Your well-being is your true wealth. By prioritizing our health, we can excel both in our professional and personal lives. In this episode, renowned health expert Abel James underscores the importance of enhancing our health to boost performance. He acknowledges that while healthy food might be perceived as costly, the same can be said for unhealthy food. The crucial distinction lies in the potential harm that unhealthy choices can inflict on our bodies, ultimately obstructing our path to success as musicians or in any other endeavor. Abel draws parallels between the realms of music and health. Here are some valuable tips shared by Abel James in the episode to nurture and safeguard your health.
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Health Is Wealth: How Improving Your Health Can Help You Perform Better And Be More Profitable With Abel James
I am excited to be here with Abel James. In this episode, we’re going to be talking about musicians and health. You’re wondering, “What does this have to do with making money?” It has everything to do with making money because if you don’t have your health, you are not able to go out and make money. You are not able to make music. Whether you’re an instrumentalist or a vocalist, your body is your instrument. You are not able to operate as a musician without having a healthy body.
This is a subject near and dear to me because I have had an autoimmune disease for many years. It’s something I’ve had to navigate as a musician. We’re going to jump into all of this and give you some health tips, how you can be healthier on tour, and all of that. First, I would love for Abel to tell his story, talk about his life as a musician, how he got into health, and maybe mention a little bit about his podcast, his experience coaching other people in health, and how that all relates to you as a musician. Go ahead, Abel. I’m interested to hear your story as well.
Firstly, Bree, thank you so much for having me. It’s always tough to squish your story down to a few minutes but let’s see what happens.
You don’t have to. It’s always so interesting to hear people’s stories. Please don’t feel like you have to give us the elevator pitch.
My first real touch point with music was I was a little kid, probably 7, 8, or 9 years old. I didn’t know who I was. I was a shy kid, a bookworm. I wasn’t into sports when I was young, pre-puberty years. I liked having fun and goofing off but it wasn’t until I started goofing around with the clarinet that something seemed to happen. I liked the way that it felt in my chest and the weird sounds that it made.
Within the first few weeks of squeaking in the horrible sounds that come out when anyone’s learning an instrument, there was something that happened where it started to feel right. Over the course of the next couple of years, I got set up with 1 teacher or 2, later switched to saxophone, and started playing out pretty much right away.
One of my music teachers also played guitar. He would shop me around as the eight-year-old wearing a bow tie and suspenders. We’d play at local diners. I’d go out busking during the Christmas season. I’d put on a little Christmas hat, dress up like an elf for something, and play clarinet and saxophone Christmas tunes. That was the first time that I saw the joy on people’s faces from something that I was doing, the performance that I was able to put on for them, whether it was family or busking around.
Later on, I did get very much into health and sports. Never at an elite level but I was doing cross-country running. I played football, basketball, and all the rest of those things. I ultimately went to college and went more in the music direction while I was there. Music was something that once it hit me, I never stopped. It was my first career. This is back in the late ‘90s. There was an online music scene back then and there was a website called MP3.com.
I was on there.
I bet you were. It was a wonderful site back then. I remember it outearned my summer jobs for many years there because of the streaming setup back then.
Me too. We had a Christmas song that got on there like a Christmas compilation. We were making thousands a month.
I had the same deal. The music wasn’t top-notch. Even the bit rates left a lot to be desired but you could also sell songs or albums one at a time. That was working well until MP3.com got bought out by CNET. The whole Y2K tech bubble thing deflated. That website never seemed to come back. I kept playing music. I was the director of a vocal group in college. We sang and toured around for about four years. I played in a bunch of bands. Instead of getting a work-study program in college, I was playing gigs nonstop.
That continued until I burned myself out. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was doing 200 or 250 shows a year, sometimes 3 or 4 in a day. I was doing anything. It was weddings, private parties, and roof deck parties, most of it in Austin, Texas but also touring around a little bit as well, playing the saxophone, guitar, and singing. At some point, I had enough. There were a couple of projects that went sideways, backstabbing amongst band members, and that sort of thing. I was like, “I’m out.”
I have been there too.
We all have been there at some point. It was around that same time that I came home one night and I lost everything in an apartment fire. I had moved to Austin, Texas, loaded everything into a small U-Haul in my car, and obliterated all of my instruments, saxophones, guitars, the keyboard, and all of the music that I was working on. I had it backed up on three hard drives. It was before the cloud though.
My health was also suffering because I was burning the candle at both ends. I was overweight and felt middle-aged, even though I was in my early to mid-twenties. I had to reconcile my life with itself in the absence of stuff. I looked at myself in the mirror and I’m like, “This isn’t working. Let’s try something a little bit different here.”
