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Nutrition coaching: science or art?

Posted on | Last updated 02-08-2016

In the world of internet nutrition, there seems to be two sides to the camp: one that propose nutrition coaching is a science, and the other that propose it’s an art. Science guys look for hundreds of peer reviewed references before considering an idea where as the art guys are more likely to use something that worked for them on their journey.

Now nutritional science, in some respects, is unequivocal. We can’t argue with it. A good example of the power of nutritional science would be the idea of calorie, that we should eat less to lose weight, eat more to gain weight, and hover close to maintenance to maintain weight. That protein is king and very important for optimal human health, that fibre is essential to the digestive system, that certain nutrients are toxic in certain amounts, and a number of other ideas are a given, all thanks to the scientific world.

There are also a lot of things which we know are flat out wrong, unsupported and even dangerous.

But what’s interesting after all the science is considered, is this word CONTEXT.

Many talk of the word context - looking at an individual, assessing what is needed, and implementing the plan that is right for them - but, in the world where hard science is king, context appears to be mostly an afterthought. Can you back up your clients’ approach with a meta analysis?

Now the reason this is potentially problematic, is you need to understand WAY more to be a top coach. Yes we know the core variables of nutrition and how the body responds to what we eat, BUT, we need to understand the plethora of dynamics that actually affect the process. Family, lifestyle, time constraints, sleep, mind-set, belief system, finances, underlying health, resources, friendship circle, and more.

From the outside it seems like a successful coach needs to know how to set someone’s calories, set their macros, give them an idea of a diet plan, give them a few lifestyle tips, and the rest is history. Do this, it will work, these are the numbers your body requires, go implement it. I know many coaches that do this - that is their approach to nutrition, period.

But without accounting for all the above, how successful is that client truly going to be, honestly? I would argue that that will work for a select few – the driven people who are 100% ready to change. It often works with bodybuilders and other athletes, in my experience, because they are so driven towards their goal that they will do anything they are told. General population, though? That’s another story.

If we as coaches don’t look at the wider picture, can we really help that many people achieve success with their health, weight, and fitness goals? I would argue, with what I know now as a practitioner, that the hard nutritional science stuff is less than 50% of the coaching equation. In fact I think that this is why so many diets have so many hard core advocates.

These people, somehow, were hugely affected by the diet that they followed, be it paleo, primal, IIFYM, weight watchers, slimming world, etc and they had great success. Was it the diet or nutrition plan / principals they followed, or their readiness to change? We’re they just in that right place, and the timing was perfect, and regardless of how unsupported the diet was and what it restricted and to what extreme, it worked, cause the person was just ready and they could ADHERE to it.

They might have also had the right mentor, coach or peer group behind what they were doing; they were getting solid guidance, support, motivation, help and ideas to help them with this change. That was enough for them to get it done, and be on the road to success, however poor the diet or principals they were following were.


"That begs the question, what’s more important, the science of the diet or intervention, or the coach or environment?".

The answer is, it’s both in different ratios depending on who you have in front of you. That’s why I’ve spent years analysing different diets and nutrition concepts, and why they have worked. We can all argue what is right and wrong when it comes to nutrition based on our current belief structure, but the reality is we can and should be learning from everything around us, while still keeping on your critical thinking cap.

Take the weight watchers diet for example, quite often an awful quality of diet, but it has some solid things that ground it scientifically, like controlling for calorie intake, peer support and ease of practice so when followed to the letter, people are successful. It’s even sustainable for the right person and really, that’s the same for just about everything.

Paleo, primal, IIFYM, vegan, vegetarian, zone, low carb, ketogenic, caveman, eatwell, are just some of the diets we know of and that have solid advocates, and we can learn from them all, they all have pros and cons. And this is one of the skills of a great nutrition coach, being able to pull out all the benefits and see the value in some driving principals around eat diet concept, rather than closing off our minds cause it doesn’t follow X, Y and Z that is linked to nutritional science.

Is carbohydrate backloading so ‘optimal’ that it improves your results by itself? No, but if you can stick to it, it’s better than any other diet for YOU that you couldn’t stick to.

People are complex things, we don’t just follow and do, we feel and respond. That’s why some people have success following one thing, and another doesn’t. It’s the context of them, the context of the diet, and the context of the situation. So look at yourself, or look at how you coach, and ask yourself, honestly, do you coach context, or are you coaching an ideal, something you believe to be right, and that the person in front of you should fit that ideal, fit that mould?

It’s often through maturity and experience that we learn these things. As a coach now, my coaching process is far simpler and more direct than it has ever been. The reality is, most people don’t know about food, or care to, they just want an end goal, so how do we package all this nutrition stuff up in a way that works for them?

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter why a diet works, so long as it does (so long as you tell the client exactly that – that there’s nothing magic going on other than adherence – we don’t want to accidentally create another zealot).

It’s not just about a diet, it’s not just about food and movement, it’s much more than that. We are providing for peoples wants, desires and dreams, and have to factor in their beliefs, emotions, finances, values, resources, ability, want, will, and so much more. So consider how you coach, or how you think, feel and do, and are you using the tools in the right way to provide for the journey, which will result in the end goal.

If not, and you need help and guidance from people that have been there, and done it, consider our online coaching course, the BTN Academy. We don’t just teach nutritional science, but we teach you the skills to analyse and work around the diverse amount of context you will encounter on your journey as a coach. Click here for more info.

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