An Insider’s Look at Online Nutrition Coaching
Tanner Baze of StrongerU shares insights from his experience coaching clients for diet and fitness
Personal trainers and nutritionists can be incredibly effective resources for getting into shape. unfortunately, they’re also incredibly expensive, often over a hundred dollars an hour.
That’s one reason why more and more people are turning to online fitness and nutrition coaching (pandemic shelter-in-place policies are another—although this interview was conducted in November 2019, before that became a consideration). Online coaching is more affordable for most people and can be just as effective as in-person coaching if done right. Not to mention, it provides much greater flexibility since you don’t have specific appointments to keep.
Tanner Baze is a coach and the content manager for Stronger U, an online nutrition coaching company that specializes in helping people develop more awareness of their behaviors around food through personalized nutrition coaching based on their history, preferences, and lifestyle.
In this interview, Tanner explains how online nutrition coaching works, the tools and strategies that his most successful clients use to make permanent lifestyle changes, and a few things that dieters don’t need to worry about.
What do you do at StrongerU?
We’re an online nutrition coaching company. We work mostly through macronutrient tracking — that’s not all we do by any means, but given the world we live in, about 60–80% of our client based is focused on weight loss.
We do work with a number of high-performing individuals. We have a few special forces guys on the roster, NBA referees, a few American Ninja Warriors. And a ton of people in the ultra-endurance community — that’s a big client base for us.
So that said, we can help people lose weight, get prepped for a competition phase, or bulk up. But we also have a lot of people who show up having been overweight all their lives, but they end up lifting weights and falling in love with it. And their goals change; they reach their goal weight and say “okay, I’m going to maintain a bit, then I want to bulk up.”
So we bill ourselves as a one-stop-shop for everything they can need, from a physical performance standpoint, outside the gym. We do have a fitness coaching program now, which we just launched.
The backgrounds of our coaches are kind of varied — many are personal trainers, some are nutritionists. Most have the Precision Nutrition level one certificate; a lot of them have the MAC Nutrition one.
I was going to ask why you didn’t have a fitness coaching program — why did you wait until now to get into that?
Partly because we thought it was better to focus on one thing and really nail that. I think we’ve got nutrition coaching down now.
But fitness coaching can also have a lot more nuance than nutrition. Seeing how someone moves can drastically change how you’re going to approach having them work out. So it’s more individualized.
You said everything outside the gym — does that mean you coach people on lifestyle, stress, sleep, stuff like that?
Yes. Right now, every client turns in a spreadsheet every week. We’ll be replacing that with an app next year.
On that spreadsheet we have them track macros, but they also record how many times they ate out, how much sleep they got, how many bowel movements they had, how many alcoholic drinks. And we heavily encourage people to add notes to it, because there are built-in note sections. So we push clients to treat this spreadsheet as a nightly journal, in a sense.
So I can see on this spreadsheet that a client is 130 grams over on carbs, 30 grams over on fat—what the hell happened? And I can see it was graduation dinner, they went out to a Mexican restaurant, and they went nuts — but at least they still tracked it.
So we want to know holistically how well clients are doing, mentally, emotionally, as well as physically.
Let’s talk about communication. How do you communicate with clients, and how frequently? What do you think the optimal communication protocol is between coaches and clients?
We coach clients primarily via email, but it happens a lot via text, Facebook messenger, Instagram DMs. Some coaches will do a phone call to onboard new clients and cover the bases.
Like I mentioned before, we have clients send in a spreadsheet every week. Coaches are available more often than that — one of our unique selling points is that we’re responsive and we’re there, so we can answer messages every day if they need us to.
Everyone needs to have hours that they guard, to have work-life balance. But it’s a little weird that in the world of online coaching, a lot of people say, “here are my office hours, it’s these three hours, contact me then.” That’s not how real life works; clients have their own schedule going on. So communication is thought of mostly in terms of email, instead of a live conversation or a chat room.
We answer messages every day — generally, more than once a day. But there is such a thing as too much communication. If someone wants to reach out to me every day, they’re more than welcome to, but generally, I push them to be more independent. You should use your coach as a resource, but don’t use them as a crutch.
