My friends who have known me for a while are aware that I know a thing or two about getting fit. Not because I’m a personal trainer. They’ve seen my transformation first hand: I’ve been through the process of adopting fitness as a lifestyle.
I was over 200 pounds and inactive. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being 200 pounds, by the way. But on my frame, I didn’t feel good at this weight. I was clinically obese. I wasn’t very active, I didn’t have much energy, my joints hurt, and I felt bleh.
My friends and family watched me complete my first Olympic triathlon, get my first heavy-ass deadlift, and pack on some sweet looking muscle. They have seen my body completely transform and also have witnessed a big change in my overall mood and self confidence.
So when friends still come to me asking about the latest MLM (that’s multi-level marketing) crash diet plan or other quick fix they heard about on Dr. Oz, it makes me die inside a little bit. Or at least want to bang my head against my desk.
My first instinct has been frustration and maybe a bit of annoyance. After all, I’ve been preaching my interpretation of healthy behavior change. At times I have behaved like a preacher, as if I could be on a street corner with a big book called CONSISTENCY that I’d wave around fervently as I spread the good word of moderation and habit formation.
We’re really talking about fat loss here, first of all. I rarely see MLM schemes marketed to people seeking better cardiovascular health and improved coordination or athletic performance. Most people want to look better naked. There’s nothing wrong with aesthetic goals, though coming to a place where our self worth isn’t defined by our size is a huge step in personal growth. But successful, long-term weight management is something I’ve experienced. My friends know this. So why do some still look for the quick fix or the new promise of a special solution?
As an industry, fit pros are missing out on an opportunity to serve all of the people who are currently doing nothing. We cluck our tongues at people trying out these fad diets yet we aren’t listening to why people throw their money at them. It’s time to consider changing our approach.
Why Fitness Professionals Hate MLMs, Detoxes, and Magic Pills.
I won’t launch into a tirade on MLMs here. Others have explained the fallacy of MLM supplements and predatory practices associated with them. But in short, we dislike all of these products for a few basic reasons:
- Supplements are often little more than cheap protein powder, which you could buy for much less cost at a number of different places. Often, the quality of protein is inferior to products that cost less.
- Many of the supplements are “fat burners”, “energy drinks” and so on that are basically expensive pee. They’re vitamins, herbs, or caffeine that do absolutely nothing to actually help you lose fat. But the placebo effect is real, and people believe that the supplements are doing all the work.
- Most of these products come with the caveat “works with a healthy diet and exercise”. Often the accompanying program includes a very restrictive diet that people follow. Basically, you’re losing fat with them because you created a caloric deficit. This drives us bonkers.
- All of these plans are unsustainable for the long term. I’m looking at you, 21 Day Fix, Whole 30, and (insert most every other program here). Eventually, you are going to start eating bread/potatoes/other calorically dense foods again.
- These plans don’t teach you anything about how fat loss actually works. Once you end the plan, you’re back to square one again.
What Can We Learn?
Talking to each other about how much we loathe these products does absolutely nothing to help the people who need the most help. These are folks who have often tried “sensible” solutions in the past. Most likely, they needed a little more support and understanding about what realistic changes look and feel like. They weren’t there yet. It takes a lot of time and patience to find sustainable change.
They’re seeking: all of the people who come at them with their stories of their progress and how it comes so effortlessly are pretty damn appealing. They hear it from people who seem to have some kind of authority, like Dr. Oz, and from friends who have recently dropped a ton of weight. And the people selling the programs are so freaking happy and enthusiastic. They are cheerleaders. They also play into people’s insecurities, feed them just a little, and then offer them a neat and tidy package of fixing it. Yuck. But it’s sneaky, and it works. It’s also more specific. The conventional wisdom of “eat less, move more” teaches us nothing about how to accomplish those things.
The tactics of these companies make me a little sick. But they have also addressed factors that fitness professionals often refuse to acknowledge. We don’t all share the same education, outlook, and goals. We need to understand why people look to these sources in the first place.
The Case of the Liquid Diet
One of my best girlfriends knows me well enough to suspect that a new crazy plan was probably a terrible idea. We all still remember Oprah’s disaster from the 1980’s. Still, my friend brought the product to my attention. “Help talk me out of this,” she begged. Her co-worker was raving about a liquid diet that had allowed her to drop 25 lbs in a month. Sure, much of it was probably water weight. No, it wasn’t going to last. I wanted to just shut that shit down. NO! Bad! But instead, I asked her more about it. Even knowing that it’s not a great idea for her health and long term success, why is this tempting?
She shared these thoughts:
I think for me the temptation lies in the fact that it’s a simple solution (meals/supplements planned and thought out for you) AND proven results with people I know. If I’m seeing a photo or seeing someone I know shrinking, I’m totally fascinated with how that’s happening. BUT that’s also how I feel now since I’m not super happy with my body. When I’m at more of my normal/ideal weight, I don’t pay much attention to how others have lost their weight at all. So it’s definitely psychological. And of course, I know it’s not sustainable either. But the lure of weight loss plus energy plus less meal planning plus NO exercise is totally appealing to the lazy bum in me.
