top of page
  • BTG Editor

Rebel Scientist S2 E8 Sarah and Russ ditch the junk food and the junk music and jam with Abel James

Sarah and Russ were so grateful to be joined by Abel James.

Abel is a leading voice in new media, as an Immersive VR and 360 Video Producer, New York Times bestselling author of The Wild Diet, musician, and health crusader.

Abel stars as a celebrity coach on ABC Television. As the #1 most popular health podcast in 8+ countries, Abel’s award-winning show, Fat-Burning Man, has helped millions reclaim their health with real food, cutting-edge science, and primal workouts.

When his cooking app, Caveman Feast, bested The Food Network, Nickelodeon, and even Angry Birds with more than 1,000 5-star reviews in the 24 hours, Abel became the first independent publisher ever to hold Apple’s #1 food app and #1 podcast at the same time.

As a speaker, entertainer, and consultant, Abel has presented keynotes for the Federal Government, lectured at Ivy League Universities, and advised Fortune 500 companies including Microsoft, Danaher, and Lockheed Martin. Also a musician and songwriter, Abel studied at the Royal College of Music and has toured internationally, jammed with country superstars, and won several awards for vocal performance.

After completing his B.A. at Dartmouth College a year early, Abel created his own interdisciplinary curriculum to study brain science, music, and technology, graduating as a Senior Fellow with Honors. He later independently published his research in “The Musical Brain,” which became a #1 Amazon bestseller.

Hailing from the frosty backwoods of New Hampshire, Abel lives with his fiancé and yellow lab in the mountains of Colorado.

The dude is accomplished, fascinating and a true gem. Abel shared his thoughts on everything from junk music to junk diets. How to clear your ears for quality music and your gut for quality foods.

Sarah: Abel, Is there a way to make the Keto diet easier?

Abel: It doesn't have to be hard. And it doesn't have to be a suffer-fest. I get on better doing little things daily for a long time and seeing how that adds up, as opposed to really trying hard and going into three ice bath and doing high intensity exercise and breath holds and then stand in front of the red light. There's some amount of moderation needed. And there's some critical threshold that you can reach which is enough with red light, you're well aware of it. You don't just want to stand in front of it all day. And the same is true with fasting, keto, exercise, like

there's a nice amount where you can be good to yourself, and then focus on just building that habit instead of trying to force yourself through the suffer-fest with will power.

Sarah: Yeah. That's brilliant. And we actually had Boomer Anderson, last week or a few weeks ago. And he was saying exactly that. And so one of our training was little micro habits, doing the little exercises in between things, and a little bit of gratitude journaling, and all those things, which actually small things, big effects. So that was very cool.

I'm very intrigued to hear about music because I'm into the brain. That's always my main focus. I've got your book, and this whole evolutionary aspect of music and what that brings. It would be great if you could just talk a little bit on that.

Abel: I've been fascinated with the musical experience, playing music, and listening to music my whole life really. And then when I was in college, I studied the brain, as well as did a lot with music research and psycho acoustics technology and I just really went in deep as much as I could, because I had access to Dartmouth's library in undergrad. Also that meant access to the whole Ivy League's library of research. So at the time, I graduated in 2006, there wasn't a whole lot of research that was readily available and out there about what music does for us and why we would even do it at all. Why we would be listening to it? Why does it get pumped into our earbuds and into every elevator? And why does it alter our shopping behavior? Why is it used by marketers to change who we think we are? How does it change our brain states? So let's summarize. For the people who are out there and don't play music, I'll make a quick argument for why you might want to consider learning an instrument or giving yourself some musical experience.

Looking into what music is, the reason it's everywhere is, because it's almost a more primitive form of communication, primitive form of language that allows us to get in touch with our emotions, without going through the logical centers of the brain.

