Calorie Counting Is So 1995 with John Berardi

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Calorie Counting

Jonathan: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another Bonus Smarter Science of Slim Podcast and today, one of those rare shows where we had a guest that was so insightful that we just had to bring him back and who knows how many times we’re going to bring this guy back because it seems like we could just go forever. He is the founder, owner, proprietor of He works with athletes all around the world.

We’re talking Olympic gold medalists, yada yada yada. You can listen to the first show but what I think is really cool is that he acts like his company is the world’s largest body transformation project and he’s worked with so many clients and helped so many clients to achieve wonderful results that his program has produced more total weight loss than all seasons of the ‘Biggest Loser’ combined, which is just an awesome, awesome statistic. He’s got a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry. He’s also a genuinely nice guy, Dr. John Berardi, welcome back to the show, brother.

John: Thanks for having me back. It’s excellent to be back. I’d love the opportunity to share more and, anyone who listens to this show knows how passionate you are about this. Anyone who knows me knows how passionate I am about this. So, put that together and we have just an explosion of goodness.

Jonathan: Yeah hopefully we won’t blow people’s ears off with all of our excitement. John, last time you came on the show we had a wonderful conversation about being system based, being long-term based and really focusing on long-term health and fitness versus short-term gimmickry, that’s the word. What I wanted to focus on today was we also touched on some of the more advanced, for lack of better terms, phases of a progressive program.
Obviously, we fixed deficiencies, we made sure we got proper nutrition, but then there are questions about the quantity of food consumed. Both of us really like to focus on quality first but there are questions about quantity and then things like frequency and timing. So, today we’re going to be a little advanced today if that’s alright but I think it’d be great to have that discussion.

John: Yeah, absolutely. So as we’ve talked about in the first show, the idea is there are some common nutritional red flags, things that we see like low level dehydration, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, protein and essential fatty acids deficiencies and these are things that are really, really easy to fix but when they’re not fixed, when you have these deficiencies, your brain doesn’t work right, your body doesn’t work right, your hormones don’t work right, your appetite is off and so that’s where we always begin. We begin with these things, getting rid of some of these common nutritional deficiencies and then once we have that system working, so, once we actually spend a little time not deficient for a change, not broken for a change, then we can start to talk about things like food amount and food type. Like you said there’s sort of the total volume of food that you’re eating and then the quality of the food that you’re eating and maybe we could start with the amount, maybe we can talk about some strategies for that. Does that sound good?

Jonathan: Absolutely. This is the point you made in our first show, which is one I totally agree with, is a nuance point and a point that I know people who are excited to hear us maybe explain a little bit more, which is, there’s no need to count calories but in fact it can be counter-productive to count calories for a normal average typical person. However, that doesn’t mean if you eat 10,000 calories nothing will happen because of that.

John: Yeah, there’s this strange kind of black and white argument that takes place in fitness which seems to be like ‘Do calories matter?’ And the answer is of course they matter, of course but that doesn’t mean that counting calories is the best way to do calorie control. Now, for a lot of people that’s strange, right? They’re like ‘Well, then how else would you do it?’ Let me, I’ll tell you how to do it in a minute but before, let me explain the argument as to why calorie counting is problematic or can be problematic. First of all, the accuracy of calorie counting is surprisingly bad.

Now I know for people with non-science backgrounds, it’s hard to believe that some scientific process can be fundamentally flawed but it is, right? Laboratory measurements have a varying degree of measurement error associated with them. So, for example, let’s say you pull up fit day, which is where a lot of people go to do there calorie analysis, or even you go straight to the USDA nutrient databases, which is the source of all calorie knowledge, basically.

The USDA has a huge project where they test foods and any third party software that you use to get calorie counts, whether it’s Live Strong or Fit Day or any other iteration to that My Fitness Power or whatever, is all pulled from the USDA’s nutrient database and here’s the thing. The USDA’s nutrient database can be off on any particular food by about 25%. So, if you’re eating a food that says its 100 calories, it could be 75, all the way up to 125 calories. So, all of a sudden it’s starting to feel weird to meticulously plan your intake based on this crazy dataspread of what these foods could be.

