Our environment and culture directly affect the food choices we make. Ultra-processed foods are convenient and cheap, and they’re the main source of foods in food deserts, typically located in underserved communities. Yet ultra-processed foods lead to worsening metabolic health. How do you afford and access nutritious food? Shawn Stevenson and Dr. Casey means discuss how Stevenson, author of “Eat Smarter Family Cookbook” grew up without easy access to whole foods, how he transformed how he eats despite his environment, and how those changes led to a reversal of poor health and chronic pain to an improved quality of life and even earning potential.
– Shawn Stevenson: https://themodelhealthshow.com/about/
– The Model Health Show: https://themodelhealthshow.com
– Eat Smarter: https://eatsmarterbook.com
– Eat Smarter Family Cookbook: https://www.amazon.com/Eat-Smarter-Family-Cookbook-Connection/dp/0316456462
– Sleep Smarter: https://sleepsmarterbook.com/about/
– Shawn Stevenson on Instagram: https://instagram.com/shawnmodel
– Shawn Stevenson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ShawnModel
– Casey Means, MD, on Instagram: https://instagram.com/drcaseyskitchen
– Casey Means, MD, on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DrCaseysKitchen
**10:00 — Ultra-processed foods are convenient and cheap**
Shawn Stevenson describes what life was like growing up in a food desert and how environment and culture impact what we eat and therefore our health.
> It was just impossible to avoid in my environment. And the costs—if we talk about economies of scale, we could potentially get into that. But the foods were so cheap, even though they’re pretty costly to manufacture. Also, they were just everywhere. I lived in a glorified food desert is the name today, but I don’t like the name . . . It was really messed up. Everywhere that I turned it was just fast food. And a big mission behind this project is talking about how our culture influences our food choices. I wasn’t aware that there was something other than this, because this is what my exposure is. Just like a family in Maui has a culture that determines what foods they’re exposed to—families in Nairobi, families in Hong Kong—there are going be different diets based on the culture that you grow up in. And culture really functions kind of like an invisible hand or invisible guidance system that’s controlling what you’re aware of. And by the way, just the definition of culture—because I think we don’t really understand how powerful it is: It is the collective values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people and passed on from one generation to the next. That is one of the most important aspects of it—that it’s continuously passed on. And so a lot of times we don’t realize that our culture is controlling our choices. We might have this idea of free will, which in some aspects, you’re free. You have free will within that operating system, within that context of the culture that you’re in. But a lot of your choices you’re not even aware of.
**20:03 — Stevenson describes the moment when he changed his mindset**
Instead of continuing to dwell on his diagnosis and chronic pain, Stevenson flipped the switch on his thinking to take charge of his health with the things he could control.
> I changed that question and I started asking, “What can I do to feel better? What can I do to lose this excess weight that I’m carrying around?” And this was the crazy thing, like this was that delusional level of thinking that eventually got me here to where, you know, I guess I have the Batman abs. I asked, “How can I be the healthiest person in the world?” Audacious question . . . And so I started to find out about all these different nutrients. And I went into action to provide my body with the raw materials to be able to regenerate my tissues. Fast forward over the next six weeks, the pain I’d been experiencing every day for those two years was completely gone. And I’d lost somewhere in the ballpark of 15 pounds as well, the kind of excess weight that I was carrying. And nine months later, I got my scan done again, and not only had my two herniated discs retracted back into place, but now the light was shining through my disc. I’d regenerated that tissue in my spine . . . and now my back looked more in alignment with somebody of my age bracket suddenly.
**27:20 — The foods we put into our bodies affect us at the cellular level**
We can generate better health by consuming quality whole foods as much as possible.
> And so I was able to create my own microenvironment, start to create new choices, and not just for myself but also to expose other people to the vast array of choices that we have in what we’re making our bodies out of, what we’re fueling our bodies with. And ultimately, this is what we’re talking about in this huge conversation today about metabolic health and looking at all these incredible markers that we can now study and understand that all of these tissues and processes—every part of our cells, every organelle or mitochondria—it’s all made from fuel. It’s all made from food, and it’s all running off of the food that we feed ourselves. This is putting the power into our hands again, to make choices about what we’re making our bodies out of. And I don’t think there’s anything more important than this.
**32:17 — Focus on controlling the “controllables.”**
We can’t control everything about our health, but we can focus on the aspects we can control, like nutrition.
> Even though I was investing my resources into that food, it also came back to me tenfold at least. The new energy that I was experiencing, the heightened level of clarity . . . When we feel better, it’s much easier to be creative and compassionate. And it’s not that we can’t do those things when unwell; it’s just harder. And so I brought myself to a heightened level being able to basically carry more of a positive mindset, more optimistic mindset, more of a position of solving problems rather than finding more problems . . . I made changes to my microenvironment. I made changes to the culture that I can control. And so my advocation for everybody is to focus on controlling the controllables; create an environment proactively that makes healthy choices easier, that makes unhealthy choices much more difficult.
**35:30 — The family that eats together boosts their health together**
Stevenson says, “The dinner table is a unifier.”
> And so now we’re getting to the root issue here, which is shifting our culture . . . It’s not just the food that we’re eating, it’s how we’re eating and who we’re eating with that makes all the difference in the world. And I was shocked when I came across this research, and this is the first book to share this in book form with the public. It starts with some researchers at Harvard who were compiling data on family eating habits and behaviors of eating together. And what the researchers uncovered was that families that eat together on a consistent basis have far less intake of ultra-processed foods and a far higher intake of vital essential nutrients that help to prevent chronic diseases.
**41:23 — Schedule social meals**
Stevenson recommends scheduling at least three meals a week where you are communing with your family or friends.
> The mandate for everybody—this very powerful mission—is scheduling three meals a week with your family. And friends are included in this as well. Family and or friends. And this can be, again, this could be like a Tuesday and Thursday dinner, and then brunch on Sunday, right? Or this can be Monday, Wednesday, Friday—whatever it looks like. You know, breakfast on the weekends, plus one dinner during the week—whatever it looks like for you. But I’m telling you this, and this is backed by the data: You need to schedule it. You need to put it on your calendar. With our busy lives, so many things are less important than our family are on our calendar. Schedule it, put it on your calendar, because for many of us, if it’s not scheduled, it’s not real. So put it on your calendar. Select those days. We can get into more of why this works behind the scenes. But most importantly, I want everybody to understand, especially for our children, we have to do this. We have to take eating together with our friends and family off the endangered species list, give our children this protective measure. And it’s good for us too.
**44:19 — The most common factor across Blue Zones is strong social bonds**
Blue Zones are geographical areas around the globe that have populations with generally longer life expectancy and lower rates of chronic illness. They are a hot topic in health and longevity.
