advertising · body image · eating

Precision Nutrition, why the photo contest?

Dear Precision Nutrition,

In short, love your content and your coaching, hate your photo contest

I know, I know. It’s advertising. It’s very effective advertising, I’m sure, but it seems so inconsistent with your own programming and the lessons you teach.

My email box is full these days is messages like this one from Precision Nutrition:

In the next week, I’m giving away $50,000 to the top women’s finalists
from our latest Precision Nutrition Coaching group. And I’m having a tough time choosing the winner. If you click this link below, you’ll be able to check out our top women’s finalists. You’ll also be able to vote for who gets the prize money.

Which woman do you think had the best transformation?

You can see some of the winners here.

First, judging results based on appearance is inconsistent with your messaging throughout the program that what matters is health, strength, and physical and emotional wellness.

Second, isn’t it all about habits not results? Or I have missed something?

Third, throughout the program we were coached not to compare ourselves to others. People progress towards their goals at different rates. It’s your own journey. But then it ends with a giant exercise in comparison.

Finally, I thought it was about lifetime lifestyle changes, not end of a year eyeballing. I liked the emphasis on internal versus external transformations and thought PN’s lean eating program was about the former, not the latter.

As a participant in your program the photo shoot felt like a high school beauty pageant and figure competition, neither of which I’ve ever had any interest in participating in.

And yes, there was lots of room to opt out but then it felt like the last months of the program excluded me. I was also amused and disturbed, alternately, by the discussions about how to get good after photos. Artificial tanning, really? Skin cancer anyone? Okay, then spray tan instead. But that’s very much not my thing. Exercise first to get good muscle definition? How to reduce water for better muscle definition? Again, not my thing.

Given that the “before” photos were mostly selfies done with cell phones and timers it’s no surprise how much better they look. As you know, under these conditions you could do same day before and after photos get pretty good results.

Image from Business Insider, Australian Personal Trainer Debunks Those Infuriating ‘Before And After’ Weight Loss Pictures.

Lean Eating photo shoot defenders say it’s not about six pack abs or sculpted quads. It’s about confidence, about a certain sparkle in the eye, about posture. But that’s not what it felt like to me. It felt like one more time that women’s bodies were being judged not on what they could do but on how they looked in a two piece bathing suit.

Look at the photos from January 2013. What do you think?

Here’s the company’s description of the photos: “A great feature of our Lean Eating Coaching Programs is the body transformation contest we run for men and women: every 6 months, we give big prize money away for the best body transformations in the program….Over the last week or so, the coaches and I have spent countless hours poring over physique photos, weight loss numbers, body composition data and participation records in order to choose a handful of finalists.”

In the end, I did get photos done though I didn’t enter the competition or share them widely. I actually loved the photo shoot experience. I did them with my friend and guest blogger Nat. See her post, On boudoir photos and plastic guitars. And I wrote about my photo shoot in my review of the Precision Nutrition program. I loved the photo shoot as a body affirming experience, not as getting “after” photos done.

I wrote, “I do look different in the photos a professional photographer took, but hey, she’s a pro. And she’s not using my smart phone propped up on a bookshelf in timer mode.  Besides the pricey real camera, she’s also got on her side: make up, talent, good lighting, flattering poses and postures, and a great attitude. See Nat’s take on our experience, On boudoir photos and plastic guitars (Guest post). So much fun. I highly recommend it as a body affirming experience. Don’t wait til you’re thin. (In fact, don’t ever put things off til you’re thin. You might never be thin, so what? Is that so scary? Go now.)”

In short here are my beefs with the Lean Eating/Precision Nutrition photo shoots:  Yes, the winners get prizes but it’s also free advertising for the company. On balance, I imagine, it’s a good deal. But I fear that the bikini style photo competition misrepresents the tone of the company’s own materials which tend to be about intuitive eating, body acceptance, and focus on habits not outcomes. Results after a year also aren’t really relevant. What ought to matter is how people are faring two, five, ten years out. It’s also not about the best transformations. Your results may vary, as they say. Results not typical, etc. What people who care about results ought to know is what percentage lean eaters lose weight/body fat and keep it off. I’ve been thinking about this for while and the recent crop of “best transformations” photos got me thinking about it again. Months later it still feels wrong to me.

Tracy and I have both written about the near impossibility of keeping weight off. See Sam and Tracy Respond …. What would be very useful are stats on how well past participants do over time. To my mind that would be the real hallmark of success. I know that data is hard to get and track but in the meantime, just quit with the before and after photos. It’s not what you’re really about.

Thanks for listening,



14 thoughts on “Precision Nutrition, why the photo contest?

