Despite the role that nutrition plays in wellness and weight loss, the role that registered dietitians and nutritionists play in health clubs is small even though offering nutrition programs can differentiate health clubs from the competition.

At Virginia-based Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, nutrition is a requirement for members who buy a personal training package.

"If my clients don't see a registered dietitian when they come in to train, we are shortchanging them," said White, who is also a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics"There is no way a client can reach their ultimate fitness goals without a sound diet."

The nutrition component at Jim White Fitness was separate from the training program previously, but White discovered the additional cost was a barrier for many clients who, in turn, were not seeing desired results. White folded the nutrition program into the fitness program, and today, every person who buys a training package gets two free sessions with a registered dietitian (RD). The first session is an assessment, and the second is a nutrition education session with a meal plan. After that, they receive one 30-minute follow-up session per month for free for the length of their package.

"Once we did that, our business skyrocketed," White said. "Our referral rates went up by 50 percent."

Members who don't buy a training package can purchase nutrition packages. White charges $125 per hour for a consultation with the RD and $75 per 30-minute follow-up. The club also offers various packages. Its Jumpstart Nutrition Package, which includes an assessment, consultation, meal plan and follow up, costs $299. His RDs also offer grocery store tours for $150 and nutrition kitchen makeovers for $150. 

To tailor a meal plan that fits the client's needs, as well as track and analyze progress, the RD at Jim White Fitness uses technology such as a breath test that determines metabolic rates; Mediatory Release Test (MRT), which uses blood testing to detect food allergies; and cheap or free apps such as MyFitnessPal, Lose It!, and FitBit. In addition to scientific measurements, the RD also examines the client's cultural beliefs surrounding food, food likes/dislikes and what types of support the client has at home.

White stressed the importance of having an RD in the club, adding that without an RD on staff, "clubs are missing out on a vital part of the equation."

As part of the onboarding process at Houston-based Avenu Fitness, new members are initiated with a lifestyle session that identifies areas of attention beyond exercise, such as sleep patterns, dietary habits and stress levels.

"We sit them down in a coffee shop, a serene environment," Avenu Lifestyle Engineer Ben MacMillan said. "It makes them comfortable and helps them open up. When you come in to talk to a trainer, they're up on a pedestal, not even human. We really try to bring the vulnerable, human element into our communication."

The fitness industry has a disconnect between exercising and healthy lifestyle choices, MacMillan said. After people have recalibrated their day-to-day behavior, workouts become "the cherry on top."

"When we ask people what drew them in, they say, 'I like your holistic approachmore than just coming in and cranking out a 30-minute workout,'" MacMillan said. "It has improved our referral system, too, because people feel like they're coming in and becoming part of our family, like they're getting their value."

At VIDA Fitness, Washington, DC, members receive a complimentary 25-minute nutrition consultation when they join. Beyond that, members may decide to pay for scheduled consultations to delve deeper into specific goals. Those goals can include weight loss, diabetes treatment or prevention, or a general desire to be healthier.

Catherine Taylor was hired as the company's first full-time RD—the company now has four—and leads the nutrition program at VIDA's Verizon Center in Washington, DC.

During the first session, she assesses the client's current health status and collects baseline body composition measurements. She also asks the client to track food intake for three days so she can run a nutrition analysis through the USDA's Supertracker, which helps her determine gaps in a client's diet. Once she has all this information, Taylor creates a customized nutrition plan to address the client's needs.

"Sometimes I get creative with my clients and take a trip to the grocery store, or to a restaurant to test their abilities at navigating a menu for the best food items for their goals," she said.

The personal training team has been critical to the success of VIDA's nutrition program, according to Lisa Lipscomb, director of personal training for VIDA Fitness. The RD and the personal trainers work together to help clients reach their goals.

"Without the trainers' support, then no matter how great the RD was, we wouldn't have that buy-in or that referral network," she said.

Lipscomb also points to the credibility an RD can bring to a club. Having a full-time RD on staff has made it easier for the VIDA Fitness sales team to coordinate question-and-answer sessions at local businesses to recruit new clients, Lipscomb said. If a club is unable to invest in a full-time RD position, Lipscomb recommends partnering with an RD in the area.

At Fitness Together Norfolk, Virginia, members can opt in to Nutrition Together, a one-on-one nutrition education and counseling program designed by Dr. Janet Brill, who is an RD. Using this option, owner Mark Carrier and his team are trained to review Brill's materials and counsel clients on food choices. Brill handles medical cases that fall outside the team's area of expertise.

Although Nutrition Together does not customize individual nutrition plans, clients meet with a member of Carrier's team two to three times per week. Clients also attend classes in a six-week course to learn how to make good food choices, read labels, deal with emotional behaviors and establish caloric intake.

Carrier and his team track the client's progress throughout the program, taking measurements such as weight, hip-to-waist ratio, body fat percentage and blood pressure.

Though the structure of the nutrition programs at Jim White Fitness, VIDA Fitness and Fitness Together vary, each has found a way to integrate some aspect of nutrition into their club. And each considers an individualized approach to nutrition critical for helping clients reach their goals.