meal plan, even at my average activity level, I surely would’ve fainted from starvation/exhaustion.
Maybe these expert trainers who get to write for big publications actually live on these starvation-type diets; who knows. But it’s high time we allowed women (especially) to eat enough to support basic life functions like, I don’t know, MOVING and average functioning brain activity.
It doesn’t matter your size. We all need a decent amount of nutritious food to move and think. Period.
I read your article in BICYCLING. I obsess about my weight to a point: I weigh myself every morning before breakfast. I do not have an eating disorder and never had one.
At my 18th birthday, I weighed 145 pounds and was 5′ 10″ tall, per my draft card (which I still have). At age 55, I weighed about 180 pounds and had somewhat of a Dunlop. My waist size had gone from 32 to 35. I retired from a US Government job at age 56 and decided to lose some weight to get my BMI into a normal area. I’d followed a vegetarian plus fish diet since 2001.
I began cycling, about 1000 miles a year, and increased that to about 1500. I did not change my eating habits.
I fully retired in the fall of 2006 and began spending winters in Florida, summers in New Jersey, so I can ride year-round. In 2020, I reached 4500 miles and lost 7 pounds. Slow and steady…
Last summer I bottomed out at 149 pounds and was buying pants with a 32 inch waist again. They fit well. I’m now at 152-155 pounds most of the time and feel good, I’d like to get to 149 again but think 145 is not attainable. Sustaining 152 would be good.
A little obsession can be good, as long as it’s not taken to extremes. Patience helps.