Today, 1 out of 5 people suffer from autoimmune conditions. This is a staggering statistic, but we’re beginning to learn why it’s such a problem.
Whether we like it or not, the food we eat literally changes our genetic makeup.
As my friend Bub says, “Count Chocula is grim.”
Recent research in epigenetics shows that eating the wrong food for you can turn disease-promoting genes on. The good news is that when you get on the right plan, many serious conditions can be reversed.
We’re here today with a remarkable woman and friend, Dr. Terry Wahls. She teaches others how to heal conditions commonly considered to be untreatable with cutting-edge science and a healthy dollop of good old common sense.
Dr. Terry Wahls is a Functional Medicine Practitioner, Clinical Researcher, and Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Iowa. Though she is widely respected as a leader at the forefront of functional medicine and health, what sets Dr. Wahls apart is her experience using nutrition and lifestyle interventions to treat progressive health problems, to heal her own multiple sclerosis, and later, that of others.
Within a year of beginning her Wahls Protocol, Dr. Wahls went from a zero gravity wheelchair to completing an 18-mile bike tour without drugs or surgery.
On this show, you’ll learn:
- Why one out of five people today suffer from autoimmune conditions
- How Dr. Wahls treated Multiple Sclerosis and defied the diagnoses of doctors who said she would never walk again
- An easy-to-make, delicious dessert that does wonders for your gut, gene expression, bone health, brain health, and also reduces menstrual cramps
- The surprising thing gut samples tell us about people who eat a meat-only diet
- And much more…
TERRY WAHLS: FOOD AS MEDICINE
Abel: Dr. Wahls, it’s an honor to have you back on the show.
Hey, great. I’m so glad to be here with you.
Abel: This statistic is staggering to me. 20% of us now struggle with autoimmune conditions, one out of five. Can you help us explain that? ‘Cause that’s not normal, historically.
Oh, God, no. Absolutely not. We certainly understand that autoimmunity is an attack of my immune cells on me, destroying me. It’s an interaction of the genes that you have, and this very complicated interaction with a lifetime of diet, a lifetime of physical activity, a lifetime of other environmental exposures that all add up to what disease processes you’re going to have.
The DNA that we’ve had, we’ve been having for hundreds, thousands of generations. That was working out fine, but our environment changed and that’s where the biggest problem is. And I think that’s where our biggest leverage point is addressing the environment. That’s where I’ve focused my clinical efforts and where I focused our clinical research, with really, very nice results.
Abel: Yes, and maybe you felt this yourself… A lot of people, when they start to lose their health, they throw up their hands or they listen to their doctor, give up, and say: “This is the way it is,” right?
Oh, yeah. And this is what we’re taught… I was taught in medical school that the health you have is from the DNA that you’ve got. And so, what you just do is go prescribe drugs.
In the ’70s, we were doing the gene sequencing. We were so excited that we’d now have the keys to figuring out chronic disease. But then, we realized that most of the genes we were discovering, that say, were linked to MS, first it was 50, then it grew. Now, it’s finally about 300 we’ve found. But the vast majority of people with any of those genes don’t get MS. It maybe increases your risk 1%. So then, we’re like, “Huh? Something else is going on.”
That’s what’s been so exciting for us to do in the last decade, is to really understand how the food we eat turns genes on and off. And it can turn on these disease-promoting genes, or turn them off, so will the heavy metals, leads, plastics, and other pollutants we’re exposed to. So will physical activity levels, so will my social interactions, my resilience factors, my spirituality, all of that is continuously shaping my genes. That’s why the stuff you and I do is so incredibly powerful.
The really exciting thing is the basic scientists, now that they’re beginning to see these mechanisms, people are getting really interested and excited about researching… The kind of researches that I’m doing in my lab and other labs around the country, that are more into this diet and lifestyle program.
Abel: Absolutely. And it’s getting more dire every day. We have a lot of mutual friends who’ve been in the ancestral health community for a long time now, or a few years now, but there are people outside of that sphere of influence who didn’t get the memo about eating the right way, living the right way, which a lot of people did.
About three to five years ago, it started to really get popular. And you can tell, the people who started eating the right way, living the right way, are thriving right now. And meanwhile, there are a lot of people outside of that sphere who are coming down with autoimmune conditions and they’re like, “This is just what my doctor said. My life is different now and this is who I am.” And I’m like, “But, no!”
