Part II: Rich Roll
Rich Roll has been featured on CNN and has been named “one of the world’s 25 fittest men” by Men’s Fitness Magazine. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Cornell Law School. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and four children and, when he isn’t training or competing, manages the entertainment boutique Independent Law Group, LLP.
Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Thank you for joining me and it’s time for Part Two of today’s show, July 25th, 2012. I’m going to bring on my next guest, Rich Roll. He has been featured on CNN and has been named one of world’s twenty-five fittest men by Men’s Fitness Magazine. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Cornell Law School. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and four children and, when he isn’t training or competing, manages the entertainment boutique Independent Law Group, LLP.
Caryn Hartglass: Welcome to It’s All About Food.
Rich Roll: Thanks for having me, it’s great to be here.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m so excited to talk to you today and I’m sorry, I did miss you when you were in New York for the Seed Experience a month or so ago.
Rich Roll: That was a great experience.
Caryn Hartglass: I just have a feeling just from reading your book there’s a lot of energy that comes out of here and I’m sure just being in your presence you get all charged up.
Rich Roll: (laughs)
Caryn Hartglass: I’m sorry I missed that experience. You have an amazing story. I’m really glad you’re sharing it with people. People love to hear individual stories especially when people have gone far into the dark and then come out into the light like you have. People love those stories. They really help the rest of us on our own personal journeys. And it’s pretty amazing.
Rich Roll: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: So we’re going to talk a little about that and who knows what else will happen in this half hour. The thing that I have a…just in brief…or maybe you could just give us a thread of your story, not too much, just enough to tease and then I want to ask you some questions.
Rich Roll: Sure. I started out I was an athlete in college. I was a swimmer at Stanford back in the 80’s. When my swimming career ended so did all of my interest in health and fitness. My life just became about moving up the corporate ladder and getting married and showing up for the boss and paying the mortgage and all that kind of stuff. During that time I lost sight of my wellness. I gained a bunch of weight. I gained 50 pounds. More importantly, I just felt horrible. My energy levels were terrible. I was depressed. I was essentially a couch potato. It took a little bit of a health scare to get me to take an honest look in the mirror and realize that I had to make significant changes in the way that I lived my life.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m always wondering how to get people interested in eating a healthy diet because for me it’s a moral imperative for people to eat plants. It’s horrific what’s going on with factory farming today, the treatment of animals. We’re devastating the environment and people’s health is just deteriorating so quickly and it’s expensive and I just don’t like people to suffer. But it’s really hard to get that message across. I think you have some insight as to what some of those things are that keep people from doing the right things because you did have a bout of alcoholism and then you had the issue with food.
Rich Roll: Sure. I think that for most people, myself included, pain is the only true motivator. It’s really the only thing that’s gotten me to change any of my errant behaviors. And it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to suffer the depths of alcoholism to realize that drinking too much is bad for you and you probably shouldn’t do it. You don’t have to put on a ton of weight or suffer a heart attack to realize that maybe you should think twice about what you’re putting down your throat. Unfortunately for most people it takes that kind of severe consequences in order for them to change. It’s unfortunate, it’s part of the human condition I suppose but if anything I’m trying to promote this idea that you don’t have to suffer like I did or like so many people did in order to implement some simple changes that could actually make you feel better and help avoid the onset of all these congenital diseases that we’re suddenly experiencing in gigantic numbers with no end in sight.
Caryn Hartglass: I like to think that changing your diet is really not a difficult thing but there’s something in our mind that makes it difficult. You mention a few things that I kind of highlighted to myself: Change your perception, change your reality and then you also talk about fear. Most people have some sort of fear that really takes control of their life and makes change so difficult.
Rich Roll: Absolutely. When you look at change your perception and change your reality, we have this sort of very firm perspective that eating healthy is difficult, it’s expensive and it comes at the cost of flavor and taste and all these things we’ve grown accustomed to. Changing your perception means realizing or embracing the idea that none of those things has to be true. It doesn’t have to be more expensive. It doesn’t have to be more time consuming. And it doesn’t have to come at the cost of sacrificing flavor and taste. There’s some adjustments of course that comes with changing your palate to suit new foods or whatever but I’ve realized over the last five years of doing this that I don’t miss any of the foods I used to eat. I actually relish the healthy foods in a way that I never really thought possible. It all starts with the decision and a willingness and an open mindedness to try something new and set aside those fears and those preconceptions and then step into it.