I threw my weight at the world of health. I tried not to be so afraid of dietary fat, cholesterol, and saturated fat. I was following my doctor’s advice. I had been carb-loading because I was still running a lot. I was hitting a lot of foods that didn’t necessarily taste good or that I wanted to eat but I was doing it so well that it made me sicker faster than all my friends and compadres in the music scene. I switched gears.
Around the same time, I had great results by doing the opposite of what my doctor told me back then. I decided to start up a podcast because it was a new thing. Having a whole bunch of microphones and recording equipment, knowing how to turn the dials to some degree, and building websites by virtue of being a musician for all the years before that, I’m like, “I could do a podcast.”
I decided to do it around the world of health. If you don’t have your health, you can’t perform, especially as a musician. It’s your instrument if you’re a singer. Even if you’re not a singer, your body and how you feel are so important to the level of your performance and production. Building it around health was something where I figured I could always be at least somewhat interested in that as a hobby. It became much more than that.
Years later, we’ve got more than 500 episodes coming up on 100 million downloads. Secretly, I found a way to get my music out there with the podcast itself. Sometimes I’ll throw a song at the end of the show or all of the intro music I’ve done myself and that sort of thing. It’s a strange thing that got a lot bigger than I was expecting. It was a nice transfer of energy away from burning myself out, working too hard, and ultimately playing a lot of gigs that I didn’t want to into something that’s more producing on our terms.
Was this in 2012?
I started in 2011.
I started with online radio. Remember when that was a thing? That was my next foray after MP3.com. I transitioned it into a show in 2014, which was pretty early still. You were in 2012. That’s the early days.
It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of hoops to jump through. There weren’t even popular hosts for hosting your website and podcast files. From a technical standpoint, it was ugly. The way that I found out that my podcast got a lot of traction at the beginning was I got a bill from Amazon AWS. It was normally $12 for hosting back then. Then it was $248. I’m like, “What happened here?” I hadn’t monetized it or anything because it was this hobbyist thing at first. I wasn’t taking it all that seriously. Once that started happening, I’m like, “Maybe there’s something here.”
You were hosting it on Amazon, interesting. I remember when I started, I used Lisbon. There were things like Podbean and stuff but they were not very elegant, put it that way. Now, we have all the Zencastr, Riverside, and all the places where you can do your podcast. It’s so easy and turnkey. Once you did your podcast, then you started getting some traction in the health world. You have a book. You were on a show. Do you want to tell them a little bit about that so they know your credentials in the health world?
The blogosphere came first and then there was podcasting. I started writing first and created a small manual, which became a book. I started working with people one-on-one but mostly coached. I was running marathons and coaching other people on how to run as well. That transferred into the health thing. Ultimately, I wrote a book called The Wild Diet, which did well but it’s more written in a narrative form.
It’s about some of my touchpoints with friends in the Tim McGraw Band and other musicians and how they embraced health. This was back in 2013 and 2014. It’s got some recipes in it as well. People picked up on that and the podcast. They selected me to be an “expert” on an ABC reality competition fitness TV show that was like The Biggest Loser. It was ABC’s version of that but a little bit more positive. That got out to a lot of people.
It was an incredible experience but also harrowing because they line you up for character assassination on day one, especially with shows like that. I was coaching one man named Kurt Morgan, 47 years old. He was 352 pounds at the beginning of the competition. Ultimately, we got him down to 87 pounds in less than 4 months. He dropped 22 percentage points of body weight. We had him run a half marathon. He was able to go rock climbing after that and do all these incredible things. After people saw that, there was a huge swell of attention on the health side of things.
At the same time, I was recording an album in Nashville with a bunch of guys who were in that same country roots rock music scene. It was interesting having those bulk projects go out around the same time. Ever since then, there have been a whole bunch of different documentaries that have come along and many podcasts to guest on. When you have your podcast, and as I’m sure you know, Bree, it’s nice to be able to cross-pollinate with other people who are creating content, whether it’s in your niche or not.
I’ve been on a lot of business podcasts and music podcasts. It doesn’t have to be around health. One of the great benefits of having a podcast is that you can start the conversation, whether it’s based on a particular niche or not. It can go anywhere. We’ve seen that with the popularity of the Joe Rogan Show and a few other ones where it’s a giant hang for four hours where they talk about anything. No matter what show you have, you can have some of that in your work as well.
I’ve always tried to make my show a little snappier and to the point, as opposed to something where you’re setting up microphones and hanging out with people. That can work too. It’s all about finding your style and what feels right for you. I’m grateful for the traction that’s come from these various projects. Most of them surprise me when they come along. You have to maintain a little bit of space in your schedule or energy for that next thing that’s coming along so that you can jump on that opportunity when it pops up.You have to maintain a bit of space in your schedule or your energy for the next thing that's coming along so you can jump on that opportunity when it pops up. Click To Tweet
With podcasts, sometimes you’re in a mood for one thing and sometimes you’re in a mood for another thing. I follow certain shows. Sometimes, I want to learn something and get some information. That’s mostly what this show is about, I’d say. Sometimes I want to hear people have an interesting conversation about what happened in their week and how that relates to the subject they’re talking about. The thing is it’s an hour and a half long. I put it on while I’m getting ready in the morning or something. There’s a place for both, for sure.