It doesn’t have to be.
Abel: What do you have to say to people who might be in that position?
Well, this is a big issue that I had in the VA, when I was in my clinical practice there. We had an intro class, where I would tell my story. I had those great pictures, before and after, and then I’d talk about functional medicine and the mechanisms of why healing occurs. And I’d say, “Okay, we’ve got this great program. You can come work with me 100% for 100 days, gluten-free, dairy-free, lots of vegetables. If you can’t quite do that, but you want to work on improving your diet, you can work individually with a dietitian, or you can say, ‘Nope, I’m not interested. It’s not the right time for me to think about these things,’ and just keep doing your medications with your primary care doc.”
You know what? When I first started having those classes, I would say about half the folks would come forward and work either with the dietitian or with the group, and half would say, “Oh, no. That’s too hard.”
But I left last year, in December. When I ran my last class, we had, I’d say, easily 90% of the people who came to the introductory class say, “I get it. I want to do this.”
And the vast majority came into the group class. We had a few folks who said, “You know, I’d really want to do this individually,” and that was fine. So my perception is that over time, at least as I’m talking to the public-led groups, the awareness and acceptance and interest is growing. We had a list. Even to get people into my introductory lecture, the demand was so great, people were waiting nine months.
Public awareness is growing. I think clinician awareness is growing, but we have a huge, huge epidemic and that’s part of why I think what you are doing is so incredibly powerful, by having this information out there, and putting it on the net, increasing social awareness through our social media. This is one of the really, really great things that I say is why healing is happening at a rapid scale—not because of the changes in medical practice, but because of social media, where people can tell, “Hey, I’m getting better using these ancestral health principles.”
Abel: Right. It works. It really does.
It works. It does really good things. Now, but I’ll recognize, you may be so ill… Because the ancestral health principles were not enough to get me better, because I was so desperately ill. We needed a much more intensive program, but if I can come back from being unable to sit up, unable to sit in a regular chair, struggling to walk 10 feet, having terrible brain fog, horrific levels of pain, and I had this dramatic turnaround in my life with just a year of the Wahls Protocol, that offers hope to so many people with so many different disease processes. And it’s probably why that TED Talk has 2.8 million views now, because it’s such a powerful story.
Abel: It is. And if you haven’t seen it, Dr. Wahls has been on Fat-Burning Man before. I suggest you check that interview out, and also her TED Talk.
Your TED Talk was fantastic and I think a lot of people have trouble believing that you can truly heal yourself with food, or even by, more accurately, subtracting foods.
You’ve got to get rid of the harmful stuff, and then we really want to give you some guidance as to how to fill up with the good stuff.
It’s interesting, Abel; my physician here at the university had many people contact him to say that he was incompetent, I clearly couldn’t have had MS, and it’s sort of crazy. So he would say I was so glad that I told people I was being cared for at the Cleveland Clinic, because they had the international reputation for MS. And probably the other thing that’s now really important…
I’ll tell people, okay, so let’s say maybe my doctors somehow at the Cleveland Clinic, at the University of Iowa, were wrong. I didn’t really have MS, but I’ve had my clinical trials, where we’ve had people come in with progressive MS, and we markedly improved the quality of their life, we reduced their fatigue, we improved their gait, improved their function, and we confirmed before we started it, that yes, they had progressive MS. We’ve done that in study after study after study.
And in the clinics I ran, where we had people with neurologic disease, psychiatric disease, and medical problems, and we used these principles, time and time again—people got younger looking, their medication needs would go down, quality of life goes up, fatigue goes down. So clinically, we see it across many disease states, and prospectively, we certainly have demonstrated in clinical studies that this has been very helpful for people with MS.
Abel: Yes, and other conditions as well.
Abel: Those tiny little things I remember, when my now-wife and I first starting getting into this, we noticed something. My eyes have been pretty good for a long time. I never needed glasses or anything like that. But she was starting to be right at that point where you need glasses. She’d been putting it off… and that went away. All of a sudden, she got a little uptick. Everything was a little clearer, and it’s been pretty good ever since. That’s anecdotal, of course, but I’ve heard it enough times. I’ve also experienced a lot of little things, where a lot of tiny corrections are happening when you get out of your own way.
