As a health and fitness coach, you’re the expert — so you’re supposed to know how to answer clients’ questions on movement, lifestyle, and nutrition. Not always 100% sure what to say? Use this quick guide to common nutrition questions, and respond with clarity and panache every time.
Whether you’re a personal trainer, strength coach, nutritionist, or health coach, you’re going to get a ton of nutrition questions.
Even if you know a lot about food and health, coming up with the right answers can be a huge challenge, because:
- The right answer depends on who the asker is. Young athlete? Middle-aged man? Sixtysomething woman? If you’re lucky (and skilled) enough to have a long, diverse client roster, this will run the gamut.
- There are so many facets of nutrition. Macronutrients, micronutrients, portions, supplements… where do you start?
- There is a TON of confusion about nutrition “truths”. Is red wine saving your life, or killing you? Did you hear about that new miracle diet?
The reality is, there is no one-size-fits-all “right” answer to any nutrition question. A helpful response for a college linebacker could be detrimental for a 30-year-old mom.
(Incidentally, coming to this realization was the main motivation behind the development of the Precision Nutrition Certification — the industry was in desperate need of a guided program to help trainers and nutrition coaches learn how to answer these questions correctly every time.)
So we put together this quick-reference guide on how to answer your clients’ (and — let’s face it — your family’s and friends’) most common questions. Start with the list below, and follow the ‘READ MORE’ links to dive deeper.
“I’m new to this whole nutrition thing. Where do I start?”
Let’s start by eliminating nutritional deficiencies.
This is always a fun one, because no one ever wants to believe they have nutritional deficiencies.
Clients might not want to hear it at first, but nutrition beginners don’t need a major diet overhaul on day one. They don’t need to “go Paleo” or “eliminate sugar”.
As their coach, your first step should be to open newbie clients’ eyes to the fact that they probably have one or more nutritional deficiencies (seriously — more than 80 percent of the population has at least one).
Until nutritional deficiencies are removed, the body simply won’t function properly — and that makes any health or fitness goal a lot harder.
So, to eliminate deficiencies, your first order of business is to help your client find workable strategies for rounding out the diet, so they get:
- a bit more protein,
- ample vitamins and minerals,
- sufficient healthy fats, and
- more water.
Tell your client that you’re going to help them establish optimal eating habits one step at a time. Then talk through some strategies: Find out which of the nutritional areas listed above will be most challenging for your client (say, she says she doesn’t know how to cook meat). That’s the problem you’re going to help her solve first.
Once nutritional deficiencies are addressed, you can start to focus on things like food quality and portions. What to say when a client seems impatient? “This process isn’t slow; it’s systematic. It focuses on the things that are in your way right now. Once they’re eliminated, progress happens fast.”
- The 3 steps I teach trainers and health coaches to fix any diet problem.
- How to fix a broken diet. [Infographic]
“What’s the best diet to follow?”
There is no “best diet”.
As you emerge as a health, fitness, and nutrition expert, everyone’s going to want to know: Which dietary “camp” do you belong to?
The best coaches maintain a neutral position on this. If you can, strive to be a nutritional agnostic: someone who doesn’t subscribe to any one dietary philosophy.
Why? All dietary protocols have their pros and cons. What works best for one person won’t work best for another. Also: A diet that has worked best for someone in the past won’t necessarily be what works best for them moving forward.
Tell your client that you’re going to help them find the approach to eating that works best for them right now, whether it be Paleo or vegan, high-carb or low-carb, tight budget or unlimited funds — or some blend of all of these.
The truth is, the human body is amazingly adaptable to a vast array of diets, so the best diet is the one that:
- matches the client’s unique physiology,
- includes foods they enjoy enough to follow consistently, and
- is realistic for them in terms of life logistics and budget.
Indeed, you can make people lean, strong, and healthy on a plant-based or a meat-based diet. You can help improve their health with organic, free-range foods and with conventional foods. They can lose weight on a low food budget or an unlimited one.
