Part Two: How to Handle Challenging Client Scenarios

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Welcome to Part 2 of this article series. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, definitely start HERE so we’re on the same page as we dive into the next challenging client scenario you are likely to face as a nutrition coach.

As a quick reminder, this 3-part article series examines five common challenging client scenarios. We didn’t pull these out of thin air — they came from our community of WAG Coach Certification graduates and those who are in the WAG Business Program. We asked these coaches where they needed support with their clients and ended up with a list of common client situations that coaches struggle with.

Just because a situation is challenging doesn’t mean it’s unwanted. Challenging client scenarios offer huge opportunities for growth as a coach. They’ll allow you to flex your coaching skills to find a solution.

Here are key points to remember when it comes to any challenging client scenario:

  • Changing your nutrition is hard and vulnerable work.
  • These are real people with real feelings.
  • Remain connected to what it was like being a beginner.
  • Don’t take things personally. Clients will get upset, frustrated or even angry with their circumstances, and they may direct this energy toward you. This probably has nothing to do with you (and it’s definitely not about your worth as a human or coach).
  • Some people need tough love and we encourage this. You can give tough love, however, while allowing clients to maintain their dignity. 

The five client scenarios we will cover in this series are:

  1. The client that questions or doubts everything you do.
  2. The client that hits a plateau.
  3. The client that provides very little information about how things are going.
  4. The client that undereats because they think this will lead to faster weight loss.
  5. The client who has a tendency to blame people or circumstances for their lack of consistency with their nutrition program.

We covered #1 already. Today, we’re diving into scenarios #2 and #3.

If you find this kind of information helpful and have yet to take our WAG Coach Certification, I highly recommend it. Our certification teaches you nutrition science, of course, but also the art of coaching. You will get many opportunities to practice your coaching skills, and you’ll get direct feedback from our team (consider it a digital mentorship!).

Challenging Scenario #2 – Your client hits a plateau.

No matter what goal you’re striving for, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter plateaus.

Take the example of an Olympic weightlifter. In the beginning of their journey, this athlete may notice large, frequent increases in strength. Then, all of a sudden, it can take months or even a year for them to add weight to their lifts. They continue to train hard and put in the work—but the numbers stop increasing.

Does this mean they are not getting stronger? No! The body takes time to adapt, change and grow (and this is increasingly true the longer someone has been weightlifting). We need to respect that process.

Nutrition is the same way. Progress is not linear. This is critical to remember when working with a client who has hit a plateau.

Let’s begin this discussion by clearly defining a “plateau”: A plateau is when a client is no longer progressing toward their weight loss goal for a span of four weeks or longer.

This means that coaches should be patient in making adjustments to the nutrition plan. You want to ensure you’re really seeing a true plateau.

How can we support a client during a plateau and get past it?

Step 1: Discover whether it’s truly a plateau.

This is where the coach becomes a detective, examining all the information provided by the client (including their past history). Can you find evidence that the client is missing something or reporting their information incorrectly. 

Keep in mind that it’s also totally possible you will search and come up with nothing. Because of this, make sure to emphasize to your client that they have the benefit of the doubt. Your goal is to determine what’s stalling progress without coming across like you’re accusing the client or blaming their actions for the plateau.

It is absolutely possible that progress really has simply stalled, and it’s time to try a different strategy while the client behaves as usual.

Here are some questions to ask yourself while examining the data: 

1. Is the client being a little more flexible with their program? 

Over time, it’s easy to become more relaxed with our habits and behaviors without even realizing it. When we begin the journey toward a goal, our awareness and motivation are at an all-time high. Once things become more routine, we may unconsciously become more relaxed.

For example, upon starting a new job, we’re initially eager to do everything perfectly. As time goes on, we become accustomed to everything and see places where we can save time or where people may not notice that extra effort.

Nutrition is the same. It may be worth talking to your client and asking them to do a self-assessment on their behaviors and habits now versus when they started working with you.

Without making any accusations, explain this phenomenon and ask the client to observe themselves over the upcoming week until they check in with you again. Give them a few questions they can ask themselves. Encourage them that the more honest they are, the better you can work together to break through the plateau. 

Here are a couple of “self-assessment” questions you can use:

  • Pay attention to portion sizing. Are you being as diligent as you were initially?
  • Do you notice any old habits from before you started this program sneaking back up?

Remind your client that you know it is totally possible they are being just as disciplined as ever—this is just one thing you want to make sure you can check off the list. If anything, it can reinvigorate some motivation!

