Nutritional Advice by Personal Trainers: Is it Legal?

Recent litigation as well as an examination of the practices of many personal trainers raises a
number of questions about what fitness professionals may lawfully do to provide nutritional advice to
their clients. These questions and the matters to consider include the following:

1. Many personal trainers seem to provide nutritional advice or at least nutritional
counseling to their clients as part of their provision of fitness services. Is this activity
– Maybe. Almost all of the states in the United States have laws dealing with the
regulation of dietitians, nutritionists or other such individuals with similar titles. Three
forms of credential are typically provided: licensure, statutory forms of certification or
required registration. In many states, the practice of dietetics or some other similar
classification is defined by reference to specified titles or by reference to the provision of
specific delineated services which prohibit the use of these titles or the provision of those
services except by those who meet specific state regulatory requirements. The provision
of such defined services or the use of listed statutory titles is frequently prohibited when
provided or used by non-regulated individuals. Sometimes the practice of nutritional or
dietetic counseling or the use of defined titles is made criminal so as to expose offending
parties to fine or imprisonment as well as legal action to prevent further violations of law.
As a consequence of the foregoing, personal trainers and other fitness professionals may
not use titles reserved for use by those who are licensed or otherwise regulated by state
law. Moreover, fitness professionals may not render those services which are defined by
law to be carried out only by licensed or regulated professionals.

2. Can personal trainers advise clients on what to eat to maintain a healthy lifestyle, as
opposed to providing medically based nutritional advice?
– Probably, but the answer to that question depends on the particular state law in effect in
the jurisdiction where services are provided to fitness clients. In Ohio, for example, the
Ohio Board of Dietetics has issued a rather comprehensive Guideline1 on the subject (see
Guideline infra) which specifies the following: “The [Ohio] Board suggests that fitness
professionals who are not licensed dietitians but who provide general non-medical
nutritional information, describe the service with words like ‘general nutrition or weight
management information.’” In this regard, the Ohio Guideline states: “General nonmedical
nutrition information (the application of basic principles of nutrition to food
selection for purposes of maintaining health) may be provided by anyone so long as they
do not [use titles regulated by law] . . . tending to indicate the practice of dietetics.”
General non-medical nutritional information is defined in the Guideline as information

1. Principles of good nutrition and food preparation;

2. Food to be included in the normal daily diet;

3. The essential nutrients needed by the body;

4. Recommended amounts of the essential nutrients;

5. The action of nutrients on the body;

6. The effects of deficiencies or excesses of nutrients; or

7. Food and supplements that are good sources of essential nutrients.

The Ohio Board of Dietetics also issued further information on the provision of nonmedical
nutritional information in Bulletin #8 dated September 7, 2004 as revised in
2008. If a personal trainer intends to provide service in Ohio, both the Guideline and the
Bulletin should be reviewed along with Ohio state law and regulations before service is
Laws and regulations in some other states make similar distinctions between what is
prohibited and what is not prohibited. For example, in the state of North Carolina, the
Board of Dietetics/Nutrition published a Guideline A For Unlicensed Persons Who Are
Not Otherwise Exempt, infra, to address the previously mentioned issue. In this regard,
the Bulletin states:
As discussed in greater detail below, one does not engage in the practice of
dietetics/nutrition unless that person provides certain nutrition-related services
in the context of a professional-client relationship. It is neither the purpose of
the Dietetics/Nutrition Practice Act nor the intent of the Board to restrict the
expression of general information, guidance or encouragement about food,
lifestyle or dietary practices, whether through general publication—including
books, television, radio, articles or website posts—or in one-on-one
interactions. Thus, individuals are permitted to express information, guidance
or encouragement about food, lifestyle or dietary practices to the public
generally and to any willing and competent adult listener directly without first
obtaining a license so long as they do not hold themselves out as a
dietitian/nutritionist and they do not provide such information, guidance or
encouragement (for free or for compensation) as part of a professional-client
relationship formed to assess individual nutritional needs and then develop and
achieve a specific nutrition-related goal, objective or outcome.
This Guideline was first adopted in 2010 but was apparently last updated in February of
2015 in conjunction with the dismissal of a lawsuit filed in Untied States District Court
which had been filed by a non-licensed individual who provided, among other things, a
web-based advice column on a variety of subjects including food and meal plans.2 This
party challenged the North Carolina regulatory scheme for Dietetics/Nutritionists and
claimed he was entitled under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to
provide such advice even though he was not licensed in that state. His suit was initially
dismissed on procedural grounds but he appealed to the United States Court of Appeals
which reversed the trial court’s ruling and sent the case back to the District Court for
further proceedings.3 Thereafter the lawsuit was dismissed by the plaintiff in conjunction
with some changes to the North Carolina guidelines.

3. How should fitness professionals proceed if they want to provide general, non-medical
advice to clients on diet and nutrition?
– First, fitness professionals need to understand that the law differs from state to state. A
review of specific state laws and regulations is needed. Individualized legal advice on
those laws and regulations is required before service is provided to clients by fitness

– Second, fitness professionals need to stay away from medical type nutritional advice.
Instead, professionals should offer educational type guidance on good nutrition and diet.
– Third, fitness professionals need to check with their insurance agents to make sure they
have proper insurance coverage for their activities in the event that a claim or suit arises
out of this area of service provision.
– Lastly, personal trainers may want to review the services they contemplate providing
with their state’s regulatory agency in advance of service provision so there is no
question on what is permissible and what is not.


This publication is written and published to provide accurate and authoritative information
relevant to the subject matter presented. It is published with the understanding that the author
and publisher are not engaged in rendering legal, medical or other professional services by
reason of the authorship or publication of this work. If legal, medical or other expert assistance
is required, the services of such competent professional persons should be sought. Moreover, in
the field of personal fitness training, the services of such competent professionals must be
Adapted from a Declaration of Principles of the American Bar Association and Committee of
Publishers and Associations


David Herbert

David Herbert

David L. Herbert, Attorney at Law, David L. Herbert & Associates, LLC, Attorneys & Counselors at Law, Canton, Ohio 44718; http://www.herblaw.com/ Editor, The Exercise, Sports and Sports Medicine Standards & Malpractice Reporter PRC Publishing, Inc., Canton, Ohio 44735; http://www.prcpublishing.com/ David L. Herbert, JD is an Ohio lawyer and Editor of The Exercise, Sports and Sports Medicine Standards & Malpractice Reporter now in current form, in its 27th year of publication. He has helped write and/or served as legal counsel for published standards and guidelines developed for the health and fitness industry by ACSM, NSCA, NSF and AFAA. David has worked in law-related fields associated with these and other matters for over 35 years and has provided services to ACSM, NSCA, ACE, AFAA, ISSA, NBFE and numerous other similar organizations. He has made presentations to various audiences for ACSM, AHA, NSCA, NATA, IHRSA, NIRSA, AACVPR, HeartWatchers International, the Cleveland Clinic, as well as many other hospitals, professional organizations and educational facilities. He is the author or co-author of 47 books and book chapters and over a 1,000 articles in the field, including a new fictional book entitled The Personal Trainer; A Tale of Pain, Gain, Greed & Lust, a legal thriller that focuses on the fitness industry’s interaction with the legal system, see, www.thepersonaltraineronline.com.

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