Most plant-based coaches have a story.
For Jennifer Ernst, MSCN, PN1, it started at age 10—when her grandfather had a heart attack. It shook the family up, and they decided to eat in a more healthful way. So they became plant-based—they just didn’t know to call it that.
Most of their meals revolved around home-grown produce. “We lived on a farm and grew our vegetables,” she says. “Except we had chickens and cows, too.”
As Ernst got older and moved away from the farm, she grew uncomfortable buying meat that wasn’t coming from her backyard.
She didn’t have a problem with eating meat overall, but without knowing where it came from or how it was raised, it just didn’t feel right for her.
The moment Scott Burgett, CSCS, PN1 officially decided to become fully plant-based happened while watching a Netflix documentary.
He’d been gradually working his way towards a more plant-based lifestyle for a couple of years.
But when the documentary showed the heartbreaking fate of male baby chickens in the egg industry (they’re usually killed at one day old since they can’t lay eggs), he knew it was time switch to a fully plant-based diet.
Both Ernst and Burgett are now successful plant-based nutrition coaches. And their stories signify pivotal moments in their lives when their values became impossible to ignore. Those moments put them on the path they’re on today.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you have a story of your own.
But while personal stories are impactful and inspiring, they don’t always help others change their behavior. Mastering plant-based eating for yourself and helping other people do it are two totally different things.
That’s why we spoke to established coaches about the process of becoming a plant-based nutrition coach, and how you too can help clients benefit from this way of eating.
In this article, we’ll share:
- What plant-based nutrition coaches do
- How to become a plant-based nutrition coach
- How to know if you need a plant-based certification
- How much plant-based nutrition coaches make
- The biggest challenges plant-based nutrition coaches face and how to tackle them
- Why now is the best time to get into plant-based nutrition coaching.
So, put on your plant-pants and let’s get started.
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Question #1: What is a plant-based nutrition coach, anyway?
“Plant-based nutrition coach” is more of an umbrella term rather than a specific designation. It describes a person who practices a style of nutrition coaching that focuses on plant-based eating.
That doesn’t mean a plant-based coach has to be vegan or vegetarian. Or that they only coach people who want to be vegan or vegetarian.
The definition is much looser than that.
Simply put: A plant-based nutrition coach helps people eat more plants.
But let’s break it down a little more.
Eating more plants isn’t just about eating more fruits and vegetables. “Plants” is a broad category of foods that also includes grains, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and plant-derived fats.
The table below is a non-exhaustive list of plant-based foods, but as you can see, there’s plenty to choose from.
Plant-based protein powders
Textured vegetable protein
Black bean burgers
Traditional veggie burgers
Plant-based protein bars
|Beans and lentils*
Whole grain rice
Fresh and frozen fruit
Bagels, breads, muffins, and wraps
Canned, dried, and pureed unsweetened fruit
Peanuts and peanut butter
Pumpkin seeds and pepitas
Almonds and almond butter
Sunflower seeds and sunflower seed butter
Avocado and avocado oil
Coconut oil and coconut milk
Now here’s the thing: There are lots of ways to be a plant-based eater. And this is good news, because it means there are lots of ways to be a plant-based nutrition coach.
For instance, you might coach any or all of the following:
- Plant-curious eaters: People who are considering eating more plant-based foods, and are wondering how to do it. (It doesn’t mean they have to stop eating meat.)
- Plant-forward or plant-centered eaters: People whose diets are made up of mostly plants, but who might still eat some non-plant foods. These might be pescatarians, vegetarians, or folks who occasionally eat meat.
- Fully plant-based eaters: People who only eat plant-based foods. This includes vegans, who usually eschew all animal products. (Not just food but also leather, fur, personal care products tested on animals, and so on.)
Successful plant-based nutrition coaches vary in their approaches.
For example, Ernst eats mostly plant-based, but she won’t turn down a restaurant meal that contains milk. With her clients, she focuses on gradually moving them toward a more plant-based diet, based on their starting point.
“If a client’s currently eating all takeout food, I don’t think jumping into a fully plant-based diet is fair,” says Ernst. “They rebound the other way too quickly.”
Burgett takes a different approach. He’s vegan, and his business is called Evolution Vegan Academy. As you can probably guess, he only coaches vegans and aspiring vegans.