> You know, our social ties are really the thing that is head and shoulders above everything else when it comes to our longevity . . . It’s the quality of our relationships that affects longevity more than anything else. And so when we talk about these different spots around the globe we’ve identified as Blue Zones . . . What we tend to do is like box it in and say, “This is the diet that everybody should be doing.” But the diets of these different regions are so diverse. That’s what people don’t understand. But what is consistent across every one of these places is community, is the social bonds.
**49:19 — Cooking is an essential skill for health**
A lack of knowledge about cooking can lead to a reliance on ultra-processed foods for fuel. Teaching kids cooking skills is crucial. Stevenson encourages parents and other caregivers to let kids helps in the kitchen.
> That’s part of the process. It evokes an inherent planning that goes into it. And not to mention being able to provide an opportunity for our kids’ connection to food. And so one of the things that I talk about in the book is that shockingly—or maybe not so shockingly—our most recent generation, only a tiny percent of kids that are coming into adulthood actually know how to prepare food for themselves. They don’t know how to cook. We are debilitating our kids. We’re disabling them in being able to take care of themselves with this valuable life skill. And so what are they going do? They’re going to eat more ultra-processed foods just to have something to eat. And so all of my kids in my household—still today, I have my 22-year-old son who’s in his last semester of college and my 11-year-old son—everybody can cook.
**1:03:16 — Investing in better health generates improved energy capacity**
Investing in nutritious whole foods is an investment in oneself and in those around them.
> I’m at the checkout line in Whole Foods just hoping that this debit card goes through, risking paying my light bill. I was making an investment into myself. I was turning up the wattage, the electricity in my own health and the wattage and electricity, and the capacity that I had to be a great teacher, to be healthier, to make stronger decisions, to be more consistent. What happened was I ended up being able to make more money. I ended up being able to impact more people.
**1:08:58 — Stevenson shares his tips for affording nutritious foods**
Stevenson is no stranger to having to get creative when it comes to grocery shopping on a tight budget. He discusses aspects of accessibility, which he’s experienced firsthand, and how to prevent food waste.
> I was taking advantage of sales, utilizing coupons and things. Where there was a will, there was a hundred ways. So that was number one. Number two is getting your food closer to the source, which is generally going to save you money.
Shawn Stevenson (00:00:07):
By asking, “Why me?” I was just finding things to affirm why I was unhelpable, why I was unlovable, why I was alone, why I was so sick. I changed that question, and I started asking, “What can I do to feel better? What can I do to lose this excess weight that I’m carrying around? How can I be the healthiest person in the world?”
Ben Grynol (00:00:35):
I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health, and along the way we have conversations with thought leaders about research backed information, so you can take your health into your own hands. This is A Whole New Level.
Casey Means (00:01:04):
Hello everyone. This is Dr. Casey Means. Welcome to A Whole New Level. I could not be more excited today to introduce you to our guest, my dear friend, longtime friend of Levels, and international thought leader on health and nutrition, Shawn Stevenson. You may know Shawn from his incredible podcast, The Model Health Show, which is routinely number one on the podcast charts over the year, or from his number one bestselling books. He’s written, Eat Smarter and Sleep Smarter. Shawn is the graduate of the University of Missouri, St. Louis. He studied business, biology, nutritional science. Went on to be the founder of the Advanced Integrative Health Alliance, which provides wellness services for individuals and organizations worldwide.
He’s been featured in Forts, he’s been featured in Fast Company. He’s been featured in Muscle & Fitness, ABC News, ESPN. He’s traveled all around the world being a keynote speaker and thought leader and creates the most incredible content in health. He is just out of this world. And I think just most importantly, I would say he’s one of the most inspiring, positive, fit people that I know in my life. And when I think about people who bring true light into the world, Shawn is the person that really comes to mind.
So today, we are going to talk about Shawn’s new book that is coming out on October 10th. It is called Eat Smarter Family Cookbook. And it is so much more than a cookbook. It is really like a one-stop shop for learning about exactly what to eat for health and happiness. But also how to eat, who to eat with, how to prepare for your meals from a mental and spiritual perspective, what to do during meals to make the nutrition hit the best in our bodies. And so I was telling Shawn, really, if there was one book I was going to give to someone to really give them a comprehensive but straightforward overview about what to eat and how to eat, and then some practical tips for how to cook that stuff, this would be it. So I cannot wait for you guys to get it. Pre-order it literally right now. So Shawn, welcome to A Whole New Level.
Shawn Stevenson (00:03:27):
Casey, you already know you’re one of my favorite people, and to hear that from you is really special, because I know you know your stuff, and this is something that you’re not just passionate about. You’re an avid researcher, and a stamp of approval that means everything. I’m so grateful we have this collective mission of empowerment and education. And so yeah, I’m pumped to talk about it.
Casey Means (00:03:51):
Me too, me too. So I think we should start with your health journey, because it is absolutely fascinating. You talk about it in the book a little bit. You went from someone who was a 20-year-old, who was literally eating fast food 300 days a year. And you had debilitating chronic health issues. To someone who is one of the most fittest and influential health leaders in the world, and has a 12 pack of abs. So I’d love for you to share your health journey a little bit, and how you went from that to someone who is just a total evangelist in the power of food.
Shawn Stevenson (00:04:26):
Only Batman has a 12 pack. All right? That’s Lego Movie. All right, I’ve got my kids The Lego Movie, whatever. It’s just a little inside joke.
Thank you so much. Yeah, I mean, I grew up an athlete and playing a lot of sports, and I also grew up in an environment. I grew up in two very different environments, by the way. I live with my grandma for a few years, and it was an environment that was really enriching, safety, certainty. I walked one block to go to the elementary school, a lot of love and support.
But also my grandmother, like many grandmothers, her love language was food. And this was during the ’80s, the early ’80s when ultra processed foods were really integrated into American culture in a big way. And so convenience became a big thing. Taste, the tastiness that these chemically concocted tastes via food scientists to make us really want these particular foods, were ever present in our lives. And so my grandmother, being that food was her love language, she just wanted the kid to eat. And so she let me eat basically what I wanted.
I would revolt as a lot of kids do. I didn’t want to eat that stuff she grew in the back. She had her garden. She would can and jar things. We had this creepy cellar in the house, by the way, where there was all these foods that were preserved there. But I wasn’t trying to have any of that. I love my fish sticks, my macaroni, and my little school lunches.
This was the golden age also of lunchboxes. So I had my Knight Rider or my Transformers lunchbox. And all again, pretty much ultra processed foods that I’m taking to school with me every day.
