The best answers to your clients' top 10 nutrition questions. Precision Nutrition's nutrition cheat sheet for fitness pros.

The best answers to your clients’ top 10 nutrition questions.
Precision Nutrition's nutrition cheat sheet for fitness pros.

By John Berardi, Ph.D. and Brian St. Pierre, M.S., RD, CSCS

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Paleo, juice cleanses, detox diets, calorie counting, low-carb and six-pack abs. Your clients ask a lot. Here’s how to answer their top 10 nutrition questions and concerns.

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As a personal trainer, strength coach, or nutrition coach, we bet you get a lot of questions about nutrition. And we’re sure they’re varied: from young athletes curious about the best supplements, to middle-aged men and women who want to get off blood pressure meds.

Truth is, it’s hard work answering them all. There are different schools of thought, lots of conflicting advice, and so many trendy panaceas promising to solve every problem. It’s tough coming up with definitive advice.

Of course, when you do come up with a single answer, you have to be sure it takes into account the context and nuance of each particular client. Because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. A helpful response for a college linebacker could be detrimental for a 30-year-old mom.

That’s why we put together this handy ‘cheat sheet.’

In this article, we’ve compiled the most common, and most vexing, questions that clients ask. And we provide answers with context and nuance. This way you’ll know which strategies to apply, how to apply them and when (and with whom) to use them.

Question #1

“I’m new to this whole nutrition thing. Where do I start?”

If your client is new to eating better, or has been stuck in a long-time rut and is ready for change, where do you start?

At Precision Nutrition, the first step is to identify and remove deficiencies.

Clients don’t need a major overhaul on day one. They don’t need to “go Paleo” or “eliminate sugar”. They just need to fix their major nutrient or vitamin deficiencies. Because, until these are fixed, their bodies simply won’t function correctly.

This means that, for most of your clients, making sure they get a bit more protein, enough vitamins and minerals, added healthy fats, and more water will get their bodies working better in no time.

Of course, you don’t have to tackle all that at once. Heck, you probably shouldn’t. Instead, you should pick the biggest limiting factor they’re experiencing and start there. Add new practices one at a time as necessary and as clients feel capable of dealing with them.

Then, once nutritional deficiencies are addressed, you can start to focus on things like food quality (i.e. eat whole, minimally processed foods) and food amount (i.e. portions, calories, etc). But go slow. And be systematic.

Remember: one thing at a time.

For a more in-depth treatment of this topic, including exactly how to do it, check out: How to fix a broken diet article and infographic.

Question #2

“What’s the best diet to follow?”

While it seems counterintuitive, you shouldn’t have an answer for this.

The best coaches maintain a neutral position. If you can, strive to be a nutritional agnostic: someone who doesn’t subscribe to any one dietary philosophy.

All dietary protocols have their pros and cons. Your job is to help each client find the approach that works best for them, whether it be Paleo or vegan, high carb or low carb, tight budget or unlimited funds.

The truth is, the human body is amazingly adaptable to a vast array of diets. And the best diet is the one that both matches the client’s unique physiology and is something they enjoy enough to follow consistently.

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.

For more on each of the various diets, and the best practices of each, check out: Paleo, vegan, intermittent fasting: Here’s how to choose the best diet for you.

Question #3

“Do I need to count calories?”

This may be the most common question we’re asked. And, in some ways, it’s the most difficult to answer.

After all, weight management is a pretty simple equation. Eat more calories than you burn, and you gain weight. Eat fewer calories than you burn, and you lose weight.

Except counting calories isn’t that simple. And human brains aren’t food calculation machines.

For one thing, calorie counting is imprecise. Calorie counts on food labels and within food databases are often as much as 25% off. So “calories in” is hard to get right. Also, calorie expenditure estimates using tables and cardio equipment readouts are also as much as 25% off. So “calories out” is hard to measure accurately.

Beyond that, counting calories is an external system (outside of your body). In essence, you’re outsourcing hunger and appetite awareness to the calorie counting gods. Which trains you to ignore your own interoception (internal signals).

In the end, long-term success relies on you developing, and using, your inborn signaling systems. Which is why calorie counting, while it sometimes produces results in the short-run, can often backfire in the long-run.

Besides, it’s annoying to weigh, measure, and count all your food. Especially when there’s an easier way.

We recommend beginning with hand-size portion estimating instead. 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 fancy kitchen 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, the more food you need and the more food you get. And vice versa.

Finally, it’s much easier to practice tuning into hunger and appetite cues without nearly obsessive reliance on calorie math.

Want to learn more about this system? It’s easier and it’s better. Check out:
Forget calorie counting: Try this calorie control guide for men and women.

Question #4

“Should I avoid carbs?”

Ask almost any client what they need to do to lose a few pounds, and they’ll probably say: “Cut back on the carbs.” As a fitness professional, you’ve probably heard it dozens of times.

However, most clients would do best eating a moderate amount of quality carbs—whole grains, fruit, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans and legumes, etc. (We emphasize moderate, of course).

This usually means about 1-2 handfuls per meal.

Of course, the needs of each actual client may differ, based on their activity level, goals, genetics, and preferences.

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. Read more about why we take it here: Carb controversy: Why low carb diets have got it all wrong.

