Jonny Bowden: More Energy, Lose Weight, Gain Flexibility

An Interview with Dr. Jonny Bowden

Fruits and vegetables on display.
Fruits and vegetables on display. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Dr. Jonny Bowden is a popular expert on nutrition, longevity, and weight loss. He is the author of several books on health and nutrition and is the nutrition editor for Pilates Style Magazine.

I have been using Dr. Bowden's book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth as a reference for several years now. I took the opportunity to ask Dr. Bowden questions about weight loss, getting more energy, nutrition, improving flexibility, and even about eating for Pilates and exercise.

He is as energetic on the phone as you would expect a health and nutrition expert to be.

Weight Loss and Low Carb Diets with Dr. Jonny Bowden

M.O.: Our readers would be upset with me if I didn't ask a weight loss expert weight loss. I know you advocate a low carb diet. Would you talk about that, and share some weight loss guidelines?

J.B.: I'd like to define low carb because I think it's deeply misunderstood. The first stage of the Atkins diet is not the definition of low carb. It's one variation of many dietary strategies. I prefer to talk about controlled carbohydrate eating.

The average consumption of carbohydrates in America is over 300 grams a day. That's what's on the ridiculous nutrition facts label when they talk about percentage of daily value. They are assuming that 300 grams of carbohydrate a day is what you should be taking in. That is utterly ridiculous. And very much tied to why we have an obesity and diabetes epidemic.

When I talk about controlled carbs I'm saying: Can we get it down to 100 grams or 120 grams? Can we get it down to where we cut out a lot of the extraneous processed carbs that are high in sugar, high in glycemic load - the pastas, the rices, the cereals that are masquerading as health foods and are really sugar.

Can we get it down to unlimited fruits and vegetables? You can't eat enough spinach, for example, to get 100 grams of carb. You can eat a lot of fruits and vegetables on a low carb diet.

It's about controlling our sugar intake. That is key to losing weight. Going after fat is going after the wrong enemy. Fat is not the problem. Sugar is the problem. I'm going to tell you something else that is out of the mainstream: I do not include saturated fat among the bad fats. Saturated fat doesn't mutate. It doesn't change its composition under heat. What I call bad fats are damaged fats like trans fats.

So there are definitely bad fats but they are not synonymous with saturated fat. For example, saturated fats from whole foods like eggs or coconut are fine. No need to avoid them. Egg-white omelets are a very bad idea. There are so many healthy things in the yolk that are good for the brain and good for the heart. By the way, most of the fat in an egg yolk is monounsaturated fat anyway.

Portion size does matter. Calories do matter. And we overestimate how many calories we need in a day. We see ridiculous things on the Internet where they tell women they need 2,650 calories a day if they are 115 pounds.

No wonder we're fat. And, if we get our calories where they should be, it doesn't matter what percentage is coming from fat.

We don't exercise enough or hard enough. It's one of those inconvenient truths. Weight loss really requires exercise 5 to 6 times a week, and it requires greater intensity than walking. Walking will give you innumerable health benefits, but it's not enough. You need higher intensity like circuit training and interval training. Get your heart rate up. Really move around. Interval training is the way to go. You burn more calories and get more bang for your buck.

M.O.: Making positive health choices like getting fit and losing weight has a big psychological component.

It's often not lack of information that is holding people back. Would you talk a little bit about what people can do to get themselves in the right place, mentally, for success?

J.B.: I recorded a CD set a while ago called 9 Essential Steps to Weight Loss, and step number one is scrupulous honesty. A lot of people jump into making these changes without doing the groundwork. You have to ask yourself, is this something I really want to do? We have been so brainwashed into thinking we have to lose weight and get fit that most of us see it as an obligation. I think you first have to give yourself permission to not choose it otherwise you won't be doing it for yourself, and your odds of success are very small. So be mentally prepared by doing an honest self-inventory and asking yourself, is this something I really want to do?

Nutrition and Flexibility

M.O.: A lot of people want more flexibility, and there is a lot of stretching going on, but I think there is a nutritional component. Would you talk about that?

J.B.: There is an enormous nutritional component to flexibility. Now that is not to discard the physical, the stretching, and activity. We tell everybody to get up and start moving around. Even if it's just walking. Protecting the joints and reducing inflammation are two sides of the same coin and one of the most important health strategies you can embark on. My go-to strategy is omega 3 fats from fish oil.

M.O.: A long-time vegetarian, I jump in here asking about flax oil as a source of Omega 3 fatty acids since many of us either don't eat fish or have some reservations about fish oil.

