Nutrition is essential. Whether you are an athlete or a coach, a teacher or a parent, a teammate or friend – anyone trying to maximize their potential – the way you fuel your body will have a major impact on your performance.
There is a direct relationship between nutrition, cognition, and emotion that we would all benefit from understanding. Our physical state impacts our psychological state – that truth is unavoidable. Once that relationship is realized and an individual hopes to improve their nutrition habits, the next question is often, how?
As coaches, we are tasked with identifying the motives which underlie and therefore influence behavior. We discussed this in a recent podcast with physician, author, and friend of the project, Dr. Ian Smith. In regards to motivation, he believes that “it doesn’t matter how you bring someone into the tent, it’s about getting them into the tent…”
“then you can open their eyes to all the possibilities and options.” When Dr. Smith has your attention, he wants to discuss health.
In his newest book, Clean and Lean, Dr. Smith brings the undeniable depth and quality of his research to readers in a uniquely (pardon this pun) digestible way. It is full of clear and usable strategy.
But that’s the idea behind any public health initiative, isn’t it? Experts analyze the state of things (health and wellness, epidemiology, disease prevention) and create structures and strategies in the public’s best interest. Dr. Smith has become an expert at dispensing usable strategies. The thousands of lives he has positively impacted serve as proof.
“People want [strategies] that are accessible – not dumbed down, but understandable, and they want something that’s doable, sustainable… it has to be realistic. I never ask people to be perfect.”
That clear and refreshing approach is one of the main reasons we appreciate Dr. Smith’s approach. We use a similar approach when we work with teachers and coaches in an initiative called the Nutrition M.V.P.
Perfection is not sustainable, which is why we don’t often recommend dramatic, wholesale changes. Instead, the cornerstone concept of the Nutrition M.V.P. is what we call “habit arbitrage”.
ar·bi·trage, noun. the simultaneous buying and selling of securities, currency, or commodities in different markets of derivative forms in order to take advantage of differing prices for the same asset.
Instead of trading a foreign currency and profiting a financial margin, consider this application within the realm of healthy habits.
On a hot summer day, cravings might lead you to a glass of lemonade. Maybe it is exceedingly warm and you have two glasses. If, within the arbitrage conversation, your desired outcome is improved health, then hydrating throughout the dog days of summer sounds like a great idea. But what if you were to metaphorically sell lemonade and buy water with a lemon wedge?
Water will accomplish the initial task of hydration, positively contributing to your health. And while lemonade does the same, it is accompanied by approximately 150 calories per 12 oz. serving – if you are averaging 1.5 glasses of lemonade per day, that is an additional 1,575 calories per week. Those 1,575 calories per week can add up to more than 22,000 calories over the course of the summer which research suggests might lead to another 6.3lbs of bodyweight, with the compounding issue that all of those calories came from added sugar.
The behavioral trigger, in either case, is thirst. That’s an impulse we should listen to. But if you arbitrage habits, you might discover a significant improvement in health.
The problem with that scenario, as you might have already identified, is that the substitution went from sweet (lemonade) to bland (water). Although there is significant logic to motivate the swap, this requires a level of discipline some people might not have. No problem. No judgement.
Though a thorough understanding the implications of one’s behavior is essential, behavior change often requires case-specific attention to nuance. To take people where they want to be, you must first meet them where they are.
Eat Better Desert
During an individual consultation conducted in 2018, we found that a teacher (we’ll call him ‘David’) had developed a habit he wanted to shift. After eating a big meal, he always ate desert. Always. Over time, his habits had built the Pavlovian response of empty dinner plate = eat something sweet. His choice for something sweet was always the same: ice cream and chocolate sauce. “Simple, easy, cost-effective and I like it,” he said.
Knowing that it was unlikely for him to cut out desert completely, we brought up the habit arbitrage method. He was not ready to give up his sweets cold turkey, so we built a structure of continuing arbitrage that would move him, effectively, toward his goal of better health.
First we made a small ‘quantity’ adjustment. He was so used to the ice cream and chocolate sauce that we made it simple: just eat less of it. Instead of two scoops (which he admits would become three more often than he liked), we dropped to one and a half. Let’s consider the significance of that. The situational cues (finishing dinner with his family) were not likely to change. His response to those cues (eat desert) could not be cut cold turkey. So instead of advising a dramatic habit switch, we made only one simple adjustment: “short” the second scoop.
That’s it. Short the second scoop. From there, he says his life began to change.
Shorting the second scoop might not seem like it would accomplish much, but it cut his post-dinner calorie consumption by 25%. That smaller scoop also cuts down sugar intake by 25%. In other words, shorting the second scoop saves David 18,200 calories per year. In other words, (and purely in theory), David could lose 5.2lbs of unhealthy bodyweight over the course of the year if his entire life stayed the same, but he shorted the second scoop.
We didn’t stop there. Eventually, David skipped the second scoop entirely. And one night, when he was feeling especially motivated, David swapped ice cream and chocolate sauce for yogurt and honey. He did it when he was ready. And when it happened, it stuck.
To put this ice cream/yogurt arbitrage into perspective, David went from a 500 calorie desert full of artificial ingredients and heaps of sugar, to a 210 calorie desert with high nutrient density. Quality was an immediate upgrade, aligning with a host of associated health benefits. Based on quantity alone, David was able to make shift which could add up to 105,560 calories per year. That’s 30 pounds. Think about that.
