I don't know if nutrition is 50 percent of the bodybuilding game, 70 percent, or 99.9 percent. All I know is that ignoring it is the worst mistake you can make. You won't look like you want to look or feel like you want to feel. Chances are, if you look in the mirror and don't like what you see, it's your diet that's to blame.
One of the best books I've ever read on food and nutrition is called The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, by Jonny Bowden, Ph.D.
Bowden is not only a renowned expert on weight loss and nutrition, he's also the go-to-guy for other diet experts. His books have been recommended by everyone from Barry Sears of Zone Diet fame to Charles Poliquin of gigantic biceps fame. (Bowden wrote the nutrition portion of Poliquin's certification course.)
I recently met up with Bowden and hit him with a few questions that have been on my mind since I started reading his work.
Testosterone Nation: One of your books, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, is considered to be controversial because some of the info goes against what most people believe. For example, soy doesn't make your favorite list but whole eggs do. Yet most Americans think soy is a miracle food and whole eggs are bad for you.
There are a lot of foods and ingredients that don't fall cleanly into the good and bad category. The same thing is true with exercise. Is a low-rep bench press a good exercise? Well, sure it is, but not if you're a 74-year old woman trying to get some strength to open a jar. It would be a stupid exercise for that person.
In much the same way, many foods and ingredients fall into that category. Some foods are naturally high in sugar. Not a problem if you don't have any issues with the metabolism of sugar. If you do, then you might want to stay away from bananas or mangoes. Those are great foods, lots of nutrients, but may not be a good choice for someone who's pre-diabetic.
T Nation: Any "health foods" being touted today that, well, really aren't that healthy?
Our huge emphasis on grains is very misplaced. A very substantial portion of the population has sensitivities to gluten. One in 133 people have full-blown celiac disease.
Grains are fairly new in human history – the last 10,000 years, which compared to 2.4 million years isn't that long. Grains cause problems for a lot of people. If you're not one of those people, it's fine food. But for a lot of people, more than you might think, a grain-free or at least gluten-free diet may be a smart idea.
T Nation: How about saturated fat?
Very misunderstood. I'm not convinced that saturated fat is the worst thing in a person's diet, and I'm completely convinced that heart disease is not caused by cholesterol.
Saturated fat comes in lots of "flavors." It's a whole family of fatty acids, and some of them, like the medium-chain triglycerides in coconut, are downright healthy for you. Coconut oil has been a terribly misunderstood food because people think that because it has saturated fat it's not good for you. Not so.
Saturated fat can come in the form of the crap that's in McDonald's fries or it can come in the form of some of the fat in an egg yolk. These are not the same animal, so to speak. They're very different in terms of their effects on the body. The saturated fat in coconut and yolks is extremely healthy, good for the heart and the brain. An egg-white omelet is one of the dumbest things in the world.
T Nation: Are we talking standard eggs here or the free-range, omega-3 enriched variety?
All animal products are only as good as the diet of the animal and living conditions of the animal. Or, as I write in my book, the quality of the food we eat comes from the quality of the food our food eats. So yes, free range is important.
If you put cows in a little stall so small that they can't turn around, feed them grain (which is not their natural diet), give them antibiotics to deal with their gut illnesses from the grains, milk them 24/7 and give them more infections and therefore more antibiotics and steroids... well, that's a whole different animal compared to the one on Grandma Jones's farm grazing in the pasture. Everything about them is different -- CLA content, everything.
With chickens it's the same thing. Unfortunately, agribusiness has co-opted the term "free range" so it doesn't really have as much meaning as we hoped it would. We picture chickens running around a farm, but the term has been downgraded to mean that the chicken simply has "access" to the range. That "access" may only mean two weeks a year. Or it may have "access" to a little gate that he doesn't even know how to use.
I'd still try to find free-range, farmers-market, omega-3 enriched eggs, though I don't even care much about omega-3 enriched. If they're truly free range and they're eating their natural diet and pecking at worms, then they'll have plenty of omega-3 anyway.
T Nation: To go along with the corporate abuse of "free range," it seems like the word "natural" is also misused a lot.
Bowden:"Natural" doesn't mean anything – no legal meaning, no agreed-upon meaning, no meaning whatsoever! There are natural mushrooms that will kill you. Poison ivy is natural, so is gasoline, and I'm not eating either one of them.