Now, what is the type of things that could effect that? Well number one is the seasonality of the food. This may sound crazy but if you eat a cherry in April versus a cherry in August, the nutrient counts can be completely different. Not only that, but when foods, let’s say you go to the grocery store and you grab a package and you flip it over and it says this is the calorie count of that food, well that was only tested once. These are not routinely tested.

So, if the recipe has changed at all, if the ingredients in that recipe have changed at all, the calories counts can be off. We have a whole article on our site all about food labels and if people want to dig into it at, they can but the bottom line is this. On the intake side it could be off by as much as 25% and on the expenditure side, which is what people are trying to balance against, that can be the same, depending on metabolic rate, resting metabolic rate, the particular activity you choose and the calculator that you use, that could be off by 25% or more as well.

So, you start to see a real difficulty that we have when it comes to trying to meticulously balance your calories. The math just simply doesn’t add up. So, that puts us in a position here, because we want to be aware of how much we’re eating, but if we do the math it doesn’t quite add up. So what we do at Precision Nutrition is, we look to awareness for calorie control but not necessarily the mathematics of calorie counting.

So we actually have a whole sort of scheme where we start with using your own hand to determine portion sizes. So a great baseline would be something like this, one serving of protein. So, let’s say it’s chicken or meat or eggs or whatever, it’s about the thickness or diameter of your palm. So, for most women we suggest one palm size portion of protein with each meal and for men, we suggest two, then you start to build out your meals from there because you’re not just eating protein. How about vegetables? Well, serving is about the size of your clenched fist, so again you can do one to two clenched fists servings of vegetables.

Now, what about other carbs, like carb-dense foods and starches? Well, that’s about a cupped handful is one serving, and then, even you can use your hands for fats, whether it’s oils or nuts or butter. One thumb-sized portion is a portion of fat. Now, you can see, you can actually start to build out your menu, whether you’re at home, whether you’re at a restaurant, whether you’re on the road, whatever the case may be, by just using your hand as an anatomical reference point, which is really cool.

The other part that’s neat about your hand is that your hand usually scales to body size. So, if I’m working with an NFL line man, for example, whose hand is the size of three of mine, obviously he’s going to be eating larger portions than let’s say my wife, who’s about 115 pounds. So, it scales, it’s reasonable because you can measure your food in any context just according to your anatomy, and then it’s what we call, it’s able to be dynamically steered and that’s a phrase that we use at Precision Nutrition, which basically means you can change it on the fly.

If you’re using this fist size, palm size, hand size portions and you need to adjust because you’re losing weight too quickly or maybe not losing weight fast enough, you just change relative to that anatomical point so, it’ll be less than a palm size or more than a palm size or whatever. We have photographs on our websites that show exactly how an average man and an average woman interested in fat loss or muscle gain, or whatever the case may be can actually build a menu using these.
It’s hard to visualize it all just in a podcast but when you can see the photos of it, it makes complete sense and its dead simple. We even have a cheat sheet that you can print out and post on your fridge or carry in your wallet, so that you can actually remember this kind of stuff but that’s sort of the great next step. Its calorie control without calorie counting and it’s so easy but it’s so effective that the idea of actually writing down everything you eat and plugging it into spreadsheets and stuff like that it just seems really silly and a big waste of time for the difference between the two interventions.

Jonathan: There’s two things about it John. You touched on both of them that really resonate with me more just on an emotional level and the first is that it’s your palm. It’s not the USDA’s palm, it’s not the elite athlete’s palm, it’s not your buddy who seems to be having successes palm. It’s your palm because your body is going to be different, the NFL linebacker’s body is going to be different than a postmenopausal woman and that leads to the second and related thing, which is again that focus on you and your palm because it does seem like so often, and I’m sure you see this in your practice, people want to look everywhere except to themselves.

John: That’s a fantastic point.

Jonathan: People go to the gym, the gym is the most [inaudible 11:06], they find someone who looks the way they look and they say what do you do? Whereas, if you had like a disease, you would not just go to this person and say, let me take your medication but we look outside, rather than looking inside. Have you seen that too?

