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“Success” in coaching used to mean a nice roster of ~30 in-person clients, full ownership of your practice, and a net profit that afforded you a vacation or two a year. These days, health and fitness coaches are ditching the cookie cutter definitions and building businesses their own way. Here are 7 inspiring coaches who are redefining success in health and fitness coaching and how you can too.


“Making it” as a fitness and health coach used to be pretty straightforward.

“Success” meant having a steady stream of clients knocking on your door, and making enough money to easily pay the bills, live comfortably, and take your family on vacation from time to time.

But, lately, we’ve noticed that health and fitness coaches are getting more creative with their definition of “success”. They’re building their businesses to support specific personal and professional goals.

Everything from: building a practice that allows them to work from anywhere in the world (even amazing, exotic locations), to setting flexible work hours so they can hang out more with their children or pursue other hobbies and interests, to working with specific groups that are most meaningful to them because of past experiences or future aspirations.

It’s awesome to watch.

That’s why we decided to ask a few of our ProCoaches:

What does success look like for you?
And how are you achieving it?

Their stories were so good — so inspiring — that I wanted to share them with you today. They might even help you re-define what success means for you.


Success is… living life on your own terms.

Daniel Hennessey is living the dream.

Thailand, Costa Rica, California… Dan travels around the world with his business partner and fiancé, Wendy, while coaching fitness and nutrition online (and creating an enviable Instagram while he’s at it).

Dan used to live his life on the gym floor (or sitting in traffic on the long commute to work.) But after years as a trainer and gym owner, he finally said to himself, “what am I doing?”

The truth is, life in the gym just wasn’t for him. He wanted to be in the outdoors. To travel. To seek out new perspectives on life, and new ways of being healthy.

Most of all, “I wanted to do things my own way.”

Dan took the plunge. He sold his possessions and embraced the minimalist life, traveling with just a backpack. Meanwhile, he established a new business for himself as an online coach.

Now, at 30, Dan focuses on people who he feels are better served by online, rather than in-person coaching — such as busy moms, or people who feel intimidated by the mere thought of setting foot in a gym.

“With online coaching, a lot more people can have access to this thing called health, and I can coach you while sitting at home.”

How he does it:
Dan uses Procoach to deliver online nutrition coaching. At the higher-end, his services are priced at $200/month; at the lower-end, he offers a “90 day for 90 dollars” program that helps people get started.

Dan’s advice:
“All that really matters is this: What do you want to do, and why? What gives you joy and purpose? Whatever it is, go after it. There’s more to life than living scared.”

Success is… making coaching accessible and inclusive.

Ten years ago, Jon Mills walked into a martial arts studio where he was introduced to a simple mantra: “Anyone who is willing to put in the work is welcome here”.

Unfortunately, he began to notice this approach didn’t seem to apply across the board in health, fitness, or martial arts. Many people were being excluded, especially those from low-income backgrounds. And some, such as LGBTQ folks, found that gyms and studios could be downright hostile.

Today, Jon, 30, offers personal training, martial arts, and mindfulness coaching, and he provides online nutrition coaching through Procoach.

His mission: Make coaching welcoming for anyone.

Jon focuses on providing an inclusive, safe coaching experience for everyone, especially queer and trans clients. And he invites folks with lower incomes to pay what they can — or even train for free.

It might sound crazy, but for Jon, it works.

“The funny thing is, not only am I helping others, it’s working as a business. I’ve learned that people will give what they can, when they can. And they’ll definitely refer you. Plus, because of how I work, I have no competition. My referrals come from the community.”

Jon’s approach is people-focused. “I don’t worry about getting money, and I just concentrate on helping folks,” says Jon. “I’ve come to realize that this isn’t just an ideal, but something that can be fulfilling and sustainable.”

How he does it:
Jon uses Patreon, an online donation service, to collect donations. Clients who can afford to pay do so, and if they wish, add donations to pay for those who can’t afford it. Jon offers his nutrition coaching services through Procoach to both in-person and exclusively online clients.

Jon’s words of advice:
“There’s a lot of stuff in the fitness industry that will tell you to fit a mold. But being yourself is the key to being a great coach, because that’s how people will connect with you. You have to embrace who you are.”

Success is… turning your job into your dream career.

As a Registered Dietician working in a clinic alongside doctors in Kitchener, Ontario, Irene Pace had started to notice something important: Certain clients don’t seem to get the results they want through the health system’s traditional model of nutrition care.

“Whether it was the psychology of my coaching or the system itself, I just couldn’t provide what they needed. I remember one client in particular who I worked with over a couple of years. Despite my best efforts, her health declined, and her weight went up. I failed to help her.”

Irene thought to herself, “I have to do better.”

So recently, at 40, Irene decided to do a deep dive into the art of nutrition coaching. She got her PN Level 1 Certification, and in time, became an assistant coach at PN.  And she’s continued to strengthen her skills with the Level 2 Certification.

Now, Irene has added ProCoach to her RD services — and is seeing the kinds of results she had always hoped to witness.  Her clients are surpassing their ‘stuckness’ like they never did before.

“Using this platform, clients can communicate with me on an ongoing basis. They can reach out whenever they feel stuck instead of waiting weeks for an appointment… Having regular contact with clients throughout their change process instead of intermittent visits adds up to big change. It seems magical.”

Irene is feeling the reward of seeing her clients succeed. At the same time, she’s also able to prioritize her family and spend time with her three children.

The result: Irene is building a career that is both personally and professionally rewarding, in a way she never thought possible.

How she does it:
Irene started using ProCoach with a ‘test group’ of friends and family paying $35/month. With the test round done, she launched another cohort paying $50/month. She’s now working on her plans for her next cohort launch of full-paying clients, as she continues to build her business, and find her niche.

Irene’s advice:
“We all come into coaching with many transferable skills. Don’t ever discount the unique things you can bring to the table. There’s something from the experience you’ve had, whether it’s a previous job or your life, that can make you a better coach — if you let it.”

Success is… creating a gym that’s so much more than a gym.

Michael Espinosa runs a gym… but it’s so much more than that.

In addition to in-person training (with a focus on strength/conditioning and Olympic weightlifting), Michael also offers nutrition coaching through ProCoach for free, to any members who want it.

According to Mike, 33, ProCoach adds an important element to the in-person coaching experience: “It allows me to connect better with clients and teach them things like mindset and body awareness… things you can’t think about between your clean and jerk.”

Notably, the gym runs as a non-profit, with the goal of creating an integrated, accessible community. Middle and high school students get free training; university students get a discounted rate.

In addition, the gym boasts a community garden, “so that kids can see what broccoli or radish looks like when it’s growing,” and a small outdoor calisthenics park that’s free to the public.

Why give so much stuff away for free? Michael says it comes down to his core values.

“Justice is one of my values. The area we’re in has seen a lot of injustice. This is my way of tipping the scales. I provide a safe space for people to work out together, and make it a diverse community. Families, professors, university students, kids in the neighborhood, anyone is welcome here.”

How he does it:
Those who can afford it pay a monthly membership fee ($144 for adults; $100 for students), which fund the gym. Michael acknowledges that it’s not a lucrative business. For him, the success lies in having a positive impact on the community and changing people’s lives — things he strongly values.

Michael’s advice:
“Be unapologetically aware of what you’re doing and why. Do some honest reflection with yourself. And keep learning and growing; flowing water never goes stale.”

Success is… helping people build stronger communities.

“The last thing you want to talk about is nutrition when you’re standing on the roof of your house.”

After seeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, A’Tondra, 35, decided she didn’t just want to help people get healthier, she wanted to help them get stronger so they could serve their communities better.

To do that, A’Tondra made the choice to serve a smaller group of people, some in-person and some online. She tailored her services to provide a high degree of personalized attention and accountability, and to help her clients develop their own support systems.

“I’ve learned that when a person feels supported, they’re able to find purpose. And that makes everything better not only for themselves, but for all the people in their life.”

At first, reducing her number of clients was scary. But after the first year, “I had fewer clients but had nearly tripled my income. Plus, I was having a bigger impact on my clients.”

A’Tondra has watched her clients not only get healthier and stronger, but also give more back to their work, families, and neighborhoods.

At the same time, she’s able to spend more time with her own community, especially her family. “I have four children, and I’m able to make all their science competitions, basketball games and chess tournaments. That means a lot to me.”

How she does it:
For three months of in-person exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle coaching, A’Tondra charges $3,500 for individuals and $6,800 per couple, upfront. (She finds that couples who train together tend to support each other well.) Online clients, who she serves through ProCoach, pay approximately half the in-person price.

A’Tondra’s advice:
“Learn to appreciate what’s good about where you’re at. It can be easy to think you need hundreds of clients, people banging down your door to work with you. But with fewer clients, I make a bigger impact on them, it’s better for me financially, and I own my time.”

Success is… loving what you do, and earning a good living at it.

Living and working just steps away from the beach, Christie Miller has something many people aspire to: She truly loves what she does for a living — and she makes good money at it.

Not only is she passionate about health and fitness, she’s able to coach at a price point that is financially rewarding. As a result, “I wake up every morning and think… ‘I get to do this for a living — and get paid for it?’.”

Christie, 49, wasn’t an overnight success. After a number of different careers, she started her online coaching business — only to be met with frustration and stacks of bills.

(In fact, after her first year of business, the IRS came calling; they didn’t believe anyone could lose that much money. But she had.)

But after a few years, Christie found her ideal clientele, and that made all the difference. Now, she helps “ambitious women who want to play to win in all aspects of their lives.”

For this type of client, a higher price point was more effective. It attracted the kind of dedicated, driven clients she was looking for: people who were determined to get results and willing to pay for it.

Christie’s income absolutely exploded: By the second quarter of year three, she had made $57,000 — more than she made in the first two years of her business combined.

How she does it:
Christie uses ProCoach to serve clients all over Europe, North America, and even Dubai. For her 6-month program, she currently charges $497 a month. Upon graduating, clients are encouraged to renew for 6 more months.

Christie’s advice:
“Be polarizing. Know exactly who your target audience is, and who they aren’t. It can be scary and can be a rollercoaster ride sometimes. But it’s absolutely worth it.”

Success is… helping women take back their health and empowerment.

Once upon a time, Stephanie Hinders found herself in an abusive relationship. Once she managed to get out, and get healthy (with support from her community at a local gym), she made it her mission to help other women take back control over their own lives too.

“I thought to myself, ‘Why did I go through all of that, if not to use the experience to help others?’.”

Today, 29-year-old Stephanie provides a combination of in-person and online coaching services to help women who feel disempowered regain their health, strength and self-confidence.

Seeing the changes in her clients is incredibly meaningful to Stephanie.

“I’m able to see clients go from berating themselves to celebrating their own progress. They find the light on the other side of the tunnel. They regain their confidence, mentally, physically, and emotionally. It’s hard to describe how much that means to me.”

How she does it:
Stephanie has been training people in a local gym in Powell, Ohio, for more than four years. This past year, she added ProCoach services, beginning with an offer of three months free, in exchange for feedback. Stephanie is currently working on implementing a new pricing structure, and expanding her online client base. She’s pregnant, and is excited that ProCoach as that will allow her to continue coaching with a flexible schedule when her new baby arrives.

