Categories super nutrition academy health class
John Berardi is the one most respective figures in the nutrition space and for good reason. In this interview you’ll see why.
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Hey, guys, welcome to another episode of the Super Nutrition Academy Health Class. In today’s interview I’m going to be interviewing an amazing trailblazer in the world of nutrition education. His name is John Berardi, and you may have heard of him.
He owns a company called Precision Nutrition, and they’re one of the leaders in training health care professionals and, specifically, fitness professionals on how to better work with their own clients from a nutrition perspective and just some amazing stuff. They put out tons of great information. They have a great coaching program that helps people really achieve the body that they’re after.
What I love about John is that he is probably one of the most respected individuals in the space of nutrition. He’s a writer, he’s a coach, he’s a researcher, he’s a professor at the University of Texas, and a course instructor at Eastern Michigan University.
Precision Nutrition itself, the nutrition principles they discuss and talk about have been featured in LiveStrong, New York Times, Time, Huffington Post, Men’s Journal, Men’s Health, and on and on and on. Some of their clients include the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Houston Rockets, the UFC, Nike, Cleveland Browns, Texas Longhorns. They’ve done a lot of work with a lot of regular people but also with a lot of high-level athletes.
I’m really excited to bring what John has been able to kind of curate in terms of wisdom over the years so that you can benefit from that as well. Without any further ado, let’s get into the interview.
Yuri: All right, I’m here with Dr. John Berardi, and if you guys don’t know John, he’s definitely one of the leaders, the trailblazers, the authorities in the space of nutritional coaching. He’s been doing so for at least a decade and a half now. He’s done some really amazing stuff. He’s not 60 years old; he’s a young guy. John, how old are you, in your late thirties maybe?
John: Yeah, yeah. I’m 40 now.
Yuri: There you go.
John: Crossing in to the new threshold.
Yuri: Well, you look a lot younger than 40, so that just is a testament to the stuff that you do. I’m really happy to have you with me today. For everyone listening, you can check out John’s Precision Nutrition company. It’s at PrecisionNutrition.com and they specialize in coaching fitness professionals and health professionals with nutrition information type stuff, so they’re able to go back to their clients and disseminate the kind of information that Precision Nutrition is all about. Welcome, John. I’m really excited to have you with me.
John: Well, thanks very much for having me. I really appreciate it. I know there’s a lot of people who tune in regularly to this podcast and are looking, searching for new information, for things that can either help them change their own lives, or help their clients make meaningful changes, so I’m always excited to be able to share what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and hopefully that can inspire some change.
Yuri: Yeah, I’m sure it will. There’s always at least one nugget in everything we listen to or read that someone can transform somebody’s life in a small way or a big way. With that said, we’ll talk about a couple different things that I think you’re a real expert in, one of them being this notion of what you call nutritional triage, where it’s basically about finding the smallest interventions that can make the biggest difference for individuals.
Can you talk about, let’s look from a nutrition standpoint. What would e one of the smallest interventions anyone can make? A mum and pop, a nine-to-fiver, what is one small thing that they can do on a daily basis to make a big change in their life?
John: Before we even get into the nuts and bolts, I’d love to go just a little bit big-picture for a second and explain the concept. The idea of triage for people unfamiliar is the idea that in certain situations, you have to kind of rank your problems and tackle the most important first.
The triage notion is often used in a medical setting; let’s say an emergency room. There are all kinds of people in an emergency room; anyone who’s had to go to the emergency room and wait for six hours knows. They’re doing triage there.
If someone had a very traumatic brain injury and they’re leaking out of their head, for example, and someone else has a finger cut, they’re probably going to take the traumatic brain injury first because it’s the biggest, the most important, the one with the most risk at stake. And then the finger cut comes later, right?
That’s the idea of a triage: You look at all the potential issues on the table, and you pick the one that is the most urgent, most pressing, most compelling, most important, whatever. The same can be said of any other approach, whether it’s running a business, whether it’s getting your nutrition in order.
There are loads of intervention points for any particular thing you want to work on. Whether you want to learn a new skill, learn to speak another language, there’re thousands of things you could possibly do. But the idea is, if you have a menu of a thousand things and they all seem equally important to you, there’s no way to ever figure out how to get started, unless you just do the equivalent of throwing a dart at a dart board and hitting one of them and going with that one.
