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The World’s Largest Body Transformation Program: An interview with Dr. John Berardi

What do you say to the man who has a goal of helping one million people lose fat and live better?

That's what I tried to determine when I recently spoke with Dr. John Berardi. The natural place to start was, "Are you crazy?" But I've seen enough of Dr. Berardi's results to know that the only crazy thing would be to doubt his likelihood of success. Through his Lean Eating Coaching Program, which has been called "the world's largest body transformation project," Dr. Berardi and his team of expert coaches have already helped more than 10,000 clients lose more than 180,000 pounds of fat.

That's why I asked Dr. Berardi if he could take a few minutes and talk with me about whether diet or exercise is more important, why so many people struggle to lose weight, and his secret sauce to getting unparalleled results.

LS: Dr. Berardi, did you experience an “A-ha” moment that pointed you towards your current strategy for helping people live healthier lives?

JB: That's a great question. And I wish I could say: "Yes!  One day I was hit upside the head by a bunch of broccoli and everything changed." But that's not really what happened.  Instead, my coaching practice evolved in little fits and starts.

You see, I began as a personal trainer. Exercise coaching was my specialty and I was considered very good at my job.

Yet, over time, I was growing frustrated. When looking at my group of clients, I was only helping 10-15% of them achieve jaw-dropping physical transformations.

I thought I should be doing better.

LS: What was the problem?

JB: Well, back then, I blamed my clients.

I thought they had no commitment, no discipline. In my mind, if they really cared enough, they'd work harder and do everything in their power to get the results we were working towards.

I started to think most of my clients were just lazy.

LS: Was that true?  Were they just lazy?

JB: No, that was nonsense.

What I discovered - and it took some deep soul searching for me to realize it - was that I wasn't doing a great job as a coach.

I was just acting as a basic exercise instructor, making up workouts and counting reps. But real coaching, the type that produces jaw-dropping transformations, is something more.

So I made a commitment. I'd spend more time teaching nutrition, stress management, sleep quality, and everything else that can impact my clients' results.

There was only one problem; the more I talked about these things, the more resistance I'd get from clients.

The more I'd nag them to eat better, exercise more, sleep more, and manage stress, the worse they'd do.

But there wasn't just resistance. Even among those who said they were doing what I asked, many were lying just to get me off their backs. Now, I didn't want to be a nattering pain in the butt. I deeply care for my clients. And I desperately want them to succeed.

However, I was simply ineffective as a coach. I hadn't learned how to coach people toward positive action.

LS: I bet a lot of trainers and coaches feel the same frustration.  How did you try to solve this problem?

JB: At that time, I decided I to tackle the problem by learning more.

I had already earned a Pre-Med undergraduate degree with a specialization in Exercise Science. So I went back to school and studied Exercise Physiology at the Masters Level, and Nutritional Science at the PhD Level.

I figured by learning this stuff I'd be able to help more people.  I'd become a better coach.

LS: Did going back to school help?

B: Well, my 8 years of grad school were awesome. But, when I got back out into the field, I faced some of the same problems. Sure, I knew more about the science of exercise and nutrition.  But most of my clients weren't tripping up at the knowledge level. It was their daily habits that needed revision.

Unfortunately, even after 12 years of university, I still didn't have the coaching and counseling tools to do anything about that. Fortunately, about this time I got turned onto addiction counseling, change psychology, and behavioral neuroscience. These areas blew my mind.

LS: What did you learn by studying psychology and cognitive science?

JB: I learned so much; things I didn't even know I needed to learn.

For example, I learned exactly why clients struggle.  And these lessons were eye opening.  They flew in the face of everything I thought I knew about clients.

I also learned where a coach can (and should) step in to help overcome sticking points and limiting factors. I also learned where a coach shouldn't step in.

In addition, I stopped blaming clients for their poor discipline. Or their lack of "readiness for change." Instead, I realized that it was up to me to help them along.

I quickly became more than an exercise instructor; someone who was great on the weight room floor, but didn't really make an impact. Instead, I was evolving into a life-changing coach.  Someone who helps every client achieve his or her goals.

LS: As your coaching practice evolved, what were the key lessons you learned?

JB: I learned that exercise alone doesn't really work for helping people reshape their bodies. Yes, exercise can offer some important benefits.  However, without working on their diets, people just don't see the physical changes they're looking for.

Now, that's not just opinion. One research review looked at over 700 exercise studies, all completed during the last 25 years. The scientists concluded that exercise, without a nutrition intervention, leads to very small body fat losses and even smaller lean mass gains. Disappointing, really.