Stephanie’s advice:
“Be truthful to your own story. It can be intimidating when you look at other coaches, and easy to second guess yourself. You might look around and think ‘maybe I should be doing it like that.’ But you know your own reasons for doing what you do, and it’s important to remember that.”

Ready to build a thriving coaching practice?

Tested with nearly 100,000 clients now, Precision Nutrition’s ProCoach makes it easy to deliver the sustainable, research-proven nutrition and lifestyle coaching discussed in this article to anyone who needs it… from paying clients and patients, to family, to co-workers, to loved ones.

Want to coach in-person? Online? A combination of the two? Whatever fits your ideal lifestyle, it’s all possible with ProCoach.

With the ProCoach curriculum, coaching tools, and software, you’ll be able to turn what you learned in the Precision Nutrition Certification into a thriving practice, getting better results with dozens, even hundreds, of people while working less and living life on your own terms.

Interested? Add your name to the presale list. You’ll save 30% and secure your spot 24 hours before everyone else.

On Wednesday, June 6th, 2018, ProCoach becomes available to all Precision Nutrition Certification students and graduates.

If you’re interested and want to find out more, I’d encourage you to join our presale list. Being on the presale list gives you two special advantages.

  • You’ll pay less than everyone else. At Precision Nutrition, we like to reward the most interested and motivated professionals, because they always make the best students and clients. Join the presale list and we’ll give you 30% off the monthly cost of Precision Nutrition’s ProCoach.
  • You’re more likely to get a spot. Remember, last time we sold out within hours. But by joining the presale list you’ll get the opportunity to register 24 hours before everyone else, increasing your chances of getting in.

If you’re ready to help more people live their healthiest lives, grow your business, and worry less about time and money… ProCoach is your chance.

The post Redefining success in health and fitness coaching. How 7 coaches are rethinking their careers & how you can too. appeared first on Precision Nutrition.

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The after-work gin and tonic. The bottle of wine over dinner. A few beers on the weekend. Before long, the alcohol adds up.

Is that a problem? Can drinking stand in the way of your health and fitness? Do you need to quit drinking to change your body? Or could it actually be good for you?

In this article we explore the question in a personal way.


“Should I take a break from booze?”

Have you ever asked yourself this question?

I’ve asked it, as have many of our Precision Nutrition Coaching clients.

At the same time, like many of our clients, I’ve never really felt like I needed to quit drinking. My consumption is normal by most accounts, as is theirs. It’s “moderate.”

But boozy beverages seem to show up a lot in my life — and I know I’m not alone in that.

Maybe we like having a beer to mark the end of a work day. Maybe on Friday we get fancy with a cocktail.

Something to celebrate? Pour a little champagne. Crappy day? That Chardonnay or Cabernet will soften the edges a little bit.

The drinks can start to add up.

If we consider ourselves healthy people, alcohol is easy to justify. We exercise. We try to eat nutritious food. If we’re getting coaching, we know we’re working on our stuff.

But still. Some of us wonder…

Are we OK?

Are we justifying something we shouldn’t?

Are we ignoring the elephant in the room who’s currently dancing with a lampshade on its head and laughing a little too loud while telling off-color jokes?

Are we pretending craft beer or red wine is a health food because it’s artisanal or full of antioxidant something-something?

If we want to be healthy, fit, and functional, how does alcohol factor in?

As I discovered, the answer isn’t straightforward. (It rarely is.)

For one thing:

You may have heard that drinking is actually good for you.

Moderate alcohol intake is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, gallstones, and coronary heart disease.

Light to moderate drinking seems to be good for the heart and circulatory system, helping reduce your risk of cardiac arrest and clot-caused stroke by 25 to 40 percent.

And there have been several studies indicating that drinkers — even heavy drinkers — actually outlive people who don’t drink.

We see headlines like this every time a new study comes out, which seems fairly often, judging by my newsfeed.

An important point that seems to get buried:

If you don’t already drink, health experts recommend you don’t start.

Wait, what? If drinking is so good for you, then why not add that antioxidant-rich red wine to MyPlate — a nice goblet right where the milk used to be?

Because no one knows if any amount of alcohol is actually good for all of us.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you not to drink.

That’s not what this article is about.

But, despite all the headlines and pro-drinking studies:

Most of the research on alcohol’s potential health benefits are large, long-term epidemiological studies.

This type of research never proves anything.

Rather than showing that X causes Y, it simply says that X seems to be correlated with Y.

So even though many studies suggest that light to moderate drinkers have lower rates of the above-mentioned health problems than non-drinkers, that doesn’t mean drinking causes those benefits.

Sure, it could be that alcohol consumption raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Or it could be that moderate drinking reduces stress.

Or it could be that drinking doesn’t cause any health benefit.

Rather, it could be that people who drink a light to moderate amount also have something else going on in their lives, unrelated to alcohol consumption, that keeps them healthier, such as:

  • robust and resilient genes
  • a lower-stress personality
  • a particular lifestyle
  • good social connections and support

We just don’t know for sure.

Any physiological effects would vary from person to person.

The amount of alcohol that may help your heart health might harm your friend’s — for instance, if they have a history of high blood pressure.

And most of the research indicates that you’d have to be a light to moderate drinker with no heavy drinking episodes (even isolated ones) to see a heart benefit.

OK, given that…

What is “moderation”, anyway?

Definitions vary around the world, but according to the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “moderate drinking” means, on average:

  • For women: up to seven drinks per week, with no more than three drinks on any single day.
  • For men: up to 14 drinks per week, with no more than four drinks on any single day.

And here’s a guide to health-agency classified “drinks”:

Sure, you might know you’re not a binge drinker (that’s five or more drinks for men, or upwards of four for women, within two hours).

But when was the last time you poured wine in a measuring cup, or tallied your total number of drinks at the end of the week, or calculated your weekly average in a given month, or adjusted your tally to account for that sky-high 9.9% ABV Strong Ale you love?

Studies show that people routinely, sometimes drastically, underestimate their alcohol consumption.

It’s easy to edge into the “heavy” category without realizing it.

For example, if you’re a woman:

That’s a big problem, since heavy drinking comes with a much higher risk of major health problems.

Risks associated with moderate and heavy alcohol consumption

Moderate Heavy
Heart Arrhythmias
High blood pressure
Kidney disease
Heart disease
Brain Disinhibition
Altered judgement
Poor coordination
Sleep disruption
Chemical dependence
Neurological damage
Damage to developing brains
Immunity Infection / illness / lowered immune response
Cancer (mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, breast)
Damaged intestinal barrier
Increased inflammation / flare-ups of autoimmune disorders
Hormones Breast cancer Hormone disruption
Impaired sexual function
Impaired reproductive function
Thyroid disease
Liver Worsening of existing conditions such as hepatitis Fatty liver
Alcoholic hepatitis
Fibrosis / cirrhosis
Liver cancer
Metabolism Weight gain or stalled weight loss**
Interference with some medications
Loss of bone density
Bone fractures
Changes to fat metabolism
Muscle damage

*Particularly if there’s alcoholism in your family
**If drinking causes you to eat more food or opt for energy-dense meals

In young males especially, even moderate drinking increases the risk of accidental injury or death, due to the “Hey y’all, hold my beer and watch this!” effect, or simply the dangerous equation of youthful exuberance combined with less impulse control, combined with more peer pressure, combined with things like motor vehicles and machinery.

All drinking comes with potential health effects.

After all, alcohol is technically a kind of poison that our bodies must convert to less-harmful substances for us to enjoy a good buzz relatively safely.

Through a series of chemical pathways using the enzymes alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), we convert ethanol to acetaldehyde, then to acetate. The body breaks acetate down into carbon dioxide and water.

A second system for processing alcohol, the microsomal ethanol oxidizing system (MEOS), involves cytochrome P450 (CYP), an enzyme group that chemically affects potentially toxic molecules (such as medications) so they can be safely excreted.

In light to moderate drinkers, only about 10 percent of ethanol processing is done by the MEOS. But in heavy drinkers, this system kicks in more strongly. That means the MEOS may be less available to process other toxins. Oxidative cell damage, and harm from high alcohol intake, then goes up.

The biochemistry doesn’t matter as much as the core concepts:

1. We have to change alcohol to tolerate it.

2. Our ability to process alcohol depends on many factors, such as:

  • our natural individual genetic tolerance
  • our ethnicity and genetic background (for instance, many people of East Asian ancestry have a genetically-linked aldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme deficiency, which affects their ability to properly metabolize alcohol)
  • our age
  • our body size
  • our biological sex
  • our individual combinations of conversion enzymes
  • etc.

3. Dose matters. But all alcohol requires some processing by the body.

So what’s the “sweet spot”?

What amount of alcohol balances enjoyment (and your jokes becoming funnier) with your body’s ability to respond and recover from processing something slightly poisonous?

The moderate-vs-heavy guidelines are the experts’ best guess at the amount of alcohol that can be consumed with statistically minimal risk, while still accounting for what a lot of people are probably going to do anyway: drink.

It doesn’t mean that moderate drinking is risk-free.

But drinking is fun. (There, I said it.)

In North America, we tend to separate physical well-being from our emotional state. In reality, quality of life, enjoyment, and social connections are important parts of health.

So let me say it:

I enjoy drinking.

So do a lot of other people.

In the U.S., for example, 65 percent of people say they consume alcohol. Of those drinkers, at least three quarters enjoy alcohol one or more times per week.

The wine flows at lunchtime in continental Europe (for Scandinavians, it’s the light beer lättöl). Hitting a pub or two after work is standard procedure in the UK and Japan. Northern Europeans swear by their brennivin, glögg, or akvavit (not to mention vodka). South America and South Africa alike are renowned for their red wines.

Thus, for much of the world’s population, alcohol — whether beer, wine or spirits — is something of a life staple.

And if you’re doing it right — meaning tasteful New Year’s Eve champagne toasts are more common in your life than shot-fueled bar dances to “Hotline Bling” — there are some undeniable benefits to be gained:

  • Pleasure: Assuming you’ve graduated from wine coolers and cheap tequila shots, alcoholic beverages usually taste pretty darn delicious.
  • Leisure: A bit of alcohol in your bloodstream does help you feel relaxed. And like a good meal, a good glass of wine should offer the opportunity to slow down for a minute.
  • Creativity: There’s evidence that when you’re tipsy, you may be more successful at problem-solving thanks to increased out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Social connection: Drinking may contribute to social bonding through what researchers call “golden moments” — when you all smile and laugh together over the same joke. This sense of community, belonging, and joy can contribute to your health and longevity.
If you’re going to drink, drink because you genuinely enjoy it.

Drink if it truly adds value and pleasure to your life.

Not because:

  • you’re stressed
  • it’s a habit
  • other people around you don’t want to drink alone; or
  • it’s “good for you”.

With confusing alcohol consumption categories and contradictory news headlines, many people give up trying to decide whether drinking is healthy or not.

A new study shows alcohol may be harmful? Whatever.


Drinkers live longer? I’ll hop on that horse and ride it straight to the bar!

So forget about the potential health benefits of alcohol.

There are plenty of (probably better) ways to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease — like eating well, exercising, and not smoking.

Wanting the enjoyment of a perfect Old Fashioned or a rare sake is a legitimate — probably the best — reason to drink.