Well, in my clinical team now, we’ve added ocular studies, and I have one of the best neuro-ophthalmology researchers in the country on my team now. So we’re going to have some very, very exciting papers. In my current studies, we’re including a very nice, rich battery of ocular studies, because this is the easy way for us to look at the health of the neurons, in the nerve cells in the retina, through these studies. We are so, so excited to have Dr. Kardon and his team interested in our work and as part of our research lab now.
Abel: I love that. Listeners, especially if they’re new to this way of eating, they might be quite surprised to hear that you and I, Terry, despite the fact that we have drastically different physiological makeups, we’re in different decades of life, we eat almost exactly the same way. I probably color outside the lines a bit more than you do, but for the most part, our nutrition is very similar and even the fasting is quite similar as well.
So I think a lot of people, if that’s new to them, would be surprised to know that and see that it works for people in vastly different life circumstances.
Correct, correct. And what I try to remind people is that humans have been around for a long time. About six million years ago, we deviated from the primates. Two millions years ago, we had our Homo habilis, so now we’re in our own genus, and then 250,000 years ago, humans. Over that time, we scattered around the globe and we ate very different things according to what was available in that locale, and it would fluctuate during the season. But our ancestors figured out that you can eat leaves, vegetation, and what was poisonous, what was not, insects, grubs, meat, fish, fowl.
And so within ancestral health, we do have some radically different diets, and we can thrive. But there are some things that we know, if we add them to our diet, they’re new foods, they disrupt how the genes are expressed, they disrupt what bacteria live in our bowels, and they kill us, either very quickly or a little more gradually. So that’s sugar, high glycemic index foods, foods that have a lot of lectins in them, and that’s what you and I have taken out.
What I’ve done is provide a structure to help you figure out how to be sure that you’re getting all the micronutrients your brain and your cells need.
Because we don’t have that connection to our ancestors, because so many of us haven’t been cooking, we so lost touch with food, we need to provide some guidance: “Take this bad stuff out and here are the proportions to think about when you add in all the good stuff.”
HOW “POPULAR PALEO” IS GETTING IT WRONG
Abel: Here’s a tricky thing, though. In the year since we’ve talked on this show, there’s this “popular Paleo” thing, where at first it was the early adopters, of which you and I are a part, but it was a lot of academics and people who were very interested in ancestral health and evolutionary biology.
Now you have a lot of people who have heard about Paleo on mainstram media, and they think they’re doing it, by what? By eating a lot of meat, usually. They eat a lot of meat and don’t eat some other things. “Okay, don’t eat bread, or gluten, or something like that. Eat a lot of meat.” I think that’s what it is, right?
Yeah, a lot of people do the meat a lot. But that is not as optimal. The other thing that people sometimes do is ketogenic diets, and to do a ketogenic diet well really requires paying attention to your micronutrient needs and how you’re going to take care of your microbiome.
Abel: Yes. You can’t just eat cream cheese by the block every day or take a bunch of keto supplements and say, “I’m in ketosis!”
I think of this, in a way—the vegan diet. The people who do vegan can feel great. Raw vegans feel great initially, but they become nutrient-depleted over time, then they become ill, and they can’t recognize it was related to how they interpreted their vegan diet.
I see the same thing happening with some keto folks, who feel great initially, because ketosis does feel great, but over time, because they didn’t know how to do it properly, they develop nutritional deficiencies and get into trouble.
Abel: So don’t just click on the little image you see online and get the first thing. Unfortunately, the marketers have intercepted the academics in the past few years, but the good news is that your TED Talk is still there. The good information is still there, too. And once you get your hands on it, you can usually tell the difference, and that’s getting better, I think.
Well, it’s the beauty and the curse of the internet. There’s so much information. People have to pay attention and have some judgment about the quality of the information.
Abel: Right. Now, the ketogenic diet has been something that’s just been exploding in popularity recently, which is good and bad. But you, as I understand, dabble in ketosis for about 10 months out of the year.
