"This training's not working - since we started I've gained 3 pounds."
Rob glared at me as he uttered these words, dripping in sweat, and clearly not impressed that he was busting his ass a couple of times a week with me, and not really getting anywhere.
I was deflated too. I knew the training was perfect for what he needed, but it was his nutrition that was letting him down.
At the time of our initial consultation, I thought he had his diet pretty much nailed though.
"I eat pretty healthily," was his response when I enquired about his dietary habits.
"It's usually oats or eggs for breakfast, a healthy sandwich for lunch, dinner is always home-cooked and I only snack on fruit. I might have the odd meal out or one or two beers at the weekend, but I'm really sensible."
The trouble was, while Rob's reply was so similar to that of every other client I've trained, I still fell for it.
Your Clients Don't Know Their Diets Are Bad
In my six years as a trainer, rarely, if ever, have I had a client admit their diet is bad when starting out. Everyone likes to think they're healthy.
The issue is, that us humans generally suck at realising what we're eating.
For one, we typically tend to remember the "good things" we do - how we turned down the donuts as they were going round the office last Friday, or how we managed to go a whole week without alcohol.
And when we do something "bad" we're really good at justifying it.
"It was so-and-so's birthday," or "Yes, I did have that slice of pie, but Brenda had 3 slices, so I'm not as bad as her," are common reasons I hear for making poor dietary choices.
In fact, we're so bad, that a study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that obese subjects underreported their food intake by an average of 47%, and overestimated the amount of calories burned from exercise by 51% (1).
What does this mean?
It means your clients think they're eating a lot less than they are, and that they think the exercise they're doing is burning far more calories than it really is.
End result is they make few (if any) dietary changes, make little progress and become disheartened with their results.
This is Where You Come In
Diet can be a touchy subject.
Many clients are fine with the exercise portion of health and fitness and body transformation, but are highly resistant to looking at what they eat.
Therefore, you need to be on your game when discussing nutrition with clients.
Different types of clients respond best to different methods, and it's up to you to find what works for each person you train.
If I can pass on one thing from my mistakes in the past, it's this:
Don't expect your clients to blindly follow a "diet plan" you give them. Not only is creating a strict plan unnecessary, (and potentially detrimental, as it doesn't teach your clients about nutrition), but only a very small minority can make a drastic overhaul with their diets at the drop of a hat.
The 6 Steps to Fixing Your Clients' Broken Diets
1. Get Tracking
I'm a huge fan of food logs.
For a start, it gets your clients thinking about exactly what they're eating.
Mindless eating is a big problem for many -- especially any clients you have who work in office-type jobs, as they often eat through boredom or habit. Get them writing down everything they eat and drink gets both of you off to a great start.
Another tip with this is to make sure your client tracks over a number of days.
If you ask them to log just one day of food, chances are they'll pick the day they were extra good, giving a poor representation of what they really eat. Instead, have them do a whole week, or pick three or four days at random over a 2-week period for them to track.
2. Introduce Calorie-Consciousness
As a proponent of flexible dieting, I'm a huge fan of counting calories and macronutrients. That said, this approach just doesn't suit everyone's' lifestyle and preferences.
The term "calorie-conscious" is a great one though, and can often be a real eye-opener. This is the next step on from food logging.
I like to go over a client's food diary and pick out a few foods that I think might surprise them. These are the foods they eat every day without even thinking about, yet can be real calorie bombs.
Some of my favourite examples include:
- Olive oil (113 calories per tablespoon)
- Grande latte (223 calories)
- 1.5 oz of trail mix (194 calories)
- Small glass of orange juice (90 calories)
The average Joe or Jane sees the above as healthy options -- or in the case of the latte and OJ, they probably don't even think these contain calories -- but these small things can really add up.
None of these foods or drinks should be banned, and if your clients enjoy them, they're fine to consume them with no negative effects, but you do need to make them aware that perhaps they're consuming more calories than they should be by not being calorie-conscious.
This is where the picture section in the food log comes in useful. Your clients may underestimate exactly how much they're eating. They might tell you they only have small portions, but a picture tells a thousand words.
3. Find the Triggers
Everybody has a certain food that they just can't say no to, or that kicks off cravings and binges.