As with what you eat, what you drink should be purposeful and mindful. And delicious.

Drinking or not drinking isn’t about “healthy vs. not”. It’s about tradeoffs.

Alcohol is just one factor among many that affect physical performance, health, and fitness.

Whether to keep drinking or cut back depends on how much you drink, what your goals are, and how you want to prioritize those things.

Only you know what you are, or aren’t, willing to trade.

It may be a simple “yes” or “no”.

  • Saying “yes” to Friday happy hour might mean saying “no” to your Saturday morning workout.
  • Saying “yes” to marathon training might mean saying “no” to boozy Sunday brunches.
  • Saying “yes” to better sleep (and focus, and mood) might mean saying “no” to your daily wine with dinner.
  • Saying “yes” to moderate alcohol consumption might mean finding a way to say “no” to stress triggers (or human triggers) that make you want to drink more.

Or it may be where you’re willing to move along the continuum.

  • Maybe you’re willing to practice drinking more slowly and mindfully, but you’re not willing to decrease your total alcohol intake.
  • Maybe you’re trying to lose weight, so you’d consider drinking a little less. Like 2 beers instead of 3, but not 0.
  • Or, maybe you’re willing to stay sober during most social situations, but you’re not willing to endure your partner’s office party without a G&T on hand.
Maybe there is a “best” answer for how much alcohol is okay for everyone. But we don’t know what it is yet.

At least not for certain.

That’s OK.

You can write your own “Owner’s Manual” for YOU as a unique individual.

Guidelines for drinking don’t tell us who YOU are or what effects alcohol has on YOU.

So let’s forget about “expert” advice for just a moment.

Instead, let’s try letting your body lead.

Read its cues. Observe yourself carefully, gather data, and see how alcohol is — or isn’t — working for you.

Here’s how.

What to do next:
Some tips from Precision Nutrition 1. Observe your drinking habits.

Keep track of all the alcohol you drink for a week or two (here’s a worksheet to help you).

You don’t need to share it with anyone or feel like you need to change anything. Just collect the info.

Next, review the data. Ask:

  • Am I drinking more than I thought? Maybe you hadn’t been taking the couple of casual beers with Sunday NFL into account.
  • Is my drinking urgent, mindless, or rushed? Slamming drinks back without stopping to savor them can be a sign that drinking is habitual, not purposeful.
  • Is alcohol helping me enjoy life, or is it stressing me out? If you’re not sleeping well or feeling worried about the drinking, the cost can outweigh the benefit.
  • Does alcohol bring any unwanted friends to the party? Binge eating, drug use, texting your ex?

If any of the answers to these questions raise red flags for you, consider cutting back and seeing how you feel.

2. Notice how alcohol affects your body.

Use Precision Nutrition’s “how’s that working for you?” litmus test. Ask:

  • Do I generally feel good? Simple, but telling.
  • Am I recovering? How’s my physical performance after drinking? If I were to hit the gym on Saturday morning after a Friday night social, how would I feel and perform?
  • What happens afterwards? Do I get a hangover, upset stomach, poor sleep, puffiness/bloating and/or other discomfort?
  • How does the extra energy intake work for my goals? Is alcohol adding some calories that I don’t want? Am I trying to lose weight, for instance?
  • What do my other physiological indicators say? What did my latest medical tests suggest? How’s my blood work? My blood pressure? Any other physiological indicators that I’m watching?

If you’re unsure about whether your alcohol use is helping or hurting you, talk to your doctor and get a read on your overall health.

3. Notice how alcohol affects your thoughts, emotions, assumptions, and general perspective on life.

Again: How’s that working for you?

  • Do you feel in control of your drinking? Are you choosing, deliberately and purposefully… or “finding yourself” drinking?
  • What kind of person are you when you are drinking? Are you a bon vivant, just slightly wittier and more relaxed, savoring a craft beer with friends? Or are you thinking, Let’s make that crap circus of a workday go away, as you pound back the liquid emotional anesthetic through gritted teeth?
  • If you had to stop drinking for a week, what would that be like? No big deal? Or did you feel mild panic when you read that question?
4. Play “Let’s Make a Deal”.

To pinpoint which goals and activities in your life are the most important to you, ask yourself:

  • What am I currently saying “yes” to?
  • What am I currently saying “no” to?
  • What am I willing to say “yes” to?
  • What am I willing to say “no” to?
  • What am I prepared to say “yes” and “no” to? Why?

There are no right or wrong answers.

Just choices and compromises.

You’re a grown-up who can think long-term and weigh options rationally...

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If you’re new to health, fitness, or nutrition coaching you’ve probably worried — at least a little — about how you’re going to get clients. Especially in this age of paid search, Facebook ads, and more. Well, worry no longer. These simple, fast, and free client acquisition strategies will help you get your first few clients. Or, if you already have a few, they’ll help you get a few more.


After coaching over 50,000 health, fitness, and wellness professionals through the Precision Nutrition Certification program, I’ve learned that new coaches (or coaches going out on their own for the first time) struggle most with one thing:

Getting new clients.

That’s totally understandable.

Beyond the early discomfort many new pros feel around learning “sales” and “marketing”, it’s also easy to get a little intimidated when looking at established brands and seeing the big audiences they’ve built, the content they’re creating, or the ads they’re running.

“JB, how can I compete?”

“I don’t even know the first thing about marketing funnels.”

“And who’s got that kind of money to invest in ads?”

While I can totally empathize with these feelings, I’ve got some good news:

You don’t have to compete!

Instead, you have to start at the beginning, just like those companies did. You start by going from zero to a few clients. Then you go from a few clients to a few more.

Even better news?

Getting your first few (or your next few) clients is cheap and easy.

You don’t need to master SEO, or spend money that you don’t yet have on Facebook ads, or build a big Instagram following.

Yes, those are the things getting attention today. But, for someone just starting out, they’re a distraction from the real work, which I’ll share below.

Indeed, use any of the three strategies I’m about to share and you’ll be shocked and amazed at how cheap and easy it is to attract your first few clients.

But, before the strategies, do you even know what you’re selling?

If I pressed, you’d probably give me a bunch of really smart answers:

“JB, of course I know what I’m selling!”

“I’m selling evidence-based nutrition coaching!”

“I’m selling my thousand years of education and master-level expertise!”

“I’m selling my slick, efficient online coaching platform!”

And I’ll say:

No you’re not.

Here’s something that might sound confusing at first, but will change the way you view your business, and how powerfully you attract clients.

No one wants nutrition, exercise, or lifestyle coaching.

No one wants daily practices, new habits, or lessons and thought exercises. No one wants custom workouts. No one wants diets, meal plans, or menus.

No one wants the product or service you’re selling.

What people want is to become a better version of themselves.

This image (from this excellent post) says it all:

You see, people don’t buy a university degree or certification, they buy the promise of ending up more knowledgeable, smarter, and (maybe) more employable.

People don’t buy canvas shoes or fancy sunglasses, they buy the idea of looking cooler, having special things, and making a fashion statement.

Likewise, people don’t buy nutrition coaching, they buy a hopeful vision of their future, one where they are healthier, stronger, and happier.

In other words, you’re not the subject of sales pitch, your client is.

Make them the hero of the story.

In essence, it’s your job to show them how working with you will turn them into an “Awesome person who can do rad stuff!”

(For more on this, with lots of examples, check out: How to sell sustainable coaching in a world of ‘overnight abs’. 6 strategies for better client buy-in and a stronger coaching business.)

For now, onto your “get a few new clients” strategies.

Strategy #1:
Survey Selling

Survey selling is something we do extensively, and very effectively, at Precision Nutrition. But we do it in a more complex, “scaled-up” kinda way.

You probably don’t need all that.

Which is why I love sharing this simpler way of doing survey selling from my friend Jon Goodman, of the Personal Trainer Development Centre and OnlineTrainer.com.

Jon’s strategy involves creating a simple survey (using Google Forms) that you can post on social media to attract the exact kind of client you’re after.

Here’s how to do it.

First, think about the type of person you want to serve.

Write down your ideal client’s:

  • Age range
  • Gender
  • Specific goal
  • Potential limitations

Here are two examples of what you might come up with:

My ideal clients are 20-30-year-old guys who want to lose a bit of fat and put on 5-10 lbs of muscle and have no serious injuries.

My ideal clients are 45-55-year-old females who want to lose no more than 10 lbs of fat but feel like they’ve tried everything and nothing seems to work.

Next, create a Google Form.

(If you don’t know how to make a Google form, click here for a tutorial.)

When starting a new survey, according to Jon’s method, you’ll need to create:

  • a title
  • a compelling description,
  • a few demographic + contact info questions

Here’s an example of what you might come up with:

Feel free to copy the exact format above, adjusting the title and description to match what you’re offering.

When it comes to the description, here’s the formula:

“I’m looking for {number of people}  {gender} ages {age range} who live in {your location} and are looking to {goal}. If this is you, please fill out the form below.

All eligible applications will be contacted by phone.”

Once you’re happy with the form, click “Send” at the top right and select the link icon in the pop-up window. This will give you a direct link to your form.

Be sure to save that link somewhere.

Finally, enable notifications so that you’ll be emailed every time a prospective client submits a completed form. To do this, go to your Google Drive, select your form, and click on the header titled “Responses”.

Then click the “Create spreadsheet” icon, which will redirect you to a Google spreadsheet.

In the spreadsheet page, click “Tools” at the top and select “Notification rules”.

A window will pop up with an option to have the system email you whenever users submit, either immediately, or collected into a daily digest. Select your preference.

Finally, share your survey on Facebook, Instagram, wherever.

For example, on Instagram change your description link to your survey link and upload a pic saying that you’re taking on clients (specific to the type) and use the script below, which directs people to click the link.

And, on Facebook you’ll share a status update with the same script (below) that links to your form. Here’s your script:

***I’m looking for {number of people} {gender} ages {age range} looking to {goal} that live in {location}.***

I am looking for {gender} who want to:

-{benefit 1}

-{benefit 2}

-{benefit 3}

Spots are extremely limited and I’m only looking for {number of people} who are ready to make a change today. To apply, fill out the quick survey below and I’ll be in touch if you meet the requirements:

===> {link to your Google form}

The benefits you include will vary but they should speak to the hopeful future I described earlier. In other words, list things that help them envision becoming an “Awesome person who can do rad stuff!”

Again, for lots of examples of this, check out my new article: How to sell sustainable coaching in a world of ‘overnight abs’. 6 strategies for better client buy-in and a stronger coaching business.

Note: You can use this method on any platform, via email, whatever. Just get the message out there and send people to your survey.

Be sure to call them right away.

Ideally you’ll call people within 20 minutes of them filling out your survey. I don’t care what you’re doing. Strike while it’s hot.

Go through the same process that you would on any other sales call.

(If you’re not sure how sales calls should go, check out Jon’s article: Selling Personal Training in 5 Steps).

Keep following up.

If they answer, it’s a great call, and you sell/book them in for an appointment, and they show up… go ahead and dance your happy dance.

If they don’t answer, if they answer but don’t book an appointment, or if they answer and book an appointment but don’t show up… keep following up once a week for the first month. And once a month after that until they become a client or ask you to stop calling.

