Rich Roll is a fellow podcaster, author, and endurance athlete who is 100% powered by a plant-based diet.
How do you fuel elite performance in endurance athletics exclusively on plants?
On this special throwback episode with Rich, you’ll learn:
- How to stick to your nutrition plan when you’re eating out
- What alcoholism can teach us about food addiction
- Why we’re obsessed with bacon
- How to kick unhealthy habits
- And much more…
RICH ROLL: HOW TO GET FIT WITH PLANTS
Abel: At the ripe age of 40, Rich rejected the norms of a middle-aged sedentary lifestyle and became one of Men’s Fitness Magazine‘s top 25 fittest men, while making a name for himself in the Ultraman competitions. The kicker is that he’s done all of this while maintaining a plant-based, vegan lifestyle.
Whenever I look at the podcast charts for the top 10, it’s always you, me and Jillian Michaels kicking around there, somewhere.
We should join forces so we can finally dethrone her! But I do, I think of it all the time, because of course I’m checking the things and I’m like, “Oh Abel, he’s up there again.” Congrats on the podcast—you’re rocking it, man. It’s very cool.
Abel: Hey, you too, man. I love that so many of us know each other, and it’s really cool because it’s “co-opetition.”
I think the pie is huge. We’re not competing against each other, and I love the idea of going on each other’s shows. And hopefully you’ll come on my show—let’s all help each other build our audience, because the truth of the matter is we’re in a huge healthcare crisis and there are a lot of people that need help. And so the more people like yourself that are out there, trying to put out a healthy message and turn people’s lives around, I’m all for that, and I’m here to support what everybody’s doing.
Abel: I appreciate you saying that. It’s going to be interesting because there are some really hardcore Paleo folks who listen to this show, and I’ve only had a couple of plant-based folks, I’m really excited to have you here.
My background is that I was vegetarian and vegan on and off for years. And you had a huge change when you decided to basically make that switch from being sedentary to being one of the 25 fittest men. I know that a lot of people already know your story, but for those of us that aren’t familiar, I’d love for you to go through how you made the dramatic switch from being sedentary to super fit.
Yeah, it’s funny. Thanks. Looking back on it, it all looks like it happened really quickly and sort of like I planned it, but that’s not really the reality of how it went down. It took a couple years and it all just kind of unfolded organically.
I’d been a swimmer in college. I swam at Stanford back in the late 1980s, so I’m almost 47 now, so we’re talking like ’88, ’87, around then. But when that was over, that was over. And so went the end of my athletic career, and it was really a career where I felt I never actually realized my potential as an athlete, because I had a nasty alcoholism habit that undermined my aspirations at the time, and that nagged me for the next 10 years. By the time I was 31, I was able to get sober and I spent the next eight years really trying to repair the wreckage that I had created as a result of my drinking.
I was focused on getting back the things that I’d lost, like climbing the corporate ladder (I was a corporate attorney at the time), and repairing my relationships and all that stuff. And the good news is, I was able to do all of that, and from an outside perspective, in many respects, achieve what I thought was the “American Dream.” Now that I had a good career, I got married, and my wife and I built a house and it all looked good, but inside of me I still had this pit, this hole in my spirit where I felt like I was missing something or I wasn’t happy, and I felt like I’d been gypped. I did everything that I thought, or I’d been told my whole life, were the things that I needed to do to be happy, and I had to do it twice because I had lost it earlier on.
During this period of time, I overlooked my health and my fitness. I was so focused on just moving up in the world that I was like, “I don’t have time to work out. Who has time for that?”
I basically lived off what a friend of mine calls the window diet—if you can roll down your window in the car and they hand it to you, you eat it. That’s what I did for years and years and years, and those dietary habits really were formed when I was younger as a swimmer, and I was training four hours a day. You can just eat everything in sight. It doesn’t matter. And you’re bulletproof because you’re 19 years old, right?
Then denial creeps in. I would look in the mirror and I’d still think, “Hey, I’m still that fit Stanford swimmer,” not really able to see myself as I really was, which was about 50 pounds overweight. I was 210 pounds by the time I was 39. So I was never hugely obese. I was never a candidate for Biggest Loser or anything like that, but it was more about how I felt.