In particular, he works with vegans who are interested in athletic performance.
We’ll delve deeper into how to define your plant-based coaching niche below, as well as the benefits that draw people to plant-based eating.
But the takeaway: There are many ways to be a plant-based nutrition coach.
Question #2: How do I become a plant-based nutrition coach?
It’s possible to get a certification in plant-based nutrition, but there’s no official entity that deems you a qualified plant-based nutrition coach.
That’s actually kind of exciting, because it means how you become one is largely up to you.
A logical first step, established coaches say, is to get the education you need to really help people.
And according to the plant-based coaches we talked to, there are a variety of ways you can do that. In fact, many of them used a combination of the tools below to get themselves established as coaches.
Tool #1: Get a plant-based nutrition certification.
There are only a few certifications out there that focus exclusively on plant-based nutrition.
And as we mentioned, no certification will give you the official title of “plant-based nutrition coach.” Most often, they offer a “certificate of completion” in plant-based nutrition.
Ernst has taken two of the most well-known courses in this space.
The first is the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies Plant-Based Nutrition eCornell Certification Program. This is a six-week online course that costs $1,260 (USD).
Because Ernst had recently been in school for nutrition when she took this course—she went to college at 37 and completed a master’s degree in nutrition shortly after—she’d covered nutrition science thoroughly already. However, this plant-based certification provided an in-depth look at two areas: the ethics of plant-based eating and the potential health benefits.
Ernst also did a program with the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. This organization offers courses for physicians, health coaches, and allied health professionals who want to introduce their patients or clients to whole-food plant-based eating. Courses range in length and price—from $300 USD to over $1,000, depending on which one you choose.
What these courses lack, Ernst says, is guidance on the art of coaching, including how to:
- effectively communicate with clients
- draw out their deepest motivations
- understand the various factors that make it harder or easier to change their habits
This is one of the reasons that, despite her deep knowledge of the science of nutrition, Ernst ended up getting value out of the Precision Nutrition Level 1 certification (more on this below).
Also, plant-based nutrition certification courses don’t usually have information on how to coach non-plant-based clients.
So depending on your target clientele, they may or may not provide all the information you need to get started.
Tool #2: Get a general nutrition certification.
A standard nutrition certification will give you the tools you need to coach clients who follow a variety of eating styles.
We talked to a number of plant-based coaches who (full transparency!) are also Precision Nutrition certified, to get a better picture of how a “general” nutrition certification compares to a plant-based certification.
(Note: Graduating from of our Level 1 certification qualifies you to take our specialized course, “How to Coach a Plant-Based Diet.”)
“One of the things that really grabbed me about the Precision Nutrition certification was that it was more well-rounded,” says Renée Rolls, PN1, EIF Master Trainer, CF-L1, who improved her own health through exercise and plant-based eating.
She’d already done a lot of plant-based eating research, so felt she already had the information she needed in that area.
“When you’re used to doing something a certain way, it’s beneficial if you can start seeing different points of view,” she says.
For Rolls, it was key to learn how to coach all types of eaters, even though she wanted to focus on plant-based nutrition coaching. “I can still have my own way of eating and coach a variety of different ways of eating,” she says.
Emilie Rice, MS, RDN, LDN, CPT, PN1, chose to get a PN certification as part of her continuing education as a dietitian. She liked that the program offered guidance on the specifics of how to coach, especially explaining nutrition concepts for the average client.
“I was looking for ways to simplify how I teach when I’m coaching nutrition,” she says. Rice loved learning the hand portions system, which is an easy, accessible way clients can regulate and track food intake.
Of course, there are lots of other general nutrition certifications out there. To learn more about them, check out our resource on how to choose the right nutrition certification for you.
Tool #3: Go the self-taught route.
At first, Burgett opted to learn about plant-based nutrition on his own rather than getting a nutrition coaching certification. Because he had a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and worked as a strength coach for a professional baseball team, he was already comfortable with science-heavy material.
But rather than jumping right into nutrition coaching, he took his time to ensure he had the knowledge he needed before getting started.
When he first became vegan in 2017, Burgett gathered as much information as he could from books, documentaries, YouTube videos, and more.
