How to Build Community Around Nutrition (OPINION)
Nutrition philosophies are better known for their ability to divide versus unify. Discussions about whether you “should” eat dairy or sugar can result in “sides.” And, if you really want to create some enemies, have a strong opinion about the number of carbohydrate grams someone should eat per day.
It’s unfortunate because now, more than ever, we need to educate and motivate people towards better nutrition habits. Seven out of 10 people in the US die from a chronic disease (like heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers) and organizations like the Center for Disease Control agree that chronic diseases are largely preventable through lifestyle choices like nutrition (1). Nutrition also improves performance and recovery making it an obvious priority for athletes chasing health and performance.
But why does there need to be a community around nutrition? For the same reason a strong community helps drive one’s fitness results; habit change is easier when one has the support and motivation from a peer group.
The problem, of course, is how do you unify a community around nutrition given how much noise there is in the media? It’s probably easier than you think and there are plenty of parallels to coaching. It’s about understanding big-picture concepts versus specific physiological details. It’s similar to understanding that CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements at high intensity; it’s not Fran on Mondays and back squats on Wednesdays. Fran and back squats are the workouts to implement the methodology. Similarly, in nutrition, there are underlying principles that dictate one’s nutrition success, where choices, like eating meat or counting macros, are similar to selecting individual workouts or scaling options. They are how people implement physiological principles.
The first principle to understand is that an optimal diet achieves the right quantity and quality. It’s not either-or; it’s both. If you only focus on one, yes, you can get results, but not to the level from doing both. The right quantity means you don’t eat more food than your body needs (if you do, you gain weight), and it can be measured in calories or macronutrient grams. The right quality means eating enough vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals to be health-protective. This comes through eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods. Both quantity and quality are reflected in one’s health status, where other lifestyle factors like exercise, sleep, and stress combined with one’s genetics complete the total health picture.
With the ever-increasing obesity and chronic disease epidemics, we clearly aren’t eating the right quantity or quality. And it’s so easy to see why. Processed food, which is calorically dense from carbohydrates and fat, is quite literally everywhere. At every checkout line, at every social event, holiday, or celebration, at concerts, hospitals, airports, gas stations, and even most office breakrooms are stocked with these calorically dense goodies. These foods comprise almost 60% of our caloric intake (2)! Let me make this very clear: no one is overeating chicken breast, tofu, baby carrots or apples. No one. It’s the ice cream, french fries, chips, cookies, bread products, and alcoholic beverages where you don’t have to eat much to get too much quantity (calories) without quality (vitamins and minerals).
And that’s the next principle to understand: our universal diet problem is processed foods. So often we get lost in the weeds worrying about trivial details of what’s optimal, but it’s largely irrelevant to what is happening. If 80% of people aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables (3), why would I tell people to focus on 10 “superfoods”? Any choice people make to include more whole, unprocessed foods in their diet is a win. I don’t care if it’s corn on the cob, soybeans, bananas, or iceberg lettuce: ANY of these are better than the beer, pizza, and brownies. People will push back on this and say their diet isn’t that bad. This may be true, but even still, it’s the bites of pizza and brownies that are the problem, not the pineapple or black beans.
So how does understanding these principles build a community around nutrition? First, you no longer need to adhere to the dogma of any specific diet or restrictive rules. Now, you understand how and why so many different diets work. If someone makes any change to their diet that reduces the quantity or improves quality, they will get “results.” Maybe drinking more water led to fewer donuts at breakfast, maybe by skipping breakfast the person ate less overall, and maybe by counting macros the person ate more fruit and vegetables to feel more full. But the underlying concept to them all is the person reduced their quantity and/or improved their quality. This helps you support people trying Paleo or Macros or Keto. It’s really about them finding a paradigm that helps them eat the right quality and quantity of food indefinitely, not the specifics of how they do it.
Second, you understand that the chronic disease epidemic is poised to crush our healthcare system and that any habit change that helps people drop weight and eat more unprocessed foods is moving in the right direction. This means you can celebrate the person going vegetarian and eating more fruits and vegetables – even if you believe meat is more healthy. Be clear that this isn’t about giving everyone a participation trophy for eating whatever they want. It’s about seeing diet changes as a point in someone’s progression. Cutting out soda from a fast-food diet can lead to massive health changes (quantity changes) even if their diet isn’t optimal yet (need to focus on quality).
It’s been done plenty of times before: you can build a community around a strict nutrition diet protocol. I’m just not sure it’s necessary or optimal. Building a community is about setting a common goal and then figuring out how to include people. Build a community around people committing to better quality and quantity control in their diets, and you’ll likely find you’ve enabled more people to finally have success in their nutrition.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2019). Chronic Diseases in America. Retrieved October 30, 2019, from: https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/chronic-diseases.htm
2. Martinez Steele, E., Popkin, B.M., Swinburn, B., & Monteiro, C.A. (2017). The share of ultra-processed foods and the overall nutritional quality of diets in the US: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. Population Health Metrics, 15(1), 6. doi: 10.1186/s12963-017-0119-3
3. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (2015). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Retrieved Aug 9, 2017, from: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/