Here’s part two of the interview I conducted with Jonathan Bailor, author of The Smarter Science of Slim.
Fat Head: Based on your definitions of SANE and inSANE foods, what are the three worst foods you see people typically consume?
1. Any beverage with a high concentration of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup (e.g., regular soda)
2. Foods full of processed starch combined with sugar (e.g., cakes, pies, snack cakes, doughnuts, etc.)
3. Foods that are fundamentally sugar or processed starch (e.g., candy, white bread, etc.)
Fat Head: You also state that the quality of food affects our need and ability to burn fat. I know it’s a complex topic, but as briefly and simply as you can explain it, how does higher-quality food enable us to burn fat more efficiently?
Jonathan: The need to burn fat (distinct from the need to slow down and to burn muscle) means our body has an abundance of nutrition and a shortage of calories. When there’s an abundance of nutrition and a shortage of calories, the body wants to burn fat to fuel itself instead of slowing down and burning muscle.
The ability to burn fat means metabolizing fat for fuel is “easy” given our hormone levels. For example, if we have the hormone insulin circulating in our bloodstream, it is not “easy” for our body to burn fat for fuel. No matter how much we need to burn fat at that point in time, insulin has removed our ability to do so effectively.
High-quality food provides an abundance of nutrition and satisfies us so effectively that we avoid overeating. Additionally, high-quality food creates a hormonal environment that makes it much easier for us to burn fat for fuel. More nutrition plus less overeating and healed hormones enables our body to burn fat rather than slowing down and burning muscle.
Fat Head: The USDA recommends eating nutrient-dense food, but advises against eating red meat. Isn’t red meat nutrient-dense?
Jonathan: If we divide the nutrition provided in a serving of lean red meat by the calories provided in a serving, we see that lean red meat is nutrient-dense.
Fat Head: Are whole grains nutrient-dense? Do you ever eat them?
Jonathan: Dividing nutrition per serving by calories per serving, we see that whole grains are less nutrient-dense than non-starchy vegetables, seafood, lean meats, low-fat or fat-free plain Greek yogurt, low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese, citrus fruits, and berries, as well as most nuts and seeds. Therefore, we would be better off eating so much of the aforementioned nutrient-dense foods that we’re too full for less nutrient-dense whole grains. For example, when we’re out to eat, we could easily tell our server, “Please hold the starch and double the vegetables.”
I personally do not eat any whole grains because they do not further my health and fitness goals.
Fat Head: I’ve seen quite a few guidelines on how much protein a person should eat, and they’re all over the place. According to one expert, I only need about 50 grams of protein per day. The Protein Power guidelines put me at around 130 grams per day. According to both you and Tim Ferriss, I should be consuming closer to 200 grams per day. That’s a lot of protein. What would be the advantage for me of consuming that much?
Jonathan: Lean sources of protein are very satisfying, positively impact our hormonal balance, are nutrient dense, and are relatively difficult for the body to convert into body fat. Also, we have to eat something, so focusing on protein-rich foods is a great way to satisfy ourselves while ensuring both the need and the ability to burn fat. Put differently, if you didn’t get about a third of your calories from protein, you’d be getting them from foods that are less likely to ensure you have both the need and the ability to burn fat.
Fat Head: You suggest consuming at least 30 grams of protein soon after waking. I’ve been doing the opposite lately, limiting my meals to lunch and dinner as a form of intermittent fasting, which I presume you’d advise against. Why should I eat a protein-rich breakfast in the morning if I’m not actually hungry?
Jonathan: Studies show that consuming protein every three to four hours boosts the metabolism (need to burn fat) and creates a hormonal environment more optimized for fat burning (ability to burn fat). I, too, am not hungry when I wake up. As a solution, I’ve found mixing whey protein powder with a big glass of water is a great way to boost the metabolism and help hormones even when hunger isn’t present. I also mix two tablespoons of wheat grass powder into my protein shake to sneak a few servings of non-starchy vegetables in.
Fat Head: How do you feel about intermittent fasting in general? Do you believe the positive hormonal changes promised by advocates of intermittent fasting do indeed occur?
Jonathan: The research behind The Smarter Science of Slim shows that anytime the body has insufficient nutrition (distinct from insufficient calories), the metabolism slows down (bad), the body burns at least as much muscle as fat (bad), and a hormonal environment is created that will cause fat gain in the long term (bad). However, my research suggests that as long as the body is provided with an abundance of nutrition (including protein and essential fatty acids) insufficient calories could provide a positive result.
