Reviewed by Brian St. Pierre, MSc, RD, CSCS
“My client says they’re eating a super low calorie diet, but they’re not getting results… What should I do?!”
We see variations of the above “low-calorie-no-results” question in our Facebook coaching communities all the time. (“My client says they’re following 1200 Calorie diet, but…” or “My client’s weight hasn’t budged despite claiming to eat only 800 Calories per day…”)
Usually, about half of the respondents suggest the client is simply mistaken. “Nobody who says they’re eating that little actually is,” they say.
The other half center on biological problems that can slow someone’s metabolism: “You might suggest they visit their doc for a thyroid check-up.”
Both sides can be right.
But as a coach, how do you know how to proceed? What can you do if you or one of your clients is stuck in the low-Calorie-no-results cycle?
(And if your client really is eating more than they’re telling you: How do you bring it up—without calling them a liar?)
How to talk to clients about the “low-calorie-no-results” problem
Let’s start with a benchmark: For most women, a 1200 Calorie daily limit would create enough of a deficit to result in weight loss. For men, that number is about 1500 Calories.
This is true even if someone’s metabolism is running more slowly due to adaptive thermogenesis (or colloquially, “the starvation response”). It’s true for folks with thyroid issues as well.
Though there are health conditions that can theoretically slow someone’s metabolism enough to stop a 1200-Calorie diet from working, they are exceedingly rare, says Precision Nutrition Director of Nutrition Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD.
In other words, if your client is eating at or below the above calorie limits and still isn’t losing weight, a medical problem likely isn’t behind your client’s lack of results.
Much more likely, is this: Your client is eating more than they think they’re eating.
(Read more: Is a 1200-Calorie diet realistic?)
But your client isn’t “lying” to you.
It’s difficult to count calories with precision. On top of that, very low calorie diets are tough to follow consistently.
What happens is this:
Most people follow them consistently some of the time—and not at all at other times.
They might consume their intended calorie amount Monday through Wednesday.
On Thursday, they might get a little relaxed about their food choices, and unknowingly clock a few hundred extra Calories.
Then Friday hits and they go out to eat. A burger, some fries, and two beers later and they’re at well over 3000 calories—just for that day.
Splurge a little on Saturday too and there goes the weekly deficit.
From the client’s perspective, they’re following their intended diet.
They carefully limited calories Monday through Thursday-ish, and they also went to battle with many uncomfortable sensations, including hunger, cravings, and maybe some irritability.
“Yes, they’re providing you with false information, but they’re not doing it maliciously,” says Precision Nutrition Super Coach Kate Solovieva.
Instead, they might be afraid or ashamed to reveal what they’re eating, especially on those indulgent days when they go way over their target. Or, they may truly not remember those indulgences.
And yet, they’re still looking to YOU to solve what to them looks like a total mystery.
As you can imagine, this can require a tricky, sensitive discussion. Which is why we’ve created this 5-step process to help you through it.
(And if you’re still hungry for more communication strategies you can use to have better conversations with clients, read: Effective coach talk: What to say to clients and why it matters)
Step #1: Offer some validation.
Build trust and rapport by agreeing with your client’s perceived experience.
The opposite—calling them out on their math errors or high-calorie indulgences—might just make them feel defensive and even less likely to share openly with you.
You might say:
“It’s definitely unpleasant and uncomfortable to eat so little. It must be so frustrating to go through all of that and not see the scale move.”
Step #2: Create a “we’re in this together” vibe.
Forget the thought of dragging your client forward with a long lecture about how “there’s no way you’re eating 1200 Calories because….”
Instead, try to see yourself at the same level as your client by using “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “you.” This simple language shift will prevent you from saying resistance-triggering things like “you should…” and “what you need to do…”
You might say:
“Let’s put on our detective hats and figure this out together. To solve this mystery, we’re going to need to gather some data. This will help us see what’s impeding fat loss.”
Step #3. Gather some data.
Ask your client to track everything they eat for two weeks.
But before you start, remember that most clients want to impress their coaches. As a result, many people don’t track when they feel guilty or ashamed about what they’ve eaten, explains Solovieva.
So, encourage your client to consider any data they record as just that: data. Not a proxy for their value as a person, or as a measure of their “goodness.”
You might say:
“How do you feel about keeping a detailed food diary for two weeks? I’m suggesting this because it’ll help us determine what’s up. And I know this is uncomfortable, but it’s also really important to track the things you don’t want me to see. I promise: I won’t judge. Eat a whole pizza? Four margaritas? No judgment. If we gather accurate information, then we can have a better idea of what to do next.”
Step #4: Look at the numbers together.
After two weeks of tracking, you’ll likely notice one of the following trends.
Outcome A: The scale is moving.
Because they knew you’d be looking at their log, your client felt more accountable. As a result, they ate their intended calorie intake consistently, seven days a week.
Ask your client how they feel.
If they report unbearable hunger, fatigue, and cravings, you might say, “Okay, that’s telling me that your body will lose fat on a 1200-Calorie diet. That said, it’s also telling me that this might not be a good strategy long-term.”
Then proceed to step 5.
Outcome B: There are gaps in your client’s food log.
Let’s say Monday through Wednesday are complete. But Thursday through Saturday are blank.
In this case, you might say, “I see you didn’t fill out your log for a few days. What was happening on those days?”
