The desire for weight loss and attaining the “standard” of beauty is the chaotic cycle that continues to fuel the fitness industry. With clickbait headlines like, “Five Foods for a Flat Stomach” and “How to Get a Six Pack in Six Days” our clients are living in a culture where deprivation and near-starvation are touted as the best option for weight loss. How can you help your clients flip this narrative and change a dysfunctional relationship with food?

It would take college level thesis writing to adequately address the ongoing impact media has on women’s self image. I’m taking a not-so-small piece of a very large pie to discuss.

Noting the Relationship with Food

In a world of fad diets, emaciated models, social media influencers, and questionable supplements, food can be an emotionally loaded and heavy topic for many clients, especially women. Of course not always, but often weight loss clients have an unhealthy relationship with food at best and disordered eating at worst.

Hopefully, if they are working with a qualified trainer, they are being coached on not only fitness but self-acceptance, and have experienced some healing surrounding these issues. If a client ever voices concerns about their relationship with food, it is always best that you recommend they talk with a counselor or therapist. Eating disorders are a mental health concern and require a professional of that field for help.

Any well-versed trainer understands how impactful a client’s diet will be on their fitness goals. Contrastingly, unless a trainer has some other qualifying degree or certification for nutrition, the scope of practice restricts us from creating a full meal plan or giving specific food recommendation; this makes controlling one of the most important factors of a client’s ability to meet their goals a bit out of the trainer’s hands. But not completely!

Stop Deprivation and Starvation “Diets”

It’s all too common to have a female client come to a trainer feeling tremendously discouraged with their lack of progress. The client explains that they do cardio almost every day of the week, they never eat carbs, and maintain a 1200 calorie diet. Yet they are plateauing, gaining weight, and/or feeling like they are more weak and tired.

This client is simply misinformed by the perpetuating myth that one must do lots of cardio and eat as little as possible to lose weight and to keep it off. I know I fell prey to this mindset in my late teens and early twenties. Before I was educated in exercise science I didn’t understand that lifting would make me lean and strong, and that starving myself only depressed my metabolism and caused my body to store more body fat.

The general public who isn’t pursuing a career in Exercise Science won’t know many of the things veteran trainers have come to consider “common sense”. A trainers understanding of metabolism, physiology, and nutrition becomes quite comprehensive over the years of practice and continuing education. Bear in mind that most people won’t discredit fitness magazines and “magical” weight loss pills.

Often when it comes to weight loss and dieting, most people take an all or nothing approach. They feel they are either following their diet and exercise routine exactly or they’re not doing it at all. This is another one I can relate to strongly, and I believe most people who have ever battled a weight problem also can.

Let me give an example.

An individual is doing a great job at eating a nutrient rich and well-portioned diet and doing all of their workouts Monday through Saturday. Sunday comes along–“cheat day”–and they binge on all the foods they have been missing throughout the week. This individual now feels defeated and frustrated, and on top of it their physical body feels terrible because they consumed more than the stomach could manage.

Monday morning comes around and they feel emotionally and physically drained, and don’t feel like working out or eating well because what’s the point? They failed already anyway.

This common mentality is incredibly challenging to work through. The idea that if every day doesn’t go perfectly with regard to exercise and diet, then all the hard work they’ve done before is negated. It’s easy to see how this twisted logic and complicated relationship with food can go hand-in-hand with mental health; working with a therapist would be the best way to find healthy coping mechanisms for these issues.

However, there are some things you can talk to your clients about that can at least help get them thinking about all this food stuff in a different way.

Information your client might not know and NEEDS to know:

  • Basal Metabolic Rate: The average client is most likely not educated in physiology, and won’t understand that without ANY extra work or exercise their body still needs anywhere at least 1200-1500 calories a day to maintain daily functions (on average). If the client is chronically and severely restricting caloric intake, the body will go “catabolic” eating away at the more accessible lean tissue for energy, hindering the fat loss, and diminishing proper body functioning and health. Be sure to calculate your client’s total daily energy expenditure to pinpoint a solid range of what he or she should aim for calorically on a daily basis.
  • Resistance Training is Key: Weight lifting and anabolic training is much more effective for sustainable and maintainable weight loss than an overly restricted diet and non-stop cardio. When a client’s only mode of exercise is cardio they aren’t building muscle mass. Muscle is an active tissue which means it will help to boost the metabolism. When muscle mass increases so does the overall metabolic rate, meaning losing and maintaining weight loss will be more effective and sustainable.
  • Fast, Cheap, or Good (pick 2): There is no way to lose weight quickly that is also long-lasting. This combination just simply doesn’t exist. One can lose weight quickly, but it is rarely done by a method that is sustainable or healthy.
  • Drop “Cheat Day” mentality: The notion that one must adhere to a perfect diet six days a week and then can take one day to eat whatever he or she wants should really be reserved for those competing in bodybuilding competitions, not your average weight-loss client. I’ll go further in-depth¬† in the next blog on applying steady moderation in place of occasional over-indulgence.

Stay Engaged

With clients who need a reboot with their relationship with food, you need to take your coaching role seriously. You won’t be much help by only seeing your client one or two days a week for a workout and crossing your fingers that she will take your advice the remaining days. Hold the client accountable and consider providing accountability coaching as an add-on service. Check-in with her frequently, ask for food logs and provide feedback, offer to take her on a grocery store tour.

Above all else, be sensitive to the nuances in your client’s demeanor, style of communication, and self-talk statements. Bring her up and don’t let her put herself down while encouraging her to think differently about fat loss, dieting, and weight training.


Alex has her A.S in Exercise Science and is a certified Personal Trainer with NFPT and NSCF. She recently traveled to India to gain her 200 hr yoga teacher certification where she studied the ancient practice at its origins. Alex has spent time teaching yoga in Spain while volunteering at a yoga retreat and is currently working at her local college instructing two fitness courses. Alex wants to share with her clients and students the mental, physical and emotionally healing qualities of exercise and movement. She believes everyone should have a healthy relationship with their bodies and strives to thread that concept throughout her career.