Joe Wicks (aka The Body Coach) has a formula. Take a slightly overweight girl who lives on convenience foods and doesn’t know the arse end of a barbell. Introduce her to planning meals and preparing whole, often low-carb, foods; and get her in the weights section of the gym. Post the amazing changes to her physique on Instagram for the world to see with some ‘cheeky chappy’ videos (involving a lot of coconut oil) and commentary thrown in for good measure; and rake in the sponsorship deals.
It’s a winning formula that has seen him go from Insta-celebrity to a full blown health & fitness brand, with a book deal and recent Times cover to show for it. But what happens when you take a not-really overweight girl, who is an avid cook and has an established gym habit, who just wants to drop a few % on the body fat scale? Spoiler: not a lot.
There’s nothing wrong with The Body Coach plan, per se. It’s obviously doing good things for a lot of people, but as I near the end of my (slightly extended due to illness) 90 day ‘Shift, Shape, Sustain’ plan, I thought I would give you a little insight into what I found, because those Instagram transformations obviously don’t tell the whole story.
I joined the plan for a few reasons:
- To give me the motivation to make the sustainable changes to my diet I knew I wanted to but hadn’t been able to (i.e. reduce my dependence on sugary snacks/starchy carbs & focus on whole foods)
- To understand more about nutrition and how to balance my macronutrient intake
- To drop the last few % of body fat lingering after having Baby A
- And…to feel more confident about my body
How did I fare?
A sustainable diet?
I learnt some good habits for managing my diet through the plan. Some things will stay with me – I’m a much keener food planner and recipe developer; I’ve come up with a whole host of new tactics to reduce my snacking reflex; I’m less likely to eat sugary gluten free cereals for breakfast as my tastebuds have adjusted. Binging on cake like I used to now makes me feel incredibly jittery and grotty. Positive stuff that will help me to sustain a healthier approach as I go forwards.
I liked the emphasis on whole foods, and for many following the plan it’s obviously something fresh and new to try, but as a keen cook, veteran coeliac and with a weekly delivery of seasonal vegetables, it wasn’t a big deal for me to prepare fresh meals from single ingredients. I actually found the nutrition plan to be too prescriptive for my liking. It ditched whole foods I have in the past frequently eaten for their healthy properties (fruit, pulses, wholegrains); and included in vast quantities things I would have eaten in moderation before such as artificial sweeteners in supplements, saturated fats (mostly coconut oil), huge amounts of dairy products, eggs & a lot of out of season vegetables I’m not that keen on! If I ever see another red pepper I might scream…
The plan uses a variety of tricks to encourage your body to drop fat – a mixture of a low carb/high fat diet with HIIT (high intensity interval training) in the first cycle; carb cycling with lots of weights in the second; and finally yet more low carb dieting with more weights in the third ‘sustain’ cycle. Are any of these something I can keep up? Probably not. (Limited) further research on my part suggests they aren’t even necessarily clinically proven methods.
I got ill. A lot. Whilst I was on the plan I was plagued by ill health: 4 successive stomach bugs, 2 bouts of ‘flu’, a chest infection, conjunctivitis, and to top it all, an ambulance to A&E after a suspected ‘gall bladder attack’ (which is thought to be caused by a fatty diet among other things!). I’m not saying that the plan made me ill, I’m dealing with a nursery-going germ-infested toddler and the word ‘rest’ is never an option; but the plan certainly caused me to push my body in directions it was perhaps retrospectively telling me it didn’t want to go. I was already fit and healthy but trying to cram in the vast amount of food prep, the 4x weekly workouts on top of a job, parenthood, personal life and blog was probably an unrealistic standard to hold myself to. So when I failed, I failed HARD.
I also failed because of birthdays, anniversaries, occasions when friends had invited us over and specially bought gluten free treats. Because of beer o’clock on a Friday at the end of a stressful week, cookery workshops and gluten free events. In short I failed because… life. And that’s the key for me – I’m not going to go through life living on hard boiled eggs and green tea, because there are too many delicious things and too much joy in the world to miss out on. What this plan didn’t show me, by it’s insistence not to count the calories and macros for myself, is how to balance these things with the healthier stuff as I go forwards. Which brings me on to…
Understanding more about nutrition
Aside from the personal problems I had with sticking to the plan, I wasn’t too impressed with the quality of the nutritional advice given in some places. When I’ve queried certain parts of the plan and asked for more information, I’ve been told “don’t worry about it” and “you’ll get some macros at the end of the plan”, “just substitute any veg except carrots”. Unfortunately my brain needs the ‘why’, not just the ‘what’ to make change.
