Another Cog In The Wheel: The Issue With Nutrition MLMs and Their Coaches
If you’ve hung around my blog for more than 5 minutes, you already know that I have some major issues with nutrition MLM companies such as Arbonne, Juice Plus, Isagenix/Beachbody, and It Works! to name a few. And besides the fact that they sell a lot of completely useless crap like cleanses, fat burners, and low-calorie meal replacement shakes, they rely on coaches to push their product.
Coaches take the MLM enterprise to a new level by building out the company messaging, giving it a face and a name and a voice. It also makes an MLM what it is: paying your ‘upline’ by making sales and recruiting a ‘downline.’
And by doing that, MLMs and coaches suck customers in to a world that’s not quite what it seems to be.
My issues aren’t truly with the people who are coaching. I believe that they’ve been misled by the promises that MLMs make to them, and in many ways – whether it’s socially or financially – get stuck in that world. I’ve had a lot of ex-coaches reach out to me for this piece, and their stories were very enlightening. Thank you to everyone who shared the tea with me.
Here my issues with nutrition MLMs and their coaches (but mostly HOW coaches are used):
They have zero nutrition experience.
Sure, they may have sold a couple of supplements and/or lost weight through their program, but those things don’t qualify anyone to counsel people about what their eating habits.
I mean, do you really think that just because you drank Isagenix shakes and lost 50 pounds, that you’re ready and able to speak to people about weight loss and nutrition?
Coaches have access to nutrition classes and materials from their respective MLM companies, but these are often rudimentary at best and are don’t prepare them to take another person’s health into their hands.
As a former coach told me, “You don’t have to go through any sort of courses. They have nutrition videos and things on their website and social media, but you aren’t required to do anything with them.” This is consistent with what many other coaches have said.
Losing weight isn’t just about calories in and calories out. There can be – and often is – very real, very complex emotions that go along with how a person eats. It can be a Pandora’s Box, and even attempting to help someone with it when you have no clue what you’re doing can be dangerous to that person’s wellbeing and relationship with food.
Here’s what some people told me about the coaching they received:
“I’ve seen people post about their coaches telling them if they go off plan then they fail or if they aren’t going to do the program 100% on track they shouldn’t even do it. If the coach is really promoting the (product) system that can mess with your head in regards to foods you think are bad…just the type of foods they promote are the typical organic, non dairy, non GMO stuff. And the foods are ranked on the lists. If you’re serious about your nutrition you are advised to eat from the top 1/3 of the lists.”
“(The program) made me feel like if I ate more carbs than two little yellow containers (so two pieces of bread) that I failed at my ‘diet’ and couldn’t do it right.”
Not to mention that it can be physically harmful, too: many people have health or medication contraindications to these products, which coaches can’t know how to negotiate…or even know about at all. But they’re thrust into the job by a company that doesn’t prepare them for it, with the promise to making more money. But for who?
They’re incentivized to make sales…and hire more coaches.
MLM salespeople in general are under immense pressure to sell. In order to do that, they have to reach out to as many people as possible. Hence the coffee date invites, cold calls, ‘Hey hun’ emails, and all that junk in your social feeds. Annoying, yes. Real, no.
There’s something distinctively fake about a person who wants to meet an old friend from school to ‘catch up,’ only to take over the coffee date with a sales pitch.
And if you’re not interested? They’re gone. And sure, everyone in any business has incentive to sell something. But MLM nutrition sales in particular has a lot of coaches sidling up to people like they’re best friends, urging them to be ‘part of the team.’
I’ve heard a lot of variations on what this ex-coach told me: “I was actually really disappointed when I had a friend message me on Facebook and I saw she had started working for a ketones company and I knew that was the only reason she was trying to talk to me. I was really hoping she was actually just going to try and get in touch again.”
It’s pretty rude to pretend to be interested in somebody when it’s just about a sales pitch. Like, not something a decent human being does, really.
Even if you do buy something, if you’re not into it at some point, these people will suddenly be out of your life, even after being so buddy-buddy.
“…unless it’s the end of the month, and they are digging deep in to old messages trying to sell to hit a goal,” said one ex-coach.
Coaches are also incentivized to recruit more coaches, and they get more ‘points’ for doing it…so they can reach diamond BS star unicorn rainbow emerald level or whatever it is.
