This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Melissa Hartwig, CISSN, RKC. Melissa is the author of the New York Times Best Selling It Starts with Food is the co-founder of Whole9Life.com, and is the co-creator of the Whole30 program, and is here to tell us why results–not following rules–are all that matter.
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Jonathan: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor here with another *bonus* Smarter Science of Slim podcast and we really have a specially treat today because we’re talking with one of my, literally one of my, favourite authors in the world. Her message is one that resonates so deeply with me. In fact, when I was reading their New York Times-bestselling book It Starts With Food, there was a line in there which I literally wanted to get plastered on my wall and it’s something along the lines of “We’re concerned with results, not history” and I just thought that was so profound. She is one of the co-authors of It Starts With Food. She is the founder and proprietor of www.whole9.com where you can find a Whole 30 forum which is totally free and awesome. She is non other than Melissa Hartwig. Welcome to the show, Melissa.
Melissa: That is like the best introduction I have ever had. I just want you to follow me around and introduce me like that to everybody I meet.
Jonathan: Ha, ha. Well I got to say, I am generally honoured to have you on the show because your story is one that I can certainly relate to very deeply and the amount of impact you are out there having, doing it in a positive, inclusive way is just wonderful. So let’s just start there, Melissa. Tell us your story because it is a cool one.
Melissa: Well, you know, my husband Dallas and I have been working together in kind of a fitness and nutrition capacity for many, many years. We ran a strengthening facility together for about a year or so before we started to focus more on nutrition and kind of well-rounded health and fitness. More of a holistic approach, I guess you would say, and we had the blessing of our friend and mentor Robb Wolf to help us out along that track. This whole thing really came to a start though with what was a creation of our Whole 30 program back in April 2009. Dallas and I were sitting around after a really tough Olympic lifting session, talking about the Robb Wolf seminar we had just attended, wondering whether if we cleaned our diet up just that last 10% it would make a significant difference in our training and recovery and I remember so clearly sitting around on the gym floor sweaty and tired and I was like “I would do that. When do you want to do it?” He looked at me and said “What about right now?” and I was literally eating thin mints.
Jonathan: Ha, ha.
Melissa: I was eating a box of thin mints and I like, looked at my thin mints and was like “Fine.” And that’s really how Whole 30 was born. We decided to do this squeaky clean 30-day paleo-style eating plan but we put some additional parameters around it because I tended to have some neurotic tendencies when it came to food. I tended to get a little OCD with my food. I tended to got a little too restrictive. I focused too much on my scale and my body weight so we kind of approached it as can we figure out how to change my relationship with food at the same time as cleaning up my diet. And the experiences I had were so amazingly profound, when I say life-changing it’s one of the most important events in my life, this experience I had, and from there, really, the rest is just history in terms of Whole 9 and our Whole 30 program.
Jonathan: Tell me a little bit about that history, Melissa, because I think your focus on results and your energy and enthusiasm has really… To be very clear there is a lot of people in the paleo/ancestral space but you and Dallas have really separated yourself out in a really positive way and I think it has a lot to do with your message and just have positive and charismatic you are and how passionate you feel about it. What do you think has led you to have such a unique ability to change so many lives?
Melissa: That’s super flattering. I think that a lot of it is just the personal experience that I had and the empathy I can have with people, men and women but especially women who come from a culture of body image issues, a dysfunctional relationship with food, perhaps a history of addiction or disordered eating behaviours or other sort of addictive behaviours. I understand what it comes from, what it means to come from that place and some of the 30 day paleo challenges that just talk about eliminating certain foods and only eating certain foods, it’s fantastic, it gets people a good part of the way but this is so much psychology. There is so much psychology in what we do. You understand that, you talk about that. So I think being able to just separate yourself from the technical aspects of the program, it’s not that people don’t know what to eat. If they didn’t know what to eat, I’d just give them my shopping list and it would be like the shortest conversation ever. It’s understanding how to motivate and inspire change. It’s understanding how to get people to think about it from a different perspective and this isn’t about your body weight, it’s not about the number on the scale, it’s not about some arbitrary number that Weight Watchers or FitDay or MyFitnessPal sets for you in terms of your health. This is about changing your relationship with food and feeling like you are in a place where you can develop some self-kindness and some grace, a healthy self-image and self-confidence. There is so much more than just the food and we really try to incorporate that into our program and our message.
