If you work in a fitness setting, at some point you will be asked questions about nutrition. Everyone knows that a healthy diet is important, even though 60 percent of Americans are overweight. With the prevalence of so many fad diets and our desire for the “magic pill,” it has become even more difficult for health care professionals to turn the focus to food as nourishment for our bodies and something to be enjoyed in moderation. So when your clients ask you about food and nutrition, what should you say?

Achieving a healthier way of eating is really all about behavior change — exchanging bad habits with better ones. Even nutrition experts cannot agree upon what constitutes the “ideal diet.” They do agree that choosing foods to achieve variety, balance and moderation and adjusting portion sizes are the only ways to achieve long-term weight control and optimal health. With that in mind, don't feel as though you or your staff need to know everything. Listen to what your clients tell you about their typical food choices, eating patterns, temptations and frustrations. Once you have that information, tackle one or two issues at a time, creating action steps with specific time lines. In other words, if a client is drinking five sodas per day, ask him or her to drink only two sodas a day for one week. If a client is not eating enough vegetables, come up with creative ways to sneak vegetables into a meal. If a client skips breakfast because he or she doesn't have time or doesn't tolerate food in the morning, suggest drinking a protein smoothie each morning.

To achieve variety, balance and moderation, I recommend becoming familiar with Dr. Walter Willet and the Harvard Medical School's Healthy Eating Pyramid. Based on decades of research, they have modified the government's 1992 Food Guide Pyramid and developed guidelines that not only help control weight and actually promote health, but also retain the pleasure of eating (www.health.harvard.edu).

When it comes to weight loss, your staff needs to encourage clients to follow the concepts of variety, balance and moderation while decreasing their food intake. Discuss how America has been supersized. Food portions have grown by approximately 60 percent from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. One serving of pasta is a half of a cup or roughly the size of half a tennis ball. If you are not familiar with portion sizes, one source of literature is the American Diabetes Association (www.diabetes.org).

You and your staff can become knowledgeable about nutrition by doing research or taking a course, but when your clients' questions become too complex, too specific or require more time than you have to give, refer them to a registered dietitian (RD). Today, you can find more dietitians who specialize in fitness nutrition, who are, better yet, degreed exercise physiologists or certified personal trainers. Many RDs are in private practice and could work with your program on a consulting basis. When searching for a dietitian, find one who specializes in fitness nutrition and be sure to set up a meeting to determine if he or she will make a great fit for your program. A great resource is the American Dietetic Association's web site that contains a “Find a Dietitian” service at (www.eatright.org).

Christine Karpinski, MA, RD owns Nutrition Edge Inc. in Wilmington, DE. She is a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist. www.nutritionedge.net; 302-656-FOOD.