You just signed a new client for six months of personal training sessions. One week into the training, your client says she needs help with her nutritional habits. After digging a little deeper into her challenges, you recognize a few shortcomings in her practices and offer suggestions for addressing and overcoming those challenges. However, your client feels she would benefit greatly from regular meal planning, so she turns to you for that service. What do you do? To meal plan or not to meal plan – an all too familiar professional, legal, and ethical struggle.

An Endless Debate

If a client desires this service, you might feel compelled to offer it because, well, you know nutrition and the crucial role it plays in helping someone attain and maintain optimal levels of performance. On the other hand, you remain unsure if this is a service you should provide. But, in thinking more about it, what’s the harm in “suggesting” menu and meal options? It wouldn’t likely be wise to deny helping a client because he or she will find “answers” on a random .com site that isn’t reputable or backed by scientific evidence and best practices.

Before investing too much mental capital into the “should I” or “shouldn’t I” debate, know the subtle, but crucial difference between what you can do, what you can’t do, what you should do and what you probably shouldn’t do. Sound confusing? Let’s un-muddy the waters.

nutritionCan Do:

Always keep in mind your licensed and ethical scope of practice. Personal trainers (there are exceptions) as a general rule are not dieticians and licensed nutritionists. This is what you can do:

  • Disseminate informational materials developed by government agencies (USDA, FDA, etc.) and registered dietitians.
  • Offer general nutrition guidance (i.e. increase water intake, add another serving of veggies, balance breakfast by adding a protein, etc.). This is vastly different than planning a meal and full diet regimen.
  • Share USDA guidelines including the MyPlate recommendations.
  • Teach clients about food label reading
  • Discuss what nutrients the human body needs to function and perform optimally
  • Explain nutrition profiles of foods and supplements
  • Nutritional deficiencies as a result of too little of x and too much of y
  • Explain how nutrients act in the body
  • Describe components of a balanced diet


12a_Nutrition Picture

Can’t Do (the legal standpoint):

A side note – the ‘can’t do’s’ will vary by state and qualification/licensure.

  • Offer complete nutritional analyses
  • Engage in medical nutrition therapy and counseling
  • Prescribe specific diets and meal plans
  • Offer educational seminars aimed at preventing, treating or curing a disease or condition
  • Recommend, prescribe, sell or supply supplements
  • Advertise to be a licensed dietitian or nutritionist if said licenses and certifications do not exist.


Should Do:

  • Engage in nutrition conversation with all clients
  • Evaluate client stumbling blocks and offer the appropriate solutions
  • Take clients on a grocery store tour
  • Hold cooking demonstrations
  • Offer classes using materials approved by and developed by the appropriate and licensed authorities (government and dietitians)
  • Network and partner with local registered dietitians and nutrition experts to expand referral base and develop cooperative courses
  • Review your licensing authority’s position statement and code of ethics
  • Further your education about all things nutrition-related
  • Keep a stack of educational materials available to give to clients
  • Research software options that personal trainers can use to assist them in providing appropriate guidance to their clients (ACE offers Evolution Nutrition – a software developed by trained professionals that allows trainers to offer sound advice while still protecting their scope).
  • Purchase liability insurance
  • Research state statutes and limitations and, if possible, retain an attorney


Shouldn’t Do:

  • Practice outside of your licensed scope even if you know what healthy nutrition practices are – this includes any item under the “can’t do” list.
  • Engage in a practice that may not be “illegal” by state statute standards, but that is in conflict with the ethical practices of your licensed field.
  • Be afraid to talk the nutrition talk. Clients need guidance in this area. Let’s face it – the epidemic this nation faces is not obesity/chronic disease; it’s a lack of physical activity and poor nutritional habits. Help them!
  • Shy away from assisting clients in developing skills necessary to make better nutritional choices


In short, it isn’t the topic of nutrition that lives in a gray area; it’s the practice of nutrition that does. There is a difference between what is legal and what is ethical. Legally, one might be able to provide a meal planning service, but ethically it would be unwise to do so unless a trainer is working under the supervision of a registered dietitian. When trainers enter the “writing meal plan” realm, they are potentially creating liabilities for themselves and their clientele. Trainers are not always aware of the specifics of a person’s medical nutrition needs or underlying health issues not reported in a medical history or behavioral/lifestyle inventory (undiagnosed hormonal imbalances, deficiencies, undiagnosed or unmanaged metabolic disease, etc.).

Talk to your clients about nutrition. Show them what healthy nutrition practices are. Give them resources and tools and help them develop solid practices and make smart choices. You will increase your value and reputation tenfold by knowing and respecting your scope of practice. Keep it simple and use your resources to offer the right services in the right ways.

What other methods do you use to avoid legal and ethical slippery slopes? Share your thoughts on our Facebook Page!

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Related Article: Nutrition Planning

Erin Nitschke

Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at