Fat Head: The diet you recommend is around one-third protein, one-third carbohydrates from fruits and non-starchy vegetables, and one-third fat. I haven’t tried to calculate macronutrient percentages lately, but I’m pretty sure my diet is more than 50% fat and probably no more than 15% – 20% carbohydrates. Is there something wrong with that ratio? Can you explain why less fat and more carbohydrate would help me lose weight more weight?
Jonathan: As long as you are eating at least ten servings of non-starchy vegetables a day while getting about a third of your daily calories from protein, the rest of your diet could consist of natural fats—ideally, mostly from plants and seafood—without compromising long term health or weight. In other words, studies show that to optimize long-term fat loss and health, we must eat at least ten servings of non-starchy vegetables and approximately a gram of protein per pound of body weight per day (there are exceptions for very heavy individuals). After that, as long as it’s full of water, fiber, and protein, we are good to eat it.
Fat Head: You urge your readers to get their carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits, and I totally agree with that. But frankly, I’d find it difficult to consume a third of my calories in the form of, say, green vegetables while simultaneously limiting my fat intake. For example, I checked the nutrition label on a box of spinach and found that it provides about 90 calories in the form of carbohydrates. I’ll happily eat that box of spinach, but only if I add at least two tablespoons of butter to the mix, which means I’m already consuming twice as many fat calories as carbohydrate calories, and that’s before I even put any meat on my plate. So, with that preamble out of the way, here’s the question: if you’re going to get a third of your calories from non-starchy carbohydrates, how do you make all those piles of vegetables palatable?
Jonathan: Without a doubt, a SANE cookbook is needed, and one is coming this year.
In the meantime, sautéing non-starchy vegetables with a teaspoon of olive oil and various seasonings can make it easy and delicious to consume 3-4 servings of non-starchy vegetables in a sitting. Do this with lunch and dinner, and someone can eat 6-8 servings of non-starchy vegetable with less than a tablespoon of olive oil. Add some non-starchy vegetables to an omelet or scrambled eggs for breakfast and put some sugar snap peas (delicious raw) in a bag to snack on, and it’s relatively easy and tasty to take in more than 12 servings of non-starchy vegetables without consuming over 12 servings of added fat. And that’s what someone would do to achieve excellent health and fitness. If someone’s goals are more moderate, the non-starchy vegetable intake becomes even easier.
Note: The research underlying The Smarter Science of Slim shows that naturally occurring fats found in foods that are rich in water, fiber, and protein are fantastic for fat loss and health. It does, however, recommend we add as little fat to food as possible, as pure fat isn’t rich in water, fiber, or protein.
Fat Head: You cite research in your book to convince readers that despite what we’ve all been told, saturated fat and cholesterol don’t cause heart disease. But you also recommend consuming egg whites and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. While producing Fat Head, I was focused mostly on restricting carbohydrates, but I’ve become more of a whole-foods guy in the past couple of years. Since eggs are a whole food, why should we consume eggs whites instead of whole eggs? Why consume consume fat-free dairy products instead of full-fat dairy products?
Jonathan: Whole eggs are healthy sources of fats since the majority of eggs’ calories come from fat versus from protein or carbohydrate. I recommend mixing egg whites with whole eggs to even out the ratio of protein and fat. If someone gets sufficient lean protein from other sources and takes in all the non-starchy vegetables necessary to optimize heath and weight, then whole eggs are fine. More simply, if someone eats eggs as a source of fat, whole eggs are fine. If someone eats eggs as a source of protein, he needs to mix egg whites with whole eggs to ensure he is actually eating mostly protein.
The point with the low-fat or fat-free plain Greek yogurt and cottage cheese is similar. If someone eats Greek yogurt and cottage cheese as sources of fat, then the full fat variants are fine. However, if someone uses these foods as sources of protein, she needs to make sure the majority of the associated calories are from protein. Note: Eating reduced fat/low-fat anything is only desirable if the fat is not replaced with sugar. Low-fat food that is chock full of sugar is terrible for health and fat loss.
To be really clear, it’s not about fearing fat. Rather, it’s about maximizing our intake of foods rich in water, fiber, and protein. We should enjoy fat freely, just after focusing first on water, fiber, and protein.