And so that kind of really set the tone for my preferences being in that environment. But it was through the lens of love, truly. She wasn’t trying to mess her kid up.
And then ultimately, I moved in and lived with my mother when my grandfather… And just a little quick sidebar here, he had some abnormal markers for indicating heart disease, but he hadn’t yet had a heart attack or any of the things that came later. And so just by seeing those abnormalities, his doctor put him onto a low fat diet. His doctor told him to get off of the butter and start using margarine, right? Country Crock was now ever present in our house. So partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
And at this point, it was after that when he had multiple open heart surgeries, heart attack. All the things proceeded after a big change in his diet, coincidentally. And so after that happened, I went to live with my mother, and now in the inner city. And this environment, now we’re on food stamps and WIC, getting food from charities on a regular basis.
And my mother worked overnight at a convenience store, and she ended up in one incident, defending, fighting off an attempted robber, and she was stabbed eight times.
And so again, it’s just a very volatile situation, a lot of struggle. But also in this environment, there’s also… And this is what people that aren’t from the environment don’t understand, there’s also a lot of creativity. There’s a lot of making something out of nothing kind of mentality. And there’s also a lot of resilience. There’s a lot of connection to your small tribe that you have, your family. And even though it might seem on the surface to be very volatile, there’s also a lot of beauty there. Now the question is, where’s my creativity being pointed?
And so being that in my environment, the only people that I knew just even hearing stories about to make it out of this situation were through athletics. And so that’s where my attention was pointed. And everything was going great. I had great aspirations with colleges once I reached high school, but then this is where my body starts to break down rapidly.
And I ended up breaking my hip at track practice. Not from falling or trauma, anything. My bone density was so low that just running, I broke my hip when I was 15 years old.
And it wasn’t until a string of additional injuries, just like I couldn’t stay on the track, I couldn’t stay on the football field. Ultimately, when I was 20, I finally get this diagnosis of an advanced arthritic condition of my spine, degenerative disc disease, and obviously very low bone density.
And my perception of myself and my potential was just demolished basically getting this diagnosis. But also, and you know this, sometimes it’s a relief to get that diagnosis. “Now I understand what’s been wrong with me this whole time.” And by the way, to have that advanced degree of degeneration that I had, which my physician at the time when I was 20 told me that I had the spine of an 80-year-old man once he saw my MRI. And I had two herniated discs, the L4, L5-S1 disc in those respective placements. They were thin, black, they were so degenerated. And seeing that, it’s like a snapshot later on, that’s years in the making of breakdown in degeneration. And so this was happening probably in my adolescence, like preteens. And because I was making my body out of the worst possible foods on earth, food like products.
And so I shared in the new book that I ate fast food at least 300 days a year. And it’s because it was just impossible to avoid in my environment, in the costs. If we talk about economies of scale, we could potentially get into that. But the foods were so cheap, even though they’re pretty costly to manufacture. And also, they were just everywhere. I lived in a glorified food desert is the name today. But I don’t like the name food desert because it still gives a little bit of exotic, it’s a desert now. It was really, really messed up. Everywhere that I turned, it was just fast food.
Again, a big mission behind this project is talking about how our culture influences our food choices, because I wasn’t aware that there was something other than this, because this was what my exposure is. Just like somebody who, a family in Maui has a culture that determines what foods they’re exposed to. Families in Nairobi, families in Hong Kong, there’s going to be different diets based on the culture that you grow up in. And culture really functions kind of like an invisible hand or invisible guidance system, that’s controlling what you’re aware of.
And by the way, just the definition of culture, because I think we don’t really understand how powerful it is. It is the collective values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people, and passed on from one generation to the next. That is one of the most important aspects of it, is that it’s continuously passed on.
And so a lot of times, we don’t realize that our culture is controlling our choices. We might have this idea of free will, which in some aspects, you have free will within that operating system, within that context of the culture that you’re in. But a lot of your choices, you’re not even aware of.
And sometimes that’s for the good. For example, a traditional hunter gatherer tribe, which there are still a couple left here on planet Earth, their culture basically blocks them from the awareness that Krispy Kreme is a thing that people eat. Their culture blocks them from the awareness that rather than going and hunting and gathering, they could just go into a QuikTrip or 7/11, and throw a spear through a hot dog. They’re blocked from that awareness that those things are possibilities.
And so also within their culture, their culture has this underlying tenet that is ingrained in all of their psyche, that if you don’t move, you don’t eat. Movement is required in order for you to survive. Movement is required in order for you to procure your food to survive for yourself and your family. And our culture today, we have a culture that movement is optional on so many different domains for our survival.
And obviously, we know some of those things. Essentially, we don’t even have to barely get up to get food today. And we are very disconnected from where our food is coming from.
Casey Means (00:13:37):
If you’ve heard me talk on other podcasts before, you know that I believe that tracking your glucose and optimizing your metabolic health is really the ultimate life hack. We know that cravings, mood instability, and energy levels, and weight are all tied to our blood sugar levels. And of course, all the downstream chronic diseases that are related to blood sugar are things that we can really greatly improve our chances of avoiding if we keep our blood sugar in a healthy and stable level throughout our lifetime.
So I’ve been using CGM now on and off for the past four years since we started Levels, and I have learned so much about my diet and my health. I’ve learned the simple swaps that keep my blood sugar stable, like flax crackers instead of wheat-based crackers. I’ve learned which fruits work best for my blood sugar. I do really well with pears, and apples, and oranges, and berries, but grapes seem to spike my blood sugar off the chart. I’m also a notorious night owl, and I’ve really learned with using Levels if I get to bed at a reasonable hour and get good quality sleep, my blood sugar levels are so much better. And that has been so motivating for me on my health journey.
It’s also been helpful for me in terms of keeping my weight at a stable level much more effortlessly than it has been in the past. So you can sign up for Levels at levels.link/podcast. Now, let’s get back to this episode.
Shawn Stevenson (00:15:08):
Just to circle this back and put a button on my story, growing up in the culture that I grew up in and being unaware that there was another option for me, I experienced this traumatic experience of getting this diagnosis, being basically a very young man in an old man’s body. And also, my physician unfortunately telling me that when I asked him. Because being an athlete, I’m just like, “Okay, so what do we do to fix this? Let’s go.” And he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “I’m sorry son, this is incurable.” And it didn’t register to me at first when he said it. And I was just like, “Okay, so what do we need to do? What can I do to fix this?” And I asked him, and I didn’t know at the time where this came from, but I asked him, “Does this have anything to do with what I’m eating? Should I change the way that I’m working out?”
And he kind of cocked his head and looked at me like I was from another planet. And he said, “This has nothing to do with what you’re eating. This is something that just happens, and I’m so sorry that it happened to you. We’re going to get you some medication, to help you to manage this.” And that was that. He sent me on my way.