To process most modern language, you need to get into this highly logical state, which brings you out of flow to a degree or at least, it can for most people. So learning music is something where you're able to access different brain states and more readily or more often than if you don't participate in that experience. There are lots of benefits to music listening. But know that for the health of the brain, one of the best things you can possibly do is learn new skills or challenge yourself in some way. And there's almost nothing better for practicing fine dexterity than some form of art, whether that's visual art, whether it's playing music. I think all these things are similar, but there's something to be said for music in particular, because it enhances our ability to listen. And one of the things that I found in my research, which is a little bit technical around speech prosody, and some of the semantics get a little into the weeds, but basically what it means is, if you have quite a bit of musical experience and training, then you have a better ability to hear the emotional content of the inflection behind someone's words. So an example that I use is, sometimes the most contradictory to the logical words of what people are saying, more often you think. So whenever you hear something like your significant other say, "I'm fine." That can mean hundred things. And so if you're only listening to the logical language and you follow everything literally, you're going to get yourself into trouble. But if you do have that ability to hone in on inflection and emotional content, measure pauses in the rhythm of what someone's saying, you can almost... It's not like you can read their mind, but you can communicate more effectively by listening more effectively. And that is something that is super powerful for kids and everyone in between.

Russ: I have spent my entire life envying musicians. I play guitar poorly, but I do it for that exact reason is that I always wanted to be able to play like Randy Rhoads. I always wanted to be able to play like Jimmy Page, but it's like, I never will be able to ever do that. I have a question playing in a band versus playing by yourself. My brother in law is a classical composer. And he talks about when the orchestra is playing, and this feeling you have of being elevated off the ground.

How do you feel when you're playing with other people versus playing music by yourself?

Abel: I love that. Yeah, it's transcendent. You play with other people, and it's really working, and you've all put in the work. I watched a lot of musical education videos, and there was a well-known guitarist, I can't even remember who it was, but a virtuosic guitarist. Someone asked him, "How do you think of all those things to do so fast?" And he's like, "Well, I'm not really". When you're doing that and you're in flow, you're almost time traveling. Time expands in the same way, like you're in a car crash but the opposite. It's like the transcendent version of that. I noticed the same thing. So when you're in that heightened state, you can get there by yourself, but it's definitely not the same. So I grew up with my brother in the Middle of Nowhere in New Hampshire. We didn't have cable television or anything like that. And so we really had to make our own entertainment. That's one of the reasons we played so much music. So my brother became a really great drummer. And I eventually settled on guitar and singing for the most part. And that's all we really had. But that was enough. We made so much music and filled up the whole house with sound. And you can sound like a full band with two people. You can kind of do it by yourself, but there's an amazing thing that happens when you're jiving with other people and inflow with them. That's kind of well-known amongst especially improv musicians. You know without explicitly saying anything to each other, exactly what to do next. And you all kind of communicate that without doing anything explicitly. Not that it's telepathy or something, but you are honed in. It's like, "You're using all of your senses at once instead of just your hunter reflexes focusing on one thing, you focus three things." You kind of have that wide vision. And that allows you to maybe take in more information or be able to navigate musical changes a little bit better. But yeah, for me, there's almost nothing more transcendent than playing in that music, but also watching an orchestra, who is nailing it, or watching some jazz band or some heavy metal band, whatever it is, even just drumming. Some crazy drum circle gets you into a hypnotic state for better or worse. So if you are out there listening to music, know that there is - I don't want to be judgmental or kind of hierarchical about it - but

there is a such thing as kind of junk food, music.

And there is such thing as high information music that's going to challenge your brain, and really is more in tune, with what your physiology would expect. So when you're in a bad mood, you want to listen to bad music or you want to listen to bad mood music, stay in it for a while and then process it and move on.

But I challenge people out there, if you're listening to music without really listening to it, if it's just on, especially if there are lyrics involved, listen to what the lyrics are actually saying and ask yourself, how is that different from a mantra.

If you meditate and you use a mantra or you're into being spiritual in any way, either some stuff matters, everything matters or nothing matters, maybe it's something in between, but I prefer to think that everything matters. And if a mantra matters, and I think it does a lot of people who have used them, know that works, then the opposite is probably true. If you're listening to that mantra and it's running in your head and it's something degrading to who you are or just kind of gross or even just stupid and silly like junk food music. If it's not challenging your mind, I think it's important to be more selective about the music you like focusing on some that's instrumental that doesn't have lyrics that get in the way. And then not that everything you need to listen to spiritual music all the time are going to Christian rock, but try to have high standards for the words that are entering your mind and consciousness.