John: Yeah, I have. Well, it’s easier that way and it’s easy to look to archetypes or role models and say let me just do what you did and see how that works, I’ll follow your script, and I understand why people look to that and its largely a function of not only convenience but of what we’ve been taught to do. The idea of looking within as you say or paying attention to your own patterns and habits and having to adjust is flat out difficult. There’s sort of this movement of self-experimentation that’s afoot right now, not only in the fitness industry but in a host of different industries and I love that progression that we’re seeing, away from ‘I have to find the guru to tell me what to do to’ to, ‘I’m going to experiment with myself and see what works,’ but I feel like going from one to the other is precarious.

Self experimentation probably isn’t the next logical next step. It’s probably guided self experimentation that’s the next logical next step. Who is going to be the person who has more experience than you, who can help guide your experimentation? That’s the question everyone should be asking because if you have no experience in fitness or nutrition, no training, self experimentation could be quite a dangerous proposition and if it’s not dangerous, you might just waste a lot of time and never get to your result anyway.

So, I love the idea of this sort of hybrid between the two, not just looking at a gurus for answers and not just taking it upon yourself to do the heroic thing and figure it out, but something in the middle, something where you’re using, like you say, your own anatomical reference guides. You’re using your own feelings, thoughts, and experiences, your own feedback, but you have someone that you can just touch base with once in a while, who knows what the heck they’re doing to guide your self-experimentation and I really love that approach over any other.

Jonathan: And it gets back to the initial calorie conversation where, John, you made the excellent point that there seems to be this false dichotomy of you either have to count calories or calories are completely irrelevant and the answer is actually that calories are relevant but you don’t need to count them and it’s the same thing here.

It’s not about just listen to a guru and give them carte blanche to dictate what you need to do in your life and it’s also not just like you don’t go to the pharmacy and go behind the counter and just pull off pills and take that which looks appealing to you but you may have a pharmacist that helps you initially. It’s not either, or. It’s both, and…

John: That’s right, that’s exactly right and that’s a very interesting conversation. That idea that we’re not creating these irreconcilable polarities and that we’re not just coming up with an approach that we’re going to do always and forever for everyone. We see that with nutrition all the time. Someone has success with a particular approach and they assume that that approach is for everyone forever and in every situation and we just know that’s not true. A great nutrition plan works for someone, for a person for some period of time until it stops working, then they have to make adjustments. So, that kind of idea of dynamic steering that I think is really important, which means that you don’t just set it and forget it. You’re always receiving input, personal input, guided input, so that you can steer in the direction that you need to go.

Another example of the breaking down of these false dichotomies is personal training. I’ve talked to people and said, ‘Hey, you know what you would really benefit from is sort of like a trainer once in a while to coach your movements each time you do a new program.’ Well, there’s no way I could ever afford hiring a trainer four days a week, so I’m not going to do that at all but what about something between where you hire a trainer like three sessions every two month to get your form up to speed and those types of things. I like people to get into this thinking there’s all these many options rather than just one or zero, it’s not a binary thing.

Jonathan: That seems so helpful for not just how we eat and how we exercise but also just life in general like your relationship with people. You might need to change your approach and your relationship at your job. It’s when we get to be very, very trite. The only constant is change. Speaking of things that have been discussed a lot recently, John, before we run out of time, I wanted to cover another potentially false dichotomy, which is everyone should intermittent fast all the time versus everyone should eat six small meals a day all the time.

John: Yeah, this is interesting. I mean the winds are changing in the nutrition world and are pretty substantial, in my opinion, positive way. You know borrowed from the body building industry where it was predominantly men and a smaller subgroup of women who, at all costs wanted to build muscle and so, in that community it seemed like the best way to do that was to eat frequent protein meals throughout the day.

So really it’s emerged to a paradigm of six meals throughout the day, then a little bit of science came along and said, oh yes, this grazing pattern seems to be effective, then a combination of this sort of, well who are the fittest people on the planet or most aesthetically fit, bodybuilders, fitness competitors. A little bit of science, put them together and now we have a paradigm which is, everyone to be healthy should eat six small meals a day, protein rich, etc and then once that becomes the dominant paradigm every nutrition person on the planet just repeats it. It’s just what we say.