I was just depressed. I was lethargic. I was a couch potato. I wasn’t enthusiastic about anything that was going on in my life.
It all came to a head just before I turned 40. I came home late after working at night, I stopped at Jack in the Box, picked up a bunch of cheeseburgers, and was sitting on the couch, watching Law and Order. It’s 1:00 a.m., my family’s asleep, my kids are asleep, and I finally make my way up the stairs to go to bed, and I have to pause halfway up a simple flight of stairs, out of breath, winded, sweat on my brow, buckled over and tightness in my chest, and I was like, “Oh my God. I’m 39, I’m winded, and I feel tightness in my chest; am I going to have a heart attack? What is going on?”
It scared me. It’s really scary. And heart disease runs in my family. My grandfather, who is my namesake, had been a champion swimmer in the 1930s, was captain of the University of Michigan swim team, stayed fit his whole life, never smoked, was never obese, certainly wasn’t eating a Jack in the Box in 1940 or whatever, and he died of a heart attack at age 54.
So Mom would always say, “You’ve got to be careful.” He died when she was still in college, obviously long before I was born. So I had this moment where I realized I really needed to make a change, and not just like a vague notion of “You know, I really ought to go to the gym,” or “I really ought to eat better.” Because in my experience, vague ideas like that have never really worked for me. I knew I needed to do something very decisive, very specific, and that’s the only way I was able to get sober.
I had a moment of clarity with that. And it was a similar experience when I realized, this is another one of those moments where I have a choice. I have a decision to make and I really need to act, because if I just am lazy about it, the moment will pass and I’ll be back to doing whatever I was doing before, happily going along in my denial state.
So that was really the beginning, and it wasn’t like I went vegan overnight. I played around with a bunch of different things. I did a seven-day fruit and vegetable juice cleanse and that was really an eye-opening, amazing experience, because… I don’t know about you, but I have a logical mind and I want to understand the science, like, “What are the toxins that I’m removing here?” And that doesn’t really make sense, and how does drinking juice have anything to do with that?
But I set aside my idea of what I thought was right, because my best thinking got me into this predicament. So I just opened up my mind. I said, “I’m going to try something different.” And I did that and it was an experience in which, the first two days, I was buckled over on the couch. I couldn’t move. I felt like I was back at rehab.
But by day three, day four, day five, I started to really feel a lot better. And by the time I hit six days, I couldn’t believe how good I felt. I couldn’t believe that my body could feel so much better in such a short period of time by just changing a few simple things. And it made me realize just how unbelievably resilient the human body is, that after abusing myself with drugs and alcohol and fast food for so long, I could feel so dramatically different so quickly. So that was the first step.
Abel: A lot of people experience that right at the beginning when they go from eating a bunch of junk to eating something that’s better and nourishing their bodies.”Oh my God, I’ve never felt this great in my life.” But for some reason, it doesn’t stick for them. Yet you’ve been able to stick to probably the most restrictive diet there is for a long time now. What’s the mental shift that happens? Or how do you encourage other people to be able to maintain this lifestyle?
Yeah, just to skip ahead, I played around with vegetarianism and that’s a whole story, but then I finally found my way to a plant-based diet and have been on it ever since, and I’ve found great results with that, and I’ve never felt better. And I think, to answer your question, it’s very difficult to change. And most people don’t change unless they’re in a sufficient amount of pain.
I know for myself, I don’t change my habits until I’m in enough pain to do so. I happened to be in enough pain to make that change. The way I’ve been able to stick with it, I think, is due to a couple things. The first is that you can’t underestimate the power of momentum. Once you start to make these changes, even if they’re small little baby steps toward something bigger over time, you do create a lot of momentum around that. The more momentum you have, the easier it becomes to stick with it.
You can’t underestimate the power of momentum.
I don’t look at what I eat as restrictive at all. I relish what I eat, and I’ve been able to overcome cravings that really held me prisoner to poor choices for a long time. But the way I was able to break those craving cycles was to really weather the uncomfortable storm of freeing myself from them.
