"How-To" Guide

The Art of Virtual Coaching: 8 Tips We’ve Gleaned from the Trenches


In The Science of Virtual Coaching, we discussed three research-backed elements of a successful virtual nutrition coaching program. Now we’ll shift gears to the art of high quality nutrition coaching. Here are eight key tips we’ve learned from trial and error over the years.

1. Photos are incriminating

Photographing a meal forces clients to really look at their meal before they eat it. They’re faced with tangible evidence of their decisions and the knowledge that you’ll see it. Some find this uncomfortable, wanting you to see them in their best light and feel proud of them. Acknowledge this and let them know that you don’t expect perfection, only honesty. Tell them that full disclosure is necessary to make progress. The handful of candy they hadn’t planned to eat, the extra drinks and late-night munchies they caved to, it must be on the table. You can laugh with them about it: The worse their “before” eating looks, the more impressive the contrast with their “after” shots, and the more progress to celebrate.

2. Oops, I just ate my entire meal and only just now remembered to photograph it

Reflecting on our food choices can only make an impact before a meal. What good can come from these thoughts after the damage is done? At first, clients might snap a photo mid-meal or even afterwards and write in a description of what was on their plate. That’s fine, but encourage them to progress from mid- or post-meal to pre-meal. Only then can they tether mindfulness to their food selection process.

3. Who’s driving the bus?

Many of us don’t own our decisions. We act as though eating “happens” rather than claiming the wheel. Breaking this thought process is critical. Unproductive, unhealthy meals will be a part of all of our food logs, and this is fine. But the key is to choose it, to build it into our plan rather than simply succumbing to a whim. This will strengthen resolve and commitment, placing us at the helm and dismantling the association between indulgent meals and weakness or giving in.

4. Add, don’t subtract

When we think of what it takes to lose weight, our minds wander to all of the delicious foods we love but can no longer eat. This makes weight loss feel painful and no fun at all. To combat this destined-to-fail approach, suggest that clients add in foods to eventually crowd out whatever we hope they’ll ditch. For example, if Alex eats zero fruits or vegetables at lunch but easily puts away a footlong sub and chips, recommend that he start the meal off with his favorite fruit, an apple, but that he can feel completely free to eat the entire sub and all the chips. Once the apple becomes routine, suggest that he pick a no-hassle vegetable like baby carrots, and eat this along with the apple before the sub and chips. More often than not, these healthy, water-logged, high-fiber foods end up crowding out some of the calorie-dense foods, and Alex will find he doesn’t need the chips or half of the sub after all. As we keep adding in more healthy foods, we displace the less healthy fare without ever telling a client that they should eat less of the foods they enjoy. This also ensures that clients make progress without experiencing hunger, the single most influential factor in determining whether a client will successfully stick with a new eating plan.

5. Flavor-infused comments

Vocal inflections don’t permeate text. Sarcasm and enthusiasm can be hard to express too. But just like personal training with a monotone voice isn’t encouraging, nutrition coaching needs to convey excitement as well. Your tools? Words that transmit emotion. Write some words in CAPS. Even if you don’t like smiley faces, use them. Create contrast. Consider this:

Screen Shot 2015-05-13 at 10.45.09 AM

Writing this way may seem absurd, painful, or insincere at first, but it inarguably produces superior results.

6. Stars

You have the option to rate client meals with anywhere from zero to five stars. We highly recommend using them. A client might think her breakfast is perfect and expects five stars for it. But if you only give her four (because while good, it still had room for improvement), she’ll take initiative and ask what was missing for a perfect score. Similarly, clients may know that a meal wasn’t productive, but if they see one star beside it, they may be surprised to see how harmful the meal actually was. Sometimes they eat unhealthy meals deliberately, and the one star rating won’t come as much of a surprise. But if the meal was intended as a healthy one (i.e. Nature Valley Granola Bar), they’ll be surprised that their intention didn’t translate into quality eating and will often course correct immediately. Stars can therefore accelerate progress by allowing clients to see where they truly lie on the spectrum.


7. Monday rockstars and Thursday deadbeats

The busiest day at the gym? Monday of course. The healthiest day of eating? Unsurprisingly also Monday. Motivation soars at the start of the week, and clients upload lots of photos. As the week hums along, clients lose focus, eat worse, and take fewer photos. Remind them that anyone can eat like a champ on a Monday, but true success requires dedication throughout the week. Tell clients that you care more about seeing a full set of photos on a Thursday than you do on a Monday.

8. Restaurants and parties

People often feel uncomfortable photographing their meals at a nice restaurant, party, or friend’s home. Some people will bite the bullet and get used to it and some won’t. It’s important not to twist their arm on this. If they feel comfortable fielding the questions they’ll likely receive and telling the truth about why they’re photographing their meals, power to them; that takes guts! If they want to tell a white lie like, “The meal looks so good, I want to share it on Instagram,” no problem. Otherwise, they can simply write in the meal as text when they use the bathroom at some point during the meal. While they can skip the actual photograph during this sort of infrequent occurrence, I’d insist that they record it in words nonetheless.


Which of these tips do you already use with clients? What tips would you add to the list?


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