Abel James, New York Times best-selling author and host of the top podcast Fat-Burning Man, discusses how to master the 20% of health practices that yield 80% of the results. This was a great episode that speaks to common areas of health that we are all guilty of neglecting. It was a great reminder of important principles that we should all be constantly working toward making a priority.
If you need help mastering your health practices, click here.
Abel James Bio….. 1:06
Tips to Stay Healthy While Traveling the World….. 8:10
Different Cultures and Their Eating Habits….. 11:12
Setting Your Environment to Build Healthy Habits….. 24:55
Tips for People with Children….. 29:41
More on Different Cultures and Health….. 32:55
Embracing Your Inner Artist….. 45:51
Abel’s Most Fun but Least Healthy Thing….. 51:12
Episode Wrap-up….. 54:17
- The Musical Brain (affiliate link)
- The Wild Diet (affiliate link)
- Fat-Burning Man
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Abel James on Mastering the 20% of Health Practices That Yield 80% of Your Results
Dr. Ruscio: Hey, everyone! Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio. I am here with Abel James, who is a pretty noteworthy guy, and I came across his name a number of times and had been wanting to have him on the show for a while. And we finally had a chance to connect at Paleo f(x) and invited him to come on the show and he nicely obliged. So, Abel, thanks for coming on today.
Abel: Hey, it’s my pleasure. We’re going to have some fun.
Abel James Bio
Dr. Ruscio: Definitely. Definitely. And you’ve got a pretty cool background. I didn’t really realize the extent of your achievements until I actually read through your bio. But you’ve written two books. The first one… I’m not sure on the second one. But I know the first one was a New York Times best seller.
And you’ve been on ABC television. You’ve been in People magazine, Wired magazine. You’ve keynoted at some pretty impressive venues, and your first book sounds like it was a cool mix between music and brain health. So those are a few things that I found pretty impressive, but could you maybe give people a little bit about how you got into what you’re doing now and what your background was like?
Abel: Yeah. Absolutely. So I’ve always wanted to be a health nut, but that took me down the wrong path. [Both laugh.] Oh, not really, not really. But I got really sick as an infant and my mom was a nurse at the time, a conventional type nurse. But she found that Western medicine wasn’t really serving me. I was getting sicker and sicker. To this day, I’m still allergic to almost all the antibiotics out there. But that took her down the path of herbalism and going into holistic nutrition, and she started really making that a part of our lives. So I was raised with alternative health as the norm.
But, of course, when I went to Dartmouth and got some loans and then I worked a big fancy job to try to pay them off as quickly as possible and for the first time in my life got great health insurance. And I wanted to basically try and nip some of the problems that I saw in my extended family in the bud and things that were starting to pop up in myself, like looking at triglycerides and blood pressure and trying to prevent heart disease down the road because I’m a total overachiever or what have you.
So over the course of time, I was peeing in a cup and getting my blood drawn every two weeks and working in my first job and basically following my doctor’s advice. And what he said to prevent some of the genetic history of heart disease and gaining weight as you age, high blood pressure, triglycerides, and things like that was absolutely stay away from red meat and saturated fats, but try to get dietary cholesterol down as low as possible and for the most part run more. And at the time, I’ve always been a runner, but I was running about like 30 miles a week at the time, and eat less.
And over the course of the next few months, this is the first time I’d ever really paid attention to my diet, but a lot of the foods that I just ate normally got kicked out and I started putting some other things in. And most of the things I put in were whole grain breads and bananas, oranges, orange juice, anything that would be low in fat that hit all of those things. But then I found myself, after less than a year, prescribed on half a dozen prescription medications. My triglycerides were way up. Blood pressure was way up. I’d gained 30 pounds. And I was still running 30 miles a week.
So it took a personal trauma. I came home one night and lost everything in an apartment fire.
Dr. Ruscio: Oh, boy.
Abel: And all I was left with was like my broken body and battered spirit and I knew that I needed a project to get me out. And I decided that learning how to take control of my own health and body was something that was going to be my project.
And when I started doing the opposite of what my doctor told me, because that’s what the research pointed to, I dropped all of the weight, got back to being like super fit, feeling great. And I was really mad about how straightforward it actually was and how I’d been following the wrong advice for so long. And that’s where it’s such a common story. That’s what happens to most people and then you’re better educated for the rest of your life.
And so I decided to start up a podcast and blog and Fat-Burning Man to help other people explore alternative health and other ways of going about this, where you’re really focusing on taking your health into your own hands instead of outsourcing it to someone who may not have your best interests in mind.
Dr. Ruscio: Absolutely. And you make many great points. But it reminds me of the dogma that is inherent in so much of academic medicine. And it’s unfortunate because when you do look at the research, which it sounds like you took your own dive into the research and saw, “Hey, there’s some different diets here. There’s some different exercise approaches here that have been validated by scientific research. Yet, I never got any of that from my doctor.”
And I think the paradigm that just a lot of people come to—and I definitely see this in the clinic with the younger patients that are coming in now—they’re very not just swayed by what one doctor says. And they really go and they fact-check because I think they get the fact that, especially in conventional circles, there’s a certain dogma of what’s recommended.
And there’s this party line of lower fat and more cardio. And there is some data to support that. And for some people that approach works. But there’s a lot of people that, that approach may not work well for. And what do they do? They end up floundering like you did and hopefully, they find something like a good podcast or a good book to lift them out of that.
Abel: Sure. Yeah. And I think it’s not the fault of any particular doctors. It’s really just an outdated system that is starting to be updated. The good news is that I’ve had so many excellent, wonderful doctors and people from the medical establishment from various areas of research on my podcast and show and I love exploring cutting-edge things together because, as you say, it gets really complicated, really quickly.