For me, it's all-you-can-eat buffets. I see these as a challenge, and won't rest until I'm fit to burst. Therefore, I recognise they're a trigger and avoid them as much as I can.
I also have clients who are the same, or some who just can't have a little bit of certain foods without going completely overboard. Ice cream, donuts, and chips often top the list.
Likewise, for many it's events or occasions where moderation goes completely out of the window. These will typically be outings involving alcohol.
Work with your clients to deduce what triggers them to lapse into bad dietary habits, and see if there are ways you can eradicate these.
For instance, your client who tends to fall off the wagon at weekends:
They drink too much, get a drunken cheeseburger and fries, and then gorge on junk the next day while nursing the mother of all hangovers.
Why not suggest they alternate alcoholic drinks with diet soft drinks, or even water?
Perhaps they could be the designated driver one night each weekend. (Added bonus - they get their drinks bought for them!)
An even better option could be to advise they try something where the evening doesn't revolve around alcohol - the theatre, a sporting event, or the movies for instance.
Finding triggers can undoubtedly be tricky, but this is where the food log steps in again.
The two columns - "where did you eat this meal and who was with you?" and "how did you feel after this meal?' are key to working out what might make your clients "fall off" their diets.
Over the course of several weeks you'll notice trends.
Those meals where they eat more than they should or make poor choices - are they always in the evenings after work? Perhaps they're at weekends? Maybe they're always with the same people, or always feel stressed or bored when they eat them.
Figure out why they occur, and you're well on your way for creating a sustainable, effective plan for your clients.
4. Build Flexibility
One of the reasons I hate meal plans is because there's no flexibility.
I used to be one of those trainers who drew up cookie cutter plans for clients to follow.
Breakfasts would be scrambled eggs and a bowl of oats. Don't like eggs? The client could have Greek yogurt with berries instead.
Lunches would typically be variations on salads, and dinners would be a lean piece of meat or fish, plenty of vegetables and a carb source based on their preference - usually rice (preferably brown) pasta (preferably whole-wheat) or potato.
I'd give them an approved snacks list of nuts, fruit, protein shakes and bars, beef jerky and boiled eggs, and that was it.
There were small tweaks depending on goals and bodyweight, but little adjustment for preference, and no flexibility whatsoever.
Clients would typically follow this okay for a few weeks, then as soon as they faced a challenge (i.e., a meal out where they had to eat an off-plan meal) they couldn't work out what to do, so would end up eating far more than they should, feeling guilty for falling off the plan, and lose motivation.
This is why flexibility and preference is the most important factor in any diet.
You could give your client the best diet in the world but if they hate every meal, they won't stick to it very long.
Rather, if you can incorporate foods they enjoy, make it easy for them to socialize and implement some form of tracking, you're on to a winner.
I have three ways I incorporate flexibility with my clients -
1. The 80:20 Rule
In this instance, I ask my clients to eat 80% of their day's calories from nutrient-dense foods. You know the types of things -- lean meats, eggs, fish, fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans and dairy. The other 20% can come from whatever they like.
That might mean a big bowl of sugary cereal, some chips and pretzels, or every flexible dieter's favourite, Pop Tarts. Likewise, the client may decide they just want more "clean food" which is fine too.
2. The Calorie Buffer
After a while, I've found that nine out of ten clients get really into tracking, and actually enjoy counting their calories and macros.
Despite this, many find it too difficult to hit specific numbers each day, so I'll set ranges.
Instead of aiming for, say, 2,250 calories and 165g of protein, I'll ask a client to eat between 2,100 and 2,400 calories, and between 150 and 180g of protein, so they don't feel tied to a specific number all the time.
3. Higher Calorie Days
You'll find many clients have no issue sticking to plan Monday to Thursday. It's the weekends that are often problematic.
Therefore, I'll lower calories in the week slightly, and give them more to play with at the weekend.
If a client needs to eat 2,000 calories per day to lose 1 pound per week, instead of setting that for them seven days per week, you might give them a goal of 1,700 calories Monday to Thursday, and 2,400 Friday to Sunday.
Overall, this still equates to 14,000 calories per week (the same as eating 2,000 per day), but now they've got leeway on the weekend.
