Can something as seemingly innocent as offering nutritional guidance be illegal? Yes.
Health coaches tread a thin line when creating meal plans for their clients. If your guidance is flagged as outside your scope of practice it qualifies as medical advice and is illegal.
Case in point… In 2017 a certified health coach named Heather Kokesch Del Castillo was hit with a cease and desist order and directed to pay $750 in fines because she was allegedly providing medical recommendations. She was threatened with jail time and further fines if she continued to practice.
So, can health coaches create meal plans? As long as you don’t trespass onto registered dietician (RD) and licensed nutritionist turf, you’ll be fine. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate the legalities of meal planning.
What Can and Cannot a Health Coach Say to a Client?
Your health coaching business is dependent upon what you say, not just what you do. Using words like “treat,” “prescribe,” “diagnose” and “cure” can get you in a lot of trouble. These words suggest you’re a medical professional rather than someone who “guides, “suggests,” “supports,” and “encourages.” A health coach doesn’t treat diseases and symptoms or give medical advice. Only doctors and RDs can do this.
It’s less risky to offer services that aren’t individualized. You’ll be better off casting a wide net and offering broad education about improved eating and healthier lifestyles. For instance:
- You can suggest ways to incorporate vegetables into a healthy diet.
- You can offer recipes.
- You can share information about how to increase water intake.
- You can support a client who’s dieting.
On the other hand, you can’t:
- Prescribe fish oil to treat diabetes.
- Cure a client’s headaches with supplements.
- Treat insomnia with mindfulness.
- Diagnose high blood pressure and prescribe a low-sodium diet.
Without medical training, you’re legally forbidden to give this type of advice. You’re also unqualified. RDs, however, have a rigorous education that entitles them to prescribe nutritional alterations for treating illnesses.
RDs attain their credentials by completing a four-year degree program and devoting hundreds of hours to an internship. More than half of RDs have advanced degrees. They study anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and microbiology.
After earning their degree and passing a licensing (not certification) exam, they’re qualified to practice medical nutritional therapy (MNT).
With this in mind, the lines between what you can and can’t do as a health coach can still blur. This is because laws from state to state are inconsistent. Every state has its own definition of what is within the scope of practice and what isn’t.
It’s crucial to know your state’s parameters. The Center for Nutrition Advocacy offers a map that shows how strict or lenient each state is. Red states like Montana and Tennessee have very stringent laws. Green states such as Pennsylvania and Arizona are less severe.
In some states, even giving someone a seemingly innocent personalized meal plan is taboo. Only RDs and nutritionists can do this. You’ll be safer providing a generalized plan. This way it can be given to anyone, whereas individualized plans can be construed as “prescribing.” It’s safer to call your plan something like “Healthy Breakfast Recipes” than “Healthy Breakfast Recipes to Treat High Cholesterol.”
When you’re creating meal plans, it’s important that you talk about them in generalized, rather than client-specific terms.
Tips on Meal Planning for Health Coaches
Can health coaches create meal plans? Well, meal planning is and should be part of a health coach’s practice. Remember, however, to be careful about how you use the term “meal planning.” Legally, you’re laying a lot on the line if you digress.
If you aren’t an RD, follow these nonspecific guidelines when creating a meal plan:
- Discuss nutritional changes your client wants to make.
- Explain how meal planning can save time and money.
- Suggest authority sources, such as plans validated by RDs and well-known health experts, for information about meal planning.
A meal-planning guide is a collection of resources that will help your clients do their own planning. Eventually, they will be empowered to plan meals independent of you.
First, create an intake form. This allows you to collect specific information from your clients, so you can build great nutrition plans. This info provides a solid starting point for you to assess your clients’ wellness needs. An intake form allows you to get specific information so you can give the best service possible.
These forms may address topics including:
- Weight – Would you like your weight to be different?
- Do you exercise regularly?
- Do you drink or smoke?
- How would you describe your energy level?
- What are your favorite foods?
- Do you eat three meals a day?
- Do you cook or would you prefer having several days’ worth of meals prepped in advance?
- What is your relationship status? Is your relationship a happy one?
- Do you socialize much?
- Do you have children? Pets?
- How much sleep do you get?
- Do you have any allergies?
- Do you take any supplements or medications?
Once your client completes this form, you’ll have an understanding of their lifestyle, foods they like or don’t like and whether or not they like to cook. With this information, you’ll be able to gather a variety of recipes appropriate for your client’s needs.