"Natural" is a complete marketing gimmick. You're now seeing that label on foods that were never grown, hunted for, fished for, plucked or gathered. What's natural about food that comes in a plastic box? Even vitamin supplements aren't natural. They don't grow on trees.
T Nation: I see that Lucky Charms are now proudly made with whole grains...
That's a perfect example of how the language has become degraded.
T Nation: And if I'm correct, the label "made with whole grains" can mean that they only threw in a sprinkle of actual whole grain.
That's exactly what it means. It started life as a whole grain but by the time you get it there's nothing left in it. It's kind of like making yogurt with live cultures. They hope you don't notice this, but there's quite a distinction between starting with live cultures and actually having any left when you eat it. It has to contain live cultures.
And by the way, I don't think whole grains are that much better than the crappy kind. They're only marginally better. They still have about the same effect on blood sugar -- they only marginally lower glycemic load. They still affect people who are gluten-sensitive, and they still have the same effect as far as bloat goes.
Whole grains do have more vitamins and supposedly more fiber, but not much. It's like eating white sugar vs. brown sugar. Whole grains are better than regular, but not significantly.
T Nation: Ouch. That's painful to hear. It's sometimes easy to justify a too-high carb intake if it's "healthy" whole grain. So, what other supposed "health-food" trends make you want to tear your hair out?
Bowden: Special K cereal being marketed as a healthy cereal. That's nonsense.
T Nation: And the commercials encourage women to eat it at night! Scary. What do you think the next "super food" will be?
That's a good question, but it needs a little parsing. What's going to be the next big super food has more to do with marketing and commercialization than it does with the inherent value of the food.
Kale, blueberries, and prunes are superstar foods on any level, but are they going to be the next big thing? If there was a new food discovered that had even half of what those foods have, everyone would be clamoring about it. You can construct an amazingly healthy diet with the foods that are already out there.
There's not one food on earth that has everything you need. Wild salmon, one of my favorites, still doesn't have any fiber. The best vegetable in the world, like kale, isn't going to have any protein. You can't get everything you need from one food, even a super food. Instead you put a wide variety of these foods into heavy rotation.
Another problem with the super food label is that it creates a false impression that you can continue to eat crap as long as you have a glass of MonaVie everyday. [Editor's note: MonaVie is a drink made from acai berries.] That, by the way, is another trend that makes me want to pull my hair out: the multi-level-marketing juices with false health claims. They actually claim it cures cancer. It's B.S.multi-level marketing at its slimiest.
T Nation: Let's talk man-food. Are there any specific foods for men that may help boost testosterone levels, or help prevent any male-oriented diseases?
I haven't yet found any substantial evidence that any particular food raises testosterone levels. You can raise testosterone by being at a football game and having your team win. Hormones are actually very responsive to thoughts, moods, and feelings.
Now, as far as foods go, I think there are some foods that are estrogenic. Soy, for example. Soy isn't the worst food in the world, but it has estrogenic compounds. So does beer -- that's one of the reasons people get beer bellies. So those are things you don't want when trying to build muscle and optimize the hormonal environment.
So don't think of it as raising testosterone, but moving stuff out of the way so it can do its best work. Here's an analogy: Let's say you're a swimmer and you want to go as fast as possible. You could research those titanium Speedos that might give you a slight edge, but if you're wearing weights around your ankles, fuck the Speedos; first drop the ankle weights!
I think a lot of people are in this position of walking around asking, "What's the fastest Speedo?" when they should be simply getting the weights off their ankles. With testosterone, what breaks down muscle? Cortisol, right? How about lowering your cortisol levels?
There's only so much we can do to naturally boost testosterone, but we can do a lot to get the weights off our ankles. And cortisol, as Dr. Michael Colgan once put it, is the Grinch of bodybuilding. It eats up muscle.
What bodybuilders rarely do is use some type of stress reduction technique or meditation or deep breathing. Those things, along with uninterrupted sleep in a dark room without the TV on, lower cortisol more than anything. I think that's more important than trying to boost testosterone.
T Nation: Interesting points there. Now, you've written a couple books about low-carb diets, so what do you think of the idea that there's no such thing as an essential carbohydrate?
That's correct. There are essential fatty acids and essential amino acids, but not essential carbohydrates.