And, folks, that’s pretty much it.

If you decide to try this method, you’ll be up and running with your first post, for free, inside of 30 minutes. And, most people who try it, report getting 1-3 new clients within a day or two.

No joke.

Even if you think this is too simple, or couldn’t possibly work, try it anyway. People constantly tell me that they would have never expected something like this to help them… but that it did, big-time.

Strategy #2:
The “Tell People What You Do” Challenge

In our ProCoach Facebook group we recently did a 2-week challenge. Coaches were encouraged to do something incredibly simple (yet radical in 2018, it seems).

They were asked to talk to people.

You know, like, real people. In real life.

Specifically, we asked them to tell one person a day what they do. That person could be anyone: the barista that frothed the milk on their latte, the cashier at the grocery store, or the lady sitting next to them on their commuter train.

The goal was to develop a “script” about what they do, get comfortable talking about it, and maybe even get a new client or a referral.

Our coaches went nuts. It kinda blew everyone’s minds.

Some of our coaches felt that icky stretch feeling you get when growth is happening. ProCoach Melissa Dow found she had to override her usual instinct to wait for people to come to her. “It was uncomfortable, but that’s where learning begins, right?” she says.

Many found they got better at it along the way, like ProCoach Beth Balcezak Daugherty who found that although she often felt hesitant before reaching out, most people thanked her afterwards. “It got easier!” she reassures us.

ProCoach Jen Kates also found it got easier: “IT DOESN’T SUCK, AND IT’S ACTUALLY A LOT OF FUN ONCE YOU GET OVER THE HURDLE!!!”  (Note: The caps and exclamation points are hers.)

At the conclusion of the challenge, many coaches remarked on the tremendous potential of this simple act.

“The biggest takeaway from this process for me was just how many opportunities there are hidden in plain view.” said ProCoach Simon Dannapfel.

Interested in trying this challenge yourself?

Here’s how to do it:

Build your elevator pitch.

Begin by making sure you can actually describe what you do without rambling and without boring listeners with irrelevant details.

A simple way to do this is to fill in the following blanks.

“I help {kind of person}

to {action/benefit}

so that they can {brighter future/more inspiring benefit}.”

Here are some examples of what you might come up with:

“I help {new moms}, to {get active and eat better}, so that they can {drop their baby weight and feel more energy}.”

“I help {busy executives}, to {find time in their schedule for healthy habits}, so they can {finally get their health under control}.”

“I help {young athletes}, to {improve their movement quality}, so that they can {dominate on the playing field & injury-proof themselves}.”

“I help {people in their 60s and 70s}, to {begin a new movement practice}, so they can {walk, jump, run, & play with their grandkids}.”

Next, pick a person (any person) every day to talk to.

Approach folks however you like to get the conversation started.

If you’re not sure how to do that without coming off creepy, break the ice with something like this:


I’m doing this 2 week challenge where I have to tell someone about what I do, and you’re who I chose today!”

“Is that cool?”

Then lay the elevator pitch — or something like it — on them.

And, if they seem interested, expand on it.

If you make a genuine connection, ask if you can follow up.

The conversation could end pleasantly but without any real interest on their part. That’s totally fine. You will still benefit from the practice.

However, should they express real interest, keep the conversation going with something like:

“Hey, thanks for listening today. Mission accomplished on the contest!

Before I roll, you seemed kinda interested in {some aspect of what you talked about} and a really cool resource just popped into my head that I’d love to share.

Could you write down your email address so I can send it over?
(Alternatively you can get their cell number, FB page, or whatever).

Just so you know, “no” is a fine answer here. After all, we just met. However, I do think you’ll dig it. And I promise not to bug you beyond that.”

Then give them something awesome!

If they share their email address, wait a day and follow up with a cool article, some recipes, an infographic, an inspiring YouTube video, whatever you think will be helpful and is in line with what you talked about.

It doesn’t have to be your own content. Just something that’s high quality and will be genuinely helpful.


It’s {your name], we met yesterday at {place} and we talked about {topic}.

Wanted to follow up with {the thing I promised}, which I think you’ll like.

Here’s the link:

{link to the thing here}

No obligation to {watch it, read it, etc}. I just thought it might help.”

If they respond, remind them about your services.

If they follow up, reply with a casual reference to your services.

“Thanks for the note!

I’m so glad you liked {the thing you sent}!

I don’t know if you, or anyone you know, would be interested in this… but I’m running this program that starts in two weeks.

I’ll be working with {number of people} {gender} ages {age range} looking to {goal} that live in {location}.

Spots are extremely limited and I’m only looking for {number of people}.

Let me know if you’re interested by filling out this super-quick survey below.

===> {link to your Google form}

Again, no pressure. Just sharing this in case you, or a friend, might be interested.”

So there you have it.

A step-by-step guide on how to talk to people, and how to follow-up in a non-creepy, not-overly-pushy kind of way.

The point of this exercise is to show you that there are potential clients everywhere.

You just need to speak up so they know you’re there.

Strategy #3:
Leverage Your Existing Communities

Many of us belong to one group, or a host of them, either online or in-person.

These are often unrelated to health and fitness, which — in this case — is a good thing as it gives you the opportunity to share what you do with a novel audience.

For example, you might be part of:

  • A Facebook group for new moms, because hey! You have spit-up on your shirt too!
  • A Saturday morning bring-your-dog-and-hike group. People who love dogs and all-terrain boots??! Your tail is wagging.
  • An online forum for people who dig classic cars. Mustang Fastback? I’m all in.
  • A faith community where you worship once a week plus participate in community service activities together.
  • A weekly online mastermind group of career-change-entrepreneurs. You all have great stories about the day you broke free from corporate shackles.

If you do it right, these groups can be an amazing source of new clients.

ProCoach Carolina Belmares has a great story of how she used this method.

Carolina is from Mexico, but currently lives just outside of Toronto, Canada. She joined a Facebook group for Mexican women living abroad.

Carolina was genuinely excited to connect to this group of women and took her time getting to know them. She responded to people’s posts, and posted her own successes and woes living abroad as a Mexican woman.

She took note of the tone and “vibe” of this group, and generally just tried to be kind, helpful, and supportive to the other members without talking much about what she does for a living.

After a while, she posted about her coaching work.

It was more of a “this is my life story” kind of post, but she also happened to mention that she was an online nutrition coach and dropped some information about a program she was running that was starting soon.

In Carolina’s words, “The response was beyond insane.”

Not long after she posted, her tally was:

714 reactions to the original post

181 comments asking for more information

259 new “Likes” on her personal coaching Facebook page

83 brand new subscriptions to her mailing list

Too many private messages to count

Not bad for a free group that you were interested in hanging out with anyway.

To try this method yourself:

Consider the groups you’re currently a member of (online or in person).

If you’re not a member of any, consider whether there are any groups you’d like to be a part of and would be good candidates for your coaching. (Remember, it’s better if they’re not fitness or nutrition groups).

Engage with the group in an authentic, helpful, supportive way.

Don’t just go joining groups to make your elevator pitch as “pitching” in groups is universally frowned upon. Instead, become a real part of the community and only talk about what you do if it’s relevant to the conversations already going on.

If a fitness or nutrition topic comes up, bingo!

Be the biggest keener in the room. Help answer questions. Offer support. Send people helpful links, articles, videos, and other resources. But, still, hold back a little on mentioning your services.

After you’ve built some trust and genuine connections, mention your services.

Have your information easily available if people want it, but don’t be pushy about it. If you need a ratio to work with, then let’s say for every 10 genuine, non-work related comments, you can slide in something about your coaching.

In the end, joining a group is one of the most mutually beneficial methods for building your practice. You’ll have access to a wide audience to which you can extend help and support, but you’ll also get connect with “your people”.

What to do next:
Some tips from Precision Nutrition

In this article we’ve outlined a few highly effective strategies for getting a few new clients, or the next few after that. Begin with…

Knowing the “why” of what you’re selling, not just the “what”.

Spend time thinking about what prospective clients want their lives to be like. And how you can start connecting your coaching to those outcomes.

Again, you’re not selling your superstar nutrition knowledge, your sleek online program, or even health coaching.

You’re selling possibility to your clients: the possibility to feel, look, and move better; to gain more confidence, strength, and resilience; to have a better life.

Refine your elevator pitch.

Come up with a concise way of describing how you help people.

“I help {kind of person}

to {action/benefit}

so that they can {brighter future/more inspiring benefit}.”

Pick a challenge, any challenge.

The above strategies only work if you practice them. Not just once, but consistently. (Remember, they get easier the more..

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“Will decades of dieting mean a broken metabolism?” It’s a common anxiety. Case in point: The Biggest Loser, whose contestants are famous for dramatic weight loss — and for the devastating regain that sometimes follows. In this article, we break down a study examining exactly what happened to their metabolisms — and what this means for everyone else who wants to lose weight and keep it off.


“I lost a bunch of weight, and then I regained it…

..Did I screw up my metabolism? Will I ever be lean again?”

We hear this all the time from new Precision Nutrition Coaching clients. And, in a culture where weight loss is not only a personal goal, but a big TV moneymaker, it’s no wonder that folks feel anxious: We watch folks on the public stage slim down, then blow up again, all the time.

Take The Biggest Loser — perhaps the most famous example of this type of made-for-TV metabolic drama.

Competitors running on treadmills with tears streaming down their faces. Trainers screaming. How-this-happened-to-you montages set to emotive music. “Before” jeans juxtaposed with new, slim bodies.

And then…a devastating return to their old bodies in the months that followed.

So is it possible to lose a lot of weight, and keep the weight off? What can The Biggest Loser teach us?

In this article, we’ll look at an academic study that examined exactly what happened to their bodies, and what this means for you.

Here’s the media narrative of what happened:
  • The Biggest Loser contestants regain most (or all) of the weight once cameras get turned off.
  • This is caused by and/or leads to damaged metabolisms, psychological trauma, and shame.
  • Trying to lose weight and keep it off is hopeless.
But is this story true?

What does the study prove?

And is it really impossible to sustain weight loss?

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Research questions:

What happens to the body weights and metabolisms of The Biggest Loser contestants in the years after they appear on the show? Why? What does this mean for regular folks who want to lose weight and keep it off?

Fothergill E, Guo J, Howard L, Kerns JC, Knuth ND, Brychta R, Chen KY, Skarulis MC, Walter M, Walter PJ, Hall KD. Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after “The Biggest Loser” competition. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016 May 2. doi: 10.1002/oby.21538.

To explore these questions, this study looked at three key indicators in 14 men and women who participated in season 8 of The Biggest Loser (2009):

  • Body composition is someone’s ratio of fat mass to lean mass (muscle, bone, etc.). For good health and physical function, we want less fat mass and more lean mass in general.
  • Resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the number of calories a resting body burns in a day, without activity. Weight loss aside, smaller bodies require less energy to maintain and should have lower RMRs. Bigger bodies require more energy and should have higher RMRs.
  • Leptin levels: Leptin is a hormone that, among other things, gets released after we eat, suppressing our appetite and increasing energy expenditure to help keep our calories in / calories out balanced and our weight stable. In general, the more fat cells in your body, the higher your leptin. Since leptin helps regulate RMR, the two should rise and fall together.

