Dr. Jonny Bowden: “Don’t believe everything you read”

Don’t believe everything you read, even if it’s authored by a doctor with lots of letters after her name. There’s a very famous and respected doctor who actually went on talk shows saying statins should be in the water supply. Doctors and researchers can be just as affected by things like sloppy thinking and confirmation […]

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Don’t believe everything you read, even if it’s authored by a doctor with lots of letters after her name. There’s a very famous and respected doctor who actually went on talk shows saying statins should be in the water supply. Doctors and researchers can be just as affected by things like sloppy thinking and confirmation bias as the rest of us.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jonny Bowden, PhD, C.N.S — a board-certified nutritionist, the best-selling author of 15 books including The Great Cholesterol Myth, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, The Most Effective Ways To Live Longer, Living Low Carb, and the blockbuster weight-loss program, The Metabolic Factor.

His no-nonsense, myth-busting approach has made him a popular guest on television (“Dr. Oz”, “the Doctors”, ABC-TV, MSNBC-TV, CNN, CBS-TV, CBN, Fox News, NBC-TV and on morning shows all across the country).

Most recently, Dr. Bowden re-released his bestselling book, The Great Cholesterol Myth, Revised and Expanded, which includes fascinating new research and clinical findings that challenge conventional knowledge around cholesterol and heart disease, including: the current HDL / LDL test, use of Statin drug to treat high cholesterol, and how the effects of insulin resistance, diet, stress and other factors are the true culprits behind heart disease.

A prolific writer, Dr. Jonny has written for or contributed to The New York Times, Forbes, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Vanity Fair Online, Men’s Heath, Prevention, and dozens of other print and online publications. He recently appeared in the documentary, “The Big Fat Lie,” (narrated by Dr. Mark Hyman), a movie about the origins of the dietary guidelines in America which has received over.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started out as a professional musician — I played all over New York CIty, playing jazz, pop, Broadway, nightclub acts, you name it. I studied with the great Herbie Hancock. My main gig was as a pianist at the Alvin Ailey Dance Studios. Along the way I picked up two things — a Master’s degree in psychology (my second love after music), and a nice little drug and alcohol problem.

Remember, I came up in the Woodstock era of sex drugs and rock and roll! I was fat, out of shape, and looked exactly like what you would think a jazz musician of the times would look like. I thought coffee and cigarettes at 11 AM was breakfast.

Eventually, in the early 80’s, I put the the drugs and alcohol behind me and started conducting road companies of Broadway shows. When we went on the road, we’d have a lot of free time on our hands during the day. Mainly out of boredom, I asked one of the very-in-shape actors to show me some of those weight-lifting exercises the actors always seemed to be doing.

I was hooked almost instantly. Within the span of a year, I was working out regularly, had ditched cigarettes (and about 20 pounds of fat), and had a completely different experience of life. I had energy, optimism, enthusiasm, and… muscles! And, like many people who came to fitness later on, I became a zealot.

Being an academically trained over-achieving New Yorker of Jewish background , the first thing I wanted to know was, “How do I get a degree in this stuff?” Turns out there were programs for certifying personal trainers. I did one of the programs and got even more hooked. Eventually I collected six certifications including the biggies like ACSM, NASM and ACE.

One day, in between out-of-town gigs, I was walking around on the upper west side where I lived in New York City and I noticed a big sign announcing a new gym, in the heart of the trendy upper west side. The new gym was to be called “Equinox”, and the sign said “hiring trainers”. Remember, I had never worked with a client in my life, but I WAS a certified trainer, and somehow I talked my way into a job.

I was at Equinox for seven years, eventually becoming Dean of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. I was moderately good at music, but I was REALLY good at personal training, so eventually, I stopped playing professionally and went full-time into health.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I do a podcast for a members-only website called Metabolic Mastery Club, called the Expert Interview Series. It’s the greatest job ever — I get to interview the most brilliant people in the health space, like David Perlmutter, Daniel Amen, JJ Virgin…. people like that. I had just finished reading a great book by a guy named Steven Masley, MD, and I reached out to his publicist to schedule an interview with him.

I did some homework and discovered this guy Masley was the real deal. He was head of his journal club in medical school. He was a walking encylopedia of research design, he had published a million papers, he was on the editorial board of some heavyweight journals and he had his own clinic in south Florida. Actually I was a little intimidated, especially since my views are outside the mainstream and I often get attacked by the just the kind of people who were head of their journal club in medical school!

