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Nutrition psychology: self esteem and self efficacy

Self-efficacy is defined as ‘confidence in one’s own ability’. Self-esteem is defined as “confidence in one’s own worth” (Bandura 1977).It is vital for you to consider your clients level of self-efficacy and self-esteem when not only working with them in the gym, but also when considering setting their goals and targets outside of the gym environment too, including their nutrition recommendations.

A client with low self-esteem is unlikely to approach the subject with their fitness professional but it can be recognised by a number of indications. A client may mention that they do not like themselves and they may refuse to look in the mirror when performing exercises, even when you encourage them to check their technique.

A client with low self-esteem may also be unable to make decisions, they may find goal setting particularly hard as they do not believe they can achieve any goals. When speaking about their personal lives you may notice that they blame themselves a lot and feel guilty for spending time and money on themselves. They may even say that they do not feel deserving of attending the training session or of the higher cost of healthy eating. When questioned about their strengths in the gym they are likely to comment that they are not very good at any of the exercises and are unlikely to attend the gym independently.

Although low self-esteem is not a recognised mental health disorder itself, having little self-belief can have not only a huge impact on forming positive health behaviours but also on the client’s daily life including their habitual eating habits (Forster 1986).

It is out of your scope of practise to counsel the client and if concerned should refer them onto a trained counsellor or psychologist. You can however improve the client’s self-esteem by encouraging them to avoid negative self-talk and speak positively about themselves.

Comparisons to other people in the gym are common comments for clients with low self-confidence to make. They may remark that someone is fitter, stronger or prettier than them or come out with statements such as “I bet they didn’t eat a packet of biscuits last night.” As a fitness professional it is important to remind them that they are not in competition with anyone else and that everyone has their own individual journeys and reasons for desiring to lead a healthy lifestyle.

It is important for a client with low self-esteem to receive regular praise from yourself to ensure they do not feel like they are letting them down. Sometimes even turning up for the session or including vegetables in the evening meal is a big step for the client, the more encouragement they get the more their self-confidence can increase.

When making dietary recommendations, you must understand that a client with very low self-esteem may genuinely believe they are unworthy or just simply cannot follow a healthy diet. Simply providing the client with generalised healthy eating advice may seem over whelming for the client and may result in failure, further declining their sense of confidence. In this case it is far more beneficial for the client and you to discuss small goals to improve the daily diet. These could include one of the following every week;

  • Trialling a new recipe from a set recipe book once per week.

  • Increase water consumption by drinking an extra glass on awakening.

  • Swapping 1 teaspoon of sugar in hot drinks to ½ teaspoon.

  • Adding in green vegetables with every evening meal.

  • Having three alcohol free nights every week.

  • Purchasing just one packet of biscuits to last throughout the week.

  • Swapping from pouring oil when cooking to using a spray oil.

Once these small goals have been achieved it will boost the client’s confidence that they are capable of achieving things when they set their minds to it and take action to achieve it. They will be more prepared for the bigger goals such as aiming to lose 0.5kg per week or attending the gym independently as there will be less fear of failure.

The client’s diet itself may also be directly affected by their low self-esteem. Low sense of self-esteem is closely associated with low mood, anxiety, depression and avoiding social situations. This can cause the client to emotional eat to comfort themselves. This will further lower emotional wellbeing and the cycle continues. If, however with your support a client can start to believe that they are worthy of having a healthy body then this attitude will start to change behaviours to improve daily lifestyle. When a client genuinely believes in themselves they will care for themselves better and be inclined to make better lifestyle and dietary choices.

Read my blog on how a client's food intake can directly effect their self esteem here.

If you are interested in further developing your coaching skills, please get in touch for upcoming CDP events.

Rachel x