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Research Shmesearch—5 Tips for Nutrition Coaches

Last week, the New York Times published an article called “Why It Is So Hard to Figure Out What to Eat.” In it, the authors discuss the dearth of quality nutrition research. This is something that I, as a fitness and nutrition coach, have been thinking about for some time.

Both fitness and nutrition research are limited by people’s ability and desire to stick with any given program. If a person is asked to not eat foods containing added sugar for 8 weeks, and they sneak just a half of a teaspoon in their coffee every morning, their results are moot. Fitness studies are notoriously homogenous, often focusing on white male college athletes (the folks university researchers tend to have access to). Those results might not be relevant to a post-menopausal African American woman. I could go on and on about how correlation is not causation or about poorly designed studies or a general lack of funding in fitness and nutrition research, but that’s not the point of this article.

Instead, I want to focus on what we, as nutrition coaches and as human beings, can do in this age of media saturation. What can we do when every other week a new study comes out that seems to contradict the studies that came before it and fly in the face of everything you think you know? How can you help people with their goals if you’re not sure what the best course of action is?

  1. Coach the person, not the change. People have individual needs, desires, and abilities. What works for one person might not work for another. A paleo diet is never going to work for someone who is environmentally conscious just as intermittent fasting is never going to work for someone with a history of anorexia. Food is social, cultural, and means different things to different people. Just like people have different relationships to their families, they also have different relationships to food. And just as we shouldn’t judge how people relate to their families, we also shouldn’t judge their relationships to food. Saying that “food is fuel” is all well and good, but food isn’t eaten in a vacuum. Food is fuel until you get to your Dziadzi’s house and he’s made your favorite plum dumplings. Mmmmmm….knedle….

  2. Don’t limit things, add things. Instead of asking people to cut out certain foods (carbs, fats, sugar, etc.), ask them to add foods in. Adding fruits and vegetables or “eating your colors” can help people increase their intake of nutritious foods. This might automatically decrease their intake of less nutritious foods. (People can only eat so much, after all.) Focusing on the positives rather than the negatives can also help people maintain a healthy relationship with food. Focusing on what they can’t have might make people feel deprived and more likely to rebel against the changes they’re trying to make.

  3. Let people make their own decisions. You might know that adding vegetables is a really smart move, but that might not be the first thing that someone who eats at McDonald’s five nights a week wants to work on. Maybe they want to work on drinking more water throughout the day. Or maybe they want to work on portion control — eating a small instead of a large order of fries. Letting people make their own decisions has a buy-in value that you might not be able to get otherwise. At the end of a nutrition session, I’ll often summarize what we talked about, recommend a few different courses of action based on what we discussed, and then ask the person where they want to start. I’ll help people adjust their goals so they’re realistic and actionable, but I don’t choose people’s goals for them.

  4. Wait for mastery before asking for anything else. If someone hasn’t been able to add vegetables to dinner consistently, asking them to add a second vegetable to dinner won’t work. You can make the goal smaller (or change it altogether) until the person is able to consistently comply with the task. Piling on another similar task is like building a house on a shaky foundation. That shit is going to fall.

  5. Don’t assume that people are experts. Be specific about what they need to do to successfully meet their goal and give them the tools to do it. Explain what a vegetable is, where they can find them, and how they can prepare them. It might seem ludicrous to you that someone doesn’t know how to cook kale, but plenty of people don’t know how to cook kale. Nutrition professionals usually know how to prepare a ton of healthy food and how to find good sources of information to draw upon when they need more support. College professors might not have those tools because they’ve been focusing on getting a doctorate in literary theory and are working on historically contextualizing Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. In short, they have other stuff to do.

Since my blog is usually geared toward non-experts, I want to take a second to talk about how a non-nutrition coach can apply these tips to their own lives. In general, you don’t want to make radical changes that don’t fit into your lifestyle. You do want to add in healthy and nutritious foods. If you’re not sure what those are, talk to a nutrition coach. Choose your own goals — don’t go by what your mother/best friend/Dr. Oz says you should do. Once you succeed at your present goal for a few weeks, add something else. And ask for help from a qualified professional if you don’t have the time, energy, or resources to learn everything you need to know about nutrition and your food choices.

Have tips to share? Add them in the comments!

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