Why Coaches Should Study Nutrition

Time to read: 6 minutes, 16 seconds


  • Real results in training are fed by good nutrition. There are benefits to exercise even without it, but significant progress happens only after people adopt healthy eating habits.
  • These habits don’t come naturally to many. Those who succeed with ‘just exercise’ already have healthy eating habits, or find that the barrier to adopting them is low enough to be overcome by exercise.
  • Medical advice may not be within our scope as coaches, but nutrition coaching that helps the client eat the right amount of the right foods (nutrient-dense foods) to support their training is.
source: freegreatpicture.com
“Abs are made in the gym and revealed in the kitchen.”

Everyone knows it’s diet AND exercise. I’ve heard (and said) this for years, but it didn’t “click” until this year.

People look to coaches to help them perform better, whether “better” is benching heavier, running a faster marathon, or lifting a toddler without throwing out your back. And when coaches look for ways to help their clients achieve their goals, they focus on the “made in the gym” part of the saying and ignore the “revealed in the kitchen” part.

Because most people seem to get by just fine with “just exercise.”


Real Results are Fed by Good Nutrition

Exercise alone doesn’t lead to significant weight loss. This may be because we’re not working out “hard enough,” but often it’s because we use our workouts as permission to eat more. An hour of exercise usually burns enough calories to cause a weight loss effect, but the hunger afterward leads most people to cancel it out by eating too much.

When it comes to weight loss, adopting a healthy diet is much more effective at producing results. In a study on the effects of diet and exercise on obese women, these were the results:

  • No change, insignificant results. 0.8% weight loss.
  • Just exercise, minimal results. 2.4% weight loss.
  • Just diet, three times as much. 8.5% weight loss.
  • Diet and exercise? Four times as much. 10.8% weight loss.

Coaches working with clients with weight loss goals have the potential to drastically improve their success rate by helping them adopt a healthy diet.

The white quarter is effects of exercise. The blue quarter is effects of diet.

That doesn’t mean we should throw out exercise because it’s not just about weight loss. Exercise improves health in other ways. According to a 2009 study, “even though body weight may not change markedly, or match expectations, lean tissue will be increased (or preserved), and body shape will change (waist circumference).”

Even here, diet helps potentiate our training work. Another study from 2009 showed that incorporating nutrient-dense foods into your diet led to “improved physiological adaptations to exercise.” This is that lean body mass and body shape mentioned earlier. In other words, eat better and you get more out of your training.

But Eating Healthy is Hard

Healthy eating habits don’t come naturally to most. But it does for some.

One reason ‘just exercise’ works for some is because those people already have healthy eating habits. They already eat enough nutrient-dense foods to meet their fitness goals, so they don’t need to make any changes to their lifestyle above and beyond ‘just exercise.’

The other reason is that the barriers between them and adopting healthy eating habits was already fairly low. Maybe all they needed were small changes, like trading whole milk for 2% or replacing potato chips with hummus and pita bread. All they needed was a little push.

Exercise can provide that push because it’s what’s called a keystone habit. As Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, writes:

Some habits, say researchers, are more important than others because they have the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns as they move through our lives. Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.

Most people find that exercising regularly naturally leads to eating healthier.

When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically people who exercise start eating better [emphasis mine]… It’s not completely clear why…‘Exercise spills over,’ said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. ‘There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.’” (p. 109)

Sometimes the wall between your current diet and a healthy one is a little higher. Some people need more than a regular exercise routine to start eating better.

Actually, most people need more than a regular exercise routine to start eating better. These people know they should eat better, but the habits they have are so entrenched — healthier food is too hard to make, or too expensive to buy — that exercise alone isn’t enough to motivate a sustainable change. So they keep eating junk food, not eating enough, or eating too much.

Better Coaches Make Eating Well Easier

Coaches face two obstacles with integrating nutrition coaching into their practice: making sure they’re giving recommendations they’re qualified to give and making sure the client can sustain their results outside of coaching.

Scope of Practice

To be clear: nutrition advice falls outside of a coach’s scope of practice when it comes to dietary advice related to a medical condition (like diabetes, celiac disease, or a gluten intolerance). Then nutrition advice is best left to doctors and licensed dietitians.

But when it’s not related to a medical condition, coaches can help clients get good nutrition — an energy balanced diet built around nutrient-dense foods with the right caloric density (low-density for losing weight, high-density for gaining it) that meets client goals and changes over time — and overcome one of their biggest obstacles on the journey to fitness success.

Long-Lasting Change

The second obstacle to good nutrition coaching is how difficult it is to coach long-lasting behavior change. In a typical personal training arrangement, the client and coach keep a fairly consistent schedule, and the coach has significant influence over the client’s training and training environment. For clients who’ve reached their goals and just want to maintain their progress, the trainer can leave them maintenance workouts to do on their own.

This level of control and influence does not extend to how a client eats.

  • Eating happens at 6 am, when you snoozed your alarm three times too many and you grab a Pop-tart on the way out the door.
  • Eating happens at lunch in the drive-through on your way to pick up your dental records, because who has time to cook food and run errands?
  • Eating happens with friends over a beer after work, when you’re too tired and hungry to say no to the nachos and chipotle cheese dip.

Being absent from the dinner table or the grocery store client means coaches have to empower the client to make those decisions alone. And they have to be able to make those decisions long after the coaching relationship is over. Study after study shows that, regardless of how much weight is lost during an intervention and whether or not the intervention is diet-only or diet-and-exercise, nearly half of the weight is regained within a year.

My best guess? The people in those studies never learned good habits.

A better coach recognizes how important nutrition is to client success, and how difficult it can be for clients to succeed nutritionally. They develop strategies to overcome obstacles to developing healthy eating habits and a solid understanding of how those habits are formed, and then teach them to their clients to help them and keep succeeding.

My goal with this series of posts is to track my progress in learning how to become a better coach. Follow me as I learn:

  • The basics of good nutrition.
  • How to develop healthy eating habits.
  • Common obstacles to good nutrition and how to overcome them.

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