Highlights from Jonathan Otto's interview with Ocean Robbins, for the Depression & Anxiety Series. Ocean discusses the obesity epidemic in the United States, and why this issue exists. He also talks about his family legacy (Baskin-Robbins), and why he is so passionate about health advocacy. He shares a solution for obesity and illness, by drawing on the Blue Zones study.
Ocean Robbins - Part 2
Ocean: What’s Causing Excess Weight?
What breaks my heart, is how many people are suffering right now with excess weight, and with a society that blames people, shames people, even tortures people for that weight that they’re carrying. I want to have compassion. I want to have compassion for everybody. What you look like on the outside, of course it matters, but who you are on the inside is so much more important.
That said, when we carry excess weight, it’s harder to get out of bed in the morning. It’s harder to exercise, it’s harder to have vitality and joy in life, and it does increase your odds of getting heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and so many other illnesses. I do want to help people to break free.
Now, let’s look at the facts here. We have right now more than 105 million people in the United States alone who are on a diet right at this moment. The weight loss industry has a more than a hundred billion dollars a year. Do you know of any other place in the world or any other zone where people are spending this much money, having this much suffering, and trying this hard with so little result?
Less than 1% of weight loss diets succeed long-term. Less than 1%. That’s like sending your kid off to college, and there’s a 1% graduation rate. If that happens, do you blame your kid, or do you blame the college? People are blaming themselves. They feel ashamed. They think they’re failing. They don’t have willpower. They don’t have motivation.
But there’s a lot more to it than that. What we’re learning, is that there is a neuroscience to food addiction, and a lot of people do not actually have control over their food lives. Let me ask you, do you ever have cravings for foods that you know aren’t good for you? Do you ever see a candy, or a sugary snack, or a cake, or ice cream, and feel some kind of insatiable desire to have it? Because most people do. The reality is, that some part of our brain is hooked.
A lot of people who are struggling with weight issues need to draw sharp, bright lines. Think of it like an addiction to certain foods, and I’ll tell you what the most common foods are that are driving this addiction are sugar and flour products, because those are going into the body, and functioning very much like a drug. Sugar can be more addictive than cocaine.
We have so many people right now that are actually addicted physiologically and psychology to foods that are not in their best interest. Just like an alcoholic can’t have one drink, you’ve got to draw a sharp line. The same I think is true around sugar, and often around flour products. When people draw a sharp line and are able to stay with it, it gets easier and easier to break free.
We also need to look at animal products here, because there is a major correlation between consumption of animal products and excess weight. The average vegetarian is about 10 to 15 pounds lighter than the average meat eater. Now, there are plenty of vegetarians who are struggling with excess weight, don’t get me wrong here, but in general, statistically, there’s this trend. One of the biggest reasons is that vegetarians are consuming more fiber, more plants, typically, and obviously less animal products, which tend to have high amounts of fat.
Two of the foods that are most directly linked with excess weight are sugar and dairy products. As it happens, my family knows a bit about sugar and dairy products, because my grandfather was the founder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream company. Ice cream is fundamentally sugar and dairy, with a lot of other flavorings and stuff added.
My grandpa founded this company, and it became the world’s largest ice cream company. My dad, John, grew up with an ice cream cone shaped swimming pool in the back yard, and 31 flavors of ice cream in the freezer. He was groomed from early childhood to one day join in running the family company.
As he got a little older, he realized that ice cream was not contributing to health for humanity. His own uncle, my grandpa’s brother-in-law and business partner, Burt Baskin, died of heart disease at the age of 54. My dad took a look at his uncle Burt, and he was one of the most successful entrepreneurs in American history, but he didn’t have his health, and he lost his life.
My dad didn’t want to spend his life selling a product that would contribute to more people like his uncle dying sooner than they needed to, and leaving their wives widows, and their kids fatherless. He said, “I want to contribute to health.” He ended up walking away from the ice cream cone shaped swimming pool, and any access to the family wealth, to follow his own rocky road, as we say in our family. He moved with my mom to a little island off the coast of Canada, where they built a one-room log cabin, and grew most of their own food, and named their kid Ocean. That’s me.
In time, my dad ended up becoming a best selling author, writing books about food and health, like Diet for a New America, which inspired millions of people to look at their food choices as a chance to make a difference in the world. The media had a lot of fun with the story. They called my dad, “The rebel without a cone.”
His own dad wound up in his early 70s, suffering from serious weight issues, diabetes, heart problems. His doctors said he didn’t have long to live, unless he read this book, and he handed him a copy of my dad’s book, Diet for a New America, which my grandpa read, followed its advice, changed his diet, reduced his animal product consumption dramatically, ate a lot more vegetables and whole foods, gave up ice cream, gave up sugar, wound up losing 30 pounds, getting off all of his diabetes and high blood pressure medications. His golf game improved seven strokes, and he added 20 more healthy years to his life.
We’ve seen in our family, what can happen when we follow the standard American diet, perhaps with a double scoop of ice cream on top, and what can happen when we make a change. I’m passionate about spreading this knowledge to as many people as possible.
I’ve been working my whole adult life to spread the word as well, working with people in over 65 countries to talk about food and health. I launched the Food Revolution Network with my dad in 2012. We have more than half a million members, and we’re standing up for healthy, sustainable, humane, and delicious food for everybody.
We see this modeled. I mean, we can look at where people in the world live the healthiest and longest lives. It’s been called the Blue Zones by Dan Buettner. They all have certain things in common. They’re eating whole foods, they’re eating a plant based diet, they have strong social connections, they have lots of exercise built into their every day lives. When we model ourselves off of these communities, we can take advantage of the exact same principles, and get the same kind of results.