I think that’s why people seem so confused in nutrition, because information is coming at us so quickly and so furiously that it’s hard to really decide to do triage to figure out what is the most important thing that I can do. In terms of importance here, for me it’s: What is the thing that’s small or the smallest thing that could lead to the largest impact right from the start?
You don’t have to make this a huge project. It could be something that you can just start now, like on a Tuesday or a Wednesday at 10 a.m. When it comes to nutritional triage, the way that we like to look at things is, we look for deficiencies first.
The reason we do this is, if someone is deficient in certain nutrients—let’s say it’s vitamins, minerals, protein, water, even, dehydration—that deficiency can manifest in screwy hormones, a slow metabolic rate, an inability to gain lean mass, an inability to lose body fat, even lower blood cell volume production. Fundamentally speaking, if you’re trying to get in great shape but you have a deficiency, it’s a huge obstacle to overcome that you’re simply not going to overcome until you remove the deficiency.
We can talk about, when it comes to diet, things like eating more of this or more of that or should I eat Paleo or should I get rid of meat altogether and all these types of things, but these are huge lifestyle interventions that have kind of a small return if you’re deficient in stuff. The point is: Let’s get the body working properly from the get-go. Let’s fix the deficiencies.
I’ll give you one example of how this plays out in the research. There’s been some very interesting data published in the U.K. and Canada and the U.S. looking at giving prison inmates something as simple as a fish-oil capsule and a multivitamin each day. When they do that they find increases in cognitive test performance, decreases in violence, decreases in antisocial behavior.
Here’s the interesting part. The researchers then thought, What other population could benefit from this? They started giving the same type of intervention to schoolchildren, and they found the same types of things: decreases in antisocial behavior and violence, increases in cognitive test scores, and they found that these kids were sort of balancing out in terms of ADHD symptoms and things like that.
Now, here’s the fact. It’s not that fish oil and multivitamins are magical cure-alls that improve performance and make people just better people overall. It’s that, generally, prison inmates and children are deficient in stuff, so their brains don’t work right and their bodies don’t work right. And when we give just a small, tiny, tiny intervention like two capsules of something a day—you could do it from food as well; you could eat foods that are high in omega-3s or high in vitamins and minerals—but when you do that, you remove the deficiencies that are standing in the way of people working the way that they ought to work, hormones working the way that they ought to work, physiologies working the way that they ought to work. All of a sudden it seems like a magical intervention.
We teach this with all of our coaching clients. In fact, one of the first habits in our coaching programs are removing deficiencies, and the most common we see are, starting at the macronutrient level, things like water. We see low-level dehydration in a lot of people.
Then there’s protein. We see, generally, unless people come from sort of like a weight lifting background or gym culture, they’re not eating enough protein. We see deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids. Those are the big three in terms of macronutrients.
And then there’re the micronutrients, things like zinc, magnesium, calcium. When we know what these common deficiencies are—I mean, you could certainly go get a blood test to determine this stuff, but, instead, for our coaching, we just ask a series of questions that kind of get at whether people are eating enough or drinking enough or doing enough of these things. And then from those questionnaires—that are pretty short, actually—we can determine what they might be deficient in, and then the next habits are just to fix those deficiencies.
Now, this may make sense to you, but here’s where it becomes really counterintuitive. When you’re coaching with us and we determine, hey, this person might need a little more zinc and magnesium and, let’s say, omega-3 fatty acids, that’s all we work on.
People, that kind of drives them nuts at first. They’re like, “Yeah, but I’m eating fast food every night for dinner. Shouldn’t I fix that too?” And the answer is no, because that is a pretty big intervention with a fairly low return compared to the problem of deficiency.
It’s just like having the brain problem and also a cut on your finger. The person’s like, “Okay, yeah, fix my brain, but don’t forget about my finger. Can’t we fix that at the same time?” The answer’s, “No, no, we’ll take care of that next, when your brain stops leaking.”
This is the idea of sort of triage. I think it’s just really critical for people to sort of, when they think through any new nutrition application, to think about this idea that there are lots of things you could do. A lot of experts, people who write books and stuff like that, give you lots of those things contained within their system.