We want you to learn to think through things on your own, to problem-solve, and to use the skills you’ve been developing. You’ll get things wrong sometimes, but those screw-ups are learning opportunities.
Before I was at StrongerU I went through a brief phase where I pushed people to be in contact with me every day, and it’s too much. I think that can actually be damaging to people in a few ways. It can foster dependence, and people also might feel a little bit of resistance to it.
They’ll feel hassled, and it makes the whole thing feel like more work than it needs to. It increases the perceived amount of effort needed to work with a coach. It can create overload, especially when we’re already asking them to rebuild their whole approach to food. We’re asking people to weigh and measure their food, and then they have to take fifteen minutes to give a coach a detailed response? It’s too much.
And some people just don’t like feeling like their independence is being encroached upon. For some people, it’s less about the workout and more about their freedom.
Sometimes taking that step back can be all that someone really needs. Our hope at least is that giving clients some space can foster more independence and initiative, and so far that seems to be working.
So you have people weigh their food? Is that standard practice or do you just do it with some clients?
It’s pretty standard practice. We have a food scale we recommend to our clients. We also have them use something, usually MyFitnessPal, to track their macros. We want people weighing themselves every day, and weighing their food every day.
Who’s a typical client for you?
Female, 35–55. Has 15–30 pounds she wants to lose. She might work, or she might be a stay-at-home mom. Obviously our base is broader than that, but that’s definitely our core demographic.
Beyond just calories and macros, how do you individualize your nutrition advice to specific clients?
Every new client starts out by filling out a pretty detailed intake form. We want to know basic things like height and weight, what your weight history is, how much you exercise, how active you are in your daily life, how much sleep you get, what your expectations are, and what you’ve tried before.
Beyond that, it truly gets to the heart of coaching. There is definitely an art to looking at an intake form and figuring out an approach — maybe we’re going to make your calories 10x bodyweight to get more aggressive, or maybe we want to make it more moderate.
Then again, maybe you eat out three times a week, or maybe you travel a lot. In that case, I’m not giving you as much protein, or as many carbs, as someone who trains more consistently and keeps a tightly controlled home environment. I’d say, alright, I need to help you out by giving you more fat (for satiety) but controlling overall portion sizes.
For someone else, I’d say, okay, protein is a serious struggle for you right now, so why don’t we back away from that for a bit and see if you can make your life easier.
So you try and focus on what they find easiest to do then?
Absolutely. We want to make this as doable as possible, while still getting them to change their behavior. Because you need to change your behavior. You’re showing up for that.
So we want to find the lowest barrier to entry to making that happen. Find the path of least resistance.
So what exactly do you think about the whole protein vs. carbs argument? Do you think it’s overrated?
I think it’s overrated by the gigantic keto movement that’s been happening, for sure. And I think it’s overrated in the endurance community.
In general, I think most people are more scared of carbs than they need to be. We try to be as agnostic about it as we can be. I have clients who eat several hundred grams of carbs a day and I have others who eat 45 grams a day.
It depends on how big, lean, and active you are. Some people have lost two hundred pounds, so they’ll be eating two hundred grams of carbs a day, but that’s very low compared to what formulas say they should be eating.
When you start eating healthy food, sometimes it’s almost too filling. I have clients who are like, “I can’t eat all this food.” So we usually want to be moderate-carb to give flexibility and room to both eat what you want, within reason, and also be able to make it easy to hit your calories. And we want to actually see what works for you and adjust from there.
In terms of fat, do you monitor the types of fat clients eat, like saturated vs. unsaturated?
Not a ton, no. Some coaches will depend on who they’re working with and what special considerations they have. But for the vast majority of people, their health situation is that they’ll improve a ton just by losing weight.
Worrying about saturated vs. unsaturated is getting way too in-the-weeds for the vast majority of people, and might create too much of a barrier for them. They just need to focus on calories and macros and lose weight.
What about protein intake? Where do you usually set that?
