Eight common nutrition fails every PT needs to know about 

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By Amanda Atkinson, Mark Fox and Nick Hewett, Health and Fitness Tutors for The Training Room  

A healthy diet is crucial for anyone looking to improve their physical fitness. Whether an individual hopes to gain strength, improve their cardiovascular performance or simply lose weight, an exercise regime can be made hugely more effective through the right nutritional support. 

While this is hardly new information, there has certainly been increased awareness of the importance of nutrition in recent years – partly thanks to the emergence of a more holistic, whole-person health approach to fitness and exercise.

That is why nutritional knowledge is becoming increasingly important for personal trainers. Being able to help clients with their nutritional behaviour, in addition to devising killer workout programmes, can be the difference between goals being achieved and targets being missed. 

We’ve compiled a list of eight common nutrition “fails”, which can offer PTs some easy wins when assessing their clients’ diets. 

  1. The difference between being full and stuffed

Most clients know the sorts of food they need to eat – wholesome, natural food and plenty of water. Sometimes, however, when a client eats generally well, they still may have issues maintaining a healthy weight.

Even though the client may be eating well, they still may be overeating. Some of this is down to portion sizes, but a lot of that can be addressed if they understand satiety when eating meals. 

Ideally, clients need to understand the difference between feeling satisfied and feeling stuffed. Satisfied is a feeling of contentment in a meal. You aren’t feeling hungry and/or overly full. You should feel like you could eat more if you really wanted to and that you could do some mild activity – like going for a walk or chores without feeling uncomfortable. On a scale of 1-10, satisfied would be at around 7.

Feeling stuffed, meanwhile, is to eat so much food that you couldn’t eat any more (even if it was a delicious dessert), because your stomach is bulging. The sort of feeling where you need to undo the top two buttons (or five) of your jeans. On a scale of 1-10, “stuffed” would be at around 11!

Making the client understand when they are satisfied with a meal can help them reduce calories each day – and help with their weight management.

  1. Mistakes when counting calories

Counting calories is not an exact science. Several influencing factors can mean the process is significantly flawed!

The energy balance rules still apply:

If energy input (i.e. calories in) is greater than energy output (i.e. calories out), then the result is weight gain.

If energy input is less than energy output, then the result is weight loss.

However, consider the following:

  • Food packaging how do we know it’s 100% accurate?
  • What happens to food during digestive processes, or when food is prepared, cooked, blended, or chopped? How does this change the amount of energy available or how the food is digested and absorbed?
  • Calorie count can be significantly higher or lower than the actual value. For example, the FDA allows for a 20% margin of error in the calories listed on labels. This means that a 100-kcal snack could actually be anywhere between 80kcal and 120kcal. So, how do we expect clients to then record the exact number of kcal they consume? When trying to create a kcal deficit or surplus accurately, we consequently don’t have an exact number to start with.
  • Not necessarily all the kcal we absorb are actually consumed – and everybody will digest and absorb calories in a slightly different way. As we are unique individuals, the make-up of each digestive system – and how efficiently it breaks down and absorbs nutrients – is also unique.
  • Clients are not always great at estimating their portion sizes, leading to them consuming more kcal than intended.  

Take-home point: Consider taking an average value from a food diary recorded over a 7-day period. Factor in the possibility of the client misrecording their intake by around 10%, then create the deficit/surplus. Individual approach – every client is different, review and monitor regularly.

Consider the client’s macronutrient intake, as well as the quality of food sources.

Is there a better way than counting calories? Consider hand portion sizes as a starting point.

  1. Meal frequencies

Many years ago, there was a study that suggested that eating more frequently could lead to weight loss and/or could help improve weight management. The premise was that eating meals raises the metabolic rate, so eating smaller, more frequent meals kept the metabolic rate up. 

This has been shown to be incorrect more than once now, but for some reason, it’s still a common thing that many PTs recommend to clients. The number of calories we burn through the digestion of food accounts for around 10% of our daily calorie intake. This doesn’t change if you have two meals or 10 meals in a day. You still burn the same amount. 

There are some benefits to certain people (usually those with low body fat, athletes etc.), but generally increasing meal frequency won’t make much difference to a client. Eating better quality foods, training regularly, getting enough sleep and reducing stress will have a bigger effect on a client’s weight than having more meals. 

You also have to take into account that busy clients, those with families, and people working long hours don’t usually have enough time to cook six meals in a day. As a PT, it’s your job to help clients with their eating habits and help find what works for them. Most do ok with the standard, “old school” method of three meals a day. This makes it easier to plan and also complements the other people in their family. 

  1. Portion sizes

When working with clients, most PTs tend to gravitate towards calorie counting or counting macros. This can work with certain clients – especially those who need strict guidelines – but “everyday clients” can find counting stressful, to the point that it could even lead to obsessive behaviour.

Many clients just need to understand how big their portion sizes should be. A simple and fairly accurate method is to measure portions using a set of scales. 

Another popular method of measuring portion sizes is “hand portions”. Put simply, the method divides each food group into different areas of the hand.