Yeah, absolutely. During the winter, I’m still in ketosis, but when my garden starts coming in, I’m going to eat from my garden, and that, yes, will include my strawberries and my blueberries and my raspberries and my cherries, and the peaches that we have. We have fruit trees and I will eat from that, and I’ll have all the vegetables during the summer, but still, really, a low glycemic index diet, still high in fiber, still plenty of good healthy fats, and then, as fall comes down, I’m back in ketosis. And I still like to do a 24-hour fast, and I like to do three days, occasionally, water-only fast. And my blood sugar will still be nice and even because these fasts are very comfortable for me.
Abel: Have you found that fasting gets easier over time?
Absolutely. And I didn’t really start adding this fasting component, probably, until I’d been doing all this for about eight years, and then I started eating once a day. It was just more convenient and just like, “Wow, this is really good.” And then I said, “Well, I’m going to occasionally do a 48-hour fast,” and then that was pretty easy, so now I’ll occasionally do a 72-hour fast.
Abel: And you mentioned in your book that you eat later in the day, is that a regular thing?
Regularly, I get up and have water, and then after work I come home and I’ll make supper. I make myself a membrane smoothie, which is high in fat. And then we have a lot of greens, cooked or raw. And then I have my meats and vegetables. For my evening dessert, if it’s during the summer, I’ll have a chia pudding and some berries. If it’s during the winter, I’ll have chia pudding or I’ll just have coconut milk and tea.
Abel: I noticed you have a lovely wild salad in your book made of greens that you foraged for, which, where you live, are pretty similar to what I was being raised on when my mom was out doing that in New Hampshire. Lamb’s quarters, wild weeds, flowers, all sorts of stuff.
Oh, yeah, plantains and dandelions, yellow rocket, green rockets. There’s lots of edible food, if you can find abandoned city lots, if you can get out into your county roads. You just want to be sure that you have a good guide and someone to help teach you how to have this edible food, so you’re just getting the good stuff, not the poisonous stuff.
Abel: Yes, and be aware that it’s definitely “nature.” This has happened a few times, where Mom, bless her heart… There are edible flowers as well, and she loves collecting these wild flowers. And so she’ll throw those on her salad and it’s just absolutely beautiful. We have some pictures up on the blog of when Mom does this. But on multiple occasions, sometimes you get a crunchy flower, which means that you’re crunching on bugs. That’s real Paleo food, folks.
So anyway, wash it, if you don’t want to eat bugs or, at least too many of them. You might want to just double-check and wash them first. But it is great fun and it’s something, when you eat something that was alive 10 minutes before, it is a fundamentally different experience. It really is.
It is so good. And that’s also the beauty of gardening… We have raised bed gardens. And so it is so fun going out, picking my greens, getting the fresh herbs, and that food is so yummy. My daughter was telling me, because she’s moving out on Sunday, that one of the things she really has enjoyed is being able to go out to our garden and pick the tomatoes, and the basil, and have a fresh salad.
She said, “You know, Mom, this is unlike any food that you can buy anywhere else.” And that’s a pretty high praise from a young, early millennial. You know?
Abel: Right. Well, I remember that, when we would get hungry as kids, we would just go out to the garden. I’d eat a cucumber or maybe we’d fry up a little bit of squash or something, but usually we would just eat it raw. And we also had fruit trees. We had blueberries, cranberries, pears, apples, it was wild out there. And I think a lot of people do have wild foods like that and don’t realize it, even close by.
When I first moved to Austin, I didn’t even know this, because it was only a few weeks out of the year, but there was a loquat tree, which are like little apricot, peach-type things, these orangish fruits, and we’re like, “What the heck is this?” I took it out, and looked it up, and ate a little bit, and then we turned it into a pie, and it was just the most fun, because it’s like you’re living in an exotic country, right in your backyard. These wild things that just grow.
That’s right. As soon as you quit spraying your yard, then it really becomes much more interesting to see what’s coming, what’s growing, what is wild, what’s indigenous, and then learning what you can eat, and just adding it to your salad.
BLACK PEPPER: THE GOLDEN SPICE
Abel: You’ve got another trick for smoothies and salads too, as well, with black pepper…
Oh, yeah. Black pepper is historically one of the most commonly used spices. So you have salt, black pepper, probably one and two. And the black pepper has many, many healing attributes. We have to remember, the reason we use spices is that our ancestors understood that these were super foods to their clan.