He also started a popular plant-based blog, where he answered common questions. (Think: Is it okay to eat tofu? How much protein do plant-based eaters really need?) He also created recipes from scratch.
As he learned to answer his audience’s questions, Burgett developed the expertise he needed to start a plant-based coaching business. But it wasn’t until 2019 that he debuted his online offerings and started offering plant-based nutrition coaching.
There are a couple potential drawbacks here: That’s a solid two years of self-education, which is significantly longer than most formal certification courses will take.
Plus, unless you have a background in science or health like Burgett did, it might be difficult to figure out what information you need and where to get it.
On the other hand, this option is probably less expensive than a course, and is a nice complement to any other educational tool you choose.
Whether or not you decide to go this route, Burgett has some advice: Seek out educational sources that you agree with, but also ones you don’t agree with. (For instance, you might pick up a book on the Paleo or carnivore diet.)
“Expose yourself to different philosophies so you get a well-rounded background,” he says.
Tool #4: Experiment on yourself.
Self-experimentation is one of the cornerstones of Precision Nutrition’s own coaching program.
Why? There’s no better way to figure out what works for YOU. And while every person’s nutrition preferences and habits will differ, it’s important to have experience with plant-based eating yourself if you want to be a plant-based nutrition coach.
This is particularly true if you want to work in the fully plant-based or vegan space, Burgett says.
“Vegans and people in the plant-based world are just different from omnivorous clients. Their ‘why’ and their values are different, and they want to be able to trust that the person on the other end is living their values.”
Burgett’s advice for new coaches looking to get into this space: “Try things, talk to people, practice it yourself. Ultimately, you’ll learn what works, and what doesn’t.”
Rolls says this is good advice even if you want to take a more flexible plant-based approach.
“I did my CrossFit certification in February, and they have their own way of eating, which was really difficult for me as a plant-based eater.” (CrossFit enthusiasts often eat a Zone diet, which tends to favor animal proteins.)
Even though it didn’t work well for Rolls, the experiment was worth it: “Just being able to go into that open-minded and see how it worked was valuable.”
Key points: Educational tools for plant-based nutrition coaches
|Plant-based nutrition certification|
|General nutrition certification|
|Self-experimentation with plant-based eating|
Question #3: What do plant-based nutrition coaches do?
Most plant-based nutrition coaches provide one-on-one nutrition coaching.
Others coach groups, create online programs, or speak at events. In fact, there are a ton of options for what a plant-based nutrition coach’s day-to-day job can look like.
Burgett’s coaching business is completely online. And because of his background as a strength coach, he also provides all of his clients with personalized workout programs.
When he’s not programming or talking to clients via phone or video calls, he’s consulting with the assistant coaches who work under him, tending to his active Facebook community, or creating content for his social media accounts.
Ernst primarily does one-on-one nutrition coaching, both in-person and online. Pre-COVID, she also taught in-person plant-based cooking courses a couple of times a month.
These courses helped her connect with potential clients in her community, and provided her existing clients with the skills they need to be successful with plant-based eating.
“People know a carrot’s better than a Cheeto, but they don’t know how to eat that carrot,” she says. “Kale tastes kind of terrible unless you massage it, or use little lemon to break down some of the plant walls.” In other words, Ernst helps people actually enjoy the foods they know they should be eating.
Aside from having their own nutrition coaching businesses, plant-based nutrition coaches might also work as:
- Health coaches in doctors offices, hospitals, or wellness centers
- Consultants in health food, natural beauty, and supplement stores
- In-house nutrition coaches at gyms, spas, and yoga studios
- Wellness consultants in corporate settings
- Chefs or recipe developers for private clients, meal-prep services, or plant-based restaurants
- Speakers, bloggers, or social media influencers in the plant-based space
What are you not qualified to do as a plant-based coach?
Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT)—which involves giving nutrition advice to treat or cure diseases like diabetes, autoimmune disorders, or cancer—is out of scope unless you’re specifically MNT-accredited.
You won’t be qualified to do this with a nutrition or health coaching certification alone, and you should never try.
This is especially important to understand in the plant-based world.