But there certainly are a lot of principles that most people don’t know that are important to do like the simple matter that nutrition really is the most important thing when it comes to changing your body composition, losing weight, or losing fat specifically. And when it comes to exercise, it’s not the type of let’s burn off a hamburger type approach or burn off a soda that a lot of us have been taught. So it’s important to shatter a few of the myths and help get everyone on the same page.
Dr. Ruscio: And you also make a great point that—and I want to just echo it because I think it’s important that we do echo it—we oftentimes slam conventional medicine. But you make a great point that it’s not the doctor’s fault. I think it just may be a system that’s in need of updating. So I definitely, definitely agree with you there.
Now, there’s a number of things that I think will be a refreshing area of discussion for our audience. We get really deep into digestive health and thyroid and a lot of functional medicine–type stuff. But, yeah, it’s definitely good stuff. But one of the things that I think is probably more important than that is some of these foundational aspects of health. And a few of the notes you shot me about things we could dive into, I thought really could springboard into a nice discussion on this.
Tips to Stay Healthy While Traveling the World
Dr. Ruscio: And so one of the things, you were traveling the world for about two years and you had some thoughts about how to stay healthy while traveling. And I thought that might be interesting to dive into. And then also on the heels of that, stuff that you learned from observing other cultures, because one of the things that I’ve often said is that if we look at other cultures and we compare where we’re most efficient to other cultures, we’re most efficient in some of the basics like hobbies, time with friends, socialization.
And the reason why I bring that up is because I see so many patients that just go over the deep end with health research at the expense of some of these basics like socialization and hobbies and really from a health perspective, the things like socialization and hobbies have been shown to yield much higher dividend for one’s overall health.
So why don’t we jump into this topic I guess to first start with lessons you learned about how to stay healthy while traveling the world.
Abel: Yeah. Well, you learn pretty quick that it needs to be a priority. And if it’s not, things go sideways really quickly. And so one thing that we learned to do especially after traveling around North America and having a place where we could cook ourselves is stocking up whenever we could and buying in bulk. You save a lot of money that way.
And you basically eliminate the excuse that most people give themselves that, “Oh, I don’t have any healthy food around me.” So just number one, always have a healthy option, make that your priority. No matter where you are, you can make it work.
So if we were international, I would oftentimes have things that would keep for a while and be good from a nutritional standpoint. It’s not always gourmet. But you can make it work. Something that’s an excellent food for me—not everyone likes them—but sardines are a sustainable great brain food, high in omega-3s, and pack really well. You can even use the top-pop things if you’re out in the woods if you need to as a last resort, but sardines, having some nuts.
But oftentimes, it will be doing unconventional things like we would take cucumbers and carrots and sometimes celery on hikes. And cucumbers are actually like the best hiking food ever because we would have them out in the desert sometimes in like Utah or Arizona. And you’re hydrating at the same time that you’re eating these.
Dr. Ruscio: Mmm, good point.
Abel: They’re like the most refreshing thing when you’re out for a hike and, of course, apples and various fruits. But it’s really the idea that you’re not going to settle for poor quality food. And you can find a McDonald’s anywhere. But it’s important not to go.
Dr. Ruscio: Sad. Sad. Isn’t it.
Abel: And when you watch… Especially, we can get into this a little bit more because it was another part of your question. But I’m happy to talk about some of the ways culturally that people eat in other places that can inform how you eat and how you eat when you travel. When in Rome, for example.
Dr. Ruscio: Right. Right.
Different Cultures and Their Eating Habits
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah, let’s talk more about that. I’d be interested to hear what different cultures look like in terms of their eating because we oftentimes hear that many other cultures eat healthier without even really thinking about eating healthier.
But I wonder, and I’m sure there is some areas where that’s changing as unfortunately Western influence, as you put, like McDonald’s is starting to permeate into those societies. So yeah, I’d be curious to hear more about what you gleaned from that experience.
Abel: Yeah. So you could even look at in certain countries the foods that kids eat in schools. You’ll see veggies and you’ll see fresh foods and you’ll see healthy fats and you’ll see grains in their whole state, not in something that’s completely adulterated. And you won’t see a ton of corn and soy and hyper-processed wheat and things like that.
In America, what you see a lot of are the foods that are highly subsidized and it’s ultimately extremely cheap, not only to people as the end consumer, but most importantly to institutions and fast-food chains and processed-food manufacturers.
So we have in America, I believe 67% of our diet is ultra-processed food, which would be oddly enough not affordable to a lot of other people in other countries who don’t have access to these giant corporations. Yes, you can find a McDonald’s everywhere. But the McDonald’s way of eating is steeped in basically everything we have in America. So the mentality is, as well.
One of the beautiful things that you see in other countries… For example, we were in Indonesia and Bali and I was writing my book The Wild Diet at the time, so I was really looking at the way that people would eat at home, not the way that the tourists would eat when they were going out and buying yoga mat.
But the people who were back home making their own alcohol out of coconuts and, “What do eat for lunch?” And I also asked them, “What do you think makes Americans so fat?” And the answers were really interesting.
So this is in Indonesia. We were at a coffee plantation and I asked one of the guys what he normally ate. And he said, “Well, for example, for lunch, a lot of times we’ll have some veggies or something that grows in the backyard.” They have backyard communities there.
So communal gardens are a thing and pretty much everyone has something like that so they’re eating fresh foods. Rice is something that’s extremely sacred there. And so they have rice, not only with their meals to eat, but also it’s a very important sacred offering there, as well. So there’s a powerful connection there emotionally and spiritually for a lot of the people who are eating. And then you’ll oftentimes also have a piece of meat.
