The founder of the world’s largest online nutrition coaching company, Precision Nutrition, Dr. John Berardi has coached hundreds of amateur and professional athletes. In the last 3 Olympics alone, his athletes collected over 30 medals: 15 of them gold.
In this Q & A, he’ll share his insights as an elite nutrition coach and exercise physiologist on the biggest issues he sees in terms of nutrition and exercise, along with ways for you to use nutrition to get a better quality of health. Dr. Berardi has immense experience in helping people with their health and weight loss goals: in addition to maintaining a blog on Livestrong.com, he acts as director of the world’s largest body transformation project. This one-of-a-kind fat loss coaching program has produced more total weight loss than all seasons of the Biggest Loser combined.
Q & A With John Berardi
When and how did you become interested in fitness and nutrition?
I came to fitness and nutrition a little unconventionally. Growing up, I wasn’t a super athlete. Instead I was born very premature. So I suffered from a host of physical and development problems. That’s why I got interested in exercise and nutrition; as a way to heal myself. I wanted to feel better, look better, and be able to do the things others could do so effortlessly.
Of course, once I experienced the benefits of movement and nutrition, there was no turning back! I became a competitive bodybuilder, powerlifter, and sprinter. I went on to earn a pre-med degree specializing in health science, a master’s degree in exercise science, and a PhD in exercise and nutritional biochemistry.
And I co-founded Precision Nutrition, which is currently the largest online nutrition coaching company in the world. In the last 5 years alone we’ve helped over 20,000 clients lose over 300,000 pounds.
When you have a client who decides to lose fat, what are the first steps that person should take to achieve their goals?
Personally, I prefer that people kick-start fat loss with a simple exercise program and one nutrition habit to follow. (New research supports this approach, suggesting that starting with diet actually interferes with establishing a consistent exercise routine.)
If you haven’t worked out in a while, some strength exercise, some interval exercise, and some parasympathetic recovery exercise (even a 30 minute walk with your partner or pet will do) is a fantastic start. No fancy training splits required.
On the nutrition front, I like to start even more simply – by helping to eliminate 4 common deficiencies: omega 3, vitamin and mineral, water, and protein.
After a client assessment, I figure out which of these four might be lacking in someone’s diet. And then we address the issue. Supplementing with a specific dose of fish oil and a high-quality multivitamin is the most common place we start. Then, once that habit’s built over 2 weeks or so, we focus on improving fluid and protein intake (if necessary).
While this doesn’t sound fancy, that’s the point. When you’re deficient in essential nutrients, you feel low in energy, motivation suffers, and exercise can feel unbearable. These simple interventions get your body (and mind) functioning properly right at the start. This has a huge impact on how you look and feel. And on your ability to lose fat.
For more on our complete coaching method, check out this article.
The closer someone gets to their body composition goals, the harder it is to continue seeing progress. What recommendations do you have for people who hit a plateau and need to lose those last 5-10 pounds of fat?
If you’re working out, eating right, but stuck at five to 10 pounds away from your goal weight, it’s time to try something new.
Although there’s a lot you can try (and what you choose will depend on what you’re currently doing), here are 2 of my favorite strategies.
First, take a 2, 2, 2 approach in your exercise routine. Two strength training workouts a week (around 60 minutes each time), two high intensity interval training workouts a week (around 30 minutes each time), and two days of lower intensity cardio/recovery workouts a week (around 60 minutes each time).
Your schedule might look like this:
- Monday – strength training
- Tuesday – interval training
- Wednesday – recovery training
- Thursday – strength training
- Friday – interval training
- Saturday – recovery training
- Sunday – Off
Second, cycle your calories and carbohydrates. On low carbohydrate days, simply eat high quality proteins and vegetables. And on high carbohydrate days, eat the same but add in extra carbs with all your meals.