So we do the interview, and it goes really really well, even though I’m pretty sure Masley agreed to it because his publicist set it up, but that he had no earthly idea who this “Jonny Bowden” character was.

As we’re ending the interview, I tell him what an honor it was to interview him and how much I enjoyed his book. At which point he says to me…. “And I’d like to say something to you. I’ve been following your career for a decade, and I’m a huge fan of your work. Your books on low-carb diets and cholesterol are terrific. Keep it up!” I could’ve fallen off my chair.

The upshot of all that is that shortly after the interview, Dr. Masley and I agreed to write a book together and signed a contract with Harper Collins. The book — “Smart Fat” — came out two years later.

I’ll also tell you the most moving thing that’s happened to me in my career.

I got an email out of nowhere from a young 16-year old girl named Isabella in upstate NY. In the first paragraph, she tells me this horrific story of how, as an 8-year old child, she was “pranked” by someone pulling the chair out from under her as she was about to sit down. She suffered some neurological damage and has had crushing headaches periodically ever since. Her mother had to type the email for her.

So I’m reading this awful story — which, by the way, was told with absolutely no sense of self-pity — and I’m expecting that it’s going to lead to her asking me a medical/nutritional question.


She then goes on to say that she’s writing for her older brother, Santino, who she adores. Apparently Santino is a huge fan of mine, and has all my books. He has the whole family eating the foods I recommended in my book, “The 150 Healthiest Foods On Earth”. He’s also about to graduate high school and is going to college to get a degree in nutrition largely, she says, because he was inspired by me.

Her big “ask”: Would be possible for me to autograph a book for Santino, (which she insisted she would pay for), and to send her the book so she could give it to him for his birthday?

I was enormously touched by both the sweetness and the selflessness of that request.

Well, obviously I sent the book, but I also stayed in touch with this absolutely incredible family. Turns out that the girl is an author — she wrote a self-help motivational book based on her experiences being bullied called “The Short Story of One Tough Cookie,” and she has absolutely no sense of “victimhood”. Santino has gone on to start college with both as scholarship and a major in nutrition, and I still speak with them regularly.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Well, as you might expect, those principles and philosophies have changed and evolved over 30 years. I spent the first decade or so of my career as a weight loss coach, and the one overarching principle I developed over that time — which I still believe today — is that beauty comes in all sizes, all shapes, all colors and all ages. You don’t have to look like the waif d’jour on the cover of Vogue to be gorgeous and sexy. In fact, most attractiveness comes from within, though none of us realized that back in the days when everyone was focused on getting a “six pack”.

The principle of diversity in beauty and fitness that I learned from my weight loss coaching days has just expanded as my career developed in nutrition and anti-aging. I believe absolutely that there is no one-size-fits-all program for doing anything. There’s no diet, no supplement program, no exercise program that’s going to work for everybody. I’ve always emphasized the idea that we should stop looking for the right diet, and start looking for the right fit between a diet and a given individual.

And that goes for everything — diet, anti-aging program, exercise routine, everything. The only dietary principle that I feel is universal and can be applied to everyone is this: Eat. Real. Food. In as natural and unprocessed a form as possible. Eat as if you were naked on the African serengetti with nothing but a sharp spear — what could you catch, hunt, fish or gather? Because whatever you could hunt, fish, gather or pluck is likely to be very good for you.

I should also say that one of my guiding principles is that there’s almost always more to any “story” than meets the eye. In fact, whether it’s politics, nutrition, relationship issues or anything else, there’s always more to the story than can be captured by a soundbite (“I have bad genes”) or media headlines (“Bacon Causes Cancer!”). Whenever you hear headlines from the media — i.e. “Women who eat yogurt have lower body fat!” — the very first thing you should be asking is, “what else is going on that might be responsible for this observation?”.

A great example of this is the famous “Yellow Finger Syndrome” taught to every beginning statistics student. For years, in some countries, especially in Asia, there’s been a consistent association between yellow fingertips and cancer. If you didn’t look very deeply, you might well believe a click-bait headline such as “Yellowing fingertips associated with cancer!”.

In fact, the association between yellow fingers and cancer exists because people were smoking mainly non-filtered cigarettes. Yellow fingers didn’t cause cancer — smoking non-filtered cigarettes caused yellow fingers! Smoking, in this case, was what’s called a “confounding variable” — it was a third variable that caused both the increase in the incidence of yellow fingers AND the increase in the incidence of cancer.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

The biggest idea that I’m focused on right now is that LDL cholesterol as we know it does NOT cause heart disease, and neither does saturated fat.