2. Have there been any big events or life changes recently?

Has your client recently returned from a vacation? Have they experienced any major changes to their stress level? Any big lifestyle changes like a move to a new city or home? Has their workout routine been adjusted? Are they working through an injury?

If any of the above are true, it is possible that your client isn’t in a plateau. Their body may actually be adjusting to the changes that have recently occurred.

In this situation, communicate with the client about what you think might be happening. Encourage them to remain patient as the two of you monitor how their body responds over the upcoming week or two before making any drastic changes in nutrition that could actually add to their already-affected routine. A change to nutrition on top of those other changes could make it more difficult to accurately assess what’s working and what isn’t.

After some time passes (roughly two weeks), if things remain the same, feel free to adjust the nutrition program. That could mean changing calories or macronutrient profiles, or it could mean setting new goals around behaviors and habits.

3. Anything different with their food options?

A plateau is a great time to look deeper into a client’s food logs. At WAG, our software Seismic syncs with MyFitnessPal and gives us the opportunity to take a deep dive into the exact food choices our clients are making. We encourage you to do the same!

Some things to look out for in a client’s food logs:

  • Is the client eating new foods that may be tracked incorrectly?

For example, I had a client who had started eating more sweet potatoes and was entering them as a “raw” entry instead of “cooked.” The weights are dramatically different, so this was throwing off her daily calories (sometimes by over 100 each day). Over the course of a week, that can add up and take a client out of a caloric deficit.

  • Is the client eating out more often?

If a client is eating out more often than, this can impact their level of consistency due to the fact that they’re estimating the ingredients in their food. This gives you insight into the next set of behaviors/habits you can work on together. You don’t have to insist that they stop eating out entirely, but you can express why it may stall progress. Then, together, you can come up with goals that will help them be more disciplined while enjoying restaurant meals.

  • Is the client drinking alcohol more often than usual?

If your client is drinking more alcohol than usual, two things could be stalling their progress:

  • The client isn’t tracking alcohol correctly. A glass of wine may show up in MyFitnessPal at 8 grams of carbs, but the calories tell a different story. We need to ensure clients account for all the calories in alcohol. (Learn more about that here.)
  • Alcohol is impacting other decisions. Maybe a night of drinking is accompanied by food choices that don’t line up with the client’s goals.

If you have searched through all the information and cannot point to anything that may be leading to a perceived plateau, your client likely has actually reached a plateau. This is the time to make some adjustments.

As a coach, here are some options for adjustments:

1. Take a break from dieting.

It is possible that your client has reached the end of this dieting phase. Weight loss can be cyclical. We don’t want to increase a client’s caloric deficit indefinitely because it can lead to burnout and even metabolic damage.

If your client has reached a plateau, and you are not comfortable reducing their calories, it is likely time to take a break. A break can look like:

  • Increasing calories to maintenance-level and spending time there, allowing the body to adjust
  • Slowly reverse dieting until calories have been increased to a level closer to maintenance
  • Stopping tracking food for a period of time and encouraging the client to reduce precision and increase flexibility

With each of these options, it is possible that the client will regain some of their weight (if weight loss was the goal). This should be expected and put into the context of the bigger picture. Regaining a small percentage of total weight loss while increasing calories is actually a step in the right direction. That’s because increasing calories helps to increase the Basal Metabolic Rate and ultimately offers more room to start another dieting phase in the future. Explaining this to a client ahead of time can reduce any fear and anxiety because they’ll understand the full plan.

Only five percent of all people who start a diet maintain their weight loss long-term. If people understood the importance of including breaks in dieting, however, we could potentially increase that percentage. Many times when a client takes a diet break, they’ll spiral back into old habits, losing the progress they made on the scale and psychological progress as well. This is where a great coach can step in and act as a guide!

Let’s take an example to put this into context with actual numbers.

Imagine you have a client who has lost 20 of the 50 pounds they would like to lose. They have hit a significant plateau where they’ve stalled for longer than 4-6 weeks. Their calories have been reduced from 2100 to 1600 and you know they are feeling restricted at this amount, so you worry about a further caloric decrease.

Instead of cutting their calories, you opt for a diet break where you increase their calories gradually (over the course of 6-12 weeks) back up to 2000. During this process, the client regains 5 pounds.

Although they have gained 5 pounds, they’ve maintained a weight loss of 15 total pounds which is really something to be proud of. Now they are back to 2000 calories while maintaining a newer, smaller frame and can restart the dieting phase of their nutrition program without the need to further and further restrict their calories.

