How Abel James, the Fat-Burning Man, Pulled Himself Up by His Pull-Ups
The creator of 'Fat Burning Man' and author of 'The Wild Diet' talks about using the internet to spread his message about health and fitness.
Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
Name: Abel James
Job: James is a fitness and lifestyle expert, an author, a musician, and an entrepreneur. He is the founder of Fat Burning Man, a health and fitness resource that includes a blog, podcast, a book, and an online community. He is also the bestselling author of The Wild Diet.
Original Hometown: Center Harbor, New Hampshire
I was looking at your background, and I find it interesting that you started in consulting before moving into health and fitness. What prompted that pivot?
I went to Dartmouth College and had to take on quite a few loans to do that. So I spent my senior year dressed up in a suit, shaking hands and doing interviews. I got offers from the CIA and Wall Street but I wanted to take consulting because it was something where I would be able to learn something new pretty much every day. I wanted to go on an adventure after that.
Did you always know your adventure would pivot toward health and fitness?
I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful mother who’s been in alternative health ever since I was young. That was a big influence on me. But I found that my day job — doing the consulting — wasn’t fulfilling after a while. I really wanted to break off and do something that I was truly 100% passionate about. That’s what really made me start the whole Fat Burning Man thing.
The Fat Burning Man is sort of an empire: You’ve got books, videos, speeches, podcasts. Which element did you start with when you were first putting it together?
When I first started, I had actually been writing about health on various blogs for years. But I didn’t really use my personality all that much. I realized that to get to the next level, it’s important to put yourself out there and take some risks.
When I was doing my research, whenever I picked up a book on fitness or diet and nutrition, the first thing I would do is take a look at who’s writing it to see if they’re walking the walk. So when I started Fat Burning Man, I almost thought of it as being a musician. I’d been a professional musician ever since I was a kid. You have to come up with a cool name for your band and an artistic style behind it. Fat Burning Man is a cheerful alter ego to put out there.
At the time I was working in consulting, so Abel Bascom was the guy who shook hands and wore suits, and then Abel James was the musician who entertained drunk people at night in Texas. I was kind of leading a double life as a musician — you could, on the internet. Now it’s intersected into one. But that was the genesis of being keen on starting the blog and then blowing it out to audio and video.
When you look at websites or books even, it’s hard to connect with the author. It doesn’t happen right away because you don’t hear their voice. But in a podcast, if someone is right in your earbud, you feel like you know them within a few seconds. So I wanted, hopefully, for my passion to come through. A lot of people in the health and fitness industry are in it for the money or have a conflict of interest. I wanted people to hopefully realize that I’m a real person and I’m trying to help others be as healthy as they can be.
Did you find there was a learning curve for fine-tuning your use of social media?
There was a huge learning curve. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was the technology itself — it’s not hard to learn how to use Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. It’s more about developing your own systems within your personal life and your business life to create content that works on all those different platforms. And then to find a way to put it out there on a consistent basis and make sure that it’s valuable to the people on the other end, and maintain your sanity. That’s the tricky part.
How did you find a way to do that?
Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of work that’s done in a really structured way. When I was a musician, whenever I had a gig, people would say “What’s with you? You’re acting so weird.” I’d be in this headspace that is ready to perform.
I realize that if I had one interview or video on the calendar that day, then the whole day is trashed. It puts you in performance mode, so you might as well develop the stamina to do eight or ten of them a day. You can be more productive that way. I’m usually not writing one thing at a time, I’m writing three emails, or going through and editing six blog posts in a three hour sitting. That’s the way you can really start getting ahead.
So since you do different things day to day, what takes most time?
I enjoy writing, and that takes up a lot of my time in one form or another. It could be responding to somebody’s tweet or writing a caption on Instagram or it could be writing for a new book or blogpost or newsletter or responding to something in my inbox that could be a new business opportunity.
You said you did a lot of your own research at the beginning. How did you find sources for it?
Having a wonderful mother came in handy; she always had a library of books about herbs, healing plants, and alternative medicine. But also when I was at Dartmouth, I studied brain science, psychology, and music, and kind of combined that with technology to create my own fellowship. So I did a lot of independent research, mostly around brain science. I went back and read a lot of medical journals about the way the brain interacts with the gut and combined it with real experience.
When I had my job in consulting, I had very good insurance for the first time in my life. So I wanted to get the best doctor possible, do as many tests as possible, go on the best diet as possible, to make sure I could be healthy. Following the doctor’s advice, over the course of a few months I avoided red meat, got rid of saturated fat in the diet. I was eating very low fat diet foods. I gained 20 or 30 pounds, my triglycerides went through the roof, and after a few months I was basically prescribed about a half dozen prescription medications. So when I tried to reconcile the world with what I had experienced, there were some stunning differences.
I came home one night when I was at my fattest and sickest, and my apartment building had burned down. I lost everything. I knew I needed some sort of goal to get me through that so I had something to look forward to. I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “I have to take care of this.” I was in my early 20s and felt like I was in my 40s.
When I decided to put these things I found in my research — high fat, low carb dieting, and married that with a world of real food and using food as medicine like my mom taught me — that’s when things really started to change. When I started eating that way I lost about 20 pounds in just over a month. I was exercising less and eating the most ridiculously good food like grass-fed steak and dark chocolate and real butter. All of that fat I built up by trying to be healthy eating a low fat diet came off quickly. I was like, “Why doesn’t the world know all about this?” That’s why I started up Fat Burning Man the blog, then the podcast, wrote the book, and then went on an ABC TV show about it.
The idea that we’re settling for obesity and diabetes as a normal occurrence is disturbing. When we look at history, this is completely unprecedented. We can shield so much of this sickness just by eating in a different way than we’re used to in America.
On a regular basis, how long do you spend working out every day?
It depends on how you define working out. I go on walks every day, usually at least two a day with my dog. When it comes to high intensity exercise, I do about five to ten minutes every day except Sundays. Today, for example, I did two sets of 33 pull ups and I went for a 10-15 minute jog with the dog and I’ll probably go for a walk tonight. Then I do one heavy lift day a week.
What’s more important, eating right or working out?
80% of your results will come from eating right. Bodybuilders have a saying, “six packs are carved by smoothies.” If you want to lose fat, the best way to do it is to focus on eating the right way. If you want better results, then add exercise. But if it’s between one or the other, it’s definitely about diet. Most people are surprised how little exercise you can get away with. But on the ABC show, the guy I worked with lost 87 pounds in 14 weeks and his workouts were basically a walk a day and then maybe 20-30 minutes of workouts a week.
What’s been the most surprising part of your career?
Probably how I’ve been able to keep doing different things while doing the Fat Burning Man. I also put out an album of original music that just won a songwriting award, and then my book became a New York Times best seller at the same time. One thing that surprised me was how much being out there in one way really affects everything else that you do. A lot more people are getting the message about health because they listen to my music, which has been cool to see.
What are you most looking forward to?
I just love following the breadcrumbs. There are so many weird adventures coming up. I always try to be on the lookout for the next thing. If you look back 10-15 years, the idea that I would have a job that depends on YouTube, a podcast, social media — none of these things had been invented yet! Looking ahead at 5, 10, 15 years in the future, I’m stoked to see what else is coming next. Everything is changing so quickly! There are a lot of naysayers out there, but I really see a lot more abundance and hope because there is so much good information that’s available to people, especially through the internet. Almost anyone who’s in a tough spot can get access to the information they need to improve their situation.