For example, when I stopped eating meat, that really wasn’t that big of a deal for me. I didn’t miss it that much; I didn’t have huge cravings. Now of course, if I smell barbecue or something that, I’m a human being. I go, “Oh, that smells good. It probably tastes pretty good.”
Cheese was very difficult for me. I had a couple weeks where I had a really hard time getting off the dairy and the cheese, and also to realize how much dairy is in so much of the foods that we eat. Particularly packaged foods and processed foods. So it was hard. I’m not going to lie. I had maybe three weeks where I didn’t know if I was going to make it.
If there is one thing I understand, it’s how to weather a detox. I’ve done that many times with my struggles with drug addiction and alcohol, so that’s familiar territory for me. And I knew enough to know if I could get to the other side of that, that I could free myself. And now I don’t think about it that much, and I think that’s a big thing.
I know that having cheat days is really popular with certain diets, like the slow carb diet, and if people can do that, more power to them. But for me, I just know myself well enough to know that if I was allowed to eat a cheeseburger one day a week, then I would spend my whole week thinking about what I was going to eat on that cheat day. And I would remain a prisoner to that craving, which would be driving my thinking and my behavior. And so for me, it’s just better to let go of it all completely, and now I don’t really think about it. So I don’t think of it as depriving myself.
I think the other thing that has been really helpful is another tool that I learned in recovery, which is maybe the most important tool. That is to just stay rooted in what you’re doing right now.
Stay in the present moment. What are you going to eat today? What are you going to eat at your next meal? What are you going to eat in your next hour? And focus on just making that next right choice and not worry about, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go to this work dinner in a month. And we’re going to go to a steakhouse. Or we’re going to go to some place where I can’t eat what I want to eat. Or I have to go to this bachelor party,” or whatever it is. And you start living in this future event that hasn’t occurred yet, and I think that trips people up. It’s just like, what’s in front of you to do right now?
Abel: You figure it out. Sticking to a nutritional protocol means being great at improvising and coming up with solutions on the spot, because that always happens. Traveling, bachelor parties, someone cooks you something they don’t even realize you wouldn’t eat in the first place. It’s a vast exercise in trying to figure out what to do right now.
Yeah, so sometimes you’ve got to plan ahead a little bit. It’s not that big of a deal. You just do a little extra preparation, like, “Oh, I’m going to be in an airport all day. I’d better bring something to eat with me.”
It’s also an exercise in creating healthy boundaries. Like, hey, if somebody’s telling me, “You need to eat this” or whatever, where is that dividing line between you sticking up for yourself and you doing what somebody else wants you to do because you want them to like you or what have you? You want to be polite, and how do you navigate that politically so you don’t end up coming off as a jerk about it? But you’re still being true to what you need for yourself.
Abel: Right. So how did you do that?
I’ve been learning as I go, and I still continue to learn. I don’t know that I have all the answers to it, and every day presents new circumstances. I have the good fortune of living in Los Angeles where it’s pretty easy and everybody’s on some kooky diet wherever you go.
And I’m married; I have four kids. My wife is an amazing cook, and when I got on board with this, she got on board. She’s always coming up with awesome stuff in the kitchen. So that makes it easy, and there are a lot of restaurant options in Los Angeles that make it easy. So I haven’t had to kind of suffer through the challenges that somebody who is in someplace different from where I live has to face.
If you’re in Oklahoma City or somewhere else, where it might be a little bit more difficult, I’m empathetic to that. It’s possible, and there are certainly plenty of tools and online resources to make it easier for you, but I also understand that it does require some kind of delicate, interpersonal, kind of tiptoeing at times.
RICH ROLL’S PLANT-BASED VEGAN PLATE
Abel: Given the sheer amount of energy that you require to perform at the elite level, how do you fuel? What does a plate or a meal look like for you?
Well, it’s an interesting question and it continues to evolve. I would say a kind of foundational thing that a lot of people say to me is, “Oh, well, you went off and did all these crazy ultra endurance races despite being on this plant-based diet.”
And my response is always like, “No, actually, I would have never done this stuff had I not changed my diet. It was the energy I got from beginning to eat this way that actually gave me the energy and the inspiration to go out and attack these things.”
