We’ve got more than 120 fitness facilities all across the world partnering with us and our Whole30 program as part of their commitment to good nutrition. We love hearing their success stories – members who are performing better, sleeping better, feeling happier, and reducing their symptoms of any number of lifestyle-related diseases and conditions within just a few weeks. We hope their successes will encourage other gyms to take on the Whole30 program, and will offer as much support as we can in your gym’s efforts, too.
But before you do, we’d like to wax poetic about one common “nutrition challenge” structure we see, and why we think this theme will, in the long run, actually hurt your members’ results.
How to Measure “Clean Eating”
Many gyms seek to measure compliance with their members’ nutrition challenges. Calculating something that’s relatively intangible to begin with – “clean eating” – can be difficult, which is why gyms often create their own set of regulations. These rules are designed to statistically measure adherence to the program as outlined, usually by assigning points for various degrees of compliance.
One such program outlined zero points if you eat “perfect Paleo,” one point if you include one individual transgression, two points if you fall off the wagon for an entire meal, and three points if your whole day goes to hell in a handbasket. Those who accumulate the least amount of “points” during the 30 day period are said to have achieved the greatest “success” with the challenge.
But in our experience – and we’ve got plenty – implementing a point system in conjunction with your nutritional challenge is a recipe for disaster. While a point assignment strategy seems a logical way to measure compliance, any such system is doomed to backfire.
There’s a Disconnect Here…
A group of day care centers in Israel were all experiencing a common issue – late pick-ups. Parents were arriving late at the end of the day, forcing the centers to stay open late, and pay their workers overtime. In an effort to curb these late pick-ups, the centers introduced a financial penalty. Parents who arrived more than 10 minutes late had to pay a $3 penalty for each incident. The idea was that a fine would discourage parents from arriving late.
However, after the fine was introduced, the number of late pick-ups actually increased – more than doubled, in fact. Parents now measured the financial difficulty of a small fine (minimal) against having to cut their tennis game short (troublesome), and opted for the fine. Their child’s well-being, however, no longer played a part in their decision making process.
The institution of a fine substituted an economic incentive (a $3 penalty) with a moral incentive (responsibility to your child). For just a few dollars a day, the parents could buy off their guilt.
And for that reason, a point assignment as a penalty for making poor food choices will backfire.
A point system serves to disassociate the nutritional choices you make (eating the cookie) with your actual physical consequences (blood sugar volatility, sugar cravings, digestive distress). Instead, you now face a different choice: forgo the delicious cookie, or incur “a point.” Which one sounds more appetizing to you?
Don’t Sell Your Results Short
In our admittedly unofficial survey (mostly anecdotal evidence and first-hand accounts from gym members), gyms who institute a penalty or point system have far less compliance – and far less impressive results – than a gym who implements a detailed, structured program exactly as outlined, with no room for “cheats” or “slips.” By implementing a point system, it’s almost as though the gym members are expected to fail at some point or another during their month. “We want you to eat well, but since that might be hard, here’s an arbitrary system to measure how well you actually ate.”
Except the system doesn’t measure a thing. Who knows whether a one point day means you had a little added sugar in your balsamic, or a dirty martini with breakfast? Does earning 12 points over a 30 day period mean you had four entire days off the reservation, or that you included one thing you weren’t supposed to eat three days a week for the duration of the challenge? And regardless… which is “worse?”
The alternative to an arbitrary point system? Demand 100% compliance for the full 30 days, just like we do here, with our Whole30 program. No cheats, no slips, no “But Coach, it’s my birthday!” Outline the plan, insist that members follow the letter of the law for 30 full days, and measure compliance like you measure pregnancy – you either are, or you’re not.
Set the standards high, because you think nutrition is that important. Outline your expectations clearly, so everyone knows what is required of them. Present your members with their best shot at success, because the Whole30 done with 80% compliance means your members will see (you know what’s coming…) 20% of the results. And give your members the opportunity to experience the full range of benefits that are sure to come at the end of their 30 days – which is, in fact, the real point of the challenge.