There’s one thing I’d like to offer to the musicians who are reading. I remember when I first launched the podcast and it took off, people were like, “He came out of nowhere. How’s he so good at podcasting all of a sudden?” That’s not how I felt. It’s because I was doing over 200 shows a year for many years with more than 1,000 or 2,000 shows under my belt in the 10 or 15 years before I ever started a podcast.
That made it feel pretty natural to stand or sit, talk into a microphone, have a conversation, and try to be entertaining and engaging. Also, understand the timing of how all of that works. That stuff came from your music and performing on stage. It didn’t come from practicing podcasting. A lot of people have an edge that they might not be aware of.
There’s that learning curve of being on stage, having stage banter, stage presence, stage persona, and knowing what stories to tell and when. If something pops into your head, is it a good time for you to say it or not? That is honed on stage. I would say the same thing for myself. It wasn’t a big leap to do podcasting. In my first few episodes, I was a little bit paralyzed, nervous, and all those things. It’s a different medium. For any musicians out there that have thought, “I wonder if I could start a podcast,” you probably do already have a lot of those talents.
There is a learning curve still, even with new workflows. Every time there’s a software update or something goes sideways, it’s hard not to be flustered but the learning curve for someone who’s comfortable on stage is going to be a lot shorter and more compressed than people who are green in trying to start a podcast. That can be pretty painful to listen to or be involved in if you’re there for that part of the learning curve anyway. Everyone’s got to go through it in their way.
Let’s go back to health. You said, “I decided to do the absolute opposite of what my doctor said.” First of all, what gave you the guts to do that? Most people are like, “Doctors know everything. I don’t know anything. I must be doing it wrong. I need to do it harder.” What made you think to do that? What was that exactly? What diet did you adopt then?
Gratefully, we’ve come a long way in the last several years. Back then, doctors, fitness magazines, and running coaches were very much encouraging everyone for the sake of health to give up red meat specifically, butter, saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, eggs, and all sorts of other things that are wonderfully delicious. It turns out not that bad for us.
Giving up those types of foods, you have to eat something else. For me, I was trying to eat very low fat and that meant a lot of cardboard-tasting carbs. Eating that way was something where it didn’t work with my body pretty much as soon as I started eating that way. I wasn’t that intentional as a teen. I was trying to be healthy and not eat too much junk food but I didn’t know what that meant. I was trying to follow my doctor’s advice.
When I went in there, they were like, “Your family has a history of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and potential heart disease. To avoid these sorts of conditions, then it’s important that you eat this way and keep exercising like you are.” After following that advice, I was drinking my orange juice and eating my low-fat cereal with low-fat milk and all the rest of it every morning. I was giving up sugar and trying to kick out pretty much all the junk foods. I’ve always been somewhat of a health nut.
Over the next 18 months, I put on 30 plus pounds. My triglycerides shot straight to the moon. My blood sugar, blood pressure, and all my labs were getting worse. That’s pretty much when the fire happened. I was moving around at the same time. I had to look for a new doctor anyway. I was like, “If this isn’t working by me trying so hard, then maybe I shouldn’t be so afraid of eating a steak here and there or bringing back a breakfast omelet instead of eating cereal all the time.”
It changed the way that my hunger was regulated. Previous to that, I was always hungry every 2 or 3 hours. I was zapped and out of energy if I wasn’t constantly fueling. When I started experimenting with intermittent fasting and pushing breakfast out until lunch, not eating in the mornings, a lot of people said that that was a horrible idea. For me, it started working well. I started hitting personal bests and marathon running, sprint running, and other events I was doing. Eating something more like 2 meals a day instead of 6 or 8 meals throughout the day seemed to work a lot better.
My brain and energy started working a lot better. Everything seemed like it was firing on all cylinders again instead of being a slog. I have a lot of respect for doctors and have had many on my podcast. There are a lot of good doctors out there who have a better understanding of physiology, how the body works, and also how you can incorporate things that sound zany like ketogenic cyclic dieting, and intermittent fasting. Sometimes, going high fat. Sometimes, going lower fat, carb cycling, calorie cycling, and all these various things.
It seems like a lot of physicians, doctors, and especially alternative practitioners are into it. It’s become almost par for the course in a lot of circles. It’s important that people understand that everyone has their health journey. Sometimes, we put people up on a pedestal and it’s not always the right person. It’s important to have the right doctor or coach that works with your goals. You have to be honest, do that audit of your results, and be like, “1) Am I doing this right? Am I following the right dogma or steps? 2) Is it working for me in my life or not?”