In the first maybe year, year-and-half of eating this way, even though my body was performing really well, I lost the weight. Every workout, I would get stronger and faster. The improvements that I was realizing were remarkable.
Still, in the back of my mind, I had this doubt. I’m thinking, “Well, everything’s going well in my training, but still, I don’t know. I’ve been told my whole life that I need to eat meat to be strong, and I need dairy for strong bones.” And those marketing messages are very, very powerful. And I was kind of at war with that.
So, I would go out and I’d get all these supplements. I had a whole cabinet full of supplements. I thought I needed all of those things. In the last couple of years, I’ve been weaning myself off of those to see, “Are these making any difference? What do I need? What do I not?” And I don’t really take very many supplements at all anymore. I take a plant-based protein powder occasionally. I take vitamin B12. I take glutamine once in a while, and some cordyceps, and things like that. But I don’t do a lot.
In terms of what I eat, as I’ve developed a greater level of efficiency with my endurance training, the cycling, and the running, I’ve noticed that my appetite has gone down because my body has adapted so well to the training load, to the volume, so I don’t need to eat as much as I used to eat when I was in the beginning stages of this journey. So although my caloric intake is going to be higher than the average person, it’s not as high as you might think even though I’m out training 25 hours a week or what have you.
Breakfast is a Vitamix smoothie with lots of dark leafy greens and some fruit in there, and maybe some chia seeds or ground flaxseeds and some spirulina. I don’t have any one recipe. A lot of times, it’s just what I happened to have in the fridge and in the cupboard that day. That’s usually enough to go out and train in the morning. And if I’m doing a long bike ride, then I try to eat whole foods along the way, like some dates, or some almond butter, or some bananas. And I try to keep it real simple. I try to avoid the sugary gels and the Gatorade drinks, and all that kind of stuff. I’ve really weaned myself off all those kinds of thing.
And when I get back, it’s just like any other workout. And it depends on how hot it was and how long I went and how the intensity level was and that kind of thing. But the principle is all the same. You’ve got to replenish your electrolytes. So I’ll have some coconut water and some water; I’ll make sure I do that right away. Maybe I’ve got to replenish glycogen stores. So I’ll do another smoothie, and this one will be maybe a little bit more fruit-based than the one I had in the morning.
Lunch: Maybe an hour later, I’ll have some rice with vegetables or I’ll have some lentils, which are high in protein, or some quinoa with vegetables, or a veggie burrito, or a lentil-based veggie burger, or just maybe a big salad, depending on that. And then I’ll snack on some nuts throughout the day and some fruit and things like that. And I basically have a normal dinner, as well.
VEGAN VS. PALEO: THE SURPRISING THING THEY HAVE IN COMMON
Abel: There’s no love lost between vegans and Paleo people. Paleo has really subsumed a lot of other movements, like farm-to-table and slow food. And even the slow carb diet.
But the running joke I have is that my diet, The Wild Diet, is ~70% vegan. And a lot of times, it’s even more than that. Even though a lot of people would say I’m Paleo-ish, it’s far more about eating real food than any particular dietary paradigm. And what I’m hearing from you about the foods that you’re eating, it’s pretty similar to what we already like and eat. Why do people get so nasty?
I’m glad you raised it, because if you didn’t, I was going to. I think that there’s a lot of energy behind, “Let’s get the Paleo people and the vegans in a room and let them fight it out to the death,” or something like that. And I’ve had people trying to push me to do that. You probably have had the same, and I don’t really find that to be productive or in service to the sort of message I think either of us is trying to put out. And even within the plant-based community, there are factions beneath that that argue among themselves about, “Should you eat four nuts or six nuts?” Or, “Is coconut oil bad or is it good?” Or the fruitarians and the no-oil and all that kind of stuff. And they’re all valid conversations to have, but at times, you can lose the forest for the trees.
“The truth of the matter is, we’re in a huge healthcare crisis. Obesity rates are through the roof. One out of every two Americans is going to suffer from heart disease. By 2030, 50% of Americans are going to be diabetic or pre-diabetic.”
These statistics are insane. And less people are eating at McDonald’s.
