Here’s part one of my interview with Jonathan Bailor, author of The Smarter Science of Slim.
Fat Head: Let’s start with the obvious question: what inspired you to write The Smarter Science of Slim? With all the diet books already out there, what new information did you hope to provide?
Jonathan: I’ve always been interested in science and technical topics, and as little kid, I wanted to emulate my older brother. He was heavy into athletics and working out, and so I naturally did the same. At first, I took a traditional path to health and fitness but also read all I could in popular literature because it interested me. In fact, I got so involved in health and fitness that I became a personal trainer.
Shortly after I started working with clients, I realized how ineffective traditional approaches to health and fitness were. For example, I’d work with a client for a few weeks and she’d drop a few pounds by following a traditional “eat less, exercise more” approach. But a few weeks later, that client would inevitably report how the pounds came right back. I tried all sorts of different techniques to make eating less and exercising more practical, but the results were the same: clients would lose weight, only to find themselves heavier a few months later. This caused me to re-think what success means in terms of weight loss and health, and I realized success is not defined by short-term weight loss. Instead, it is long-term fat loss and improved health. Also, I didn’t derive much satisfaction from asking clients to feel hungry, tired, deprived, and time-crunched for the rest of their lives.
Something had to change, and I was determined to find out what that change could look like. Building on my interest in science, I started reading all the academic research on health and fitness I could find. I didn’t plan to spend a decade studying this topic; it’s just something that deeply interests me.
Immediately, I was startled by the sharp contrast between what researchers had proven about how to burn fat and boost health in the long term and what I was taught by popular literature and as a personal trainer. At that point, I was determined to get to the bottom of the disconnect between traditional assumptions regarding weight loss, diet and exercise and what scientific research had proven.
The goal of The Smarter Science of Slim is to use scientifically proven facts to show how anyone can lose fat and boost health in the long term. There aren’t many people who are going to read thousands of pages of academic research to achieve this, and I saw a great opportunity to distill what I had learned into an easy-to-read manual anyone can understand and apply.
Fat Head: A lot of so-called experts have tried to dismiss Gary Taubes as “just a journalist.” Are you worried at all about being dismissed as “just an independent researcher”?
Jonathan: I can see how that could be a concern, but The Smarter Science of Slim has little to do with me because it is a compilation of research conducted by the scientific and academic communities’ most brilliant minds. While I’m sure some people will dismiss me because I don’t have M.D. or PhD after my name, it would seem odd for them to dismiss academically and scientifically robust research conducted by experts at The Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, The Mayo Clinic, and hundreds of other top institutions worldwide. “Biology isn’t a matter of opinion” is one of my favorite phrases. And just as it would be puzzling to try to discredit 1 + 1 = 2, the worldwide scientific community has shown it would be puzzling to try to discredit starch + body = a lot of insulin production or non-starchy vegetables + body = improved health.
Fat Head: How did you conduct your research for the book?
Jonathan: I studied more than 1,100 academic journal articles and had numerous follow-up correspondences (phone and email) with the articles’ M.D. and PhD authors. All told, it took me about 10 years to complete. I probably could have done it in less time, but I have been working full-time at Microsoft for the majority of this period.
Fat Head: You did a nice job of taking some complex science and explaining it clearly and simply, which is always a big plus for me when I’m recommending a book. Was that difficult, or is that just how you think? Did you ever find yourself rewriting the same paragraph dozens of times, trying to come up with a simpler explanation?
Jonathan: Oh my gosh, yes! I have a folder on my computer that contains hundreds of megabytes of Smarter Science of Slim drafts, outlines, notes, and graphics. That’s a lot of Word documents.