A lot of people think of music in a reductionist way where, if you hear the note C, or if you hear that just a plucked note E on a guitar, which is just a string vibrating, you're hearing a whole sequence of notes in the harmonics of that one note. That one note is called the fundamental, but that's not actually how physics works. That's perception. We assign a note to a giant combination of mathematics that are built into sound itself. And so when you really dig in there, then you see that these harmonics start stacking in a completely different way, which can be complementary to biology or detrimental to biology and physiology, depending on the stack of that harmonic sequence and how it's tuned.

Sarah: Tell a bit more about your version of junk music and healthy music, like junk food and healthy food. Just give us some examples so that we know. You've already gone into the junk side, which is obviously, if you just got the radio on and you're just learning it, blare out something inane. But what about the health music? What would you recommend for people?

Abel: If you want to get into flow, here's something important. Make sure you're not listening to advertisements in between.

Pay $5 or $12 or whatever it is, for one of those things, you can listen to. That's so important. Number one! And then there are different ways to go about it. Muzak was the kind of 80s example of the stuff that was pumped into elevators and stores to get people to buy more, that didn't have lyrics, but it was there and kind of garbage; made you feel a little good maybe, but really annoyed people like me. Like the people who practice the music, it really annoys us to hear stuff like that. So there's worse to listen to than that. I would say that most of the pop stuff is built to get you into some sort of rhythmic trance, and then feed those lyrics and ideas into your mind that can be used in a good way to help empower, like, as a writer of music and a performer that can be good. And the problem is, now they have marketing snuck in there. They're like advertising in song itself. There's product placement. So if you go for the lowest common denominator stuff, it can be catchy and it can be all right, but if you want to listen to music to study, to read, to improve where you are physiologically, usually, it is going to be something that is a little more intentional than that and a little less commercial than that. And there's nothing wrong with going back and listening to music that is quite old. I listened to a lot of things that are 30, 50, even 100 years old in some cases. Try to unplug from whatever you're being fed from Spotify, Apple, because that's driven by marketing and commercial, who's paying who to play music from which artists, who probably didn't even write it at this point. It's just 12 different people writing these garbage songs. Challenge yourself to find something that's a little bit better, that's a little bit more interesting, and don't forget about instrumental music. Try to listen to a bunch of different kinds and not be too judgmental about it. Sometimes the first time you hear something, you're not going to love it. And then you listen to it a few times, and you really hear more. There's more there and you start to experience it more. So try to listen to a lot of music from different places, and world music, especially world rhythms are great for your brain. We're kind of starved in the UK and US from interesting rhythms at all.

Sarah: Well, this comes back to what we've been talking about through this whole series is about awareness. What information are you taking in? I think it's all coming back to that awareness. And I hate listening to ads. You're right, you should watch what you're taking in, and deliberately select the good stuff to nourish you.

Abel: It's just like, you don't get people started doing heavy deadlifts right away or like complicated power cleans. If you go straight into listening to Bebop jazz, after you're listening to like 60s classics, it's gonna be a hard shift, and you probably won't like it. And it takes some degree of experience with something to appreciate that thing. Unfortunately, I think one of the biggest reasons that we've lost jazz or it's just cheesy or not cool anymore, is because we don't dance anymore. All those dance moves and crazy tricks all night, that’s amazingly fun. But when was the last time you saw a bar room full of just jamming sick jazz musicians and all these people who knew these dances? So I think culturally, we're missing out on that. But that doesn't mean that we can't bring it back. We kind of reinvigorate our lives with these experiences and me as well. Like I actually never played piano seriously and I never trained it until a couple years ago in my mid-30s. And then I never really cared about Oscar Peterson, who's one of the greatest jazz piano players of all time. I heard his stuff. And I'm just like, "I don't know, I don't get it." I play guitar. I don't care. But once I started playing piano and listening to what he was actually doing, my degree of appreciation just infinitely expanded, because I could hear more. I could hear the 10 things he was doing instead of the one thing that he was doing, and that's what it takes, if you want to go in that direction, but it doesn't have to be jazz. Jazz is one of those types of buckets of music that absorbs the most complicated, interesting things. It's really where the improvisational music geeks, go. It's geek music. It's really smart people for the most part, who dedicate their lives to this type of training and study, which is the mathematics of music and changes in sound. And that's really cool if you get into it. So don't dismiss it as just some Ryan Gosling movie or the backing music to a family guy cartoon. It's more than that.