Here’s what this might look like:
- Monday – strength training – high carb day
- Tuesday – interval training – low carb day
- Wednesday – recovery training – low carb day
- Thursday – strength training – high carb day
- Friday – interval training – low carb day
- Saturday – recovery training – low carb day
- Sunday – Off – low carb day
This combination of varied exercise and carb cycling is a fantastic plateau buster. (For more on carb cycling, click here.)
Do you think counting calories is essential to weight and body fat loss?
Calorie counting can work. But I still don’t like it.
You see, there are far better ways to adjust your food intake without having to write down everything you eat and then doing a bunch of calorie math. For example, in our coaching programs we teach clients two critical lessons that allow them to better control their intake without thinking about calories at all: 1) eat slowly, 2) stop eating at 80% full.
These take a little practice. But, once you get them, adjusting your intake in a healthy way becomes much easier. For more on this idea, here’s a great research review showing how attentive eating helps with weight and fat loss without the need for conscious calorie counting.
Also, for another alternative to weighing and measuring everything you eat, check out these excellent calorie control guides for men and women.
How important is pre- and post-exercise nutrition for a busy professional looking to get leaner?
Truthfully…not all that important.
Sure, if you’re a competitive athlete training with high volumes of exercise (and at high intensities), peri-workout nutrition is extremely important.
However, if you’re exercising recreationally for overall health and weight/fat loss, you probably don’t have to worry about pre- and post workout nutrition at all.
Instead, you should focus your attention on:
- getting a few hours/week of quality exercise (some high and some low intensity),
- eating a diet rich in nourishing whole foods,
- drinking plenty of water,
- sleeping at least 7-8 hours a night, and
- learning effective stress management techniques.
Those are the “big rocks.”. Until those are in place, everything else is a distraction.
You experimented with vegan nutrition and measured your body composition before and after the experiment. Do you have any recommendations for vegans/vegetarians interested in achieving a lean body mass?
While I’m a devoted omnivore, I’m also a nutrition coach. So it’s incumbent upon me to learn how to help every type of client, not just the ones who eat like I do.
That’s why I experiment with all styles of eating, including plant-based eating.
(For those interested in my vegetarian experiments, see here and here. In 30 days I gained 5 pounds of lean body mass).
When it comes to following a plant-based diet, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
Don’t just ditch meat. When removing an entire food category, nutrient deficiencies are inevitable without proper planning. So make sure your nutrition plan includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, beans/legumes, whole grains, and nuts/seeds.
Be sure to eat enough protein. The best plant-based sources include beans/legumes, nuts, seeds, and higher-protein whole grains like quinoa. You should also consider a plant-based protein supplement.
Consider vitamin supplements. Plant-based eaters typically have difficulty getting enough vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, iodine, and omega-3 fats. Seek out foods that contain more of these vitamins and minerals. Supplementation might also be useful.
Think about how much you’re eating. It’s still possible to under eat or over eat when following a plant-based diet. So be sure you’re eating the right amount of food for your goals.
In the end, eating a plant-based diet can either be extremely healthy or extremely unhealthy, depending on how you plan and which food choices you make.
For more on planning a plant-based diet, check out this excellent article.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Yes, I’d like to share one last thing.
When thinking about getting in shape, I find that most people become overly fixated on food and exercise. And that can be a huge problem. Sure, the food and the workout program are important. But I’ve worked with thousands of clients who know exactly how to workout and precisely what to eat. Yet they still struggle to get into shape.
They’re missing something important: being accountable – to someone or something – to help them follow through on what they know.
As we always say at Precision Nutrition: if you can’t be consistent, you can’t make progress. That’s why accountability, not the perfect training or nutrition program, is the thing that turns everything around for most clients.
So, if you’re struggling, consider doing this for the next month:
- commit to doing one thing that’ll help improve your fitness
- make yourself accountable to at least one other person
You can find a committed workout partner. Hire a coach. Whatever it takes. Because accountability is our #1 success “secret”.
(For 9 other success lessons from Precision Nutrition, click here.)
Thanks to Dr. Berardi for sharing his nutrition expertise and insights with us – we hope you enjoyed this interview and find new ways to keep your body at its healthiest.