But unless you fix your nutritional deficiencies from the start, those systems are not going to work very well, and we see this all over the place. People trying vegan and Paleo, and they don’t feel any better. The answer is: because they didn’t fix the most important problem. That’s our first step in nutritional triage: fixing the deficiencies.
Yuri: Nice, and I love the whole concept as, like, small hinges swing big doors.
John: That’s exactly right.
Yuri: Which is great. And I think it’s important to really, for everyone listening, to really understand this because, like you mentioned, especially in the universe of nutrition, there’s so much information, and so much of it is misleading, conflicting, you can find scientific validation for pretty much any point of view, and, very often, it’s really getting down to a little bit more of a simple, small, little change like you just mentioned with the deficiencies.
John: Absolutely. And then once you’ve tackled that—and here’s the truth: For most people it only takes a couple of weeks. It may be 30 days of concerted effort to remove all of your deficiencies, and then we can get to the next level of progression, which is starting to look at the amount of food that you eat and the type of food that you eat.
But if you start with those things, they’re just big. They’re big habits to begin with, and they may not even help with your most fundamental high-order problem, which is your body doesn’t work right because you’re deficient in stuff. And this is what we see, people who are like, “I try and eat all the right things and I work out and I just can’t lose weight.”
It may be that you’re not eating all the right things, but for a lot of these people, they’re trying very hard. And then when we go in and we can actually just tackle the real problem, which is a metabolic dysfunction associated with deficiency, all of a sudden things start working again. They don’t have to work any harder on diet; this just takes care of it, and the diet that they were eating just sort of falls in place, and they start to see the results.
Yuri: Which is great because we know how many people struggle with, obviously, dieting and eating well, so that’s a huge thing. It’s really about building the foundation before you even build the house or worry about the rest of the house.
John: That’s right.
Yuri: You mentioned this notion of nutritional progression whereby we’re looking at starting to build nutritional habits after these smaller changes versus doing one big thing all at once. I guess for some people, they’re kind of all or none; other people are more kind of moderation, step-by-step.
What are some of the first steps in terms of—I know, obviously, everyone’s different, but just in terms of trends that you may have seen with your clients in terms of nutrition habits that you, as a trend, tend to instill in most individuals?
John: I think that the, let’s say, the personal-training world, for example, does this particular thing, this progression idea really well when it comes to exercise. We’ve got that nailed pretty well. And the idea is that if someone starts off at the gym and it’s their first day at the gym, let’s say, we’re not going to pick the most complex exercise and have them do that at the highest intensity starting on day one, right?
We all know that’s a big mistake. They’re not going to have the movement capacity, there may be movement restrictions, even the technique and skill development, so we build them up slowly over time. Their conditioning may not be there, so we have to build skill development, we have to build functional mobile joints, and then we have to increase intensity over time so that their conditioning can keep pace.
We know this in exercise, but with nutrition, it’s never happened this way in fitness and it’s embarrassing, really. The idea that you would take a client, ask them some questions about what they’re eating now, and then give them a diet to follow is the equivalent of saying, “Okay, we’re going to do Olympic cleans, and we’re going to do those for twenty reps and then have thirty seconds’ rest and then another twenty reps,” for someone brand-new to exercise.
Yuri: Sounds like a bit of Crossfit.
John: Maybe a little bit. But the idea is, we’re not going to do on day one the most complex exercise at the highest possible intensity, but that’s what we’re doing when we give someone a diet to follow. It’s the most complicated thing a person can do. You have to change a hundred small daily habits to just follow this one-page, printed diet.
Like I say, it’s kind of embarrassing the fact that fitness professionals have never drawn the parallel between the two. And they’re still handing out diets. The idea behind nutritional progression is that it’s habit-based, so we pick one high-value habit, and we do it for two to four weeks until mastery’s achieved.
I don’t like the concept of moderation here because people set this up in their minds. They’re like, No, no, no, that doesn’t work for me, moderation. No, this isn’t moderation. This is the highest laser intensity focused on one thing. This, to me, is the antithesis of moderation. This is practicing one super important thing, lasering in on it with all of your energy, your capacity for this particular thing, understanding that you have other things going on in your life—you may have a family, you may have a job, you may have other hobbies—and lasering in on this.