Now, in case you’re not caught up on your reality TV watching, here are a few important things to know.

  • When the filming starts, The Biggest Loser participants are morbidly obese (exceeding their ideal weight by 100 pounds or more).
  • Over the course of 30 weeks, they’re supervised and coached by the show’s trainers and doctors.
  • Contestants eat a diet restricted to about 1200 calories per day.
  • Contestants do at least of 90 minutes of intense exercise per day, 6 days a week.
  • After filming the show, contestants return to “real life” without continued supervision or guidance as to how to maintain their nutrition and exercise regimen.
Methods Initial assessment

Before their first appearance on the show in 2009, contestants went through a battery of tests that assessed things like:

  • RMR (in other words, basic metabolic activity of being alive)
  • physical activity expenditure (in other words, exercise)
  • total energy expenditure (how much energy people were expending in a day through metabolism and physical activity together); and
  • blood chemistry.
Follow up

In 2015, six years after their run on the show, subjects returned to the laboratory for a complete follow-up.

Two weeks before the study officially started, participants weighed themselves on a special digital scale that transmitted their data to the researchers.

This early start helped ensure that people didn’t try to change their weight before the study began, which would skew the results.

Once in the lab, researchers again measured the subjects’ RMR, total energy expenditure, and physical activity expenditure. They also performed bloodwork.

They then compared the results of their 2015 testing and their 2009 testing. Here are the results…

Results Weight

Average weight before filming The Biggest Loser: 328 lb.

Average weight after 30 weeks on The Biggest Loser: 199 lb.

Average weight six years after final on camera weigh-in: 290 lb.

This means that, on average, participants regained 70 percent of the weight they’d lost. (Although they did keep off 30 percent of it.)

Resting metabolic rate

Average RMR before filming: 2,607 kcal burned / day.

Average RMR after 30 weeks on the show: 1,996 kcal burned / day.

Average RMR six years after final weigh-in: 1,903 kcal burned / day.

Surprisingly, despite their weight regain, participants were burning 700 fewer calories per day at rest vs. when they started the show. This is about 500 fewer calories than we’d expect them to burn based on predictive equations that take into account their body weight.

Lean body mass (an indication of muscle mass)

Average lean body mass before filming: 167 lb.

Average lean body mass after 30 weeks on the show: 142 lb.

Average lean body mass six years after final weigh-in: 155 lb.

Participants lost 25 lbs of lean mass during the filming of the show. They did end up gaining about 13 lbs of it back. However, that didn’t help to elevate their RMR, as we might have expected. 


Average leptin before filming: 41.14 ng/mL

Average leptin after 30 weeks on the show: 2.56 ng/mL

Average leptin six years after final weigh-in: 27.68 ng/mL

As you’d expect, participants’ leptin levels went down when fat decreased, and went up again when fat came back.

So, why did they regain the weight?

That’s a complicated question. But the study’s findings give us big clues, and new discoveries for our understanding of metabolism.

Many people assume that weight loss — and sustaining weight loss — is purely psychological.

If you don’t have the mental strength and willpower to pass on the chili cheese fries, then you’re essentially choosing to gain back the weight, right?

But the Biggest Loser data illuminate the important physiological roadblocks contestants face.

Metabolic adaptation

We already know that when you lose weight, your metabolism slowsThis is called metabolic adaptation, and it’s normal.

Metabolic adaptation is a natural defense mechanism against starvation. When you’re dieting, at a certain point, your body will send up a red flag.

Starvation alert!
There’s not enough food to go around!
Hold onto the fat reserves!

At that point, your RMR slows.

Metabolic adaptation can make things more complicated (and frustrating) for dieters who hope to continue or maintain their weight loss.

Once their body’s red flag goes up, calorie restriction no longer has the same effect it did at the beginning of their diet.

Suddenly, they need to cut more calories just to maintain the same weight.

While this is sometimes framed as metabolic damage, it’s really just your body’s way of trying to keep you alive and well.

What was interesting about this study? It showed that participants’ RMR stayed low despite:

  • Weight regain: Even though participants were larger six years later, they weren’t burning more calories at rest.
  • Muscle maintenance: Theoretically, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest. But it’s not helping these participants’ RMR.
  • Time passing: We used to think that metabolic adaptation may reverse with time, and it might. But here we see that even six years isn’t enough.

In the end, as you can see in the following graph, participants’ metabolisms were just as low after six years (and after regaining almost 100 pounds) vs. the end of the show, when they were their lightest.


As expected, The Biggest Loser participants experienced a huge drop in leptin when they lost weight in 2009. When they regained weight, leptin rose accordingly. But there are two sticking points here:

  • “Normal” leptin doesn’t mean it’s easy to control your appetite. Pre-Biggest Loser, these folks were used to eating a certain amount; now they need less to stay smaller. Of course, if they (unconsciously) went back to those same amounts, rather than following their natural physical satiety signals, it’s easy to understand why they gained weight.
  • The participants’ leptin and RMR are no longer linked. If the two usually rise and fall together, why didn’t RMR go back up — as leptin did — when the weight was regained? This could also lead to weight regain. Even if participants followed hunger cues and stopped eating when satisfied, they’d be eating more than needed considering their low RMR.

Putting all this together, in order to sustain their weight loss, The Biggest Loser participants would have to:

  • Eat 500 fewer calories per day than their bodies are telling them to eat. That’s 25 percent less than a person who always weighed 199 pounds or never experienced significant weight loss.


  • Expend 500 more calories a day than their bodies tell them they should. That’s an intense workout — like running fast for an hour.

All while…

  • Feeling hungrier than they should. Again, the participants’ leptin levels may be normal — but since their metabolic rate didn’t rise with it, eating with their physical hunger cues may actually cause them to consume more calories than they’re burning.

Yea, that sucks. No wonder these folks have trouble keeping the weight off.

Does this mean it’s impossible to sustain weight loss?

It’s clear that, when you lose a lot of weight, you’re up against a lot of very real physiological changes if you want to maintain the weight loss.

But there’s a lot of important information we don’t have about The Biggest Loser contestants.

What goes on behind the scenes?

The Biggest Loser is a television program. It’s not itself a controlled research group or scientific experiment. With this study, researchers are trying to make sense of what happened after the fact.

The initial conditions themselves are mostly a mystery. That means all kinds of factors could have influenced the outcomes.

  • What kinds of foods were they eating?
  • Were they eating whole foods or processed “diet” foods?
  • Did they take any supplements or drugs?
  • Could psychological stress have played a role?

We just don’t know. But all of these factors could affect the contestants’ ability to sustain weight loss.

What are the participants’ lives like?

The participants reported maintaining the Biggest Loser-approved nutrition regimen and exercise level over the six-year period. But: Self-reported data are notoriously unreliable. It’s not a flaw of these particular people, it’s just how humans work.

Some of the participants were able to keep weight off for years before it returned. So questions arise like:

  • Is the weight regain the result of unfortunate physiology, exclusively?
  • Are they eating more and exercising less than they think they are?
  • Is psychological stress from weight regain in a public setting playing a role?

Here again, we don’t have answers, and all of this can affect a person’s ability to maintain their weight.

Did they regain the weight because they lost it so quickly?

The Biggest Loser program helps contestants lose weight at a rate you rarely see elsewhere. Many people are speculating that this is the reason for the participants’ persistent metabolic adaptation and weight regain.

That’s a convenient explanation, but not necessarily an accurate one.

Another study compared The Biggest Loser participants’ weight loss with gastric bypass (Roux-en-Y) patients about six months after surgery and found something surprising.

  • The two groups lost a comparable amount of weight in half a year, but the gastric bypass patients experienced half the metabolic adaptation.
  • After a full 12 months, and after losing even more weight, the gastric bypass group had a very slightly higher metabolism than predicted (+8 calories per day).
  • What’s more, the gastric bypass group didn’t lose any more muscle (lean mass) than The Biggest Loser group, despite not having structured exercise program.

Obviously, gastric bypass is about as fast as it gets. So how fast you lose the weight isn’t likely the determining factor.

But even if The Biggest Loser study suggested that rapid weight loss is not effective, there’s no reliable data indicating that slow weight loss is more effective.

Nevertheless, it’s not impossible to sustain weight loss.

Some people found this study — and its media interpretations — really disappointing. If the body fights back against weight loss, does that mean there’s no hope for folks who have a lot to lose?

Others found the results somewhat reassuring. It relieved some of the sense of failure or shame around re-gaining weight. It acknowledged the difficulty and proved that it’s not all mind over matter.

But, while this study does reinforce the importance of compassion, it doesn’t indicate that long-term weight loss is impossible.

The study suggests that extreme dieting comes with consequences. Reduce your calories to an extreme and your body will likely fight back. Maybe for years. Maybe forever.

But you can sustain weight loss for the long term by effectively controlling your energy intake during (and after) whatever nutrition program you choose.

Five strategies to sustain weight loss. 1. Use a habit-based approach.

A more sustainable, habit-based approach that doesn’t include a drastic calorie deficit could give you a better chance at adapting — physiologically and psychologically — to a healthier lifestyle, without your metabolism coming to a screeching halt.

This point of view is consistent with The Biggest Loser paper, which closes with recommendations to focus on health markers like insulin and triglyceride levels rather than weight loss, and to take a more moderate approach with exercise and calorie reduction.

In Precision Nutrition Coaching, we use a habit-based approach to gradually — over the course of a full year — introduce our clients to small, manageable daily practices that support healthy eating and movement.

We keep in touch with past clients, and in the overwhelming majority of cases we’re hearing that the habits continue working to help them regulate their energy intake after the 12-month coaching program.

We’re working on a follow-up study to quantify clients’ weight maintenance; early data are promising.

2. Eat slowly.

This is a foundational habit in Precision Nutrition Coaching.

Many studies show that people who eat faster are heavier than people who eat slowly, and that people who train themselves to eat more slowly eat less, and lose weight as a result.

There’s a 20-minute delay in satiety hormone signaling when you eat, so if you plow through a huge plate of food in 10 minutes, you’re liable to eat it all before you realized you’re actually stuffed.

In fact, it’s proven that simply reducing the number of bites you take per minute by half is effective at reducing your energy intake by 40 percent, particularly in big eaters.

That’s why we coach our clients to eat slowly.

Play a game with yourself: Try to be the last one eating — even after your slow-as-molasses toddler). Tune into hunger and satiety cues, which tell you how much food you really need.

3. At meals, eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed.

If you’re saying, “I’m stuffed!” after your meals, you’re probably overeating and/or eating for the wrong reasons, which will make it very challenging to control your energy intake.

Another keystone from Precision Nutrition Coaching: Eat until 80 percent full. This helps ensure that you’re not eating more than you need by:

  • Helping you connect with your physical hunger cues (good old leptin!)
  • Decoupling eating from emotions
  • Breaking the deprivation/binge pattern and mindset
  • Regulating your appetite

Feeling full, anxious, lethargic, foggy-headed, heavy, or extremely thirsty are signs of overeating that warrant an 80-percent experiment.

Next time you eat lunch, eat slowly, take a good break after each bite, and ask yourself, “Am I still truly, physically hungry?”

If the answer is yes, take another bite, chew slowly, and repeat. If the answer is no, end the meal and start monitoring fullness/hunger cues until dinner.

