What Building an Ikea Bookcase Can Teach Us About Nutrition Coaching

Great coaches keep things simple.

Or as you possibly learned in elementary school: KISS! (keep it simple, silly).

During the pandemic, our NutritionRx team worked with dozens of overwhelmed, stressed out clients, who were up 10 or 20 pounds in bodyweight, but who were also carrying an additional 50 pounds in emotional weight. In many cases, this meant eating disorders and stress eating spiraled more out of control than I have ever seen. 

The temptation as a coach is often to information bomb the desperate client, to prove how much you know, how qualified and competent you are, as it somehow makes you feel like that’s how you’re going to prove your value and develop trust. 

That type of coaching—coach-centric coaching—however, is not what the client needs, not in ordinary times, and even less so during a pandemic. Trying to sound smart and impress your clients with all that you know doesn’t help anyone succeed or reach their goals any faster.

What people need most is to be shielded from distractions, including distractions they put in their own path, and put on a simple, step-by-step, easy to digest path to regain their health—one that makes their life easier, not one that confuses and overwhelms them even more than they already are. 

The Ikea Bookcase Analogy

Most clients are like the average person who lacks major construction skills and seeks to put together an Ikea bookcase.

What this person needs is a simple Step 1: Find this specific bolt and attach it to this specific piece of wood. Once this step is complete, they move to Step 2: Another simple-to-follow and simple to execute step in the process of building the bookshelf. From there it’s Step 3, then 4, 5 and so on and so forth.

Even though Ikea tries to convince us that each furniture build will be simple and easy, we all know from experience that it’s not always that way. Empathize for a moment what that means from a behaviour-change perspective for our nutrition clients!

Can you imagine what would happen if someone information bombed you all 25 steps at once? Unless you have construction skills, chances are that bookcase wouldn’t get built (or at least, not well). There would also likely be some meltdowns above and beyond what any normal Ikea furniture build already invites into a situation.

The same is true of the nutrition client: Sometimes a simple task like getting them to drink more water is all they need as a Step 1. Once this becomes a habit, you might have them move on to the task of including vegetables in at least two meals a day. Then, for example, you might shift the focus to protein, and on and on.

Step 1, leads to Step 2, which leads to Step 3… and in no time, you’re high fiving your nutrition client as they lock in the final bolt at Step 25 and admire the bookcase they’ve always wanted for themselves.

In some ways it’s kind of like the “less is more” rule: Doing less might feel like you’re not doing enough or providing enough information as a coach, but it comes down to ability and consistency, and a client is more likely to be consistent and have success long-term when the path laid out before them is a doable one. And this largely comes down to the coach’s ability to simplify.

Be the cool, calm, and collected coach who can help your client fully build their “health bookcase” from start to finish. Don’t be the coach who overwhelms and shouts 25 directions at once, and then blames your client for not trying hard enough when there’s a broken mess on the floor. Our job is to guide the build, match their pace and ability level, and keep our nutrition clients on course to finish what they started.

Food for thought: “Beginners complicate, experts simplify.” Less really can be more!

Jennifer Broxterman, MSc, RD

Registered Dietitian & Sports Nutritionist

CEO NutritionRx & Creator of the Two-Brain Nutrition Coaching Course

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