And at the time, not really understanding… I was in college at the time, and pretty avid researcher, always kind of excelled in school. And I think a part of that was also my constant questioning things. But I muted that. And it wasn’t until a couple of years later, that the thing that came up for me then was a principle in physics.
So causality. In our universe, even though there might be parallel whatever, in our universe, there’s cause and effect. We might see the effects of something, not understand the cause, but there’s always a causative agent for everything.
And so to say that this just happens, this idiopathic, that’s just because he didn’t know and/or he wasn’t equipped to inform me on what some possibilities could be. And it was the standard of care just to give me a prescription.
So leaving there, I was heartbroken. And I went from a nuisance of a pain that I came in for, to chronic debilitating pain within a matter of weeks, because of that nocebo effect. And so that’s the opposite of a placebo. It’s getting a negative injunction that your pain is going to be worse, you’re not going to get better. You’re going to lose function. You have six weeks to live, those kinds of programmings. And by the way, if we can, I’d like to talk about an experiment that was done by Alia Crum and her team at Stanford, about the nocebo effect if we have time.
But long story short, just to get to the good stuff, obviously there’s a happy ending to this story, fortunately. But it’s a rare occasion, because this type of thing is happening every day for countless people all over the world. They’re getting this bad bill of goods and they’re being disempowered.
And so two years went by, and the one thing that every physician that I saw gave me was a permission slip to stop moving. They would give me bedrest as part of my new prescription and also getting a bedrest, so I could give that to my job. I don’t have to work, and not do anything.
And so not only is my spine and my bones atrophying, but now everything is. And I ended up gaining a lot of weight, and definitely my mental health was suffering mightily. And I was struggling to sleep at night, because the pain was so bad.
And also he put me on Celebrex, which there were two hot drugs at the time, NSAIDs, Celebrex and Vioxx. Fortunately, it was kind he put me on Celebrex, which my side effect from that was restless leg syndrome, which didn’t yet have its catered drug. And so nobody told me for years I was struggling with this. I’d go to bed at night, and it felt like my legs were trying to get up and go for a jog. It was the craziest thing. And in addition to the pain… But Vioxx as you know, wow, it’s one of the great American tragedies. This was a drug brought to the market by Merck. They knew that there was some significant cardiovascular risk in their clinical trial data, and they hid it. And ultimately, 40,000 Americans died from taking Vioxx. At minimum, it was 40,000 to 60,000 confirmed deaths. And in addition to the hundreds of thousands of injuries that are well-documented. And unfortunately again, the way that our system is constructed, it’s not like anybody lost their job, or went to jail. They just continued business as usual. They found a way to pivot. They had their fixer, Olivia Pope type team to come in and reframe things. And they’re doing better than ever today.
And Casey, if you or I killed one person, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, very likely. Let alone 10 people, 100 people, 40,000 lives lost. And again, they were like me. It was literally a roll of the dice. He could have put me on Vioxx. A lot of young people died as well, and I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you. But again, it was a standard of care not getting to the root cause.
And to put the cherry on top of the story, ultimately, everything changed after all those years of struggle when I had this reframing. Because that entire time, I was outsourcing my potential to my physicians. And even though they meant well, they weren’t walking in my shoes, and they were telling me vocally that I couldn’t get better. And so if I’m buying into that perspective of myself and my situation, that was going to be my lot in life.
And so I decided after two years to do something different, which was… And this is going to sound so simple, but I don’t want people to miss this. I decided to do things to feel better. Just that simple. I asked a different question. Those two years I’ve been asking, “Why me, why me, is this happening to me? Why won’t anybody help me?” And there’s a really interesting reflexive aspect of the human brain. It’s called instinctive elaboration.
And so all of us have a constant questioning that’s going on, whether we’re conscious of it or not, that’s directing our focus. Basically, “What should I focus on right now?” And so our dominant question could be, “Why me, like mine was, or how can I get people to like me? Or how can I have a good day?” Whatever the case might be, we have this dominant question.
And so subconsciously and consciously, you’re looking for evidence or data to affirm the question or answer the question that you’re asking, right? It’s like this is what the golden age of television does, creating an open loop. “I have to find the answer to this question.” And we’re doing this all the time. And so by asking, “Why me?” I was just finding things to affirm why I was unhelpable, why I was unlovable, why I was alone, why I was so sick. And I changed that question and I started asking, “What can I do to feel better? What can I do to lose this excess weight that I’m carrying around? What can I do to,” and this was the crazy thing. This was that delusional level thinking that eventually got me here, to where I guess I have the Batman abs, I don’t know. But I ask, “How can I be the healthiest person in the world?” Audacious question.
And within a matter of weeks, resources, people, and so much more was present, that was present the entire time I was suffering. I could see them now, I could actually tune into them.
I had a friend that I’d been knowing for a couple of years, and I just thought she was so weird. I just wanted to kick it. I didn’t want to know about her and her chiropractic friends. She was in chiropractic college. Being in St. Louis is one of the biggest ones in the nation, Logan Chiropractic School. And I just thought her and her friends were so weird.
But my friend now that I had asked this different question, we were just driving somewhere and she’d just stopped by Wild Oats, which has since been bought by Whole Foods. And I’d driven past there literally hundreds of times, and I didn’t know that this place existed. And there were all these books, because I immediately went to the books in the supplement section. And there were all these peer-reviewed studies and references in the books on how to heal degenerative bone disease, to increase your bone density. And it’s just like, I didn’t know that omega-3’s mattered in my bone density. Nobody ever told me that. What is omega-3? I didn’t even know.
And so I started to find out about all these different nutrients, and I went into work, I went into action to provide my body with the raw materials to be able to regenerate my tissues.
Fast-forward over the next six weeks, the pain I’ve been experiencing every day for those two years was completely gone. And this is results not typical, but I lost somewhere in the ballpark of 15 pounds as well, that excess weight that I was carrying. And nine months later, I got my scan done again. And not only had my two herniated disc retracted back into place, but now the light was shining through my disc. I’d regenerated that tissue in my spine, my intervertebral disc. And now, my back looked more in alignment with somebody of my age bracket suddenly. And I remember the physician, he was just standing there scratching his chin just like… And this was the exact word. He said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. I haven’t seen results like this before.”
And he didn’t ask me about really what I was doing. I was just like, “I’m just exercising, eating better.” But he didn’t ask me for details unfortunately. But I jetted out of there, because for me, it was just like I was getting an affirmation to what I already knew.