Overall, I’ve been struck with the impression that the coaches don’t seem to have a thorough grounding in nutrition. In fact, half way through the plan as The Body Coach empire expanded, I went from getting personal advice from Joe (who at least has a qualification in nutrition although isn’t a dietitian), to on of his ‘support coaches’ who I understand who’s only qualification was that they’d been through the plan themselves. Now I did a Maths G.C.S.E – that makes me in no way qualified to teach maths. That’s not to knock their enthusiasm and supportive qualities, but I didn’t get what I wanted from the plan and their ‘copy paste’ email responses. For example:
Despite them asking for dietary requirements and specifically stating I had coeliac disease and a low dairy diet, gluten ingredients kept popping up in my plan (including the recommended supplements). When I asked for alternatives, the answer came “just use a gluten free bagel,” “you can substitute for soya yogurt” when I know these do not have the same nutritional profile as the normal equivalents. For such a prescriptive plan (‘39g of avocado’, ‘23g of nuts’) this doesn’t make sense. Why was sugary granola ok on low carb days, but plain porridge oats not? Odd.
So no, I didn’t learn what I wanted about nutrition and how to fuel myself in support of my gym work.
The stubborn body fat %
Every week I have a dreaded calliper check with my PT to measure my body fat %. It didn’t shift one millimetre over the course of the 9 months. There have been some changes to my body – my posture is better, I have lost a few cm around my thighs and chest (neither of which were where I wanted to lose them); I am also fitter than I have been in a long time, but on my key measure – zip.
As I didn’t stick to the plan 100%, I can’t of course know how much of that is down to me, and how much the plan, but with others claiming to ‘cheat’ liberally and still shed inches, I can’t help but feel a little frustrated. The eminently sensible Gluten Eating Husband kept telling me what I probably knew – that everyone else you see on the plan has a very different starting point; but it’s hard to ignore.
The root cause is perhaps because this is a standard (albeit personalised in terms of calories etc.) ‘plan’, not a tailored approach based on a thorough consultation, that it was only ever going to do so much.
I feel stronger, and fitter, without a doubt. I had been hoping to get to the end of my 90 days and be confident enough to show you some before and after shots, displaying my lean(er) body, hopefully with a few more toned muscles on display, and ideally with a few less bags under my eyes! Sadly, I’m not there yet.
In fact, in some senses my confidence has decreased. The Body Coach call to ‘stay off the sad step’ was replaced by a tape measure, side-shot selfies in swimwear, and an all-too-frequent grabbing handfuls of stomach fat/skin in despair (sometimes mid-plank). The ‘I want to give up’ moments were made worse by the frequent stream of people on social media ‘smashing’ their workouts, posting endless pictures of sorry-looking food, and reshaping their bodies in a matter of weeks on Instagram.
And it’s here I worry a little about The Body Coach zeitgeist. Occasionally he will post a picture of someone who looks fit, healthy & fantastic, with a tale about how they have used this plan to beat an eating disorder or an unhealthy relationship with food. Whilst encouraging people in this situation to eat plentiful, healthy foods is a positive; I am not sure weighing every last ingredient in every last meal is much more of a healthy relationship with food than weighing yourself multiple times a day. It can all too easily become an obsession, and there is yet another problem with the plan being managed by an under-qualified team.
Of course, you get what you pay for, this is a ‘personalised’ plan, not a ‘personal’ one. Numbers are probably generated in a glorified excel spreadsheet behind the scenes, and pasted into a standard format, so I was willing to forgive so much, but unfortunately when you’re dealing with health, the spreadsheet doesn’t give you a picture of the person. I was looking for a simple (and relatively inexpensive) way to achieve my goals; I achieved some of them, but sadly not my main one. It’s time for me to do what I should have done in the first place: get some specific advice and support from someone qualified, in person. But first, I’m going to have a little rest on holiday and enjoy some carrots. God I’ve missed carrots.