This isn’t the sort of mealy mouth, wishy-washy, oh, this is just for people who aren’t committed type of a thing. This is actually the highest form of commitment. It’s actually choosing the most important thing, saying, “I’m going to focus on nothing else, and then I’m going to put all of my energy, all of my currently available capacity, into this.”
For example, it may be as simple as starting off with fish oil, multivitamin, and drinking more water. Or that may be too much. It could be something like one of the habits that we teach, which is eating slowly. Now, again, this may seem like a really kind of wussy habit or whatever, but eating slowly is the gateway to a whole bunch of other things that we do later on.
We notice when people eat quickly, that’s the antithesis of calorie control, because it takes 15 to 20 minutes to sense into your hunger signals and your appetite and fullness signals. Literally, you could start eating your meal, and it isn’t until about 15 to 20 minutes later that your brain recognizes that you’re full. I don’t know about you, but I can eat a heck of a lot of food, a lot more than I should, in 15 or 20 minutes.
John: So, if we were to slow down, what ends up happening is, we give our brain a chance to catch up with our stomach. We can actually eat an appropriate amount of food; we can actually taste, enjoy, and sort of spend time appreciating what we’re eating, but, even more, physiologically, we give our brain a chance to say “full.”
That sets us up for other future habits that we can laser focus on. For example, if weight loss is your goal, once you start eating slowly, you start to be able to tune in to hunger signals, and you can stop at various degrees of fullness. We teach 80 percent fullness, which, in our opinion, that’s sort of, that’s satisfied not stuffed. A lot of people are only used to eating until stuffed, so we teach “satisfied.”
Just those two habits—slowing down your eating, eating ’til satisfied, not stuffed—literally changes everything for people, and they never have to break out a weight-loss or calorie-counting calculator. The thing with it is, it’s super sustainable as well, because as your needs change, you can listen to the changing hunger signals.
I know this is always difficult for people to sort of grasp because the truth is, before you’ve ever started paying attention to hunger signals and practicing this, the notion that somehow listening to your body would be valuable seems weird, because there’re a lot of people out there that if they listen to their body right now in their current capacity, it’s like telling them to go for ice cream, right? That’s what it’s saying. You have to practice this. This isn’t like you’re going to have this skill intuitively.
The two things that are essential to that practice are slowing down your meals and listening for fullness, and it only works when you laser focus on this for, like, two weeks or something like that. These form the very basis of our progression. It’s get rid of deficiencies—that may be eating more of certain foods that contain zinc or magnesium or calcium; then it’s slowing down your eating—eating until 80 percent full; and then we start to look at other habits.
We might tackle protein next or we might tackle carbohydrate intake next or we might tackle vegetable intake next. It all depends on the person and what their next limiting factor is, right? You may have vegetables mastered, so we could probably skip that one and move on to carbohydrates if that’s a struggle for you. Just to wrap up the idea of progression, that’s the idea.
We build a progression based on laser focus on a single habit that is your limiting factor for now. And then when we remove that one, another one always comes up. We see it, then we laser in on that. You start picking off these limiting factors.
It’s amazing with a year of coaching like that, what can happen. And we’ve seen it. People lose 50, 80, 100 pounds in a year, and they’ve never once been handed a diet to follow.
Yuri: And they most likely keep it off too, because now it’s a lifestyle for them.
John: Absolutely. It’s sustainable and it’s a practice too. The idea of looking for limiting factors and removing them is a practice you can follow for the rest of your life. It’s not sort of mystical magic and voodoo that got you in shape; it was simply finding what’s limiting you right now, what you’re struggling with, putting all of your attention on that one thing, eliminating it, and then you can move on to the next. It’s sort of like a never-ending progression.
Yuri: Yeah. I love what you talked about in terms of slow eating and being 80 percent full; it’s kind of like the Okinawa approach to fullness. I think the first thing that comes to my mind when I talk about this kind of stuff, like slow eating or not being excessively full, is thinking about when you go to an all-you-can-eat, whether that be a buffet or food that’s being served to your table—hopefully not everyone is doing that—but so often we get so concerned about let’s get the most amount of food in for the 20 bucks that I’m spending or whatever it might be that those signals of fullness are just kind of put in the drawer.