LS: Interesting, if not a little controversial.  What else did you learn?

JB: I also learned that all the technical, scientific recommendations in the world are meaningless...if you can't actually follow them for at least one year. Because that's how long it takes to make a sustainable, jaw-dropping transformation.

Most nutrition plans are pretty hardcore. They usually involve some kind of meal plan.  And that means shopping differently, cooking differently, and eating differently.  It also means a huge time investment, and dozens of lifestyle changes...starting now.

Research shows that this approach rarely works for long-term change.  Think about it; have you ever seen someone follow a complicated nutrition plan for a full year?  It's rare, isn't it?

LS: So what does work? 

JB: Something we call the one-habit at a time method.  This method is the cornerstone of our Lean Eating Coaching Program, and it's based on the best practices of change psychology.

The idea is simple: Clients get one new nutrition habit to practice every 2 weeks.

The habits aren't random.  They're important ones, like taking a specific dose of fish oil and a multivitamin, or eating carbohydrates at certain times of the day. And they're based on a nutritional progression model; moving from more fundamental nutrition skills to more specialized ones.

This habit-based model makes it much easier for people to follow a new program.  For example, our clients do what we ask of them 75% of the time. Compared to a compliance rate of 55% for prescription medication, we think that's pretty awesome.

The method also helps people stick to the program in the long run.

LS: Any other important lessons for readers?

JB: Yes, here's another one: We only assign habits our clients feel confident they can do.  This one feels like a no-brainer but you rarely see it practiced.

Before assigning a new habit, we like to ask clients: "On a scale of 0-10, how confident are you that you can follow this new practice for the next 2 weeks?"

If a client answers 9 or 10, then it's a good thing to try. If not, either an easier habit - or a different habit - should be discussed.

In the end, client confidence should be an important guide for coaches.

LS: What about calories and food choices? Any important lessons there?

JB: Absolutely, although this one is a little surprising.

Nowadays, the nutrition industry seems fixated on calories (how much you eat) and super foods (what you eat). Yet, there may be something even more important, more fundamental to good nutrition: how you eat.

For example, eating quickly is a sure-fire recipe for overeating. Indeed, when we help clients eat more slowly, they end up eating fewer calories and making better food choices.

And here's another one: Once clients slow down their eating, it's easier to stop eating before they're stuffed. Again, this helps control calorie intake.

LS: So what's a bigger problem: People eating too much or people eating the wrong things?

JB: I guess it depends on the person. However, in our coaching practice it doesn't really matter. You see, we don't address either at the beginning of the program.

Instead, we begin by helping clients slow down their eating. I know, it probably sounds weird.  But, if you understand physiology, it makes complete sense. It takes 20 minutes for our brains to perceive satiety or fullness. So, if you eat quickly, it's very easy to overeat without even knowing it.

On the other hand, if you slow down your eating, you end up feeling satisfied at the appropriate time. Plus, you end up with better digestion and making better food choices.

LS: That's pretty cool.  What about your other habit of not eating until you're stuffed?

JB: By slowing down you learn to tune into hunger and appetite cues. And once these natural cues become more apparent, you can stop eating when you're satiated, which we call 80% full, instead of going all the way to fullness, which we call 100% full.

While these two habits seem so simple, oddly enough, they're usually the most difficult for people to follow. That's why it's really helpful to have a coach.

In our coaching program, we share lots of little tips and strategies for slowing down and paying attention. And once these things are mastered, we can start talking proteins, carbs, and fats.

Yet all that comes later. Honestly it may seem counterintuitive.  But it's much more important to begin with how to eat instead of what to eat and how much to eat.

LS: Why do you think diets have a miserable track record? Why do they fail so often?

JB: This depends on how you define the word “fail.” After all, most diets work for a little while; they help you lose weight in the short term. The failure part comes later, in the mid- to long-term. And in my opinion, there are two big reasons for this.

First, most diets are unsustainable. They're like a covert op in which success is contingent on everything going right. You have to start exercising. Then you have to start eating certain things. Then you have to stop eating other things. And when you layer all these top of one another, you end up having to work on dozens of new things, all at once.

On paper, maybe this is possible.  But, in the context of a real human life - a career, a family, a house to maintain, a yard to take care of, and so on - it's completely untenable. You try it for a few weeks and then give up on the ridiculous project.

But it doesn't have to be that way. As we talked about earlier, the habit-based approach allows you to slowly adopt new practices without sacrificing the rest of your life in the process.

LS: You mentioned another reason diets fail, a physiological one?

