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Nutrition for Sale!

Raise your hand if you’ve ever bought a nutrition supplement, service, or other product after seeing an advertisement of some kind? Basically, if you’ve ever seen an ad for vitamins and then bought those vitamins, you’d fall into this category. Marketing. It’s an essential part of running a business. But at what point does marketing cross the line from being an innocuous business tool, and become a harmful manipulation?

In the nutrition world, us nutrition professionals are bearing witness to a wildfire of marketing chaos that’s been building over the last couple decades. A decent swath of educated consumers are privy to the show as well. It ebbs and flows with the seasons, promising to dig you out of your holiday binge guilt, or have you svelte and magazine cover ready by your vacation to Cabo. Actual samples:

“Imagine yourself 20 lbs. lighter by this time next month! Our programs and services make it possible.”

“Lose up to 13 lbs. and 7 inches overall in your first month!*” (Note the * …below in very tiny print that you have to look for: “*In a study, average weight loss was 11.6 lbs. and 8 inches. See money back guarantee details.”)

Some niggle at the concept of overall self-improvement, hinting at the possibility of a massive positive shift in a person’s life:

“…an online personalized nutrition coaching service that transforms the lives of our members…judgment-free environment…engaged community to support you every step of the way.”

Of course, you have to have the before and after pictures that pluck at our vanity for visual drama…

For those of you wondering why this is being discussed as though it’s a problem, let’s explore a few angles of what’s happening here.

1) Again, this is marketing intended to help grow a business. Ultimately, the purpose of this marketing is to increase sales. Sure, the business can have the best interests of a client at the heart of its business model, but the marketing is intended to get you in the door. So, the marketing ultimately becomes about the sale, not the best interest of the individual (which may or may not come later…there’s no guarantee).

2) The company decides who the marketing is released to. (i.e. how big of an audience, and what kind of audience). Generally, the bigger the audience the better for the purpose of maximizing potential sales/profit. If you’re widely disseminating a focused message to a large group of people, you’re increasing the diversity within your intended client base. If your product does not have this same kind of diversity/flexibility, it is more likely the product can become inappropriate for someone. You essentially reduce your potential product value. Here’s where things get interesting in the nutrition field…

3) The BEST nutrition plan for you, is YOUR nutrition plan, not anyone else’s. This doesn’t mean yours won’t have very similar principles to other nutrition plans, the science is the science after all. However HOW that science is implemented is totally dependent on the person and a huge number of factors. In terms of marketing, it’s a lot easier to have a central mantra or product, throw a catchy slogan on it and some before and after pictures, and call it a day. You are running a business after all! It’s just not as sexy to say, “Join us and learn how moderate consistent nutrition changes won’t help you lose huge amounts of weight in a short time frame but will set you up for long-term lasting success that you’ll be able to stick with instead of yo-yo-ing and skipping from one fad diet to the next.”

4) Pandering to the appearance-based insecurities of our society through marketing just perpetuates those insecurities, missing the attention needed toward other components of a person that are required to create lasting healthy changes. Those insecurities become validated, because the nutrition world acknowledges them and tells you they might need to be changed. In other words, marketing can (and often does) get a person to buy into a nutrition product or service because of how they think it will make them look, rather than because it is a good fit for their individual needs. Which brings us back around…

Nutrition habits are not clothing. They affect your general HEALTH in a multitude of LASTING ways. And yet, much of marketing for anything related to nutrition is treated the same. Like you’re buying a pair of pants you can return if you don’t like them, instead of something very significant that affects you day in and day out.

So, what is a nutrition consumer to do?? Educate and protect yourself, as always. There’s no way around this when we live in a society with insufficient regulation of nutrition information to provide protection for us. Not all nutrition services are bad, and not all marketing is going to lead you down an expensive path of dieting misery. But there are a few “red flags,”as we call them, to watch out for in marketing to avoid the cash traps.

1) Promise of a quick fix. Anyone who’s been down this path knows that lasting change doesn’t come quickly. Especially when it comes to something as challenging as habit change. It will take work, but with a little patience, it will be worth it.

2) Sounds too good to be true. “Lose 10 pounds per week eating anything you want!!” In this specific example they’re either misrepresenting their product or flat out lying to you. A little digging into what specifically the product or service is providing should clarify that.

3) Claims are not supported by science. Nutrition provides the chemicals for reactions and processes that occur in our bodies. Our bodies are LITERALLY conducting science all. Day. Long. Most reputable nutrition products and services will provide ample supporting resources for doing what they’re doing, often providing direct links somewhere to applicable literature. If they don’t but still provide the scientific basis for the claim, you can do some digging yourself, or reach out to the social media world for someone educated on the subject.

4) “Shock Tactics.” Carbs are not going to kill you. Fat is not going to give you a stroke. Dairy is not the cause of all cancers. And legumes are not going to obliterate your intestines. Shock tactics are intended to literally pull a reaction out of you. Take a concept, oversimplify it, and then exaggerate it to manipulate a person in a particular direction. Be smart, do your research before you believe it.

5) Oversimplification of a complex issue. Once again, your body is science. When there are that many factors, there are no always and never’s, and there are always going to be some “we haven’t figured it out yet. Sound nutrition recommendations take into account that there are MANY right ways to do things, and that there are many factors that need to be considered in the big picture.

6) “Good Foods,” “Bad Foods.” Same thing here. Labeling a food generally “good” or “bad” implies a situation of absolutes. There are going to be some situations where a food is good, and some situations where that same food is not as good. It all depends on the context.

7) Based on one single research study. Research studies are conducted in a number of formats. Some are longer and population-based taking a broad look. Others are very narrow in scope looking at a single chemical reaction for example. Many studies conducted over a period of time give us a broader more complete understanding of an issue. On Wheel of Fortune, you have a better chance at guessing the word when there are 7 letters on the board instead of just 2, right? One study is comparatively an incomplete view of a subject, that’s not generally considered adequate in making responsible recommendations.

If you want to save yourself the trial and error, speak with a Registered Dietitian to help you weed through the riff raff and find an individualized plan. YOUR plan. Free of the marketing tactics.

To find a registered dietitian in your area, check out this RD finder:

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