So when guys like you and me start to fight, then all that does is keep people wedded to their poor choices, because they say, “Well, these guys can’t even get along. What’s going on?” So I think true Paleo really has a lot more in common with a vegan diet than people realize. I think there’s a perversion that occurs with some perspectives on Paleo that turns it into this bacon fanaticism that I don’t think Paleo is really about, where suddenly it’s about eating bacon for all your meals, and I don’t really believe that is Paleo. But people misinterpret it, and then think that’s what they should eat every day.
I find more value in you and I getting on the horn like we’re doing right now and having an adult conversation, and we may disagree on some of the details here and there, but our goal is the same. And I’m not one to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong and what I’m doing is agreeing with me.
I believe in a plant-based message. There’s power in just the idea that people should understand that you can still be a successful athlete on a plant-based diet, and for a lot of people, that’s radical and revolutionary. So I understand that not everyone is going to want to go plant-based, but if I can go 100% plant-based and go out and do some crazy stuff like I’ve done, that somebody will look at me and go, “Well, if that guy can do that, then I can at least move in that direction 20%, 50%, or whatever.”
Abel: I love that. There’s such a big difference between someone who’s getting their breakfast from Quizno’s thinking it’s healthy—whatever they’re calling healthy these days… whatever the commercials are shouting at you. That is just fundamentally different than what most Paleo people are eating and what most vegan people are eating, and if you did it in a Venn diagram, there should be more overlap than not.
But yet, like you said, there’s that in-fighting, and even a lot of the leaders as well are somewhat guilty of this. And I can relate as well to the whole bacon fanaticism. It’s such a joke and we turn it into our own joke about eating loads of bacon, putting it in chocolate, and on your car, on your body, anything like that. Just because it’s so preposterous. And I think the genesis of that is that we’ve been told that things like butter, and bacon, and coconut oil, and avocados, and other things that are fatty or have saturated fat would kill us and give us heart disease for so long.
And now it’s just like a “Haha, we can eat bacon and still be healthy” type of thing. It’s problematic, though, because if we want this message to go mainstream—and I think vegans and Paleo people can agree—we need to focus on the real message… I think the real message is that it all starts with plants, not that it all starts with bacon or meat or anything like that. And if you ask most people, especially the leaders of the Paleo Ancestral movement, what are the fundamentals to this dietary regimen? It would be, we should be eating in the way that humans used to be eating in a natural world. It’s not like going to McDonald’s and just ordering six patties without the buns.
I think the main PR problem, with both vegans and Paleo, is that it’s a joke to the rest of the world, right? So how can, or how is the vegan community addressing that? How do you take this message of health and push it into the mainstream?
A couple things. Everybody, every kind of health proponent in the vegan or plant-based community has a different strategy for that, and a different personality lends itself to a different presentation. On the one extreme, you guys have like Durian Rider—I don’t know if you know who he is.
Abel: I do. He hasn’t attacked me yet, for all I know, but we’ll see.
I just interviewed him last night for my podcast, and he loves the controversy. Whereas like, I’m more about trying to build a bridge, and I’m trying to think about the average person who might not tune in to a vegan-related podcast, but might tune in to yours and might be open to the idea of thinking about things a little bit differently. And the truth of the matter is, whether you’re Paleo, whatever you’re doing, you’re probably not eating enough plants in your diet.
I’m not an anthropologist, so I can’t testify to how we actually used to eat. I would imagine that it had a lot to do with where you lived. I mean, if you’re in an Inuit Eskimo, you’re going to eat differently from a guy who’s living on the Great Plains. But I think that for the most part, I would have to imagine that plant foods were more readily accessible than animal foods.
Animal foods required a lot of energy to track and kill and I would imagine they would be a luxury to eat, and those animals were probably not very fatty, so the animals that were being eaten at that time were very different from the animals they’re eating now, whether they are grass-fed or factory farmed. And what’s happened is we’ve just gotten so far away from what’s natural, right?