Let's say we put all T-Nation readers on an island for a year. We give half of them nothing but protein and fats for that year. The other half gets all carbohydrates – no protein, no fat. That group, the carb-only group, would be dead in a year. The other group will do just fine.
The actual dietary requirement for carbs in the diet is zero. Now, does that mean we should eat zero carbohydrates? No. There are incredibly important things in carbohydrate-containing foods such as phytochemicals, flavonoids, vitamins, minerals, anti-inflammatories and all kinds of stuff we desperately need for optimal health.
But is there a physiological need for the metabolism to have carbohydrates in the diet? No. There is, however, a physiological need for glucose. The brain needs a certain amount of glucose per day. But, the body can make that amount of glucose just fine from fatty acids and proteins.
You know, it's kind of weird that the idiotic American Dietetic Association has us eating a 65 to 70 percent carbohydrate diet, the one thing we actually don't even need!
When you see a dietician, run the other way. Sure, talk to experts in nutrition, but avoid dieticians like the plague. It's like trying to get objective advice about religion from the Taliban. The ADA is a pathetic and irrelevant organization.
And doctors aren't much better. Doctors know dick about nutrition. They're not trained in it and they know nothing about it. Those that do know something about it got that education on their own. They didn't get it in medical school.
T Nation: Okay, given that you've written books on the healthiest foods and healthiest meals on earth, many would expect you to be anti-supplement. Are you?
No, I'm not at all. My next book is on supplements, in fact. I'm a big believer in supplements. I'm not a big believer in taking supplements and ignoring your diet though.
The thing is, supplements are a technology for delivering nutrients, and we need the nutrients. Now, if we all lived on organic farms, lived a stress-free life in the same village, with little exposure to pollutants and chemicals, then we'd probably do quite well with our organic food, grass-fed cows, free-range chickens, and fish from pristine waters. But that's not how we live. We really don't get optimal nutrition from our food, even when we're eating really well.
T Nation: What would you say is the most underrated supplement on the planet?
Bowden: Vitamin D. People are finally beginning to know about fish oil, but they haven't learned yet that we're massively deficient in vitamin D. New studies have shown that people with the highest level of vitamin D had a 27 percent less chance of dying from any cause whatsoever.
Vitamin D helps prevent cancer, it increases physical performance in older adults, it's a mood enhancer, and it's a bone strengthener. It's a vitamin we just don't get enough of in our food, unless you're drinking cod liver oil. Plus since it's a vitamin made in the skin when we go into the sun, we don't get it there either since we slather on SPF 45 every time we go outside. We're sun-phobic. So, there's a case for taking Vitamin D supplements every day.
T Nation: Okay, lightning round. I throw out some foods and you give us your thoughts on them. First, corn.
Dr. Bowden: Corn isn't a bad food. It's okay for some but not for others. Of course, corn syrup should be out of the diet. Whole corn can raise blood sugar, especially if it's eaten by itself, but there's some good stuff in corn. Just treat it as a starch and not as a vegetable. Small amounts are fine for most people. It's okay, nothing like white potatoes.
T Nation: Milk.
I'm not a big fan of milk. It's actually one of the top seven food allergens.
I do like raw milk however. It's just a different food than homogenized, pasteurized milk. It still has all of its healthful bacteria, its fat content is healthier, etc. It's quite safe too, in spite of what the dairy industry likes to tell you.
T Nation: Alcoholic beverages?
Well, they can make you fat. That's a definite. It's not just the calories, it's the fact that your body stops processing fat while it gets rid of the alcohol.
Now, there's a lot of evidence that a small to moderate amount of alcohol, one or two glasses of red wine a day, can be life-extending and healthful. But you also have this critical mass of people who don't know what "small amount" means, hence alcohol's role in car accidents, murders, and broken marriages.
For some people, alcohol is like peanuts. Peanuts are a good food, but not if you go into anaphylactic shock. If you do that, then eating peanuts "in moderation" is probably not a good idea.
So alcohol is a very personal decision. If you can manage it and drink only small amounts, you don't have an addictive personality, and you're not one of those people who craves more, then it can be a healthful compound. But so are grapes, and you can eat those without the other risks.
T Nation: I think the only thing worse than a beer gut is beer goggles. Now that's a health risk! Where can T-Nation's readers go to learn more about you and your books?
My home base is www.jonnybowden.com. T-Nation readers can stop by and get free audio courses and find out about my latest projects.
T Nation: Thanks for the chat!