And that really started my career, because I switched all my coursework over to biology and kinesiology, and started working with people at the university gym, eventually opening my practice, working as a nutritionist for many years, writing books, and starting The Model Health Show. And that’s what got me here today with this superhero Dr. Casey Means.
Casey Means (00:25:36):
Oh my gosh, Shawn. I am tearing up over here. I am so grateful for you sharing that story. And I’m touched on so many levels. I got full body shivers when you were talking about how when you changed your mindset, to literally just shifting the thought of why me, to how can I feel good, that all of a sudden things started just magnetizing towards you, that you hadn’t seen in your field prior to that. But literally just changing your mindset changed everything about what was coming towards you.
I mean, I think in terms of practical takeaways for people, that’s one that’s really hard to explain I think. But it’s something I think many of us have felt before, that just creating space in your mind for what’s possible, what could be, the universe just spits it right back at you. It’s waiting for you to imagine that something different is possible. And it’s just so beautiful how you describe what happened.
I also love, in the book you talk about this very simple, but also deeply profound revelation that you had, that maybe you can speak to just briefly as well of you thought about your spine and your bones, and you just were like, “What are they made of? What makes up my bones?” If you take these truths, which I think are true, we don’t really know anything for sure, but that the body regenerates constantly. We’re constantly in motion. We’re not this fixed thing. We’re like this constant turnover thing. And every single atom in our body comes from food. And, the structure of something will determine its function. If you take those three things together, then logically, it would make sense that the food would matter. So tell us a little bit about that light bulb that you had about why you needed to focus on food.
Shawn Stevenson (00:27:35):
As you just said, I had a nutritional science class my first year when I went to the university. And I went into it thinking that, “I’m taking this class.” It was elective on a pre-med track by the way. I didn’t have to take it, but I was just like, “Nutrition fitness, it’s just about being more fit.” I didn’t really understand that food literally makes up every cell of our bodies. And also our professor, as well-meaning as he was, he wasn’t sharing that kind of information. We were looking at food through the lens of isolated parts. These macronutrient profiles, calories, those kinds of things. And missing on the biggest, most important aspect of food, which is every cell in your body is made from the food that you eat. And not only that, how your cells communicate, the fuel that your cells are run on is made from food.
And so it’s of the utmost importance, because if we are working in the field of cardiology and we don’t understand that the heart that we’re looking at with our patient, their blood work, the health of their capillaries, that it’s all made from food, that that heart is made from food, that their blood is made from the food that our patient has eaten, we’re missing the point.
And again, we get into this very superficial treatment where we’re, again, window dressing, treating symptoms, and coming in with blunt instruments instead of addressing, “What is my patient actually making their tissues out of? What is their blood actually made out of?”
So this really is the tip of the spear when it comes to human health and performance, is being able to identify what we’re actually making our tissues out of. And being aware, of course, that we have a choice to choose what we’re making our tissues out of.
Because in the culture that I was in previously, it was guiding my decisions. And so I was able to create my own microenvironment and start to create new choices. And not just that for myself, but also to expose other people to the vast array of choices that we have in what we’re making our bodies out of, what we’re fueling our bodies with.
And ultimately, when we’re talking about this huge conversation today about metabolic health and looking at all these incredible markers that we can now study and understand. Again, if we aren’t thinking about the fact that all of these tissues and processes, every part of our cells, every organelle or mitochondria, it’s all made from fuel. It’s all made from food, and it’s all running off of the food that we feed ourselves.
This is putting the power into our hands, again, to make choices about what we’re making our bodies out of. And I don’t think there’s anything more important than this in this health conversation, especially when we’re talking about metabolic health.
Casey Means (00:30:26):
Yes, it really is the first order issue. And I imagine some people are listening to this, and I hear this a lot on social media and all over the place. But people feel, and I think rightly so, that the cards are just so stacked against us in being healthy. Whether it’s culture, community support, resources, money, time. People are working multiple jobs, they’re working night jobs, they’re single parents. Covid was a huge blow for all of the things. And so it’s like, you want me to go find this nutrient rich, healthy whole food, and then cook it all the time for my family?
What would you say to that person who’s feeling that overwhelmed? And are there any strategies to make meaningful progress towards real food living, when the cards really are so stacked against people?
Shawn Stevenson (00:31:23):
Absolutely. And this is one of the benefits that I didn’t see as a benefit in my life and in my career, which is I come from an environment in impoverished community where we are… And the thing is, I struggle to even compare poverty here in the United States to other places. Because in poverty here in the United States, you still probably have a TV, you probably have a car of some sort. We did do public transportation a lot, but my mom, this is a true story. She’s got multiple cars from this car lot called OK Junk Cars, I swear. OK Junk Cars. She’d go and get a Ford Escort or something, that’s been drug through the mud, but we have that ability. And so in poverty here in the United States, is a different scenario than a lot of other places.
But that being said, of course, it was a tremendous struggle. A lot of times there was a lot more month left at the end of the money, and there are many times that we did go hungry. But more often than not, we were able to put some things together, and really against speaks to the creativity that we have in those conditions.
So I’m speaking of this from a person who’s come from it. So this isn’t theoretical, when well-meaning people are just saying, “Well, people don’t have access.” That sounds good and all, but people don’t have access. I promise you, if I can figure this out in the conditions that I was in… When I transformed my health, I lived in Ferguson, Missouri. And again, a glorified food desert. And also, this is a place where there is imminent presence of potential danger. When I would go to the basketball court in that area, there are multiple shootings throughout the year that happened there. So it is a risk.
And being able to operate in that with this background heightened awareness, it can definitely influence you. It’s the underlying stress, yes. But there is a way to figure things out. We didn’t have gyms in our area, we didn’t have yoga studios.
There was one Whole Foods in all of St. Louis, by the way, the entire… And it’s a big city. Living in LA now, I could throw a rock in any direction and hit a Whole Foods. There was one in the entire city. When I moved just a couple of years ago, there was three.
And so not having that immediate exposure in my environment, I was able to basically outsource or to move locations in small ways. And even being attuned to that different frequency that I told you about earlier, I found out that for years, years, and years, and years, there was a farmer’s market in Ferguson. There was a farmer’s market every week. I just wasn’t attuned to it.
And so that became a part of our family practices, which was to go to the farmer’s market each week, and the kids loved it. Just being able to get some of the fresh snacks that they make there, to be able to talk to and meet some of the farmers, obviously, to have this incredible food. And we saved so much money, rather than that drive that I had to make outside of my community to go to Whole Foods. And even though I was investing my resources into that food, it also came back to me tenfold at least. Because the new energy that I was experiencing, the heightened level of clarity. When you mentioned this earlier, we don’t really understand that. When we feel better, it’s much easier to be creative and compassionate. And it’s not that we can’t do those things when unwell. It’s just harder.