My editors Hillel Black, John Paine, and Mary Rose Bailor (my English professor mother) helped me strip the jargon from the science and re-explain it as concisely and simply as possible. This was a daunting task, but I’m fortunate in that taking complex information and simplifying it is what I do at Microsoft. Every day of my professional life, I collaborate with the most technical people at Microsoft and then simplify their complex technological concepts so they are useful to a non-technical audience. My experience at Microsoft was extremely influential in developing The Smarter Science of Slim, and I feel fortunate to work at such a fantastic place. The Smarter Science of Slim is really just an extension of what I do every day. The only difference is I’m simplifying biology rather than technology.
Fat Head: How did you become so interested in the topic of weight loss? Have you ever been a fat guy who needed to lose weight?
Jonathan: I’ve always been interested in how people can improve how they look and feel though food and exercise. Chalk that one up to wanting to emulate my athletic older brother combined with my innate interest in science.
My personal situation was weighing too little rather than too much. I was the scrawny guy getting sand kicked in his face at the end of the comic book. This circumstance was instrumental in inspiring me to conduct the research that lead to The Smarter Science of Slim. I’ve since learned that I—and millions of other fortunate people—can eat and eat and eat and not gain fat because:
1. Burning fat is about more than just the quantity of food we eat and the quantity exercise we get
2. The human body is capable of burning fat, automatically, long-term.
As I progressed in my research, two questions drove me:
1. What are the key factors that affect fat gain and fat loss?
2. Is there a way for everyone to make their metabolisms work more like the metabolisms of naturally thin people?
As it turns out, researchers have answered both of these questions. These answers are described in detail in The Smarter Science of Slim.
Fat Head: One of the main points you make in The Smarter Science of Slim is that it’s highly unlikely we’ll lose weight and keep it off without first changing our set-points. We know the body fights to maintain some of its fat mass – much more for some than for others — but does anyone really know exactly what a set-point is? That is, do we know why our bodies are so determined to remain fatter than we’d like to be that they’ll burn away muscle instead of burning more body fat?
Jonathan: The simplest answer is that the set-point is an abstraction of our neural wiring and the balance of hormones in our body. The former is genetic, while the latter can be influenced by the quality (not the quantity) of our eating and exercise. The body uses this neural wiring and balance of hormones to:
- regulate how many calories it demands
- regulate how many calories it burns off
- determine how it deals with excess calories
- determine how it fuels itself when no calories are available from food
Researchers D.S. Weigle from the University of Washington, T. Kelesidis from UCLA and Harvard, P.J. Havel from the University of California, R.E. Keesey from the University of Wisconsin, and many others have done extensive research around the set-point.
While one part of our set-point is determined before we are born, the other part is a function of what we eat and how we exercise. Changing the set-point is about food and exercise quality… it has nothing to do with simply eating less of our existing diet and doing more of traditional exercise. This is why so many hard-working people struggle with weight loss: they’ve been given a quantity-based solution (eat less, exercise more) to a quality-based problem. It’s a bit like trying to cure allergies by breathing less air in and breathing more air out.
Here’s a paraphrased excerpt of the book that may help here:
…Think about trying to remove fat from a hormonally “clogged” body like trying to drain water from a clogged sink. Eating less is like turning down the faucet. Exercising more is like scooping out the overflowing water. Both are temporary ways to deal with the symptoms of the problem. Neither does anything about the root cause. That is why they both fail long term.
The problem is the clog. The solution is clearing the clog. And clearing the clog requires thinking in terms of quality, not quantity.
Fiddling with the quantity of food we eat and the quantity of exercise we get will never clear our hormonal clog. Quality—low-quality food and low-quality exercise—is the cause of the backup. A sink does not get clogged by putting too much water into it. It gets clogged when we put the wrong stuff into it. Our body works the same way…
Fat Head: A lot of dieters who semi-starved themselves found to their great dismay that they lost weight, then gained it all back, then gained more, then had an even more difficult time losing weight. Do you believe the severe calorie restriction raised their set-points? If so, why? What biochemical or hormonal changes occurred?