So he said for a small family of three, say a quarter chicken might have to go to feed a whole family. So you’ll each have a few little bites and you’re very thankful for them and you’re thankful for each piece of rice was harvested by hand a lot of the times the rice that they’re eating there. So they’re very thankful for that, too. And so you have the fresh veggies from the backyard, as well, that your aunt made or your grandfather or something like that grew them from scratch.
If you go to America, you get a bucket of chicken. [Both laugh.]
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: That with like a big ole thing of mashed potatoes with like Velveeta over the top. That’s a chicken lunch or a chicken dinner. And those things could not be more different from each other. And it’s an extreme example. This was a cartoon in his mind of the way that Americans eat.
But it’s not a cartoon. You look at any kid’s menu and it’s fried chicken, maybe fish sticks or something, and French fries. You don’t see, generally speaking, any fresh veggies, which is a fundamental part of almost every single culture you see in the world. Veggies and plant foods were so important and they didn’t necessarily have the technology or the money or the luxury to process them into oblivion.
So the peasants’ diet in many ways is much more healthful than almost anything you find in America today that you could eat out of a franchise or a fast-food restaurant or the center aisles of a traditional supermarket.
And so the way to get back to it is really quite simple. You eat lots of fresh foods, real unprocessed foods. You bring also a piece of that spiritually, I think, to the table.
And it doesn’t have to be spirituality. It can be more of some motion of gratitude where before every meal or every time you’re sitting down, you look at what you’re eating, you take a deep breath, and you take a second to be very thankful for that food. And if you want to explain it, it’s being like engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and training the right mind-set to eat. You can explain it that way.
But also just you see that gratitude there and that sense of community that when you sit down at the table, you are present, you’re paying attention. And it’s much harder to overeat that way. In America, 20% of the food that’s eaten is eaten in our cars. Contrast that to a four-hour dinner in Italy, and you start to see that that eating food is so much more important than just the substance that comes in a wrapper.
Dr. Ruscio: And it’s so sad when I’m listening to you make those remarks about the different sizes of meals from one country to another. I can’t help but think about all the establishments here like Whole Foods. At the end of the day, they throw out so much food. It’s just mind boggling. And—
Abel: Forty percent or something like that.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah. Yeah. It’s mind boggling. And I think a lot of this needs to be addressed from the children up because one of the things that admittedly always irks me is when I watch kids order these big meals and then eat like 30% to 50% of it and throw the rest away.
And the parents say nothing. To me, that is just training wastefulness as being okay into kids. And I think that is the ultimate travesty because if the parents don’t do a good job with the children, then the children are going to grow up thinking that’s normal. And this is just going to self-perpetuate.
Abel: Yeah. And to a large degree, I think we’ve lost our barometer because for a long time as an element of survival, we needed to know how to sprout seeds or soak grains or make food in the house so that we could feed our family because there wasn’t another option. That was a life-survival skill.
But somewhere in the past couple of generations, no one knows how to cook anymore, or at least a lot of people don’t. A lot of people who are struggling with their health, a big reason for that is because they don’t know what’s in their food. They don’t know how to prepare it themselves at home. And that’s extending more and more with every generation.
And what I’ve been trying to do and a lot of other people in this field are trying to do, and I think you, as well, are, let’s collect some of those traditions, see what’s worth applying to our own lives, and try to incorporate some of that into it so that our children can benefit, because things have been getting worse for a long time.
And I think in the past couple of years, it’s no longer that much of a stigma to be a health nut and more like it’s people are starting to appreciate that we have to at some point because things have gotten so bad and they’re extending to the rest of the world that we need to get this under control.
And I think we can learn a lot by just looking at our grandparents’ generation and the ways that they were eating food, preparing food, growing food, and also the amounts that they were eating. There are a lot of different things that have changed in the past few years. But if you know what to incorporate into your own life, applying some of those things are actually a lot more straightforward than it might seem.
Dr. Ruscio: I completely agree with you. And I always think back to the comment that Christopher Gardner made. He’s a PhD researcher over at Stanford, and he’s done some really interesting studies comparing low-carb diets to high-carb diets very objectively. He doesn’t have a dogma going in trying to come out with one outcome. And he was on the podcast, maybe a year ago now, talking about some of his study results and his research.
And he was telling the story about how he moderated a nutrition panel where you had people from the Paleo community and you had people from the vegetarian community and you had people from the Mediterranean community.
And he said it was very interesting to him as someone who was open to everything at how vehemently opposed or how much we fought over the small differences between these diets, whereas Gardner asserts that 80% of the benefit we get from any diet is just getting off of processed foods and eating foods that don’t throw off your satiation regulation.
And he really, I thought, put that very eloquently, where we argue over the 20%, but really the 80% is just what we’ve been talking about, Abel, which are these basic tenets of just cooking your own food. And that’s probably the biggest one, just eating fresh food, cooking mostly your own food, minimizing the amount that you eat out. And that, in and of itself, I think will probably pay you, as Gardner said, probably about 80% of the dividends.
Abel: I totally agree with that. And that’s the thing that’s so wonderful and so frightening about that at the same time because it’s so simple and it’s so straightforward and not sexy at all. It’s hard to sell that, right? It’s hard to get people onboard with that who are so hooked on that terrible food that has made them addicted and sick.
And this food is literally designed by scientists to be as addictive as possible. And once it’s got a hold of you, and trust me, I’ve been addicted to all different kinds of foods, it’s really hard to get off that. And you need to go through this training process once again of recreating your palate and building your gut from the inside out again. And that can have its own problems in some cases.
