Welcome to our “Good Question!” series, where we answer the best questions from the 3DMJ community in blog format. Today, I’ll be answering the question “What path should someone take if they want to be a health and diet coach?”. A great question in and of itself, and for some additional context, the person also said the following: “Since the topic of flexible dieting/reverse dieting and evidence based science for nutrition is relatively new, it’s extremely hard to find a reputable institution that offers a program that isn’t outdated.”
First, congratulations on seeking a new career. It’s fantastic you are trying to determine the best path to success and want to make sure you are using the most up to date evidence to inform your future practice. With that said, I’m going to throw you a curve ball and tell you it probably doesn’t matter as much as you think if your education program is out of date. There is a great quote by Albert Einstein I want to share with you:
“The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think” – Albert Einstein
Critical thinking never goes out of date. Staying up to date with the latest research in your field ensures you can provide the best service to your clients, but that is accomplished with critical thinking. What you really want out of a program is to become resourceful enough to identify and utilize the best evidence.
For example, you mentioned flexible dieting and reverse dieting are relatively new. However, flexible dieting is based on research that came out in the early 1990’s showing black and white views of dieting lead to failure, while flexible mindsets lead to success. “Flexible dieting” has become popular in the fitness industry in the form of “IIFYM” but, that’s not always flexible (I’ve seen some rigid IIFYM’ers). Likewise, “reverse dieting” if it keeps you in a deficit after a competition, slowly rebuilds calories and keeps you stage lean for a long period, is counterproductive and isn’t grounded in science. If anything, the data suggests getting out of a deficit and into a surplus and gaining fat back (at a reasonable pace) is the fastest way to increase energy expenditure, get healthy again and start making gains. I point this out, because the only way to know what flexible dieting really is, how to implement it, and how to evaluate reverse dieting claims, is with critical thinking. To tell the difference between correct and incorrect information you must learn to logically evaluate claims; seek out relevant evidence, analyze it, then assess whether it is accurate.
Even educated leaders who preach an evidence based approach in our industry (myself included), are wrong from time to time. The most important thing I can teach my audience is not to memorize facts or to take my claims as gospel or “rules”. Rather, the most important thing I can do to help my audience is to model and teach critical thinking.
I wrote an article about this here: https://www.denovonutrition.com/do-you-have-a-scientific-attitude/
So, getting back to your path. A degree can teach you concepts and information relevant to a field, and ideally good professors will challenge you and teach you to be a logical, free thinker. This is especially true in your graduate education. The prestige of a good school is nice to have, but really won’t make much of a difference in your career. Contact people who have gone through various programs, and ask them about their experience. Was it dictatorial where you learn only one “right” way of doing things? Or is it an environment that fosters creative thinking, questioning established thought and developing new solutions and methods? You want the latter. Beyond that, if it is an accredited school providing a legitimate degree, you are good to go. Coursework across accredited programs don’t differ that much these days. At the Masters and PhD level, the important aspects are less related to coursework, and more about your interactions with the professors who should be mentoring you. If you do want to get into a PhD (which means doing research), make sure you get research experience and complete a thesis in your Masters, or the transition will be difficult.
Now with all of that said, you need to ask yourself if you are placing education (and knowledge) on too high of a pedestal if your goal is to become a coach. If you have no interest in producing evidence based content for an audience or doing research, you may not need an advanced degree. While an advanced degree should teach you critical thinking, you can certainly learn that skill outside of the university system. In an Instagram post a while back, I outlined the most important qualities for coaches. While knowledge made the top 5, it was preceded by other more important qualities (in my opinion): https://www.instagram.com/p/BFF2KAVMWNU/?taken-by=helms3dmj
Since that video, I thought about it more and fleshed out a top 5 list (in order this time) of the most important qualities for a coach. Each category has sub-categories with brief descriptions. If you know what you need to learn and become, hopefully that will help you plan the path to it!
- Desire to help others – If the primary goal is to help people, and this supersedes your ego, you’ll be set.
- Work ethic – Nothing comes without hard work, you must be able to grind when needed.
- Overcoming fear – Fear short circuits your work ethic, no point in grinding if you are convinced you’ll fail.
- Emotional Intelligence
- Empathy – You must be able to put yourself in your clients shoes to understand, respect and help them.
- Integrity – Follow your principles. When you screw up, admit it, learn from it and make it right.
- Communication – Set expectations, ask for feedback, listen, ask questions, create an environment of trust.
- Critical Thinking
- Resourcefulness – Use the tools and information around you, think outside the box, find creative solutions.
- Patience – Problem solving takes thought, developing critical thinking is a lifelong practice.
- Logic – Spot fallacies, identify the language of dogma and hyperbole, identify gurus (i.e., people who never admit lack of knowledge or errors).
- Deliberate – You don’t learn if you don’t pay attention, see each situation and client as an opportunity to learn.
- Experimental – Change one variable at a time when possible, track variables in a systematic, controlled manner.
- Specific – Target your niche, there are plenty of clients out there, specializing is faster than generalizing.
- Up to date – Knowledge evolves, have a method of staying current, research review, journal access etc.
- Conceptual – Understand the concepts behind information, don’t create “rules”, know the hierarchy of evidence.
- Integrated – Research should go from Mechanistic -> Applied -> Practice, focus on applied research.