Not only that, but our myopic focus on this one outdated lab test — LDL/HDL — makes us take our eye off the ball when it comes to addressing the things that REALLY cause heart disease. So big idea number one — we need to completely retire the HDL/LDL test.

No one should ever get a prescription based on the “good” and “bad” cholesterol test, which is basically 1960’s medicine and as useful in today’s medicine as an old flip phone in the days of Galaxy 8. We now know that there are at least 13 different “types” of cholesterol and that they behave differently in the body. They come in different sizes and assemble in different patterns, and all of that IS valuable information. We now have terrific, modern tests that are widely available that will give your doctor all this information, and we talk about all of those tests in the book. Unlike the ancient “good” and “bad” cholesterol test, the new tests reveal far more information about cholesterol, information that is actually useful and predictive.

As I said on the Dr. Oz show, “Trying to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering your LDL cholesterol is like trying to reduce the risk for obesity by not eating lettuce. It’s just the wrong target!”

The second big idea is that there is a straight line from what’s quaintly called “pre-diabetes” to diabetes, and from diabetes to heart disease. In fact, we think “diabetes” is actually “pre-heart disease”. Eighty percent of diabetics die from heart disease. Whether you call it pre-diabetes, metabolic syndrome or “insulin resistance” syndrome, it’s the first step in the almost inevitable road to cardio-metabolic disaster. And the underlying component of all of these cardio-metabolic diseases — diabetes, obesity, heart disease — is something called insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance is an error of carbohydrate metabolism, and, as we show in the book, it’s associated with a hornet’s nest of degenerative diseases. Insulin resistance is what happens when your body just can’t manage the amount of sugar and starch that you’re consuming in your diet. Some data suggest that up to 88% of the people in this country have SOME degree of insulin resistance. International data confirms that at least 52% of the world’s population has it. And it’s usually undetected. Much like diabetes, most people don’t know they have it until there’s a problem, and then they wish they had known earlier.

And insulin resistance is at the heart of the whole portfolio of cardio-metabolic diseases, from pre-diabetes right up through heart disease. What’s more, it’s turning out that insulin resistance is also related to other terrible degenerative disease. Not for nothing is Alzheimer’s being called “Type lll Diabetes”.

And here’s the punchline: Insulin resistance is treatable, preventable and even reversible by diet — no cholesterol-lowering medication required. And the diet I’m talking about, and that we talk about in the book, is NOT the the terrible low-fat high-carb diet conventional medicine has recommended since the 80’s! In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

How do you think this will change the world?

Insulin resistance syndrome more than doubles the risk of diabetes, which in turn more than doubles the risk of dying of heart disease or stroke. The good news: insulin resistance itself can be detected many years before an official diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease, which means you can interrupt the path of heart disease for a double-digit percentage of the population. We tell you four ways to test for it in the book, including one low-tech test you can do it home for free.

There’s no way to understate the relevance of this insulin resistance thing to our current circumstances. Think about it. EVERY single co-morbidity for COVID — every single condition that causes real problems if you wind up contracting the novel coronavirus — has an insulin resistance connection: obesity, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, diabetes, heart disease. Even lung, kidney and liver disease — the other three “pre-conditions” that are really bad for people with COVID — all of them have a statistically significant connection to insulin resistance as well. In our book, we quote research suggesting that 42% of all heart attacks could be prevented by treating insulin resistance if you catch it early enough. (In the book, we discuss four ways to test for insulin resistance ranging from the low-tech, cheap do-it-yourself way just mentioned, to state-of-the-art blood tests now widely available from major labs such as Quest and LabCorp.)

In my opinion, the main reason we are seeing such a high death rate from COVID is that the virus is wreaking havoc in a basically unhealthy population. There is an underlying and widespread global epidemic of metabolic disease (i.e., insulin resistance/metabolic syndrome). Without those underlying conditions — which, let’s remember, are essentially promoted by the low-fat anti-cholesterol diet — it’s very likely that the death rate from COVID would be significantly less than it is right now.

You can treat and prevent insulin resistance (and ultimately diabetes and heart diesease) with — wait for it — a high-fat, low-carb diet — the opposite of what we’ve all conventionally been taught to think as “healthy”. We explain why in detail in the book. Without insulin resistance, your metabolism is more healthy and efficient, and you are less vulnerable to bad outcomes when you get sick with a virus like COVID.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about>

My old nutrition teacher — the aforementioned Robert Crayhon — used to say that Americans take everything literally and don’t understand nuance. “Americans hear about the benefits of higber-fat Mediterranean diets”, he joked, “and think it means we should add olive oil to our cornflakes”. When I say a higher-fat diet, I do not mean you should eat the standard American diet and just add more fat to your food. I’m talking about replacing inflammatory processed carbs with healthy, non-inflammatory fats.

