NNutrition and exercise are deeply connected, but completely different, areas of expertise. Scroll through any fitness pro’s Instagram, though, and you’ll likely see some nutritional tips — I mean, trainers have to know what they’re talking about, right? When it comes to fitness and exercise, sure. But when it comes to nutrition, think twice.
It may seem harmless enough to adopt food protocols from your favorite fitness professionals. After all, without proper nutrition, your exercise goals and performance can go south, and if you only focus on nutrition but fail to exercise, you’re missing out on a key foundation of overall health. So why not get advice from someone who guides you through your workouts to help you boost your performance and ensure you’re fueling properly to meet your fitness goals?
The problem with fitness experts giving nutritional advice
“It makes sense that trainers—whose goal is to help their clients—would want to help them address the nutritional side,” says Sarah Amelia Weinig, RD, sports nutritionist and founder of New York Nutrition. Weinig worked as a Pilates instructor for years before becoming a dietitian and says that when she was just an instructor, her clients often came to her for advice. “But it’s problematic for a number of reasons,” she says.
The first problem? Many trainers, although they may be personally knowledgeable about nutrition and what works for them, are not properly trained or certified to provide nutritional advice to clients. In fact, popular trainer certification programs, such as those of the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), only provide a general overview of nutrition and make it clear that it is not enough to qualify trainers to offer it. Nutritional advice.
“In order to fully help someone with nutrition, an understanding of nutrition science is essential—there’s a reason why rigorous academic courses and qualifications are required to become a dietitian,” adds Wenig.
Part of the extensive undergraduate training that registered dietitians receive includes several semesters of food science, explains Julie Stefanski, RDN, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Without a deep understanding of how the nutritional composition of foods varies, some trainers and nutrition coaches choose to steer clients toward a very limited set of trendy foods based on opinion,” she says.
And this doesn’t just go for trainers at the gym or studio, BTW. These rules also apply on social media where countless trainers and self-proclaimed fitness influencers or wellness experts are offering nutritional advice.
So if you’re talking to a fitness trainer or see nutrition advice floating around on social media, how do you know which advice is legit or which instruction you should skip? Look for these major red flags, according to experts.
1. Lack of nutritional evidence
This may seem obvious, but if the person giving the advice lacks personal training certification or nutrition credentials beyond an online course, don’t take it. “First, look for someone who is on track to become a registered dietitian nutritionist, RD/RDN, or RD, especially those with a master’s degree in nutrition, which will be necessary for anyone who wants to become an RD soon,” says Wenig. “If someone is not an RD, but has a master’s degree or PhD in nutrition science, that means they’ve studied nutrition for years—for example, not in a weekend crash course—and are qualified to give good nutrition advice, as well as call themselves a nutritionist,” Weinig says.
It’s important to know that many different people call themselves nutritionists in the United States because the term is not very well regulated, Weinig explains. “In many states, qualified nutrition professionals are licensed by the state, and you can check that certifications and training that meet the educational standards as a nutritionist are recognized,” Stefanski points out.
Bottom line: Don’t take nutrition advice from fitness experts or influencers who aren’t even registered dietitians or doctors. But even if they have proper evidence to offer dietary advice, you still need to do a little more digging to determine if it’s legitimate.
2. Affiliate or promote specific product brands
To be clear – there is nothing wrong with nutritionists charging for their time or services. But the lines can get blurred when someone is offering nutritional advice while selling a particular product line or brand (whether it’s directly through sponsorships and endorsements or indirectly through affiliate links).
“People also need to keep in mind that when someone is promoting a product like protein powder, they are often being paid by this company,” says Wenig. Unless, of course, they say otherwise.
Furthermore, when it comes to supplements and protein powders, remember that these are largely unregulated products in the United States, so it’s best to have a professional like an RD help you evaluate whether your investment is worth it.
“The diet industry in America is a billion-dollar business, and it’s kept alive by people’s hope that unproven products will make a difference to their weight or health,” Stefanski says. “If someone is making money from a product they’re recommending, that’s often a conflict of interest,” she adds.
3. Lack of sourcing or research to back up claims
Having proper evidence Always A telltale sign that you may want to seek nutritional advice from an expert. But another good indicator that an accredited person is giving solid advice is if they are able to present sources to back up their claims. How many times have you seen or heard someone say that? “Science shows x claim” without pointing you to a specific source?
“It looks like sharing article titles/authors, posting PMID numbers, or sharing links to actual studies,” says Wenig. Keep in mind, though, that you still need to do your homework because research can be flawed, biased, or misinterpreted. How big is the study? Has this nutritional advice been found to be true by many studies? Or is there more research to be done? Was the study done on people similar to you in gender, age and other factors? All of these are indicators of how much you can trust science and extrapolate it into your life.
4. Extreme statements and lofty promises
If something seems strange, extreme, or too good to be true – listen to your gut. “Nobody needs to give up everything they’re eating and follow a set meal plan that’s not personalized,” says Stefanski. “Medical conditions, habits, meal preparation abilities, and budgets all affect our long-term success and must be taken into account. Rigid nutritional recommendations will never lead to long-term success.”
Looking for other things? “False nutrition advice often includes specific ‘super foods,’ promises of rapid weight loss, strange amounts of foods or food combos, rigid menus or foods that don’t compliment real life,” Stefanski says.
And Weinig adds that “a big red flag is when someone makes very black-and-white statements or categorizes foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ [text] started to panic because they believed for a moment that this might be true and that they should cut oat milk out of their lives,” Weinig recalls. She says there’s no need to get it out.
At the end of the day
Trust trainers and fitness experts to give you exercise advice. If someone doesn’t have the credential “RD/RDN” or an advanced degree in nutrition next to their name, think twice before taking their recommendations about how you should eat, and assuming it’s because something worked for one person. The same applies to you.