Sometimes plant-based eating is presented as a way to help improve health conditions like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
While plants have tons of health benefits, and you can still provide clients with ideas about how to make their diet more plant-based, be sure you’re not “prescribing” a plant-based diet for a health issue unless you’re MNT-accredited.
Depending on where you live, rules and regulations vary on what people with nutrition certifications are allowed to do.
For instance, in some states in the US, the only people who can provide meal plans are registered dietitians. But in these states, nutrition coaches can still help people with their eating as long as they’re not telling people exactly what they should and shouldn’t eat.
If you take a Precision Nutrition certification, you’ll learn that meal plans, deeming foods “off-limits,” and telling people exactly what to eat aren’t our style anyway. In our nutrition certification, you’ll learn how to get results without using these tactics.
Want a taste of how we do it? Check out our FREE e-course, Food Changes That Save Lives.
Question #4: How much do plant-based nutrition coaches make?
Based on the information we gathered for this article, certified nutrition coaches might charge anywhere from $40 to $100 per hour.
And some coaches believe that within the plant-based world, there’s more income potential for coaches than elsewhere.
“I’m a firm believer that plant-based is where the world’s heading,” Burgett says. There are several reasons for this. Environmental destruction is at its highest, and people are starting to get more clued-in to how their food choices could impact the environment, explains Burgett.
So while plant-based eating might be trendy, Burgett doesn’t see interest in it fading anytime soon. “If you’re thinking about it, now’s time to get into it.”
Ernst agrees that now is a great time to be a plant-based coach. Even with COVID, she’s busier than ever.
“Fiscally, I’m up this year,” she says. And that’s after reducing her prices to make her services more accessible to clients during the pandemic. She’s had to press pause on her in-person cooking classes, but she’s more than made up for that with virtual one-on-one client sessions.
So what does this mean for you?
Okay, it’s great to know that plant-based coaches can be successful financially. But how do you leverage the interest in plant-based eating to become a high-earning coach?
You can start here: A full report—Nutrition coaching: How much should you charge?—we created that details what we learned from a survey of 1,000 nutrition coaches, including tips on what you can do to earn top-tier rates.
Why plant-based coaching could help maximize your income
There’s an old saying: There are riches in niches. It’s become a fitness industry cliche, to be sure, but getting clarity on who you’re most passionate and skilled at helping can enable you to better attract the right clients.
Burgett only coaches vegans and aspiring vegans who are into fitness. After initially being open to all types of eaters, he decided to refer out anyone who didn’t want to be vegan.
His reasoning: Burgett wants to stay true to his mission: “To create the best community of fit vegans on this planet.” And he partially credits his business success to finding and sticking to a niche.
Similarly, Rolls primarily works with moms.
“A lot of them have had one or two kids and they’re just finding that they don’t have as much time to look after themselves, and so things aren’t looking and feeling the same as they used to in their body,” she says.
Plant-based eating that focuses on adding more whole plant foods rather than subtracting animal foods is particularly good for this clientele, Rolls has discovered.
Not just because it provides flexibility and results, but also because of the message it passes along to kids.
“Kids copy everything that we do. So when we’re chopping up produce in the kitchen and trying all sorts of different grains and vegetables, that just naturally passes down to kids.”
Question #5: Why do people become plant-based nutrition coaches?
At Precision Nutrition, we often talk about finding your “why,” or your deeper reason for doing something.
People don’t usually commit to plant-based coaching as a career because it’s trendy, or because it sounds cool.
Instead, plant-based nutrition coaches often have a deep passion for what the eating philosophy can do for people, animals, and the planet.
For Rice, one of the most compelling aspects is the health benefits associated with eating more plants. And as a plant-based dietitian who works with athletes, she’s also interested in emerging research about plant-based diets and athletic longevity (the portion of an athlete’s life where they can continue to perform).
For many plant-based coaches, sustainability and animal welfare are critically important, and the two actually go hand in hand.
“When I think of a sustainable diet, a big part of that is obviously ecological sustainability,” says Ryan Andrews, MS, MA, RD, RYT, CSCS, a plant-based dietitian and nutrition adviser for Precision Nutrition. “But under that umbrella is everything else, like individual health, animal welfare, farmer welfare, and food equity in general.” For our food system to be truly sustainable, we need to address all of these things, he says.
