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What a Nutritionist Can Teach Us About Business


by Matthew E. May  

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Not long ago, I decided to enlist the guidance of a nutritionist. I liked the results I was seeing in one of my regular tennis partners: I had observed him gradually getting faster and less-winded than he used to — and unfortunately for me, winning more of our matches than ever. When I asked him about his ‘program’, he informed me that he had been under the watchful eye of a nutrition expert, and happily shared a referral.The truth was, I should have had a lot more energy. I wasn’t eating much and I exercised like a maniac—playing tennis, mountain biking, and stand-up paddle boarding on a regular basis. Over the course of two short weeks, what I learned about nutrition was contradictory to nearly everything I thought I knew. Most surprisingly, I found that these lessons have parallels to business.

I stand 5’ 10”, and on my initial visit to the nutritionist, weighed in at 183.5 pounds, carrying 19.9% body fat — not exactly the pinnacle of athleticism. The first thing I learned was that I was starving myself: in an effort to get leaner and faster, I was barely consuming 1,000 calories a day — and the means by which I was consuming them was entirely wrong for my metabolism. Through a bodycomposition measurement, blood test and lipid profile, my nutritionist was able to tell me my exact eating patterns. He then advised me that my metabolic type fell into the 3% of the population that is equally efficient at burning fat, carbohydrate and protein. It turns out, 74% of the North American population is fat and protein efficient, and 23% is carbohydrate efficient. Clearly, this is why one-size-fits-all diets don’t work.

Essentially, my eating habits were shutting my metabolism down, making me ‘run cold’. For someone of my composition, I should have been consuming far more than 1,000 calories — and in completely different categories. Here’s what was happening: when I reduced my calorie intake, my body perceived it as a 
starvation threat, and cooled its metabolic rate down in an effort to become more efficient. As I kept cutting calories, my body perceived it as trauma, and further cooled down (i.e. slowed), causing me to hoard fat to survive. My metabolic engine then looked to a new source of fuel for energy, consuming muscle tissue that had no caloric support for repair. As it used muscle tissue for energy, my lean muscle mass declined, while fat stores remained constant, or elevated.

As I became more sluggish and tired, I started craving sweets and fats, and my body’s release and utilization of insulin and blood sugar became inefficient. When my weight started to rise, I became emotionally distraught and started binging. My blood sugar levels became sporadic, creating an inability to utilize nutrients effectively.

Lesson 1: Business as a Body

What I was doing to my body is not unlike what happens in many companies. In its early days, a start-up grows like crazy, progressing through adolescence and young adulthood before maturity sets in. At this point, the founding group is not necessarily complacent, but is likely comfortable; growth slows, and at some point, performance isn’t what it used to be. Layers have been added, silos erected, and the vim and vigour that once characterized the company is somehow missing. Innovation wanes, and competitors start nibbling at market space. Costs swell in proportion to growth, and senior management puts the squeeze on to stem the tide; in other words, they ‘go on a diet’: they make cuts and then cut some more, eventually begin burning the equivalent of lean muscle tissue. Speed bumps get put in place, and all of a sudden, good ideas — those essential creative nutrients — aren’t getting implemented. Because opportunities aren’t being properly ‘fed’, the company’s metabolism slows even further. Management begins looking for silver bullet programs — grasping at the latest management fads. With all good intention, the company starves itself, unable to figure out why it keeps slowing down.

Lesson 2: Small Lots, High Frequency

My nutritionist wanted to reverse my downward-spiraling metabolic rate. “We need to rekindle your fire,” he said, before bumping my caloric intake by 50%. But the real secret was how I would get that 50% more: six meals a day — three larger and three smaller ones, roughly two hours apart — each strategically arranged in a specific mix of carbs, protein and fat, to play to my metabolic profile. 

Having worked with Toyota for close to a decade, the process reminded me of its Production System, a lean and just-in-time manufacturing process that is focused on achieving higher quality, lower costs, and shortest lead time through a method known as ‘small lots, high frequency’. This is the exact opposite of most traditional assembling processes — which use a ‘large batch and queue’ approach.

Lesson 3: Information is Like Water

In terms of the specific form in which my new mix of calories came, it was essentially single-ingredient items: an egg, an apple, a carrot, some nuts. I loved the simplicity of this, and felt like I was constantly eating; but that’s not all. The doctor ordered me to drink five liters of water every day. Yes, you read that right: five litersThis was the most difficult part of my ‘new way to eat’. I didn’t know how important water is to metabolism — acting as a catalyst for the transport of nutrients, a thermostat, and a key insulator against temperature swings. If your water level is low, your body perceives it as trauma and stores fat under your skin to protect the body. In a way, water is even more important than food. “Miss a meal; but do NOT miss irrigation,” my nutritionist advised. In business, not only can you starve your company of the creative fuel that it needs, you can also dehydrate it. The equivalent of water in today’s organizations is information, which must be both copius and free-flowing — otherwise, people will hoard it, and a lack of free-flowing, transparent information will eventually wreak havoc on both innovation and performance.

The health of a company works much like the health of the human body: both need proper care and feeding to maintain performance.Tweet this

Lesson 4: Little Shifts, Big Difference

After two weeks of eating correctly and drinking water constantly, my body fat dropped by three per cent, and I lost five pounds. Because of the change in my body-fat-to-muscle ratio, that really meant I had lost six pounds of fat and added one back in muscle. Yet I didn’t do anything special — exercise-wise — to gain that muscle. It turns out that nearly all of your body’s muscle-building ability comes from your diet — not from exercise.

It’s important to note that I was never ‘on a diet’, in the traditional sense of the word. I was creating an entirely new way of eating. The challenge of using only single-ingredient food items forced me to be creative. To this day, this simple constraint produces endless recipe options.

On the 90th day of being under the nutritionist’s watchful eye, I weighed in at a lean 162 lbs., with 9% body fat. I am now stronger and more energetic, and my performance has improved dramatically: I have been winning more tennis matches and bike races than ever before. I can’t think of a business that wouldn’t want
similar results. 

As I discovered, the health of a company works much like the health of the human body: both need proper care and feeding to maintain performance. Are you inadvertently starving or dehydrating your company? As indicated herein, it’s easy enough to reverse.

Matthew E. May is an author and consultant who spent nearly a decade as a creative advisor to Toyota. His most recent book is Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking (McGraw Hill Education, 2016).

This article originally appeared in The Health Issue (Winter 2016) of Rotman Management Magazine.