You go to the grocery store and suddenly every grocery store is the size of Walmart, and why is that? It’s not because they are selling more apples and lettuce; it’s because every aisle in the middle is packed with these processed foods. Crazy amounts of processed foods that we’re eating, and if people want to learn more about what’s behind all that, they should read a book called Salt Sugar Fat, which goes into the big food industry and how they spend a lot of money and science to specifically devise foods that activate the pleasure centers in our brain. And that creates an addictive response that keeps us going back, much in the way that tobacco companies kind of manipulated their product to enhance the addictive nature of the cigarettes they were selling.
And there are a lot of parallels there. So when you start to look into this stuff, then you start to feel like you’re some crazy radical conspiracy theorist, but you really have to look at who’s profiting from these marketing messages that we’re being bombarded with everywhere we go. Whether it’s the poster for drinking milk in the high school gymnasium or the label on the Snickers bar, that’s the big statement on the side of the Snickers bar that says there five grams of protein, as if it’s a health food or something like that. So it’s incumbent upon everybody to educate themselves, learn how to read a nutrition facts label, and ask the hard questions, and empower yourself so you can make a better choice for your health.
Abel: Even though Paleo has been growing exponentially in terms of popularity, it’s been tough for people to develop products around it. It’s been tough for these food marketers to get in there and slap a label on it and be like, “This is Paleo, buy this because you’re Paleo.” Because it’s hard and expensive to do make shelf stable food with proteins and a lot of fats vs. cheap carbs. But when it comes to taking carbs and marketing those, like a lot of processed food is “vegan” because it doesn’t have meat, but that doesn’t make it healthy. You see this explosion of companies that are saying this food is vegan or gluten-free. They’ve caught onto that; there’s a lot of junk food that’s gluten-free. What do you recommend to folks who are out there in this minefield? How do you navigate that and get away from those super-processed vegan or plant-based foods that are absolute junk?
Well, it’s pretty simple, I think. You just buy whole foods; you buy real food. You try to buy most of your foods that don’t have a nutrition facts label on them, and then you look at the nutrition facts label and if it has things on it that you can’t pronounce or you don’t know what they are, then there is a good chance that’s probably not an optimal choice for you. That’s really in the most general sense, what people should begin with.
If people did one thing differently, it’s to start their day with a blended drink of spinach and kale and fruit. I mean, I don’t know, we may disagree on some of these things. But instead of having waffles or pancakes for breakfast, or something like that, just make one simple change and then pay attention to how you feel.
I think what people say to me all the time is, “What do you eat? What do you eat before you work out? What do you eat during your workout? What do you eat after?”
I’m like, “Well I can tell you all of that, but you have to figure these things out for yourself, and that means you have to take personal responsibility for your choices.” It’s not about a guru or what I say, or what Abel says, or whatever; you have to do that for yourself. And that involves developing a greater relationship with yourself—it means being able to pay attention and monitor how certain foods are making you feel, and adjusting your diet accordingly to maximize your energy levels and your vitality.
Abel: Our advice is so similar. When people come to us and they’re just like, “What should I eat for breakfast?” Instead of saying, “Well don’t eat an Egg McMuffin,” it’s, “Put something in your day that is a healthy habit, that gives you momentum,” like you were talking about before. And what I say there is a green smoothie with lots of dark leafy greens and some fruit, and usually some flax and chia. And if people just take that one step and do it daily, or somewhat daily, a few times a week, you’ll find that all this junk is completely pushed out of your diet because you feel so great that you are not all of a sudden reaching for the Oreos. You just don’t need it because you don’t get as many cravings anymore.
Right. And there’s another thing that’s interesting. It gets technical and it’s becoming a more popular kind of scientific inquiry that’s going on right now, which is this idea of the microbial ecology in your GI tract, and how important that is in terms of maintaining your overall health.
But also, there’s evidence to suggest that it’s impactful in terms of your cravings. Everybody, you have like ten times the number of microbes in your gut than you have cells in your entire body, and maintaining proper health with this microbial ecology is critical to your health. I talk about this in my book a little bit. When you take in foods that aren’t good for you, you are changing that microbial ecology; you’re putting microbes in that are different from the foods that you’re eating. Those start to propagate and then those microbes are starting to demand more of that kind of food, because they require that kind of food to live.