Seeing it not work on me so hard and losing everything in the fire at the same time, having that existential crisis, was enough for me to be like, “I’m going to go hard in the other direction.” The results came so quickly that it was pretty easy to keep going in that direction, especially because I was so into running. If that made me feel better and run faster, I was certainly willing to try.
Full disclosure, I had you on the show because I’ve had success with low-carb, keto, or whatever you want to call it. I’ve lost 23 pounds. I started doing it for the benefit of my autoimmune disease. It has helped a lot. I wanted to ask this. Do you feel like there is one diet that’s good for everyone? Do you feel like you need to see what works with your body and personal issues? My metabolism was messed up because I was never able to lose weight and keep it off for long. It’s happening so much easier. I’m curious how you think this works with the population in general. How do we figure out what is the right way for us to go?
It’s always going to be a little bit different but the way that I see it is that there are fundamental principles. It’s like music. I talk about music a lot in my podcast because I see health and music as very similar. Everyone plays their style of music but there’s still a scale behind that. There’s math and solfeggio. The way that harmonics stack on each other is a natural law.
You can violate it but even people who are non-trained musicians will think that it sounds out of tune or quite right. It’s similar to health, where there are these fundamental pillars. We need to make sure that we’re not deficient in certain minerals, vitamins, and nutrients. We also need to make sure that we’re not having an excess of things that our body isn’t well designed to digest or use.
A lot of the problems that we see in the modern world with people’s health come from the fact that we’re eating all of these newfangled substances in huge amounts like industrial seed oils. Look at manmade fats as opposed to the ones that we might find in the natural world, ones that have been ultra-processed. It’s the same thing with flowers. Also, eating unhealthy animals from an unhealthy system that has been pumped full of antibiotics and hormones. All of this stuff has downstream effects on our health.
If we’re talking about young kids or pregnant women, they’re going to be eating very differently than someone who’s a young man going out and doing marathon running, for example. It’s going to show up differently. The principles are quite similar, where you want to make sure that you are getting enough protein, enough of the right kind of fats, such that your body can create hormones from them. These are the building blocks.
Food ultimately becomes electrons in your body. It’s an electric-type experience. If you are fueling in a suboptimal way, then your body will start to misbehave, physiologically speaking. It could be putting on extra weight, which is similar to sequestering food that you can’t digest. Depending on what you’re eating, some foods you burn, others you store. The ones that you can digest more easily or that your body is better built to digest from the natural world, you don’t run into as many problems.
A lot of the people I’ve worked with have thyroid underperforming. There are dietary factors that influence autoimmune conditions and different organs of our bodies. This is all a long way of saying if you’re satisfying the needs of your body and getting enough protein and the right kinds of quality fats, then your body can use cholesterol and other molecules, hormones, and all the rest of that to create the materials that your body needs to run on.
If you’re constantly fueling on the wrong kind of foods, then all of a sudden, things start breaking down. For a lot of people, we’re seeing that happen earlier in their lives. There are principles. One that I hold very dear is eating more like our grandparents or great-grandparents. It’s nice and simple, fresh foods, quality meats, plenty of vegetables, and try to stay away from things that are starchy, floury, or sugary.
Not that you can never have cheesecake or cookies again. We’re big fans of making our homemade treats. If you make them with high-quality ingredients and it’s not getting most of the caloric load from sugar or sweetness from sugar, there are other ways of going around it, then your body shifts gears. You go from being a sugar burner who’s addicted to this high-octane, super-processed fuel to someone who’s more of a fat burner who can go longer without food.
You fill up more quickly because you’re getting adequate protein and fat. In the absence of that, it’s very easy to overeat the wrong foods because your body is screaming for protein, saturated fat, or some other kind of nutrient. You’re not going to get that from all the boxes and prepackaged bars at the grocery store. You get that from the outside aisles, the real food that we’ve been eating for generations.
The way you skew as far as whether you want more vegetables or meat is a universal principle. In my opinion, we should eat whole foods. A few years after my first baby, I had that extra weight and all that. I was like, “I’ll eat slim fast bars.” That is what threw my ulcerative colitis into a tailspin. I ended up in the hospital about six months later because I was bombarding my system with all these chemicals and things that it couldn’t digest.
I agree with the whole food department for sure. We should all be eating whole real foods from the outside aisles of the grocery store. Some people that are reading may be thinking, “I’m a musician. I don’t make enough money even hardly to pay my rent. All I can afford is these highly processed things that are cheaper in the grocery store. I’m so busy. I’m doing gigs all the time. I can only grab a bar or something.” What do you say to them? How can they do this whole-food lifestyle when they’re on the road or a low budget?