That starts with eaters making dietary changes, according to Andrews. “But I also want to be cautious and not place all the burden on individuals. Because right now, it’s not that easy to always make new choices with how we eat.”
That’s where you come in as a plant-based nutrition coach.
It might seem like a small drop in the bucket, but each person who makes small changes (subbing lentils for meat three times a week, or switching from whey protein powder to pea protein powder) adds up.
Andrews thinks of the global shift towards eating more plants like a morning traffic jam: “If one person doesn’t drive one day, there’s probably still going to be a traffic jam. But if collectively, everybody starts to make modifications, then it changes traffic patterns.” The same goes for plant-based eating.
Question #6: What do you need to know before you become a plant-based coach?
When we talked to plant-based coaches for this article, we asked them what they wished they knew when they got started, and what they think other plant-based nutrition coaches should know. Here’s what they said.
There are a lot of myths about plant-based eating.
Burgett says for him, dispelling myths about plant-based eating and certain foods, like soy, has been one of the biggest challenges he’s encountered.
Another myth that seems to be pervasive: The idea that protein isn’t important for vegans.
“A lot of people in the plant-based vegan space, even doctors, just kind of disregard protein,” he says.
It’s not that he’s obsessed with protein, Burgett says, but it’s an important macronutrient for anyone, especially if they’re active.
So with his clients, Burgett always works to educate about the importance of protein and choosing diverse plant-based protein sources.
People also worry that plant-based eating is expensive, Ernst says. “But it’s actually a very inexpensive way to eat.”
This is an important myth to address with potential clients, she adds. “I think some people might have hesitations about signing up with a plant-based nutrition coach if they think it’s too expensive.”
There’s a growing interest in plant-based sports nutrition.
Rice has chosen to work with plant-based athletes as her niche, due to her personal interest in athletics and the fact that there’s a growing community of plant-based athletes where she’s based, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
While there’s a lot of buzz in this area, Rice says there are some things you need to know if you want to go into this niche. Therefore, getting specialized knowledge through a certification or mentorship may be necessary.
For instance, eating too much fiber, which can happen with a fully plant-based diet, can cause feelings of early satiety (fullness), and possibly lead to (unintentional) undereating, which can put athletes at risk for relative energy deficiency in sport (known as RED-S), Rice explains.
RED-S can affect athletic performance, as well as an athlete’s overall health.
“This is one reason plant-based diets must be balanced, without too much of one nutrient (fiber, fat, carbs, or protein),” she says.
Be aware of disordered eating.
Plant-based eating is often seen as a “healthy” way to eat. That perception can be a driver for people with disordered eating and orthorexia to choose it, Rice says. (Orthorexia is an eating disorder where people become so consumed by “healthy eating” that they damage their own mental and/or physical health.)
For the record, this can happen with any specialized way of eating; it’s not specific only to plant-based eating.
But it’s important for plant-based coaches to be aware of, Rice says. “As a coach, I want to know the reason why you’re choosing plant-based.”
Clients might choose the eating style for health, sustainability, long-term athletic development, among other reasons, she says. But if they dig deeper and discover it’s related to disordered eating or even just bragging rights, Rice encourages clients to reevaluate.
This is one of the reasons it’s smart to set up a referral network. If you encounter a client or potential client in this situation, you can refer them out to a qualified mental health professional.
In many ways, plant-based coaching is the future.
There’s no one best way to eat. That’s for sure. “But what’s different about a plant-centered, plant-forward, or plant-based diet is that it’s not a single dietary pattern,” Andrews says. “It’s just working towards including more plants in somebody’s diet, wherever they are.”
Emphasizing plants in our diets is one of the biggest adjustments we can make towards a more sustainable food system, Andrews points out. It’s also one of the most powerful things we can do to reduce our risk of disease and ensure we get the nutrients we need. (For more, check out The 5 principles of good nutrition.)
So becoming a coach who helps people eat more plants in some way, shape, or form? That’s something you can be really proud of.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
Learning how to coach clients, patients, friends, or family members through healthy eating and lifestyle changes—in a way that’s personalized for their unique body, preferences, and circumstances—is both an art and a science.
If you’d like to learn more about both, consider the Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certification. The next group kicks off shortly.