J.B.: Is flax bad? No. But all the research showing health benefits has been on the kind of omega 3s found in fish. Your body can make those from the kind found in flax, but it does a really bad job. So you have to take a lot of it. Get the good stuff in a bottle, and take more than you think you'll need.

The other thing I like for anti-inflammation, and it's new but there is very promising research on it, is high triterpene shea nut oil. The only product that sells it right now is a product called Flexnow. Then there are anti-inflammatory foods. One powerful one is quercetin, and it's found in apples and onions. So an anti-inflammatory diet and supplement program is really important for laying down the groundwork for things that give us energy and health

M.O.: Would anti-inflammatory supplements and foods be your main element in terms of flexibility or is there another component in terms of muscle responsiveness? In my latest book, The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer, I talk about what I call the four horsemen of aging. They are four processes that know no boundaries - they screw up the brain, the heart, the immune system. The four horsemen are stress, glycation, oxidative damage, and inflammation. The one that impacts the muscles and joints the most is inflammation, followed by oxidative damage. So number one for joints and muscles is anti-inflammation. Number 2 is antioxidants. There are tons of foods with antioxidants. My book, 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth is full of them.

Dr. Jonny Bowden on How to Boost Energy

M.O.: As the author of the book 150 Most Effective Ways to Boost Your Energy, I wonder if you have few top tips about how to get more energy that you could share.

J.B.: My view on energy is this: Energy is like water in the palm of your hand. It's very hard to grasp. If you try to grab it, it squirts all over the place. But if you create a cup of the palm, energy will just come in. That's a metaphor for me for energy. Here's why: You can't really do anything to get energy, but what you can do is set the condition in which you can allow energy to come in.

Our energy levels when we are children are enormous, but conditions of life start to slow us down - we eat the wrong food, we don't get enough sleep, we multi-task even though all the research now shows that multi-tasking is a complete myth. We set the conditions under which it is almost impossible to experience energy.

My book is about ways to create conditions in the body where we can allow that natural flow of energy to be there. For example, eating whole foods, protein at every meal, getting off a low fat diet, taking the proper supplements, protecting our joints with things like omega 3s omega 3 fatty acids and shea nut oil, reducing stress and probably the most important, the removal of toxic relationships and having honest communications. One exercise in the book is to have a powerful conversation - where you state your truth and listen to that of another. This is very energizing. If you have a lot of different things taking up psychic space - worries, withholds, white lies, things that are unresolved it makes it hard to feel optimistic and energetic.

Nutrition Questions from Pilates People

M.O.: You are the Nutrition editor for Pilates Style Magazine. I wonder what nutrition questions you get from Pilates people?

J.B.: In general my observation is that people who seek out things like Pilates tend to be healthier people in general. They tend to be more concerned about health and they've looked below the surface. Most American don't even know what the core is, let alone that they need to strengthen it.

There seems to be a bent toward vegetarian, low fat eating. So when I come in and start talking about meat-eating there is a bit of a disconnect. But the kinds of questions I get from readers have to do with reducing fat, so I talk about the incorrectness of that premise. I get a lot of questions about the health food of the moment, like agave nectar, which is not a health food. I don't think they fall into any specific category.

Most people are concerned about how to make wise choices and not have to go for a PhD in nutrition to learn what to buy at the supermarket.

M.O.: In Pilates, and in other fitness systems, we do so many exercises with compression in the belly, it's pretty important to workout with a fairly empty tummy. So the question comes up: What can I eat that's going to hold me up through a workout if I can't eat much beforehand?

J.B.: Back in the day of Arnold Schwarzenegger and body building movies, the conventional wisdom was to exercise on an empty stomach. The thought at the time was that blood sugar is not high on an empty stomach and so the theory was you would go into your fat stores to get the energy. If you are one of those people who can have a great workout on an empty stomach, no problem. If not, you want to look for stuff that is digested really quickly. You want something that gives you just enough boost that you can get through the workout - an apple, an orange, even a protein drink with some berries. If I had to pick something I'd say take a scoop of whey protein, mix it in with some berries and drink it down.

M.O.: Is there a single most important principle of nutrition you wish everyone would get?

J.B.: Well, the person who should be the spokesperson for that is Micheal Pollan and what he says in his books: "Eat food, mostly plants, not so much." "Eat less." "Eat foods your grandmother would recognize." "Less barcodes."
Jonny Bowden's version of that message: Eat foods you could have with fished, hunted, gathered, or plucked.

M.O.: That's a lot of food for thought! Thank you so much.