I’ll use an example from the TV show where I was coaching Kurt that I referenced before. He lost 87 pounds in 3.5 months. We had pretty much every single day 12 to 14 hours filming on set. We didn’t have a chance to go shopping, go out to meals, or certainly go forage out in the forest for wild berries or anything like that. What they had for food for the most part, and this is very consistent amongst TV shows, even the big ones, is M&M’s, animal crackers, Cheez-Its, potato chips, and things like that. It’s the worst kind of food that you could imagine.
Is this a weight loss show?
That was part of the torture. The camera guys are all slamming M&M’s and eating Starbursts and stuff. The people who are on the show, their eyes are like saucers, and freaking out. It’s part of the challenge for everyone.
Putting a crack in front of a crack addict is not cool.
It’s dangling carrots the whole time. Having coached a lot of musicians who go on tour over the years, this is always a problem. The answer is you have to plan for it in one way or another. You can always use an excuse that healthy food is expensive but unhealthy food is also expensive. If you find that you’re eating out a lot, then one thing that you can do is go to a grocery store.You can always use the excuse that healthy food is expensive, but unhealthy food is also expensive. Click To Tweet
I do this all the time when we’re traveling. Go to a grocery store and try to get the raw materials to build a solid meal for the next few days. Whether you have a place that you’re staying, that’s a house or a hotel, you can always find a way around eating out from some terrible hamburger joint or something like that. There are always alternatives. They’re not always expensive either.
Before you go out on a trip, tour, or whatever it is, making sure that you’re going to either bring with you foods that serve your purpose or you can source is super important. The only way you can do that is by planning, like putting all the brown M&M’s in a bowl, or something like that. Have it in your rider. I need steaks ready for me after I perform my show.
If you are doing shows like that and you have the option, usually, you can finagle a way to get some quality meats in there. It’s not too hard to ask people for a salad. In terms of travel-friendly foods, have something like hard-boiled eggs, trail mix made with quality nuts, not fried in some terrible oil, and covered with sugar but real food snacks. Bring those with you. Put them into your carry-on luggage or whatever it is.
We’ve been doing this for many years. There are so many different ways to do it. I’m not against protein bars, protein powders, supplements, and that sort of thing. They have their place. A lot of these more expensive ways of going about it can make life more convenient but they’re not necessary. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on food, get a dozen eggs, the cheap kind. It doesn’t even have to be pasture-raised.
Not the most expensive cheese but get a cheaper cheese. Throw a little bit of that on there. Get your cheese fix or a chocolate bar. If you start sourcing them as individual ingredients from a grocery store or ordering online, you are going to save so much compared to eating from McDonald’s or anything that you find on the road that’s fast food or takeout. Eating out at restaurants is going to be 5 or 10 times more expensive than sourcing the raw ingredients on your own.
That’s what I would say. Plan and try to get the ingredients to do the work yourself. There’s a trade-off. You can spend more money and less time involved with the more convenient healthy foods. If you don’t have the money, then carve out a little extra time to prioritize your health. If you’re eating foods that you know work well for you the day before the performance or on performance day, you’re going to perform better and have a more successful career. People will notice it.
If you are running a little ragged and you show up for your show, it’s probably not going to be quite so great as those days when you wake up feeling like a champion because you’re all fueled up and ready to go. You’re worth it. There are an endless amount of excuses but once you rearrange your priorities, put your health up next to performance at the top, and see it as critically related, then it becomes a lot easier to push that priority up. Especially as the years tick by, we realize that things go wrong and our bodies start falling apart in various ways. You realize that this isn’t something that’s optional. At some point, you’re forced to do it whether you like it or not.
I love the grocery store tip. My daughter went on an abroad semester. She was saying to me she got so sick of having to get prepackaged things and maybe fast food or something like that. She started doing her charcuterie boards where she would go to a grocery store, get cheese, meat, and maybe some dried fruit, and do her thing. I was like, “How did you cut the cheese?” She’s like, “That was a little struggle. I rip it off. I didn’t have any silverware.” That’s a way you could do that. She was trained in some planes and all that stuff so she needed something that was very mobile. That’s a way to do it.
When I used to tour, I do speaking as well as singing. I did a lot of corporate events and special events that were held at country clubs. They would serve the most delicious food but I could never eat it before I was singing. It would be rich food and stuff. I would always go until after it was over, have them box it up, and eat it later. It makes me think about the power of intermittent fasting and having a smaller eating window.
I’ve started having an eating window of about eight hours if I can. That’s been helping me as well. I’d love to have you talk a little bit about maybe shortening our eating window can help because you can time it around your gigs. My one concern, because I never did this when I was touring, is if you fast and you’ve got a gig that’s at noon, it’s a luncheon or something, will you be at peak performance if you haven’t eaten since 7:00 the previous day?