JB: Yes. The other reason most diets fail is that they're often restrictive.  Combined with an excessive exercise plan, they lead to a pretty strong negative energy balance. While you do need your energy output to exceed intake to lose weight, if the mismatch is too big, you set up a restrict-binge cycle. Hormones and brain chemicals are released to slow your metabolism, eat away at your muscle mass, and ramp up appetite.

Eventually this gets intolerable and you end up binging, putting most - if not all -  the weight you lost back on. Sure, willpower can help for a little while. But if the energy mismatch is big enough, you'll binge eventually.

Again, it doesn't have to be this way. With a small negative energy balance, and periodic calorie cycling, you can continue to see progress without lean losses, metabolic down-regulation, and rebound binge eating.

LS: As a coach, I'm sure you've made a few mistakes along the way. What's your biggest?  And how did it shape your current philosophy?

JB: Early on, I assumed that I was 100% responsible for giving clients information. And that they were 100% responsible for putting that info into practice. I would say things like: "I keep telling clients what to do, they just won't do it." It reminds me of the old saying: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

I'm really glad I shook that mindset. Because sharing information is only a small part of my job. The rest is coaching and counseling.

I now work closely with clients and, together, we come up with habits they feel confident they can do. Whether it's how they eat, what they eat, or how much they eat, new habits become a shared project that we work on together.

When a client struggles, it's not "their problem."  Instead, it's mine. And that presents an awesome opportunity for me to grow as a coach.

LS: What about your clients? What are biggest mistakes you see them making?

JB: Clients have a tendency to make fitness a huge, unsustainable project that competes with everything else in their lives. And that's a big mistake. As discussed earlier, the solution is simple; use a habit-based approach.  It just works better. Plus, it's actually sustainable.

Here's another one: trying to figure everything out on their own. Over the years I've learned that the most successful people, in every endeavor, find a mentor or coach.  That's why I always tell people not to go it alone. At least, in the beginning, it's best to find some help. It makes a world of difference.

LS: What's your best workout tip?

JB: I've got a few, actually. First, every week, mix in some strength exercise, some high intensity interval exercise, and some lower intensity cardio exercise. If you prefer one type to the other, of course, do more of that. But make sure to get all three. The combination is what helps to boost strength and lean body mass, improve health, increase metabolism, and burn fat.

The second tip is to adopt a "no problem" attitude when it comes to exercise. I've been working out regularly for almost 25 years.  And, while I like to put in 4-6 total hours of exercise each week, I don't always get that much time.

Busy day? No problem. At lunchtime I'll run up and jog down the hill outside my office for 15 minutes.

No equipment? No problem. I'll just do high rep body weight squats and pushups for 20 minutes.

No change of clothes? No problem. I'll just do 10 pushups every hour throughout the day so I don't get sweaty.

Wife wants to spend quality time together during a scheduled workout?  No problem, we'll go for a long fast-paced walk together.

Most of my workouts are done at the gym or at the local track. But if life presents a challenge, it's no problem. There's always something I can do to get a great workout.

LS: The obesity trends are getting pretty bad.  How can our society reverse these trends?

JB: Obesity and diabetes seem like freight trains running out of control, don't they?

And while the simple answer is to eat less and exercise more, that's not actually good advice. Yes, it theoretically could work. But it never does. You see, it's not a willpower or discipline problem. It's an environmental problem. Most people have sedentary jobs, are offered few natural opportunities for exercise and movement, have huge access to high calorie, processed foods, and carry a tremendous amount of personal stress.

That's not a great recipe for leanness and health. It's hard for a lot of young fitness enthusiasts to get this. But, once they have a family to take care of, become a full-time member of a sedentary work force, and become responsible for meeting the needs of either young children or aging parents they understand.

Honestly, the obesity epidemic isn't going to be solved by the fitness industry until we re-envision our role.  Right now, we're confined within the four walls of gyms and health clubs. It's only when we're willing to start engaging people at home, in their workplaces, and in the other places they spend time, that we'll really have an impact.

LS: How can people learn more about healthy eating from you and the Precision Nutrition team?

JB: We have two really amazing free video courses: Fat Loss for Men and Fat Loss for Women. I'd love it if LIVESTRONG.COM readers checked them out.

Both courses come with download-able resources, a video that's about five minutes long, an MP3 audio version in case you want to load it in your iPod, and a transcript in case you're watching it at work and don't have the headphones handy.

Over 100,000 people have taken one of the free fat loss courses and they're definitely worth checking out.

LS: Thanks for the interview, Dr. Berardi.

JB: Thank you, Adam!

>> Read more of Adam Bornstein’s articles here! <<

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