Confessions of a Beachbody Nutrition Expert
How the iconic fitness company's pivot into "Health Esteem" clarifies a purpose-driven stance they already had.
As some NPB readers may know, I earned my fitness and nutrition stripes working at Beachbody, the company behind P90X among other super successful workout programs. For 20 years, I played (what I’d like to think was) an important role in developing their nutrition philosophy, programs, and content. I finished my tenure there as Vice President of Nutrition and I’m proud of my contributions—even the ones that involved me being a pain in everyone’s ass.
Like the other subject matter experts on staff, I didn’t give a flying thong about what our customers looked like in a bathing suit. I just wanted to help people live happy, healthy lives. Yet, with a name like “Beachbody,” much of the company’s marketing focused on aesthetics. Before and After photos played a huge role in promoting our brands because this is what customers cared about. This is what sold product. The way I saw it, B&As were just a dangling carrot to coax folks into exercising and eating better.
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For what it’s worth, those photos are real. Sure, people fiddled with their lighting and sucked in their guts. Women sometimes wore high heels to make their legs look longer. One guy lost so much weight that he had to duct-tape the folds of loose skin behind his back for the photo. But ultimately, these people did lose weight and gain fitness. They also improved their bloodwork and sometimes reversed life-threatening medical conditions—but the lawyers didn’t like us mentioning that. (Sorry, Jonathan, Garry, and Kush. I’m in my sandbox now.)
Yet, even when biometrics or disease-state claims slipped through, they just didn’t hold the allure of a firm butt.
Which brings us to Health Esteem.
In the last few years, society has pivoted. Concepts like “body acceptance” and “health at any size” have brought into question our burning desire to look thin or ripped at all costs.
It’s a tricky moment, frankly. On one hand, our culture has leaned too hard into obsessing about the perfect physique. The vast majority of folks can’t achieve this perfection, resulting in all kinds of mental, emotional, and physical issues. After all, no one likes to not be awesome.
On the other hand, with obesity rates rising, we really shouldn’t descend into a WALL-E dystopia that forsakes fitness and nutrition to the benefit of the mobility scooter industry.
Somewhere in the middle, the key is understanding that fitness and nutrition have an equally important third sibling: emotional wellness.
With that, Beachbody’s CEO, Carl Daikeler, realized that the company needed to adapt. Over the next year, my corporate alma mater will transition to a new name, “BODi,” with a focus less on how you look and more on how you feel. They’re launching the reboot with World Health Esteem Month.
The idea behind “Health Esteem” is that fitness should be about making healthy choices that leave you feeling great now. As the Beachbody Blog puts it, “Self-improvement is great. Self-improvement that comes at the expense of our self-esteem can be destructive.”
What’s old is new.
The funny thing is that this shift is not as profound as it may seem. When Carl and his co-founder Jon Congdon launched the company, one of their first hires was Jon’s old college buddy, Steve Edwards. Steve’s job was to make sure the company’s fitness and nutrition programs were effective and safe—and to help customers get the results. I was his first hire.
Under Steve’s tutelage, I came to see Beachbody’s output as “functional fitness,” meaning its intent was to help you build a body that could do cool things. Sure, there was the ubiquitous “TBD-minutes abs” workout with every program, but that was just a tiny part of a bigger picture and, frankly, core work is rarely a bad thing. Overall, Steve liked to create “Indoor fitness for the outside world,” as Tony Horton would put it.
After a few years there, I earned say in the creation of nutrition guides that accompanied the fitness programs. Using what Steve taught me, I focused on “functional nutrition.” Sure, you could use Beachbody’s eating plans to lose weight—but at their root, they taught the value of a balanced, healthy diet.
Strong evidence of this is P90X2, a functionality tour de force that Steve, Tony, and Carl built to turn the user into a true athlete. They gave me a fair bit of leeway in building the accompanying nutrition plan. The result was an embryonic version of personalized nutrition, allowing the user to experiment with vegan and grain-free eating, as well as various macronutrient combos and calorie levels. With no less than 18 possible diets, the P90X2 Nutrition Guide was relentlessly complex, like if James Joyce had been commissioned to write a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I’ve since learned how to simplify dietary advice.
