“Geek” dieting calls to mind high-tech novelties like Soylent and the endless number-crunching of Quantified Selfers. In contrast, Jonathan Bailor is practically Alice Waters: When he talks about finding a scientific approach to nutrition, Bailor uses words like “celebrate,” “abundance,” and “whole, actual food.”
A senior program manager at Microsoft, Bailor is an engineer — and a self-professed geek — who’s also a former personal trainer. Instead of Brave New Foods, he advocates a return to basics: “quality” foodstuffs and no calorie counting. In fact, his new book (out now from HarperCollins) is called The Calorie Myth. It attempts to turn Bailor’s thirteen years of nutritional research into an attack on the conventional wisdom of “calories in, calories out,” explaining hard science through accessible analogies.
How did “eat less, work out more” become weight-loss convention?
Three reasons. One, it’s intuitive. It is intuitive that the world is flat: Look out your window, it looks really flat. But when you understand the laws of gravity and understand science, it’s very clear that the earth isn’t flat. Similarly, it is intuitive that starvation makes you lose weight, but it’s wrong. When you understand the laws of physiology and biology, you understand that starvation is the worst thing you can do long term for eating and exercise. Two, because it works in the short term. If our definition of success is our weight on the scale tomorrow, starvation works. By that logic, so does cutting off your leg. We need to really focus on the goal of long-term fat loss, health, and happiness, rather than short-term weight loss. Three, money. There is a huge amount of money in perpetuating approaches that don’t actually cure people.
Doesn’t the health industry have your best interests at heart?
Just to be clear, it’s not like personal trainers and dietitians are sitting in a room, pursing their fingers, going, “Muahaha, how can we screw people over?” [Laughs.] They are doing the best they can with the information that they’ve been given. Literally, nutrition professionals are working off of the theories from 50 years ago, and it’s not their fault, this is what they’ve been told.
What’s wrong with counting calories? Aren’t they a good way to measure portions?
Sadly, they are not. I’m not saying that calories don’t exist, or if you eat 10,000 calories that you won’t gain fat. What I’m saying is that calories are not an accurate measure. The quantity of calories you put into your body don’t cause it to break down; it’s the quality of food that you put into your body that causes it to break down.
So is it possible to get too much quality food?
Practically, no. Your stomach would explode before you overate. It is nearly impossible to overeat non-starchy vegetables, nutrient-dense protein, whole food fats, and low-fructose fruits — you would be too uncomfortable before you did so. Here’s the key thing to keep in mind — while it might sound too good to be true, it’s actually too obvious to be false. Think about how every single person in every single culture lived prior to the previous three generations; no one had any idea what a calorie was, they ate when they were hungry and stopped when they were full, and the incidents of diabetes were a hundred thousand percent lower than [they are] today, and the obesity rate was sub 3 percent. Are we to believe that humans, and not all humans, just today’s humans, somehow have an odd genetic mutation that makes us different from every other person that ever lived by being unable to intuitively regulate the amount of food we’re supposed to eat if we eat the right quality of food?
It’s not that 70 percent of Americans are lazy gluttons; of those that are overweight, I would say that 98 percent of them eat until they are full and then stop. This is why food quality becomes so important — if you eat the wrong quality of stuff, you have to overeat in order to feel full.
In study after study after study, individuals will switch to a higher quality diet and spontaneously, with no effort at all, will reduce their caloric intake by 1,000 calories a day. That’s not them being hungry by counting calories; they are just backing away from the table and feeling full on 1,000 fewer calories. Could you imagine how hard it would be to try to consciously restrict yourself from 1,000 calories a day?
What about the notion that people who are fat lack willpower?
Simply saying that individuals that are overweight need to try harder to eat less is a bit like saying that individuals who are struggling with depression need to try harder to smile more and frown less, or someone with allergies just needs to breathe in less — it misses the point entirely. Obesity is not a dysfunction of the person's moral character.
We will solve this problem the day we look at it like a scientific problem rather than a moral problem.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that counting calories is repressive to women in particular.
Eating less and exercising more is a shrinking model. It’s a restriction model. It is saying you are inadequate; you are broken by default. If you don’t count calories, your stupid and weak body will go off the train tracks, and you will become fat, and no one will love you. So this message of counting calories and eating less and exercising more, it puts us in this position of being broken and inadequate and is incredibly repressive. Compare eat less and count calories to eat an abundance of natural and healthy foods because I want you to be the most brilliant, vibrant, growing version of yourself possible. One is suppressive, shrinking, and demeaning, while the other is uplifting, accurate, and actually helpful.
Telling someone that you need to be hungry the rest of your life, which is the message we’ve told women, is like saying you need to go to the bathroom less frequently for the rest of your life. If you’re hungry, your body is saying that for a reason.
Would you say calorie-counting perpetuates a relationship between guilt and eating?
Absolutely. Calories paint eating as a negative thing, which is part of the problem. Food — the right kind of food, and an abundance of it — is the cure to the hormonal, neurological, and gastroenterological cause of obesity. But if we are afraid to eat food because we are afraid to eat calories, we can never cure that condition.
The more we think about food — healthy, whole, actual food — as something to be celebrated and enjoyed in abundance, and the less we think about calories, the healthier we will be.