These are usually things that happen to musicians by accident. You’ve had a few bad experiences where you ate that creamy pasta alfredo. We all know how that goes. Some people can pull that off and do it so it’s good on them. Generally speaking, it is better for us, from a health standpoint, to not eat too close to the time that we go to sleep. You don’t want to be eating in the middle of the night all the time.
For me, that’s what happens. Whether it’s nerves, getting ready for the show, or having bad experiences from overeating and then trying to do a show in the past, for the most part, I’m always about eating super light or nothing at all before the shows. Before my gig runs, I treat it in a similar way. I don’t want to get too into this but if you’re hitting too much roughage before trying to run 26 miles, it’s not good. You need to plan for all this.
What I would say is that there’s a way to go about it that will work for you. Overeating is not good. Undereating isn’t either. You have to find a way to check all of those boxes. If you can build up that muscle of being able to have that eating window shifted around based on what you’re doing that day, that’s important for good performance. For example, you can put on a performance not having eaten beforehand and have plenty of energy to get through your show and feel good about it. I don’t know about you but I’m not hungry immediately. After it takes 30, 60, or 90 minutes afterward, I calm back down after the show.Shifting your eating window around what you’re doing for the day is important for good performance. Click To Tweet
You’re famished and then you want to eat everything. That can work if you plan and set that up but you need to build up that muscle first. I would encourage people on the days that you are not having a performance where you’re not forced to do that to try putting your eating window around the time that you’re normally performing. Move it before or after. See what works for you. Some people do well by having their eating window. As soon as they wake up in the morning, they’re eating protein and getting the energy for breakfast. It’s serving them for the rest of the day but they stop eating by mid-afternoon or even lunchtime. They’re not eating at all that night. That can work well.
For me, usually, it’s the opposite. I’m pushing breakfast out until later in the day. I would reemphasize that if you do that sort of thing, eating, staying up all night under blue lights, artificial lights, eating big meals in the middle of the night, you can do it every once in a while but arrange your performance schedule to not have that be the norm for you.
You don’t want to be doing that every night. From a circadian biology perspective, the way that our bodies are naturally meant to work, at some point, that’s going to be suboptimal and would stop working so well if you’re doing it too much. Every once in a while, that can work well. I would encourage people out there to try to perform without food sometimes. Try to practice at home, see how you feel, and play for 2, 3, or 4 hours straight. See what your cardiovascular performance is during that show. See if you run out of energy.
Playing a four-hour show, if it’s music, it’s super similar to running a marathon in a lot of ways. It’s a cardiovascular experience. Sometimes you need to fuel up beforehand. It depends on your show though and how physical it is, even what instrument you’re playing. Everyone’s got to find their way. If you aren’t addicted to food and you don’t have to eat every 2 to 3 hours and sacrifice the quality of your food to get something in there, then you’re going to be serving your health over the long-term by not eating the suboptimal food.
The best tip here is to practice this when you don’t need to. Shorten your eating window when you’re home and not on tour. Get used to that. You don’t want to try like, “I decided I’m going to intermittent fast for the first time,” when you’re having a big gig.
That’s called a bonking. It’s when you run out of energy or juice in the running circles. Grown men start crying when this happens in the middle of the race. Your body cannot operate anymore. We’ve all been there to some degree or another. Try not to get there. Maybe on the days that you’re practicing this, try to get a little close to there to see what it feels like. Be very intentional and tuned in to where your body is at. That’s how you’re going to learn where your limits are so you can find your way back to the sweet spot.Be very intentional and tune in to where your body's at because that's how you will learn your limits and find your way back to the sweet spot. Click To Tweet
I’m going to ask about this subject because I know that it comes up for every musician. That’s alcohol. You can’t avoid being around alcohol when you’re touring in some way. I’d love beer but I know that it’s way too many carbs for my body. I shouldn’t have it. Some people are super dogmatic, “Alcohol is poison. You should never have it.” Other people are like, “It’s fine in moderation but you should have this.” I’m curious what your stance is on that. Maybe if you feel like you want to have a little alcohol to be social, what’s the best to have, how often, and that kind of thing?
It’s an individual type of experience when it comes to alcohol. In a lot of cases, it’s the currency that we’re paid in as musicians. If people come up with a round of shots, you’re expected to be the life of the party and slam some tequila. Maybe 2, 3, 4, or 5 shots of tequila right in a row. You don’t necessarily need to entertain that. You don’t always need to say yes just because you’re expected to be the life of the party.
We all probably had 1 show or 2, maybe 3 plus, where we’ve had a few too many. We know that that is not good for the performance. It might feel good in the moment but if you ever see the recordings or you listen back to that show compared to the times when you were on point, it’s usually not that pretty. Every once in a while, it’s fun here and there.