Russ: So, when you apply this sort of music structure to your everyday life and nutrition as well, how do you combine the two? How do the two come together?

Abel: I think part of it is having high standards, and other is discipline. And then what I said about the small things that add up over time to big results, that's exactly how nutrition works. Like you can't get big fast results by making massive changes all at the beginning and front load again. I mean, you can a little, but that doesn't work for dieting. It doesn't work for athletics. Like if you really want to get results, then you have to train for a while and you have to put in the work. And nutrition is no different. You can't ever stop caring. You always have to do it.

The day for me is usually pretty regimented. I write it out on just blank sketch pad every day and I write down, get sunshine and when I once I do I scribble it off and I do my Qigong moves and meditate and red light.

I'm thinking of all the different things I scribble off. And feast is one of them. I know what that feast is going to be made up of. Usually it's about one meal a day or one and a half meals a day. So on a daily basis, I wake up and before I really do anything else aside from a coffee, I practice piano and I practice guitar; just pretty much every single day. And not that I've always done it this way, but that's also the similar way that I approach my meals, where it's just like, "I have a protein goal" and that probably comes first. Like, a lot of people assume because a Fat Burning Man that I'm like super keto or something like that, but actually no. I do tend to eat probably fewer carbs than most people, but they're very important for refueling after intense lifting. After I love going for runs up the mountains. I do sprints and long hikes and things like that. And I love soaked oatmeal and sourdough breads and the old school for the most part slow burning carbs, but modern junk foods, but you can to know that you have a budget, that you have goals to meet for these different macros and micronutrients. And then you just kind of have a daily plan. And I know that if I wake up and I do things, even if I'm messing up the scales the whole time, even if I sound terrible on that song, when I wake up the next day, I'll be a little bit better. My nervous system will be like, "I got this a little better today." I don't know why, but I wake up and the next day, it's a little bit better every time. That's what happens, whether you're eating this way in a nice and clean and meeting your macros and that sort of thing, or whether you're training athletically or musically. All of these things add up, but you can't expect the short term results. In fact, you're probably going to feel if you're doing it right a little bit gassed out, a little bit underwhelmed by the end of the day, because you've used up that energy, your body recovers during sleep, and then you come back stronger and better the next day.

Abel: My challenge to you both is to get at least 100 or 150 grams of protein a day. And make that your main number one goal.

Abel: When I was younger, I really was not a big fan of protein powders. I thought they were super scummy, until I took music lessons from one of my heroes, Kenny Werner at Berklee music. And he's also a great author and being about 70, I saw him during my lessons, he's just sipping this drink out of this giant Slurpee thing. I'm like, "What are you drinking there?" Because he lost like 70 pounds or something like that. I’m like, "Man, whatever he's doing is really working." He's like, "I just got this little protein shake. My nutritionist told me to drink it every day. And I've lost 70 pounds, or whatever it was, 57 pounds in 6 months. And he's just like, "I'm not gonna make a salad." Like, "I'm not gonna cook a steak, but I'll drink." So it's not that you want to be sucking down protein powders all day, but there are convenient solutions. If you're looking for protein, then they can be there. There are awesome grass fed pasture raised little jerky sticks and jerkies that you can find that are relatively convenient. You either love it or hate it. For me, it depends on the day. But oftentimes, I do love it.

Canned fish, sardines, salmon, clams, oysters, can be great, nose to tail foods that are right there.

They're super high in protein. And you know, just in general, trying to make the protein of every meal you're eating, and pretty much every snack you're eating while you're trying to lose weight anyway. If you try to make protein, the main highlight every time and you eat until you're not hungry anymore, then that's going to help you not be hijacked by the carbs that just make you hungry all the time. It's going to push those out because it's hard to overeat. And not that you have to go carnivore, but that's kind of the reason in my mind or one of the main reasons that carnivore works. It is because you're getting protein and not much else. And if you look at the research of protein sparing modified fast is basically an approach where you can reduce calories substantially without people experiencing hunger, without people experiencing the types of cravings that you get when you try to just reduce calories while keeping your macros the same. So if you pump up your protein, you dial down the carbs and then you eat some amount of fat, healthy traditional fats, whole food fats. It just basically so that you're not hungry anymore. You don't have to do all fat bombs and ridiculous fatty stuff that some of the keto communities into, I think for most people, especially if you're physically active, focusing on protein and trying to dial down the carbs or at least just keep them to the green leafy variety and save most of the starches. And if you're going to do starches, try to make them wet, try to make them steamed boiled, not the dry at high heat but low. So like soaked oats with the water still in them are going to be digested in a totally different way than like a dry cereal, if you think of it that way. So try to eat like your grandma did when you're eating carbs.

