When you hire a personal trainer, you expect a lot: Guided advice about what workouts to do, when to do them, and how to perform each move perfectly so you can get after your goals. Which is exactly what you should be getting for your money, but it leaves out an important part of the equation: nutrition. You know by now that you can't out-train a bad diet—and you've seen those Instagram quotes about abs being made in the kitchen. So you start to expect food advice from your personal trainer, too. Whether it's simply asking what they had for breakfast that day (hey, they look great for a reason, right?) or if you should be cutting down on carbs, it's all too easy to seek info from the same person who's helping you build muscle.
But just because it's easy doesn't make it right. Yes, personal trainers should be aware of your eating habits, says Erin Epperson, a Cooper Institute trainer and nutrition specialist with Well & Being at the Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas. "It gives the trainer an idea of what your lifestyle is like, and where she may need to focus your workouts based on what you are or aren't eating," she explains. But if your trainer doesn't have any nutrition certifications and isn't a registered dietitian, she's probably not the person to turn to for specific advice.
Why Is It Such a Big Deal?
Generally speaking, personal trainers do tend to have a good grasp on proper nutrition. After all, their bodies are basically an advertisement for their own level of success. Without at least a nutrition certification, though, their knowledge doesn't extend past personal experience. "You don't need to know a lot about nutrition to get your personal training certification," says Epperson. "Basically, it doesn't go beyond teaching you what a carbohydrate is, so it's up to each individual to get that education."
And just because a trainer knows what works for them doesn't mean they know what'll work for you. In fact, Epperson says they could dish out the wrong advice. "Some people might be, for example, taking creatine to help build their own muscle, and that might work great for them," she explains. "So if their client wants to do the same thing, they might suggest taking creatine too, but that could be counterintuitive." It's just like eating a protein bar, she says. For men, it can be beneficial for them to eat one with 350 calories and 20-plus grams of protein after a workout. But women don't need that much, Epperson says. "It's all about knowing if this person is knowledgeable enough to understand what their client should or shouldn't be putting into her body."
While some are taking the initiative to get that education, Epperson doesn't think it's happening enough, and would like to eventually see it as a requirement for anyone going into this career. "Every trainer should have a nutrition background or certification because it's so important to training," she says. "The two should go hand in hand, so you can get the best of both worlds in one person—someone who can help you get fit and help you develop healthy eating habits that'll stick."
What Advice Can You Get, Then?
From a legal perspective, Epperson says it is OK for a trainer with no nutrition background to give advice, but it needs to come from an anecdotal perspective. "There's nothing wrong with telling clients, 'Hey, if you're eating one form of bread, it might be better for you to try this whole grain Ezekiel kind, or sprouted grain bread.' They can talk about those extremely basic things, and you'd be surprised how many people need just that starter information to get on the right track."
If your trainer has a certification, like Epperson does as a nutrition specialist, then she can dive a little deeper into your habits. "I have clients write down what they eat for me, and I can give suggestions based on that for incorporating healthy foods into their diet," she explains. "It can be on a macro- or micronutrient level (macro covers protein, carbohydrates, and fat; micro is about vitamins and minerals), while those without a certification should stick to the macronutrient level only."
Because Epperson isn't a registered dietitian, though, she can't write out a word-for-word plan on what should be going into your mouth. Nor can she prescribe supplements to treat diseases. "Legally, I can't talk to a client who has high cholesterol and tell them to take certain supplements to treat it," she says. "I can't tell them to go take vitamins to cure things. But I can offer great nutrition advice to help them achieve their goals, which may help resolve other issues they're dealing with as part of the bigger picture."
If you're looking for a bite-by-bite meal plan, Epperson says your next step would be hiring a registered dietitian, as they're the ones who are qualified to give that in-depth, customized information. "Some people want to know exactly what to eat, nutrient by nutrient, and that's where the line should be drawn," she says. "Trainers aren't able to give that advice without the proper level of education."
How Can I Tell If They Have a Nutrition Background?
Now that you know who should be telling you what, how the heck are you supposed to tell without flat-out asking them? (Which you can totally do, BTW.) Take a look at their business card, suggests Epperson. "Look for nutrition specialist or dietitian in their title," she says. "If it doesn't say anything other than certified personal trainer, then they're at that basic level and shouldn't be giving you anything other than the basics."
You can also look into databases, like Precision Nutrition. Searching for a trainer in this database automatically pulls up everyone in your area who also has a nutrition background, says Epperson. "It's an easy way to jump right to the information you want, without weeding through those who don't have that additional education."
Lastly, Epperson says to be on the lookout for red flags. Some trainers may be affiliated with products. "Just be wary if someone is trying to offer up products to you right off the bat," she warns. "That's a dead giveaway that they may not have your best interests front of mind."