But if you just kind of take a breather after one of your plates and sit back and ask yourself, Where am I at right now? Do I really need to go up and have another serving? I think that can be a really great way to engage that.
John: It is, yeah. I should say this. I mean, I’m not above going to the all-you-can-eat buffet from time to time and going up for more plates than I should, and I will do that on occasion, so it’s important to know that real human beings do this, even people are supposed to be nutrition experts.
Yuri: It’s strategic, though.
John: That’s exactly right. I do it once in a while; I usually make sure I’ve exercised first. But this is part of, at least one of the joys of eating and social eating in particular. The idea that we can go out, we can enjoy food, once in a while we can even eat too much of it, and it doesn’t ruin our progress, right?
I’ve been doing this for a very, very long time. I started paying attention to nutrition when I was 16, so this is almost 25 years under my belt here of doing this, and the idea that somehow you’re going to eat clean for the rest of your life, whatever clean means to you, that you’ll never once overeat, you’ll never once eat a piece of “bad” food is absolutely absurd.
People really new to healthy eating, that’s like one of the rules they give themselves: “I’m never going to put a processed food, it shall never cross my lips.” But within the context of a real human life, you will do that. And not just because you’re trying to use calories as fuel; you will do that because you will want to get some of the other benefits of eating.
Healthy eating is not exclusionary to eating for pleasure or eating socially, eating for a whole bunch of other reasons; it’s just important to know the context. And if the buffet thing becomes too frequent, that’s when it becomes one of your limiting factors, and you think about how to remove it.
Yuri: Yeah. I’ve got two interesting things I want to discuss with you: calorie counting and intermittent fasting versus frequent eating. Let’s start with intermittent fasting and this topic of meal frequency and timing, because I think this is an area that is very, very poorly understood by most individuals. They have this notion that if they don’t eat for a couple of hours, their metabolism is going to fall apart and they’re going to gain all this weight and they’re going to hold on to fat because they’re in starvation mode.
Let’s talk about intermittent fasting versus five-to-six-meals-a-day frequent type of eating. What’s your opinion on that? What kind of stuff can you suggest on that?
John: Well, I think they both have value, and this may be an unpopular position nowadays because people love to just align with one of the two camps and then just stand across the divide and point and shout at the other group and talk about how much idiots they are.
Yuri: That’s kind of how it works in nutrition.
John: Yeah, generally it does, doesn’t it? I think there’s this quote that I always love, which is “The mark of real intellect is the ability to hold two oppositional viewpoints at the same time without going crazy.” That’s exactly what we’re looking at here, the idea that it could be that eating frequently, five or six meals a day, works; and it could be that eating one or two meals a day works.
In fact, I’ve seen it over and over and over again; both of them can work within certain contexts, within certain goal sets, and within the notion that the bigger picture of total calories for the day, making sure you don’t have any deficiencies could be met with both conditions. This is the triage issue again. Frequency of eating is probably irrelevant if you match calories and nutrients. In other words, you’re doing the same kind of exercise each day; you’re taking the same amount of food; the same amount of proteins, carbs, fats; and the same amount of micronutrients.
Now, here’s where it gets a little bit sticky and real world and gooey and kind of confusing. It’s hard to match those two outside of a lab. To suggest that, “Well, when I eat five to six meals a day, I eat 3000 calories, this much protein, this much carbs, this much fat, and I’m going to do that with one meal a day or two meals a day when I’m intermittent fasting.”
It just never pans out that way unless you’re sort of doing a tightly controlled experiment. The real difference between the two is, functionally, what intermittent fasting and frequently eating does to your calorie intake simply as a function of how much you eat.
There’s also this other notion here, and I’d like to use the coffee example. Is coffee good or bad for you? Well, there’s been some fascinating research on genetic typing, and there’s actually a liver enzyme, which you know about, which metabolizes caffeine.
It’s really, really interesting. There’s a subtype, a type of person who has a certain genetic makeup in which their liver enzyme rapidly metabolizes caffeine. You drink coffee and the caffeine leaves your body very quickly. The antioxidants, though, in the coffee stick around. So, in that type of person, coffee actually lowers heart disease risk.