Fat Head: I’ve heard from dozens of readers who lost a lot of weight by cutting sugar and starch, but are now stuck at 20 or 30 pounds heavier than they’d prefer. What, if anything, can people who reach a plateau do to lower their set-points even more? What do you tell people who can’t seem to drop that last 20 pounds?
Jonathan: Exercise less—but smarter—as recommended by The Smarter Science of Slim. This type of exercise is specifically designed to work our muscles in a unique manner to trigger a magnitude of “fat-burning hormones” unparalleled via nearly any other exercise technique.
Fat Head: You wrote quite a bit about how hormones drive weight gain in your book. Once women reach menopause, their bodies undergo hormonal changes that encourage accumulating more body fat. Is there anything they can do to avoid this hormonally-driven weight gain?
Jonathan: Yes. Eat more and exercise less, but smarter. More specifically, eat so many non-starchy vegetables and so much lean protein that you are too full for starches and sweets. Then exercise your muscles so deeply that it is impossible for you to exercise that way again for about a week.
Fat Head: A couple of other authors who wrote about lowering the body’s set-point claim that we need to engage in aerobic-type exercise for an hour per day. Do you believe aerobic exercise can lower the body’s set point? If not, why not?
Jonathan: I did not find any studies that showed aerobic exercise to meaningfully impact the hormones which influence the set-point. Therefore, I do not see how aerobic-type exercise could meaningfully impact the set-point.
Fat Head: You recommend brief, high-intensity exercise instead of jogging or walking on a treadmill. Why do you believe this kind of exercise is better for weight loss?
Jonathan: What I believe is based on the work of countless brilliant doctors, academicians and researchers all over the world. As I said earlier, biology isn’t a matter of opinion. Consequently, every piece of advice I give is grounded in the research, which has proven that high-force exercise works a specific type of muscle fiber (Type 2b) that triggers a uniquely helpful hormonal response. Think about triggering this hormonal response like trying to move a heavy piece of furniture. You can gently poke at the furniture for one, ten, or even 100 hours, but no quantity of low-force movements will cause you to move the furniture, i.e., the result you want. Fewer but higher-force movements are how you get the result we want.
Fat Head: There’s a lot of buzz these days about paleo diets and paleo exercise. I’m sure you’re familiar with the terms, so what do you think of the paleo/primal lifestyle? Is it healthy?
Jonathan: The eating philosophy I advocate is similar to a paleo type diet, but there are three differences. My understanding of paleo diets is that no/very little legumes or dairy are permitted and fatty meats are encouraged. (My apologies if I am mistaken.) My research shows there are high-quality legumes and a few high-quality dairy products, and that these high-quality foods are both healthy and helpful for fat loss. It also shows that the best sources of fat are plants—nuts and seeds—and seafood. Therefore, if you are looking for the highest quality protein combined with the highest quality fat and given the choice between a fatty cut of meat and a lean cut of meat plus a handful or two of nuts, The Smarter Science of Slim recommends the latter.
Fat Head: How would what you recommend differ from the advice people receive from paleo/primal advocates like Mark Sisson and Robb Wolf?
Jonathan: It’s going to be more similar than it is going to be different. I mentioned the three dietary differences above.
When it comes to exercise, I agree with Mr. Sisson and Mr. Wolf on the “less but higher-quality” angle. However, my research takes this concept one step further and provides a specific type of exercise that can be done at home without any equipment and ensures the highest-quality exercise possible while minimizing impact on joints and ligaments. To my knowledge, the specific type of exercise recommended by The Smarter Science of Slim is not part of the paleo/primal regime…although I suspect Mr. Sisson and Mr. Wolf would not be opposed to it, as they are both scientifically minded individuals.
Fat Head: You don’t have recipes or meal plans in The Smarter Science of Slim, so explain what a typical day’s meals look like for you or someone following your recommendations.
Jonathan: Recipes and meal plans are coming. In the meantime, SANE meals are going to be similar to paleo meals but focus on getting fat from plants and seafood rather than fatty meats and can include high-protein, low-sugar, and low-fat dairy as well as legumes. At the end of the day, it’s about each individual’s tastes and goals because The Smarter Science of Slim is not a set of ridged laws, but a body of knowledge that enables people to most effectively accomplish their particular health and fitness aspirations.
Thank you, Jonathan.