Jonathan: And Melissa let’s dig into that a little bit. Let’s have a little fun if you don’t mind. Let’s imagine the way… “The stereotypical male thing would be to do *this* when it comes to food. If you want that to work for someone who isn’t a early thirties male, here’s how you do it…” Let’s do a couple of examples like that if you don’t mind.
Melissa: OK, totally. So if you are, and we talk about this in our seminars, if you are a 22 year old boy who is living at home in your parents’ basement and your mum cooks your food and you don’t have any stress and you don’t have a mortgage and you don’t have bills and you exercise, have lots of free time and some disposable income, you know, your relationship with food and what you are doing with your diet looks a whole lot different than 40 year old mother of two who has got a job and her husband works and she is taking care of the kids and there’s financial stress perhaps and there’s relationship stress, there is always time stress and she’s got 20 additional years of creating these habits and relationships with respect to food. So you can’t imagine there’s a one size fits all-plan for anybody in terms of how you can address changing your diet and there’s no one size fits all in terms of how you talk to these people. I can talk to the 22 year old kid living in his mum’s basement about how if he changes his diet, his sports performance will improve, his recovery will improve. And I talk to the mum about how she can have more energy to play with her kids and how she can change her relationship with food so that every time she is stressed she is not running to the pantry. You got to contextualise this stuff and I think that is really important for anybody who is giving nutrition recommendations.
Jonathan: Melissa, that is true. With some of these things I think some of the challenge, and I know you must face this in some of your seminars and in your work and I am curious as to how you handle it, is there seems to be in some ways a paradox in many ways. Let me give two simple examples here and we can dig into both. One is that in some ways we want to… certainly there are common denominators but yet we are all different so there is a bit of a paradox there. We should all be enjoying whole natural healthy foods, that is a common denominator, yet we’re all unique. A bit of a paradox. Let’s dig into that. And also the ‘healing our relationship with food’ in some ways one of the, I think inappropriate critiques of the “paleo diet” which is really just eating foods that contain the most good stuff and the least bad stuff possible, is that it is “too restrictive” and therefore more stressful. Again so a bit of a paradox there. So let’s dig into the first one first and the second one second. So we are common, yet we are different. How do we address that?
Melissa: I think you really hit the nail on the head. There are some commonalities. I think everybody, literally everybody, would be better served in terms of their health to eat nutrient-dense unprocessed whole foods. That’s kind of just a given for me. And we know from the scientific research, we know from our clinical experience and testimonials that there are some foods that tend to be generally problematic for a good number of people. So if you want to make a generalisation you can say “eat these whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods as often as possible and consider eliminating some of the most commonly problematic foods for a period of time to see how they influence or affect you.” And that is sort of the blend between the common denominator and the “we’re all different” the tip of that pyramid that we are talking about in It Starts With Food the self-experimentation. I can say, in general I believe that grains make people less healthy but until you take on that experiment yourself, eliminate them for 30 days, re-introduce them, evaluate how they make you feel physically, mentally, how they affect your quality of life, you will not know specifically how they are affecting you. So you know, common denominator, we can put a program out like the Whole 30 which we feel like is a really good solid foundation for getting people to a place of good health but then people have to take it one step forward and do that self-experimentation part and figure out for themselves how to tweak that foundation to work optimally for them.
Jonathan: In some ways I think you just answered a question I had earlier as well which is “What has separated Dallas and you in your work out so much” and I think we just hit the nail on the head in what you said with your example of grains “Is it true that the vast majority of people may do much better off in life if they were to avoid grains?” Yes. However if you happen eliminate grains and you happen to reincorporate them into your diet and you do well, well we are here to facilitate optimal health and results so if somehow you have a genetic mutation that allows you to do that, that’s awesome. And that’s what I love about it. You say “here are some guidelines but you be the judge”. The goal is results not following some dogma or not following some set of rules but just being happy and empowered and healing that relationship with food.
Melissa: Completely! And I want to take that a step further. If you reintroduce bread and it makes you feel like crap and you say to me: “You know what, I am making a conscious, deliberate decision to include bread in my diet because it makes me so happy, or it brings back childhood memories, or it’s an important cultural or social kind of food for me. Then more power to you. All we are encouraging is for people to make educated, informed, deliberate decisions about your food and until you do that self-experimentation piece you are literally unable to make those kinds of evaluations.
