The CleanPlates Interview: Nutrition Mythbuster Jonny Bowden

The best-selling author on fat talks simple ways to fuel yourself for good health

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Jonny Bowden headshot
By Beth Lipton

Eat “good” fats like olive oil, but avoid meat. Butter is back—wait, no it isn’t. Avoid fat, but eat plenty of fat. If you feel like you’re getting whiplash from all the conflicting information about fat these days, you’re not alone. Jonny Bowden, Ph.D, is passionate about the benefits of the right kinds of fats, one of the concepts in Smart Fat , the book he co-wrote with Dr. Steven Masley. In it, the two experts outline the science and give easy-to-follow guidelines for what to eat for good health.

Clean Plates had a lively conversation with Bowden about new ways to think about fat, what it means to eat a balanced diet and other ways to maximize your health.

Clean Plates: One of the big concepts in the book is 5-5-10. Can you give us a brief rundown of what that is?

Jonny Bowden: It’s a template, a simple guide to how to eat. You should actively try to get 5 servings of smart fat a day, 5 servings of clean protein and 10 servings of fiber. But keep in mind that those are minimums, not maximums. We expressed it this way because we didn’t want readers to get in the weeds of counting grams. We wanted to make it visual, interesting and non-mathematical.

For example, 1 serving of fat is about 1 tablespoon of oil, which is 12 to 14g of fat, or ½ of an avocado, 1 oz. of nuts, 2 large whole pasture-raised eggs, or 1 oz. of dark chocolate, with at least 70% cocoa. For protein, it’s more or less a 4-oz. serving of grass-fed beef, pastured pork or free-range poultry, which comes to roughly 30 to 40g per meal. With fiber, the number of grams gets complicated. The sources are vegetables, fruit, beans, a little whole grain. So it’s a range of foods, and the numbers vary. One cup asparagus has 3g of fiber, 1 cup of peas has 4g. One cup of vegetables has roughly 3 to 4g. But then 1 cup of beans has more, more like 15g, and ½ cup is a serving. So you can mix it up. It should add up to about 30g per day.

My personal nutritional philosophy is to get people away from counting as fast as you can. Think of it as training wheels, setting the stage so that you understand what the servings are. Once you know that, it becomes second nature and you don’t have to think about it any more.

C.P.: We frequently refer to fats as “good” or bad,” but you say they’re really either “smart” or “toxic.” What does that mean, and why the distinction?

J.B.: It’s the most important and only distinction you have to make when it comes to fat.

We’ve always divided fat into good and bad and the distinguishing feature has been is it saturated or not. That’s useless, it’s a false dichotomy. What makes an animal fat unhealthy is, you take a factory-farmed cow, it’s raised on grains. That is not the diet of ruminants. They are given this high-grain diet. All of the pesticides and chemicals sprayed on those crummy grains is stored in their fat. That’s true of all mammals, fat is a storage unit. And the grains make them sick, because they’re meant to graze on grasses. So the cows are given antibiotics, steroids – and all of this ends up in their meat. All of that fat is toxic. The fat is not toxic just because it comes from animals is not because they come from animals.

Remember a few years ago, spinach was recalled, it was tainted with E.coli. Not one health professional went on the air and said, ‘Hey! Spinach is a really bad crop, don’t eat it.’ What we understood was that we had a great food that had been contaminated. Animal fat isn’t bad; fat from sick, contaminated animals is what’s toxic. If you have access to grass-fed beef, there’s nothing to fear from that fat. If it’s factory-farmed, cut away every bit of fat.

And by the way, this is the eye rolling moment: The fat in animals is only partly saturated. The rest is monounsaturated, like in olive oil. No one would ever tell you to avoid olive oil.

Smart fats decrease inflammation. Chronic inflammation is the root of everything, all the major diseases. You need some inflammation, some is helpful. But too much and that’s trouble.

And then, aside from smart and toxic fats, there are also some that are neutral. That means it hasn’t shown any demonstrated health benefits but also doesn’t do harm. Butter from grass-fed cows would fall into that category, and some oils, like cold-pressed sesame oil. It’s fine to have some of these in moderation, but remember that with 5-5-10, you’re aiming for a minimum of 5 smart fats, so a neutral one doesn’t count.

C.P.: What’s the biggest mistake you see people make with what they eat?

J.B.: There are so many. It’s hard to really single out one. For me, it’s about fat. It emblematic of the nonsense we’ve been taught since the ’80s about high-carb, low-fat diets, and the demonization of fat. It was such a colossal mistake, such a stupid experiment.

One of the changes in the new USDA guidelines is that they no longer list the calories from fat on nutrition labels. That was a good move. Dr. Walter Willet, probably the most respected person in nutrition—he’s professor of epidemiology and nutrition and chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School—he’s studied this stuff for 30 years, and he has said that the percentage of calories from fat has no connection to heart disease or diabetes. He realized 16 years ago that the percentage of calories from fat means nothing. The government is just now removing it from food labels.

They’ve been unable to find a single connection between saturated fat and heart disease. No relationship. But we’re still afraid of using palm oil or coconut oil. These are demonized oils. But they stand up to heat really well. Malaysian palm oil has a lovely flavor, and it’s red because it has all these carotenoids in it. But people are afraid of it. Meanwhile, we’ve been told to eat lots of vegetable oils, which are high in omega-6s, and thus pro-inflammatory. Then we wonder why we have so many inflammation-related illnesses.

Because of the emphasis on vegetable oils, our omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is completely off. It should be 1:1. We need some omega-6s, and then the omega-3s counter the inflammation. It’s about balance. But people consume around 16 times as much omega-6. Sixteen to one.

C.P.: Are snacks ok? If so, what do you recommend as healthy snacks?

J.B.: Fat keeps you fullest the longest. Protein and fat are the most satiating nutrients.

The snacks I would recommend are things you’ve seen before. String cheese and apple. Nuts and cheese. Avocado. Mozzarella and tomatoes. Any combination of protein, fiber and fat that you can make tasty. That’s a good basis of a snack.

Remember that the quality of food matters more than the macronutrient content. People get hung up on the macronutrient percentages. But you can have the “right” percentages and still have a snack that’s bad for you. There’s always a stupid, unhealthy way to eat the perfect ratio. You can eat the perfect ratio but have it filled with highly processed foods, with trans fats. It’s more important that you’re eating real, quality food. Focus on that.

C.P.: What’s the most important non-food-oriented thing people can do to improve their health?

J.B.: You have to ask yourself, what’s your stress level like, what are your relationships like, how much water do you drink? These are the things that transform people’s lives, just as much if not more than what’s on their plate and how much they weigh. If you talk to people about why they want to lose weight, they say they have an event they want to look good for. Continue to break down the layers, why do they want to look good for that event? It’s always that they want to feel sexy, feel attractive, attract love. The bottom line is always about attracting love. But people think they have to have a perfect body or lose a certain amount of weight and then they’ll be happy, then they’ll have that love. So why not work with people on all these other things, work on their happiness right now, in the body they have, rather than waiting for them to have what they think of as the perfect body or the perfect diet to find that happiness? I’m a big believer that not everybody can have a six-pack and not everybody needs one.

Want more Jonny? Watch his interviews with other nutrition stars, including Grain Brain author Dr. David Perlmutter , hormone pro Dr. Tami Meraglia and adrenal expert Dr. Alan Christianson.