Exercise Program Design, Fitness, Food & Nutrition Science

Why Personal Trainers Should Consider a Nutrition Certification

You’ve likely heard the phrase “You can’t out-train a bad diet.” 

As a personal trainer, you know that both physical activity and healthy eating habits contribute to long-term health outcomes. To help your clients fully reach their goals you need to address fitness, lifestyle, and nutrition.

This article takes an in-depth look at why personal trainers should consider a nutrition certification. Learn the key differences between a personal trainer and a nutrition coach, the benefits you can gain by having both personal training and nutrition certifications, and important factors in considering a nutritional certification.

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What Can a Nutrition Coach Do That Personal Trainers Can’t?

To answer this question, we’ll have to look at each profession’s scope of practice:

What does a certified personal trainer do?

You’re probably already familiar with this, but let’s recap. Certified personal trainers who have earned their personal training certification work with clients to achieve fitness-related goals (e.g., weight loss, improved body composition, and enhanced athletic performance). Personal trainers create well-designed workout plans based on exercise science and exercise physiology, guide clients on exercise form, and help them progress toward their fitness goals. They also guide clients on corrective exercises for injuries.

What does a certified nutrition coach do?

A nutrition coach educates clients on everything from weight management to peak fitness performance based on the most optimal nutrition regimen for their needs. Should you become a certified nutritionist, you’ll do the following:

  • Assist clients with implementing healthy eating habits
  • Provide clients with research-based nutrition advice
  • Co-create a sound nutritional plan to assist clients in meeting their weight, fitness, and health goals
  • Encourage positive food habits and behaviors

In most cases, personal trainers cannot provide tailored nutritional advice to their clients without going out of their scope of practice — which is a big no-no. On the other hand, certified nutritionists can design personalized meal plans focused on optimal nutrition to help clients meet their overall wellness needs.

Certified Nutritionist vs. Registered Dietitian: What’s the Difference?

It’s important to note that there is still a limit to a certified nutritionist’s scope of practice. Nutrition coaches are not registered dietitians.

For context, a registered dietitian (RD) is an individual who:

  • Completes a bachelor’s degree in nutrition education (e.g., clinical nutrition, dietetics, public health nutrition, or foods and nutrition), studying physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, and many other areas of science as part of their coursework
  • Logs 1,200 hours in an ACEND-accredited internship (note: ACEND stands for Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics)
  • Meets several licensing requirements — the process of earning a license varies on a state-by-state basis — to becoming an RD

This rigorous process qualifies those who successfully earn the title “registered dietitian” to offer medical nutritional therapy (MNT). MNT is an evidence-based, individualized nutrition process meant to help treat certain medical conditions and chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and digestive conditions.

Even after completing a nutrition certification and becoming a certified nutrition coach, personal trainers cannot legally:

  • Prescribe diets or supplements to treat clinical and medical conditions (e.g., chronic health conditions like high blood pressure or Crohn’s disease)
  • Prescribe diets to treat symptoms of clinical and medical conditions
  • Diagnose health issues and medical conditions

For a more comprehensive view of a certified nutritionist’s limitations in providing nutrition advice, check out the latest guidelines in your state.

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You’ll learn:

  • Why holistic health matters
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  • What career opportunities exist for health coaches
  • And more!

How Will a Nutrition Certification Benefit You?

Good news: while there are limitations as to what you can provide as a certified nutritionist, there is still a long list of services you can offer.

In general, so long as you steer clear of “prescribing”, “diagnosing”, and “treating” (i.e., anything MNT-related), there’s plenty to do within your scope of practice., Here’s what you can expect to do as a nutrition coach:

  • Craft personalized nutrition and wellness regimens for clients based on current, relevant research and your nutrition knowledge
  • Educate and guide clients on the optimal nutrition regimen for their needs, along with how to spot unreliable nutrition advice
  • Empower your clients to achieve lasting health and overall wellness through healthy eating and lifestyle changes

And being able to do all this could benefit you, a certified personal trainer, in three ways.