It just takes a little know-how and a system for using the best practices across all diets.
“Is counting calories important for weight loss?”
While it feels logical, counting calories is often complex, time consuming, and full of errors. The good news: There is a better way.
Weight management is a simple equation: Eat more than you burn, and you gain weight. Eat less and you lose weight.
But the physiology behind “calories in, calories out” is actually much more complex and dynamic than most people realize. Plus, it’s highly imprecise; we estimate that there’s typically an error of up to 25 percent on the ‘calories in’ side, and on the ‘calories out’ side.
Beyond that, counting calories is an external system (outside of your body). In essence, clients who count calories are less likely to see lasting results because they’re outsourcing appetite awareness to the food-label gods. To really win at calorie control, help coach your clients on tuning in to their internal hunger signals.
For these reasons, and more, we tell our clients that for most people, counting calories is a lot of work for very little benefit.
(Interestingly, most clients become elated when they realize they can get the body transformation they want without ever counting calories again.)
Instead of calorie counting, we recommend a hand-measure system for portion sizes. Here how it works:
- Your palm determines your protein portions.
- Your fist determines your veggie portions.
- Your cupped hand determines your carb portions.
- Your thumb determines your fat portions.
This system counts your calories for you, and gets your macronutrients lined up too, without having to do any annoying food-label math.
Plus, your hands are portable—they go wherever you go, making portion-sizing very convenient. In addition, your hands are generally scaled to your size—the bigger you are, the bigger your hands, so the more food you need and the more food you get.
Clients typically get the hang of this system within a week of learning it; then we help them monitor results and tweak as needed.
- Forget calorie counting: Try this calorie control guide for men and women.
- Can eating too little actually damage your metabolism?
- The best calorie control guide. [Infographic]
- All about eating slowly (for appetite awareness).
“Should I avoid carbs?”
No; but let’s make sure you’re getting the right kind of carbs.
Ask almost any client what they need to do to lose a few pounds, and they’ll probably say: “Cut back on carbs.” As a fitness and nutrition professional, you’ve probably heard it dozens of times.
However, most clients would do best eating a moderate amount of quality carbs—whole grains (when tolerated), fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans and legumes, etc. (We emphasize moderate, of course).
For men, this usually means about 1-2 cupped handfuls per meal. And women, about ½-1 cupped handful per meal.
Of course, the needs of each actual client may differ, based on their activity level, goals, and genetics.
But, bottom line, carbs are not inherently fattening, especially whole food sources. And getting adequate carbs can help most clients exercise harder and recover better, optimizing progress.
Yep, this is a controversial position to take. But it works. And while avoiding carbs may facilitate rapid weight loss initially, we’ve found that it’s not practical (or necessary) for long-term success.
“Should I avoid grains?”
No; most people trying to stay lean do best with a reasonable amount of whole grains.
Grain discussions are really trendy right now, as many people have suggested they’re dietary enemy #1 and should be completely eliminated. This is hot news as, just ten years ago, they were supposedly one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
From our perspective, grains aren’t as evil as they’ve been made out to be by the Paleo and Whole30 camps. At the same time, they aren’t the superfood vegans and macrobiotic eaters suggest either.
Bottom line: While you don’t need to eat grains, unless you have celiac disease or a FODMAP intolerance, there is absolutely no need to avoid them. (And even in those two scenarios, it’s only specific grains you need to worry about).
Most people follow a better, more health-promoting diet if they’re allowed grains in reasonable amounts, along with a wide array of other non-grain carb sources like fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, etc.
Remember, it’s the ability to follow a diet consistently over time that provides the greatest results, regardless of what that diet is. And unless you’re intolerant, there’s no good reason to totally exclude certain foods, especially foods you enjoy.
“What (and when) should I eat around my workouts?”
It depends on your goals. Let’s talk about those… then we can come up with specific recommendations for you.
If you train athletes, this is a really common question. But lots of non-athletes are curious too.