When you put your nutrition hat on this is what you’re supposed to say about meals. So it just kind of happens that way and then over the last couple of years, we’ve seen some data to suggest that there are certain types of people who actually benefit more from eating less frequently. Some people call it intermittent fasting, it might be the idea that you skip breakfast every day or you skip dinner every day or one day a week you just eat no food at all. There’s a whole bunch of different ways to do intermittent fasting.

It’s important to define our terms before we get too deep but really for me, intermittent fasting is just…let’s just call it skipping a meal or skipping a few meals every once in a while and again, like you said, this sort of dichotomy starts to exist, people line up in one camp or the other and they say, nope, it’s frequent eating. These intermittent fasters are stupid but it’s really hard to dismiss the weight of the evidence now that intermittent fasting has some benefits but, here’s the danger, oh that looks to have some benefits maybe the six meal a day is stupid and we just jump into the other camp. So you know as you rightfully point out.

Is there a way to reconcile the two? And I think there is. I’ll give you the example of this from a different nutritional example. Coffee, very contentious. Is coffee healthy or not? Fit people like to hate on coffee for some reason, but then all the people who drink coffee really feel like they need to defend it and the fact of the matter is, coffee is probably the most health promoting beverage for some people and probably a disease risk for other people.

There’s a host of genes that govern this, but there’s one in particular, it’s a liver enzyme that determines how quickly we remove the caffeine from coffee from our systems. People who remove it quickly are called fast metabolizers and people who remove it slowly are called slow metabolizers and the data suggests, at least on heart disease risk, the fast-metabolizers, the people who drink the coffee get rid of the caffeine quickly, actually have a lower heart disease risk then people who don’t drink coffee at all. The thoughts are that the antioxidants in coffee stick around while the caffeine leaves quickly.

Now there’s the other group who metabolize slowly, so for them the caffeine and the antioxidants stick around for a long period of time and for them their heart disease risk actually goes up versus non-coffee drinkers. So, now you have this very interesting thing, it’s really hard to pick a side, isn’t it, until you know about the person’s genes. This is the subtlety, this is what thinking people have to do. They have to say what types of people this is true for and what types of people is this true for and it’s the same with fasting or frequent eating.

I suspect we’ll learn somewhere down the line that there is a genetic subgroup of people that do best with grazing and there are a genetic subgroup of people that do best with fasting and right now, the people who are championing fasting so loudly that it’s for everyone, always, and forever just so happen to be the people who have the genetic type that it does really, really well with. The people who like the grazing approach are kind of the same. Science knows so little about the human body.

We know some stuff and that’s cool to know but we know so little that some of these arguments are just comical to someone, like myself, who’s trained in research methods because I just know how much there is left to discover and how when a system works for you it may be because it works for you, not because it’s the ultimate thing always and forever. So, what do you do in the meantime? You don’t just, I mean it’s kind of a fools approach to just sit and wait for science to answer the question because we have lives to live and we want to maximize them.
So, the idea is try stuff ideally in a guided self experimentation kind of a way. Try stuff, see what resonates most with you and see what produces the result that you’re after. You obviously have to measure the result to determine whether it worked or not. Really, in the absence of data, that’s the only way to do it. We do some mixture of that in our own coaching programs, it’s a mixture of scientific paradigms and bases combined with guided self experimentation to help individuals sort of manifest whatever the goal is that they’re after.

It’s a little bit of a philosophical dig that we went into there but I think that’s the only way to have meaningful conversations, to understand the under-pinnings that lead to what people believe.

Jonathan: I think therein John, lies, everyone likes a little trick, a little short cutter, a little takeaway that they can use immediately and I think one thing we’ve hit on here is if you want, if you’re on the internet or if you’re reading a magazine and you see someone talking about do what I say, I know everything, it works for everyone, all the time, there is no uncertainty, that person, to the extent that someone speaks in that fashion, they may not know what they’re talking about and to the extent that someone takes a bit more of a nuance approach may be more rooted in science. You think it’s a general technique, we could use in our brain when evaluating what we want to, who we want to guide us?