And while we’re on the subject of fat —

Another very important point that we make in “The Great Cholesterol Myth” — and it’s a point I wrote an entire book about, “Smart Fat” — is that we HAVE to stop thinking that “good fats” and “bad fats” neatly divide along the lines of “saturated VS unsaturated”, or “vegetable oil VS animal fats”. There are plenty of saturated fats that are either neutral to the body or actually GOOD for you, and there are plenty of “unsaturated fats” — — wrongly called “vegetable oil” — that are absolutely horrible for you. (The worst of the lot are soybean, corn, safflower and sunflower oil, with canola oil running right behind them.)

Examples — the saturated fat in grass-fed beef or butter from pastured cows won’t hurt you a bit. Nor will Malaysian palm oil (a basically saturated fat which is actually plant-based). Palm oil is red because it’s loaded with nutrients like tocotrienols and carotenoids. Coconut oil (another plant-based saturated fat) is loaded with lauric acid, a medium chain triglyceride (MCT) that is actually anti-microbial and anti-viral, and comprises about 62% of the fat in coconut oil. Meanwhile, if you take canola oil — which everyone believes is “healthy” — and, like restaurants do, you use it for a week, heating it up, cooling it off and then reheating it the next day like they do in fast food restaurants, it will wind up a toxic waste-dump of carcinogens and trans fat.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Sure. So, as I mentioned, I’m working as a trainer at Equinox in the early 90’s, and most of our clients came in for weight loss. I and all the other trainers had completely bought into the low-fat myth. We believed that eating a low-fat diet and burning the right number of calories on a stairmaster would make you lean (I’m constantly apologizing for the misery my profession caused so many people by selling them on this nonsense.) But we believed it. If people did what we told them and didn’t lose weight, the prevailing opinion was that they must be cheating. It never occurred to any of us that our advice might have been wrong.

Clients were constantly frustrated because — for most of them — the low-fat diet just didn’t work. Around 1992, the new version of the Atkins diet came out, and one of my clients — Al — who was a good 50 pounds overweight and had tried just about everything I threw at him — told me that he had decided to try it.

You can’t do the Atkins Diet!”, I said. “Sure, you might lose a pound or two, but what about all that fat and cholesterol? Give me a break — you’ll get a heart attack and die!”

Al — and so many of our other clients — did the Atkins diet anyway. And guess what? He didn’t die. In a month, Al had lost about 10 pounds, had clearer eyes, a smaller waist, and a new attitude. His blood pressure had gone down and he had way more energy. And this caused me to experience something that psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — the presence of two contradictory ideas that can’t both be true.

On the one hand, I had believed that a high-fat diet would destroy Al’s health. On the other hand, here he was looking and feeling great. Both of these things couldn’t be true — either cholesterol and fat killed you OR, as Al demonstrated, it didn’t.

So I began to wonder: Could it be that everything we had been taught about healthy diets was just simply wrong? Remember, the ONLY reason we had been taught to stay away from choleterol in food (like egg yolks) and to stay away from fat in general was because we BELIEVED they cause heart disease. The entire dietary guidelines, the food pyramid, MyPlate, all of it — were built on this premise. But what if it weren’t so?

Then the dietary guidelines collapse like a house of cards. And that’s when I started on the path I’m on now!

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Frankly, I’m not sure it’s going to happen in my lifetime. As the great writer, Upton Sinclair once said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it”. Remember there’s a 30-billion dollar industry just devoted to lowering LDL cholesterol. And doctors, in general, tend to be a conservative lot. Plus there’s an entire processed food industry to contend with — we call it Big Food — and much of it is based on these silly notions of high-carb low-fat processed foods being “healthy”.

They are not. But we’ve been so indoctrinated to think they are that I am pessimistic about a large, society-wide change in our eating habits anytime soon. I mean think about it — if an international pandemic couldn’t persuade large numbers of people to change their mask-wearing behavior, why would an international epidemic of diabetes get people to change their eating behavior?

