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Cut Through the Hype: What Does Healthy Eating Really Mean?

Many dietary plans have a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Eat these foods!”

“Avoid these foods!”

“Follow these eating guidelines and you will lose weight, improve your energy and health!”

These approaches disempower clients and remove their personal responsibility in choosing foods. As a coach, you want to educate your clients and help them make good nutritional choices down the road when they may no longer be working with you. Most of all, you want them to have a healthy relationship with food, which rarely comes from demonizing foods and labelling them “bad.” By teaching clients simple, easy-to-follow principles, you empower your clients to take responsibility over their food choices and increase their compliance rate.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Understand why more nutritional information is not serving you or your clients.
  2. Develop a clear understanding of simple principles that can make a profound impact on your clients’ dietary choices.
  3. Recognize why telling clients what they “should” or “shouldn’t” eat can backfire and decrease compliance.
  4. Understand how to guide clients towards making healthier choices.

What Dietary Recommendations Are Best for Your Client?

Nowadays, clients and trainers alike are suffering from information overload. There are numerous articles and blogs written daily that site studies “proving” that a particular nutrient is good for you, while others show that it is detrimental. From fish oil to fruit and everything in between, there is no one nutritional paradigm that everyone can agree upon. In the meantime, trainers and clients are left to deal with the aftermath and try to sort out the answer to a seemingly simple question: what is healthy eating?

That question may not be so simple after all. Different branches of nutritional science are investigating whether our genes may dictate the foods that are best for our health. Others are looking at how we can manipulate gene expression through consumption or avoidance of certain nutrients. These fields of study are still in their infancy and are far from conclusive, and with the growing levels of obesity and other dietary-related chronic conditions, clients need our help now!

The biggest challenge with nutritional choices for clients is compliance. Even clients who generally know healthier from unhealthier options often see nutrition as an either-or phenomenon. Either they eat 100% wholefood meals or they fall off the bandwagon and eat out of boxes, bags and other containers. Clients fail to see a middle ground that they can stick with long-term.

Additionally, the Law of Psychological Reactance works against client compliance and motivation as soon as you tell them which foods they can no longer have. This law basically states that people put up resistance when their options are reduced. Tell a kid they can’t have a cookie, and that is all he thinks about eating. Adults are no different. We want what we can’t have. By telling clients they can’t have something, you increase the likelihood that they will desire it even more. However, by providing general guidelines and giving clients the freedom of choice, they are more motivated to make healthy choices, as they do not feel limited.

While research is being done to sort out many of the specific details, there are two foundational nutrition concepts that you can use with your clients immediately to start to tip the health scale in their favor and increase client enjoyment and compliance:

  1. The Nutritional Continuum
  2. Dirty Dozen Plusand Clean Fifteen

1. The Nutritional Continuum

This continuum is outlined in my book The R.A2.D. Triad: Transform Your Mind and Body and incorporates the principles of Sensory Overload vs. Sensory Balance and Nutritional Deprivation vs. Nutritional Balance (2010). Rather than dictating what foods clients can and cannot have or having them stress over eliminating their favorite foods, start with encouraging clients to choose more “fresh” foods.

You may need to provide some education to your clients on what eating fresh foods means. If your client typically eats packaged foods, knowing what “fresh” is may be a bit foreign. Teach them that fresh foods look more like they were just pulled out of the ground, picked from a tree, or bought from a butcher shop. A whole apple is fresher than applesauce, which is fresher than apple pie filling. A chicken breast is fresher than chicken nuggets. Almonds are fresher than almond butter, which is fresher than almond cookies.

Fresher foods have more nutritional value and fewer detrimental ingredients in general. Using this concept with clients is an effective, low-stress technique, especially for those who are nervous about remaining compliant or who have failed many times at changing their eating habits. There are no rules or food lists. There is just a guiding principle to start shifting their choices.

Sensory Overload vs. Sensory Balance

Processed foods fall into the sensory overload (left) side of the continuum (see Chart A below). These foods are full of sugars, preservatives, and additives which are often addictive in nature and drive us to eat more of them. Think about kettle corn, for example. It is salty and sweet and most people can just keep snacking on it because the taste combination drives us to eat more. Foods that contain lots of processed sugars are high offenders on this continuum. Sugar is stimulating to the body and the accompanying insulin spikes and drops drive people to consume more and more of it.
On the other end of the spectrum (sensory balance) are fresher foods. While people may enjoy lettuce or cucumbers, I have yet to meet a client that just can’t stop eating them. These foods provide a balance of water, fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Nutritional Deprivation vs. Nutritional Balance

The human body does not simply need calories or the right balance of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats). It also requires micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.), which are not discussed in many dietary protocols. Without the right balance of micronutrients, the body is driven to continue eating. If your client has a highly processed diet, she may complain that she tries to cut back on the food but is always hungry. Her body is signaling that she needs nutrients and by stimulating the appetite, her body hopes that she will eat something healthy. However, if she reaches for another bowl of ice cream, the hunger may continue, as she did not provide her body with the nutrients she needs.
By encouraging clients to eat foods that are on the nutritional balanced side of the continuum, your clients may notice that their feelings of hunger diminish, as their bodies are finally getting the nutrients they need.

Chart A: Nutrition Continuum

For the sake of illustration, the above chart shows this continuum for fruits, vegetables and proteins. Fats and other food groups have not been included, but the chart above should give you an idea of how you can start to put foods on a continuum of health versus labeling them as “good” or “bad.” Have clients start shifting more of their selections over to the right side of the continuum while still allowing them the freedom of choice in food selection.

2. Dirty Dozen Plus and Clean Fifteen

The Environmental Workers Group publishes their Dirty Dozen Plusand Clean Fifteenlists (April 2016). These lists are comprised of the twelve produce items and fifteen produce items with the most and least pesticide residue, respectively. These lists can be used to help clients further refine their food choices. As clients are making fresher choices, we want to make sure that they aren’t increasing their consumption of environmental toxins by consuming conventionally grown strawberries for example, which are currently the worst offenders on the list. In 2016, the EWG found that a single sample of strawberries had seventeen different pesticides. Some of the foods in the Dirty Dozen Pluslist contained pesticides even when they were peeled and washed.

The foods with the highest pesticide content include:

Clients may not have the ability to purchase everything organically (which means that it was grown without pesticides, fungicides, or other chemical fertilizers). Organic foods tend to be more expensive and rightfully so, as they are higher in minerals and anti-oxidants and significantly lower in pesticide residue (EWG, April 2016). Fortunately, foods on the Clean Fifteen™ list do not necessarily need to be bought organically, as they contain the lowest levels of pesticides.

Foods on this list include:

Keep It Simple

Client adherence to making changes is high when the change is relatively small, they have choice throughout the process, and they have confidence that they can succeed. Remember this as you guide your clients in making healthier food choices. Helping clients eat healthier does not need to be complex or rigid. Provide clients some general guidelines, like the ones above, and allow them to choose their foods. Not only will this increase the likelihood that they will enjoy eating healthier but it will also encourage them to make a lasting change.


Baker, B. P., Benbrook, C. M., III, E. G., & Benbrook, K. L. (2002). Pesticide residues in conventional, integrated pest management (IPM)-grown and organic foods: insights from three US data sets. Food Additives & Contaminants, 19(5), 427-446.

EWG's 2016 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. (2016, April). Retrieved from

Zmijewski, C. (2010). The R.A2.D. Triad: Transform Your Mind and Body. Northglenn, CO: Lulu, Inc. & Goddess Athlete.