After you’ve collected these awesome recipes, it’s time to create a meal planning template. Basically, you just fill out a simple grid showing a seven-day week with breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack categories for each day:
Your client will then need to fill in the information according to your recipe recommendations.
Remind your client that there is a learning curve for meal planning, and they should aim for progress, not perfection. Be sure to also provide an outline for how to use the meal-planning guide. This list can include grocery shopping tips, meal prep hints and how to use leftovers so your clients won’t be cooking every day.
Did you know that meal-planning software is available? Yep, and it takes the work out of planning…
Best Meal Planning Software for Health Coaches
Before, you only had two tools for meal planning: a pen and paper. Now, meal planning is much more sophisticated. You can find meal planning apps that work across all platforms – desktops, mobile devices, and tablets.
These programs suggest nutrition strategies and recipes. They’re much more complex than apps that only count calories and keep a diet journal. They calculate information about a food’s nutrients, such as total calories and total quantities of proteins, lipids, carbs, and macro and micro nutrients. Computing this information by hand used to be very complex and time-consuming.
There is no one-size-fits-all meal planning software. Each one has unique features and functions.
Meal planning software often has:
- A food composition database – Nutritional values such as calories, micronutrients and macronutrients are tallied for every food in the database.
- Automated calculations – Automated food calculations streamline the computing process so that coaches can spend more time with their clients.
- A recipe builder – This schedules existing meal plans for clients based on their health goals and food preferences.
- Templates – These can be used for anything that’s predefined, such as nightly hours of interrupted sleep.
- An automatic grocery list generator for clients to take on shopping runs.
- Communication tools.
Again, be very careful not to use this tool to create personalized meal plans. If you do, it could be construed as “prescribing” or “treating.” Individualizing a meal plan may be illegal in the state where you operate your business.
With this in mind, here are three meal planning tools you may want to consider using:
MBODY360 is a meal planning app for health coaching, communications and plan management. It’s HIPAA-compliant and delivers results in real time. MBODY360 offers detailed meal plans, daily guidelines, recipes, and shopping lists. It includes secure video and chat so you don’t need separate video conferencing software.
Meal Garden is designed to locate healthy recipes. It sorts recipes by cooking duration and healthfulness. Add your own recipe and it will calculate nutrition content. If you want to batch out a recipe, it calculates the meal’s new proportions and updates the recipe and shopping list.
Modernmeal compiles numerous healthy recipes including keto, paleo, and vegan. View your weekly plans, add new recipes, and move recipes from one dish to another. You can import data from well-known sources such as Shop ‘n Cook, MasterCook, and MacGourmet.
Meal planning is a tricky aspect of health coaching. You can’t word your services in a way that could be construed as prescribing, treating, curing or diagnosing. The consequences could be fines, jail time or both. Adhere to your state’s laws regarding meal planning so that you don’t end up eating your own words.
So, what are your thoughts about meal plans as they relate to health coaches? Leave your comments below!Sources
You certainly hit the nail on the head with this article.
First, I would like to say that a good health coach should know her limitations as far as what she can do or say. This should actually be an important part of any coaching certification program (it was with mine).
During my training, I also learned to use an intake form with new clients, and even had them sign a waiver verifying that they understood my goal: helping them find their own way without treating or prescribing anything etc.
I once had a morbidly obese client who never disclosed her health concerns in the intake form. After a few sessions, we slowly got to the point where her health concerns and diet became the focal point of the session and without going deeper into the situation, I personally withdrew myself from this part of the coaching process and suggested that she go to an RD and or speak to her personal physician, which the client respected and followed suit.
It is important for us coaches to know our boundaries and be comfortable with it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always seem to be the case.
Since I am not doing this kind of coaching on a regular basis, I will certainly bookmark this article for further reference.
I do like the information (tips) you have provided for creating a meal plan, thank you, much appreciated.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sylvia!
Thank you for clarifying this. A health coach is a very important position to have these days. To have someone coach you on what you should be eating to optimize your weight is really important. I mean, let’s face it, we have a growing problem in the United States with obesity and we need coaches to help. My family has struggled with weight as well as other ailments so what you are doing is going to benefit plenty of people. Thanks again.
Thanks for reading Tom 🙂
This is a great resource! There is so much information out there regarding what health coaches can and cannot do, and it is overwhelming at times. I think this very clearly breaks it down. Thank you!
You’re welcome Maggie! Thanks for reading 🙂