Too often, if you set a client at a low intake and they feel there's no way they can stick to it, they'll simply throw their goals out the window and eat to excess, thinking that if they're going over by a bit, they may as well go over by a lot. This extra intake on the weekend stops this though, as they've got more freedom, can easily stick to what you've set them, and it won't negatively impact their progress.
5. Create Accountability
It's easy for your clients to stick to their workout schedule. After all, they turn up for sessions, and for that one hour two, three, or four times a week, they're under your guidance and control.
If you say "squat" they'll squat.
Ask them to do 50 burpees they'll most likely do 50 burpees. (Even if they swear at you between every rep.)
But even training a client 4 hours per week, that still leaves 164 hours when they're not with you. That's a lot of time!
The few hours that you're with them needs to be good enough to motivate them to stick to the plan the rest of the time. That's where accountability comes in.
This goes back to point #1 -- logging.
I ask my clients to keep a log using MyFitnessPal so that I know what they're doing when it comes to food.
Many clients see it as a game - they like getting a streak of consecutive days logging in. If they're aiming for certain macros, they love hitting their protein, carbs, or fat on the dot, and knowing that I'm checking in on them helps keep them motivated and thinking about their food choices.
There are several other very simple yet highly effective ways to create accountability:
1. Create a private Facebook group
Some of my clients hate having to go through the rigmarole of putting their logging information into an email and sending it over to me. They much prefer doing everything via Facebook.
Create a private group for all your clients, or multiple groups for individual clients, and ask them to post pictures of their meals every day, as well as a screenshot of their food log.
Chances are, like most of us, clients will be browsing Facebook aimlessly in the evenings anyway, so you may as well take advantage of this.
2. Ask your clients to "buddy up"
One of the reasons why weight loss groups such as Weight Watchers and Slimming World are so popular is because of the group camaraderie and accountability
Put clients into pairs or small groups and ask them to check in on each other. This often works better than you checking up on people all the time, as clients enjoy having a sense of responsibility.
6. Be Supportive and Helpful
The worst thing you can do when your client makes a poor dietary choice, fails to track, or does have a slip up is to berate them.
It doesn't build a good relationship, and certainly won't help their self-esteem long-term.
Instead, sit down with them; discuss what triggered the slip, and how they think they could avoid doing the same again.
I like a four-step approach:
Step 1: Ask them to explain what happened - i.e., what they ate/drank.
Step 2: See if you can find what triggered it. (Refer back to the food log)
Step 3: Reassure the client it's not a big deal. They wouldn't want to do this all the time, but overall they're okay, provided they get back on track.
Step 4: Come up with an action plan.
To give an example, let's say your client, Jenny, ate five donuts when it was a colleague's birthday at work -
We'll jump in at step 3 -
"Okay, so I know that you know eating five donuts in one go is not ideal, but in the grand scheme of things, it won't make a big difference. You wouldn't want to do it every day, but you've been dieting a while now, and those extra calories and carbs possibly did your body some good.
How about we come up with some solutions though, so you're prepared next time something like this happens?
Let's look at doing one of three things -
When you plan your day's food, leave yourself a few hundred calories spare. That way, if something like this does arise, you can have one donut and leave it at that.
When the snacks start being offered around, jump up and head to the photocopier or bathroom then you probably won't get offered one.
Tell yourself you can have a donut, but you're going to wait 30 minutes. If you wait for the 30 and still want it, then have one - it won't make or break your diet. Chances are though, once you've mulled it over, you simply won't fancy it anymore."
This approach makes your client feel like you're fighting their corner and are with them every step of the way, rather than just being the big meanie who says they can't have candy and tells them off for not eating their greens.
Putting It Into Action
What's the next step from here?
I like scheduling an extra session with any clients you know are battling with their diets. Meet in a neutral zone -- perhaps a local coffee shop -- rather than at the gym, which might feel more like your "domain" than theirs and just sit down and have a chat with them.
For other clients who are a little more in-tune with their eating, get them tracking, logging, and checking food labels.
Once you have all your clients zoned in and interested in nutrition, monthly workshops or seminars are the perfect way to swap ideas, build dietary compliance and share success stories.