As your client talks, avoid jumping in with your own conclusions. Instead, gently ask questions—being curious and non-judgmental—to help your client reveal the full story.
If your client does indeed tell you they might’ve eaten a bit more on those days, you can simply say, “Sure, it’s really tough to maintain such a big calorie deficit. Given what you told me though, how do you think we should interpret our data this week?”
Then move to step 5.
Step #5: Try an experiment.
Here’s a great coaching trick if you feel like your client is rebelling against or just struggling with an advanced dietary strategy—like following an ultra low-calorie diet:
Frame whatever you try as an “experiment.”
Say, “Let’s look at what we can do to make this easier and most sustainable. How do you feel about trying an experiment? It would just be for two weeks. If it doesn’t work, we can try something else.”
Then suggest one of the experiments below.
Experiment #1: Eat more.
Instead of 1200 Calories, suggest your client consume 1500.
(If they’re not starting at 1200 Calories, just add a few hundred calories to whatever their original intended caloric intake was.)
You might say, “What if we try eating a little bit more? It’s just an experiment, so if it doesn’t work, we can always go back. But you’ll still be in a deficit, so you should still make progress. It’ll just be more tolerable.”
No matter how you word things, some clients will still say, “No way.” In that case, follow up with, “How about we meet in the middle. How does 1350 Calories sound? Let’s just test it for two weeks.”
Experiment #2: Track calories—but without a calorie target.
This experiment helps to build the skill of tracking accurately, says Solovieva.
Tell your client:
“This isn’t about changing what or how much you eat. Instead, all I want you to do is write down what you eat. What we’re trying to do is build the skill of tracking accurately and consistently. Know that there will be times when you’ll want to avoid tracking—possibly because you don’t want me to see what you ate—but that data is important. And remember, I won’t judge.”
After a couple of weeks of doing this, your client will probably have some revelations: like how many calories are really in that scoop of peanut butter, how many times they tend to “sneak” food and pretend it doesn’t count, or how much food they tend to eat when they’re not trying to control or limit their intake.
With this information, clients can then better assess how many calories they’re willing to cut, and where pitfalls might happen.
Experiment #3: Forget calorie tracking.
Sometimes you have to completely step away from one strategy to create the time and energy for a more effective one, says Solovieva.
If calorie-tracking isn’t working, stop doing it—and try something else.
You can say, “You know, maybe the calorie tracking thing isn’t working right now. How do you feel about a different approach?”
Then suggest a—hopefully more manageable—action such as tracking:
- Grams of protein
- Servings of vegetables
- Hunger and fullness metrics
Or, the client can focus on a completely different behavior, such as bumping up their exercise minutes or eating slowly.
(And if your client thinks eating slowly sounds like a skill for sissies, get them to check out: The 30-day eating challenge that can blow your mind—and transform your body)
What to do when clients consistently track inaccurately
Clients don’t hide or mess up data because they’re trying to vex you.
“More likely the client is worried about upsetting you,” says Solovieva. “They already feel ashamed, and they assume you’ll say or do something to make them feel even worse.”
To circumvent this problem, use this advice.
Look in the mirror.
Consider: Why doesn’t your client feel comfortable sharing everything? Is it possible you might have contributed? Get honest about the stories you hold about your client. Unspoken thoughts like “They’re lying” or “They’re lazy” can come through in your vibe, voice, and tone, says Solovieva.
Respect your client’s silences.
If they don’t say anything when you ask about a gap in the log, it’s a sign they’re deeply uncomfortable talking about it. In that case, just move on. Don’t try to pry the information out of them, Solovieva says. When they’re ready, they’ll share.
Don’t demonize food or people.
Clients will test you, especially in the beginning of the coaching relationship, to see how you’ll react, says Solovieva. For example, they might tell you about a friend who eats donuts for breakfast—but they’re really talking about themselves. If you take the bait and respond critically, you ruin your chances of them being more open and honest with you in the future.
Sit on the same side of the desk.
It’s often overlooked, but our environments can shape how comfortable we feel, and the way we interact with each other. For example, if you typically sit behind a big desk, that barrier can easily make it feel like you’re an authority figure and your client is your subordinate, says St. Pierre. Play around with different configurations. Sitting side-by-side, or slightly angled toward one another, can facilitate more of a peer-to-peer vibe that can be more conducive to sharing openly.
Forget about calling people out.
Even if you do everything we’ve suggested above, you’ll likely encounter clients who say they want to stick to a low-calorie diet no matter what, despite turning in food logs, week after week, that don’t list everything they ate.
You’ll know this because, on Instagram, they’ve posted a photo of themselves and a huge burger—that isn’t on their log.
You might be tempted to lecture.
However, sometimes saying nothing can be more effective than saying something.
As Solovieva says, “Calling out tends to elicit shame—and more shame has never led to more change.”
Allow your clients their defense mechanisms and their human errors. What’s most important is that you foster a trusting, positive relationship with them. With that kind of unconditional support, most clients will eventually open up, and be willing to look at realistic ways they can change—and improve.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
You can help people build sustainable nutrition and lifestyle habits that will significantly improve their physical and mental health—while you make a great living doing what you love. We’ll show you how.
If you’d like to learn more, consider the PN Level 1 Nutrition Coaching Certification.
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