Here’s the unfortunate reality: Most educational pathways spend very little time addressing: 1) holistic and preventative nutrition, 2)  fitness and sports nutrition.

That’s because most academic programs are rooted in institutional nutrition (i.e. big food companies) or clinical nutrition (i.e. hospitals and medical institutions).

Why the bias? Well, that’s historically where the money (through university partnerships), the research (through research grants), and the jobs come from.

However, this is slowly starting to change.

Many universities – as well as major professional organizations in health and fitness – have seen that people are really getting interested in holistic and preventative nutrition. Also sports and fitness nutrition. So they’re starting to offer programs in these areas.

Still, many of these programs are young and finding their way. Which is why, if you love fitness and sport, you have to be more discriminating when choosing.

Here’s another part of the story.

Fitness organizations (health clubs, workout centers, gyms) and sports organizations (amateur and professional teams) have long prohibited trainers and coaches from talking nutrition. This was primarily motivated by liability fears. “Will we get sued?!?”

It turns out that most of these fears have been unfounded. As we talk about in part 2, fitness and sport professionals can discuss nutrition with clients within their scope of practice.

Again, while the nitpicky details vary by state and providence – and will of course depend on your own personal education, experience, and skills – here’s the bottom line:

Fitness and sports professionals are allowed to offer eating resources, lessons, demonstrations, handouts, and more to otherwise healthy clients and athletes.

What they’re not allowed to do is “prescribe” or “treat” or “diagnose”. And definitely not to “cure”.

Even more, according to the American Council on Exercise, not only can trainers and coaches nutrition with clients, they should discuss it. The rising tide of obesity makes this imperative.

The truth is, as a professional, you’re uniquely positioned to lead the charge toward healthier living for everyone. If you don’t feel qualified, upgrading your education is the obvious next step.

Not surprisingly, many certification organizations have stepped up and are offering nutrition courses, specifically geared towards the needs of fitness professionals.

In most of these fitness and sport nutrition certifications, you learn the fundamentals of nutrition science. Things like:

  • food intake,
  • digestion,
  • absorption,
  • macronutrients,
  • micronutrients,
  • body weight,
  • body composition, and
  • performance.

Some of the best sports nutrition certification programs and fitness nutrition certification programs also include change psychology, coaching practice, and business development sections to help you apply this new knowledge.

After all, what good is knowing more about nutrition if you: a) can’t help your clients follow it, b) are out of business in 6 months.

Costs for most fitness and sports nutrition certification programs are manageable, ranging from $300 to around $1,000. Many courses are offered online, and most have flexible start and end dates, allowing you to complete them despite a busy work schedule. And most exam questions are multiple-choice and true/false; some also include a case study component.

The main drawback with many fitness and sport nutrition certifications is that they may be on the “thin” side.

Some are very short (as short as a weekend) and offer few opportunities for feedback, peer interaction, or follow up. By their nature, these are less than comprehensive and may leave you with more questions than answers.

Others may be purely theoretical, teaching you the science without giving opportunities to apply your new knowledge to real-life situations. So even with greater knowledge, you may feel powerless to help your clients make lasting change.

So, which programs do we think are worth considering?

Again, we turn to our expert panel. We asked them “What’s the best fitness & sports nutrition certification?” While they shared dozens of options, these are the ones they mentioned most often.

The Best Fitness Nutrition Certification Programs

American Council on Exercise

The ACE is the largest nonprofit fitness certification, education, and training organization in the world. It offers two streams of certification in nutrition: a fitness nutrition course and another in sports nutrition for health and performance. Each provides a textbook with online quizzes for evaluation; the first also includes an online instructional component designed in part by a dietitian. The ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialty Certification is available exclusively to students who hold a current NCCA-accredited certification or an equivalent professional credential. Certifications do not expire and students earn CECs on completion of the courses. You can also certify as a Health Coach; this program (intended for health professionals in a variety of fields) emphasizes the role of behavioral change.

American Fitness Professionals and Associates

The AFPA Nutrition and Wellness Certification program teaches the fundamentals of nutrition science with an emphasis on weight management and nutrition through the life cycle. It includes a consulting component along with worksheets and questionnaires for clients. Students have six months to complete the program and there are no academic prerequisites to enroll. The exam may be taken online or by mail and a passing grade of 85% is required.

International Society of Sports Nutrition

The I.S.S.N. offers several respected certification exams to qualified professionals in a number of health-related fields, from fitness pros to nurse practitioners. Applicants for the advanced exam (CISSN) need a 4-year university degree, typically in a related field, although exceptions are made for those with enough relevant experience. The more basic SNS certification provides simpler working knowledge for personal trainers and fitness advocates and does not require a previous degree. Note that these certifications are not educational programs, but credentials signifying a minimum level of competence in this area. So to qualify, you must take courses elsewhere.

CSSD

The CSSD credential is available only to Registered Dietitians. Note that this is not a sports nutrition certification, per se, but an examination you can take to prove competence in sports dietetics. A self-assessment module prepares students for the exam, and CEUs are available on completion of this module. There is no instruction or textbook, as it is assumed you should have the relevant background before taking the test. In addition you’re required to work for a minimum of 2 years as a dietitian and accumulate 1,500 hours of specialty practice,

International Sports Society Association Fitness Nutrition

I.S.S.A.’s Fitness Nutrition Certification teaches the fundamentals of nutrition and how these apply to client success. It also offers instruction in collecting and evaluating client information, designing individualized nutrition strategies, and outcome-based nutrition coaching. The program is two to eight months long, and students complete it online on their own schedule. A text is available in hard copy and online and there is also a student forum for interacting with peers.

The National Academy of Sports Medicine

The National Academy of Sports Medicine is one of the most respected professional organizations in the industry. It offers a Fitness Nutrition Specialist program with instruction in the fundamentals of nutrition science and how this information applies to weight loss and performance. The course is offered online, and includes client handouts. Those with the requisite background can take the exam without enrolling in the course (at a lower cost). Graduates praise the science component of the program, while some fault the program for a lack of practical, hands-on instruction.

The National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association

NESTA’s Fitness Nutrition Coach course teaches the basic components of nutrition and their role in human health and offers instruction in assessing your clients’ nutritional needs, along with practical suggestions for improving performance. There are no prerequisites to enroll. Students have one year after their start to take the exam, and a mark of 80% is needed to pass. There is a $95 fee to re-take the test if you do not pass by the second attempt, but once you pass there is no recertification.

Precision Nutrition Professional Certification

The Precision Nutrition Certification includes two main components — the science of nutrition, and the art of coaching. The textbook incorporates numerous case studies and samples, and also provides worksheets and questionnaires that can be used directly with clients. The self-paced CEU-granting program is offered online, and there’s an active student forum with input and instruction from PN staffers — including authors Dr. John Berardi and Ryan Andrews, RD — as well as peers.   Graduates praise the comprehensive and detailed text as well as the thorough and systematic approach to behavioral change. A second level of the program will guide students through a coaching internship. There are no prerequisites to enroll, but those lacking any background in science may find the program challenging.

Note: When it comes to the basic science of nutrition, each of these courses teaches the fundamentals. Some offer much more, including a more robust hands-on or coaching related component. That’s why it pays to read the fine print and ask questions.

Also Note: Some of these programs require academic or other prerequisites, while others are open to anyone who wishes to enroll. Your previous background will determine your options.