Jonathan: To me, that is just a profound message of freedom, just… not to wax too philosophical too much here but C.S. Lewis who is famous author and also a pretty well-known philosopher once mentioned – this is probably going to get too philosophical but I am going to go anyway since I started – he mentioned that sometimes people will say that a moral person is not free, because they are moral and strained by morality. But C.S. Lewis argues that a moral person can choose to be evil because a moral person know what evil is and a moral person also knows what it takes to be moral. Whereas an evil person is actually less free than a moral person because the evil person is evil and cannot choose to be good even if they wanted to. And let me try to make sense of how that relates to our conversation here. Someone who knows do to them, has been on both sides of that, now has the freedom to choose which side to be on and that is really what I think you are talking about here. Go to the other side and give yourself the ability to make that choice rather than have other people such as food manufacturers or marketing people make it for you.
Melissa: Completely. I follow you 100 percent. Absolutely. We are trying to empower people and we are trying to get them to increase their awareness. And when you do that, that’s where you have – as you mention – that concept of food freedom.
Jonathan: I love it, I love it. The second paradox I wanted to dig into with you is this stress paradox where I personally have found, and it sounds like you found too, is that once you get more in touch with natural whole foods it reduces stress levels dramatically. I think about food almost not at all now and I used to think about it all the time back in the time when I was more in the old school traditional technique. But a lot of people think this is so stressful. How do we bridge that gap?
Melissa: I think it is two things and it goes back to behaviour and change research. One of the things in the stages of the change model, there are 5 stages of change, what I see very often is people get to that kind of the go pre-contemplate it, then they will contemplate it and then they get to the preparation stage and they almost skip over that. They read about changing their diet, they recognise that there is an issue and that they need to make some changes whether it’s due to crisis or due to influence from someone else or just their own internal motivation, but they skip over the actual preparation part and try to jump right into action. And when you do that it becomes a very stressful time in your life because you haven’t fully wrapped your head around exactly what you are going to need to do to implement these changes. So encouraging people to plan, to prepare, to do the research up front. We do tell people: “Commit to the Whole 30 right now. Don’t tell me you are going to do it in a month or two months, because the month is going to come and go. Commit to it now. But that doesn’t mean you have to start right away.” We’ve got a quick start guide on our website. We want people to clean up their pantry. Do some research with recipes. Maybe do some meal planning, buy some Tupperware. Plan and prepare to figure out what you need to do to make this change and that can make the change seem a lot less stressful on the brain. So that is one thing. I think the second thing is that what I observe is that most people’s practical or logical arguments against making change are just a façade for what is emotional discomfort. So people will say: “I don’t have time to do this. I look at all this food and how to cook this food. I don’t have time to cook all this food” or “I don’t know the first thing about cooking, I look at these recipes and I don’t even know what half of these ingredients are” or “I live in this place where it’s really hard for me to find grass-fed stuff and organic stuff” or all of those practical and logical arguments against something, but if you were to come back and offer them solutions, logical solutions, changes are that is not going to solve their problem and it’s not going to reduce their stress because it is inherently coming from an emotional position. So you got to dig deeper and figure out what emotionally is so scary about making this change. And once you can address *that* then I think the idea of this creating more stress can be lessened. In their minds at least.
Jonathan: I love the idea of this; coming at an emotional issue with rational arguments just doesn’t work. Certainly we are all different, Melissa, but if you had to say, maybe there would be some common denominator underlying emotional reasons for this “stress”, what would you say these are?