But the good news is, like I said, once you know what you should be doing and you actually do it and you put in a little bit of work, it is incredible the turnarounds that you can see. Just from someone changing their diet, you can see them reverse all different types of diseases oftentimes at the same time concurrently, while losing fat and especially the most damaging kinds of fat, and basically turning back the clock, too.
You can see people who even in a few months, but certainly in a few years, they’ll shave off 10, 15 years of their life in terms of the way that they look and feel and the amount of energy that they have. So it’s a very promising thing if we can I think bring out more rubber to the road type intervention for the general population, we’ll be able to heal a lot of people. But right now, we’re still having growing pains with that I think.
Dr. Ruscio: I agree. And fortunately, we’re seeing more and more services pop up that are like a ready-made Paleo meal that they deliver right to your door or all the ingredients for how to make a healthy meal at home delivered to your door.
So I think it’s good that we’re seeing the consumer demand that’s just starting. And I think a lot of that’s probably swelling from this movement that’s getting the attention of companies to then make products that serve them. So they say you vote with your wallet or you tell companies what you want with your wallet. So I think we’re starting to see some change in that direction.
But the other side of the coin, gosh, the foods that are made to be hyperpalatable are no joke. So for me, chips are my occasional splurge. Love chips. And I got a different type of chip just this last week, actually. And I came home and I was like, “Oh, my God, these chips are just amazing!” I could not stop eating them.
And I said, “Hold on, there’s got to be something different about these because this is just ridiculous.” I literally, I think I ate the whole bag like in one sitting. And I looked, and instead of it being like a normal chip with salt and some spices and stuff, they added sugar to it, too. So then you had the starchiness, you had the saltiness, and you had the sugariness all at once.
Abel: And the crunch?
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah, and the crunch and all that together just threw me in the fat kid mode like 100%. [Dr. Ruscio laughs.]
Abel: Yeah. Totally. I’m the same way. I barely ever eat tortilla chips now for that reason. One of the things I say is if you’re eating something and it makes you want more of it now, that’s something that you should, yes, enjoy a little bit of it.
But, man, it’s a fight with yourself to not finish the whole bowl of something. And if you’re fighting with that all the time, you just have to give in. So you want to set your environment up such that you hopefully don’t have those foods around. Or if you do, you play games on your own mind to get them out of your eye shot. You get them out of your line of vision. And little things like that can actually really add up.
Setting Your Environment to Build Healthy Habits
Abel: So I’m huge on trying to set up your environment to build positive habits. And that’s one way that I’ve seen a lot of people have success without using that much willpower because yeah, if those chips are in front of you, you’re going to walk by every time and eat them. That’s just the way it works.
Dr. Ruscio: Definitely. Yeah.
Abel: But it takes a lot more intention I think to never buy them in the first place, because they’re always in some cupboard or another. They find their way in.
Dr. Ruscio: And don’t go shopping when you’re hungry. I think that’s another thing that can kill you.
Abel: Yeah. Exactly. And don’t have kids because they’ll bring bad food in your house.
Dr. Ruscio: Right.
Abel: No. But that’s why it’s a struggle because there are always other people in the house that will eat whatever food they want. And oftentimes, it’s a terrible food. So there are little games that you can play.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah, talk more about that, Abel. Talk more about things that you found to be helpful from looking in environmental design perspective to facilitate good habits.
Abel: Yeah, the power of that is hard to overestimate. So one example of that that doesn’t relate to food is my wife, Allison. She used to be a professional video game player and she toured around playing video games.
Dr. Ruscio: No kidding. Really?
Abel: Yeah. And when we first got together, I like video games, as well, and so we would just to unwind after—
Dr. Ruscio: Did she smoke you the first few games you played together?
Abel: Oh, she still smokes me every time. She likes to make boys cry. So yeah, we found that we were playing a little bit too often. It was the way that we would unwind at the end of the day. And over the course of time, we’re playing five nights out of the week or six or whatever.
And so this one simple change, I took the controller or both controllers, put it into like the TV console, which is by the TV instead of on the counter, on the coffee table, put it underneath and put it in a little box and put a thing on top so I couldn’t see it. And we went from playing like five nights a week to literally one or two times in the next six months. And I was so shocked at how powerful that was.
One of the other things I try to do is the good habits, you try to make them as easy as possible. So I’m a musician and I know that guitars and pianos and things like that, when I have them around, I’ll play them and I’ll feel better. And so I try to keep them… I’ll have one in the corner of almost every room. They’re just there because if I’m bored or if I’m bummed out or something like that, I’ll go and grab it. So it works like that with food and basically anything in your lifestyle.
So if there’s bad food around, if it has to be in the house, one thing that can be really helpful is if it’s not your food, basically have a separate piece of the cabinet or even shelf that it’s just somebody else’s. So instead of wondering if you can eat from it, you just don’t. And so it takes out—
Dr. Ruscio: Don’t even open it. Yeah.
Abel: Yeah. And so having those little segments. Another thing that you can do is, I love chocolate. And I don’t tend to overeat it. But Allison doesn’t digest it quite as well. And she loves it, as well. But sometimes, it’s just so tempting to have it there. So we’ll put it up on the highest shelf out of the line of sight. So if you want it, you really have to go in there and kind of grab it.
Dr. Ruscio: Sure.