One thing I have noticed though, as it relates to alcohol, is the world of food addiction is pretty similar. A lot of people will say, “I can’t have any sugar. If I have any sugar, I’m going to be going and getting the Ben & Jerry’s from the corner store, bringing it home, and eating the whole thing.” There are other people who can eat 1 slice or 2 of cake. No problem. They’re done. You can have a little bit of chocolate here and there, no problem. Some people aren’t built that way.
One heuristic that you might be able to use is to look back on your life to see which type of person you are, whether you can moderate or be better served by abstaining. Look back to your teen years. If you were straight edge, you felt pretty good, and you didn’t use substances up until the time that your brain finished developing, it doesn’t finish baking until you’re 25.
If you experimented with drugs or alcohol, and maybe went a little hard on one of them or another during those years that your brain was still developing, it seems to me, from what I’ve read and seen that you’re more likely to be someone who will be well served by abstaining. It’s going to be harder to moderate some of that intake whether it’s alcohol, sugar, or substances. Your brain has that wiring in there where it says, “This is okay. More is good.” If you lived a more straight-edge life when you were younger, by the time you’re older, you can have a glass of wine. It doesn’t have that hold on people. It’s not quite the same.
I get that. I was straight edge when it came to alcohol when I was younger. I’m a total moderator but sugar, on the other hand, was my reward system. When I was young, if I ate my dinner, I got my dessert. If I did my homework, I get my snack. I can be a moderator but I see myself going down a slippery slope sometimes as I am convincing myself, “I can be a moderator,” and then I moderate less and less. There’s that where you can be a moderator but you have to watch yourself if you have that programming.
Everyone has to watch themselves. The thing about alcohol is that you go a few days without it and you feel worse. You go 1 week or 2 and then something happens. You start to feel better. Around 5:00 PM or happy hour, you’re not reaching for it anymore. It takes a few weeks for your body to get used to that mode again. If you are used to drinking at every show or most nights, then you wake up feeling a little worse than you should pretty much every day. By the time you run out of energy, 3:00 to 5:00 PM, somewhere around happy hour, then having a beer or a little bit of wine, you don’t have that edge anymore or it takes the edge off when you have a little bit, and then you want more.
It happens the next day and the next day. That’s the problem. If you’re caught in this loop of feeling bad because of alcohol and then you try to feel better the next day because of alcohol or using alcohol, that’s a terrible hamster wheel to be on. It gets ugly for almost everyone. Depending on where you are, alcohol can be something that can work. If there’s any way that you can moderate and try to build that muscle, especially having some discipline around your shows saying, “I can have a beer before my show. It’s nice to hang out with the bartenders or the people during soundcheck, relax for a second, and take a little bit of the edge off,” just 1 and not 9.
The same thing with after the show if you can find other ways of feeling good or relaxing. Part of it too is when you go up on stage, there’s a flood of all sorts of different hormones, chemicals, neurotransmitters, and emotions. Ramping back down when you need to go to sleep that night after a late-night show, it’s hard to turn off after you’ve been turned on the life of the party, putting on a giant show for most of the night. Trying to self-soothe or turn your brain off and get rid of that racing mind at the end of the night, alcohol seems like can do that but it’s not. It’s dulling it in a way that you don’t want.
There are other ways that you can ramp down after shows that don’t involve alcohol that are going to help a lot more. Some of them are based around food supplements or lifestyle practices, listening to binaural beats, putting on a meditation soundtrack, and staying away from your phone and blue light after your show is done. Putting on blue-blocking glasses, practicing sleep hygiene, and being clean about the way you’re living have their benefits because you’re going to have a lot more energy and productivity.Being clean about how you're living has its benefits because you will have a lot more energy and productivity. Click To Tweet
Saving your alcohol for the times that are special occasions, the weekends, or something like that can work for a lot of people too. I’ll be the first to say this. It’s a tricky one, especially for musicians. I do wish that there were more venues for musicians that weren’t so based around alcohol. Unfortunately, that’s the business model. It’s hard to make that much money for the venues, which are struggling themselves, from any other substance because they don’t have that type of markup except for maybe popcorn but people aren’t buying that much popcorn. They’ll buy a lot of booze.
There are a lot of near beers, like zero-alcohol beers, zero-alcohol wines, and a whole bunch of different zero-alcohol cocktails that are taking off. I’ve had all sorts of them that I’ve tried. I’ve been impressed in the past few years by how good some of them can be. Even Guinness has a zero-alcohol beer that is a bomb. It’s good. Play around with those if you still want your beer.
I’m one of those people that does want alcohol to relax. I do it once and it’s great. I feel relaxed but if I do that every day after work to take the edge off, I realize it’s not having that effect anymore.
You need more and more to get that same effect over time. That’s the problem.
