Since coming into the field of dietetics, one thing that continually irks me is when I hear about someone receiving individualized nutritional advice from a personal trainer. I understand the appeal of wanting to give out meal plans and nutritional advice if you’re a personal trainer. It’s hard to help a client reach their health goals when you can only tackle their fitness. But that’s just it. Personal trainers are only supposed to tackle fitness. That’s what they were trained in. Registered dietitians are the professionals in the field who tackle the nutrition part. That’s what they were trained in. Put another way, it would be like me trying to personal train somebody even though I am not formally trained or educated in it. It’s not ethical and it’s not right. If I had a client who wanted some help reaching fitness goals, I would refer them to a personal trainer. If a personal trainer has a client who Needs help with their diet, they should refer them to a registered dietitian. Unless the personal trainer is also a registered dietitian, he/she should not be giving out meal plans or Make any kind of individualized nutritional assessments.
As summarized by the commission on dietetic registration (CDR), “Dietetics practitioners are licensed by states to ensure that only qualified, trained professional provide nutrition services or advice to individuals requiring or seeking nutrition care or information. Only state-licensed dietetics professionals can provide nutrition counseling.” Beware if someone calls themselves a nutritionist. all registered dietitians are nutritionists but not all nutritionists are registered dietitians. In fact, more recently, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Board of Directors and the Commission on Dietetic Registration have approved the optional use of the credential “registered dietitian nutritionist” (RDN) by registered dietitians (RD). According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “The option was established to further enhance the RD brand and more accurately reflect to consumers who registered dietitians are and what they do”.
And what about personal trainers? Well, according to The American Council on Exercise (ACE), which is one of the leading fitness organizations for certifying personal trainers, their code of ethics states personal trainers should “refer clients to more qualified health or medical professionals when appropriate.” In fact, in their training manual for personal trainers, it states “if you are not a registered dietitian or healthcare professional, you should avoid making specific recommendations and refer your client to a registered dietitian or physician.” similarly, personal trainers are not supposed to recommend dietary supplements. As stated by the American Council on Exercise, “it is outside the defined scope of practice of a fitness professional to recommend, prescribe, sell, or supply nutritional supplements to clients.”
So what can personal trainers do in terms of giving nutritional advice? They can give general information. They can say something along the lines of “orange juice is a good source of vitamin c”. They cannot give recommendations like “you should drink more orange juice because you need more vitamin c”. That falls under the category of individualized recommendations which does not fall under their scope of practice. Bluntly put, personal trainers cannot perform individualized dietary assessments, prescribe an individualized diet or give individual and specific dietary advice. in addition, fitness professionals who do choose to provide general nutritional information must be 100% sure that the information they are giving is accurate, up-to-date, and science-based.
So when should a personal trainer refer a client to a registered dietitian? If any of the questions below can be answered with a “yes”, then the client should be referred to a dietetic professional:
1. Is there a possibility that the client has a disease or co-morbidity associated with their weight or with their health?
2. Would your advice be considered medical or in the context of
3. Does your advice involve the interpretation of blood work or other clinical tests?
4. Is the client asking you for individualized dietary assessment?
5. Is the client asking you to prescribe an individualized diet or
dietary advice (versus general information like portion awareness or nutrient density)?
6. Are you recommending a supplement as part of your counsel?
7. Is your client trying to manage medical symptoms through diet?
8. Could your assessment or advice possibly cause a delay in treatment
or a misdiagnosis that may result in serious harm to your client?
9. Could your advice result in an unwanted interaction between
foods/drugs, foods/medical condition, supplement/drugs,
10. Did you neglect to access the authorities and academic research on the topic in question?
The need for sound, science-based nutrition information is evident. Consumers are confused and have a hard time discerning fact from fiction and science from marketing. Personal trainers and registered dietitians are two scopes of practice that should work together, not against each other, to help,the client, not confuse them.