And so I brought myself to a heightened level of being able to basically carry more of a positive mindset, more optimistic mindset, more of a position of solving problems, rather than finding more problems. Because you know a lot of people, we can be like that, where there are certain people that find a problem to every solution. And we’re kind of tuned to that frequency.
So that being said, how do we go about doing this? As I mentioned before, when we are coming in and we’re trying to target behavior change, we’re trying to recommend behavior change for patients that we’re working with, or for friends, family, community, and we’re telling people, “Do this thing and you’re going to get this result.” In many ways, unfortunately, that can be like treating a symptom with a medication. It’s not addressing the root cause. Because if I’m coming in and advising a behavior change, in an environment that is making that behavior change not just very difficult, but also flooding them with or immersing them in behaviors or a propensity towards behaviors that cause other outcomes, it’s almost impossible, unfortunately, to have sustainable change.
And so what I mean by that is me living in a glorified food desert, where I’m just surrounded by every fast food that you can name, convenience stores, and you telling me I need to eat “organic food” or I need to eat more whole foods. What is that? I don’t even understand. I don’t really have that kind of access as well. However, what if we can change the culture that you’re surrounded by, even in micro ways, to make those choices easier? This doesn’t mean that I had to get up and move out of Ferguson at the time, but this does mean that I can create a community, that I can connect with people like those farmers, for example. That I could have mentors that help to keep my mindset focused on those choices. I could find a Dr. Casey Means to start to get my education from virtually, even if…
And by the way, I attracted her into my life eventually. But just being attuned to… And by the way, Mark Hyman, another mutual friend. He was one of my first virtual mentors. 20 years ago, I came across one of his videos, a couple of his videos online, again, as a college student. And I’m just blown away that this physician is talking about this, because diabetes had skyrocketed at that point, not to mention where it is today. But he was talking about how this condition can be reversed. And so now he’s a really good friend. He just emailed me a little while ago.
And so I made changes to my microenvironment. I made changes to the culture that I can control. And so my advocation for everybody is to focus on controlling the controllables. Create an environment proactively that makes healthy choices easier, that makes unhealthy choices much more difficult. And so now, we’re getting to the root issue here, which is shifting our culture.
And the last piece I’m going to share here, it’s not just the food that we’re eating, it’s how we’re eating and who we’re eating with that makes all the difference in the world. And I was shocked when I came across this research, and this is the first book to share this in book form with the public.
And it starts with some researchers at Harvard who were compiling data on family eating habits and behaviors of eating together. And what the researchers uncovered was that families that eat together on a consistent basis have far less intake of ultra processed foods, and a far higher intake of vital, essential nutrients that help to prevent chronic diseases. So they were seeing lower disease outcomes in these families that ate together more frequently.
And I was just like, “How do people not know about this?” And I dug further, and I came across some research that was done on minority families. And for me, this really jumped out because this would generally be in the context of a low income community. And they found that children in these families that ate with their families four meals a week, ate five servings of fruits and vegetables daily most days of the week. And they had a far lower intake of processed foods like chips and soda. In particular, when the TV was rarely or never on. Basically, again, they’re eating together as a family without technology in front of them.
This led to another couple of studies that went together. One was published in the Journal of Pediatrics, another was published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. And this is the homework. This is the mission for everybody. This is the big takeaway from today.
These researchers uncover that eating together with your family, just three meals a week, no matter what that meal is, breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, whatever the case might be. Three meals a week led to significantly lower incidents of obesity in those children, in the household. Significantly reduced incidents of eating disorders, and several other chronic conditions.
So this is one of the most important implements here. It’s not just the food that we’re eating, but who we’re eating with. And for me, I’m always asking, why? What’s going on here?
We evolved eating together. For thousands of years, it was a community event. We’re all working together to procure our food, to prepare the food, to eat together, to celebrate together. And then suddenly, just within the last century or so, now it’s becoming more of an endangered species of us eating together. And the Harvard researchers indicated that only about 30% of American families eat together on a regular basis.
And I know this intimately, because Casey, I’m not exaggerating the slightest. I can count on my hands how many times I sat down and ate a meal with my entire family. My mother, stepfather, and my brother and sister. We would eat at the same time a lot of times, but we would kind of just disperse, and a lot of times in front of technology. Whether that’s a video game, or TV, or just kind of being on the go.
And my question was, is there a protective aspect of this phenomenon, of eating together, that’s helping to reduce disease incidents? And absolutely that was the case again, and again, and again in the studies.
And we know this. A part of our spirit knows this. Being more disconnected from our loved ones, the dinner table is a unifier. It’s a platform for psychology in many ways. For sharing, for learning about each other, and for connecting.
Now, this doesn’t mean that everybody at the dinner table’s going to be acting right all the time. I don’t know if you watch Yellowstone. But Beth’s character, she’s always messing up dinner. All right?
But here’s another thing too, and I talk about this in the book, is that we know our families better than anybody. And when I was doing my work in my office, the biggest reason people gave for not making those behavior changes was, “Well, my kids won’t. My husband, it’s my mom.” They were pointing the finger. They were blaming their loved ones.
And the truth is, we know our loved ones better than anybody. We know what motivates them. We know what gets them to get on board with certain things, for them to be excited. We also know what de-excites them. We also know what irritates and pushes them away.
But oftentimes, because it’s life, life, life, and we get into our day-to-day, we don’t want to go through that stuff. And I know this, because this is something a lot of us, we carry that. We just want people to act right. “Be on the same page. Don’t mess up my vibe, just follow my instructions.” Whatever the case might be, we want people to act how we want them to act, but that’s against human nature. We’re going to rebel from time to time. And so what if you have more energy to put that into constructing healthier conversations and being able to leverage psychology to get your family on board?
So the mandate for everybody, this very powerful mission is scheduling three meals a week with your family, and friends are included in this as well, family and/or friends. And again, this could be a Tuesday and Thursday dinner and then brunch on Sunday. Or this can be a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, whatever it looks like. Breakfast on the weekends, plus one dinner during the week, whatever it looks like for you. But I’m telling you this, and this is backed by the data. You need to schedule it. You need to put it on your calendar. With our busy lives, so many things that are less important than our family are on our calendar.
Schedule it, put it on your calendar. Because for many of us, if it’s not scheduled, it’s not real. All right? So put it on your calendar, select those days. And of course we can get into more of why this works behind the scenes. But most importantly, I want everybody to understand, especially for our children, we have to do this. We have to take eating together with our friends and family off the endangered species list, give our children this protective measure. And it’s good for us too.
