Why personal trainers with a Level 3 or Level 4 nutrition qualification should not be writing meal plans or providing non-generic or specialist advice - Study Active - Personal Trainer Courses

Dr Glenys Jones RNutr (Association for Nutrition) & James Luscombe BSc, MSc (Study Active) with Craig Smith (CRS Editorial)

Study Active & The Association for Nutrition (AfN)

The Study Active philosophy is to provide the correct information, advice and guidance to our students. With regards to this, a question we keep on getting asked relates to what a personal trainer is qualified to do once they have achieved a Level 3, Level 4 or even Level 5 nutrition qualification. There certainly seems to be lots of conflicting information out there about this, so we caught up with Dr Glenys Jones, who is the Deputy Chief Executive & Communications Manager of the Association for Nutrition (AfN), so we could look to set the record straight.

We at Study Active respect that a personal trainer is a specialist in the exercise and fitness industry because this is their passion; their chosen profession that they have qualified in. Similarly, the highly knowledgeable people at the AfN are disciples of their area, overseeing a register of qualified nutritionists (qualified at degree level or above) and ensuring adherence to a code of conduct. It is important we all acknowledge that the AfN are the national experts in nutrition for the UK.

The general gist from the AfN is loud and clear. If you need your car fixing, you go to a qualified mechanic. If you require some construction work, you seek the know-how of an approved builder. The same applies to nutrition. It is of utmost importance that personal trainers with Level 3, Level 4 (or even Level 5) nutrition qualifications understand the limitations of the nutrition advice that they can give, and understand when to refer to a degree-educated registered nutritionist or dietitian.

Limitations for Personal Trainers with Meal Plans

Here comes the important bit! According to the AfN, personal trainers with a Level 3,4 or 5 nutrition qualification should only offer generic advice based on established Government guidance. Under no circumstances should a personal trainer with a Level 3, 4 or 5 nutrition qualification offer meal plans or give any bespoke or specialist advice outside of the national Government guidelines. In addition to this, personal trainers with a Level 3, Level 4 or Level 5 nutrition qualification should not provide performance nutrition advice to elite athletes or give advice to people with medical conditions on the nutritional management or treatment of their condition.

“Where we have the limitations is that with a Level 3 or Level 4 nutrition qualification, you don’t have the depth of knowledge to be able to provide bespoke information,” explains Dr Glenys. “You would not be in a position to be able to take research papers and apply them to somebody’s performance. This is because you just don’t have that breadth of knowledge about all the contraindications that could come into play.”

The merit of this message will hopefully be respected by the masses; however, there may be some who find that this message comes as a shock – because they were ‘told differently’.

Anyone can talk about nutrition – as we all eat,” says Dr Glenys. “It unfortunately doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right information. We often find that people with Level 3 or Level 4 nutrition want to give advice but they are unaware of their limitations.”

Taking Dr Glenys’ views onboard here, as exercise professionals, we need to listen to the AfN and dispel these myths for good.

Dispelling the myth of Personal Trainers & Meal Plans

Providing the correct advice is of paramount value to Study Active, so teaming up with the AfN was a must to lay to rest the unfounded myth about personal trainers with a Level 3, 4 or 5 nutrition qualification being able to write meal plans or give non-generic or specialist advice.  

Social media and a constant demand for news often results in the circulation of misinformation – rumours and hearsay that can result in long-term harm to people, as Dr Glenys explains. “Because of social media, it’s very easy to get messages out to thousands or millions of people – but if it isn’t accurate then it could be harmful.”

It is therefore imperative personal trainers realise this and adhere to only operating within their scope of practice and in accordance with the guidelines set by the AfN. There really should be no exception to this.

The official AfN message to personal trainers wishing to provide nutritional advice to their clients is clear. Generic advice in line with the Government’s Eatwell Guide is fine to disseminate to healthy adults. You may also wish to comment upon your client’s diet and suggest some healthy swaps – in line with the Eatwell Guide – and this is a great way to support them with their healthy lifestyle goals.

However, you should never go beyond your scope of practice by giving non-generic advice, writing meal plans, or providing nutrition advice for elite athletes or those with medical conditions. Remember, this is regardless of whether a PT has a Level 3, Level 4 or even Level 5 nutrition qualification, as the guidance from the AfN is the same.

“If someone wants to do a Level 3 or Level 4 nutrition qualification to support their work as a personal trainer, this is great as it then enables them to support people to follow our Government’s advice for a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle,” says Dr Glenys.

