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How Can Personal Trainers Help People Eat Healthily?

Read this page to discover the three guiding principles trainers need to employ for long term success with clients.

One things for sure - we don’t embrace the latest nutritional fads, or put our clients on restrictive diets that involve radical behaviour change, or overload them masses of confusing, often irrelevant (mis)information.  As personal trainers you need to use the following three principles to guide the actions you take to help your clients eat healthily…for the long term.


1. Stick to the basics


Nutrition, although appearing complicated at times, can actually be approached in a simple manner if we adhere to our national nutritional guidelines and get the majority of our clients, friends, family and fitness club members as close as possible to following those guidelines.

personal%2520training%2520nutritional%2520guidelinesNational nutrition guidelines are devised by nutritionists and based on a significant body of research regarding the prevalent nutritional issues of respective countries.  National nutrition guidelines for many countries are found on by following the link above.

In general improving a client’s nutrition may be as simple as supporting them to eat more inline with these guidelines and using the same type of behavioural support as you would with exercise, namely; to introduce tolerable changes, sustain those changes to create habits, and then perfect those changes to create results.

This is not to say that every client wouldn’t benefit from nutritional advice that is more specific to their individual situation from a dietician or nutritionist – just in the absence of that support, and given that exercise and nutrition go hand in hand in creating progress, we should act with integrity and recommend adherence to the nutritional guidelines and look for tolerable ways that a client can build changes into their day that will allow these changes to be sustained.

The reality is that most clients will look to their personal trainers for reliable advice because of the trust that has developed and will, at some stage of the professional relationship, ask for guidance with their nutrition.  For this reason every personal trainer should be very familiar with their respective national guidelines and have some additional behavioural tools which will allow them to identify, talk through and then support client centred changes in eating behaviour.


2. Aim to create sustainable change


As with exercise, in order for an improvement in fitness, performance or health to occur nutritional change must be sustainable.  That means the approach we take needs to be equally insightful and timely.

Most nutritional changes undertaken by clients on their own fail.   This is usually due to a lack of planning and/or support.  Clients will often choose the latest diet over a considered and sustainable approach because they want something to happen – now.  They also experience ‘slip ups’ (where the old habit periodically re-appears) and without support tend to flip flop back to their old ways and often throw the baby out with the bath water.

Diets are a very extreme approach to change.  If you look at a diet in terms of the amount of change required and the speed of that change (how quickly that change is being implemented) – it’s both physically and psychologically unlikely to work.   One important aspect of any work you do with clients is to discourage ‘dieting’.  Just as you wouldn’t encourage the client to run a marathon if they hadn’t been for a jog for five years, you shouldn’t encourage them to participate in that arduous process called ‘dieting’. 

Essentially all diets work, they just don’t last.  But if you ask a client how hard they would like to work to temporarily lose some weight and then put it back on – well the cats out of the bag then.  What you need to be asking your client is “can we work together to help you improve your nutrition over time, just as we’ll be making you fitter, in a way that is as painless as possible”.  That is the art of a behavioural approach to improving nutrition.

So, we’re looking for improvements, not perfection.  We’re going to use similar approaches to improving nutrition as we do for fitness – long-term, personalised, practical and sustainable changes.

Below is a graphical representation of the amount of change required in a diet when modelled over a five week period.  You’ll notice that at week five some of the change remains although the experience of ‘dieting’ is quite unpleasant and the perceived ‘failure’ on the diet can lead to further problems with reductions in self-efficacy, esteem and confidence a result.


So, the aim should be to slowly create some well planned and supported actions customized to your client’s lifestyle that will add value to their exercise effort and not cause a self-perpetuating cycle of high expectations and continued failure.


3. Focus on eating habits


In order to be effective with nutritional change we need to build a profile of the habits of our clients.  This is not just ‘consumption of food’ but rather all the circumstances that swill around the act of eating. 

Nutritionists may be able to tell you how much vitamin C is in an orange but only you can understand the circumstances required to get your client to consistently eat oranges at morning tea instead of chocolate chip cookies. 

One approach is to complete a nutrition and lifestyle profile looking at what your client is doing at that time, what they are feeling like, what they eat/drink, and what they feel afterwards.  This can then be used to create a ‘drop box’ of potential changes that the client could action to improve their nutrition and from there you and your client can discuss, plan and implement just one change at a time.  Ideally starting with the easiest first (remember – tolerance and success is key) and building new changes in once previous ones have become established. 

Essentially you want to build on a well laid foundation of success with all of your personal training clients by following the three key principles talked about here.

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