And last thing I’ll share really quickly, Casey, was some research was done on workers at IBM, looking at their job performance and their satisfaction in the work that they’re doing. They found that as long as they were able to get home and have dinner with their families on a regular basis, their work morale stayed high. But as soon as their work started cutting into that, they started to have a lot more disapproval of their work, satisfaction at work, and dip them into higher levels of stress.
And as you know, and this is published in JAMA, a big meta analysis. Upwards of 80% of physician visits today are for stress related illnesses. Stress is killing us. And eating with our family, being able to connect is one of those things that helps to reduce those chronic levels of stress.
Casey Means (00:45:30):
Yeah, I love that your cookbook is called, it’s the Eat Smarter Family Cookbook. And I thought that was so interesting, because you really go so deep into the research in your book about why actually sitting down with family or community changes the way our bodies actually interact with the food. It changes us physiologically, psychologically. It’s almost like a freebie in terms of better nutrition, by just how you eat and who you eat with. It’s fascinating.
I’d love for you to chat a little bit more about some of those mechanisms. You talk about epigenetics in the book actually, which is so fascinating, so I’d love for you to speak to that. And then maybe also what to do before meals and during meals, including setting the vibe, to actually make this as meaningful and effective as possible. Could you speak to some of those strategies and some of the mechanisms here?
Shawn Stevenson (00:46:26):
Absolutely. Our social ties are really the thing that is head and shoulders above everything else when it comes to our longevity. Another friend and a researcher out of Harvard, he’s the director actually the longest running longitudinal human study on longevity. And he’s just like ,far and away, we couldn’t believe it, but it’s the quality of our relationships that affect longevity more than anything else.
And so when we talk about these different spots around the globe, we’ve identified these blue zones, for example. What most people don’t realize… And what we tend to do is box it in and say, “This is the diet that everybody should be doing.” But the diets of these different regions are so diverse. That’s what people don’t understand. But what is consistent across every one of these places is community, is the social bonds.
And so I dug into that deeply for this project as well, and I came across a study. And this was a meta-analysis of 148 studies, and there were over 300,000 participants in this particular meta-analysis. So it’s a huge data set. This was Brigham Young University, and the researchers uncovered there was about a 50% increase in longevity for people who had strong social ties.
And so just reframe that a different way. There’s about a 50% reduction in all cause mortality for people who had healthy relationships. So there’s something really protective about this.
And it really boils down to just a couple of mechanisms, what it does for our management of stress to feel like we’re not alone. And this is a deep kind of primal connection as well, because isolation through our evolution generally means death and a lot of danger. And today where we have all of this chronic stress, all of these acute stressors, but all of these low level T traumas, just constantly going on. To be able to offload that, to be able to feel like you’re not alone, to be able to feel also a sense of significance and purpose because you have other people who rely on you for your contribution as well. It all feeds into each other, and deeply impacts our genetic expression as you talked about. And I shared a couple of other studies in the book looking at how our relationships is really a powerful epigenetic controller.
And one of the piece, just to understand why this matters so much for our children, Casey, you’ve shared this multiple times as well. But everybody at this point has heard about the amount of ultra processed food the average adult is eating in the United States. According to the BMJ, it’s about 60% of our diet is now made of ultra processed foods. So foods that are so far removed from anything natural or normal, that of course, not to mention all the additives, and preservatives, and food dyes, and excessive amounts of sugar, and ultra processed oils. The list goes on and on, just really changing the ingredients that we’re making our bodies out of as a species. But again, for the first time in a major published book, I’m sharing the data on ultra processed foods related to our kids and their consumption.
And so this was published in JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association as well. They looked at data from starting at 1999, and they found that the average American child adolescent, kids from two to 19, the average American child’s diet was made up of 61% ultra processed foods. So outdoing adults already.
Fast forward to 2018, today. From 2018 to now, this recent time span, our children in the United States are eating almost 70% ultra processed foods is making up their diet. All right. So it’s just, it’s absurd. It’s so crazy. Again, the template that we’re setting our kids up for.
And so with this being said, what are some of the things that we can do to start to make a shift here? Well, an installation process happens by, for example, having those mandates of eating together more frequently. And the question is, why would that evoke better food choices? Inherently when we know, for example, that we’re having family dinner on Wednesday and Thursday for example, there’s going to be inherently some planning involved. “I know we’re having family dinner on Wednesday, what are we going to eat?”
And it pulls us away from the day-to-day, everything has kind of gotten away from us, let me order something kind of vibe. And not to say that that won’t happen from time to time with your planned meals. But even with that, we could still eat together. Even if we’re doing a DoorDash or Uber Eats, we can still sit down and eat together, and get those connective benefits. And so that’s part of the process that it evokes is an inherent planning that goes into it.
And not to mention being able to provide an opportunity for our kids’ connection to food. So one of the things that I talk about in the book as well is that shockingly, or maybe not so shockingly, our most recent generation, only a tiny percent of kids that are coming into adulthood actually know how to prepare food for themselves. They don’t know how to cook. We are debilitating our kids. We’re disabling them in being able to take care of themselves with this valuable life skill. And so what are they going to do? They’re going to eat more ultra processed foods just to have something to eat.
And so all of my kids… In my household still today, I have my 22-year-old son who’s in his last semester of college, and my 11-year-old son. Everybody can cook. I mean, since my youngest son was five, he was up on a stool. He was at the stove. Just because another thing too is in our culture, we’ve pulled our kids away from that process of being involved in food preparation. It’s dangerous or they can’t… Listen, there are kids all around the world that are younger, under five that are using blades and things like that, cutting things, helping to prepare food. My wife is from Kenya, and she was doing all kinds of this stuff when she was just a little girl.
And so we got to remove that part. Of course, make a safe environment, but we’ve got to teach our kids to be able to live or move in an environment where there’s fire and there’s sharp things, and that kind of thing, so that they’re prepared to do it, because they’re going to be exposed to this stuff eventually. So that’s number one.
And also within that, I’m just thinking about my youngest son being up on that stool and being able to prepare food for himself. And he just sent his older brother a picture, because his older brother’s leaving out the door to go train some clients. He’s working as a personal trainer. I wonder how that happened. Culture. I never told him to do that.
But he told his brother, he was messing with him, my little son. He was like, “You don’t know how to make food. You don’t know how to make breakfast.” And then in a group text, my youngest son made this beautiful breakfast. And he took a picture of it and he sent it to his brother and he was like, “Who doesn’t know how to make breakfast?” It’s so cool to see those kinds of things.
And actually, my oldest son today, he was out training a client. He brought back some food for his brother this morning, and my wife whipped up some eggs to go along with the little treat he brought him. And just having, again, this family culture kind of built in. And so last part here with this, and there’s so many other steps as far as how can we create a microculture of our own.