9 Steps to a Successful Nutrition Challenge
For those of you who want to structure a nutrition challenge for your gym, read our article, 9 Steps to a Successful Nutrition Challenge, for our best tips on buy-in, compliance, and stellar results.
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Very much agree, and glad you made this point (no pun intended). I think it’s better to assume people CAN handle the hard stuff instead of giving them safety nets and excuses to fail. That just encourages them to let themselves off easy, not hold themselves to high standards, even if they are more than capable of meeting them.
The difference with pregnancy though, is that once you’re pregnant you can’t get more pregnant.
With food, you can always keep eating worse if you think of it as Game Over, nothing to lose.
I think a lot of it depends on the person, though.
Gretchen Rubin has a really interesting piece on moderators and abstainers (http://happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2009/01/quiz-are-you-a-moderator-or-an-abstainer/) — the crux is that some people do better at changing their habits when it’s all-or-nothing, and others seem to benefit from off-roading.
That’s not intended as a comment on the Whole30, but I think it is a sensible consideration for people moving forward.
Melissa @Whole9 says
Khaled, that’s what we’ve observed, and what the habit and change research seems to point out. If folks want a more graduated entry into Paleo, Sisson’s “Primal” is really ideal – good structure + some of his “sensible vices.” But we’ve observed more radical results (and better success) with our “all in for 30 days” approach – I bet Robb Wolf has too, as this is the road he’s been advocating all along.
@Mike, excellent point. Rack up enough “points” and you’re thinking, “What the hell, all is lost, what’s the point?” It just disconnects the experience from the actual consequences to a really unhealthy (and unrealistic) degree.
@Victoria, we know the Whole30 isn’t for everyone, and that some folks aren’t ready for the all-in approach. But even if the gym decides not to run an “all-in” challenge, and let folks ease their way into things, the idea of assigning “points” for food choices is still a terrible idea. We’re trying (as does every nutrition challenge, I believe) to connect FOOD CHOICES with CONSEQUENCES. If you eat the cookie, your mental focus is shot. If you eat the ice cream, your face breaks out. If you eat the bread, your should thing comes back. By having members focus on points and not consequences, you eliminate the awareness that should come with any nutrition challenge, regardless of the structure. (I liked that book, by the way. We recommend it in the Whole30 Daily.)
I think people shy away from this because it seems unforgiving and a little brutal. But having done a couple of Whole30s I would argue that it’s not. Setting standards high and being personally forgiving about lapses (I get that it’s hard and I get it that you might attempt a hard thing and fail at it, that’s human) is not the same as setting standards high and then lowering the bar by not insisting on real compliance.
Another thing about points systems is that they can cause some major, major problems for some people (AKA: me). I used to count calories, but stopped after several instances of finding myself at the dinner table in tears because I was *sofreakinghungry* but at my calorie limit for the day. I would imagine that any other type of eating plan founded on points/weights/measures would have the same effect on my neurotic brain. Given that there seems to be a lot of perfectionism in this community (not just regarding food), probably other people would experience the same (crushing) anxiety over eating when another layer of “something to be perfect at” is added. That’s the great thing about eating paleo (or Whole-30 compliant, or just “clean eating”)–there aren’t a lot of ways you can screw it up unless you’re purposely doing so (read: cheating). It’s easy to figure out and easy to maintain, no counting required! (Which is also cool because I really suck at math.)
Laura Flack says
I was hoping this was about Weight Watchers and their point system. My step-mom is on it (and I used to be a long time ago), but I don’t believe in it. It’s such a pain to have to track “points” and those points don’t really mean anything. You could use 27 of your points to buy 2 big macs – what is that “teaching” you?
I prefer your plan and have tried to get both her and my dad to listen (my dad is the one who has to figure out her points and buy her WW compliant food). I can’t figure out why it isn’t just easier to shop the perimeter and eat “real food”.
I guess that is a question for another day.