4. Reduce stress.

The Biggest Loser study authors didn’t look at the stress hormone cortisol, which is a shame.

When you experience psychological stress, cortisol shoots upward.

Research has linked increased cortisol with weight gain, likely due to poorer food choices and physiological changes.

It’s conceivable the Biggest Loser participants experience considerable psychological stress: Undergoing an intense weight-loss program on national TV; airing their traumas to the world; regaining the weight when everyone knew they’d appeared on the show; feeling the shame of “failure”.

Every day, take steps to reduce your stress level and recover from all the hard work you do — physical and otherwise.

Some ideas:

  • Sit and read a book
  • Go for a walk
  • Play with your cat
  • Get a massage
  • Take a warm bath
  • Meditate
  • Do yoga

Of course, what you find rejuvenating might be unique to you. Just be honest with yourself: Some activities that have the reputation for being relaxing — say, watching TV or throwing back shots at the bar — may be more escapism than true stress reducers.

5. Put your environment to work.

Change is hard for most people, and it’s partly due to our hardwiring. Research shows that most of the decisions we make are automatic, based on patterns and brain shortcuts as opposed to rational thought.

We react to what’s in front of us, and our actions are often impulsive and/or the result of motivations we’re not fully conscious of.

That means our environment powerfully shapes our decisions — including food decisions — more than we realize.

We eat whatever’s in front of us, finish all the food regardless of portion size, consume more when we’re multitasking… and more.

Tough to change your eating habits when those habits are based on thoughts you didn’t know you were having, huh?

But you can use this hardwiring to your advantage by putting your environment to work to control your energy intake:

  • Keep fresh fruits and vegetables within view
  • Park far from the office so you have to walk
  • Don’t keep junk food at home
  • Get a dog that needs walking

Precision Nutrition coaches are full of environment changing tips — they’re truly ingenious.

What to do next.

Shifting your mindset from “this is impossible” to “I can do this” will take time. But there are steps you can take today to get on the path to achieving — and sustaining — a healthy weight.

Let it be.

So you’ve struggled to lose weight, or you’ve struggled to keep it off.

So what?

For many people, a sense of shame, failure and fault is caught up in weight gain. When we can remove these from the equation, we can have a better experience, and possibly better..

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In a world of ‘overnight abs’ and ‘drop 20 pounds this week’ promises, is it even possible to sell sustainable results — and the long-term coaching required to get them? Here at Precision Nutrition, we’ve been doing just that for 15 years. Here are 6 strategies to help you do it too.


Six weeks to cheese-grating abs.

Melt off two dress sizes in time for the summer.

Lose 18 pounds with Dr. Oz’s new revolutionary paleo-vegan diet.

Short-term fat loss programs that promise sexy, dramatic results are everywhere.

Sometimes, for specific populations – think highly conditioned bodybuilders, fitness models, or athletes in training – these programs can be legit.

However, for most people, something else is required. 30-day hacks won’t help them get the results they’re after, or maintain their results in the long run.

If you’re a health and fitness professional, you’re probably on board:

“I know, Dr. Berardi! I want my clients to get sustainable results too! I want to help them change their lives for good! Let’s burn those ‘7 days to your dream body’ magazines!”

On the other hand, you probably wonder, “Will people actually pay for coaching that doesn’t promise overnight results?”

Well, you’re not alone. PN Certified coaches are always asking about this. And I get it. A realistic, research-backed coaching program doesn’t stand out as much as neon headlines and celebrity body pics.

But not only is it possible to sell sustainable results — and the longer-term coaching program that comes with that promise — it’s also:

  • Better for your business (read: highly profitable)
  • Better for your clients
  • Better for your professional reputation
  • Better for you as a learning, growth-oriented practitioner

So, in this article, I’ll show you why we love sustainable coaching, how we sell it, and how you can use it to bolster your practice too.


Are sustainable results a harder sell than, well, instant gratification?

It’s a legitimate question. Here’s how it was articulated recently in our ProCoach Facebook group:

“I just got off the phone with a friend who’s a marketing wizard. I told him about my plans to launch a 12-month transformation challenge through ProCoach.

He said it’s going to be very tough to sell 12 months of coaching in a world of ‘6 weeks to ripped abs’.”

Lots of other ProCoaches agreed: A 12-month program focused on daily practices and skill development is a tough, if not downright impossible, sell.

But is it?

After all, Precision Nutrition’s coaching program lasts 12 months.

… and we’ve been doing it for close to 15 years.

… with nearly 100,000 clients.

… who’ve lost millions of pounds, creating healthier lives.

… and we’ve built a ~$200 million dollar business doing it.

So… is selling a 12-month program possible? Yeah, I’d say so.

And that’s good news because we all want to help our clients and patients succeed beyond quick fixes. We all want to help them:

  • Learn to grocery shop and cook, not just follow a meal plan, like a robot, until they can’t follow it any longer.
  • Tune into their own physical signs of hunger and fullness, not just count calories and look to external cues for how to eat.
  • Practice exercise as a regular habit, not take a 2-week trip to BEAST MODE TOWN until their enthusiasm, or their knees, blow out.
  • See that healthy living is accessible to all, not just to those who can afford unicorn plasma injections or food grown exclusively in organic utopias.
  • Realize that change is incremental and often slow, and that there are no quick fixes or magic pills.

If you’re reading this, I trust that — instead of just giving someone a meal plan, a prescription, or an exercise routine — you’re more interested in helping to build the kind of person that’s capable of change.

Lasting change.

If so, let’s talk more about how sustainable coaching does that.

Then I’ll teach you how to sell it.


Sustainable coaching turns everything it touches to gold.

Ok, not everything and not literal gold, but adopting a sustainable coaching model makes many things better — including some that might surprise you.

Benefit #1:
Sustainable coaching is good for business.

Simply put, you won’t have to hustle so hard.

When you choose to sell a short-duration program, you trap yourself (intentionally or not) in a short business cycle.

Every 8 weeks (or however long your crash course lasts), you lose clients.

Sadly, those clients go gain the weight back or get deconditioned (more on that later), and you have to go out and get a whole batch of new ones.

As business professionals already know, it’s more expensive / time-consuming / ulcer-inducing to acquire a new customer than it is to keep a current one.

In other words, a longer coaching program means clients stick around longer. So you can spend less time on client-hunting, and more time on coaching and getting the best results.

Speaking of which…

Benefit #2:
Sustainable coaching will give your clients better results.

Changing eating and exercise habits is a hard and sometimes slow process.

Sure, the physiology is simple:

  • Eat the right amount (for most people, that’s less) + move the right amount (for most people, that’s more) and you can expect results.

But, when someone attempts to eat less or move more, they’re fighting against (often) a lifetime of deep-seated habits.

Habitual behaviors have a purpose – whether the person doing them knows it or not – and they fit perfectly into the person’s life. These habits may be coping mechanisms. If you take them away abruptly, everything falls apart.

That’s why changing everything at once is unrealistic.

It’s also why people 95% of people “regress” after short-duration programs.

True progress comes not from “overhauling,” but from building transferable skills. Systematically.

When clients strategically replace old habits with new ones developed through daily, intentional actions, they learn things like:

  • What’s truly important to them
  • Prioritizing and time management
  • Mindfulness, self-compassion, and emotional regulation
  • Persistence and consistency
  • Flexibility and resilience

These skills are useful in all areas of life. But they’re absolutely crucial for body transformation.

These skills are the difference between finally achieving the body and health you want, and continuing to yo-yo for all eternity.

Benefit #3:
Sustainable coaching earns you a stellar reputation.

Sure, clients will brag about you — in the moment — if you help them knock off 20 pounds in 2 weeks. However, when you help clients change every fiber of their being, they’ll sing your praises in a totally new and long-lasting way.

And that praise will have a lot to do with how you’re different, about how they feel under your care.

You see, clients don’t want to feel like they’re just another faceless collection of measurements. Yes, they want results, but they also want someone who takes the time to get to know them, and makes them feel cared for and understood.

When a client has that kind of experience, you’ll hear:

  • My coach just gets me. She takes time to listen and seems to really care about what matters to me.
  • I trust my coach. I’ve told him some pretty raw stuff and he never judges me. He’s always there for support.
  • My coach is different. She isn’t just pushing a one-size-fits-all agenda. She always finds a way to help me make changes that work in my own life, no matter how crazy it gets.

When people have those kinds of experiences with a coach, they’re going to talk about it — possibly with tears — to the important people in their lives.

But guess what? Building that kind of relationship, one that’s based on real connection, trust, and a deep understanding of what makes a person tick?

It takes time.

And that’s what sustainable coaching gives you. When you (and your clients) know you have more time together — when you’re not sprinting against some arbitrary weight loss clock — you can forge meaningful connections.

You’ll enjoy your job more, and your advertising will take care of itself, because your clients won’t be able to stop recommending you.

Benefit #4:
Sustainable coaching makes you a better coach.

When you commit to your clients long-term, you’ll become a better coach.

You’ll learn to teach and build skills in the context of a person’s real life, not just a small window of time. You don’t get those kinds of learning opportunities when you only coach someone for 6 weeks.

In “quick-fix” programs, you may get sky-high compliance because motivation is high and real-life obligations can be put on hold for short periods. But what happens when those 6 weeks are over? Do those same highly-motivated, highly-compliant clients stay motivated and compliant?

Do they stay motivated and compliant when injuries flare up, when results plateau, when the kids demand attention, when they get sick of green smoothies, when work piles up, or when the dog poops in their gym bag?

When you stick with a client long-term, you encounter real humanity. This will sharpen your coaching skills like nothing else.

When you coach long-term, you’ll learn how to support people through:

  • The “grind.” Motivation crashes and all healthy habits just feel boring and torturous.
  • Injuries. Can you coach someone with an injury safely? And focus on other ways to keep them active?
  • BIG life events. Deaths, births, job changes, illnesses, moves, and many other often unexpected transitions can throw people out of their routine and into unfamiliar, challenging territory.
  • Result plateaus. When effort hasn’t changed but measurable progress has slowed, or even stopped completely…WTF??
  • Tantrums, hissy-fits, and breakdowns. Did I mention change is hard? And that it can bring up, pardon my French, all kinds of crap? Yeah, it can.

When you coach people for longer periods of time, you see more of their lives. All the mess and all the beauty. And that requires YOU to adapt and support, no matter the circumstances.

It requires you to become a well-rounded, help-anyone-through-anything supercoach.


One caveat about sustainable vs. short duration programs.

While I’m obviously a fan of longer-term sustainable coaching for all the reasons above, don’t make the mistake of thinking I don’t like shorter programs, or that I’d never use them.

They can certainly be used for specific goals (abs for summer, fitness competition, destination wedding dress) or even as a way to funnel people into a longer-term, sustainable coaching offering.

So, make no mistake, this isn’t an either/or thing. Some of the most successful coaches I know have different offerings for different types of clients. You might consider doing the same.


Okay, so how do I sell sustainable coaching?

Hopefully, at this point, you’re excited about sustainable coaching and the benefits it offers your clients, and your business.

But how do you get clients excited about it? (Because trust me, they’re still going to come to you asking how to get ripped abs, like, yesterday.)

I’ll show you what we do at Precision Nutrition.