Contrary to popular media, most clients are best served by eating good quality whole foods in reasonable amounts, without having to focus on specific workout nutrition products or protocols.
So you can advise non-athlete level clients to eat a normal, balanced meal 1-2 hours before and after exercise. This will provide adequate protein and carbs to both fuel the workout and maximize recovery/adaption.
However, if you coach advanced, hard-training clients or athletes, tell them you’re going to help with their unique workout-nutrition needs.
Endurance athletes, bodybuilders, or those looking to maximize muscle gain could add a protein and carbohydrate drink during their workout. We usually recommend about 15g of protein and 30g of carbohydrate per hour of exercise.
Physique competitors, as well as people trying to maximize fat loss, could add branched chain amino acids (or essential amino acids) during their workout. We usually recommend 5-10g of BCAA or EAA per hour of exercise.
In the end, rather than having one stock answer here, you need to be clear about who you’re working with.
- Best workout nutrition strategies: A useful guide for what to eat before, during, and after exercise.
- Workout nutrition illustrated. [Infographic]
Should I drink less alcohol?
If optimal health and fitness is your priority, consider reevaluating your drinking habits.
Your clients may balk at that answer initially, but once you lay out the facts and make it clear that you’re not telling them not to drink, their ears will open.
There’s a lot of confusion about whether drinking is good for you or not. That’s mainly because the news media likes to play up new studies revealing the possible cardiovascular benefits of alcohol.
But the truth is, no one really knows who will benefit from light to moderate alcohol consumption. Meanwhile, any level of drinking (even “moderate”) comes with health risks that should be considered.
Heavy drinking — more than 7 drinks a week for women and more than 14 per week for men — increases the risk for a long list of health problems involving the heart, brain, immunity, hormones, liver, and metabolism.
But even light to moderate drinking can affect sleep, appetite, and decision making — which absolutely can have a negative impact on your clients’ health and fitness goals.
Still, drinking is an undeniable part of culture, and when enjoyed reasonably it can be delicious and fun.
Tell your clients that you’re going to help them sort out their priorities to determine the best level of drinking for them. Then encourage them to track their drinking habits — and how their drinking habits make them feel physically and psychologically — for a couple weeks.
Most drinkers consume a lot more alcohol than they think, and when they stop to evaluate, many decide on their own that it would feel better to cut back.
- Would I be healthier if I quit drinking? My question to understand the real trade-offs of alcohol consumption.
“Does the Paleo Diet live up to the hype?”
Mostly, yes. But not for the reasons you think.
The Paleo Diet is one of the most popular nutrition approaches in the world right now. There’s no doubt that it works for many people. However, the reason it works has little to do with the story the Paleo proponents tell (evolutionary adaptation, inflammation, etc.).
Tell your clients that Paleo does work for a lot of people because it emphasizes mostly whole-food sources of lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats.
Paleo is starting to incorporate more high-quality carbs, grass-fed dairy, red wine, and other things that used to be “off limits” — but the diet can still be too restrictive for some folks.
In the end, Paleo likely gets more right than wrong. And if clients want to follow it, you can help them do it in a sane, reasonable, sustainable manner.
But for most, it’s unnecessary to follow such a strict dietary ideology. You can take the good from the paleo approach and get rid of the silly dogma.
Should I do a detox or juice cleanse?
Probably not; most popular detox diets don’t remove toxins or lead to fat loss.
Lots of people are worried about the effect of modern lifestyle factors like poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, stress, and environmental pollutants on their health.
So you probably get a fair number of questions about detox diets and juice cleanses, which have come into vogue as an efficient way to (supposedly) lose weight and rid the body of impurities.
But detox diets don’t clean out toxins or help you lose body fat. In fact, detox diets can work against these goals by bypassing the body’s natural detoxification systems and creating a feast-or-famine cycle of eating.
Among many problems, detoxes and cleanses often:
- are protein deficient,
- are extremely low in energy,
- cause unhealthy blood-sugar swings,
- cause GI tract dysfunction, and
- lead to a yoyo of restrictive eating and overcompensation.