Now, mechanistically, we’re appreciating that black pepper increases the absorbance of some very helpful things like curcumin or turmeric, ginger, and some of the other healing herbs. It reduces inflammation. It reduces inflammation in the brain and it reduces oxidative stress. It does really great things for us. It is a great addition that amplifies the health benefits of all the other herbs that you may be taking. And plus, it adds a nice little flavor enhancement, even to sweet recipes. You don’t need much, but I just grab a couple kernels, throw them in my smoothie, and it’s very good. And of course, lots on everything I cook.
Abel: It reminds me of something—this is more PG-rated, so earmuffs kids– I was a touring musician for years, and one of the trade secrets of musicians is that if someone is freaking out on marijuana, then giving them a little bit of black peppercorn almost always solves the problem. They stop freaking out.
Oh, that’s interesting.
Abel: Isn’t that interesting? Yeah. I don’t know the science behind that, but that’s a little secret that all musicians have amongst themselves. And I thought of that when I saw the discussion of pepper in your book, because black pepper, it’s been valued more than gold in history, right?
Traditionally, it is one of the most valued spices, and it was a huge addition to the spice trade. And the reason it’s been so valued is it is a nice adjuvant for all of the other spices. It really crosses, literally, all of our modern culinary traditions.
Abel: One thing people might not realize is that when you go and buy pepper from the bulk bin, or the cheap pepper, that stuff is probably old and doesn’t have a lot of the active compounds that you want. So you really want to get the good stuff.
Yeah, I would get the peppercorns, get a grinder, and grind it yourself. If you’re going to use it for smoothies, you can just put in whole kernels; if you’re going to use it in soups and stews, you can just put in the whole kernels. It’s a different kind of experience and once you’ve been tasting that, likely you’ll never go back. You’ll be like, “Wow, I can really taste the difference.” It’s more fun. It’s worth it.
Abel: The pre-ground stuff doesn’t even really taste like anything. It’s just, you put a dusting on, very non-nutritive.
It’s a very different product. As soon as we grind the spice, it begins to degrade. So if you’re able to get your spices whole and then grind them, they’ll be fresher. Or get them in smaller quantities from an organic store. But ideally, if you can grind it yourself, it’ll be much, much fresher.
HOW TO EAT REAL FOOD ON A BUDGET
Abel: Your followers are called Wahls Warriors? I love that. And a lot of folks may be on disability or don’t live in a food mecca where they can just reach over here and get organic tomatoes, and reach over there and get fresh kale. So what do you do if you’re on a budget or you’re in a food desert?
Well, I am so grateful for having worked at the VA for 16 years, because in my traumatic brain injury clinic, a lot of those folks didn’t have jobs, they were on a very tight income, and they had a lot of problems with attention. In my therapeutic lifestyle clinic, again, a lot of the folks sent to me were on disability, very limited financial resources. So I had to figure out how to help them within their realities.
So we helped them identify, “What is the food budget?” And that includes tobacco, alcohol, everything you get out in the store. Buying your food, so that’s the grocery bills.
Everything you get in a restaurant or a bar that you put in your mouth, that’s part of your food bill. I gather up, “How much does that cost?” And now, we help them save money by, “You’re going to eat at home. We’re going to make a menu, have recipes, and plan. We’ll help you learn how to cook. We’ll help you with very simple menus.
And don’t worry about buying organic. Don’t worry about grass-fed meat, but you are going to have to buy vegetables. You will have to get some meat. It’s fine to get canned—drink the juice if you do. If frozen’s available, get that. If you can get stuff at the farmers market, produce, that’s great, but it should always be in season.
Here’s a lovely trick: Go to the farmers market at the very end and you can walk around to the farmers and say, “You got anything you don’t want to take back and can… Let’s offer a price.” People can often get tail ends at the end of the farmers market very inexpensively. The ugly vegetables. The things people don’t want to carry back, or they could go volunteer to help do some work at the farmers market, or on that farm, and that can be very helpful.
Abel: Yes, and the farmers usually send you off with as many veggies as you can carry.
So what happens is, if you teach people how to cook at home, teach them how to make a menu, that, “Fine, start with conventional food.” And as they begin to become well, we talk about, okay, gardening, hunting, fishing, going to markets.