Abel: Which is so different from the way that most people have it set up. As a piece of our culture, especially in America, you have candy out kind of as an offering to your guests. It’s a pleasant little thing. But the problem is we have too much candy now.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: And it’s not serving anyone anymore. So there are other ways that you could do that. You could put out healthier foods or even just some nuts or some fruit or something like that for people instead and still be able to be a great host but not have to shove candy in front of everyone’s face who’s hopefully trying to avoid it.
Dr. Ruscio: It really is true that if you have unhealthy stuff sitting around, you’re going to eat it. And I would think that the hardest challenge for a person would be, as you made fun of earlier, if you have kids, because kids are going to put pressure for the unhealthy food.
Dr. Ruscio: And I would again think that probably comes back to just programming your kids in a healthy way from early on. And sometimes when we say programming, it carries a negative connotation. But I mean this in the most positive light. Kids are going to be programmed one way or the other.
Dr. Ruscio: It’s just are you going to choose to exert your own programming over them or let them be programmed by default, which is going to be Go-Gurt commercials and McDonald’s ads on the sides of buses and what have you.
Tips for People with Children
Dr. Ruscio: But regarding children, do you have any tips or tricks for people to combat that issue?
Abel: Yeah, I’m not a parent yet. You know what? I’m just going to try to be responsible and not answer that personally. But I can say that a lot of other people who have had kids who were friends or whom I’ve worked with who have kids, the ones who make it successful are the ones who don’t use the kids kind of as an excuse or busyness as an excuse to not work out or not eat well.
The ones who succeed are the ones who really own the idea that your kids are the reason to eat well.
Dr. Ruscio: Well said.
Abel: Your kids are the reason to go out and exercise and be that positive example so that they can have that rub off on them a little bit. And also, you’re extending your own life so you can be there an extra 10, 20 years for your kids because you’re eating well.
I was just talking to someone else on an interview today. And that’s a guy who’s about 30 years old who was literally—he doesn’t eat salads. He said he was one of the most picky eaters on earth. And that one little shift turned him into someone who eats a salad for lunch almost every day.
Dr. Ruscio: Right.
Abel: That almost made me cry when he was talking about it.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: Because he’s a father. And that was the thing that really just did it for him. He’s like, “This isn’t an excuse. This is a reason to do it right.”
Dr. Ruscio: I like the way you say that. And it makes me think of a friend of mine who—he’s had back problems for a while. And he was telling me that he wants to get his back fixed in rehab so that when he had his child that was on the way he’d be able to play with him or her.
Dr. Ruscio: But I also know this friend of mine to really be prone to make excuses. And anytime something comes up, it’d be a reason not to start that rehab program he had been talking about for a few years. And as soon as he had a kid, every time rehab or his back came up in the conversation, it was, “Oh, I’m just so busy with this or that.”
And you’re right because I think it comes down to two types of people—people who really want to get something done and they will find the means to get it done, or people who are looking for any excuse not to get it done. And I think kids are one of the most socially acceptable excuses to opt out for anything that you don’t want to do.
Dr. Ruscio: You don’t want to be social? It’s because of the kids. You don’t want to exercise? It’s because of the kids. You don’t want to eat well? It’s because of the kids. You don’t want to go on a vacation or take a trip with your college friends that do a trip every year? It’s because of the kids.
And I can conceptually understand how it must be very difficult having children. I don’t have any children of my own. So I can’t say I know firsthand.
Dr. Ruscio: I don’t want to take anything away from that. But I also have looked at my own life where other challenges come up. And I’ve found a way to keep the important things in the centerpiece of my life. I’ve become incredibly busy professionally. But I still eat well and exercise. I haven’t made that an excuse or an out.
So I think it’s definitely important for people to keep that in mind and maybe take some time to reflect and take mental stock of that. Are you using things as an excuse not to do something? Or are you trying to find a way to make it happen?
Abel: Right. Yeah. Exactly.
More on Different Cultures and Health
Dr. Ruscio: Coming back, Abel, to—because I wanted to kind of pick your brain a little bit more on this—things that you noticed with other cultures because you’ve lived abroad and traveled a bunch. So I’d be curious to get your firsthand experience with how people in the United States look relative to people in other healthy cultures in terms of how much they think about their health and maybe where you think we are the most different from them.
Abel: I’d say—
Dr. Ruscio: In terms of a lifestyle type of issue.
Abel: Yeah. I’d say in America, especially this is the way the place I was raised, so I know it the best, you see people getting old really quickly and old in a different way than you see in other places. So an example of that is—one of our favorite places on earth is in Peru. And we met a number of people who were in the 70s, 80s, maybe even older than that. It’s hard to tell because at that point they’re so gangly.
Dr. Ruscio: Sure.
Abel: They’ve got that old man strength. And they’re scrambling up and down mountains. They’re doing things that are more athletic than most 20-year-olds can do here in America. And you see that not just in the mountains of Peru. But in so many different cultures around the world, you see that people are vital and moving and have a different type of energy and kind of—they have that look in their eye, that fire in their eye where you know if you had to fight them, you might lose.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: Even if they’re 90.
Dr. Ruscio: Right.
Abel: There’s that thing that’s still there that you just kind of see the light go out in America so often. You see people who are in the 40s and 50s who have trouble getting out of their cars.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: And so that was the most striking difference to me. You really see people aging well and gracefully. And it’s not something to be ashamed of. But it’s like the elders are celebrated and honored in so many places. And they really live up to that in a different way than I’d ever experienced here.
You have a few people who are very vibrant into their old age. But I’d say it’s the exception, not the rule. And of course, this is not fair for all parts of the world because it’s getting worse everywhere. At this point, the UK is almost as bad as we are here. And a lot of the Western world is following suit. And even these places that were almost untouched and had thriving indigenous populations, at some point, all of this processed food gets in there, as well.