Question #5

“Should I avoid 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: you don’t need to eat grains. But, unless you have celiac disease or a FODMAP intolerance, you don’t need to avoid them either. (And even in those two scenarios, it’s only specific grains that need to be avoided.)

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.

Want to learn more about grains to sort through the conflicting info? Check out: Settling the great grain debate: Can wheat and other grains fit into a healthy—and sane—diet?

Question #6

“How should I eat to get six-pack abs?”

To answer this one, you first have to know if six-pack abs are really what you or 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% for most men, and <20% 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% 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.)

What must clients do to achieve different levels of leanness? Check out: The cost of getting lean article and infographic

Question #7

“What and when should I eat around my workouts?”

If you train athletes, this is a really common question. But lots of non-athletes are curious too. The answer all depends on who’s asking.

For most people, eating a normal mixed meal 1-2 hours before and after exercise is sufficient. This will provide adequate protein and carbs to both fuel the workout and maximize recovery/adaption.

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.

However, very advanced, hard-training clients and athletes have more unique 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 15 g of protein and 30-45 g of carbohydrate per hour of exercise.

Physique competitors, as well as people trying to maximize fat loss, could add essential amino acids (or branched chain amino acids) during their workout. We usually recommend 5-15 g of EAA (or, less preferably, BCAA) 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. How hard do they train? How often? What are their goals? How is the rest of their diet?

To optimize each client’s workout nutrition, based on goals and exercise type, check out: Workout nutrition explained article and infographic.

Question #8

“How important is ‘when’ I eat? Should I eat breakfast? Will eating at night make me fat?”

“Nutrient timing” sounds impressive. Science-y. The way sport and exercise people throw it around, you’d think it must be pretty important. And in the right context, it can be.

For folks like pro bodybuilders, physique competitors, and/or weight class athletes, for clients competing in multiple competitive events in a single day, or for clients at the highest level of sport, nutrient timing can make a difference.

But for most people, most of the time, nutrient timing demands extra effort, requires additional planning, and adds dietary complexity… with minimal return.

Which means it’s not that important for most of your clients.

Just like exercise, what’s most important is that clients make high-quality choices, consistently, whenever it works for them.

For the average client, as long as they eat good foods in reasonable amounts, timing doesn’t really matter. Big breakfast or big dinner—it’s all personal preference.

In the end, nutrient timing can be helpful for a very small subset of the population. For everyone else, it can add layers of unnecessary complexity. Once again, it all depends on the context.

For more on nutrient timing, including who it’s for and who it’s not, check out: Is nutrient timing dead? And does “when” you eat really matter?

Question #9

“Does the Paleo diet live up to the hype?”

The Paleo diet is one of the most popular approaches in the world. 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.).

Paleo works because it emphasizes mostly whole food sources of lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats. (Plus, since it’s starting to incorporate more quality carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, it’s getting even better.)

However, it can be too restrictive for some folks. That’s why the Paleo diet seems to be evolving itself, right before our eyes. Nowadays it often allows things like red wine and grass-fed dairy, options that used to be “off limits”.

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 and reasonable 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.

For more on the pros and cons of paleo, including whether it’s right for your clients, check out: The Paleo problem: Examining the pros and cons of the Paleo diet.

Question #10

“Should I do a detox or juice cleanse?”

Cleansing tends to bring out extreme opinions. But, as with most areas of nutrition (and life), rigidly clinging to any extreme position may blind us to some important information.

The fact is, there can be many problems with detoxes and cleanses:

  • Protein deficient
  • Extremely low calorie
  • Blood sugar swings
  • GI tract dysfunction
  • Restrictive eating and deprivation

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.

For an interesting discussion, including how one juice cleanse sent clients to the ER, check out: Detox diets. Juice cleanses. Could they be making you more toxic?

Bonus question

“How can I improve my sleep and stress management?”

Sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise when it comes to improving your health, performance, and body composition.

To help clients improve in this area, the following are really useful:

  • Creating a sleep routine, including having a regular schedule
  • Limiting alcohol and caffeine 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

For more sleep and stress strategies, check these out: Hacking sleep: Engineering a high quality, restful night and Good stress, bad stress: Finding your sweet spot.

Take the next step

Developing your skill set and becoming a great coach who can answer every question with subtlety and nuance takes education and practice.

If you’d like to fast track the process, consider working with us.

Our next Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification group kicks off shortly and is designed to teach fitness, strength, nutrition, and rehab professionals how to be awesome coaches and help clients get in the best shape of their lives.

Since we only take a limited amount of students, and the program sells out every time, I strongly recommend you add your name to our presale list below.

When you do, you get the chance to sign up 24 hours before everyone else. Even better, you’ll save up to 44% off the general price of the program.

[Of course, if you’re already a student or graduate of the Level 1 program, we’ve got something for you too. Check out this Level 2 page where you can learn more about the upcoming Master Class.]

Spots open October 2nd — don't miss out! Get on the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification presale list today.

If you're interested in the Level 1 Certification, we strongly recommend you join the presale list below. Spots are limited and open just twice per year.

We'll send you more info about the program, and give you the chance to register 24 hours early — and save up to 44% off the general price.