Melissa: You know, we talked about this with a couple of friends of ours. I think in one aspect of course people are afraid of failure, right. That is the most common one I can think of. People are afraid of… they’ve tried this before, they’ve tried dieting before, they’ve tried to lose weight before, they’ve yo-yoed, every time they do it they tell people they are going to do it, they start to do it and then they fail. So they are afraid of trying because they are afraid of failing. Less commonly understood is that people are afraid to actually succeed. And I heard this today. I received a wonderful email today from a woman who had done great on the Whole30 and kind of fell off and couldn’t understand why because she was making such good progress and while she very candidly said was: “I’m afraid that if I do well and loose this weight finally and change my life that it will change me. That people will not like me anymore, that I will not be the, you know, funny girl anymore. That people will feel threatened by me, that I will leave my husband behind.” People have all kinds of reasons for why they are afraid to actually succeed. And then if you look at it from the perspective of people who have chronic conditions, health conditions, this is a really difficult… the idea that they could potentially improve their health condition by making some changes to their diet is inherently threatening because if they do that, that means accepting that some of their previous behaviours impacted or were responsible for their symptoms and conditions in the first place. That’s a scary place to be, Jonathan, people feel comforted in the idea that “this is something that happened *to* me. I have this illness. This happened *to* me. It’s genetic, it’s environmental, it’s auto-immune. It happened *to* me.” And if you present them with the possibility that not only did some of their behaviours potentially get them there but their behaviours could also get them out of that place. That is a very scary place to be.
Jonathan: It’s a very scary place Melissa, and again it’s this paradox of sorts because it is absolutely a scary place on one hand and on the other hand, which often times we can never get to, is it’s really the most hopeful place you could be in because ultimately if the source of the problem is you, then the solution to the problem is also you. If the source of the problem is society, well you are going to be waiting a long time for all of society to change. I mean in some ways it’s like “oh man, the weight of the world is on your shoulders” but if it is *you* can lift it off.
Melissa: Yeah, but isn’t that just a perfectly logically argument against an inherently emotional response? And I’ve said to people before “but imagine if you could get rid of what’s going on with your body and all of those symptoms and this horrible pain and whatever you are feeling. Imagine if you could change that just by changing the food that you put on your plate” – but there is something inherently terrifying about that concept and you got to dig deeper because the logic in that aspect, while it is perfectly reasonable to me and you, it’s just not resonating.
Jonathan: Certainly when you have the opportunity to sit down with an individual one on one or even a small group setting, you have that ability to dig into that emotional level, but as this message grows and grows and grows how can we do that at scale?
Melissa: Oh, it’s a great question and it’s one we struggle with all the time. We try to do it through blog posts, through articles on our website that are personal in nature, either interviews or testimonials from people who have been there, done that, stuff from my own personal experience or other experiences from people on the Whole9 team. If you can read something on our website and get that experience of connection “this person is writing this and I could have written that” then that is a really good way to relate to people but of course you can’t reach everybody with every article you write. We try to do it in seminars as much as we can and connecting with people one on one at breaks or at lunches but ultimately you just have to send as broad a message as you can but as targeted a message as you can at the same time if that makes sense. It’s a really hard thing to do.
Jonathan: Absolutely and I think it really hits on the challenge… we can have all the science in the world and we can have all the rational arguments in the world but even for ourselves, individually, I mean we’re all connected wholes and if we’re stressed out of our minds and we are highly medicated and we’re in a relationship which is far from optimal, then some of those things may actually be key to us solving our dietary issues because maybe they are driving us to eat emotionally, or maybe they are driving us to seek solace in food and if those things went away our dietary solutions would come even easier. So it’s: How do we clean up our plate not even involving food in the first place sometimes.
Melissa: You totally hit the nail on the head one hundred percent which is why our company is called the Whole 9 and there are 9 factors that we look at that we think are so important and they are all intertwined, you can’t pull them apart. Nutrition is just one of them but we talk a lot in our seminars about the diet-stress-connection. It’s huge and one feeds into the other, feeds into the other, feeds into the other, so sometimes it can be really difficult for people who are trying to make changes to know which kind of string to pull first, right, as you are saying. So yeah, I completely agree.
Jonathan: Well, and the thing that I appreciate about your approach so much, Melissa and which we are talking about here is that it really shines a light, like a bright spot light on how ludicrous the traditional “just eat less of the diet that make you sick and sad in the first place” is. Because in some ways we’re talking about we need to reduce stress. The more we can do to eliminate stress, the more we can attack this from a holistic approach. If you take someone on a diet that already makes them sick and you starve that person, you are putting them in a *more* stressful situation. It’s ludicrous. It’s treating them as a simple mathematical equation and it’s stressing them out. What is more degrading than that?
Melissa: A hundred percent and that’s where you get all of these failure issues, the willpower issues. We talk so much about how hormones are greater than willpower and it’s not just about whether you were good on your diet or whether you hell to your diet or whether you ate the right number of calories. You are absolutely right, you can’t break this thing down into tiny components and people are not numbers.