However, if you have the other genetic type, the different liver enzyme, what happens is, you’re a slow metabolizer, so not only do the antioxidants stick around, but so does the caffeine. And in this type of person, what happens is, there’s an increase in heart disease risk. Caffeine and coffee can either be a medicine—it can actually help lower cardiovascular disease risk—or a poison—it can actually increase it depending on your genetic type.
I suspect a lot of the debate going on in nutrition right now will eventually be solved by understanding our genetic types. We’ll find the intermittent-fasting gene eventually or something equivalent, where it’s like, “Ah, I get it! Intermittent fasting worked for these people over here because they had a certain genetic type. However, people who had the other type had to eat small meals more frequently to get the same kind of benefits.”
When we start to look at things from this sort of more generous perspective, you know what I mean, because I feel like it’s sort of a human generosity that leads us to be able to see across the divide. We also look at it from the scientific perspective. We don’t know everything yet. We may come to these conclusions that, wait a second, both of these may be really valuable in different people. That may be one explanation.
In the end, you’ve probably seen the book that we wrote on this subject, Experiments with Intermittent Fasting. I basically did a nine-month intermittent-fasting experiment, where I tried a whole bunch of different protocols from the one fast a week, where you just don’t eat for a single day, two days of fasting a week, to small fasts every single day, and documented all my progress here. The book has been fantastic; I think over a million people have seen it already, and it’s available for free online.
Yuri: I’m just going to jump in there. If you just type in intermittent fasting into Google, it’ll pop up as one of the top searches.
John: Yeah, it will. And if it doesn’t, just type in intermittent fasting Berardi and you’ll find it. People who are interested in this area, we explore it in depth in this free book.
But the truth is, I think intermittent fasting can work for a lot of people if used cautiously, because there are some rules to it. You can definitely screw it up; you can definitely screw yourself up following intermittent fasting. But the same is true with frequent eating. We’ve seen lots of people try frequent eating and they end up eating too many calories and they end up gaining weight from doing it.
You can’t just do meal frequency and think that’s it; just like you can’t just go Paleo and think that’s it. There are some triage principles here. Before you ever consider fasting or frequent eating or whatever, what’s the most important thing? That’s probably deficiency, nutrition deficiency.
Beyond that, we think about amount of food you’re eating and type of food you’re eating. Then you can start thinking of the frequency of eating. You have to almost think of this as a linear thing. If your path to ultimate fitness or whatever you want to call it is, you’re starting at point A and you want to go to point B all the way over there, you have to, at each step of the way, take care of an important thing.
If you try to just gather up all these things at once and just do them, you’re going to fail because you can’t pay attention to all this stuff at once. You can’t master any particular thing when you’re doing 50 things at the same time.
Yuri: Yeah, that’s great. On the topic of frequent eating is this kind of notion of counting calories. That has obviously become really big with things like Weight Watchers and even just different approaches to being very scientific about how much you’re getting, how many carbs, proteins, fats, and so forth. What are your thoughts on that whole notion of knowing where you’re at calorie-wise versus counting them on a daily basis?
John: I’d like to unpack a couple different things here. The first is: People intricately wrap writing down what they eat with calorie counting, and I think there’s a separation there. I think you can write down what you eat, and I think it’s a valuable exercise once in a while to literally either take photos of your meals for the day or just write down what you ate for the day so that there’s a greater awareness on what you’re doing. And at PN we teach awareness as the ultimate gateway to figuring yourself out.
Self-experimentation is so popular nowadays. The real heart of self-experimentation is starting with self-awareness. It actually raises your awareness and directs your attention on certain things that you want to improve. This is the thing that humans do extremely well. When our attention is raised about a particular issue, we end up putting energy into it.
In many cases, we end up getting very good at that thing. By writing down what we eat or taking photos of what we eat once in a while, not making it a drudgery and a big pain in the butt, it actually raises our awareness and attention of what we’re doing. That simple fact usually helps people get in better shape.