John: I think it is. I’d even adjust it a little bit. There are loads of really, really bright people who know certain aspects of science very, very well, who still don’t understand human nature and philosophy, which means they may understand intermittent fasting all the way through. Their science is flawless, as flawless as it can be with the idea that science isn’t complete. Nevertheless, they have a strong psychological bias towards this one particular approach. So, this is another thing, the ability as a human being, you, as an evaluator, as someone looking for advice, to be able to hold two oppositional ideas in your mind at the same time, the idea that someone can be very smart but still wrong, the idea that they can understand science all the way through but still have a personal bias that blinds them against fair and accurate appraisal.

This is one of the hardest things for human beings to do and I’ve heard this quote over and over again, “It’s the mark of true intelligence to be able to hold two oppositional ideas in your mind at the same time and not go crazy”. I think that’s what we’re talking about here. There are lots of gurus. There are lots of really smart fitness professionals, nutrition experts, whatever is out there that know their stuff.

They’re not dumb people but they still could be wrong because of the psychological bias or just personal bias, that they’ve had success with something and it’s very difficult to have massive success with something and not believe that’s the thing. So that’s my caveat, you know? So to your point, I probably would still get away from those types of people but it’s not because they’re dumb, it’s just because they may have blinders on and they can’t see the whole picture.

Jonathan: Makes a lot of sense. Well John, what is next for you and Precision Nutrition? Obviously, there’s a wealth of information, insight and philosophical guidance to be had but what’s next for you and the company?

John: Well you know, the thing that we’re working on right now is a pretty ambitious goal. I believe we’re creating the world’s most innovative education platform and we just so happen to be applying it to fitness. Anyone who’s gone through one of our coaching programs knows that the way that our coaching works is that we take the time to really get to know people so we create personal profiles around them.

We deliver personal coaching to those people. We develop a personal curriculum so that not everyone in our programs are getting the same curriculum. We individualize it, we create community around it. We have all sorts of ways of essentially working with large groups of people by creating personal curriculums and real human connections so you can get what we’ve been calling guided experimentation.

So, next for Precision Nutrition is to continue to develop our model, to continue to work with people who are looking for this kind of help. The reason why we think it’s so innovative is because all of education right now is going in a different direction. It’s going in the direction of how can we teach as many people as possible without having a human connection? You see universities are bragging that they have an online course that teaches 100,000 people each year and the fine print is, you’re not allowed to even email your professor, which is like a don’t email me if you have questions. So education is going that direction. How can we teach the most people without any human interaction, and we’re going in the opposite. How can we teach the most people by creating human interaction, because that’s the only way meaningful change happens.

Anyone who’s listening to this, think about the time in your life when something meaningful changed, where you made a huge leap forward. I doubt it was just because of a book or an education curriculum. It was usually because you had some guidance or relationship with a person who helped steer you through the difficulties to make that quantum leap and whether it was a person live, whether it was a person through the internet, whatever the case may be, I think that’s the only way real change ever happens.

Maybe I’m biased because that’s the way that it’s happened for me and almost every person that I’ve liked and respect in the world but it seems to me that’s the way real change happens and that’s what we’re trying to develop, a way to do that for our coaching clients and a way to do that for our students, our fitness professionals who come to us to learn how to coach in this way. So that’s what we’re working on, obviously we’re super excited about it and for anyone who wants to learn more they can pop over to our website and see what we’re up to.

Jonathan: Again folks that website is a fabulous one, it’s Doctor John Berardi, this has been absolutely fabulous. Thank you so much.

John: Thank you, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Jonathan: Listeners I hope you enjoyed this great conversation as much as I did and please remember this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.

Learn the exact foods you must eat if you want to finally lose weight permanently. Click here to download your free Weight Loss Food List, the “Eat More, Lose More” Weight Loss Plan, and the “Slim in 6” Cheat Sheet…CLICK HERE FOR FREE “HOW TO” WEIGHT LOSS GUIDES
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