When Liesl Bettencourt of Pleasanton, Calif., turned 50 recently, she decided it was time to get into shape. She signed up with Habit, an Oakland start-up that offers personalized nutrition recommendations, coaching and meals. And as soon as Habit sent her an initiation kit, she got nervous.
The prospect of cutting out bread and cheese from her diet was hard enough, Bettencourt thought. Now she was being asked to use a lancet — a tiny needle that Habit sent her — to draw her own blood.
"It took me two weeks to get the guts to do it," Bettencourt said.
By requiring new users to submit three blood samples and a DNA swab, Habit has a higher barrier to entry than most companies in the nutrition and diet business. Starting a program requires more than ordering a week's worth of meal-replacing drinks (a la Soylent), adding grass-fed cow's butter to coffee (Bulletproof), or learning to grade different types of food using a proprietary rubric (Weight Watchers). In a sea of lifestyle and nutrition companies selling dieting life hacks, Habit is trying to set itself apart by emphasizing the "personal" in personalized nutrition.
For $299 (the cost of the metabolism test kit and Habit's recommendations), the company studies each customer's DNA to learn about dietary and digestive predispositions and offers nutritional advice and coaching based on the customer's genotype (their genetic makeup) and phenotype (environmental influences). Aegis Sciences Corp. in Nashville, a toxicology lab that also does anti-doping testing for the NFL and Major League Baseball, tests how customers' bodies process sugar, fat and carbs.
"There's a lot of noise in the marketplace," said Neil Grimmer, Habit's founder and chief executive who previously ran the baby food company Plum Organics. "We hear that carbs are bad, then carbs are good, and fat is bad, then fat is good. The nuance lies in each one of us. What's right and good for me might not be right and good for you."
While there aren't any scientific studies about the long term efficacy of Habit's recommendations — the service only launched in January of 2017 — the company's approach is backed by some science. In an analysis of Habit, the American Council of Science and Health wrote in April that Habit's test was able to show a person's "true" and "holistic" metabolic activity, and that the company's nutritional advice "does have the real possibility of being useful."
The same analysis questioned whether testing a person's DNA actually made a difference, though. Habit is now conducting its own peer-reviewed studies, Grimmer said.
The company has so far attracted $32 million in funding from Campbell Soup Co., its sole financier, which also bought Plum Organics from Grimmer in 2013.
"We were really impressed by this idea of personalized nutrition," said Denise Morrison, chief executive of Campbell. "Diets have typically been one size fits all. Now we have science that can get us to a place where we can recommend a personalized eating system."
With its $299 price tag, Habit's personalized nutrition recommendations are aimed at a subset of affluent, diet-conscious customers. But with the U.S. weight-loss market valued at $66 billion in 2017, Morrison said Campbell is making a long-term bet on the start-up. Once customers shell out the initial fee, Habit can offer additional services: It plans to roll out prepared, customized meals across the country in the coming year, and will eventually sell meal plans, recipes and other products to help customers stay on track.
Part of the thinking behind Habit is that there is consumer appetite for each of its individual parts, so combining them under one brand is a no-brainer, according to Grimmer. For example, the DNA testing start-up 23andMe, which focuses solely on genetic and ancestry testing, sells a consumer test kit for $199. Investors are so bullish about the service that the company received a recent valuation of $1.5 billion. Meal preparation company Blue Apron, which helps customers cook nutritious lunches and dinners, went public this year and has a market cap of $764 million. And in the weight loss industry, Weight Watchers alone has a market cap of $3 billion.
Habit's plan, then, is to be the company consumers turn to when they want to learn about their bodies, need help with a health goal, and want someone to take care of the grocery list.
Not one to shy away from new diets, this reporter underwent the Habit test. I rubbed a long Q-tip that Habit provided against the inside of my cheek to collect my DNA (which, Habit said, it doesn't sell to third parties). For the blood test, as per Habit's instructions, I fasted overnight and ran my fingers under warm water to increase blood flow. And when it came time to use the lancet to prick my own finger, I chickened out.
"We know this is the hard part!" said Habit's instruction manual. "It's OK to have someone else prick your finger for you."
I asked my partner to do it for me.
"OK, on three," he said. He only counted to two before he pricked my finger.
It wasn't too bad. But, like a paper cut, it wasn't something I could intentionally inflict on myself, so I made him stick around to do it twice more: half an hour after I drank the Habit shake — a sugary, carb- and fat-filled drink that lets Habit see how my body responds to different kinds of food — and again two hours after the drink.
I smeared my droplets of blood onto paper cards Habit provided, sealed everything in plastic packaging, and shipped it off in the pre-paid FedEx envelope that came with the kit.
A month later, my results came in the form of an online dashboard with information about my genes and how my body processes fat, sugar and carbohydrates. It told me I am lactose intolerant, which wasn't a surprise, because as anyone who is lactose intolerant will tell you, it's hard to not know that you're lactose intolerant. It told me I am sensitive to caffeine, which explains why I'm wired after one cup of coffee.
It also told me I have genes that are associated with high blood pressure and difficulty processing glucose. The hypochondriac in me immediately assumed this meant I was doomed to have diabetes and heart problems. But a complimentary session with one of Habit's registered dietitians — offered to all Habit customers — assured me that my genetic markers weren't prophetic, and that my blood markers showed that despite my genetic predispositions, I was doing just fine.
My results were a relief. But also a little underwhelming. I'd thought that after such an invasive process, Habit would offer guidance that felt novel — three kale shakes a day, triple protein intake, purple foods only. Instead, my nutritional recommendations weren't too different from what I was already used to: lots of vegetables, lean proteins and fat from sources such as nuts, avocados and fish.
It all seemed like common sense to me. But, according to market research firm Mintel, weight loss remains a struggle for many Americans because there are so many fads and conflicting approaches that it's tough to know what common sense even looks like.
"The fact that the majority of adults are following a DIY strategy for weight management could point to why waistlines have not budged and even continue to grow," Mintel researchers said in a 2017 report.
The opportunity, then, is for companies like Habit to profit from education, support and plans customers can stick with.
Back in Pleasanton, Bettencourt was surprised — and relieved — to learn that despite telling Habit that her goal was to lose weight, its recommendations were far from restrictive.
"I thought that I wasn't going to be able to eat anything, that I was going to starve, and how will I make it through the day without the food I love?" she said. She was shocked to learn she could still have cheese, and if she wanted to have bread every now and again, she could. Following Habit's recommendations, she has lost 27 pounds since September.
"I learned that my body metabolizes fat and sugar much slower, so I have to be careful with the food that I'm eating," she said. "It has taught me to eat differently."