Caryn Hartglass: Reading your book, it’s amazing, you write really well. It was hard to put it down. I wanted to get to the end. In some ways it was exhausting just going through…riding up and down those hills, doing those laps and running. Number one, you do things that most people would never even dream of attempting, just amazing physical feats. And then on top of it, you did it on plant foods. And this is what many of us are so excited about because…you have a little paragraph in here where people ask questions “aren’t you anemic?”, “what you are doing is dangerous”, “how can you stand all that bland food?”, “you can’t be an athlete without steak and milk”, “it’s impossible to build muscle without animal protein”, “you can’t get enough calories without meat and dairy”, “I’ve never seen a vegan who looks healthy”, “you’re missing key nutrients”, “you’re harming yourself”, “man evolved to eat animals”, “it’s not natural”. You just say it all right there and I’ve heard it a million times and you probably have to, but you’ve proved them all wrong.
Rich Roll: Yeah, absolutely. Again it goes back to all of these misconceptions, many of which are perpetrated by very powerful milk and dairy lobbies and conglomerates of the food industry that want you to believe that you need certain food products in order to live and be healthy. So many of those turn out to be inaccurate and downright misleading in cases. It’s an amazing time right now because plant-based nutrition has never been so popular or in the forefront of people’s minds. When you see people like Bill Clinton and prominent business people realizing the health benefits of eating this way, it’s making a profound impact on our cultural zeitgeist. For me as an athlete what’s great about that is I let the results of these crazy endurance events speak for themselves. Instead of preaching to people—you shouldn’t do this or you shouldn’t do that—I try to relate my experience, what’s working for me. I let the results of the athletic accomplishments establish and speak for me, that not only is this possible but it’s doable.
Caryn Hartglass: Now some of the people that have said all of these things that I read moments ago, have you changed their minds? Have the people you have worked with or crossed paths with been impressed with what you’re doing?
Rich Roll: For sure. I mean there are a lot of athletes now that are starting to experiment with this and realizing incredible performance gains and not just in the endurance sports arena. You’re seeing an amazing trend among the MMA fighters, the UFC guys. Plant-based nutrition is like all the rage in that sport right now. When you talk about that sort of masculinity issue of being vegan and not eating meat and what that means to your manhood… I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the UFC fight but these guys are absolutely barbarians…nobody more masculine or vicious than these guys and the fact that they’re beating each other up on kale and spinach is kind of amazing. And even recently Arian Foster, who is a very, very prominent running back in the NFL for Houston has adopted a vegan diet and it’s caused quite a stir amongst the sort of mainstream sports media…the ESPN pundits and the like…and everyone is watching closely to see how that’s going to play out. You’re seeing it more and more. It used to be the crazy ultra runners and the like but it’s really spilled over into many mainstream sports and it’s really exciting to watch.
Caryn Hartglass: So this isn’t exactly related to food per se but you’ve talked in your book about when you are trying to achieve some incredible endurance feat that you get to a place where you just let go and let things happen. Can you talk a little bit about that because I think that’s really profound and people could learn a lot from it.
Rich Roll: I used to harbor this idea that the only way that I could succeed in the world was directly related to how much I could impose my will on a certain situation. As a youth I experienced some success by working harder than other people, etc. But what I learned from my bout of alcoholism is the power of surrender and the power of letting go of conditions, situations and people that you don’t have any control over. It’s a very powerful counterintuitive notion that took me a long time to grasp but which has come to play a huge part in how I live my life and how I pursue my sport. In endurance sports particularly, and I guess in any sport, there are only so many things you have control over. You have control over your training, you have control over what you put down your throat, and you have control over how much energy you exert in a race, etc. but you don’t have control over your competitors, you don’t have control over the weather and all these sorts of things that cause anxiety and cause us to waste precious energy and resources on worry and the like that really don’t serve us. I think that at the highest level of any sport all the athletes are incredibly talented and they’re all training very hard, probably all doing very similar things, so what distinguishes the gold medalist from the also-ran? More often than not it boils down to how much domain that person has over their mental attitude. What is their mental construct over their event and their personal well-being. People that have better domain over their thoughts are generally going to be more successful in sport and in life I’ve found.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. That voice that we hear or those voices that we hear we need to turn them off and just be or let our consciousness just do what it’s supposed to do.