If you’re a coach (or health and fitness professional) who wants to add sustainable coaching to your business, here’s our secret sauce for selling 12-month programs.

1. Know who you serve, and what they really, really want.

Many people looking for a coach — but not all — have already been through the revolving door of “miraculous results in 10 days.”

They’re tired of losing weight fast on some crash diet, only to be thrown off the horse to gain it all back. They’re tired of yo-yo-ing, and they’re tired of programs that only leave them feeling dejected and hopeless in the long run.

Those are your people. Those are the people who are looking for something different, something that lasts.

They’re our people, too. At Precision Nutrition, we know who our coaching is for, and who it isn’t for.

On the FAQ page for our coaching services, we explicitly say:

“Precision Nutrition Coaching is not for figure or fitness models, professional bodybuilders, or high-level athletes training for a particular sport.”

“It’s also not for people who already have all the accountability they need.”

“If you rarely struggle to maintain consistent exercise or eating habits, then we’re not a good choice for you.”

We’ve also run full advertising campaigns designed to attract people who’ve struggled with programs like Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Body For Life, P90X, etc. In those ads we’ve used words like:

“(X program) failed you again? Try something different this time. Something that lasts.”

In the end, it’s ok to not be for everyone. But for those you are for? Get to know them well. Know what they’ve tried before. And what they want next.

At PN we know our prospects want to eat, move, and live better. For life. Even though they kinda wish it would happen overnight, they also know that the overnight thing has never worked for them before. It isn’t their first rodeo.

That’s why, if we can demonstrate our method has worked for others like them, they’ll be ready to commit to something different. To us.

And, because our clients commit to us, we commit to them. We’ve made it our mission to understand our people and develop a program that delivers results in the context of their needs and their dieting/fitness history.

Now it’s your turn.

Get to know the people you do serve, and go all in for them.

2. Promise those people a hopeful future.

Now that you know what your clients want, promise them a hopeful future in which they get what they want, and make sure your promise is believable.

This image (from this excellent post) says it all:

Don’t talk about habits, sustainable change, or lessons and thought exercises. Don’t talk about custom workouts. Don’t talk about diets, meal plans, or menus.

Instead, focus people’s attention on the hopeful future they can expect when working with you. Tell them about how you’ll help them:

  • Eat better, without dieting or feeling deprived.
  • Get active, no matter what shape they’re in now.
  • Ditch the food rules, dropping the fad diets and conflicting advice.
  • Build fitness into their life, without it taking over.
  • Achieve, and maintain, their goals, even when life gets busy.

Tell them how they’ll end up:

  • Losing the weight/fat they haven’t been able to shed for years.
  • Building physical strength and confidence in their body.
  • Gaining mental confidence, no longer hiding their gifts and talents.
  • Letting go of food confusion, learning what to do, how to do it.
  • Getting off the diet roller coaster once and for all, and never looking back.

Really paint the hopeful future picture.

Help them imagine a life where they can…

…feel physically and mentally strong, capable of taking on any challenge without worrying that their energy levels or body weight will get in the way.

…run around with their kids, or grandkids, without feeling pain, winded, or tired; and they can do it again the next day.

…excitedly book a beach vacation without wondering how they’ll look (or feel) in a swimsuit, walking along the beach.

…look forward to having their picture taken without wondering “who’s that person, and when did they start looking like that?”

…feel like food is their friend, not their enemy, and never diet again.

Even better, show them real examples of other people you’ve helped live this more hopeful future.

Like this:

Or this:

Check out 11 more examples in this article.

In the end, don’t talk about your products and services. Talk about the hopeful future people can live if they experience your sustainable coaching program.

And then deliver the hell out of it.

3. Manage expectations early.

If you’ve started (or completed) your Precision Nutrition Certification, you likely know the phrase “ready, willing, and able.”

Whenever we sign clients or students up for our programs, or whenever we discuss adding new habits or responsibilities, we assess a person’s readiness, willingness, and ability to change.

You should do the same. We think it’s so essential that we’ve built the assessment right into ProCoach, our professional coaching software.

When you know how “ready, willing, and able” a person is, you can:

  • Assess fit and find the right people for your sustainable coaching option, which will help with client engagement and retention
  • Get to know your client better and understand what motivates them
  • Clarify yours and your client’s expectations of each other
  • Anticipate roadblocks and plan how you’ll overcome them

Our ProCoaches are big advocates of managing expectations early for their sustainable coaching clients.

Take it from ProCoach Michael Espinosa, who learned after his first cohort of clients to set expectations early. He says:

“With my first round of clients, I think I was so enthusiastic that I ended up unintentionally coercing people who weren’t really ready. I had a big drop-off partway through the program.”

“The second time around, I stopped trying to persuade people and just focused on finding clients who were the right fit and ready to commit. I even kind of tried to scare them a little bit! Like, ‘Are you really ready for this?’”

“I had a smaller cohort, but they were more engaged and didn’t drop off. I’ll definitely continue assessing commitment. It works much better that way.”

Have the commitment talk early in your coach-client relationship. That way, once the program starts, your client already knows what they’ve agreed to.

Again, this isn’t just relevant for sustainable coaching programs.

If you’re also offering shorter-duration coaching options, your assessment and expectation-setting process will be really useful there too.

4. Anticipate disengagement, resistance, and plateaus.

Because long-term coaching programs are, well, long, you will get to see a bigger range of client successes… and challenges.

If you coach someone for a year (or really anything longer than 3 months), you’re likely to encounter one (or all) of the following:

  • Disengagement: The client is, frankly, just bored.
  • Resistance: The client doesn’t believe in the program anymore or stops wanting to do it.
  • Plateau: The client stops seeing desired results for a period of time.

During these phases you might hear things like:

“My friend is on the SlimQuick diet and she’s lost 10 pounds in two weeks! It’s been a month and I’ve only lost 2!”

“My life is so crazy right now that I barely have time to eat at the drive-thru, never mind go to the gym!”

“I’m tired of lifting those stupid dumbbells. I’m tired of chewing salad. I’m tired of thinking about protein or getting enough sleep or managing my stress! ARGH!”

Anticipate these moments. They’re normal.

You may even prepare your clients for them.

ProCoach Irene Pace actually plans for disengagement! She says:

“I like to set a plan with them for when they disappear. I say to them:

‘We are together for a year. In that year, there will be times that you need to or choose to spend less time with the program. This is normal. What would you like me to do when that happens? What would be most helpful from me to help you re-engage?’

This conversation prepares the client to feel unmotivated sometimes – and establishes that it’s a normal part of change! It also helps me understand how to help them when disengagement happens.”

If you prepare early for these coaching challenges, that preparation will help remind you, and your clients, that you’re not failures because boredom or impatience or resistance sets in.

You’ll realize these are things you’re supposed to feel when going through an authentic change process. And that’ll increase the odds you both stick to it.

5. Build a track record with your clients’ amazing results.

You’ve found your people. They’ve seen a hopeful future. They’re committed. Together, you’re rolling through resistance. So get ready for amazing results.

But don’t let them go undocumented.

In our “How to build a track record and demonstrate your excellence” article we share strategies for collecting client data.

These can be progress pictures showing physical changes; numbers that tell a story of how a client’s body fat, body measurements, or blood markers have changed; or client testimonials about their experience with you.

Soon you’ll have an impressive portfolio of success stories to show prospects. Forget telling them you can help them; show them the evidence.

Like this:

Or this:

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You’re tracking your eating and exercise meticulously but not seeing results. Has your metabolism slowed to a crawl? Are your hormones off? Is it really possible to GAIN weight from eating too LITTLE? Here’s what’s really going on — and how to solve it.


“How can I be eating so little, and still gaining weight?”

Have you ever felt this way? (Or had a client who has?)

In my years as a coach, it’s a question that’s come up time and time again — from both clients and fellow coaches.

They’re confused. Frustrated. Maybe even angry. (Or certainly “hangry.”)

Despite doing everything they can, including eating less — maybe a lot less — they’re still not losing weight. In fact, they might even be gaining.

Do a quick Internet search and you’re bound to find lots of explanations.

Some folks say that the laws of energy balance apply, and that people aren’t counting calories properly. Others call it “starvation mode”, or some weird metabolic or hormonal problem.

So what’s the deal? Is there something wrong with them? Are their bodies broken? Is it all in their heads?

Or can you actually gain weight from eating too little?

Let’s find out.

Truth: Thermodynamics don’t lie.

You’ve probably heard the phrase — the laws of thermodynamics — before. Or maybe you’ve heard it as energy balance. Or “calories in, calories out.”

Let’s break down what it actually means.

Thermodynamics is a way to express how energy is used and changed. Put simply, we take in energy in the form of food, and we expend energy through activities like:

  • basic metabolic functions (breathing, circulating blood, etc.)
  • movement (daily-life activity, purposeful exercise, etc.)
  • producing heat (also called thermogenesis)
  • digestion and excretion

And, the truth is…

Energy balance (calories in, calories out) does determine bodyweight.
  • If we absorb more energy than we expend, we gain weight.
  • If we absorb less energy than we expend, we lose weight.

This has been tested over and over again by researchers, in many settings.

It’s as close as we can get to scientific fact.

Sure, there are many factors that influence either side of this seemingly simple equation, which can make things feel a little confusing:

However, humans do not defy the laws of thermodynamics.

But what about unexplained weight changes? That time you ate a big dinner and woke up lighter? When you feel like you’re “doing everything right” but you’re not losing weight?

Nope, even if we think we’re defying energy in vs. energy out, we’re not.

And what about that low carb doctor who implies that insulin resistance (or some other hormone) mucks up the equation?

While hormones may influence the proportions of lean mass and fat mass you gain or lose, they still don’t invalidate the energy balance equation.

Yet, as the title of the article suggests, it is easy to understand why folks — even internet-famous gurus and doctors — get confused about this.

One reason why…

Measuring metabolism is tricky.

The fact is, your exact metabolic demands and responses aren’t that easy to measure.

It is possible to approximate your basal metabolic rate — in other words, the energy cost of keeping you alive. But measurements are only as good as the tools we use.

When it comes to metabolic measurement, the best tools are hermetically sealed metabolic chambers, but not many of us hang out in those on the regular.

Which means, while we may have our “metabolism” estimated at the gym, or by our fitness trackers, as with calorie counts on labels, these estimates can be off by 20-30 percent in normal, young, healthy people. They’re probably off by even more in other populations.

Of course, if we could accurately measure how much energy you’re expending every day, and then accurately measure exactly how much energy you’re taking in and absorbing, we could decide whether you were truly “eating too little” for your body’s requirements.

But even if we could know this outside the lab, which we can’t, it wouldn’t be useful. Because energy output is dynamic, meaning that every variable changes whenever any other variable changes (see below).

In other words, unless we can exactly measure energy inputs and outputs from minute to minute, we can’t know for sure what your metabolism is doing and how it matches the food you’re eating.

So, most of the time, we have to guess. And our guesses aren’t very good.

Not only that, but the idea of “eating too little” is subjective.

Think about it. By “eating too little”, do you mean…

  • Eating less than normal?
  • Eating less than you’ve been told to eat?
  • Eating less than feels right?
  • Eating less than you need to be healthy?
  • Eating less than your estimated metabolic rate?
  • Eating less than your actual metabolic rate?

