Scope Of Practice
Physicians are medical experts who sometimes dabble in the diet arena. Psychologists are behavior experts who sometimes give nutrition advice. Celebrities act like experts in a lot of areas and they, too, often provide nutrition advice. But qualified personal trainers often feel like their hands are tied when it comes to giving nutrition advice because it is "outside their scope of practice."
Nutrition happens to be one of those fields that everyone knows (or thinks they know) something about. If you have a friend on a low-carb diet who has lost weight, that friend is the expert. If a store clerk in a supplement store is wearing a lab coat, they become the expert.
However, while personal trainers may be looked up to as the expert for exercise training, they often do not broach the subject of nutrition, the most important component of physical change, with a 10 foot pole.
Who should the public rely on for their advice? Should they turn to the local bookstore with 1000's of books with conflicting opinions on nutrition, or perhaps the attractive celebrity who swears by a particular lifestyle?
Or should they turn to you, their qualified personal trainer? Maybe they consider hiring a registered dietitian, who out of all those listed has the most educational background in nutrition—but not necessarily in sports nutrition.
Marjorie Geiser, RD, NSCA-CPT, owner of MEG Fitness, agrees, "Just because a person is a registered dietitian does not mean they are automatically qualified to provide sports nutrition information. With the proper education, trainers could very competently provide basic information on sports nutrition to their clients."
Dispensing Nutrition Information
According to Jose Antonio, PhD, CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), "The truth is most clients go to their personal trainers for nutrition advice. However, I have seen too many instances where personal trainers dispense advice with have clearly no clue as to why they are making particular suggestions."
According to Geiser, "Personal trainers are experts on how to get the best physical results through exercise. To support their efforts, the benefit from consulting with an expert in sports nutrition is that the client will be the best they can be, and be sure that the information they receive is accurate and personalized for their particular health and fitness goals."
Should Trainers Provide Nutrition Information?
Qualified personal trainers possess a fundamental knowledge of the human body, physiology, and anatomy. Many also understand the interactions between nutrition and physical performance. The fact of the matter is nutrition and training are like the two wheels of a bicycle; you cannot be ultimately successful if only one wheel is spinning.
Fortunately, it is within the scope of practice for personal trainers who possess fundamental nutrition knowledge to address questions and concerns their clients may have.
Moreover, it is impossible to assist someone in reaching a health or fitness goal, no matter how small or how large, without addressing both of the associated exercise and nutritional components. Therefore, it is imperative for personal trainers to become as familiar with nutrition as they are with training.
Learning About Sports Nutrition
The question, then, becomes, "How do you become an expert in the area of sports nutrition?" Does a weekend seminar make one an expert? Dr. Antonio suggests that "Individuals need to be cognizant of both the scientific literature as well as what athletes actually practice.
Merely knowing the science is useless if you have no clue how to apply it. Sports nutrition is a multi-disciplinary field that requires both nutrition and exercise physiology training. At minimum, a bachelor's degree in one of the major biological sciences is needed.
Second, experience (both personal [i.e., you should partake in exercise itself] and with clients/athletes) working with individuals is a must. On the flip side, having no academic background may lead to the syndrome of "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing."
What this means is that as a trainer who is trying to be the best they can be in helping their clients achieve their goals, quickly and healthfully, it is best to continue your education. Many people, trainers, dietitians, and physicians alike, consider themselves experts because they own a pair of running shoes and lift weights. This is not the case.
Antonio suggests, "That if you feel uncomfortable or are admittedly ignorant of sports nutrition, then by all means do not dispense suggestions or advice. However, if you do your due diligence and educate yourself constantly in the field, it would behoove you as a health professional not to offer your best advice or suggestion to your clients."
He continues, "It is not a prescription, but merely a suggestion. Bottom line for everyone interested in sports nutrition: Read, read, and read. Read as much scientific and lay literature as you can."
And this advice goes for any trainer or sports nutritionist; education does not stop with a mere certification or college degree, it really just begins and the term registered dietitian doesn't necessarily equate to expert in the sports nutrition arena.
Sports Nutrition Certifications
There are a variety of certifications, an ample amount of reputable textbooks, and an endless number of seminars by qualified professionals (see suggested list at the conclusion of this article). Continuing education is crucial for learning about any aspect of health, including sports nutrition.
Attend all the seminars you can, read all the reputable information available, and consider a certification that you believe is reputable. I developed one for the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association (NESTA), called Fitness Nutrition Coach, which I, of course, stand behind.
There are others as well, like one with the ISSN that Dr. Antonio started. And there is another coming out shortly made specifically for registered dietitians and only for dietitians. For information, see ScanDPG.org.
Geiser adds an important thought to the certification process: "I see that these programs can help educate trainers so that they are better able to answer clients' questions, but it also sends the wrong message to trainers, making them think that they are now qualified to offer more than just general, basic advice.
I believe that if a trainer is considering any of the certification programs that are available, the first criteria to consider is the education of the people involved in the program. They should primarily be those who are educated in nutrition and have an RD involved, because then the trainer knows that that person has more than just a few nutrition courses within their core education."
Quality certifications are created to enhance the base knowledge a qualified trainer or dietitian already possesses and can absolutely enhance the credibility and skills of the trainer. It demonstrates that they are seeking additional education and knowledge in all aspects of health in order to further assist their clients.
Remember, though, it is crucial to consult with other healthcare professionals such as registered dietitians, nurses, physical therapists, etc., who possess the appropriate background and knowledge to assist with complex medical issues.
Moreover, establishing relationships with these professionals will enable trainers to expand their network and provide expertise regarding exercise prescription and conditioning and may even lead to additional referrals and clients. The ultimate health of a client sometimes requires collaboration across many healthcare providers and each provider should understand and work within their limits.
In addition, unless one is a registered dietitian, you are not legally able to diagnose any medical conditions, provide medical nutrition therapy, meaning nutritionally consult with individuals who have a specific disease, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc., or prescribe any particular diets.
Trainers are able to make informed suggestions and help lead clients in the right direction. These suggestions could be things like: consider more whole grains, switching to leaner proteins, adding more fruit to your diet, etc.
What you can and should do is align yourself with a qualified sports nutritionist who can complement your area of expertise when a specific nutritional condition may arise with a client, so you are not working outside the scope of practice, but rather aiding in client success.
Geiser agrees: "Regardless of what our role is, we all need to understand our scope of knowledge and always keep the client's best interest in mind. It seems that when ego of the trainer comes into play, then they start working outside their scope of knowledge and practice, and ultimately it is the client who suffers."
Christopher R. Mohr, PhD, RD completed his Ph.D. in exercise physiology and is a registered dietitian. To learn more about Dr. Mohr and his company, Mohr Results, visit MohrResults.com.