I know it sounds weird, and people who think scientifically are like, “Yeah, but I need the numbers and all that stuff,” but the truth of the matter is, when we become more aware—and that’s why various types of diets work, all kinds of what seem like contradictory diets can work for a couple of key reasons, one being that we just become more attuned to what we’re doing, and when we do that we often make improvements.
I think writing down what you eat once in a while is pretty cool, but then going and taking that and doing all the calorie numbers and estimation and stuff like that is where things get problematic for two reasons. The first one is, the calorie estimates really suck. For people outside the scientific community, I feel like there’s this interesting reverence for the scientific process.
For example, you’re like, “I know the USDA tested apples, so those apple calorie protein, carb, and fat counts can’t be wrong.” Well, that’s not true. There’s such a thing as measurement error in science, and for calorie estimates, the measurement error can up be to 25 percent, which is humongous. Think about that.
You tally up dutifully all of your calories that you ate for the day, you plug it in to FitDay, whatever spits out your numbers: 2000 calories. Awesome. Well, if that has a 25 percent margin of error, think about the implications.
That could be anywhere from 1500 calories to 2500. You think you’re eating 2000 a day; could be anywhere from 1500 to 2500. That is not precise enough to plan your life around.
And what are people trying to balance that with? It’s exercise, right? Then they dutifully log their exercise. “I went for a run, I spent time on the treadmill, and I lifted weights.”
Well, those calorie counts can be off by even more than 25 percent. Now all of a sudden, you’re doing this fine balancing act, spending a lot of time and energy doing math on a bunch of numbers that are essentially bogus. It sounds like a bad idea, you know? Because you start to get confidence that what you’re doing is “right,” but the margin of error’s so huge that that is false confidence.
That’s one of the reasons why I dislike calorie counting. There’s a whole other psychological piece here, which is: People start to get too entrained on counting the numbers, and now they use an external marker to validate what should be an internal experience.
Eating, feeling, feeling your hunger, feeling your appetite, feeling your fullness. Now you’re using something outside of yourself to tell you what to do when there’s already—think of it as a little person inside you that you could listen to. It seems so weird when you think about it in those terms. But we put so much reverence on science and calorie counting generally in this field that we totally lose sight of the fact that it’s often wrong and that there’s already a mechanism to control energy intake inside of us.
All we have to do is practice a couple things, and we get super good at it then. The calorie-counting piece is always really interesting to me. What’s the antidote, right? What is the way to go about controlling your calories, ’cause you’re going to need something to fall back on, and it’s not just listen to what you’re eating or your appetite signals to determine what you’re eating. For us, we actually use an anatomical reference guide, if you will.
There’s an article, “Calorie Control Guide”; it’s the calorie-control guide on the Precision Nutrition Web site, where we actually teach people to use their palm size to judge their protein intake, their fist size to judge their vegetable intake, a cupped hand to judge their starchy-carbohydrate intake, and a thumb to judge their fat intake. For men and for women, we have different prescriptions, and then if you want to go to the next level of triage, we have, based on somatotype or body type.
There’re different recommendations for the number of palms you might eat, the number of thumbs, the number of fists, the number of cupped hands. The cool part is that you now have a personal serving-size indicator.
Generally, if you’re a big NFL lineman, you’ve got some big mitts, right? I’ve worked with NFL athletes, and some of them are, like, three times the size of my hand, so their protein servings, carb servings, fat servings will be all larger obviously. And if you’re my wife, a 110-, 115-pound woman, it’s going to be much smaller.
Now you’re actually carrying around a portable calorie estimator. It’s always with you and whether you’re eating at home or you’re out at a restaurant, you and actually determine your portion sizes just based on your hands. The neat part is—this is always a starting point, just like calorie counting is—you see what’s happening and then you go up or down from there.
For the average man, we might take two palm-size portions of protein with each meal. It would be a piece of chicken or meat, a vegetarian source that’s the thickness in diameter of your palm. Then you can adjust up or down based on the results that you’re seeing.
You sort of create a baseline that’s super easy to follow. You’re in a restaurant, you order your food. You look at the protein portion, you compare it to the size of your palm. You say, “Could I get another chicken breast?” or whatever.
You look at the vegetable portion; you compare it to the size of your fist. You say, “I’m shooting for two fist-size portions with each meal. That’s not enough.” You look at things like nuts or oils or whatever, and a thumb-size portion is what we’re shooting for. Maybe you have two allocated for this meal.