The example I always use is Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me. Most people have seen that movie. For those who don’t know, this guy decides he’s going to eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days and see what happens. And prior to that, he’s living with his girlfriend who’s a vegan chef. He’s eating a pretty clean diet. This is a pretty radical departure for him. First couple of days, he’s eating McDonald’s. He’s on day three and it’s starting to catch up to him. And it’s literally making him sick.
There’s one scene where he drinks a milkshake and he has to throw up out of the window of the car. It’s so gross, right? He’s just like, “I’m never going to make it. How am I going to do this?” And then you fast forward like two weeks later and you see him getting out of bed. And he’s like, “I have a headache. I feel horrible. I can’t think straight.” And then he goes to McDonald’s for his breakfast. And he gets his sausage McMuffin, or whatever it is that he eats. And then he’s like, “I feel awesome!” Suddenly he feels good, like he’s developed this addiction to this food where he doesn’t feel good until he eats it.
I would submit that a big part of that is because the microbial ecology in his gut has changed. He’s replaced his healthy microbial ecology with this ecology that thrives on McDonald’s food.
But now he needs that in order to feel good. And so if you extrapolate that idea out, there are actually studies that say people that are addicted to chocolate, just can’t stop eating chocolate, have a different microbial ecology than people that can take or leave chocolate. When you start to think of it in those terms, it’s kind of a trip.
You think that you are your thoughts. And that you’re controlling your mind. And you have domain over these things. But then you realize, wow, these things in my gut actually are playing a role in what I’m craving. Let me eat a bunch of really healthy foods. A bunch of vegetables and plants. And dark leafy greens and all this kind of stuff. And over time you’ll start to crave those foods. Why? Because you have replaced your microbial ecology with a healthier version.
Abel: And that lends to momentum, doesn’t it?
Yes, of course. Here’s the thing. We all know what’s not good for us and what’s good for us. For the most part, right? We can argue, quibble over certain things. But why do we keep making the bad choice? It’s like there’s that powerless moment where we just instinctively grab it. Or the car finds its way driving into the drive-through no matter what our brain is telling us. How do we override that? How do we overcome that addictive knee-jerk response? And if you can master that, then you’re free.
Abel: I would love to ask you more about this because of your personal experience. You’ve been addicted to alcohol in the past.
Once addicted, always addicted.
Abel: But for a lot of people, they argue that a food addiction is just as or maybe even more powerful than addiction to alcohol or some drugs. What would you have to say to someone who is absolutely convinced they are addicted to bad food?
First of all, that word gets thrown around so nonchalantly, like, “Oh, well I can’t do that. I’m addicted to cheese.” Or whatever. And it’s in a very casual sense. And I’m like, “Well, are you really addicted?” Or is it just that it’s an easy way to say, “No, I’m not interested in being healthy.”
The first question is, “Is it truly something you are powerless over?” Or are you just kind of being a puss?” And there’s a difference. Some people, they just don’t want to change. And they’re not willing to get uncomfortable a little bit. Because if you want something good in your life, you have to sacrifice a little bit for it. And that’s the reality. Good things come at a price. But then there’s the person who truly is powerless and has a really hard time and has done everything and can’t overcome it.
Instead of looking at it from a perspective of “I can’t eat this” or “I need to get rid of this,” shift your focus to what you can eat. Start eating healthier things. And I think the more you start to do that, you will begin to shift those cravings. If you’re willing to get uncomfortable for a number of days or maybe even a number of weeks, and really deprive yourself of that one thing that you’re craving, and you embrace that suffering that very well may come with that, I can guarantee you that you will get to the other side of it.
And then you really can free yourself of it. But you do have to change your microbes. You’ve got to reprogram your thoughts and rewire those cemented pathways in your brain that are messaging you to grab that thing that you know is not serving you. It’s possible—it’s not just possible, it’s very, very doable. But you have to make the commitment.
HOW TO CHANGE NEGATIVE HABITS
Abel: Alcoholics often recover with the help of their community (like AA). Are there best practices from people who have had success and been able to kick negative habits? Is there something you can pull from there and apply to food?
