How to Change Your Client’s Diet Without a Meal Plan

D is for diet! by Gloria García, licensed under Creative Commons
D is for diet! by Gloria García, licensed under Creative Commons

Programming a training plan for all of your clients already takes up enough of your time. Especially as a new trainer who doesn’t have years of knowledge and experience behind you. Each individual offers a new challenge; a challenge that requires extensive planning in order to provide your client with the best experience possible.

And then you have to help them with their nutrition.

In an ideal world, we would work with a team of nutritionists, massage therapists, physiotherapists, chiropractors, doctors, and orthopedic surgeons. Everyone would work in the same place where clients can receive all of these services without having to drive all over town. Everyone would work together effectively and communicate freely about their plans for mutual clients.

This is not an ideal world.

In real life, you, a personal trainer, is also expected to handle all of your clients’ dietary concerns. You are also expected to have a solid network of reputable health professionals that you can recommend, if your clients need such services (which is a whole other article for another day). When it comes to nutritional help, clients will often ask about being provided a meal plan.

The mystical meal plan can be a complicated beast. On the one hand, the ability to control every single thing that is put into your client’s mouth is a powerful tool to take advantage of. However, the simplicity of this theoretical practice is met with a whole host of issues in reality.

The number one issue being that it takes a whole lot of time. Time that is better spent elsewhere.

Other than being a personal inconvenience, there are many other issues that can appear on the client’s end as well.

  • They don’t like the food that was chosen.
  • It’s too much food.
  • It’s too little food.
  • There’s not enough _______.
  • There’s too much _______.
  • Why can’t I have _______?

So what can you do instead of creating a meal plan?

First, think about what stage your client is currently at in their nutritional health. Most people will fall into one of two categories. Those who eat terribly (lots of processed food, eating fast food, little fruits and vegetables) and those who think they eat reasonably well, but are still experiencing weight gain and other health issues.

For those who eat terribly, it’s easy. Simply work them towards replacing some of their processed foods with some protein and vegetables. If they eat a lot of fast food, get them towards making their own lunch or dinner on more occasions. For some who eats fast food for lunch every day, a simple sandwich and a piece of fruit can have a profound impact.

It doesn’t even have to be every day. Start with two days out of the week and work from there.

It is very important that these individuals receive very easy to follow and clear cut instructions. One of the reasons why they may eat out so often is that they simply never learned how to cook. Having the ability to give your clients pointers on how to make food palatable will do wonders for your success rate. By creating a simple cooking how-to guide and recipe book (part of the systems development that I outline here), intervention for these individuals could be nothing more than emailing them a prepared file.

For individuals who believe that they eat reasonably well, it may seem like you would need to provide them with more specific guidance, but don’t start there just yet. If they truly are eating the right foods, they may just be eating too much for their current activity levels. Work with them on proper portion control. Precision Nutrition offers a very simple and easy to use guide here. By using the size of their hand as a reference, your clients can roughly control their caloric intake without having to change the way that they’re currently eating.

These individuals may also need education on why some foods may not be as healthy as they believe. For instance, granola is something that many believe is good for them, but it is often loaded with added sugar. Offer them a list of suitable substitutes (for example, oatmeal or eggs in the place of granola for breakfast) and you have a quick and easy intervention that will lead them towards the right path.

What to do when they insist on receiving a meal plan

Sometimes, you will get clients who just insist on getting a set meal plan. To help avoid the issues listed above, try working with your client to build a meal plan, together. Sit down and come up with 2-3 options for breakfast, lunch and dinner, using foods that they choose. Have an assortment of snacks that they can reach for in between meals, if need be. Now, all they have to do is choose one meal from each option throughout the day. They end up being happy because it’s foods that they have chosen, while you end up happy because you haven’t spent hours of your time creating a meal plan that isn’t being followed.

Whatever intervention you choose to do with your clients, it is absolutely vital that you regularly check in and follow up with them to ensure that the intervention is actually working for them. Constantly reassess and adjust.

If, for some reason, these simple interventions are not working (and you are sure that they are actually trying), then this is where you would begin to get into more specifics like calorie or macronutrient counting. However, aim for the small, easy gains first. Your clients will see success because they are manageable changes that are not invasive to their entire lifestyle. You will be a much more effective trainer because you will have more time to recover, plan, and keep all of your clients accountable.

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