Russ: One question about the fatty proteins. There's the keto, if there's a push to eat the fatty proteins versus fish, what's your thought on that?

Abel: Well, personally speaking, we've been landlocked for years now. I do love fish. I think it's great. If you're in an area where you can get great fish, do it. It's awesome. Chicken and fish has about half as many calories for about the same amount of protein, as in red meat. That why I eat way more red meat. I eat way more pasteurized regenerative pork, than I do poultry and chicken. Although we eat a lot of eggs. So we don't tend to eat a ton of chicken and fish. I really liked the ruminants and lamb, regenerative pork, even good quality bacon more as a topping than as a meal. But basically, not being afraid of the fats in those meats, unless you're combining it with eating French fries too. You can't do this and eat your French fries for the most part. At least most people can't. You can't eat doughnuts and eat a giant fatty stake. You kind of have to choose...

Russ: Together, a doughnut and a steak!

Abel: But yeah, if you eat the traditional fatty cuts of meat with the skin still on him, you can't really do better than that. And if you're eating more calories from the red meat or from the pork, compared to the chicken and fish, you're going to fill up faster, if you're honest with yourself anyway. So our bodies regulate this pretty well. Like if you look at it that way, you have to eat twice as much salmon in order to fill up as much for the same amount of burger or something like that. And so what's the cost of that? If salmons like $20 a pound or $30 a pound like it is in some places around here because we're landlocked, then that's outrageous. It's like 60 bucks to try to fill up on one meal of protein from salmon. So there are economical ways of going about this. I mean, eggs go a long way.

Russ: What would be the top of your music list today? What did you listen to this morning?

Abel: Andy McKee is a fingerstyle Guitarist.

Anyone who hasn't seen this guy play guitar, it changes what guitar playing means. Because he's playing with both fingers on the fretboard like a giant drum or a harp. And he literally uses a harp guitar for a lot of the different songs that he uses with playing the bass and the melody and the rhythm all at the same time. Really magnificent stuff! And then Oscar Peterson. We get requests. He has been my favorite Album of the past two months. I listen that over and over.

Russ: Abel, any parting words there?

Abel: Aaron Parks is another great piano player. Julian Lodge, great guitar player. Check those out too. Julian's new EP


Russ: Now the people you bring on and I have made massive alterations in my life. First off, I started with red light in the morning, getting the sunrise and I sit by the sun every day. And number two, my sleep has become so important for me. Abel James was one of the best, I have to say, you're at the top of my list, he's right behind you. How did you do with 150 grams of protein every day?

Sarah: This was a big challenge for me as I’ve been vegetarian for the last year. So in order to get this amount of protein, I started eating meat and actually quite a lot of it, but it really wasn't as difficult as I thought. And I think I have met the challenge. I've been buying great big lumps of salmon. And now I'm here in Holland. I've been eating a lot of steak and things like that. So much less carbs. In fact, I think really all I have now is porridge for breakfast and then apart from that I'm pure protein and just vegetables the whole day.

Russ: Yeah. He did bring up the wet oats too in our session.

Sarah: I know you were affected by the Deanne story.

Russ: I was. I'm in remission as well. I'm at 25 years’ remission, 26 years’ remission, but doing as close as I can and it's been about a month now. And I can declare to you that I don't feel as disgusting as I normally do. I've lost almost 20 pounds. I'm intermittent fasting, so I'm only eating for about six to eight hours a day, so I can only eat so much in six to eight hours. But if you put a protein in your body, you don't really crave the carbs. I just crave protein now.

Sarah: Thank you, Russ. And take care and keep up the good work. See you next week.



Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page