The vast majority of people who join a gym and start a workout plan have some sort of goal in mind. It could be to lose weight, to put on muscle, to get in better cardio shape, to lower blood pressure and improve health markers, or any number of other worthy pursuits. Exercise is obviously an important component of each of those goal plans, but it’s only part of the full picture. If you want your gym members to be able to reap the full benefits of a healthy lifestyle, it’s always a great idea to keep a trainer on staff who is qualified to teach nutrition and diet principles.
Sounds simple. What’s the catch?
Some trainers (and the gyms they work for) run into trouble when they start giving diet and nutrition advice without proper qualifications. Because personal fitness trainers are often in quite good shape themselves and follow healthy lifestyles of their own, they do have some valuable fundamental knowledge about what sort of diet will help achieve different results.
However, knowing and practicing successful nutrition guidelines in their own lives does not mean that your trainers are legally qualified to teach those principles to individual clients or groups.
The basic personal and group fitness training certificationsensure that trainers who hold these credentials are fully up to speed on the latest exercise and fitness methods. These certifications do not cover nutrition and diet methods, because those areas fall under the scope of a different certification entirely: that of the Registered Dietician.
Which certification should you require your trainers to hold in order to practice as a dietician through your gym?
If your trainers hold a Registered Dietician certification, they are in the clear and can officially market themselves as dieticians. This certification is obtained through the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) and should be valid in all fifty US states.
What kind of nutrition advice are your fitness trainers allowed to give without a specialized certification?
When a trainer works with a client who has a specific goal, it is tempting to give advice on things like managing calorie limits and optimizing macronutrient ratios. After all, your trainer knows that to lose weight, the client must restrict calories, so why not tell them that? Likewise, when your trainer has a conversation with his client and notices that the client is eating barely any protein on a daily basis, he will clearly want to point this problem out as a potential reason the client is having trouble putting on muscle mass. It’s natural to do this. And, legally, it’s probably fine.
While state laws vary, most of them have guidelines on what does and does not constitute acceptable nutrition advice from a fitness trainer who does not hold a dietician certification. The accepted consensus is that "general" nutrition advice is allowed and should not be a legal threat to your business.
So, what counts as general advice?
Ohio’s Board of Dietetics offers the following list as a guideline:
"1. Principles of good nutrition and food preparation;
2. Food to be included in the normal daily diet;
3. The essential nutrients needed by the body;
4. Recommended amounts of the essential nutrients;
5. The action of nutrients on the body;
6. The effects of deficiencies or excesses of nutrients; or
7. Food and supplements that are good sources of essential nutrients."
Since that list is fairly comprehensive of the majority of advice fitness trainers would be tempted to give in everyday scenarios, you’re unlikely to run into any legal issues as a gym owner as long as your trainers follow these guidelines.
What kind of nutrition advice is not allowed without the Registered Dietician certification?
If you have noticed your trainers constructing detailed, personalized diet plans or marketing themselves as nutrition experts, however, you may have a problem.
It’s one thing to inform a client about the impact of calories and macronutrients in their diets. It’s another thing entirely to devise a custom diet plan with prescribed foods and nutrient quantities. The latter should only be done by licensed and registered dieticians.
Since you, as a gym owner, probably would not be privy to the private information contained within your trainers’ plans for their clients, you may not know if a trainer is overreaching and providing services he or she is not qualified for.
One red flag you can watch out for, however, is if a trainer advertises nutrition services as a specialty, or calls him- or herself a "nutritionist" when marketing to clients.
The term "nutritionist" serves as a warning because it is not technically a real qualification.
While people who hold the Registered Dietician certification do sometimes go by "Registered Dietician Nutritionists," the important part of that term is the "Registered Dietician" portion.
How can you be sure you’re avoiding potential legal trouble?
You have two clear choices as a gym owner. Do you want to offer nutrition and diet services to your members? Or would you rather steer clear and focus on fitness and exercise aspects only?
If you choose the first option, you will need to make sure you employ a registered dietician with the correct CDR certification. This person is the only person in your facility who should be permitted to advertise specialized nutrition services and formulate personalized diet plans for clients. Do remember, however, that your fitness trainers can (and probably will) offer general advice on diet and food principles to their clients. This is acceptable and should not cause you any problems.
If you choose to steer clear entirely, that is also fine. Do not permit any trainers to advertise themselves as nutritionists or enforce custom diet plans with their clients. Some trainers go so far as to have their clients keep a food log so they can keep an eye on calories, nutrients, and overall food choices. This is somewhat of a gray area, but most trainers are quick to include the disclaimer that their guidance is for general purposes only and should not be taken as a prescribed plan.
If in doubt, have each trainer sign paperwork that absolves your establishment of liability if they are found to be operating outside of their certifications. This can ease your mind and serve as extra incentive for your trainers to stay above-board.