Nutrition, they say for triathletes, is the fourth discipline. Finding your road to nutrition success amongst conflicting data, social pressure, emotional headwinds, and personal dietary beliefs can feel impossible. I believe that food choices are deeply personal, and for an athlete, food choices are critical. This is why, when a Habit Nutrition TED Talk with CEO Neil Grimmer showed up in my Facebook feed, promising "personalized food," I clicked and watching anxiously, and without interruption.
I was an easy sell. That day, I purchased the Habit Nutrition Core program for $149 (a $50 discount). The athletes I work with have constant nutrition curiosities and I am always hunting for answers, so I wanted to share my experience with the Habit Nutrition system.
What is Habit Nutrition?
Habit Nutrition is a guided system to overhaul your nutrition mindset and lifestyle. Through their blood tests, integration with DNA data, chat bots, mobile apps, and even a real live human nutrition coach, their system pinpoints the pieces of your current nutrition philosophy that are holding you back from your goals, and replaces it with new habits that support your success.
How does it work?
TAKE THE HABIT CHALLENGE. The first step in the program, after receiving the lab test kit, is to provide blood samples (taken with finger pin-prickers, included in the kit) which measure your body's ability to metabolize fats and sugars. Detailed instructions for the test are provided in the test kit, as well as in an online video. The test consists of fasting for 12 hours, taking a blood sample, then drinking the (extra sugary, extra fatty) Habit Challenge Shake, followed by another blood sample 30 minutes later, and a third blood sample another 90 minutes later. After taking the blood samples, I packaged it all up and sent it back to their lab to get my personalized nutrition plan.
ONE-WEEK FOOD LOG. About a week after sending my test results in, I received a text from the Habit bot (Allie), directing me to download their app and track my food for a week. The Habit app made this super simple. I didn't have to count calories or enter every ingredient into a food log (a la MyFitnessPal). All I had to do was take a picture of what I ate. (See screenshot to the left.) After a week of creating a food journal in this way, my coach offered some basic feedback: "I'd encourage you to be on the hunt for hidden sugars by reading the ingredient labels on foods like flavored nuts, snack bars, beverages, and fruit-flavored yogurts."
REVIEW TEST RESULTS. The big day came and I received my test results. Based on my blood tests and DNA data, I learned that my body has trouble processing carbs, so my coach (or bot, hard to tell the difference) encouraged me to eat less carbs. This is where the skeptic in me kicked in because, uh... vegan athlete here. Carbs are mostly what I eat. How is this gonna work?!
CREATE AND RECORD HABITS IN THE HABIT MAKER APP. Here lies the magic of the program. Based on my test results, my coach guided me to make one change a week. Because my DNA test results said that I have a high caffeine sensitivity, the first new habit I needed to build was to reduce or eliminate caffeine. I was given several options for how to create this new habit and had to choose the option that I found most appealing. (e.g. No caffeine after 1pm, No caffeine 2 days/week, etc.) As for tackling my problem with carbs, I started a new habit with the help of the Habit Maker to avoid simple carbs after 3pm, targeting to eat most of my carbs at breakfast and lunch and consume only light, complex carbs at dinner (grains and veggies, but no pasta, bread, etc.). I got to choose the habit, the way to create it, and the frequency of my commitment. This, to me, was the most effective part of this program:
(1) I was guided to make small changes
(2) I made one change at a time (one per week)
(3) I chose the way to make the change
(4) I didn't have to do it every day
(5) I tracked my successes and could view my progress
After 4 weeks (and 4 new habits), my engagement with my Coach (and with Allie the bot) ended, but I still get notifications from the Habit Maker app to track my habits.
The Pros and Cons
THE GOOD STUFF:
There was a variety of suggestions for overcoming bad habits - Habit has done a top-notch job at offering several options for achieving your goals, as there is no one-size-fits-all path to nutrition success.
The test kit and 23andMe integration - The initial test took a few hours, but the instructions were simple. It felt good to know that my blood and my DNA was being used as a the input to my nutrition plan. Definitely felt personal.
Product design and user experience - The product interface and workflow is simplistic and intuitive, while also being elegant and professional. The Habit brand and feeling are ever-present throughout the website, the test kit, and the mobile apps. It was fun to use their product every single day (kind of important when you're trying to create a habit!)
Specialized diets are considered. I didn't expect to be serviced, as a vegan, thinking that their food suggestions would be somewhat more universal, but they were able to provide vegan substitutions without missing a beat. The one major exception to this was that the shake that I had to drink during the lab test was milk-based, but I was warned of this before purchasing.
WHERE IT NEEDS IMPROVEMENT:
In my view, Habit did not quite live up to the promise of personalization in their coaching. For example, I told my coach that I was training for a marathon, but this didn't stop the bot from telling me to "make sure I get some exercise today." The worst example of this was the afternoon that I ran my marathon, I get a message from the bot that said something to the effect of, "Have you moved today?" Ugh. As a professional with years of product management experience for solutions that involve neural networks, data science, and machine learning, I know that this personalization stuff is anything but trivial. Having said that, here's where I thought the promise of "personalization" could be improved:
When my lab results came back, I learned that I should eat a variety of foods, watch out for hidden sugars, use carbs for fuel, and focus on veggies for my snacks. This was highly disappointing. Is there anyone in the world for which this advice would not be applicable? Doubtful. This definitely did not feel personalized.
Coaching via text. The chat bot coach and the human coach communicated with me on the same phone number, so it was always hard to tell if I was talking with a person or a chatbot. I hated it. The chat bot responded right away in impersonal terms, while the coach took longer to respond and I had no indication if she was understanding my messages. It would have been nice to have a 15-minute video chat with my human coach at some point in the process.
Not athlete-focused at all. The program is 100% focused right now on weight loss. There isn't even a way to set a target weight goal higher than your current weight. My coach asked me several times to set my weight loss goal, and I kept responding that my goal was not to lose weight, it was to gain athletic performance. I get their focus, but the TED talk by Neil Grimmer, who describes his inspiration for this business rooted in his quest for performance in triathlon, is a little misleading.
The Habit Nutrition approach is simple and revolutionary. While it did not hit the mark on "personalized," it is a massive step ahead of calorie-counting and fad diets. Overall, I would recommend this system for athletes who want to lose weight and who are serious about making changes in their lifestyle - no quick fixes here! Their suggestions for changing dietary habits are really helpful. I'll be following this company and am excited to see how they evolve their system for athletes and improve the level of personalization.