Steve filled our “Fitness, Nutrition, Results” department with like-minded subject matter experts. When he died in 2017, I did my best to continue that tradition by staffing the nutrition department with nutritionists, dietitians, and culinary experts who cared first and foremost about the customer’s wellbeing.
Our goal was always to help people find ways of eating and exercising that felt right to them. Obsessive focus on flat stomachs and round bottoms was just the byproduct of an image-obsessed culture that we had to work around. Once we got you in the door, Carl gave his staff the space and trust to assure our programs could build Health Esteem even before Health Esteem was a thing.
“Health Esteem” may seem incongruous with “Eat Right. Kick Ass,” but it’s not. For many folks reading this newsletter, fitness + nutrition = emotional wellness. We happily push our bodies because this allows us to do cool things. The endurance athletes in the crowd take this a step further, possibly discovering the unparalleled bliss that comes from suffering needlessly for hours on end for no good reason. Yay, pain!
We fit into the Health Esteem category because Health Esteem is about accepting ourselves in the places we are in while still progressing, even if that place is euphoric, exercise-induced masochism.
On that note, I’m rooting for BODi. I consulted with Carl in developing this reboot, so I have a little skin in the game, but even if I didn’t, I spent two decades helping build that company from the ground up. We grew up together. It’s in my blood.
Their streaming service provides endless cross-training opportunities for any NPB athlete. And their nutrition programs can be adapted to about any need state. If you try them out and want some help adapting things to your training schedule or dietary needs, hit me up. I might know a trick or two.
Note: Normally, the comments section is a paid subscriber thing, but I’d love to hear everyone’s feedback on this one, so it’s open to all. Have at it!
This is such a complex topic. Appreciate hearing your side of this story - the insiders confessions!! I can totally relate.
My wife and I got into Beachbody because our friends had absolutely insane transformations on p90x. We were NOT couch potatoes, but the physical transformation we witnessed as a result of purposefully combining lifting and nutrition was just mind-blowing. I never realized that was possible. We did the program and got our own crazy results.
Although there was an aesthetic appeal for us to start the program, I don’t think it came from a place of judgement which is where (I think) the problems begin. We just saw our friends do it and though, can we do that too?
We followed the nutrition to a T and we learned so much about how we were eating. For example, my wife didn’t realize she was eating 16oz of frozen yogurt regularly because she was ordering the small, but the person was filling it up to a large!!! We started weighing our frozen yogurt and built awareness that really made a difference and has continued on in our lives. We learned about cutting coffee and tried doing things differently in so many areas and the programs were a catalyst for that.
On one hand, yes there are aesthetic components to marketing and joining programs like this, but the amount that you learn about yourself as a result goes so far beyond the physical transformation that people see. If you could see the transformation of health, that would be amazing, but it’s more challenging to show those things.
The name Beachbody has been brand in my mind like Nike for so long that I don’t associate it to the physical transformations anymore, but I know that many people do and the Health Esteem movement is great. Plus, from a time perspective, I can’t beat 30 minute workouts in the garage with kids.
Being an almost OG with BB, I loved reading this Denis. With a lot of people in an uproar of different levels about the Health Esteem approach...it's the exact approach I've followed with BB for 15 years, both as a participant and as a coach. I was one of the loyal listeners when you and Steve would jump online and just run with topics and keep it brutally honest with both the educated background and putting it out there for Common Joe's to understand.
I'll admit that being a coach (team sports, tennis pro, fitness certs, etc) and with a background in fitness for years before finding Beachbody, the Health Esteem messaging was much easier for me because I understood how our bodies work and also what was "hype" and marketing.
I think once people loosen their personal grip on that "end pic" vision a bit and pay attention to all the daily changes that are happening, that people's results will start to overtake their self-proclaimed failures for not looking like that fitness model.
I also like that you pulled the curtain back a bit here on the actual teams of people that Beachbody has always had putting all the pieces together. Unfortunately I think too many people blow off the trainers knowledge anyhow with it being "at-home" so it must not be on level with in the gym. I was fortunate to be following some of your work with the P3 people during that X2 era and it intrigued me so much. I think a lot that you shared in this post gives even more legitimacy to our programming. Thank you for that. Take care Denis.