With the next dieting phase, you begin to reduce calories again. During this phase (lasting another 6-12 weeks), your client loses an additional 15 pounds, bringing total weight loss to 30 pounds.

You may have to repeat this process many times with the same client before reaching their ultimate goal of 50 pounds lost. Explaining this to a client can help them understand how weight loss is a long-term strategy and that your goal is to help them sustain that progress.

The more a client understands the bigger picture, the less they will blame you or get angry at the program. They are much more likely to remain committed. 

2. Talk about changing up their fitness routine or increasing NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).

When a client has been dieting for an extended period of time, their energy may begin to decline. This is a function of the body adapting to a reduced caloric intake, and it can either consciously or unconsciously result in a reduction to NEAT. NEAT is the calories burned by the movements we make while going about our daily business, including walking, moving for work, transitioning from place to place, etc. A client in a plateau may benefit from taking a look at how their daily movement has changed and ways to increase it.

A change in fitness routine can also help a client get out of a plateau. This might mean changing things up to do something more enjoyable, increasing cardio by adding in an extra workout or find some other fun way to increase overall exercise across the week.

It is also important to note that overtraining could be at play here as well. This is something to consider if your client is in a plateau and training multiple hours per day, multiple days per week.

3. If nothing works, then be honest.

Plateaus suck. And, as a coach, it’s really frustrating when your client isn’t seeing the progress you hoped they’d see. Sometimes this validation is exactly what a client needs to hear. Let them know you see them working their butt off and that you are also frustrated and a little stumped. Make sure to reiterate, however, that the only way to keep making progress is to not give up. Reassure them that you won’t give up on them or the process until you are both completely satisfied.

As you try different strategies and still have no answers for the client, honesty is the best policy because their frustration will undoubtedly build even higher. The weight loss process will never be linear. A good reminder for both you and your client is that it’s just as important to knock things off of the list that aren’t working as well as what is working. 

4. Reflect on progress from the beginning to now.

If your client has hit a plateau, that likely means you’ve been working toward their goal for a solid period of time. The client has probably already made some progress, and that should be acknowledged. Remind the client how far they have come. Although they aren’t yet where they want to be, the progress they’ve made so far is a sign that they will achieve their goal.

Some things you can do to encourage your client:

  • Compare their photos from the beginning of the program vs. now. 
  • Point out all the new habits and skills they have developed.
  • Remind them of things they used to struggle with at the beginning that no longer challenge them.

The opportunities for praise are endless, and this can be exactly what the client needs to stay motivated amidst a frustrating plateau.

Challenging Scenario #3 - Your client offers very little information.

Nutrition is complex and very individualized. Additionally, in an online coaching format, you don’t get the benefit of probing someone for information like you could in person. A client can send you their data with very little explanation—and that doesn’t give a coach much to work with. We call this a #MinimalistCheckIn.

The more information a provides, the better. A client might write a #MinimalistCheckIn that says, “All good”—meanwhile, you’re looking at their data and it appears they aren’t following the program at all.

So what can you do?

Use absolutely any information they do provide and respond to it.

  • Look through their logs (food tracking, macros, etc.).
  • Point out their consistency in any way (for example, perhaps they hit their protein target or exercised consistently).
  • Take notice of training and rest patterns. 

Ask them questions.

  • At the beginning of the check-in, let them know you’ll be asking questions, and stress the importance of answering them.

Be straight with them.

  • You need more information if this is going to work.
  • Provide them with some questions they can answer with each check-in.

Provide examples of situations where you could support them if you knew what was happening.

  • Eating out at restaurants, fueling their athletic performance, meal prep, etc.

“Escalate” them.

  • This could lead to a call, text message or email outside of the nutrition program context that explains to them what information is needed to make the most of the program.

By now, you’ve probably built a relationship with this client. So use your experience with them to ask questions that make the most sense. Do what you can to motivate them to provide more details rather than taking the easy way out and letting their short check-in slide. That won’t help either of you grow!

Want to keep learning? Move onto Part 3!

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Posted by Adee Cazayoux
Adee is the founder and CEO of WAG. She has her bachelor’s degree in Honors Psychology, a Master’s in Teaching, and a Master’s in Nutrition & Human Performance. She’s also an athlete, having competed in the National Pro Grid League and winning the Bronze Medal in the 2016 Canadian National Weightlifting Championships.

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