#1: Help Fitness Clients Achieve Better Results

Your clients can improve their health, overall wellness, and fitness performance through physical training, without any dietary changes. But research makes it clear that they’d see much better results from making positive changes to their diet and exercise regimens.

“Better results” — what are we talking about specifically, though?

Weight Loss

A 2014 systematic review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that, on average, combined behavioral weight management programs (BWMPs)  involving both fitness and nutrition intervention produced greater weight loss results than diet-only or physical activity-only interventions.

Chronic Disease Prevention

Your clients cannot “out-exercise” a poor diet. Neither can they ward off disease simply through healthy eating.

Those are the findings of a recent 2022 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

After examining data from nearly 350,000 participants collected from the U.K. Biobank, the researchers found that people with higher levels of physical activity and better-quality diets had the lowest mortality risk.

Several past studies have also found that combining fitness and nutrition changes is one of the most effective ways to reduce an individual’s risk of heart disease.

Athletic Performance 

While proper training has the greatest potential to increase your client’s athletic performance, recent studies have increasingly begun to highlight just how much food also fuels better sports performance and post-exercise recovery:

  • Marathon performance: According to a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, runners who followed a planned scientific nutritional strategy — consisting of fluid, carbohydrate, sodium, and caffeine — completed the marathon 4.7% faster than those who stuck to a self-chosen nutritional strategy.
  • Muscle repair: Research shows that consuming 20 grams of whey protein every three hours helps maximally stimulate muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis following resistance training, potentially speeding up recovery and enhancing muscle growth. 

Mental Health

Regular physical activity can have a profoundly positive impact on your clients’ mental health and emotional well-being. You know that. But did you also know that research has found a correlation between poor dietary habits and poor mental health?

Take this 2017 review of 21 studies published in Psychiatry Research, for instance.

Its researchers found that a healthful dietary pattern — characterized by high intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, low-fat dairy, and antioxidants, along with low intakes of animal foods — was associated with a reduced risk of depression.

Ultimately, a 2020 study published in Nutrients puts it best: “… [both] nutrition and physical activity seem to play an important role in maintaining good mental health …”.

How Would Helping Clients Achieve Better Results Help You, Though?

OK, so if you were to offer fitness and nutrition coaching to your existing clients, they could expect:

  • Greater or quicker weight loss
  • Lower risk of health issues and chronic health conditions
  • An uptick in athletic performance
  • An improvement in mental health and overall wellness

But what’s in it for you? Better client success equals increased client satisfaction, which is closely tied to client retention.

And when you have a higher client retention rate, you can expect the following:

#2: Expand Your Target Demographic and Impact

Becoming a certified nutritionist, and offering both fitness and nutrition coaching, allows you to grow your client list.

Instead of being limited to the average certified personal trainer’s “normal demographic” of clients looking to meet their fitness-related goals, you’re able to attract people who want to:

  • Adopt healthy habits
  • Lose weight
  • Increase their energy
  • Improve their health

Also, just because some of these clients aren’t currently focused on fitness, it doesn’t mean they’ll remain uninterested forever. If they see results from nutrition coaching and learn that you also offer personal training, chances are they’ll hop aboard.

#3: Increase Your Earning Potential

Here’s how the median annual wage for certified nutritionists stacks up against that of certified personal trainers:

As you can see, you may be able to charge clients higher rates for your nutrition coaching services than for your personal training services.

That, in turn, increases your income.

It’s important to note that you don’t necessarily have to offer nutrition coaching and personal training coaching as two separate services. You could bundle fitness and nutrition coaching services together. For example, instead of charging:

  • $60 per hour for personal training services
  • $80 per hour for nutrition coaching services

Why not charge $100 per hour for fitness and nutrition coaching services? This instantly increases your hourly rate.