In Iowa, many, many communities have too many deer. They have controlled hunts and they have all the venison you want from the city lockers, so in Iowa, access to food is maybe a little bit easier. But really, I think for most, because I have thousands on the internet that would make the same observation, when you make the commitment to cook at home, following the protocol, realizing, yeah, you don’t have to get organic at first, but you have to buy vegetables, people discover that they’re saving money. And as I teach them how to eliminate the food waste, because most Americans throw away half of their food, whether they’re going to the restaurant or getting the food they buy at home. So if you teach them how to plan, how to eliminate food waste, how to use all of the food, so you aren’t throwing away the stems and the ends, they save money.
So you can do this on a budget, absolutely. But it does take planning. It does take learning new skills and, really, that’s why I wrote the book, because after working with my patients, helping them, the most powerful thing to do was teach them how to cook and teach them menu planning skills. Then I realized I wanted to this for the public, so we went back, put in a proposal for a cookbook, and here we are.
THIS CHIA PUDDING SOOTHES MENSTRUAL CRAMPS, AND MORE!
Abel: And here we are. There are a lot of recipes in your book similar to what we make often. The chia seed pudding in full-fat coconut milk is an easy win. You do not have to cook to make that.
Yeah, very easy. And if it’s too thick, it’s like, “Oh, I put in too much chia,” so just add a little more water, and keep stirring, and it thins out. So this is a great one that it’s hard to do wrong. You just have to keep adding water to get the texture you want and then you’re good.
Abel: We accidentally made one with far too little water in it the other day and we loved it. It was awesome. We served it a bit cooler, added a little Stevia and fruit, and it tasted very close to tapioca pudding or an ice cream-type custardy dessert. Really nice.
It’s very nice. That’s right. It’s very flexible. You can have it as thick or as thin as you feel like.
Abel: That’s the trick, you have to let the little chia seeds absorb the water first, and it makes it much more fun to eat that way, don’t you think?
Yeah. Oh, God, it’s very fun. It’s just a lovely, lovely finish to a meal.
Abel: And it feels good going down. You can tell there’s fiber in it. It gives you a different type of fullness than other food, I find.
And your microbiome just loves it. It is so good for our gut. And for the ladies, the phytoestrogens are very, very helpful.
When you’re young, if you have too much estrogen, because of all the pollution, that helps lower that. When you’re more mature, like myself, now we’re wanting to maintain brain cell health and bone cell health. The phytoestrogens, which have no impact on my breast tissue, because they’re the alpha, beta, which do support my brain and bones, you get a very nice effect from these phytoestrogens. So having chia seed pudding, great for my microbiome, great for my gene expression, and great for bone health, brain health, and for many, many young women having lots of dysmenorrhea, excess estrogen, adding chia seed pudding often helps quiet that heavy menstrual cramping in their dysmenorrhea. So this is great on both ends of the female spectrum.
NOSE-TO-TAIL EATING FOR HUMANS
Abel: We mentioned the “popular Paleo” fad that’s taken over in the past few years, but at its roots, what paleo really means is you should be eating nose-to-tail, like our ancestors. We should be eating in a different way than, by default, than the muscle meats and fast food we are eating in America these days. So let’s remind people a little bit about the nose to tail eating: the bone marrow, the bone broth, the things I know you and I are eating on a weekly basis.
So when animals are harvested and slaughtered, about 30% to 40% of the carcass would be what we’d consider waste material, offal. Our ancestors would not have possibly thrown that away. They would’ve consumed all of that. And so, liver—I’m a huge fan of liver and I have people have that once a week, because of all the great nutrition that you get there. But the bone marrow, again, great nutrition. The bone marrow has a lot of DHA, which is, we think, why we’re able to grow bigger brains. So having bone marrow, just roasting bone marrow, that is a great, great meal.
The bone broth is rich in glycine and proline. Now, those amino acids are unique to bone broth. When you eat muscle, you have a lot of methionine. If you have a diet high in methionine that’s not balanced with the proline and the glycine, you turn on the mammalian target of rapamycin, and you increase your risk of tumors and cancers, and probably also cardiovascular disease. If you have a lot of bone broth and moderate amounts of meat, the level of meat that I advocate—and I’ve forgotten what your policy is there, but probably close to mine—that mammalian target of rapamycin is not overstimulated.
Eating that way ramps up the mammalian targeted rapamycin and does put you at risk for cardiovascular disease, and tumors, and cancers as well.