Jonathan: My research did not specifically cover whether severe caloric restriction raises the set point. However, it did show that depriving our bodies of nutrition (which is distinct from depriving our bodies of calories) does the following:
1. Dramatically slows down the metabolism
2 .Burns at least as much muscle as fat
3. Creates an environment that causes the body to gain more body fat than it burned as soon as possible. Researchers call this “fat super accumulation”
Item three in the list above suggests a change in the set-point. But that’s as far as I’ve found researchers take it.
The simple version of what biochemical or hormonal changes occurred is that the body is designed to prevent us from starving. If we starve ourselves, i.e., provide the body with insufficient nutrition, the body will do all it can to slow down the metabolism and burn calorie-hungry muscle before it burns body fat. Then it will predispose us to storing more fat to protect us from future starvation.
Fat Head: Some people – especially those who’ve never been fat – see obese people eating a lot and assume they’re just being gluttons. I believe people eat when they’re hungry. Are obese people hungrier than thin people who eat less, and if so, why?
Jonathan: Most people store excess body fat because they are experiencing what researchers call “metabolic dysregulation.” (I call this “a clog in the metabolism.”) Their hormonal balance has been compromised in such a way that their body is unable to effectively metabolize food, which causes them to over-consume food just to nourish themselves. Researchers call this condition “internal starvation.” Here’s an excerpt from The Smarter Science of Slim that explains this process:
…Once most of the calories we eat are being stored in fat cells because insulin cannot get them into other cells, internal starvation has set in. We eat plenty of food but starve on the inside because insulin cannot effectively get that energy into any cells other than our fat cells. With excess insulin shuttling most calories into fat tissue and eliminating our ability to burn body fat, the fat metabolism system has no choice but to slow down, burn muscle tissue, and demand more food. It does what it always does when it senses starvation.
Consider Terri. She is internally starving and needs 500 calories of energy. Terri is also a yo-yo dieter and has already slowed down her metabolism and burned as much muscle as she can. Needing some calories, Terri eats 500 calories. Instead of those 500 calories getting into the cells needing it, only 250 make it in while the other 250 are ignored—thanks to insulin resistance—and stored as new body fat. Terri still needs 250 calories. She cannot slow down anymore. She cannot burn any more muscle. And thanks to all the excess insulin floating around, she does not have the ability to burn body fat. What is her only option? Overeat. Specifically, eat 250 extra calories.
So Terri snacks on 250 extra calories to keep her cells from starving. But now only a fraction of the 250 make it to the cells needing it while the rest is stored as body fat. Again, she must overeat even more. This process of overeating to keep a clogged fat metabolism system running repeats itself until Terri eats 1,000 calories to meet her need for 500 calories. Terri’s fat metabolism system is leaking calories into her fat cells and has to compensate by taking in extra calories.
Continue this “overeat to compensate for [her hormonal clog]” cycle day after day and Terri gains body fat. And on the surface it looks like she is gaining body fat because she is eating too many calories. But eating too many calories is not the cause of her new body fat. It is a symptom of a deeper problem: her hormonal clog. Terri’s high consumption of calories is not the cause of her weight gain. It is a symptom of the hormonal clog caused by low-quality calories…
Fat Head: You make the point several times that when we eat quality food, we’re less likely to overeat. Why is that? How does the quality of food affect our appetites?
Jonathan: Studies show that the satiety of food—how quickly it satisfies us and how long it keeps us satisfied—is a function of three primary factors:
1. How much do the calories we are eating stretch our digestive organs (our stomach, etc.)?
2. How much do the calories we are eating impact our hormone levels in the short term?
3. How much do the calories we are eating impact our hormone levels in the long term?
Researchers have proven that the more water, fiber, and protein in a food, the more it stretches our digestive organs and triggers a short-term and long-term hormonal response causing us to feel full.
Note: Natural fats also play an important role in triggering this hormonal response. However, my research shows our primary focus should be on eating more foods that contain a lot of water, fiber, and protein. If those foods naturally contain fat, that’s totally fine.
Thank you, Jonathan. I’ll post part two of our interview next week.