The Calorie Myth With Jonathan Bailor
I’m interviewing Jonathan Bailor today. He’s the author of The Calorie Myth. I’m really excited about the book, but I’m actually even more excited for him to tell you about the apps that he created. Super cool stuff.
Evelyne: As I was doing a little research online today, on him – or you know, stalking him on Google – I realized that Jonathan is really, really smart and just a little bit of an overachiever, which is awesome for you and me listening today. He is a New York Times best-selling author, founder of SANESolution.com, a nutrition and exercise expert, and a former personal trainer who specializes in using modern science and technology to simplify health. He has collaborated with top scientists for more than ten years, analyzing over 1,300 studies and garnering endorsements by top doctors and scientists from Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins, and UCLA. He serves as the CEO for the wellness technology company, Yopti. He authors the New York Times, USA Today, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon internationally bestselling book The Calorie Myth, which we’ll be talking about today. He hosts a popular syndicated health radio show and blogs on Huffington Post. Additionally, he has registered over 25 patents and served as the senior program manager at Microsoft.
Jonathan, welcome to the show!
Jonathan: Hey. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here!
Evelyne: Awesome! So you started out like I did actually – as a personal trainer. So how did you get so interested in nutrition and then how did that lead you to research calories for ten years and then write a book about it?
Jonathan: I paid my way through college as a trainer. That was my very first job, but my journey on the health and wellness road started way before then. I was a very, very skinny and geeky child and at least one of those two attributes are still true today. [Chuckle] I have a much older and athletic brother, who I wanted to be like, ten years older I am, and growing up I just idolized him. And I really liked Superman, so I was just like, “I want to be like my brother. I want to be like Superman.” But being very skinny and geeky I was one of these people who we all know and likely may resent secretly – naturally thin people – people who struggle to gain weight rather than the vast majority of us who struggle to lose weight.
Because of that, I did what most young males who are trying to get bigger do. I read all these muscle magazines, and I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars and begged my parents for more money so I could buy more pills, powders, and potions, when I was coming up through high school. And I did play football and I was fairly successful. And I was consuming about 6,000 calories per day and I was able to get a little bit bigger. And then I was like, “Man, I’m good at this! I know what I’m doing. I’m going to become a personal trainer.” So I became a personal trainer at Bally Total Fitness.
And then everything came crashing down, sadly, because I had this false bravado that I knew all there was to know about eating and exercises, calories, and “just eat less and exercise more, and it’s all good.” And then I started seeing clients. And my clients – at this time I was between 18 and 21, this is how I paid my way through college – and my clients were predominately females, most often mothers or grandmothers who had the exact opposite goals I had. I was trying to get bigger, they were trying to get smaller.
So I did what most personal trainers would do – what they were taught – which is, I told them to eat less and exercise more. I put them on 1,200-calorie or fewer diets. I had them doing a lot of cardiovascular exercise and they didn’t get smaller.
And at the same time I had had some success with changing the way my body looked, but I wanted to play football in college so I needed to get even bigger. So I like I said, I was consuming 6,000 calories per day and I’d reached this threshold where I’m 6 feet tall. I got up to 190 pounds, but to play college football that’s not even close to big enough. So I’m eating 6,000 calories a day. I’m taking in as many calories as I can, and I’m doing double shots of olive oil – I kid you not – because it’s very difficult to eat that many calories [chuckle] if you’re not eating complete garbage. And I could not get bigger while I was seeing clients day in and day out on 1,200-calorie diets who couldn’t get smaller. So I could no longer couch my beliefs in this theory of “it’s just eat less and exercise more; people just need to try harder,” because I knew how hard I was trying to get bigger. I knew how many calories I was eating, and I knew how hard my clients were trying to get smaller, and none of us were having the results we wanted. We were all just getting sick and sad.
So I actually quit being a trainer because I felt that I was doing a disservice to my clients, and of course a disservice to myself. And that’s when I started this super geek-out phase of all this research, and digging into neurobiology, gastroenterology, and endocrinology to try to figure out what about this calorie map is not adding up.
Evelyne: Very cool. And we’ll dive into that in a second, but I wanted to add something. Did you know that my first personal training job was also at Bally Total Fitness?
Jonathan: Nice! Very cool! [Chuckle]
Evelyne: Yeah. When I was 19, I worked there for probably about two years and then I went to study abroad in Australia. And then I tried to come back there but then I worked at other gyms. I actually was a trainer for eight years. And thankfully, I did change my thoughts on nutrition through that time – you know, through meeting Sean Croxton and all of that. But I just think that’s so funny that we started at the same place. Let’s talk about the myths that you cover in the book. Let’s talk about the biggest one: “calories in, calories out.” Just go ahead and run with that.
Jonathan: [Chuckle] This is a big, big myth because it’s really easy – people present this as a very black and white. And the reason it’s confusing is because it’s not. It is simple, but it’s not that it’s just “calories in, calorie out.” It’s also not – “calories in, calories out” is completely ridiculous and has no bearing on anything. [Chuckle] This is more nuanced than that. But the key take away is that for all intents and purposes, for everyday people, thinking in terms of “calories in, calories out,” isn’t helpful.
So let me deconstruct this a little bit.
