Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the industry?
I got into the nutrition industry triggered by a passion for metabolism and how the human body responds to both exercise and nutrition. Dual qualifications in exercise and nutrition gave me a unique perspective on weight management, and that’s been my passion for the last 25 years. I’ve also been training health professionals in weight management and more recently with my Metabolic Jumpstart program helping over 24,000 regular Australians lose weight, get into shape and manage their diet.
Is most of your work focused on regular Australians or is more of your time spent focusing on health professionals?
On balance, it’s more health professionals and empowering them with the knowledge and know-how to give more effective advice and coaching to clients. I don’t see that many clients face-to-face but after over 20,000 in your online program you get to read patterns and gain insights on the consumer experience of weight management. I also connect with consumers on social media to get a read on how the end user thinks, and share those insights with health professionals. And I guess, to a degree, I live vicariously through health professionals as they are at the ground-level seeing clients. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than seeing a personal trainer, dietitian or wellness coach feel confident that they can help their clients because the public can almost smell it on you if you’re not presenting yourself confidently.
I think confidence is an area where a lot of unqualified but well-known people providing nutritional information stand-out.
Yeah, and as we know there’s a lot of very confident people who are very unqualified selling nutrition programs. Imagine if you are not only informed, but also very confident that you can help somebody change their life. It takes a lot of skills to be in the transformation business, and I believe dietitians should be in the transformation of dietary habits business rather than just the dietary advice business because you can take or leave advice. Getting clients to commit to transforming their eating habits is where we can truly be effective change agents.
Every client interaction we have, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, on the phone or in a seminar, is a chance to say or do something which will impact profoundly on somebody’s life. I see those opportunities squandered, and a lot of it comes down to how you communicate your nutrition messages rather than the content of those messages.
What are some of the things that you credit to your success in the nutrition world, apart from what has already been mentioned?
I think number one is having empathy for the consumer viewpoint in tandem with the strong grounding in science and the facts that you want to share. We’re going through an era of seismic change for how nutrition information is communicated and received. Consumers have reduced their trust in authoritative advice and there’s a risk that formal nutrition organisations could become out of touch. If you want to be successful, you have to be thinking like a consumer and put them first.
You also need to be thinking of the design of your nutrition advice rather than just the words, the numbers or the content. How do you communicate your message? What punchy words do you use? What graphics attract attention? Now in the digital age, how sharable is your advice? You have to work just as hard, if not harder, on the packaging of your advice as you do knowing the science behind that advice.
The more you know about nutrition, the more you know that people have individual responses to nutrition. One diet for somebody that contains gluten may pose no issue whatsoever, but for somebody else it could make them very sick. The ability to personalise your message to clients is becoming easier with technology, and if you’re a true expert, you should be leveraging that point of difference you have rather than settling for giving generic advice.
Is it difficult in the age of Twitter with 140 characters, to personalise nutritional messages?
The good thing about Twitter is that it forces you to work harder to package your message to be briefer, and it has you think about it. I’ll write a tweet and go “How can I cut that down?” Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t. Some nutrition debates just don’t work effectively on Twitter because nutrition is inherently complex, which highlights the trust requirement. If you’ve only got 140 characters then the importance of you being a trusted source of information is vital because you don’t have the time, space and characters to explain yourself. You have to base it on that trust.
Do you find it difficult to give sharable advice while sticking to evidence-based information? A lot of evidence-based information people have heard before. For example, people have heard that they should have two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables per day.
I think that that might be the message, the general healthy eating advice and number of serves of foods, but that’s just the instruction of what you’re telling somebody. The how to do that and the why they should do that is where people will listen to you more. Somebody will go “Sure, I know I should eat two serves of fruit a day, it’s been recommended for ages. Why should I do that?” And if you’ve got a depth of nutrition knowledge, you’ll know that’s because of the fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. You’ll know the specific antioxidants that are rich in different fruits; you’ll know the calorie content; you’ll know the natural sugar content of these things. Your depth of knowledge needs to give somebody the “why” to convince them.
Hormones, body chemistry and metabolic function are usually at the heart of the why. Why should I eat this? Because it’s going to improve your metabolic function. Explain the biochemistry and metabolic processes in a way that the clients goes, “Oh, way if it does that in my body, I’ll definitely eat more for my health.”
The how is “Well, how can I go about it? How can I choose at the supermarket?” For example: “How can I choose a yoghurt?” Commonly we hear “Don’t eat low-fat yoghurts, they’re full of sugar.” That’s only the low-fat yoghurts that are full of sugar. There are a number of low-fat yoghurts, like natural Greek yoghurt, that are lower in fat, but also have no added sugar. You may choose to get your fat from other foods and healthy oils if you like, or you might just like fat-free yoghurt. Having a depth of practical food and product knowledge really wows customers.