And so all of this is changing rapidly. But hopefully, some of the things that are still there—there are various people who are studying them. And that’s why this kind of like modern-day anthropology is so exciting, because Weston A. Price is a great example of someone who looked at other cultures and saw, “Oh, man! There is a lot that we can learn from that.” And that hasn’t stopped. There are still plenty of places to look and lots of things to learn.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah, it reminds me sadly of a story with a couple of my friends. I typically go home once a year to visit my parents around Christmas. And I was talking to some of my buddies from high school about getting together a two-hand-touch or a flag football game. And a couple of them said, “Are you nuts? I haven’t sprinted in four years” or something like that.
Abel: Yeah. Right.
Dr. Ruscio: I was like, “You’re in your early 30s. What the heck?”
Dr. Ruscio: Like, “Come on.” But it makes me also reflect on the fact that after college I got out of sports for probably six years. And I was still at the gym. But years later, I started playing both indoor and outdoor soccer. And that’s given me back just that level of speed and coordination and kind of that spark, like you had said, because there is nothing like play or like games.
And I know many people in our space have talked about that. And playing soccer is the highlight of my week. And I think I move better now probably than I did two years ago when I had not been playing soccer for five years.
Dr. Ruscio: And I know soccer is one of the most popular games played worldwide. And I would assume in Peru, they’re probably playing soccer quite a bit or doing other things, playing other games.
Dr. Ruscio: Is that something that you observed while you were there?
Abel: Oh, man! Yeah, everyone’s playing soccer everywhere else but here.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: Soccer is huge. It’s just funny when you go internationally because literally it is so much bigger than the NFL, than the NBA, than anything else you hear about in America. But yeah, to your point, young and old, people are always playing. All you need is a soccer ball. You don’t even need goals. That’s one of the beautiful things about it. Just you go outside, and you play. You see tons of that.
You also see people who are walking because they have to.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: Or it’s the way that their culture is set up where they’re walking to work. Or they’re walking to lunch. Or they’re taking some down time as well. So it could be play. It could be kind of like a reverent walk in nature or through the city or something like that. Or it could be also kind of a relaxing two-to-three-hour lunch or actually taking your vacation in Italy, for example.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: I don’t recall off the top of my head how much they have there. But it’s a lot. We have here about two weeks, I think, on average. Fourteen days Americans take of vacation. And they take months in other parts of the world.
And it’s crazy to them that we wouldn’t take an exorbitant amount of holidays. I think they take more holidays off than we take in vacation days. And those don’t even count as vacation days. And of course they’re paid.
So it’s fascinating to see how it really extends—this honor for yourself, this respect for yourself in culture that you see in other societies, I think, because of tradition is still entrenched and helping people be healthier.
Even if it’s just a city is designed such that you’re walking is something where your environment is setting you up to be a lot healthier than you are if you, say, live in LA or Houston where you’re not only living in smog but also you have to get into your car and sit there every single day for most of the day, sitting in one thing or another.
So it really extends to all different parts of your lifestyle. But I think what it’s done where we are in the past few years is we’ve just gone a little bit too far away from what it means to be human. And we need to realize that we’re all just kind of children who need to play sometimes. And we need that downtime.
We don’t need to always work at the expense of play, because I’ve found, especially as we’ve been traveling the world and kind of playing. I’m using air quotes because it was a work-cation.
Dr. Ruscio: Nice.
Abel: But you might find that it really does inform every other aspect of your life.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: And I would imagine it adds years to your life as well.
Dr. Ruscio: So people in other healthy societies are eating a little bit less, moving more. And I think that sometimes gets misconstrued or mistranslated to how to apply that here in the United States and other Westernized countries. I don’t think these people are engineering a caloric deficit—
Dr. Ruscio: And starving themselves and then beating the crap out of themselves with exercise, which is how it sometimes is translated. But a rather much more elegant and much probably less thoroughly thought out plan—
Dr. Ruscio: Of just eating smaller portions at every meal.
Dr. Ruscio: Just enough to feel satiated. And then just moving more with play or with just your day-to-day activity or just taking a leisurely walk or what have you. And I think that’s important for people to keep in mind because the way we translate things is important. And sometimes, I think we try to make these things harder than they have to be or make them more rigid or more restrictive.
Dr. Ruscio: And I think when we frame it the way you’re describing, looking at these other cultures, they probably don’t feel restricted in their diet. And they probably don’t feel like they’re beating themselves into the ground with exercise.
Dr. Ruscio: Both the diet and the exercise piece probably feel pretty enjoyable.
Abel: Yeah. Try to take away their soccer from them. Try to take away wandering around the city—
Dr. Ruscio: Right.
Abel: Or walking around the country. It won’t happen. This is something that they love. And in America, you have to try to convince people to go for a walk. It’s like I try to explain it as I have a dog. And she’s very active. And I take her on two, sometimes even three walks a day. And if she doesn’t go on that walk, she’ll tear up the couch. She’ll scratch holes through the walls. She’ll go completely nuts.
The thing that most people don’t realize though is that happens to you, too.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: It just manifests in a completely different way.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: So we need to take ourselves for that walk and treat ourselves a little bit better. There’s this idea of—America is a wonderful place. It absolutely is. And you can work your way up. But I think there’s this stigma almost attached with a little bit of down time. If you want to succeed, you have to keep gunning it. And then you’ll get there.
Dr. Ruscio: Yes.