If doing a juice cleanse or detox diet helps a client get ready to make further helpful and sustainable changes in their life, OK. Just coach them through a cautious and monitored protocol.
However, we prefer helping them build life-long skills and incorporate daily practices to improve their health, performance, and body composition without extreme (and unsustainable) things like detoxes and cleanses.
“How can I improve my sleep and stress management?”
The answer is unique to every person. I’ll help you explore the strategies that work best for you.
Sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise when it comes to improving your health, performance, and body composition.
Tell your clients you’re going to coach them through:
- creating a sleep routine, including having a regular schedule.
- limiting alcohol and caffeine, especially in the afternoon/evening.
- choosing de-stressing activities before bed.
- setting an appropriate room temperature for sleep.
- making the room dark.
- keeping the room quiet.
- waking up appropriately, with light exposure and soft noise.
As for stress, it’s all about finding the sweet spot. Too much stress, or the wrong kind, can harm our health. Yet stress can also be a positive force in our lives, keeping us focused, alert, and at the top of our game.
It all depends on what kind of stress it is, how prepared we are to meet it—and how we view it.
Since stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, everyone experiences stress differently. Each of us has a unique “recovery zone,” whether that’s physical or psychological, and our recovery zone depends on several factors.
It is critical to teach clients strategies and skills to view and handle their own stress load appropriately. The following can increase stress tolerance or diminish stress load:
- Meditation or yoga
- Outdoor time
- Snuggling a pet
- Listening to relaxing music
- Deep breathing
- Drinking green tea
- Hacking sleep: Engineering a high quality, restful night
- Good stress, bad stress: Finding your sweet spot.
How should I eat to get six-pack abs?”
First let’s explore whether a six pack is worth the trade-offs.
To answer this one, you first have to know if six-pack abs are really what your client wants. (And if they’re prepared to do what it takes.)
Getting ripped abs is a much bigger undertaking than most people realize. There are definite benefits to getting that lean (<10 percent for most men, and <20 percent for most women), but there are real trade-offs too.
Alcohol, processed foods, and desserts all need to be severely limited if you’re trying to lose fat and show off a washboard stomach. Social situations often become difficult. Other interests and hobbies may need to decrease.
However, if clients really want to get a six-pack in the healthiest possible way, they’ll need to follow these principles 90-95 percent of the time:
- Eat protein and vegetables at every meal.
- Include healthy fats at most meals.
- Eat a small amount of carbs post-workout only.
- Limit carbs at all other meals.
- Exercise intensely 4-5 times per week.
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep each night.
Armed with this information, you can have an honest conversation about whether your clients want the six-pack badly enough. (Or if they’d settle for moderately lean and healthy without giving up some of the other things they enjoy).
- The cost of getting lean: Is it really worth the trade-off?
- Here’s the cost of getting lean. [Infographic]
It takes some time to master these answers on the fly with a wide variety of clients, but the only way to get started is to dive right in.
Remember: While you’re expected to know all the answers, you can’t be expected to know everything about every single client. Use the answers in this cheat sheet as a starting point (I recommend that you do the deeper reading first), and then pepper clients with questions about their particular needs and goals.
In the end, being the go-to coach for nutrition questions is about — yes — knowing the facts. But it’s also about meeting clients where they are and garnering experience while you make the journey together.
Coming Wednesday, April 5th.
If you’d like to learn more about how to answer client questions with confidence (and help turn those answers into advice that gets results), consider signing up for our Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification program; it kicks off soon.
Important: Since we only take a limited number of students each time we offer the program, and it sells out every time, the best strategy is to add your name to our free presale list.
Getting on the list gives you the chance to sign up for the certification 24 hours before everyone else. Even better, you save big on the cost of the program.
[Of course, if you’re already a student or graduate of the Level 1 Certification, check out our Level 2 Certification, an exclusive Master Class for elite trainers looking to perfect their nutrition knowledge and coaching techniques].