Then they go “I not only have a compelling reason why I should eat this food, but I also know how I’m going to go about it.” In behavioural coaching terms, that relates to importance and confidence, which are the two axis on the graph that represents readiness to change. Feeling confident means you know how to go about it, and when you have high importance and high confidence, the behavioural research tells us that you’ll be ready to change.
You’re known as Mr Metabolism, what are some of the methods you utilise to speed up the metabolism of some of your clients?
Ha and yes one day I’ll write the adventures of Mr Metabolism. Physical activity is the number one factor that will increase metabolism and therefore the rate at which you burn calories. You’ll go from burning around one calorie a minute at rest to say a maximum of around ten calories a minute at maximal exercise. So somewhere in the middle there, a brisk walk might be burning five times the number of calories at rest. If more of your day is spent being active, you will burn more calories.
Second on the list is building muscle. Muscle burns ten calories for every kilo at rest, and over a year, putting on five kilos of muscle can equate to the equivalent of two and a half kilograms of body fat burnt up in calorie terms.
Another key way is to make sure you eat enough food to fuel your activity, and to not risk your body going into starvation mode and reacting by slowing your metabolism. It’s a very individual figure; for some people it might be 5,000 kilojoules, for others it could be higher like 8,000 kilojoules, depending on your size. Eating enough is extremely important.
Protein foods are useful too, as they cost more energy to digest; their thermogenic effect is greater than other foods. And there’s probably smaller gains from drinking generous volumes of chilled water and green tea, for example.
What is one piece of advice that you offer clients as a dietitian that often surprises people?
I think you need to train your brain to eat differently. You won’t change your diet successfully unless you change your mind, and being open to retraining how you think opens up so much potential to improve your diet and discover a new level of health that you thought wasn’t possible.
A tangible example of that is trying not to let perfection get in the way of being really good. If you want to make your diet perfect and you slip up, then it will fall apart and you eat junk or binge, and you’re one step forward, two steps back. I have a thing called your NRB, which is your Nutrition Reset Button, and sometimes after a big weekend of food and drink, you might need to press your NRB, just like press reset on a computer when it fails. Don’t let perfection get in the way of being really good.
What are your thoughts on the sugar-sweetened beverages tax debate?
There’s lots of debate as to whether we should have a sugar tax or not, as to whether it will be effective or not. The Grattan Institute has done financial modelling that suggests that it would be effective. Irrespective, it’s a no-brainer that making soft drinks more expensive will reduce consumption. And the funds from that tax can then be used to promote healthy eating to try and re-establish the balance between junk and healthy food.
A sugar tax though is not the silver bullet for reducing obesity, it’s probably one of a dozen big strategies that need to be implemented to have any chance of slowing down or reversing the increase in obesity. The debate over whether we should have a sugar tax or not is ridiculous. We need a sugar tax, we need labelling of added sugar, we need changes to urban design, we need activity friendly neighbourhoods, we need limits on junk food advertising during children’s TV, we need incentives for people to be exercising from health funds. All those things. It’s a full grab bag that we need, and politically there’s challenges in making that happen because that upsets too many corporate interests.
I’ve heard that you use Upwork and Freelancer.com to outsource time-consuming work. How often do you use it and what kind of tasks do you use it for?
Yeah, as recently as yesterday I outsourced the design of a flyer via freelancer.com, which was done by somebody in another country within three hours. It was a same day job, which was very cost effective. There are huge opportunities to achieve what you thought you couldn’t, or to do things faster and for less by outsourcing. It could be designing a flyer, producing a landing page, getting assistance with social media, researching for a webinar or anything that somebody else could do.
There is also a supply of passionate student dietitians and new graduates that are really looking for their break into the industry. Small projects not only help with experience to go on a resume, but also help you do more with the satisfaction of fresh ideas, alternative viewpoints and team collaboration.
Yesterday I engaged two new-grad dietitian to do some work on social media. They’re really excited and I’m really excited. For somebody who has been in the industry for a number of decades, working collaboratively with students and new graduates provides an energetic boost and reminder of why you do what you do.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I’d probably say the one thing that can be incredibly powerful in terms of somebody’s career in nutrition or weight management is professional coaching and mentoring. But it’s just the thing that we don’t like to do. People don’t like putting their hands up to say “I want you to help me personally become the professional that maybe I think I can’t.” There’s a lot of mind-set challenges to do that, and it’s a shame because, from my experience working with younger dietitians and professionals that are trying to launch a new idea in a hyper-competitive nutrition marketplace, reading a couple of eBooks or doing a short webinar is not going to necessarily help you package your product, your business and your services into something that people will buy. It’s the complete idea generation, prototyping, testing and final execution process that still needs to be done.
Something that’s often overlooked is the importance of professional coaching and mentoring to produce the complete package, which not only sells, but has a big impact on people’s lives. Life is short so get that advice and get your stuff out there.
Matt O’Neill is the Director of the SmartShape Centre for Weight
Management and an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD)
Contact Matt at www.smartshape.com.au
Follow Matt on social:
Twitter – https://twitter.com/MatthewONeill