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Many of us will see a trainer for help with our exercise. And we often ask our detailed nutrition advice from our personal trainers too.

Because let’s face it, most of us do not eat as well as we should. We all know it. In fact, chances are you are not meeting dietary guidelines for healthy eating! You are probably not among the less than 8% of people who meet the recommended daily intake of vegetables, for example.

And whether we are trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or perform well, nutrition can play a key role.

fruits and vegetables lack from the normal diet, but are within a trainer's scope of practice to recommend.

Something most of us don’t get enough of in our diet – fruits and veggies!

We clearly need help with our nutrition

Not only do we struggle to get enough fruit and vegetables in our diet, we struggle in other areas. Obesity rates continue to rise, despite spending huge amounts on weight loss interventions.

It’s no surprise that we seek help.

Obesity rates continue to rise, despite public health interventions, and massive expenditure on weight loss products and services.

Personal trainers are not the most qualified source of information, but they are readily available. Qualifications are quick to earn, and gyms are everywhere. So are supplement stores, usually also staffed by personal trainers!

And personal trainers are ideally placed to provide healthy eating advice. Our clients usually seek us out because they are looking to lose weight, so this healthy eating advice can be really important.

Trainers work with their clients far more than other health professionals. We sometimes spend hours a week with our clients, so have lots of time to provide good advice. Compared that to a 15-minute appointment with a family doctor! There are far more opportunities to have an impact in this extra time.

What is a personal trainer’s nutrition advice scope of practice?

International standards encourage personal trainers to provide nutrition care in line with national dietary guidelines. And in Australia the peak body has developed a scope of practice that endorses personal trainers to provide nutrition care in line with national dietary guidelines.

So trainers have the opportunity to provide advice, and have clearly defined knowledge and skills. The nice thing about a trainer limiting their advice to these guidelines is that they will still often result in the weight loss effect most clients are looking for. We don’t need to get too complicated. After all, most of us do not follow these guidelines.

Personal trainers, nutrition advice, and confidence

In general, personal trainers feel confident in our ability to provide nutrition advice. Maybe a little too confident.

A personal trainer confident in his knowledge

Personal trainers sometimes have opinions of their abilities that don’t match the reality. They can be highly competent, but they’re rarely genuine experts.

As we have discussed previously trainers are often willing to exceed their scope of practice. Not only do they offer advice to our clients that exceed this scope, but they openly advertise it!

Are trainers unaware of their scope of practice? For some, this is undoubtedly true, as in Australia the fitness qualification changes regularly. In the past it was less rigorous, and the scope of practice was less clearly defined.

And in the US, for example, their are dozens of different certifications. Each differs in the content taught, and the rigour of assessment. This could result in confusion around a trainer’s scope of practice as well.

Or could it be that trainers do not care about their scope of practice? This could be true on an individual level – I’ve seen many trainers openly criticise and disregard the Australian Dietary Guidelines. They probably haven’t read them, and certainly don’t have the expertise to critique them, but that’s another issue.

Clients’ expectations of personal trainers

There’s another possible reason as well, which has not been examined in research until now. Maybe trainers feel obliged to provide this sort of advice. If a client expects a trainer to, and other trainers are prepared to offer this service, could they feel pressure to do this to?

In reality there are many factors influencing the service trainers offer. They could be pushing these services on to clients with their excessive confidence, or the client could be asking for them.

But now we have more information. Some research from Katelyn Barnes (previously of Griffiths University) and colleagues has shed some new light on this issue. Dr. Barnes is one of the leading researchers looking at the role of personal trainers in providing nutrition services.

The research

The researchers recruited 627 participants from a range of sources. They spread the word on their professional and personal social media accounts, targeted fitness groups, and asked trainers to share the survey with their clients.

They were rigorous with their data analysis. I’ll spare you the details, but they reported their analysis clearly, and held themselves to a very strict standard to protect against false positives. That means that if the data shows something, we can be sure it’s real, and not the result of random chance.

Participants were on average 30 years old, and 77% were female. This clearly isn’t representative of the general population, but is more representative of the typical personal training client. Just over half had worked with a trainer in the past.

What were the findings?

Most participants (79%) thought that personal trainers should discuss nutrition with their clients. But there was less agreement about the specifics.

General healthy eating advice was the most popular topic (88%), which is great. Ironically, this is something where the average trainer is no more knowledgeable than the average person on the street. Unfortunately, you may as well be asking your neighbour for advice!

Other popular topics were nutrition for muscle building (81%), and weight loss (76%). This can still be within a trainer’s scope of practice, depending on the type of advice they provide.

a set of scales and a tape measure

But clients expect more detailed nutrition advice than personal trainers should be providing

After this, things start getting ugly. 47% thought trainers should discuss the management of chronic conditions, 36% disordered eating, and 34% food intolerance. 68% expected personalised meal plans. All of which is excluded by the personal trainer’s nutrition scope of practice in Australia (in line with international standards)!