Sometimes David still eats ice cream. At birthday parties, he eats cake. He did not lose 30lbs (that was never the goal), but he says that his “whole life changed.” What mattered was not ice cream or yogurt – what mattered was the arbitrage concept.
Recognizing the power of his newfound understanding, other habits began to shift. While he waited for his morning coffee to brew, he swapped rubbing his eyes and mindlessly staring at his kitchen floor for 5 quick pushups. A quick and easy swap. And when the coffee was ready, he swapped hazelnut creamer for 2% milk.
Then he swapped watching TV for watching Netflix. This might not seem like an applause-worthy lifestyle change, but David had identified that TV watching was cutting into his sleep schedule. Though he understood the logic of skipping TV and going to bed, he regularly wanted to decompress and would watch a couple shows on cable. By watching those two shows on Netflix (we do not own stock in Netflix, any streaming service would do), he was able to bypass commercials, swapping the 60 minutes it took to watch the episodes on cable for a 42-minute fix.
Like shorting the second scoop of ice cream, this was not a ‘cure’, but an important and actionable step in the right direction. His task was not to develop the discipline to cut this activity out of his life, only to maintain the discipline to not watch a third episode.
Ultimately, the ice cream arbitrage experiment offered David a new – and most importantly, usable – approach to successful habit change.
Odysseus and the Chocolate-Dipped Oreos
When his ship approached the island of Sirens, Odysseus demanded that his crew tie him to the mast. He knew that temptation was coming, and he would not be strong enough to resist.
Turns out, this is a strategy we can all employ.
Though it is not quite as dramatic as the Odyssey, we are all tasked with anticipating temptation and bracing for it. If not, we are incredibly likely to succumb.
While advising a coach from a fairly prominent high school (we’ll call him ‘Terrell’), we recognized that he shared a concern with David – this time, instead of ice cream, it was chocolate-dipped Oreos.
It is important to note that Coach Terrell is a tireless worker, especially during the fall, when he was in season. When he wasn’t working he was preparing to work, breaking down game film, talking to his assistant coaches, and predicting plays his opponents might run come Friday night. By the time he got home, he was exhausted. Along the course of the day, he had accumulated an exceedingly high cognitive load, and his ability to make decisions regarding his own health (namely, nutrition) suffered.
There was a Subway sandwich shop down the block from him and “after a sub and chips, I come home and put on [game] film. When I do film, I snack,” he admitted. And what did he snack on? Whatever was available, of course.
A hidden concern: the Subway Terrell referred to was right beside the grocery store where he bought snacks. He would shop for snacks in that same degraded (and often, hungry) state. This led to a cupboard full of chips, a fridge full of soda, and a shelf reserved for his favorite: chocolate-dipped Oreos.
In the drowsy state of late-night game film breakdown, after a long day at work, and surrounded by junk food, Terrell’s nutrition was poor. We quickly realized that to improve his habits we would have to improve his environment.
Environment matters. At the Good Athlete Project we ask two questions, early: “Does your behavior match your goal?” followed by “Does your environment support your habits?”
The next recognition we made was that, although our modern Odysseus recognized that temptation was all around him, he was not prepared to resist. When we brought up the Odysseus metaphor, he joked that he could lock all the cabinets in the house. However, the snacks were not the root of the problem. The real culprit was the structure of his day.
Terrell wanted to be healthy. He knows that Oreos are not healthy. But Terrell was shopping while hungry, exhausted, and in a less-than-ideal state of mind for high-level decision-making. In that state, an apple was not super appealing. So the habit arbitrage in this case was all about timing.
We helped him adjust his schedule so that he could shop in the morning.
On his way to work, feeling rested and optimistic, Terrell was able to more fully consider his decisions. When he hit snooze too many times, he would shop on his lunch break, but he would never shop hungry or tired.
As with David, Terrell began with small swaps: Goldfish crackers for Doritos, grapefruit juice for Pepsi, granola bars (with dark chocolate chips) for the Oreos. The small arbitrage made on these exchanges ultimately lead to a series of similar choices.
Eventually, Terrell was snacking less. He was packing lunches and spending Sunday evenings preparing dinners for the week. The arbitrage of shopping schedules was paying dividends in multiple ways.
The seemingly small act of when proved to be empowering.
Though he had been eager to change he was not sure how and, as he ultimately admitted, “didn’t think [he] could do it.” He liked eating junk food late at night after a long day at work. He was not sure he would ever be able to stop. “I can’t kick the Oreos,” he joked through an obvious air of defeat.
When he realized that his buying habits were partly physiological, rather than a psychological weakness, everything changed. He had a new sense of agency, feeling like he once again had say in the matter.
The Nutrition M.V.P.
Nutrition can be a difficult boat to steer. In the constant barrage of extremist diets (carnivore, vegan, organic bananas and sprouted everything), it can be difficult to know what works.
M.V.P. stands for Minimum Viable Product. It is difficult to begin a wholesale lifestyle change – what are the small decisions, the opportunities for habit arbitrage, that would change the look of your life? Success is often a byproduct of minor improvements accumulated over time.
If you are motivated to move, it’s time to enhance your understanding.
Check out the work of Dr. Ian Smith or contact the Good Athlete Project to see what support we might be able to provide – either way, take a step. Being the best version of yourself might be as easy as “shorting the second scoop” or “shopping in the morning”. Or it might be far more complicated.
Either way, you’re worth the work.