  1. I think you’re giving entirely too much credit to the Precision Nutrition program. You keep apologizing for them! I think it’s time to call it what it is: a weight loss plan, just like any other. Even wrapped up in theoretically body-positive language.

    1. Actually I think it’s as much an eating disorder recovery program as anything.

      1. I’m doing the PN program this year, and have to say I’m starting to feel more and more uncomfortable. I love that they’re about habits, but I see a lot of unhealthy behaviour creeping up in the fora, which isn’t addressed by PN. I’m wondering if you could really see it as an eating disorder recovery program. In theory, absolutely. In practice? I don’t know.

      2. Right. I think the coaches are very good on this stuff and some of the clients and client communities that develop, less so. There were women in my cohort on the 3rd or 4th time through, with some pretty scary histories regarding food and dieting. I ended up finding my own group of supportive moderates but I can see how it might go wrong. Some of the people, I thought, needed more serious one on one counselling. I just tried to stay clear.

      3. I agree. It helped crack open my own disordered eating patterns.
        If you follow the lessons and habits the basics are there for sane, maintainable eating guidelines.

        I think they originally tried to focus on more elite training-as they have become bigger and more mainstream they are losing their personal approach and haven’t quite figured out the client needs.

  2. i agree as well! I am not a client but i follow PN and John Berardi and i was so disappointed by this cattle call! Totally put off!

  3. I don’t know much about PN, but have been sucked into the before/after photos and you are so correct. It’s all about how you fare afterwards…2, 3, 4 years down the line. I stopped weighing myself a few years ago, because that became obsessive. Then thought monthly progress photos would replace that, and you can become much more disturbed trying to emulate a perfect “after” photo, every day of your life once that “after” image is taken. I finally had to stop–because w/strength training, my body changes and shifts and I never seem to be able to live up to that “after” even while maintaining my health, weight, working out every day, etc…definitely wish companies would stop using the “after” photo approach to selling their programs but as a marketer myself, I can see why they keep doing it….

  4. What a great post. I’m also starting to feel as if the tide is turning a little in the PN LE program I started in January. I love the healthy habits and the lessons that keep me focused in them. Much less excited about being encouraged to do professional before and after photos. There are a few things that bother me about this. First, since they gain a ton of mileage from them in marketing (probably their biggest tool). And they are starting to give clear instructions for how (and when–one of the ‘lessons’ asked us to make an appointment for November, so conveniently the photos will be ready just In time to start selling spaces for next January!) to get good quality professional after shots. And then they will use these in their contest and use the contest photos to sell the program. Sam you are right that a professional ‘after’ shot is bound to look better than a homegrown ‘before’ shot taken on an iPhone. Second, the sudden focus at the end on the body transformation runs counter to the habit focus throughout. Mind you, given the way the promise if body transformation operates in the marketing (through the before and after pics) it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Third, if I’m going to pay for photos, I want something a bit more interesting and creative than a front, side, and back shot of myself in workout shorts and a sports bra against a plain background. PN needs this from me if it’s going to be useful for their marketing, but I certainly don’t need anything like this in my albums! I love your suggestion of doing something more fun with the photos and plan to call the photographer you and Natalie used. Thanks for that idea.

  5. I would agree with any body affirming photos regardless of whatever shape you are in and if you have willingly paid and posed (with clothes on).

    After all: You are ALIVE! Please remember this.

    Yes, still emphasis how one “looks” after weight loss vs. how one feels / is measured in real physical fitness activity on a regular basis per wk.

    I appreciate reference to the article and the reality check for the business writer who transformed herself in 15 min. Methinks there’s a lot of misleading stuff. A lot.

    And the battle to keep weight off goes on…for life. But if that’s the case, I want make sure I have fun with the sport/activity I love..cycling.

  6. Before and after photos for weight loss programs and pills are often a hoax. We learned about this in my degree program. Often they hire bodybuilders who already know how to tone their bodies quickly and pay them to eat a lot and exercise little for a few months prior to the “before” photos. Literally providing them with unlimited amounts of fast food, pizza, sodas, donuts, and snack cakes just to pack on the pounds. Then, all of a sudden they go back to their regular routine for a few more months and PRESTO! They are thin and cut again! I hate before and afters for anything other than corrective plastic surgery for children in third world countries so that my donations to those causes are paying off.

    1. Hmmm you so often because of what school told you lol… well from being in the fitness industry for 15 years I’ll tell you firsthand facts, that’s not the case from a majority stand point and not often! I and many experienced trainers have helped and achieved huge amount of life changing results for people with fantastic body composition transformations and yes before and after photos, and you know what they love how its changed them both mentally and physically improving them in many aspects of their life, keep listening to misinformed information in school ; )

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