This wasn’t true of everyone though. People with degrees were less likely to expect such complex knowledge from their trainers. Why is this?

More familiarity with the education system may help. If you see how little work some people do to get a university degree, you will probably also be less trusting of lower level qualifications!

Even your degree qualified trainer may have scraped through their course with the absolute minimal amount of knowledge! But most didn’t even get a degree. Some may only have completed a short, online vocational certificate instead.

Personal trainers need to be able to get detailed nutrition information from clients

Participants thought trainers should be skilled in collecting nutrition information (76%), and providing nutrition counselling (71%).

I completely agree with this first point. A crucial skill of a great trainer is the ability to build rapport with their clients, and gain information in the process. They do this by putting the client at ease, then asking open questions so the client will volunteer information.

Then the trainer can focus on detail with closed questioning, identifying exactly what the habits of the client is. But most clients will leave out some information. Either they aren’t aware of exactly what they were eating, or they can’t recall, or they don’t want to tell their trainer.

We’re not always accurate, or truthful, when we report what we’ve eaten.

So there’s an element of detective work involved here. Trainers should be forensic in their attention to detail, while maintaining a trusting, friendly relationship with the client. This discussion is a work of art when done well.

The more information gained, and the more the client trusts their trainers, the better the advice and help they get. And the better the result from their training.

So if clients were expecting all this from their trainer, what were they actually getting?

Expectation vs. Reality. What nutrition help are trainers providing to clients?

Nutrition is a big deal in trainers’ interaction with their clients. 98% provided some sort of nutrition advice.

But there was a difference between what clients expected, and what they got. 94% expected general healthy eating advice (which should be a trainer’s focus), but only 76% received it. 77% expected advice on supplements, and alarmingly, 54% received it.

Then the real issues. These are less frequent, but still alarming. 13% received advice on the management of chronic disease. And 13% received advice on deficient or disordered eating.

This was far lower than the number of clients that expected it, suggesting that at least a few trainers are saying no. But about 1 in 6 (and probably more) trainers are exceeding their scope of practice in the most alarming way.

It’s probably even worse than that, as this is lower than other research has reported. Dr Mark McKean and colleagues identified that at least half of personal trainers they surveyed were providing advice about chronic disease!

We need more research to know for sure what the true number is. But even the lower number worries me.

Did the personal trainers do a good job providing nutrition advice?

Not according to these participants. Only 50% were satisfied with the service that was delivered, 57% found the service useful, and only 40% reported their eating habits had improved.

This may not be the trainers’ fault. It could be due to the unrealistic expectations of clients. But it could also be due to providing advice beyond their skill set. If this is the case, it’s not surprising that the advice may not help.

The issue with trainers’ scope of practice has been around for a long time. On top of that, we know that personal trainers have serious gaps in their knowledge.

But it also appears we must do a better job of educating the public about the role of fitness professionals. Trainers don’t (or shouldn’t) try to treat injuries they could send to a physiotherapist, or illnesses they need to send to a doctor, so why do they try to provide complex dietary advice instead of referring to a dietitian?

There is a role for peak bodies in this. But trainers may find it hard to say no to a client when under pressure. They have rent to pay, and highly variable, insecure income. No wonder they try to be everything to everyone.

What did these researchers conclude?

Overall, they were positive about the number of trainers providing advice outside their scope, compared to what the clients expected. This suggests that trainers are learning to say no.

But this is at odds with the research that precedes it, so it’s too early to tell for sure. Time, and more research, will tell us if this is a genuine shift in the behaviour of trainers. And in some areas, like supplement advice, trainers performed really badly still.

Personal trainers are often seen as gatekeepers to better health and fitness. After all, many of them show they have a lot of control over their own diet and exercise. So a client may expect the same physique for themselves.

But being a personal trainer may be self-selecting. The appearance of a personal trainer is important to both trainers and potential clients. Trainers who don’t achieve a desired look may leave the industry. And they may not achieve this look for plenty of reasons that don’t relate to simple self-control, or exercise.

So a trainer that looks fitter isn’t a more knowledgeable trainer.

A concept as simple as “energy in, energy out” can be incredibly complex. This is a summary of some of the factors effecting energy storage from only one year of scientific research.

Due to the amount of time trainers spend with clients, they have lots of opportunities to provide help. But maybe doing nothing, or referring to someone else, is the best thing to do.

But historically, referrals between personal trainers and health professionals such as dietitians, have been low. This can be better. Particularly when trainers can measure their nutrition education in hours, as opposed to years.

In summary

It’s too early to conclude that the practice of personal trainers is improving. More time, and more research, will give us a better idea. In the meantime, we need to continue to educate the public about the role of trainers, and dietitians.

And as a personal trainer, if you see something, say something. Don’t let that bad apple get away with giving dangerous advice outside their scope of practice.