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John Robbins on Living Healthier
John Robbins is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the link between environment and health. Robbins is the author of a number of best-selling books on nutrition, including The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World and most recently Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest-Lived Peoples. The only son of one of the founders of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain, Robbins turned his back on the family legacy to educate the world on health. In this interview, Robbins explains his research of four different cultures to show us how to lead healthier lives.
What are some of the questions you see in people who are in the first 30 days of living healthier?
If you want to really be healthy, you really do have to ask questions and challenge many things you’ve taken for granted or what your parents taught you to do. One of them has to do with relating to family members who are part of the old way of doing things. Between your children, your parents, your spouse—to what degree are they resistant to your changes? Are they excited or hostile? What it comes down to eventually is the courage to make changes you know you need to make for yourself, even if people in your family or immediate circle are not supportive.
People do feel ashamed for making these changes. There is such a pressure to belong. Eating is a social experience. If you start eating differently than you have and than the people around you do, some will be tolerant of that and others won’t. I’ve heard from a lot of women that husbands aren’t supportive of lifestyle changes. These people know the familiar, and yet we’re talking about healthy change here. There’s so much junk food in our society, so much junk stimulation in our society. This is a time when you need to make choices and be decisive and discerning because otherwise you go with the flow of the culture.
What are the most important things to do during the first 30 days of healthy living?
Diet, exercise and prioritize relationships that are affirming of your self-respect. Move away from those relationships that require endless maintenance and aren’t going anywhere. Relationships in which you feel respected, acknowledged and you are seen are profoundly healthy—they really make a difference medically to your body. By the same token, relationships in which you feel invisible and disrespected are toxic. And this doesn’t just affect your emotional well-being. Your physical health, the functioning of your cardio system and respiratory system can be affected by these relationships.
As for diet, in general, don’t eat junk food. Ask whether anything you put in your body serves the deeper purpose of your life. Does it support your well-being? Is it consistent with your aspirations and mission in your life? Eat lower on the food chain and eat organically when you can. Eat less meat, and a wider variety of fresh vegetables, if possible go with locally grown and organic. If you eat animal products, get them free-range or humanely raised rather than from agribusiness farms.
Try aerobic exercise, jogging, dancing, classes, flexibility exercises like yoga and pilates, and strength building like weight lifting.
Healthy at 100 looks at four communities whose populations are among the healthiest in the world: the residents of Abkhasia in Southern Russia; the villagers of Vilcabamba in Ecuador; the Hunza people in Northern Pakistan; and the centenarians of Okinawa, Japan. What are some of the common health themes in those communities?
Their diets, though not identical, have some principles in common. Compared to Western society, they eat lower calorie diets. It’s a diet higher in nutrients. Every calorie counts—they don’t eat junk foods. They don’t eat anything equivalent to white flour, sugar, trans fats, hydrogenated fats or any other craziness we put in our bodies.
They get most of their protein from plants. We get most of ours from animals. There’s a real advantage to protein from vegetables. Protein from animal sources comes with cholesterol, saturated fat and hormones. The animal protein that they eat get doesn’t come from animals that are raised in factories. It’s a higher quality and they don’t consume very much of it.
They also have a connection to each other. Americans are in comparison an alienated, lonely culture. I think this is one of the hidden factors in one’s health. They have a lot more time spent hanging out with each other, telling stories, telling jokes and getting to know one another. In every lifetime, there are times when things happen and we need each other. In our society, people go through a lot alone.
You emphasize in Healthy at 100 that keeping your mind strong is a key component of health. Why is that? How can people keep their minds healthy?
In the U.S. today, half of the folks who are 85 years old are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia and an even greater percentage have cognitive impairment or some degree of dementia. In the societies I’ve studied—dementia at old age is almost unknown. I wrote Healthy at 100, and I noticed that people in their later years in this country are not only not fun, but bitter. There’s a lot of physical suffering, mental fogginess, confusion and emotional depression amongst older people. You have to ask at a certain point if life is worth living this way.
I’ve studied people in their laten 90s and once they are given mental and physical exercises, after a few weeks they are joyful and vibrant. These people don’t run a 100-yard dash but they’re driven—they are alive. Their movement, eyesight and hearing are good and quite functional, and they do the things they want to do.
What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone going through the first 30 days of living healthier?
The younger you start in a healthy direction, the further you’ll go. I saw one study focusing on folks in their 90s who were bedridden and couldn’t walk. They started doing some limited and controlled weight training (appropriate to their strength levels). Even at that age, their muscles got stronger and they regained balance and coordination. Now they don’t need a walker, they go to the bathroom on their own and walk across the street. It’s not a miracle; it’s just muscle strength. They lost the ability and it came back.
There is a high level of dependence at a nursing home—not one of us wants to live like that. If you live in a healthy way and stay strong and emotionally engaged, you probably won’t end up there.
What’s the key to success in the first 30 days of living healthier?
You have to stay with it. Don’t expect results overnight. It may take a few weeks or months to get to your goal. We live in a short-term gratification society. If you do something for 30 days that matters, you are going to feel results. You’re going to feel better.
Also, have fun! Laugh a lot and cry when necessary.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
I believe my life has a purpose that is greater than myself. I believe that I’m here to make the world a little more loving, more beautiful and joyful. When I serve that function, I’m given everything I need to fulfill that purpose. Sometimes that may involve suffering—we all experience loss in our lives. I’ve come to actually relish those moments because of the dept of reality they bring.
The best thing about change is…
…the opportunity for renewal, replenishment and creativity.
What is the best change you have ever made?
When I stopped trying to live according to others expectations, and listened to the prompting of my inner guidance. In particular in my life, the choice I made not to follow in my father’s footsteps was a big one. He chose me to succeed him in the company he owned and he expected that from me. I chose to walk away from that and live according to my own philosophy. I’ve never regretted that for a moment.
For more information on John Robbins, visit www.healthyat100.org or www.foodrevolution.org.