Does Online Nutrition Coaching Really Work?

As well as being a personal trainer in London, I also provide online nutrition coaching in London and across the UK. You might think I’d be somewhat biased when writing a blog about the value of online nutrition advice. My aim is to give a balanced view of the pro’s and cons (and there are some real cons out there in the world of online nutrition advice).

The importance of good nutrition

I don’t think many people would dispute the fact that good nutrition is vital for good health. ┬áThe main issues are what constitutes good nutrition, and who is qualified to give nutrition advice. Bear in mind that what constitutes good nutrition for one person, may not be appropriate for another person, as everyone is different in their needs, lifestyles, genetics, intolerances/allergies, and goals.

‘Automated computer-generated’ advice v ‘human being’ advice

Some online nutrition advice is generated by software. So you fill in a questionnaire, and back comes a nutrition report based on your answers. The sophistication of the software determines the quality of the advice, as well as the nutritional credentials of the software designer. Most software is pretty generalized, so the advice you get will be pretty ‘cut and paste’ rather than tailored to your specific requirements.

However, if your advice is given by a real live human nutritionist, who personally reviews your questionnaire answers, the quality of the advice depends on the quality and training of the nutritionist. It’s not guaranteed to be better than a sophisticated computer-generated report, but if the nutritionist is well qualified and experienced, and bases their advice on sound principles, you’re likely to get better advice than the computer-generated version.

Sadly, not all nutritionists are well qualified, and some are not even qualified at all. And those who are qualified, it’s worth asking what those qualifications are.

Food Diary

When you complete an online questionnaire, you’ll probably be asked to complete a food diary of a typical day’s eating. This gives the nutritionist a valuable insight into your current eating habits.

However, the value of this food diary depends on the accuracy and detail you provide. Most people for instance, under-report the quantities they eat. And it’s very easy to forget to record everything. You might forget to include that afternoon snack, or the sauce you poured over a dish, or that extra pint of beer.

Even if it is accurate, the food diary only gives a snap-shot of a few days, and might not be typical of your eating habits. ┬áBut at least it’s a starting point.

A good questionnaire won’t rely on a food diary alone. It will also ask wider questions about your eating habits, your medical history, any current symptoms, your sleep patterns, emotions & mood, energy levels, exercise and activity levels, goals, your age/gender/height/weight, your history of weight changes (which I call the body-weight timeline), and your beliefs/feelings about food.

And it’s not just about what you eat, but when you eat. So the food diary should reveal the times you’re eating, so the nutritionist can see if you’re missing breakfast or lunch, or eating a big meal very late at night.

Claims and Disclaimers

When you’re considering an online nutrition service, look out for the claims they make, and also the disclaimers they set out in their small print or terms & conditions.

I would be very wary of claims like “we’ll detox your system”, “cure your cancer, diabetes etc”, or even “prevent you getting cancer” etc. Detox diets are quackery, and best avoided.
Also beware of any nutritionists who advise you to abandon your medication or ignore what doctors have told you.

It’s not in the power of any nutritionist to cure or prevent cancer. Sure, good nutrition can reduce the risk of getting certain types of cancer and a whole range of other medical conditions, but that’s very different from saying “prevent cancer”. And if you have any medical condition, you should see your GP and if necessary get referred to a medical specialist. People who abandon the medical profession and put all their faith in alternative therapies or nutritionists do so at their peril.

If you’re not happy with your GP, find a better one. But equally, if you have a serious medical condition, there’s nothing wrong with seeking the advice of a nutritionist at the same time, as long as you keep your GP/specialist informed of what you’re doing and the advice you’re following. GP’s are not as well trained in nutrition as they should be, and their preferred treatment is often to prescribe drugs rather than give sound nutrition advice.

If a nutritionist recommends you buy diet pills, my advice is to run a mile in the opposite direction, and have nothing more to do with them.

When you check the small print, you should find a statement along the lines of “this is not a substitute for medical advice from your GP or medical specialist. Always inform your doctor of any changes to your diet or exercise regime”. This is reassuring, and tells you that the nutritionist is aware of their limitations, and professional enough to inform you of the need to go to your doctor with any medical conditions.

Dangerous Nutritional Advice

Here are some examples of bad advice that should set the alarm bells ringing:

“Drink 3 litres of water a day to detoxify your body” (excessive water drinking can lead to hyponatraemia, a serious medical condition where your electrolyte balance has been disturbed, which can cause death)

“Cut out all carbs from your diet” (any diet that cuts out a major food group is very suspect)

“Reduce your calorie intake to under 1,500 calories a day” (starvation diets are futile, cause nutritional deficiencies, lower your immune system, cause the body to hoard body fat, and many other health problems in addition)

“Buy our expensive vitamin/mineral pills instead of eating fruit and vegetables” (a complete rip-off, unless of course you’ve been medically diagnosed with a particular vitamin/mineral deficiency and prescribed supplements by your doctor, who in any case would not advise you to stop eating fruit/veg)

“Buy our sachets of special soups” (another money-making scheme, avoid like the plague)

“Eat as much protein as you like” (this can lead to a range of medical conditions)

“You’ll lose a stone in two weeks” (rapid weight loss is not healthy. Even if you’re obese, it’s better to lose weight steadily, and keep it off. A good rate of weight loss is 1-2 lbs a week, or up to 4 lbs a week if you’re morbidly obese, in the initial stages)

What does good nutritional advice look like?

How do you know if the advice you get is sound?

The level of detail you’re asked in the questionnaire is a good initial indication. But it’s no guarantee that the advice itself will be sound.

The absence of wild health claims, promises of rapid results, or a requirement to buy expensive pills or packets of soup, is a good start.

You should receive advice that recommends you eat a wide range of natural foods, including all the main food groups (carbohydrates, protein, fat, fruit & veg), and advises you to avoid all junk food, refined processed food, and sugary drinks/snacks. The advice should refer specifically to the things you mention in your questionnaire answers.

The best kind of advice will empower you to take charge of your eating, and arm you with strategies that take into account your job, your lifestyle, your budget, your medical conditions, and your goals. In other words, a holistic approach that’s tailored to you.

And it should point out that nutrition is not the only thing you need to get right for your optimum health, fitness and well-being. You should also get regular exercise, good sleep, rest and relaxation, and manage your stress levels too.

So does online nutrition coaching work?

It depends on the quality of the advice. But it also depends on how good you are at following that advice. Good coaching will give you the knowledge you need, but you still need the motivation, accountability, and self-belief.

So a one-off report probably won’t help much with the motivation and accountability. A continuing coaching system with food diary feedback, encouragement from your coach, and tackling problems as they arise during the period of the coaching, these will help with the motivation and accountability, and self-belief, and the quality of the follow-up support will influence the quality of the outcome: whether you achieve your health & fitness goals.

Have you had online nutrition coaching? Or even seen a nutritionist face to face? Share your experiences in the comments section below….