And how often does that apply? Are you…

  • Eating too little at one meal?
  • Eating too little on one day?
  • Eating too little every day?
  • Eating too little almost every day but too much on some days?

Without clarity on some of these questions, you can see how easy it is to assume you’re “eating too little” but still not eating less than your actual energy expenditure, even if you did some test to estimate your metabolic rate and it seems like you’re eating less than that number.

Most times, the problem is perception.

As human beings, we’re bad at correctly judging how much we’re eating and expending. We tend to think we eat less and burn more than we do — sometimes by as much as 50 percent.

(Interestingly, lighter folks trying to gain weight often have the opposite problem: They overestimate their food intake and underestimate their expenditure.)

It’s not that we’re lying (though we can sometimes deceive ourselves, and others, about our intake). More than anything, it’s that we struggle to estimate portion sizes and calorie counts.

This is especially difficult today, when plates and portions are bigger than ever. And energy-dense, incredible tasting, and highly brain-rewarding “foods” are ubiquitous, cheap, and socially encouraged.

When folks start paying close attention to their portion sizes using their hands or food scales and measuring cups, they are frequently shocked to discover they are eating significantly more than they imagined.

(I once had a client discover he was using ten tablespoons of olive oil — 810 calories — rather than the two tablespoons — 162 calories — he thought he was using in his stir-fry. Oops.)

At other times, we can be doing everything right at most meals, but energy can sneak when we don’t realize it.

Here’s a perfect story to illustrate this.

A few years ago Dr. Berardi (JB, as he’s known around here) went out to eat with some friends at a well-known restaurant chain. He ordered one of their “healthier” meals that emphasized protein, veggies, and “clean” carbs. Then he finished off dinner with cheesecake.

Curious about how much energy he’d consumed, he looked it up.

Five. Thousand. Calories.

Incredibly, he hadn’t even felt that full afterwards.

If the calorie content of that one meal surprised someone with the expertise and experience of JB, how would most “normal” eaters fare? Good luck trying to “eyeball” things.

Also imagine a scenario where you were under-eating almost every meal during the week and maintaining an estimated negative energy balance of about -3,500 calories. Then, during one single meal, a “healthy” menu option plus dessert, you accumulated 5,000 calories.

That one meal would put you in a theoretically positive energy balance for the week (+1,500 calories), leading to weight gain!

Seriously, how would you feel if, after eating 20 “perfect” meals in a row and 1 “not so bad” meal, you gained weight? You’d probably feel like your metabolism was broken.

You’d probably feel like it’s possible to gain weight from eating too little.

But, again, the laws of thermodynamics aren’t broken. Rather, a whole bunch of calories snuck in without you realizing it.

Even more, the dynamic nature of metabolism can be confusing.

Another reason it can be easy to believe you gained weight eating too little (or at least didn’t lose weight when eating less) is because your metabolism isn’t like a computer.

For instance, you might have heard that one pound of fat is worth 3,500 calories, so if you cut 500 calories per day, you’ll lose one pound per week (7 x 500 = 3,500).

(Unless, of course, you downed 5,000 calories in a single meal at the end of the week, in which case you’d be on track to gain weight).

Except this isn’t how human metabolism works. The human body is a complex and dynamic system that responds quickly to changes in its environment.

When you undereat, especially over a longer period (that part is important), this complex system adapts.

Here’s an example of how this might play out:

  • You expend less energy in digestion because you’re eating less.
  • Resting metabolic rate goes down because you weigh less.
  • Calories burned through physical activity go down since you weigh less.
  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (daily-life fidgeting, movement) goes down and you expend less energy through the day.
  • Your digestion slows down, and you absorb more energy from your food.

Your body will also adjust hormonal feedback and signaling loops. For instance:

  • Appetite and hunger hormones go up (i.e. we want to eat more, are more stimulated by food cues, may have more cravings).
  • Satiety hormones go down (which means it’s harder for us to feel full or satisfied).
  • Thyroid hormones and sex hormones (both of which are involved in metabolic rate) go down.

Your planned 500 calorie daily deficit can quickly become 400, 300, or even 200 calories (or fewer), even if you intentionally exercise as much as you had before.

And, speaking of exercise, the body has similar mechanisms when we try to out-exercise an excessive intake.

For example, research suggests that increasing physical activity above a certain threshold (by exercising more) can trigger:

  • More appetite and more actual calories eaten
  • Increased energy absorption
  • Lowered resting or basal metabolism
  • Less fidgeting and spontaneous movement (aka NEAT)

In this case, here’s what the equation would look like:

These are just two of the many examples we could share.

There are other factors, such as the health of our gastrointestinal microbiota, our thoughts and feelings about eating less (i.e. whether we view eating less as stressful), and so on.

The point is that metabolism is much more complicated (and interdependent) than most people realize.

All of this means that when you eat less, you may lose less weight than you expect. Depending how much less you eat, and for how long, you may even re-gain weight in the long run thanks to these physiological and behavioral factors.

Plus, humans are incredibly diverse.

Our metabolisms are too.

While the “average” responses outlined above are true, our own unique responses, genetics, physiology, and more means that our calorie needs will differ from the needs of others, or the needs predicted by laboratory tools (and the equations they rely on).

Let’s imagine two people of the same sex, age, height, weight, and lean body mass. According to calculations, they should have the exact same energy expenditure, and therefore energy needs.

However, we know this is not the case.

For instance:

  • Your basal metabolic rate — remember, that’s the energy you need just to fuel your organs and biological functions to stay alive — can vary by 15 percent. For your average woman or man, that’s roughly 200-270 calories.
  • Genetic differences matter too. A single change in one FTO gene can be an additional 160 calorie difference.
  • Sleep deprivation can cause a 5-20 percent change in metabolism, so there’s another 200-500 calories.
  • For women, the phase of their menstrual cycle can affect metabolism by another 150 calories or so.

Even in the same individual, metabolism can easily fluctuate by 100 calories from day to day, or even over the course of a day (for instance, depending on circadian rhythms of waking and sleeping).

Those differences can add up quickly, and this isn’t even an exhaustive list.

If you want to dig really deep into the factors that influence our energy balance, check this out:

The multifactorial nature of body weight. Click the image to launch the full-size version.

In the end, hopefully you can see how equations used to predict calorie needs for the “average” person might not be accurate for you. And that’s why you could gain weight (or not lose weight) eating a calorie intake that’s below your measured (estimated) expenditure.

It’s also why some experts, who aren’t knowledgeable about the limitations of metabolic measurement, will try to find all sorts of complicated hormonal or environmental causes for what they think is a violation of thermodynamics.

The answer, however, is much simpler than that.

The estimates just weren’t very good.

And yes, water retention is a thing.

Cortisol is one of our “stress hormones”, and it has effects on our fluid levels.

Food and nutrient restriction is a stressor (especially if we’re anxious about it). When we’re stressed, cortisol typically goes up. People today report being more stressed than ever, so it’s easy to tip things over into “seriously stressed”.

When cortisol goes up, our bodies may hold onto more water, which means we feel “softer” and “less lean” than we actually are. This water retention can mask the fat loss that is occurring, making it seem like we aren’t losing fat and weight, when in fact we are.

Here’s an example.

A good friend of mine (and former high school hockey teammate) was struggling to make the NHL. He had played several seasons in the AHL (one step down from the NHL) and had just been called up to the pros.

The NHL club wanted him to stay below 220 lbs (100 kg), which was a challenge for him at 6’2”. He found that eating a lower-carb diet allowed him to maintain a playing weight around 218 lbs.

Yet his nutrition coach told him it was OK to have some occasional higher-carb days.

Unfortunately for him, he had one of these higher-carb days — going out for sushi with his teammates — right before his first NHL practice.

The next day, when reporting to the NHL team, he was called into the GM’s office to get weighed. He was 232 lbs (105 kg).

Thanks, carbs and salt!

My friend was crushed. Even worse, two days later he was back to 218 lbs.

OK, but what if I track my intake and expenditure meticulously?

You might be nodding your head, beginning to realize how complex metabolism is. How inaccurate calorie counts can be. How variable we all are. How much the body seeks to maintain the status quo. And how poor we are at estimating our own intake and expenditure.

But what if you are meticulously tracking intake? Logging your meals? Counting your steps? Even hitting a local research lab to measure your metabolism? And things still aren’t adding up?

Well, it goes back to what we’ve discussed so far:

  • The calorie counts of the foods you’ve logged might be higher than expected, either because of erroneous labeling or because of small errors in your own measurement.
  • Your energy needs might be lower than calculated (or even measured). This may be because…
  • You’re expending less energy through movement than your fitness tracker or exercise machine suggests.
  • You have less lean mass as you think, or it may not be as energy-consuming as you expect.
  • You’re absorbing more energy in digestion than you realize (for instance, if your gastrointestinal transit time is slow, or your microbiota are really good at extracting nutrients).
Maybe you’re just missing some data.

As mentioned above, while you’re probably not outright lying, it could be that you’re also “forgetting” to account for the few bites of your kids’ chicken nuggets that you didn’t want to go to waste. Or that extra spoonful of peanut butter. Or the large glass of wine you counted as a ‘medium’. Likewise, the calorie counts on those food labels can be (and often are) off.

Maybe you’re counting your workout as high intensity, even though you spent much of it sitting on a bench between low-rep strength sets. Maybe you were so hungry afterwards, you ate more than you intended (but figured it was all going to muscle-building, so no biggie).

It happens; we’re all human.

Measuring and tracking your energy intake carefully can help.

When we measure and track for a while, we become more aware of what we’re eating, get a more realistic idea of our portion sizes, and help ourselves be consistent and accountable.

But measuring and tracking definitely is not a perfect strategy.

It can be stressful and time-consuming. Most people don’t want to do it forever.

And it may misrepresent the “exact” calories we consume versus the “exact” calories we burn, which can lead us to believe we’re eating less than we’re burning, even when we’re not.

What about legitimate medical problems?

Whenever we arrive at this point of the discussion folks usually ask about whether underlying health problems, or medications, can affect their metabolism, weight, and/or appetite.

The answer is yes.

This includes things like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), certain pharmaceuticals (corticosteroids or birth control), severe thyroid dysfunction, sex hormone disruption, leptin resistance, and more.

However, this is less common than most people think, and even if you do have a health issue, your body still isn’t breaking the laws of thermodynamics.

It’s just — as discussed above — that your calorie expenditure is lower than predicted. And a few extra calories may be sneaking in on the intake side.

The good news: weight loss is still possible (albeit at a slower pace).

If you truly feel that you are accurately estimating intake, exercising consistently at least 5-7 hours a week, managing your sleep and stress, getting expert nutritional coaching, and covering absolutely all the fundamentals, then it may be time to consider further conversations and testing with your doctor.

So what can you do?

If you feel your intake is less than your needs, (in other words, you’re eating what feels like ‘too little’) but you still aren’t losing weight, here are some helpful next steps to try.

Measure your intake.

Use whatever tools you prefer. Your hands, scales and spoons, pictures, food logs, etc. It doesn’t matter.

Track your intake for a few days..

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Learning more about nutrition is one thing; turning that knowledge into results (and a thriving practice) is another.

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