Rich Roll: And realize that there’s a distinction between who you are and how you feel and what your thoughts are. It’s creating a dividing line between that thoughts that creep into your head and who you actually are as a person and choosing which messages that pop into your head that you’re going to listen to and which ones you’re going to dismiss.
Caryn Hartglass: Here was something I was reading in your book when you decided to go vegetarian and then vegan it was because you were overweight, you were lethargic, you weren’t feeling well, when you climbed the stairs you were out of breath. What made you choose a vegetarian and then a vegan diet? Had you seen people on these diets that you thought might be helpful?
Rich Roll: Well it’s an interesting question. I wish I could tell you that I went to the library and checked out a bunch of books and watched a bunch of documentaries and came to this well-reasoned conclusion that this would be the best route for me but that’s not at all what happened. I really fell into it in a very occidental organic fashion. By just experimenting on my own and not initially knowing what I was doing at all. I originally thought well I’ll try a vegetarian diet. The reason for that is because it seemed very black and white to me and that’s what I needed. I needed something I could wrap my brain around that seemed doable.
Caryn Hartglass: You must have known some people that were vegetarian that might have left an impression on you.
Rich Roll: I was just looking for some change that I could implement that seemed simple and almost mathematic. It’s really informed by my experience in addiction recovery. You’re either drinking and using drugs or you’re not. There’s no middle ground. So with vegetarianism it was like well you’re either eating meat or you’re not. And I could conceptualize that much better than just saying well I’m going to eat better. That didn’t carry any meaning for me. So of course without taking any proper education about it, it wasn’t long before I was basically just eating unhealthy vegetarian foods like Domino’s pizza and French fries and trying to convince myself that that was healthy when it’s not. After several months of doing that and of course not losing any weight and not feeling any better, I was ready to bag it completely when I thought I wonder what would happen if I took it one step further and got rid of the dairy and got rid of the processed foods. I did it almost as a dare to my wife to prove that it wouldn’t make any difference. So the joke was on me when a week later I felt amazing and that’s when I realized there was something going on and that I should probably undertake a little study to learn more.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s funny. I try and tempt people like that: “prove me wrong” because it doesn’t take that long to feel the positive effects.
Rich Roll: No, if you do it right it shouldn’t even take three weeks, ten days should probably do the trick. But people are wed in their ways and it’s a very tricky thing when you get into trying to get other people to change. Particularly when they’re not ready to or not interested in change.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, and that’s many people. Another thing I’ve read, Brendan Brazier’s books. I know him. I’ve interviewed him. He talks about how plant foods are easier to digest and what ultimately happens as an athlete you recover a lot faster between workouts. So you can work more frequently and then get stronger. Have you experienced that?
Rich Roll: Absolutely. I think it boils down to two things. The first is nutritional density and the second is alkalinity. When you’re eating a whole food plant-based diet your foods tend to be much more nutrient dense than a lot of the empty calories that you get when you’re eating a lot of processed food and milk and dairy and the like which are more difficult to digest. When you’re eating your foods the more nutrient dense they are the more easily assimilated the nutrients are into your body without having to output a lot of energy to digest the food, which of course makes you tired. You’re able to feel better and have good strong consistent energy throughout the day without those ebbs and flows that you get. You know the food coma that comes after eating a big lunch or what have you. The other thing, and Brendan talks about this a lot as well, is alkalinity. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of the standard American diet when combined with environmental toxins and the stressors of our daily life contribute to what’s called a state of chronic acidosis. That’s when your body is constantly striving to maintain essentially a neutral pH combating this constant barrage of acids that you’re putting into your body to make it more alkaline and that ends up leaching precious nutrients from your bones and all sorts of terrible things and creates an environment that’s ripe for getting sick and the onset of a number of congenital diseases. When you’re eating a whole food plant-based diet it’s primarily alkaline forming and in this environment you’re much less likely to get sick, your immune system is operating at its optimum functionality and it’s anti-inflammatory. So the physical response to exercise induced stress is minimized by this anti-inflammatory response. What that means is your body is able to bounce back more quickly. It’s not that eating a plant based diet inherently makes you a better athlete but it keeps you healthy, it keeps you from getting sick and it allows your body to repair itself more rapidly between workouts. When you protract that out over the season you’re going to realize greater performance gains.