It’s a really cool way to control calories and allow space for listening to your own hunger and appetite signals without counting calories, getting out the spreadsheet, doing the math. Even for the advocates of calorie counting, strong advocates of calorie counting who are in the calorie-counting headspace right now, I’ve never seen anyone do it for 50 years.
Yuri: Yeah, exactly.
John: And that’s really ultimate test here. If you’re in fitness to get in shape for the next couple of years, and then a few years down the line, you’re ready to just give it up, let it go—maybe you’ll have kids, maybe you’ll get a more demanding job and, oh, what the hell; might as well gain a bunch of body fat then and not exercise or eat well anymore—if that’s your goal, awesome. Do whatever kind of crazy stuff you want right now. Hack your body, count calories, whatever, follow restrictive meal plans.
But if you want to do this for the long haul within the context of an ever-changing real life, calorie counting is not going to get you there. You’re not going to be able to do this; you’re not going to want to do this for 50 years. What can you do for 50 years? Use your palm-size serving indicators, just generally look at your hand when you’re looking at your food, and listen to your body.
If you can train those particular habits, this thing gets really, really easy to do for the long haul. That’s the whole crux of what we do at Precision Nutrition. It’s teaching people how to lose weight or gain muscle safely and effectively, but with this other major caveat in a way that it’s something they can do for the rest of their lives.
Yuri: Yeah, that’s great. That’s such a great tool to use in terms of the hand and the fist because it goes back to what you were talking about earlier with kind of this individualized approach to nutrition. You mentioned earlier kind of looking at the genes of individuals and that’s the future of medicine and even nutrition is huge, and I think it takes it one step further than just portion sizes on your plate because we all have the same size plates more or less, but we have very different body sizes.
I think, for everyone listening, that is an awesome tool; so simple to use, just looking at your fist and following the guidelines that John just shared, which in and of itself, I think could change a lot of people’s lives, so thank you for sharing that.
John: Oh yeah, no worries. If people want to see, we actually have sort of complete visuals of cheat sheets for men and women. If you just Google Precision Nutrition calorie control guide, you can actually literally print out the men’s and the women’s calorie-control guides from our site. They’re full-color, photographed examples of exactly what we’re talking about here. I think the visuals help.
Yuri: Awesome. Yeah, I bet they do. I’m definitely going to grab those for myself. All right, we’ve covered a lot of amazing stuff, John. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Once again, for everyone listening, you can check out Precision Nutrition at PrecisionNutrition.com. Amazing stuff in terms of lean-eating coaching programs, certification for fitness professionals, and also just an amazing blog with really well-researched blog posts on a variety of nutrition topics. It’s really awesome; check it out. Any final words, John?
John: First of all, I just appreciate you having me on today. Again, it may be obvious that I get very excited about this stuff. I have a lot of thoughts about the fitness and nutrition industries. Because we’ve coached at Precision Nutrition over 20,000 people in the last five years, we have the world’s largest database on what it actually takes for people to change when it comes to exercise and nutrition and change in meaningful ways. Because of that data, because we’re always minding it, we have some really cool evidence-based insights on what actually makes a difference.
I’m always excited to share that kind of stuff, and whenever everyone’s willing and ready to listen, I’m ready to talk about it. For everyone listening in, if you guys want to find out more, we’ve created a series of free five-day courses that are right on the homepage of our Web site. There’re free courses for men and women who are interested in getting n better shape themselves. And there’s a course for fitness professionals, as well, who want to figure out how to teach this stuff really effectively.
I know lots of fitness professionals who have their own nutrition and exercise sorted out, but then when it comes to teaching that to clients, they struggle with that a little bit. They’re not sure how to bridge the gap between where they are personally and where their clients are at and how to teach that and how to sort of move them along the progression. We actually have a free course for them.
Anyway, if people want to find out more, they can just pop over to PrecisionNutrition.com. I just want to thank everyone for their time in listening to this. Thank you for setting up the interview, and I wish everyone the best.
Yuri: Yeah, thanks a lot, John, and thanks a lot, everyone, for tuning in. We’ll see you guys in the next episode.
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