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Is Nutrition within a Personal Trainer’s Scope?

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In my last post, I defined the scope of practice for personal trainers.  In case you missed it, it is to enhance the components of fitness for the general healthy population.  People often ask is giving nutritional advice within the scope of practice for a personal trainer?  Using the scope provided then answer is a very clear yes.  But sometimes those in the fitness world will suggest it is not.  I could not disagree more.  Let’s examine the situation.

First, is nutrition related to the components of fitness?  Yes, very clearly.  It will affect all the components but one component – body composition – is directly related to a client’s dietary intake.  Body composition is the percent of lean mass (fat free mass) compared to the percent of fat mass in the body, in other words it is your body fat %.  Obviously having a high body fat affects your physical fitness as well as your health.

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Second, let’s use some common sense.  What is the number one goal the majority of personal training clients have?  To lose weight!  And what is the number one way to address weight loss?  With sound nutrition.  Exercise is great and it obviously does have a positive impact on one’s body composition, by both building lean mass and helping burn fat; but diet is key.

Third, whom are trainers trained to deal with?  This the second part of the scope – the general, healthy population.  I am not suggesting trainers give out detailed nutritional advice to clients with diabetes, HIV, cancer, or other serious medical conditions.  Those clients would not fall into a trainer’s scope of practice and nutritional information for them should be referred out.  But for general healthy clients – eg the client that wants to lose 20 lbs of fat or add some muscle, trainers certainly can and should be able to give that client the dietary information necessary to accomplish their goals.

Fourth, how complicated is it?  Nutrition, at its heart, really isn’t that complicated.  There are certain aspects of nutrition that are complicated, but when it comes to practical guidelines it isn’t that hard.  The best science we have to date says that to lose weight you need to create a caloric deficit: exercise helps but again nutrition is king, you just have to eat less.  For the majority of clients the specific type of diet is less important than the simple idea of eating less.  And for those trying to gain muscle, eating a little more than maintenance levels combined with a resistance training program is the ticket to success.


Trainers should generally stick with the RDA when it comes to a dietary breakdown.  In case you have forgotten this is a diet consisting of 45-65% carbs, 10-35% protein, and 20-35% fat.  The RDA gives reasonable ranges so you can move a certain number up or down as you prefer.  Another simple guideline is don’t eat less than 20% of any nutrient particularly if you are active.  Each nutrient offers the body specific benefits and the main fear that nutritionists have with trainers offering dietary advice is they will simply eliminate a key nutrient or suggest a radical fad diet.  Finally trainers should not recommend a VLCD (Very low calorie diet) as that is outside the scope as well (any diet less than 1200 kcal/day is a VLCD).

In summary

  • Follow the RDA guidelines for the nutrients
  • Adjust caloric intake to meet the client’s goal
  • Don’t eat less than 20% of any nutrient (protein, carbs, or fat)
  • Don’t suggest a diet of below 1200 kcal/day for any client


It is worth noting that right now it is up to state law, which can vary considerably, as to how much dietary advice a non Registered Dietician (RD) can provide.  About a 1/3 of the states are reasonably strict and would not allow trainers to write specific meal plans for their clients, although giving broader, sample guidelines is likely still fine.  The other 2/3 of the states are not as strict and trainers can provide more detailed nutritional advice and specific meal plans as long as they are not presenting themselves as nutritionists.  This information applies to the US, other countries may have different guidelines.



In my mind the real issue for those that don’t want trainers to propose dietary advice is their fear is that the trainer may not be properly educated in nutrition.  I agree that is often the case, but that is the issue to fight – not simply making a blanket statement that trainers can’t talk about nutrition.  It is true that many trainers are taught through self-study and they simply take one computer based test and suddenly they are certified.  Obviously this is woefully inadequate.  The real issue is that the education standards for trainers should be raised, not that the scope of practice for trainers should be changed.  Trainers should receive adequate education on nutrition, something along the lines of a 100 hour long nutrition program would generally work well.  This would provide the proper education for the trainer to work with the general healthy population and make it even more clear when to refer out those clients that fall outside of the scope.  I agree something must be done, but with 67% of the population being classified as overweight, telling personal trainers not to dispense dietary guidelines is, in my opinion, not the way to start.




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