Abel: And then you’ll achieve the American dream. But I think lost in that is the piece that they have in other parts of the world where it’s like, enjoy your life. Spend time with your parents, your kids, your grandparents. Don’t you dare go out and work this weekend.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: And so that, I think, is what we’re losing sight of a little bit. But you don’t have to let it go. That’s something that you can slowly but surely bring back into your own life. It’s just you have to build that intention into your life.
Dr. Ruscio: That is something I think is also worth reiterating. And I’ll kind of reiterate that through my own self-reflection, where I’ve got a really, really good friend out here. And he’s very successful. He’s a medical device sales rep and does very well for himself. And we were roommates several years ago, back when we were both—he was starting his territory here. And that’s a grind. Being a medical device sales rep, you have to bust your butt.
Dr. Ruscio: And so you have to find accounts and seal deals. And it’s a whole thing in and of itself. While I was opening my practice and getting stuff with the website up and going and trying to start writing the book and everything else. And so we would both be working kind of around the clock for the first couple years that we lived together.
And it was kind of one of those things where we kept each other motivated because if it was 10 o’clock at night and I was going to bed and he was still working, I was kind of like, “Shit!”
Dr. Ruscio: “He’s still up working. And I’m going to bed.”
Dr. Ruscio: But now fast forward, gosh, maybe seven years later now. I’m finally getting to a point where I don’t have to work until 10 o’clock almost every night of the week.
Dr. Ruscio: And I’m happy with that. It was a little bit cognitively dissonant at first where I felt a little bit like I was being lazy because I was so used to working hard.
Dr. Ruscio: But I reminded myself that my goal was to work really hard for a punctuated time so that I could then, in the long term, be able to work a reasonable amount of time and still help a lot of people and have an impact. And so I’ve been sliding into that, being happy with being able to take time off.
And my friend hasn’t been making that same transition. And I sometimes will kind of get on his case about, “Hey, you should be happy with the fact that it’s 6 o’clock and you’re done working and not complain about it because that’s what you’ve been working so hard for to get to the point where you don’t have to work so hard.”
Dr. Ruscio: But some people have a hard time shifting out of that mode. And you’re right—
Abel: I did that.
Dr. Ruscio: Because it can be fairly pervasive in the society. Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Abel: I still do. It’s something that I don’t think you ever achieve. You never arrive. It’s not like you get the perfect diet and you know exactly what to eat every single day. It’s never going to be like that.
Dr. Ruscio: Right.
Abel: You always need to tweak. And you always need to listen to your body. And I think that’s also true with work-life balance. It sneaks up on you. It really does. So you have to be careful not to get carried away because that’s always the temptation for me as well, just like, keep on working. Keep on pushing. And it’s something that you can really overdo.
So find that edge. Experience it. Know what it is. And then find your way back to that sweet spot.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah. Well said. Well said.
Embracing Your Inner Artist
Dr. Ruscio: Now, as something to help keep you balanced, one of the things you had mentioned was talking about how to embrace your inner artist. So I’m curious as to how you would elaborate on that.
Abel: Yeah. So there is a bunch of different ways. But I can just say that music has saved my life on a number of occasions in my life. It was always that outlet. When someone close to me died when I was young, music was the only way that I could open up my emotions so I could cry. I tried to cry, tried to cry. And I noticed there was something there that was just so powerful to me.
But it really extends. I studied psychology and brain sciences as an undergrad. And it’s always been an area of interest to me. And so my first book was about music and the brain and what musical training can do to the brain and also what happens to the brain while you’re listening to music. And in both instances, it’s lighting up like a rainbow.
Dr. Ruscio: Right.
Abel: There are so many different things that are good that are happening to your brain when you’re listening to music or engaged in it. But that also applies to visual art, to, in some cases, going into nature and doing something that’s—it could be dance or anything that’s kind of right-brained.
And it used to be built into our culture. Dancing was always a part of our cultures as well as singing, which is something that it used to be—so I went to Dartmouth where they’ve had singing groups for a very, very long time.
And it was striking because one of the groups I was in was started in the ’40s. And when they first started, everybody sang. Everyone was in the glee club. It was an all-men school back then. Every guy sang—in the army, in school, wherever. It wasn’t something like you had singers, and you had people who couldn’t sing. Everybody did.
Dr. Ruscio: Right.
Abel: And it used to be like that with dance. It used to be like that with visual arts to some degree. We used to, even as adults, give ourselves the excuse to play and express ourselves and have that outlet for our emotions.
And when you start to build that into your actual life, you find such a sense of peace that so many of us are missing. If your phone is constantly bleeping and blooping at you, you never really get into that flow state where you’re honing your attention on one thing. And when you’re able to do that, you kind of let go of all of your stress. You let go of everything else.
And that’s what you seem to find in a lot of different cultures around the world that we’re not having as much of these days. Playing an app game is not the same thing as painting a picture or drawing or whatever.
So the fact that we are so overwhelmed by technology today oftentimes takes away any instance that we might have had in years gone by where we would have gone fishing or even had two minutes to just zone out and let your thoughts go when you’re standing in line at the grocery store or anywhere else. All that time has been taken up by something else.
So I find that inserting some sort of right-brain-type activity—any kind of art or dance or music—into your life can bring such joy and pleasure. And for a lot of people who aren’t down with the woo-woo, hippy-dippy, meditation and things like that—because that’s great, too. And I do it. Finding another way to practice art in your life can just pay huge dividends down the road.
Dr. Ruscio: For myself, music has been huge also.
Dr. Ruscio: And it’s an experience you don’t get with anything else, even with exercise.
Dr. Ruscio: It’s a different type of experience.
Abel: You play guitar, is that right?