THE PITFALLS OF A 100% PROTEIN DIET
Abel: Right, even if you look great in the short term.
You’ll look great in the short term, but it will come back to bite you.
Abel: It’s interesting, because some people—or at least I’ve worked around some people—who are leaning down for competitions or movies, or bodybuilding or fitness competitions, and you see them on the 300 grams of protein per day diet or something ridiculous like that. That’s it, water and protein.
Though you can lean down that way, why don’t you explain a little bit more what the implications might be years later.
Well, if you don’t have vegetables, that’s going to have an impact on which genes are expressed and which genes are silenced. So we have that issue, and the next issue, I’m thinking about the microbiome. We can see, because our bugs are every 20 minutes dividing, they respond very quickly to a change in diet. If I eat a protein-only meal, I have a different microbiome when you analyze my poop, and you can see that within 24 hours. So if I keep doing a poop sample every day, we let that wash out, and then you give me a plant-only diet, and again, within 24 hours, a very different-looking microbiome than when I was eating only meat. We have an increase in recognition that the bacteria in our bowels run our biochemistry with us. Our liver filters out the harmful biochemistry, but the stuff we need to have our brain work well, have our blood vessels work well, have our hormones balanced, come through into our bloodstream.
If we are missing those microbes because we have no plants in our diet, we’re missing some of the process of how we run our biochemistry. And I think that’s why diets that are high in fruits and vegetables, and a low glycemic index diet, lower all-cause mortality, lower cardiovascular risk, lower stroke risk, lower cancer risk, lower autoimmune risk, lower mental health risk. Long term, the high-meat diets don’t have that profile.
Abel: A lot of people make that mistake, assuming appearance implies health. That’s a big one.
It certainly can be. The other comment I did want to add is we do have a couple of ancestral societies that did eat meat only for about 10 months out of the year. That would’ve been our Inuit folks, but they were eating raw meat, raw fish, fermented stink fins, fermented food, lots and lots of fermented foods, so they got a lot of bacterials there. And this is raw wild. The stuff our friends are eating is not wild, it’s not raw… and that changes the nutrient profile.
You and I can’t tell people, “Go eat raw meats.” It’s a huge public health consequence. That’s just not possible. Maybe if you’re growing your own and have a very meticulous way of harvesting, but as a physician, I can’t recommend that. But when people are saying that you can be healthy on a meat-only diet, the only societies that verify that you can were eating a very different food product than what people are eating here. And when you cook meats, you lose the water-soluble vitamins. You change the nutrient profile than when you have it raw. And when you raise animals in confinement lots, you have a very different nutritional profile than when it’s wild.
Abel: Just cooking meat increases our absorption of calories by somewhere around 30%, and that applies to vegetables as well. So it’s a different diet. When some people use that example, it’d be like, “Yeah, I eat meat all day and this is why it’s healthy.” It’s not quite accurate.
No, no, no. It’s not what our Inuit friends would be doing.
Abel: Exactly. Now, let’s talk a little bit more about eating well on a budget, because that has come up so much recently. Are there any other little things that you’ve seen work for people? I suppose the evidence for that would be that they’re still doing it years later.
I do talk to people about, can they afford meat? How much meat can they afford? And I do help people have some meatless meals using legumes and gluten-free grains, unless they have rheumatoid arthritis—those folks we have to do differently.
We stress, “You’ve got to cook at home and figure out how to use every single thing, so there’s no waste.”
So now we’re talking about menu planning, shopping lists, and some discipline around food. And if I can get those skills into people, they thrive; they do really very, very well. The other thing that I have to do well is—or at least it was associated with success—when the family does this together. If you get the kids helping with the meal prep, the shopping, and the menu planning, they’re going to help eat the food. The other thing I do is, you always have one serving. If you say “yuck,” you get a second serving. So everything in our house was always good.
It was always good. There are some things that were great, but everything was always good, and you never heard “yuck.”
HOW TO RAISE INCREDIBLE KIDS (IN THE KITCHEN)
Abel: Right. That’s fantastic. I know you have such a wonderful, beautiful family. And before this interview, I was watching your son, Zach, making the rounds on talk shows, on the Ellen Show, and you made a little cameo.