That said, it is showing the first signs of happening, at least in some parts of the country. More and more MD’s are getting on board with the notion that cholesterol in the blood should NOT be the target of heart disease prevention — they’re still in the minority of doctors who believe that, but that minority is growing steadily. There are even high-profile doctors — like for example Dr. Shawn Baker and Dr. Paul Salandino — who are themselves on all-meat diets, an extreme form of a low-carb diet. But these same doctors then put their (amazing) blood tests up online for all to see, and those numbers are hard to argue with. We have doctors come up to us all the time at conferences thanking us for opening their eyes to the cholesterol myth. That’s the GOOD news..

The bad news is that there are about 800,000 medical doctors in the US, and only a tiny percentage of them have any idea of how nutrition works. Most medical schools don’t even have a nutrition course and the ones that do have the equivalent of a semester of high school home economics. I go to nutrition conferences all the time, and I see the same doctors, the ones who actually think nutrition matters. Most of the others, sorry to say, are clueless. Many if not most get honorariums from drug companies (including, at one time, my co-author, cardiologist Steven Sinatra, who actually gave “educational” seminars promoting statin drugs. It’s the doctors of that generation who continue to push the same old, lazy way of doing things — measure the patient’s LDL, give them a script, and call it a day. It’s slowly changing — but not fast enough to save all the lives we could save if we’d just have a “woke” moment in nutritional medicine and stop thinking heart disease is all about cholesterol.

It’s not.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Don’t believe everything you read, even if it’s authored by a doctor with lots of letters after her name. There’s a very famous and respected doctor who actually went on talk shows saying statins should be in the water supply. Doctors and researchers can be just as affected by things like sloppy thinking and confirmation bias as the rest of us.

Correlation is not causation. People think that because two things are found together, that one causes the other. There’s even a Latin expression for this kind of fallacy: Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Perfect example from my statistics 101: In Denmark, for decades, there’s been a statistically signifiant correlation between the number of storks and the number of babies. That does not mean that storks bring babies!

The true beginning of wisdom is when you realize how much you don’t know.

Few things matter as much as you think they do at the time.

Health is not the absence of disease; it’s the presence of vitality.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

I’ll tell you what works for me. One, I meditate every day. Two, I play tennis at least five days a week, which, for me, nourishes brain and body on so many levels. Three, I spend a ton of time thinking, which looks like procrastination, but is really more like contemplation. I get my best ideas — for books, articles, blogs, videos, webinars, talks — from this kind of “free-form” productive time-wasting and my advice is that everyone give the same gift. Take a little time to just let your mind wander and don’t beat yourself up for doing it! Four, I read voraciously — mostly not in my field. Nothing gives you perspective (and analogies to use when you’re speaking) then reading in other fields and seeing similarities and connections to your own. Five, I spend some time in a state of gratitude.

And six, I believe in rituals. I’m not talking Satanic stuff, I’m talking an orderly list of things that you do just about each day, more or less at the same time, more or less in the same order. This is incredibly centering and stabilizing. Tim Ferris, who has interviewed some of the highest performing CEOs, athletes and entrepreneurs in the world, collected their most common habits in a book called “Tools of Titans”. Just about every one of them did some kind of ritual every day — Bill Gates, Tony Robbins, Michael Jordan — all of them.

Mine starts with this: Make your bed. I think that sets a really important tone for the day on multiple levels. And apparently I’m not alone in believing that. Not long ago a Navy Seal named Admiral William McRaven gave an iconic graduation speech which turned into a NY Times bestselling book subtitled: Little things that can change your life… and the world.

The title of the book? “Make Your Bed”.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Funny you should say that because Al — the client I mentioned earlier who got me to see the error of my low-fat ways — -was a VC. Once he started getting healthier, he too got to be somewhat of a zealot for the cause of health, just as I had been. He took me out to Las Vegas once to meet with a start-up company that was doing some really innovative medical work in what was then called “anti-aging” medicine. We both thought the company was onto something and Al became a major investor. That start-up company was Cenegenics Medical Institute, and 22 years later, it’s the oldest, largest and most respected age-management medical practice in the US with sixteen centers all over the country. That turned out to be a great investment for Al, and it does a lot of good for a lot of people, including me. I’ve been on their program for over 20 years.

But much as I love VC’s because of Al, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea on how to pitch them. I think there’s a lot of people whose health can be turned around by following our basic dietary principles and I know there’s a lot of lives that can be saved by knowing the real truth about cholesterol and heart disease. Right now I’m just laser focused on getting this information out there to as wide and broad an audience as possible.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@jonnybowden on Instagram and Twitter, and my website is www.jonnybowden.com

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