If there is one thing that I am most often asked by clients in my classes, direct messages on Instagram, or by friends and family who know what I do, it’s almost always some form of, “What should I eat?” Sometimes, it’s “What diet should I follow?” or “What do you think about the __ diet?” My go-to response is to duck and dodge the questions entirely. I’m kidding. Well, kind of kidding.
I’ve been a group fitness instructor for 23 years, a yoga instructor for 8 years, and I went to 7.5 years of graduate school to get two masters degrees and a Ph.D. in public health. But if you ask me for nutrition advice, I won’t give it to you. (And you’ll never find me giving it unsolicited, either.) Sounds mean, right? It’s not, I promise. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: It’s the responsible thing to do.
Here’s why most fitness professionals shouldn’t be giving you nutrition advice.
Simply put, I’m just not qualified to give nutrition advice. Period. I may have decades of experience in fitness, have studied nutrition as it pertains to public health throughout all of my graduate programs, and have personally dealt with my fair share of nutritional issues, but I am not qualified to advise you on your personal, individual dietary needs. As group fitness instructors/trainers, part of our certification courses usually include basics about nutrition, and the exams contain questions about how to advise a client. The answers are always some form of: Direct people to the USDA dietary guidelines or encourage them to seek a registered dietitian (R.D.) who can help them.
Registered dietitians go through very specific schooling, including an experiential component (like internships), have to pass a test and get licensed, and also take continuing education to stay certified. I did not dedicate years to learning how to test, diagnose, and treat nutritional imbalances the way they have, and I certainly have not been assessed on my ability to properly execute any of the above. This is not my lane.
To be clear, I am not saying there are absolutely no trainers or fitness instructors out there who are qualified in this realm. Of course there are and they are gems. But just because someone is a great trainer or strength coach doesn’t automatically mean they are qualified to give nutritional advice. (And vice versa!)
Also, I don’t know your body. Even if I were qualified to read them, I have not seen your diagnostic tests of any sort—blood, stool, or urine—to be able to understand what is happening inside your body. There’s just no way that I (or the vast majority of other fitness professionals) could consult you on your dietary needs based solely on your performance in class or on your Instagram feed.
There are a myriad of issues that can be going on in your body that warrant specific attention and a corresponding protocol. I would be very wary of anyone advising you on anything without at least a solid understanding of what is going on systematically with your body. Your body has different needs than my body, than her body, than his body, than any other body. Just because I recently read a new headline that popped into my feed or a new article that was published on the supposed benefits of a certain type of diet, does not mean it is safe or effective for you. I cannot assume it will be and, to be honest, neither should you.
If it’s nutrition advice you’re after, here are a few things to remember.
While there are a few universal nutrition truths out there (like that limiting added sugar intake is generally a good idea, and that eating mostly whole foods is great if you can swing it), most of the time when people are asking for nutrition advice, they’re wondering if there’s something specific they should be eating or avoiding. And, in most cases, that kind of advice is highly individual and based on factors that only your health care provider or registered dietitian would know about. Still, I understand that we all have questions about the foods we eat and all the conflicting nutrition headlines we see every day. So, here are a few general rules to keep in mind:
Nutrition studies are notoriously bad at giving us one-size-fits-most nutrition advice. This is something I know from my background in public health, and I think it’s something many people don’t realize. Those nutrition studies you hear about on the radio or read in a magazine usually have a lot of limitations, and it seems that the limitations are particularly relevant when it comes to studies looking to link a particular nutrient with chronic disease outcomes. (Like that any one food is horrible for people with X condition or that having a ton of this other food will cure people with Y condition.) The issue is that many studies are done on one specific population and meant to be a generality for similar populations. Many are also based on observational research in which people are asked to report on their own behaviors. Food reporting is often problematic and underreporting seems to be a huge issue (meaning people leave out important details or self-report skewed info).
All of this is to say that there are often issues with the data that comes from this type of research. What “studies show” may not always be accurate and generalizations do not always translate to personal recommendations. I cannot underscore that enough.
Please also remember that nutrition isn’t only about losing weight. I say this because I find that culturally and collectively it seems that our default inquiry about nutrition is still focused on weight loss. I would love for us to go deeper than this. There are tons of diets and programs and protocols that are currently circulating (and that have circulated over the years) that people constantly ask about in terms of which one is going to “work” best.
I want to push you to first define what you mean by “work.” Work in terms of weight loss? Work in terms of lowering your cholesterol? In terms of improving your cardiovascular health? Improving your digestion? Improving your performance on a given task? Prolonging your life span?
There are many different potential outcomes and weight loss, especially for aesthetic purposes, isn’t always the most salient marker to choose. How do you want to feel? How do you want to live? How do you want to function? All of these are important questions that don’t necessarily have anything to do with getting shredded abs.
And last but certainly not least, there is no magic bullet. There are no (healthy) shortcuts. No matter what your goal is, there will be a certain amount of behavioral change, adjustment, continuous decision-making, struggles, wins, losses, mess-ups, and constant work to achieve and maintain your desired health outcomes. I find that people are often asking how to make this easier and faster and require less work. That is just not how it works.
So, can you ever talk nutrition with your fitness instructor?
Of course! Just be aware of the limitations of the advice they can give you as someone who isn’t an R.D. and isn’t intimately familiar with your overall health. Now, I’m not totally useless here. There are some nutrition-related things I can help you with.
If you’re wondering about your personal nutrition, I can direct you to the people who are more than qualified to help you assess your needs. I can talk to you about taking their guidance and implementing it into your life and making it work with your training.
I can talk to you about health behaviors (what my Ph.D. actually focused on!) and creating habits and taking small steps. I can talk to you about thinking critically about the research that is released in the headlines, in your social media feeds, and in scientific journals.
I can teach you how to pay attention to cues in your body that happen during training that may give you additional information to make better decisions about how you fuel yourself. I can tell you that eating vegetables and drinking water is fairly standard advice across the board from most dietitians, nutritional scientists, and health practitioners, so that’s probably a good place to start.
I am not opposed to helping you in any of the ways in which I am qualified to do so, but I have no problem admitting where I feel the need to let the experts take the reigns. I respect you and your individual needs and I want you to learn to do the same.