You’ve raised a strong family with incredible values, and it seems to me that, at least Zach, when I was seeing him speak to Congress, is so advanced, so mature, so independent. That’s something that a lot of people who listen are struggling to raise their kids with the right habits, especially in the kitchen. But let’s just start there. How did you raise such incredible kids… starting in the kitchen?
We gave them chores. And it was actually very helpful. As I became more disabled, my kids had to do more. And so at ages 8 and 11, my kids were having to help us run our daily lives, set the table, clear the table. And again, starting in junior high, they had to help prepare a meal, so one meal a week, it was theirs to prepare.
We would help them pick out the recipes and be their sous chefs, but they prepared those meals. And then as I really understood my health needs and we focused the whole family on eating to support me, again, those kids were there helping with the meals, helping with the change, and seeing the change in my health. And then when I convinced them to follow the gluten-free, dairy-free diet all the time for themselves, they both noticed that their migraines went away, their asthma went away, their acne cleared up. And so they began to see the benefit.
Now, Zeb had a much bigger problem with headaches and migraines, so she got to have real immediate feedback. My son had some acne, mild asthma, and so he doesn’t have quite a strong compelling need as Zeb and I have to follow the diet very meticulously. But he can tell and you can see it on his face.
If he’s got a little acne on the face, like, “Yup, you went out and had some beer, didn’t you?”
Abel: You moms are just too smart and you know too much. That’s just asking for trouble. But the good thing is, I think he is too. I’m sure you have your hands full.
Yeah, they’re doing well. They’re doing well, doing really well. And Zeb graduated with a BFA in painting, and she is just getting ready to launch and she’s working on some freelance stuff. She has a couple of ideas that she’s pitching to me. And one of them actually, which I’m really pretty interested in, was writing and illustrating a children’s book, talking about a family that adopts the Wahls Protocol, and how they’re helped, and how to do that. So I’m sending a note out trying to understand how much interest there is, and so that may be a project that my daughter is excited about doing. And that, I think, would be pretty fun.
Abel: Wow, that’s great. You are a busy family. My Lord.
Well, you know, we like to change the world in favorable ways.
Abel: I love it. Let’s talk about what you’re doing now to change the world. You have a few irons in the fire, so to speak. Let’s catch everyone up.
We have a research program, a new program funded by the National MS Society, and so we’ll ensure you have the link so people can see if they’re eligible for that. There are a couple of partnerships we have with Bastyr University for some research programs they’re doing, and they’ve included the Wahls Diet in that, so I’m very excited about that.
I have a seminar that I do every summer, where people come hang out with us for four days and learn how to implement the protocol. And we are now also offering the Total Wahls Protocol Immersion Program, where people can come spend four days in a very, very small group, where we will really live the protocol. We’ll teach you how to cook, the stress-reducing activities, movement activities. And you get to have a one-on-one medical appointment with me that will review your history, a functional medicine exam, what functional medicine testing might be useful, and design a dietary approach specific to you and your health issues.
I’m really excited about offering that, and I think, again, that’ll be transformative. Very small groups, so there’s a support group, and we’ll follow those folks for the next six months to get them well-launched.
Great things are happening. I am excited to have this little, tiny functional medicine practice. I’m excited to have more time for my online business and seminar, and to have the research program going.
Oh, and one more thing I didn’t mention. We have a proposal to take my program and apply it to ALS patients. And the reason I have the chance to put this together is I’ve had so many folks with ALS reach out to tell me that they’ve adopted the diet and they’re doing way better. And of course, I tell them, please see a functional medicine doc right away, in addition. And we’ve had a couple of individuals who’ve had such great success that they’re offering to help us try and secure funding, or sufficient funding, so we could launch this ALS pilot study.
You know, ever the optimist, I’m very hopeful that by this time next year, we’ll have that funding and we’ll be ready to be recruiting.
Abel: Yeah, and then some, I’m sure.
And then some. And then some.
Abel: Well, you’re rocking it, Terry, and it’s so great to keep up with you and all of these incredible bits of work that you’re doing in so many different realms. But I’m very honored to have you on the show once again. You’re welcome anytime.
WHERE TO FIND TERRY WAHLS
In addition to her website, check out Dr. Wahls new book The Wahls Protocol: Cooking for Life, and get in touch with her on social media on Twitter @terrywahls, Instagram @drterrywahls, and Facebook @TerryWahls.
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