Jonathan: Not at all, not at all. Well, Melissa what is next for you and Dallas, because you guys started a bit of a movement here and I’m curious as to where you are taking it next.
Melissa: Well, for Dallas and I personally we’re in the middle of growing a tiny human so we’ve got a few more weeks until Baby 9 comes and we are just going to put a little bit of a crimp on our travel schedule for seminars but I think the most effective way for us to share this message with just as many people as we can is to get out there in the communities, to do these seminars, to connect with people, so we started recruiting seminar teams. We got one in Australia up and running right now who are amazing, Jamie Scott and Dr Anastasia Boulais who are doing fantastic word spreading our message down under, and we got auditions currently in the works right now for seminar teams in the US and Canada so they can go out and share the message. Share the message that it starts with food, connect with people in their local communities. We’ve got an amazing team of Whole 9 envoys who also act as ambassadors for what we call our “Good Food Word” who are spreading the message in their local communities. And we just encourage everybody… I feel we are not in the position and we don’t have the experience that someone like Robb Wolf would have to make huge changes at policy level. Our mission is just one person at a time. Get one person at a time, get them one board, get them excited, get them to change their lives and then they touch people, and then they touch people and that’s how you get a ground swell of change.
Jonathan: I love it, I love it. And do you see anything with the little Hartwig who is coming down the pipe here, do you see anything in terms of… I think in some ways this is incredibly complex for adults. I think sometimes it can be a little simpler for children simply because they don’t have the baggage that we tend to acquire with age from an emotional perspective and how… do you see, with the little one running around, do you see maybe some customisations into how parents can start to empower children with this information.
Melissa: We’ve already started doing that with Robin Strathdee who is our director of communications. She has successfully transitioned her entire family, including her children, to a paleo-style diet and has been writing articles to our site about that transition. It’s going to be hard for us to have any street cred in this subject, because people are going to say “you never had to transition your kids, they’ve been eating this way from day one and you don’t understand how hard it is to get them off the sugar and on to new stuff”. But, you know, I’d like to write more about it. I’d like to write about our experience but one of the things I have learned is don’t write about something unless you’ve experienced it. So I’m not going to start talk about how to transition kids into this way of eating and what to do when grandma or uncle Bill is offering sugar. I’ll not write about that until it happens and I get some experience with it.
Jonathan: Oh, that’s funny. I’ve always been interested to see… because this is going to start happening more and more, the idea of “eat things that do as much good for you and as little bad for you as possible” is not a fad. It’s not something that is going to go away. So I think, it’s almost like you have vegetarians who… it’s really considered a life style. No-one goes to a vegetarian and says “oh, you’re dieting, you’re on a vegetarian diet” like no-one would go to someone who is kosher or halal and say “oh, you’re on the kosher diet” so… and certainly those children are brought up in these environments and I’m curious as to if we start to something like that happen here for eating real natural whole foods.
Melissa: That would be amazing and I never really thought about it like that but that’s actually a really smart way to put it. Nobody looks at a vegetarian and says “oh, you’re on that crazy vegetarian diet”. Yeah, I think that’s a perfect way to look at it.
Jonathan: Well, and Melissa I dream of the day when you are booking an airline ticket and imagine you are on one of the few flights where they still serve food, there is kosher, vegetarian, halal… I’m not sure what they are going to call… “the one that won’t kill you”… ha ha… and that’s the thing that makes it hard because since when did being healthy need its own disclaimer… it should be the default, it should be the normal but sadly it’s not, so…
Melissa: They’ll have like one column for food and one column for stuff you can eat and you can just check of which one you want.
Jonathan: Ha ha, yes, there’ll be ‘food’ and then ‘edible things’. Well, Melissa this has been absolutely phenomenal conversation. I so appreciate you sharing your time with us and folks, if you haven’t checked out Melissa and her wonderful husband Dallas’ work, please do so. Their New York Times bestselling book is called It Starts With Food and it is phenomenal and their website is www.whole9.com and they have an amazing amount of free resources there one of the best of which is their Whole30 forum which is totally free. It’s totally awesome and Melissa I really appreciate you sharing your insights with us here today.
Melissa: Thank you so much for having me. This has been a really great discussion.