I want to ask this question about going from a sugar burner to a fat burner. This is what makes it hard for people to take out those sugars and flour and try to be a little higher on protein, veggies, and stuff. When you first go through that, it’s difficult. I’m coming off of vacation where I did eat more carbs than I usually do. My husband is starting a lower-carb diet and we were both talking about how. No matter how much you eat, there’s this carb-shaped hole in your body that only carbs can fill. Even though you’ve stuffed yourself with food, you still have this emptiness. How do you get past that? If anyone’s heard of the keto flu, it’s a real thing. Once you get past it, it’s great.
Some people feel it more than others. It’s hard to know exactly who’s going to feel it and when. It can happen to the same person who hops back on the carb train and then tries to do some ketogenic approach again. They’re like, “What is this hole in my belly all of a sudden? Why do I feel this way? This never happened before.” A lot of times, some of the things at play are electrolyte imbalances, which change depending on how many carbs are coming in.
With a lot of carbs coming in, you don’t need as much salt. When you don’t have those carbs coming in, you need more salt. Having a high-quality sea salt or Himalayan salt can be useful. Even if you put a little bit of that in water, that’s the low-tech and low-expense way of going about getting some extra electrolytes in there. Supplementing with magnesium can be helpful during those first couple of weeks as well, especially if you start getting cramps, leg cramps, or anything that, which can pop up around the same time. Usually, that’s related to some electrolyte issue.
There are a lot of supplements that have gotten tastier as far as electrolytes are concerned over the years. A couple that I like are trace minerals. It comes in a bottle where you put a few drops into your water. It improves the taste. It gives you a little bit of a wide spectrum of different electrolytes. Element is another company where I like the taste of what they’ve gotten there. It’s magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Especially for the first couple weeks, if you find that you’re low on energy or you have a lot of food cravings, sometimes it’s more of a salt craving or a craving for those electrolytes.
Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. That water is clean and pretty much unadulterated by all of the nasty things that are in tap water. Make sure it’s filtered if you can do so. Add a little bit of electrolytes in there. Add some extra quality salt to your meals. Aside from that, sometimes cycling in carbs for a few days can be useful for people but try to make them the clean variety, whole food variety. I’m talking about sweet potatoes, some overnight oats, or something that’s nice and clean versus going out and slamming a pizza or donuts. The hyper-processed breads are the ones that seem to affect me in a negative way. All sorts of things start going wrong if I hit the baked goods section.
I’m not sure if it’s from the dough conditioners, the aluminum that they put in there, or what the heck it is. The state of modern bread and flour is an ugly one for a lot of people. The keto flu and eating low carb and experiencing that usually only lasts 1 week or 2. If you can push through it, then usually it goes away. It doesn’t come back. Until you start hitting the carbs again, you try to pull them out. If you’re making sure that you get enough electrolytes, then you can persist.
Usually, I’ve learned to recognize that feeling of being low on salt and connect that to a craving. For a lot of people, you’ll be craving Fritos, Doritos, or something that’s specific. In your brain, it’s craving salt and the saltiest thing it’s tasted is one of those processed foods. Before you go out and grab a bunch of Goldfish, Cheez-Its, potato chips, or something, ask yourself and try to connect those dots. “Do I need some salt and a bunch of water?” A lot of times, we think that we’re hungry but we’re thirsty for water plus electrolytes.
That’s a good tip. I try to be good about it but I forget. I’ve got to remember every day to put my electrolytes in my water and it does help. Thank you so much. This has been so informative. I love how you’ve been able to apply all these health concepts to musicians specifically. That’s been great. Can you let everybody know how they can find you online?
Thanks for having me once again. You can find me at FatBurningMan.com for health and fitness-related stuff. That’s also the name of the podcast, Fat-Burning Man. My website for music projects, virtual reality, strange projects, and other things like that is AbelJames.com. If you’d like to check out some of my music, Abel James Swamp Thing is one of the projects that I talked about where we did it in Nashville with a bunch of those guys. It’s nice swampy blues rock.
Is that on Spotify?
Guys, go check it out. Thank you so much, Abel. This has been great. I appreciate you sharing all your knowledge and experience with our readers.
Thanks so much for having me.
- Abel James
- The Wild Diet
- Fat-Burning Man – Podcast
- Abel James Swamp Thing
- Spotify – Swamp Thing
About Abel James
Abel James is a New York Times Bestselling Author, Musician, and Online Creator. A “Coach to the coaches,” Abel has been a leading voice in the world of Health for more than a decade. He’s starred on ABC Television, in documentaries, and has been featured in People, Entertainment Tonight, South by Southwest, and many more. With over 50 million downloads and 2000+ 5-star reviews since its launch in 2012, Abel’s podcast has won 4 awards in independent media, including “People’s Choice” in Health & Fitness at the Podcast Awards.