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Nutrition: To Advise or Not?

Sound nutrition is an essential element in every person’s overall wellness blueprint. You can do everything else right—as far as exercise, rest and body-mind harmony go—but if you’re not fueling your body sensibly, it will eventually catch up with you. In fact, we think nutrition is so important to wholeness and balance that we devote a full CEC issue to the topic each year, as well as several pages in every other issue of this magazine.

Despite this, nutrition topics present our industry with one of its greatest conundrums: Yes, nutrition is an absolute cornerstone to building a healthy lifestyle; however, when fitness professionals begin to tout themselves as experts in this realm by “prescribing” supplementation and constructing elaborate diet and weight loss plans for clients, we are treading in deep, turbulent waters that violate scope-of-practice boundaries and potentially drown careers. While we want to help our clients with whatever tools and knowledge we’ve amassed over time, how can we be effective within our scope’s parameters? This is an area of passionate discussion, to say the least, and is fraught with confusion among fitness professionals.

Last October at our Personal Trainer Institute conference in Orlando, Beth Wolfgram, MS, RD, led a session that provided excellent hypothetical case studies to get professionals thinking about whether they’d advise clients or refer them to a qualified nutrition professional. She walked the class through each scenario, asking key questions about what trainers can and cannot do: (1) Are you the right health pro to be doing nutrition counseling? (2) Are you within your ethical scope of practice? and (3) Are you within your expertise and skill level? She commented that if there’s ever any doubt, it’s likely you’re over the line. Interestingly, trainers in the room were split on several of the examples, which demonstrates how vast the shades of gray are in this arena.

We understand that you want to help your clients succeed by providing them with every possible tool in your arsenal, including whatever you know about diet plans and supplementation. But what about the client who hasn’t been 100% forthright with you about his diabetes and who ends up having a blood sugar meltdown and then blames it on your nutrition advice? Your best intentions to help him may have just put you out of business or snarled you in a nasty legal battle. You might think it’s all right to offer a client advice about a supplement that has always worked well for you and for others. A week later, you get a call from the client’s husband saying she landed in the emergency room with heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Unfortunately, all roads and fingers point back to you. Forget the fact that your client took a triple dose of the unregulated supplement, thinking, “Hmmm, more must be better.” People don’t care about that—they just want a scapegoat. Your credibility has been decimated, even though your client misused the substance.

Unless you are properly credentialed in this arena, the safest, most intelligent path you can take on such matters is to align yourself with a local registered dietitian or certified nutritionist and refer your clients to that person when questions and answers need to go beyond basic advice. Keep it simple by knowing your boundaries and staying within them. Being straightforward will preserve not just your professionalism but the integrity and reputation of your entire profession.

As a reminder, here is our stance on this topic, straight from the IDEA Opinion Statement titled “Benefits of a Working Relationship Between Medical and Allied Health Practitioners and Personal Fitness Trainers”: “Personal fitness trainers (PFTs) do not prescribe diets or recommend specific supplements. PFTs do provide general information on healthy eating, according to the USDA’s MyPyramid Plan; PFTs do refer clients to a dietitian or nutritionist for a specific diet plan.” (You can access all IDEA Opinion Statements—including this one—at www.ideafit.com/career_dev_industry.asp.)

We know you probably have a lot to say on this topic, and we want to hear what’s on your minds. Please send your thoughts to [email protected] Let the dialog begin!

In good health,

Kathie and Peter Davis

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