Melissa @Whole9 says
Excellent points, all. Laura, we’ve been wanting to write a Weight Watchers post for some time now, but we don’t have the experience – and WW has helped people lose weight, so we don’t necessarily want to bust on them, as they’ve done a lot of people good. But we agree, the point system doesn’t resonate with us, and doesn’t connect food with health! (Which is why WW fails so often in the long run, I believe.)
Keri Weber says
With regards to Weight Watchers, I must confess that I used to follow their program and I was a huge supporter in various ways. I did lose a great deal of weight, BUT that’s where the positives stop. As with many of their clients, I actually became obsessed with food and points. I was always on the look-out for the next filling food that tasted amazing for so few points. The meeting room was always buzzing with the newest food discovery and ya know what? Most of the time these foods were nothing but processed garbage. Weight Watchers even sells various processed snack bars and such in their meeting rooms. While they do recommend eating whole foods, they do not discourage processed foods and they never discuss how unhealthy they are. All that matters is the points value. I didn’t learn to eat in a healthy manner. I learned to “get the most bang for my buck.” Four points worth of popcorn looks a whole lot better than four points worth of almonds on the Weight Watchers plan. I would also exercise like a crazy person, just so I could earn more food points because I was starving! I’m grateful for the weight I lost on Weight Watcher’s plan, but the mental and physical effects were not worth it.
First time commenter here. :) As a past WW member, I can attest to how much harm the program did for my psyche. I have struggled with disordered eating since I was a young girl. WW only fed the preoccupation with food and being “on” or “off” program. My binging was at its worst when I was following WW. I agree with Keri that the meetings were full of support but with a quick breeze over a “healthy”, whole foods recipe (most of the time being some type of low fat version of a full fat recipe like lasagna), that’s where it ended. Much of the time was focussed on the greatest finds of low point foods at the local grocery stores. Which processed food is the best bang for your buck. Answer a question right? You get to pick from the goodie basket- overflowing with sugar ladened treats like 1 pt suckers, 2 pt WW trademarked bars, etc. I actually did become a lifetime member, which means I hit my goal and maintained my weight for 6 weeks+. My dirty little secret was that binging and purging were what got me there and kept me there. The only measurement taken was the number on the scale. It was easy for a well skilled disorded eater to tip that number in the right direction but I hit lifetime so I was the example of what all of those folks walking in wanted to be. Binging, purging, laxatives, weighing myself twice/day and sacrificing dinner when I came up short on points are just some of the ways I beat the WW system. At the expense of my health, my sanity and freedom to enjoy life.
I’m SO glad to have found this site that puts an emphasis on a holistic approach. There is so much more to life and health than that number on the scale. My body is finally starting to heal from the effects of years of being so mistreated.
Melissa @Whole9 says
Welcome, Keri and Jenn!
Well, this is certainly an interesting dialogue. Again, I understand that no one is trying to take away from the good that WW or other community-based programs do for health and weight loss, but it’s interesting to hear that your experiences matches ours in terms of the unhealthiness of a point system to track something as complex as health. I’m really glad you’re both in a better place now, and I’m glad you found us, too!
Hunter O'Brien says
I have read that Day Care example in my management 101 class….my teacher used it as an example of how intrinsic vs extrinsic motivators can affect decisions and motivation. It definitely applies here!
I only made 28 days I blew it on vacation but it still change my life. I did not realize how often I was using food to make me feel better. I was able to give up on dairy, I used clarify butter in my coffee and love it. Making my own mayo and using a little bit of fruit like an apple or a peach to sweeten my chicken salad instead of sweet relish. Gave up my cheat day. Instead I have treats occasionally when I really want to. I tend to eat low carb so it was scary for me to eat fruit or sweet potatoes at first I thought for sure I would gain weight. I didn’t, I even lost a couple lbs and reshaped my body. I feel healthier with the whole 30 diet, loved the book and want to reread it. So thank you Melissa, I am looking forward to finishing the whole 30 the next time and I won’t give up on vacation either.