Two additional ways you could increase your income include:

  • Offering online nutrition coaching: It’s arguably easier to offer online nutrition coaching than it is to provide online personal training services. With the former, you’ll have less to worry about in setting up your virtual coaching space; you won’t need to carve out space to demonstrate exercises or house workout equipment. Essentially, all you need to offer nutrition coaching sessions online is a well-lit space, your laptop, and a steady internet connection — so capitalize on that. 
  • Asking your employer for a pay raise: If you’re an employed certified personal trainer (working at a gym, fitness studio, or corporate environment), completing a nutrition certification helps bring more value to your company. This means you have more leverage when asking for a salary boost, increasing your odds of successfully scoring one. You could also seek a higher-paying position elsewhere, such as a fitness center, cruise ship, or nursing home —where you could work alongside other healthcare professionals.  

Choosing a Suitable Nutrition Certification

Beyond additional fitness certifications, these are key reasons personal trainers should consider a nutrition certification:

  • Help existing clients achieve better results
  • Reach a broader target audience group and make a bigger, positive impact
  • Increase your earning potential as a fitness instructor.

Convinced of the value that becoming a certified nutritionist could bring you as a fitness instructor? Then you’re likely already pulling up a new tab, ready to plug “best nutritional certification” into the search bar.

To help you narrow down your choices — because, as you’ll soon find out, there are many— here are six questions to guide you in selecting the best nutritional certification for yourself:

  1. Is the nutrition certification accredited? Not all nutrition certifications are created equal. A “gold standard” nutrition certification is accredited by a nationally recognized third-party agency, such as the American Association of Drugless Practitioners (AADP), the Federation for Holistic Therapists (FHT), or the American Naturopathic Medical Certification Board.
  2. What are the nutrition certification’s prerequisites? Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to become a certified nutritionist. Instead, the only thing most certification programs require when it comes to your academic background is a high school diploma.
  3. Does the curriculum meet your needs? What does your target client look like? What issues do they need the most help with (e.g., weight loss, sports nutrition, or general health)? Check out the free course preview of your selected certification program(s). The nutrition coach certification you go for should equip you with the expertise and knowledge necessary to help your target clients with their needs.
  4. Is it a fully remote, self-paced program? You’ll have to juggle your existing schedule with studying for your nutrition certification program. You could opt for a fully remote nutritional education program that allows you to work through the course materials at your own pace, plus take your exams online.
  5. Does it offer payment options? If you’re uncomfortable forking over a lump-sum payment for your certification program, look for those offering cash-flow-friendly, flexible payment options that help you pay in installments.
  6. Will the nutrition certification provide continuing career support? What happens after you complete the nutrition certification program? Does the certifying agency provide continued support (e.g., continuing education courses and/or networking opportunities with other well-established fitness and nutrition professionals in the fitness industry) to help you find your footing as a new nutrition coach?  

Level up Your Personal Training Business by Becoming a Nutritionist with AFPA

  • Nationally and internationally accredited. Our nutrition certifications are current, scientifically based, and evaluated by third-party accrediting organizations.
  • Fully remote and completed at your own pace. Our nutrition certification programs are designed to fit your schedule, no matter how busy you are.
  • Financing options are available for all nutrition certifications. Pay for your nutrition certification program over a 3-, 6-, or 12-month period. Instant approval available.
  • Continuous professional support for graduates. AFPA is committed to enhancing the professional development of our health, fitness, and nutrition professionals through continuing education programs and up-to-date business resources designed to help our graduates stand out from the competition.

Better yet, AFPA offers a wealth of nutrition certification programs. No matter your aspirations, you’re bound to find a program that meets your needs. If you’d like to work with:

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Get Your Free Guide

Learn How to Start a Fulfilling, Impactful Career as a Holistic Health Coach

You’ll learn:

  • Why holistic health matters
  • If holistic health coaching is right for you
  • What career opportunities exist for health coaches
  • And more!


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