Yeah. Blue Zones was actually a project of National Geographic, where they decided to map where the people lived the healthiest and longest lives in the world, and there’s one Blue Zone in the United States. It’s actually in Loma Linda, California, where the Seventh-day Adventist community is based, and where most people eat a plant based diet, a majority in Loma Linda, California. Most of the other Blue Zones ... there’s one in Sardinia in Italy, and Okinawa in Japan. These places where people live, consistently, 10 plus years longer than other people even in their own countries. It’s fascinating, and this is not some newfangled thing, this is literally going back 100 years. This is long term study. When you actually look at how people live and how they eat and what kind of outcomes they expect. We have more centenarians in Okinawa than anywhere else in the world, in Japan, and these aren’t just people who live to past 100, they’re actually people who thrive past 100.
It’s interesting to me that ancient wisdom, which we could say the blue zones represent, because this is just the way people have been living in these communities for centuries, is now being corroborated by modern medical science. We have very sophisticated diagnostic tools and ways of measuring human health and longevity that are validating ancient wisdom people in certain communities have known for a long time.
Dr. Dean Ornish has produced the first, and I think the only lifestyle based program that’s actually been approved for preventing and treating heart disease, and he’s also had phenomenal results with diabetes and other health ailments. There are four pillars to his work, which actually very closely mirror what has been seen in the blue zones, and they are…
1. Eating a whole foods, predominately plant-based diet, number one.
2. Exercise and movement, and it has to be fun. It can’t be an onerous chore, so finding things that you enjoy that are nourishing. You can do with people you love is critical here, so you can stay with it. But exercise and regular movement. Use that body. Use it or lose it, right?
3. Social relationships. Loneliness, studies find, can kill us faster than cigarettes, so whether it’s belonging to a church group, or a bowling league, or a social club, or a bridge club, or playing games with people, or having dinner time conversations with your family, or having real heart to heart conversations with people or belonging to a support group, all of these things are statistically correlated with positive health outcomes.
4. Stress reduction. For some people it’s meditation or yoga. For some people it’s prayer or contemplative practice of some kind. Some way that you calm your nervous system down, because in today’s hyper stressed out, hyper sped up world, a lot of us are secreting cortisol, and a lot of us are in hyper reactive mode, and when you’re in fight or flight reaction to the world, you’re not gonna digest well, your body is gonna get hyper stimulated, and you’re not gonna have the peace that you need to function optimally.
So there’s a lot of data on all four of these pillars, and when you put them together, you create the foundation for a healthy, thriving life. A lot of people go to Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi because they’re trying to cut down on calories. If weight loss was just about calories, that would work, but when we understand that it’s about food addiction, we come to realize that actually it doesn’t work. This is why, I think, studies are telling us that people who drink more diet sodas are more likely to suffer from weight problems. In fact, diet sodas are correlated with more net weight gain than sugary sodas.
How could this be? They don’t have calories in them. Well, here’s what we think, and I don’t think there’s anyone that’s completely definitive on this, but we think that because the sweet taste is tricking the brain, the body actually responds as if it was sugar. There was nothing in nature that our bodies were designed to consume that tastes that sweet and that doesn’t give us the sugar rush, so the body responds as if there was sugar there, but there isn’t. Then it feels tricked.
So guess what? People who drink diet sodas crave, even more, the very foods that we should be eating less of. So they’re gonna have more junky calories later, typically, after having a diet soda. So if you want that crisp, refreshing, sparkling taste, go for some sparkling water with ice. Put a little lemon in it.
Artificial sweeteners are one of the most insidious tools that keeps people fat and sick, because the statistics tell us that the more you consume Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi and other artificially sweetened diet sodas, the more likely you are to struggle with weight challenges and issues. They actually are correlated with more net weight gain than consuming sugary sodas, and that is a very, very low bar.
So ultimately, that’s a point of concern. If you want to lose weight and have more food freedom, the top steps I think you can take are to avoid sugary sodas, avoid diet sodas, avoid sugar in all forms, step away from flour and processed foods as much as possible, and eat a whole foods, plant-based diet and avoid any animal products.
One of the big crises we face today is a crises of the microbiome. We have digestive tracts that have been devastated, practically carpet bombed, by antibiotics that indiscriminately kill bacteria by the trillions. They kill the bad stuff but they also kill the good stuff. We’ve been carpet bombed by pesticides and by glyphosate that is in our food supply that is wiping out our digestive tracts.
Some people say you are what you eat. I say actually maybe it would be more accurate to say you are what you digest. Depending on the digestive tract and the food consumed, you could be absorbing anywhere from 10 to 90 percent of the nutrients you eat. There’s a big difference there, and a lot of people are getting the calories but not getting the nutrients from the food that they consume even if they’re eating the healthiest food in the world.
A lot of times you’re still hungry because your body is craving something that it’s not getting, and it may be confused because traditionally our bodies were designed to crave food, and there wasn’t junk food. So if you crave food, then that’s a sign that you need more food, right? But nowadays, we may crave food because we need more nutrients, and it could be that we need more nutrient dense food, but it also may be that we’re not absorbing the nutrients that we eat.
So if you’re struggling in this way, you may have symptoms like brain fog or digestive problems, burping, gas, pain in your stomach, bloating after a meal. You may struggle with just lack of mental clarity, feeling exhausted, feeling tired at 3: 00 in the afternoon. That’s not natural. None of those symptoms are natural. Those are all symptoms that are closely correlated with digestive problems, and the best way to shore up your digestion is to get lots of fiber, to eat lots of fermented foods, and probiotics, and also prebiotics, which tends to be certain forms of fiber that will help your body to make use of the probiotics that you consume.