Educating the masses about Personal Trainers and Meal Plans

Whilst the restrictions have been made clear by the AfN, they are also very supportive that there is still an invaluable role played by personal trainers in helping their clients to make healthier nutritional choices – in line with Government guidance. There is certainly much good that a personal trainer can do here – and this should be encouraged.

Here at Study Active we are immensely proud of our PTs and it is our role to ensure we continue to educate not only those affiliated to us, but also the wider communities of the UK. The general message is to respect the restrictions but still appreciate that there is much good a personal trainer can do with nutrition – as long as it is within their scope of practice and in line with Government guidance.  

Dr Glenys agrees that a personal trainer has an important role to play here: “A lot of people aren’t following the Government healthy eating messages. A personal trainer is in the perfect position to work with, and support, these people.”

Whether the area of expertise is fitness or nutrition, it is imperative that everybody is educated with the correct information by those qualified to do so – this is why from a nutritional perspective the AfN certainly sees it as one of their roles to provide guidance to the sector on best practice.

This does not just mean the public; there also exists a need to educate the educators and make sure all training providers who are offering nutrition qualifications know the information they should circulate and what constitutes true scope of practice.

“An ethical training provider will be telling people what their scope of practice is and will be reiterating this,” confirms Dr Glenys.

Basically, everyone should be singing from the AfN hymn sheet!

From Study Active’s perspective, we are immensely proud to tell people our nutrition courses are certified by the Association for Nutrition – this not only gives the public reassurance about our course content but also reassurance that any advice we give regarding scope of practice is going to be correct and in line with AfN guidance. Therefore, we will always live up to expectation here.    

A sign of professionalism for nutritiomnal advice

Knowing the limitations to your scope of practice and when to refer to a more appropriate professional (eg a Registered Nutritionist [RNutr/ANutr] or Dietitian [RD]) is a key indicator of professionalism. No human being knows everything about everything – it is simply not possible.

“Being able to say ‘I don’t know that, but I will refer you on to someone who does’ is actually a real sign of professionalism,” states Dr Glenys.

Collaboration is therefore crucial if we are to stem the flow of misinformation that is leading to confusion on what a personal trainer’s limitations are. This is why the AfN are so open about their advice for those wishing to understand their true scope of practice for their nutrition qualifications.

Having an ethical stance and knowing the limits of your scope of practice are traits to be applauded. So, if you are presented with the situation of a client wanting to know more about meal plans, non-generic diet advice, nutrition for elite athletes or nutrition for people with medical conditions, respect the limits of your own scope of practice and refer them through the correct channels (to an RNutr or dietitian for example). You may reap what you sow here, as those not specialising in exercise may well do likewise and refer back to you! Collaboration is key.

Summary of why a Level 3, Level 4 or Level 5 nutrition qualificated PT should not be writing meal plans 

It has been made abundantly clear to us by the AfN that those in possession of a Level 3, Level 4 or Leevl 5 nutrition qualification can categorically not write meal plans, cannot give non-generic advice and cannot provide nutrition advice for elite athletes or clients with specific medical needs. Given the inconsistencies out there, chances are at some point someone may suggest otherwise; however, you now know a simple check with the AfN will set the record straight – and it is the AfN who we need to be listening to.

Both Study Active and the AfN are always here to help. If you are ever unsure about what information you should be giving out, check with one of us first. Do not guess, and as a personal trainer do not assume that you have the specific knowledge in this field to do anything other than pass on established Government guidance on healthy eating and suggesting healthy swaps in line with the Eatwell Guide.

“We are stronger together than apart. Being able to respect each other’s professionalism and each other’s scope of practice is of benefit to us all,” concludes Dr Glenys.

To echo Dr Glenys’ words, we are in this together for the benefit of a healthier nation, combining our expertise for the greater good. Food for thought, surely.

Are you a student enrolled on one of our courses and unsure of how to contact the correct people when it comes to nutrition? If so, get in touch with us and we will happily point you in the right direction.

Please note, whilst leaving meal plans to dieticians is the correct and professional thing to do, there are still so many ways that a Personal Trainer can help their clients with their nutrition. To specialise as a  nutrition focused Personal Trainer please chcek out our RSPH Level 4 Nutrition qualification  or our Elite PT Nutrition course package

#scopeofpractice #knowyourlimits #nutrition

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