  • Palm – Portion of protein 
  • Clench fist – Portion of veggies 
  • Cupped hand – Portion of starchy carbs
  • Thumb – Portion of fat

Using hand sizes works, because if someone has a bigger hand, they are most likely a bigger person, so need more food. If they’re smaller… you know where we’re going with this!

For example, a meal portion could be divided up as follows:

  • 1 palm of protein 
  • 2 fists of veggies 
  • 1/2 cupped hand of starchy carbs
  • 1 thumb of fat

You can make it more specific according to gender or client, based on their individual needs. 

  1. Low-fat pitfalls

Going low fat doesn’t always lead to weight loss, as it doesn’t address total calorie intake. For a client to lose weight, the body needs to be in a calorie deficit. Choosing lower-fat foods will lower calorie intake, but the client still may eat too many calories. 

Dropping the fat below a certain level is also going to cause the client issues long term, as recommended fat intake is around 20-35% of a daily calorie intake. 

Teaching the client to consume a low-fat diet could also cause them to buy and consume low-fat products which tend to have a higher sugar content. 

Instead, encourage your client to focus on consuming better quality fats, like oily fish, nuts, meat, seeds, and olive oil. 

  1. Exercise habits / exercise-induced overeating

There has been a huge increase in the popularity of activity trackers – such as Fitbit and Apple Watches – which monitor total kcal expenditure during workouts. The estimation of the actual number of calories burnt during a workout can, however, be over- or under-estimated by as much as 30 to 50% – so basing your post-exercise strategy for refuelling on the number of calories burnt can have its flaws!

In addition to this, post-exercise overeating can sometimes be more of a routine habit for clients. For example – a client finishes their workout and consumes their regular post-workout protein smoothie which has approximately 500kcal. They get into a habit of consuming the smoothie after every workout – regardless of the duration or intensity of the session. This can lead to overconsumption. The same is true for when clients use the “calories burnt” during exercise as a reason to eat as much as they like – leading to exercise becoming a way to reward themselves with a “treat”.  

Take-home points: Educate your clients to be more mindful of their choices post-exercise, give examples and suggestions for pre/post-workout snacks to not only fuel their performance but to aid in their recovery too. Encourage them to be more intuitive with their eating habits. Consider how they might fuel appropriately throughout the day and find a strategy that works for the individual. The consumption of smaller meals during the day might be an answer to avoiding the post-workout binge due to hunger.

  1. Snacking 

There are many reasons why an individual may snack and overeat – and it’s not always due to greed or/and a love of food! Overeating could be linked to an individual’s emotional connection to food. Our brain has neurotransmitters, which help us determine how we feel. One of these neurotransmitters is serotonin.

Serotonin is often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’ as it influences the way we feel about ourselves. If our serotonin levels are good, we wake up and like what we see in the mirror. Low serotonin can lead to depression and people not liking what they see.

The lack of these neurotransmitters can lead to the body craving certain foods. Low serotonin levels can leave an individual craving salty and starchy foods, like breads, pasta, chips and pizza. This will give a short-term high, but, when this wears off, they will be back to craving it once again.

Education is a key point. The client may not overeat in terms of the total food quantity, but make the wrong, or uneducated, choices. For example, if a client consumes five chocolate bars during a day, the quantity of total food would not be high. The calorie input, however, would – hindering their progress!

Hormones can also play a big part in cravings, which result in the body lacking something. Understanding your body’s hormones and any changes taking place in their levels is key. Linking this to your planned nutrition will help to balance out any potential cravings and, therefore, have a positive impact on snacking.

As a trainer and a coach, it is important to educate the client and ensure they fully understand the changes that are being made – as well as the benefits resulting from the changes

Our goal is to create long-term behaviour change for the client, which will have a positive impact on their life – rather than providing them with a quick fix. For this to take place, it is important that changes are manageable and that the client agrees to them. The client’s goals need to be realistic. If they don’t want to give up that glass of wine or chocolate bar they allow themselves as a reward for the week on a Friday night, don’t make them – work with them to find a solution.

Take-home point: Build sustainable habits and educate clients on the benefits of eating well. Address the quality and quantity of nutritional intake over the course of the day to limit unnecessary snacking.

  1. Lack of sleep

As PTs, we tend to concentrate on eating better quality food, reducing calories and exercising to help our clients. This is all well and good if clients have the energy to make better food choices and work hard in the gym. 

If the client is sleep-deprived, they could be facing an uphill battle before they take their first steps in the morning. Some studies have shown that individuals who don’t get a good quality 7+ hours sleep a night often have larger appetites – and feel less satisfied at meals. This can result in cravings for sugary foods just to stay awake – and an individual eating far more than they realise.

Helping the client improve both sleep quality and quantity will have a huge “halo effect” over everything else they try to do, as they’ll have the energy and motivation to eat better and exercise hard. 

The Training Room’s Level 4 Certificate in Nutrition for Weight Management and Athletic Performance qualification aims to provide learners with the skills, knowledge and competence to provide nutritional support, either as a nutrition coach or as part of their offering as a personal trainer.

Enhance your career and champion the importance of good nutrition – find out more about The Training Room’s nutrition course here: https://www.thetrainingroom.com/health-fitness/nutrition





McClain AD, et al. Adherence to a low-fat vs low carbohydrate diet. 2013


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