Caryn Hartglass: When I was asking you before why did you choose vegetarian and vegan diets and you were explaining why, I was thinking that I think it’s easier when you have something that’s black and white. I think it’s harder when you have a diet that says you can eat a certain amount of something and have more than that. It’s really confusing for people. When you say you can’t eat that and you can eat this, it makes it a lot simpler.
Rich Roll: It’s a lot more simple to conceptualize like I said and also what it does is it helps break the craving cycle. Cravings are real. Cravings are powerful. If we didn’t have cravings for bad food then people would eat healthy all the time. The best way to break that craving cycle is to remove that product from your diet. If you’re on a protocol where you’re allowed a cheat day once a week or you’re allowed to eat a little bit of this and a little bit of that, you’re never breaking the chain. You’re never going to free from that craving cycle. What I’ve found is that if you can survive the couple of weeks of cleansing yourself from the dairy and the meat and the processed foods that once you put a little distance between yourself and those items you don’t think about them any more. You don’t crave them on a daily basis. Maybe a craving will come every once in awhile but it’s at a very low boil and it doesn’t become an overpowering thing that compels you to make an unhealthy food choice. But you have to break the cycle.
Caryn Hartglass: I found your book very inspirational and I don’t ever intend on doing the things that you’ve done, but it did make me want to work out.
Rich Roll: If the book only appealed to people who wanted to do crazy endurance races I don’t think I’d sell very many books.
Caryn Hartglass: What it told me, and there was a line in here somewhere and I didn’t dog ear it, but it was something about we only use about 40% of our bodies or we have a lot more when we think we don’t, something like that. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Rich Roll: Essentially the quote, if I recall it correctly is that when we think we’re at our absolute limit and can’t go any further we’ve actually only tapped into about 40% of what we’re actually capable of. If the book and the story is about anything, it’s about the incredible resiliency and capacity and potential of the human body. It’s unbelievable to me to this day that I could have abused it as long as I did with drugs and alcohol and fast food and terrible living and eating habits and then have it come back to life in the way that it has and perform at a level that has. I still have trouble believing that what has happened, has happened. It’s not me, it’s actually understanding that the human body is an amazing thing. When that’s combined with a healthy state of mind and the healthy diet and the like that your potential is untapped. The book, if you can give me another minute here, I would say that on a surface level it’s about a guy who’s unhealthy, overweight, gets it back together and goes and does these crazy endurance races that nobody is going to do. And it is about that but really what it’s about is…these endurance events are really intended as metaphor because I think everybody has sort of that dream deferred or that challenge they wanted whether it’s athletic or something completely different that just gets cast aside in the course of our busy lives and really the book is a call to action to tape into yourself and figure out what that thing is that you always wanted to do and start making some changes in your life and make it happen.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I definitely got that. I really enjoyed reading it. It was so powerful to see what the body could do. We have to remember that because so many people are afraid. You mentioned fear before, we’re afraid and we think we can’t do things with our bodies and also how forgiving our body can be. We can beat on it for decades and do horrible things to it and then if we turn around and nourish it, it heals, it can get strong and your story is so good at letting people know that they really can clean up their act. Some people go on a diet and then they cheat and they feel like, oh what’s the point? The point is the body is forgiving and can heal.
Rich Roll: It’s more forgiving than the human mind. You’ll beat yourself up over a bad choice and your body will forgive you if you start treating it right again.
Caryn Hartglass: And the mind is so powerful and can push us to do so many things beyond what we believe is possible. So thanks for showing us that. And thanks for joining me today on It’s All About Food. Finding Ultra and your website is www.richroll.com and you also sell products that kind of assist if people are interested in endurance and athletic training.
Rich Roll: We have a cookbook and I also have an athletic recovery product. And you can find those on www.jailifestyle.com . If anyone wants to follow me on Twitter I’m just @richroll.
Caryn Hartglass: Great, thank you Rich. Thank you so much for joining me It’s All About Food.
Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly, 1/23/2013