“There is “incentive” to sign up other coaches because, like any other MLM, that is how you make more money. The more coaches you have working the business, the more commissions you make by the volume of their sales,” one coach told me.
“You got rewarded based on your coach level. So if you went to summit you’d get badges to show how awesome you were,” another said.
But incentivizing the recruitment of coaches by coaches means that there’s very little control and oversight over who is taking these roles.
An ex-coach put it this way: “I was a coach with MAJOR food issues and ZERO background in anything health related….they tell you it makes you more relatable to not be in shape and have no experience…then other people feel they can do it too and sign up to coach and on it goes.”
On and on it goes, and coaches are just another cog in the wheel of the MLM, tricked into making money for others.
The husband of an ex-coach had this to say to me:
“(My wife) realized she was just a cog in the machine making money for the pricks at the top of the pyramid. There were calls that “featured” the really successful coaches. Which really meant they had gotten in early and got a bunch of suckers in underneath them to make them money…she realized who it was her hard work was benefitting (not her).”
They show an unrealistic example.
Driven by the huge pressure to make sales, being a coach comes with pressure to look and act a certain way. This perpetuates the unrealistic impression that coaching can change your life, make you thin, rich, empowered, and always happy.
As a follower told me, “My Facebook newsfeed is bombarded by beach body coaches, and a lot of them are constantly promoting diet before and after pictures, and encouraging disordered eating.
It’s a huge trigger for people like me who have been struggling with eating disorder since I was 14 years old on and off. I don’t think these pictures are meant to empower women, but they do the exact opposite.”
Here are some posts by MLM nutrition coaches that I found on social:
Of course, the real story can be a lot different. Here’s what some of the coaches I spoke to said about their experience:
“After trying and failing and trying and failing at the 21 Day Fix, my relationship with food got worse and worse. I gained back 40 pounds over time. I hated how I looked. I was super stressed and finally, after going to the Beachbody summit and just really not feeling it anymore, I left.”
“Its exhausting to curate that social feed you want to portray to others,” an ex-coach told me. I can only imagine. But what about the people who believe that what they’re seeing is real-life?
“We were always told to post about a lot of other stuff than our challenge groups and products. Lots of life posts. And trying to make them happy and good. Also throw a struggle post in there occasionally showing not everything is perfect for you either. But yeah lots of positive posts.”
I was also told by an ex-coach that some coaches use maternity photos for their ‘before’ pictures.
That doesn’t sound too authentic or ‘empowering’ to me.
They often promote material that’s dangerous and wrong.
Arbonne, DoTerra, Modere, and others were recently warned by the FTC for making false claims about their products and covid-19. But that’s nothing new – I’ve seen far too many absurd infographics online done by MLM coaches.
It’s like the Wild West out there on MLM Pinterest, and even though a coach might be putting their company logo on a piece of content, the company itself rarely oversees what goes onto the internet with their name on it. Even the coaches themselves perpetuate false information by selling the products like fat burners and cleanses.
By the very nature of the job, a coach can’t sell one part of the line and distance themselves from another – which was called to my attention a while back when an RD selling Arbonne told me that she doesn’t promote the ‘cleanses.’
Except no, you have to sell the entire line of product. And while I empathize with some coaches that are trying to support their families, that they drink the pseudoscience kool-aid without question, and then go out and spread misinformation everywhere they go, is upsetting.
I think a lot of them do it because they’re stuck: according to a 2018 survey, only 25% of people involved in MLMs make a profit, and of those, more than half made less than $5000. So for every ‘successful’ coach posing with her car, there are thousands who actually OWE money to the company, and probably just as many who have made only a tiny amount for their work.
“In the end my wife probably made $15k in commissions over the course of 2 years of actively running the business plus a year of residual before we shut it completely down. Of course we also overpaid for protein powder for that whole time, so that eats into the “profit,” said the husband of an ex-coach.
So if you’ve been promised a good income and invested your own money at the outset, it can be hard to accept that you’re not going to get there. Ever. So you keep at it. And the target of MLMs is women with young children, looking to make an income – and a social connection -while at home, which makes the whole thing a shady operation that preys on vulnerable women.
MLMs will probably always exist, unless the FTC shuts them down. So if you’re tempted to become a ‘coach,’ please don’t. And the next time you see someone selling MLM nutrition products, remember: all is probably not what it seems.