Yeah, a lot of the principles that I apply to my diet are really just things that I learned in recovery. They’re very powerful principles. Not just for dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction, but they’re rules for life that I think are very powerful and effective.
The first and foremost one is the one I already mentioned, of just staying in the day or staying in the moment of what you’re doing. I think that’s huge. The other thing is being compassionate toward yourself. And I think that in recovery, it’s very black-and-white; you’re either drinking and using drugs or you’re not. There’s no middle ground where you can do a little bit, you know what I mean?
So it’s different with food because you have to eat. Contextually, you have to take a different approach. And I think what happens with people that trips them up is they set themselves up for failure, because they try to do it perfectly right out of the gate.
So, whether you’re trying to adopt a plant-based diet—or it doesn’t matter what diet it is, Paleo Diet, The Wild Diet, whatever—people will say, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” They’re a week in or they’re two weeks in, and then they have a weak moment, and their face is buried in the Ben and Jerry’s. And then they go, “Well, obviously that’s too hard. I can’t do it. I failed! I failed!” And then they just throw the baby out with the bathwater and go back to what they were doing, saying it was too difficult.
I think a better, healthier approach is to be compassionate toward yourself and say, “Okay, I did that. Let’s look at what led to that. That was interesting. It’s not a big deal. I had some ice cream. So let’s adjust. Let me look at the triggers that led me toward that. How can I approach it better next time?” And just move forward and give yourself permission. It’s okay. And I think that happens with vegans a lot because they go out and they eat meat or they eat dairy or something like that in a short period, after a time. And then they say, “Well, it’s too hard.” Whereas, it’s a process.
We have to acclimate to a new way of eating. No matter what that new way is, your body needs to adapt to that, and it involves you not being so hard on yourself in the process.
Abel: One thing that definitely happened to me was food that used to draw me in, walking down the middle aisle or so of the grocery store, for example, with all those processed junk, chips, cookies, popcorn, the rest of it. That’s just full of GMOs, fake food, chemicals, all this crap. To me, that doesn’t look like food anymore. It doesn’t draw me in. I don’t feel an emotional response at all when I see that stuff because it’s just something that is foreign to me now.
How did you get to that place? How did you go from where you were powerless, where you just had to grab the popcorn or whatever it is, to the place that you’re at now?
Abel: It’s about that change within your body; whether it’s your gut, which definitely plays into it, or how everything works together. I really think it is more your subconscious. We think we have so much control over our willpower and habits. But what really controls it is the subconscious. How are you existing in your own environment? And what is the mental game that you’re playing with yourself?
When you do something for a long period of time, it becomes who you are, part of your identity. So part of my identity is NOT eating Doritos. And so when that becomes not just a choice that you’re making, but a part of you, you don’t have to make that choice anymore, and that’s cool. Because then you retain that willpower to be able to do a ridiculous endurance event, or something else that allows you to achieve something positive, instead of using up all of your willpower to not do something negative.
Yeah, it’s good. Because, well, when you start your identity as, “I’m the guy who eats Doritos and it’s impossible for me to stop eating them,” you have to understand that you may think that’s true, but that’s just a story you’re telling yourself, that you’re putting energy behind. And you have a choice to tell a different story.
Abel: Rich, before we go, why don’t you tell folks, number one, about your awesome podcast. I encourage everyone to check it out. I have listened to it for a while. It’s always on the top charts.
It’s usually a notch or two below Abel’s show, but not too hard to find. Yeah, it’s the Rich Roll Podcast. And much like your show, it’s similar. I do long-form interviews with all kinds of people. I’ve had doctors, nutritionists, world-class athletes, entrepreneurs, and it’s sort of consistent in theme. Although I’m a plant-based guy, I have all different kinds of people on. I’d love for you to come on the show.
Abel: Thank you, I would love that. And where, also, can people find you? Obviously, the Rich Roll Podcast on iTunes, but what else are you working on?
WHERE TO FIND RICH ROLL
For the blog, podcast, books, speaking engagements, and a ton of other resources, check out richroll.com. You can also follow Rich Roll on social media: Twitter @RichRoll, Facebook, Instagram @richroll, and YouTube.
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BEFORE YOU GO…
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