I lost 100 pounds after I had my baby. It was quick though. I started doing yoga and it all just came off (and I also was dealing with a ton of stress and subsequent IBS). For me, I’ve never ever had to work to lose weight; I just find something I like to do and then the weight comes off. Watching my food intake has never been a necessity. I feel like the more I focus on my food, the more i gain (or at least eat). So for me the quick loss is enticing because struggling with my weight is a completely new thing.
- Simply knowing that a plan is potentially unhealthy or unsustainable isn’t enough to dissuade people from trying something.
- Quick results are highly motivating to many people.
- Having to commit to both exercising and new eating habits can be overwhelming to people just starting out.
- Having restriction in the form of meal plans or other rules can be attractive because it requires less planning and rewiring of multiple habits initially.
- People are often driven by tangible results. Even if I believe that your progress of getting stronger, more resilient, and more consistent in your practice is more important than the size of your waistline, that might not motivate you. What’s the MOST motivating marker of progress? How can we track it?
Can we create an environment for ourselves that incorporates some of the appeal of these programs without the unneccessary cash expenditure and potentially dangerous practices? It’s possible that acknowledging and reinterpreting some of the insanity actually lead to better long term outcomes.
- The idea of a challenge is overwhelmingly appealing to people. Can you create your own challenge? However, instead of making it based upon taking pills, what about a consistency challenge? I railed hard against challenges for a long time, but in doing so I ignored a truth: often, more significant early success breeds more success later on. I’m not just making that up, there’s emerging research that backs the theory. Initial greater weight loss can correlate to greater weight loss in the long term. 1
- Put some skin in the game. Instead of a bogus shake, if you are motivated by a financial commitment, sign up for a fitness class, hire a nutritionist, or purchase sessions with a trainer. My friend believed that committing to the purchase would help her stick to the plan. This may or may not be relevant, but if you believe it will help, give it a go.
- Having a little more calorie restriction for an upcoming event isn’t the end of the world. It’s possible that you really don’t care about your long term results. More likely, it’s that the present need is emotionally more important to you. One month of behaving like someone getting ready for a figure competition isn’t always a terrible thing. However, excessively low calorie intake will backfire. Binging happens, shame ensues, and then we abandon ship. A more aggressive calorie range still needs to be healthy for your body. Working with a dietitian rather than a Beachbody coach would be a good plan if you go this route. FYI: “coach” means they sell products, not that they have nutritional expertise.
- Give your plan rules and structure, but keep it simple. People crave structure. For the long term, I still believe that developing habits will breed the best success. Sustainable habits let us live healthy lives without having to measure food, calculate calories, and track data daily. But if you’re a newbie, that doesn’t happen over night. Having fewer things to choose initially may bring comfort and success.Examples of more structure may be having a calorie goal daily; a limit on alcoholic drinks; committing to 3 walks per week; temporarily keeping food out of the house that you can’t moderate (Oreos, holla).
- Measure progress for a specific time period. For whatever period you choose, you’ll have pictures or measurements or whatever you want to use to chart.
- Hate exercise? Put it off. At least for the short term. Work on nutrition first. When you’re ready, move a little more – think small, like walks around the neighborhood. And then choose something new to try. People often become more open to healthy movement when it isn’t prescribed in large, grueling doses. Then you can build from there.
- Start reflecting on when and why you hit roadblocks. This is where MLMs fall flat. They know nothing about why you couldn’t stick with something before. They don’t know that every time you feel stressed out about work that you dive into cookies. They simply ban the cookies and don’t encourage the process of untangling your relationship with your body, your food, or your health. Even if you’re doing a challenge for a month, take note of what’s easy and what’s hard. Why is it hard? This will bring more wisdom for your long term effort.
- Grab a friend. Many people doing fixes, cleanses, and challenges are doing them in a group. They have entire forums devoted to going through the process. Part of what attracts us to diets is almost religious – we have a church of diet, with a flock of true believers who will encourage us when we feel frustrated. Sure, it’s often really fucked up advice, but it’s community. Make your own community. Find a friend or 3 who want to commit to a similar change. You can even make your own amazing supplement if you feel the need to have a special thing that you buy. #lifechanging #notreally #tastesgoodthough.
Here’s the recipe!
MAGICAL PROTEIN SHAKE OF MAGIC
1 scoop protein powder (Vanilla burns more fat. Just kidding, it’s only delicious.)
1 cup of milk (only organic milk from happy cows birthed in a nurturing environment- again, kidding – it doesn’t matter for nutrition).
1 handful of spinach (you won’t taste it, promise)
1/2 cup berries (yo, berries are good — and sweet.)
1 cup of ice cubes (frozen unicorn tears)
What’s the magic? It fills up your belly and gives you nutrients. And it doesn’t cost $300 a month. You also don’t have to sell it to your friends for an insanely inflated cost. That’s pretty damn magical to me.
Have you bought into fad diets before? I’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave a comment below.
- Jessica L. Unick, Rebecca H. Neiberg, Patricia E. Hogan, Lawrence J. Cheskin, Gareth R. Dutton, Robert Jeffery, Julie A. Nelson, Xavier Pi-Sunyer, Delia Smith West, Rena R. Wing. Weight change in the first 2 months of a lifestyle intervention predicts weight changes 8 years later. Obesity, 2015; 23 (7): 1353 DOI: 10.1002/oby.21112 ↩