It’s typically going to be right around .8 grams per pound of body weight, roughly in that range. That one tends to be pretty consistent across the board.
It might be a little higher for people with muscle-building goals, or for whom performance is a concern. Or if they’re way down deep into a diet and we need to manage their hunger. But it’s generally around .8 grams per pound of bodyweight.
What about fiber?
We will track it after a client’s been with us a while. We don’t at first because it tends to improve automatically in the first month or two of working with us. Once you start eating more vegetables, this tends to take care of itself.
We do notice if they’re not having regular bowel movements, then we start looking at it. But this can often be too much detail, kind of like tracking different types of fat, especially for new clients.
It sounds like you focus mostly on macros. What about rules about which types of foods people eat?
The center of gravity for us is almost always on macros. We want to start that way, we want people thinking about food that way.
Later on, we’ll give people goals or challenges about where to source their food. One popular thing is challenges, like get half your carbs from vegetables this week. Things like that tend to create a fascinating change in behavior.
How much of a time commitment is this whole coaching process for clients? Like not working out and cooking, but the actual coaching process in terms of tracking and talking to their coach?
I’d say for the first two to three weeks it’s very substantial — two hours a week at least. After that, there tends to be a pretty steep drop-off if you’re working on it. Once you get into a rhythm, it’s usually less than an hour a week.
The biggest part of this is planning and prepping food. We want you to prep and plan as much as possible, and that’s a skill you get more efficient at with practice.
You said you recommend MyFitnessPal for food tracking. The food database it has built into it is notoriously unreliable– does that cause problems when people have too much trust in it?
Oh definitely. We teach them to be skeptical about it.
Mostly what people are getting from MyFitnessPal is awareness. They’re learning to be more mindful of what they eat. Once they have that awareness, if they go out to eat and log a total that’s two hundred calories off of what they really had, I’m not going to stress about that. That’s just one random meal.
And you still did all of the right things, you still did everything I could ever ask of you. Now you’re just dealing with the reality of what it’s like to eat in the modern Western world.
What do you have clients do to manage their appetite?
First and foremost, clients need to learn that hunger is not an emergency. You probably became overweight because you didn’t let yourself be hungry often enough. You need to recognize that hunger is temporary.
Beyond that, we really stress non-caloric beverages like coffee, tea, diet soda, seltzer water. Caffeine helps to an extent at suppressing appetite. But mostly, it’s about eating very filling foods. When you eat lean meats, fruits, and a lot of vegetables, it becomes a lot easier to eat less and sometimes you find you have trouble even eating enough.
From a psychological standpoint, what else do you find helps clients a lot?
Community. We have a Facebook group that’s up to 18K members. It’s absurdly active. Once someone joins, they can stay for life even if they stop coaching.
We tell people this doesn’t sound like a major benefit, but it really makes a world of difference in keeping people motivated.
Do you use psychological typologies to classify your clients based on how they form habits or follow diets? Anything like Myers-Briggs, or Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies?
We’ve toyed around with that. We don’t have an official method for classifying clients psychologically right now. A lot of us do read widely about self-improvement and change theory. We also think it’s hard to assess because many clients don’t usually have great self-knowledge.
I’m also wary of pigeon-holing people. I have real doubts about the degree to which these tests measure something permanent vs. something you can change about yourself, but there’s usually an assumption that these personality types are permanent.
Tell me about sleep and stress — you mentioned those earlier.
We always want to talk about sleep hygiene. What’s your room like, what’s your bedtime routine, your schedule. What are your stress management tactics?
I personally am a firm believer that everyone should meditate and go on a walk once a day. The four things I need every day are meditations, walks, reading, and journaling.
We want people to get 7–9 hours of sleep a night in a dark room without electronics, and to have their food prepped and planned.
We want people thinking about the future you, and handling stuff ahead of time so it’s not so last-minute.
What has been the most surprising thing about online coaching?
Clients and coaches connect more than anyone would expect. They become friends — often lifelong friends. I run into clients at the grocery store. My shirt and coffee mugs were gifts from clients. The relationship is far more personal than anyone would expect.