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah, I play guitar. And I try to sing as best I can.
Abel: Yeah, man!
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah, I think you’re probably way ahead of me on the musical curve. But I’ll do my best to keep up.
Abel: But that’s the cool thing about it because if I were a professional soccer player, playing soccer wouldn’t be that fun with someone who wasn’t professional. But music is something that you all get together. With my family—my mom now plays—after they were empty nested, they started playing instruments. And when we get together—
Dr. Ruscio: Cool.
Abel: Mom’s playing the stand-up bass. My dad’s playing the banjo. I’m on guitar. And my brother is playing some sort of percussion.
Dr. Ruscio: No kidding? That’s awesome!
Abel: And just howling out old bluegrass tunes and making fools of ourselves. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the real joy in music. In America, I think so many of us are caught up in this idea of perfectionism. And you have to be a singer or performer. It’s like, no! The way you become one is by being a goofball and making a fool of yourself and having fun.
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: And then that is an inroad to all sorts of fun down the road.
Dr. Ruscio: Good point. And it almost kind of comes back to the way so many other cultures that have been non-adulterated by media and corporations tend to do more music, more sports, more art. And there’s not that perfectionistic drive where I can’t sing in front of someone unless I am an “awesome singer.”
Dr. Ruscio: It’s more about just having fun. And I think you make a great point there. So all right, we can jam.
Abel: Sure I dig it.
Abel’s Most Fun but Least Healthy Thing
Dr. Ruscio: So one of the last couple questions I want to ask you… And I forgot to give you the prompt on this. But hopefully, this won’t be too much of a curveball.
Abel: Yeah, hit it.
Dr. Ruscio: Short backstory—a problem I see in this space is people think that authors, researchers, health coaches, health gurus are infallible. And they never do anything outside of healthy practices. And what I’ve seen, knowing these people, is that many of these people still have fun.
Abel: Oh, yeah!
Dr. Ruscio: And maybe fun things that aren’t super health forward. But they’re fun nonetheless. So what would you say may have been one of the maybe least healthy but more fun things that you’ve done lately?
Abel: Oh, man! There’s nothing better than a good old fashioned bender with your friends every once in a while.
Dr. Ruscio: Yes! That’s great.
Abel: So it’s kind of surreal because a lot of my friends today are in the health industry in one way or another. Or they’re doctors or professionals—authors, researchers, whatever. And so a lot of times, we’ll get together at conferences.
Or in one instance, a couple of weeks ago, we were down in Mexico. And we hiked around the Mayan ruins. And we went to a cenote. And we were drinking tequila—much more tequila than we should have. And we were overeating this delicious Mexican food. And we were going out and getting too much sun. I got a little sunburn. And other things like that. We are all perfectly flawed and perfectly human. And there’s a lot of joy in celebrating that in all of our flaws every once in a while.
So, yeah, there is definitely this idea. Especially after I was on the ABC show and in some of these traditional magazines and mainstream media, people started to put up this thing where they’re just like, “You’re a celebrity now. You’re perfect.” And that is such an illusion, having hung out with and knowing personally a lot of—air quotes again—celebrities. Some of them are so much more human than average people.
So, yeah, you need to know that we’re all real people. We’re all struggling with this. Writing a book is probably the worst thing for your health, which I’m sure you’re figuring out, Michael.
Dr. Ruscio: Amen to that, yeah.
Abel: And you ask anyone who’s written a book, especially the people in health, because they know what unhealthy feels like, that’s what happens. And you need to constantly keep your eye on the ball. Be honest with yourself. Listen to your body.
But also have some fun. I eat all sorts of things that people would shake their finger at, on occasion. But isn’t that what life is all about? Because the majority of the time when people are not paying attention. Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, or what have you, I am being very consistent, very intentional with the way I’m living my life—
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah.
Abel: So that the exceptions, when we go out and have a glorious feast or way too much wine or something like that—those are just something that you really look back up and say, “That was fun. But I’m not going to do that again for a while.”
Dr. Ruscio: Yeah, got it out of your system. Yeah. No, totally. I love that perspective.
Dr. Ruscio: Cool.
Dr. Ruscio: So Abel, where can people hear more about you or track you down? And tell us a little bit about the book that you just wrote.
Abel: Sure. So the book is called The Wild Diet. And that’s adventures from around the world but also teaches folks about eating clean food very easily and has some of the best real food recipes we’ve ever come up with. That’s any bookstore. Or Amazon will have that.
And then my podcast is called Fat-Burning Man. And my blog is, as well. So you can find all sorts of recipes and interviews and fun stuff like that at FatBurningMan.com.
Dr. Ruscio: Awesome. And I’m trying to think of the next time we might be at a conference together. AHS is the next one that comes into my mind. Will you be at that one?
Abel: I may be at that one. I haven’t been to AHS since 2012. So I’d love to go back for sure.
Dr. Ruscio: Cool. Well, I know—
Abel: And if not there, then somewhere else. We’ll be seeing each other, good sir.
Dr. Ruscio: And I know we’ll have another mutual friend up there, Steven Wright is in that neck of the woods, too.
Abel: Yeah. Totally.
Dr. Ruscio: But if not, I guess there is always the Paleo spring break of Paleo f(x), if nothing else.
Abel: That’s right. Or if you need some barbecue, just come to Austin anytime.
Dr. Ruscio: Sure. Well, Abel, thanks a lot, my friend. This was an awesome call. I know people will probably get a lot out of this. And until I see you next, my man, keep fighting the good fight.
Abel: You, too, man. Thanks so much for having me.
Dr. Ruscio: Absolutely. Bye-bye.
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