You might hear things like, “Just take fewer calories and burn more calories if you have to lose weight; thermodynamics, blah blah blah blah.” If we’re talking about hardcore science – laboratory tests, bomb kilometers, things like that – that’s true. If you’re talking about a real person, every day, day in and day out, making statements like, “You just need to eat less, exercise more. It’s just about calories in, calories out” is a little bit like someone saying, “Hey, you know I’m struggling with my mood. I’ve just been feeling really down recently. Do you have any advice on how I could feel better?” And if your response to them was, “You know what you should do – you should frown less and smile more.” It’s not helpful, right? It’s like a coach being asked after a game, “Hey, why did you guys lose?” And the coach says, “You know the problem – the other team scored more points than we did.” That’s true, but it’s not at all helpful.
What we really need to do and take a step back and look at is unless we’re willing to believe that 70% of the American population just somehow became spontaneously lazy and stupid, and we all have just completely lost sight of how to eat and exercise, and we all don’t have enough willpower, there might be something deeper going on than people just need to try harder to eat less, because we didn’t really have giant food shortages in this country in the 1970s. We all had as much food as we wanted to have, but somehow we didn’t have an obesity epidemic. So how did that work? And how did any culture that didn’t have a shortage of food avoid obesity? It’s not because people all counted calories and went on Weight Watchers; it was because they ate different types of foods.
So the biggest myth, and the reason the book is titled The Calorie Myth is not that calories are a myth, calories exists and if you eat 10,000 calories of butter per day, every day, you’re going to gain fat. But it’s a myth that that’s a relevant argument because nobody does that, and by focusing on calories what we accidentally do is ignore all of the things that actually matter.
When it comes to long-term health and fitness there is no better example of this than to walk into a McDonald’s or look up at a Coca-Cola billboard; and McDonald’s will say, “Here are healthy items” – where healthy is defined by anything that has fewer than 400 calories. Or Coca-Cola will say, “Hey, what’s the big deal? A can of Coke isn’t that bad for you. It only has a 140 calories,” which of course by that “calories are king” logic, cigarettes are a healthy indulgence because they have no calories in them, so clearly they’re not a health problem!
So what this calorie mythology has done is it has completely caused us to lose focus on the actual causal factors of obesity and diabetes. And the causal factors of obesity and diabetes are things completely independent of calories. They have to do with certain macronutrients, other substances that are found in foods, additives, preservatives, and other toxic chemicals, and hormonal dysregulation in our bodies.
Evelyne: So what about – I mean obviously I know you know that health is more important than your weight. But why is it that – and I’m really asking this for the listeners – people do lose weight counting points and counting calories. And I feel like we’ve all seen this story in health and fitness magazines. And many of those people have kept it off for years and years. So for them did it just work? What’s your take on that?
Jonathan: There are two explanations. The first is, if you have weeds in your garden and you say, “Dang it! I don’t want these weeds in my garden. I’m going to go siphon gasoline out of the gas tank of my car, and I’m going to walk out to my backyard and I’m going to pour out that gasoline all over my garden. And you know what? Those weeds are going to be gone.” You’re exactly right. You will kill all those weeds and they will never come back, but unfortunately you’re going to kill everything else in your garden and nothing will ever come back. And that’s not a good thing. So there’s no question, there’s no question, that if you stop eating food you will lose weight. There’s no question. You’re going to look at any war-torn country in the world where there’s a shortage of food, there isn’t an obesity epidemic, right? People aren’t getting fatter. They’re getting sicker and slimmer. However, just because something causes us to lose weight doesn’t mean it’s health. By that same logic, I can tell everyone how to lose 30 to 50 pounds right now and keep it off forever. Cut off your right leg. And I know that sounds really silly, but it’s true, right? If the bar for success is just “I lost weight,” well then ask any boxer or wrestler or steroid-enhanced athlete, “How can I change the way my body looks?” There are all kinds of crazy ways you can change the way your body looks; that doesn’t mean we should recommended it; that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. So from a high level the first answer is yes, absolutely. Starving yourself will cause weight loss. It will also cause a bunch of horrible other consequences.
And studies show quite consistently that for at least 19 out of 20 people who tried to just starve their way to success, they will not be able to keep that up long-term because hunger is a terrible state to be in. Therefore they will yo-yo diet. And yo-yo dieting is probably the worst thing you could ever do for your health. If you think when I said cut off your leg I was exaggerating and that was silly; if you look at the studies around what yo-yo dieting does to you in terms of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and basically every other bad thing that can ever happened to a person, you might say, “Heck, if I had to choose between yo-yo dieting up-and-down, up-and-down, up-and-down like most Americans do or losing my right leg. I might be healthier losing my right leg.” So yo-yo dieting is not a good thing at all. But if you can starve yourself – if you are part of that one out of 20 who can tolerate hunger and starvation for your entire life, and will never go back to eating more than 1,200 calories – then it can absolutely work, much like gasoline on your garden can work. So that’s the key thing we have to keep in mind.
Also, let’s keep in mind the law of large numbers. What that tells us, in this country, we have about 100 million people at any point in time who are trying to lose weight via calorie counting. A 100 million people, in this country alone, who are trying to do that right now. So even if there’s only a 4.6% success rate, which is what the success rate is – that’s low as heck – that still leaves us with 4.6 million people, right now, who can stand up on stage on national television and on weightwatchers.com, and be like, “Look, starvation worked for me. It’ll work for you too. Why don’t you just try harder?” But what about the other 95.6 million people who are dramatically worse off than before they started?
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