So giving our kids this valuable skillset of food preparation absolutely, check that off. We have to address why we don’t do it. Which for us, and I’m guilty of this many times, and I eventually caught myself because of our busyness. When kids are naturally curious, kids are naturally wanting to model the behavior of their parents. And my youngest son, for example, he would come into the kitchen when I’m trying to prepare a meal and he’s like, “Dad, can I help?” I’m like, “Nah, not now, buddy. I’m just trying to get this done real quick.” There were so many times when he asked to participate, and because I was busy, I said, “Not now.”
Many of us as parents, we do this. And it’s not to get into any place of guilt or any of that stuff. That’s not the energy. It’s, let’s change that now. Let’s invite our kids in. But also, especially when they’re asking to participate in anything to do with health, let’s make space for them to participate. Slow down a little bit. That was a game changer.
So moving from St. Louis to Los Angeles in the last couple of years, for me it’s a yes immediately. If there’s an ask, there’s a yes. Now it’s not 100% okay. Sometimes it hasn’t been like that. But yes comes up first rather than, “No, not now.” Even with the discomfort, I say yes, and then I figure it out.
And so those are just a couple of things. And changing the culture, changing the kitchen culture, food preparation culture. I’ve got a bunch more that we can go through as well.
Casey Means (00:55:54):
It’s amazing. I think that that was such a beautiful part of the book, of basically get kids engaged in the whole process, and get them excited about cooking early. And like you said, what could be more important to our human lives than learning how to prepare healthy food for ourselves? We have just thrown that out as a key skill, got rid of home ec in schools. And it’s like this is our survival, and we are handicapped in terms of our skill in being able to do it for ourselves, and we should be outraged by that.
So I just think it’s so beautiful how it’s got to start in the home, because that’s where you’re going to learn it. So that’s so cool to hear about how your kids are so engaged in that, and also how empowering for your 11-year-old son that he can do that. I mean, how great for his sense of pride and self that he can potentially prepare a meal for you? I mean, I think kids are looking for ways to add value. And to be able to prepare food is just such a beautiful way.
So I want to shift gears a little bit and actually just talk about some practical food stuff, because you talk a lot about the power of different foods, but also the potential perils of certain foods in the book. And one of the things that you go into in one of the most concise, and clear, and research-based ways is gluten and wheat. And this is something that I think so many people struggle with, because a lot of people love wheat-based products. The bread and the pasta, and the crackers, and the pastries, and all of it.
And so can you run through the Shawn Stevenson perspective on gluten and grains, and tell us why we should maybe be cautious of these things, and what evidence there is for basically why we really should be a little bit careful with some of these particular foods, especially in our modern food environment?
Shawn Stevenson (00:57:49):
Wow. Yes. I think we need to be very cautious about vilifying any food class. All right. Now I’m saying that this is just a caveat, because we can get into a place of diet dogma, and we want to be more inclusive here.
A lot of us as professionals are infighting about minutia. And instead of looking at the bigger picture, which again, near 70% of our children’s diet today in America is made of ultra processed foods. Let’s address that. So shifting over and looking more of, let’s increase the amount of whole foods in our respective diets, regardless of what they are. Let’s just start there.
And wheat has been a part of the human diet for a very, very long time. And we’ve got to understand, however, that the wheat that we’re consuming today, generally for most people, is not the amber waves of grain that was talked about back in the day with our founding fathers, that kind of thing. It’s definitely not that stuff.
Today, we have a genetically modified dwarf wheat that is resistant to all manner of conditions. Basically, it can’t really survive on its own without very specific conditions and treated with very specific chemicals. And it’s designed to be for mass production, mass growth. And it’s no longer designed for nutritional value.
So we’ve just got to understand that piece, not vilify wheat. Okay, gluten is out here hurting some people, yes. But for a lot of people, they’re not going to be as reactive. And I went into the research and I was sharing, what is the real big issue here with these grain products and wheat related products? And it has a lot to do with what it’s treated with.
So I went into the data and looked at the impact of glyphosate. And this is a big part of the conversation today. A lot of experts were talking about it, but I don’t think people realize that upwards of 80 to 90% of popular wheat-based products are confirmed to have significant amounts of glyphosate.
And why does this matter? Well, glyphosate is categorized as a group 2A carcinogen, a cancer causing agent, all right? Unfortunately, it’s pretty well known. And yet the public at large… It’s pretty well known in scientific communities, but the public at large isn’t aware that, the cereal bar that they’re getting.
And I went through some of the biggest culprits, which is Quaker oatmeal bars for example. And this is true story, Casey. When I was trying to get healthier living in Ferguson, Missouri, I went from my nightly habit of eating Lucky Charms and Honey Nut Cheerios, to eating Quaker oatmeal squares, because that was more of an adult cereal. High in fiber and the whole thing. That was one of the most guilty offenders when it comes to its concentration of this carcinogen.
And so that’s really the big issue that is being overlooked, right? Yes. Gluten itself, that complex can be problematic, inciting zonulin, which it can pull apart our gut lining, and some other issues. We don’t need to get into that.
But the thing that’s being overlooked is the fact that this crop that is dominant, when we go to a grocery store, half of the store is made of stuff with wheat. And a lot of it has a blatant carcinogen. Even with that, that’s just the cancer aspect. What that’s really saying is that this is damaging what our DNA is doing. So we can have other health outcomes from that, not just cancer. This can be contributing to an autoimmune disease, or gastrointestinal disorder, or cardiovascular issue, or our issue with our brain health. The list goes on and on and on. This is serious business, and most people in our society are eating this stuff every day and they’re just unaware. And so I’m really bringing to bear in this new book, these cultural contagions that we can be more intelligent in protecting our family from.
So we want to create cultural benefits, but also protect ourselves from cultural contagions, where those things are no longer really a part of our micro culture that we create in our household. Because for many years, and I know you’ve done this as well, we’re doing it, we’re still doing it. But I was so hyper-focused on trying to change the macro culture outside my door, trying to get people, “Don’t go to that drive-through.” And the thing is, that drive-through is going to be there long after I’m gone. And I need to shift my focus into, how can I actually create change from the bottom up and the top down? And that bottom up change was from taking control of number one, my own health, focusing on me, and being a healthy representation to my family and to my community.
And number two was creating a new microculture within my household, so that healthy choices are just automatic. It’s just what we do. It’s just what we’re exposed to. And what I just found out in the process of writing this book, and I got to see it firsthand. We just went on a family vacation, and we went to Maui. It was the first time going to Hawaii, which was beautiful. Maui has that mana, it’s a real thing. But we were in Maui, and what I realized was that, okay, now we’re implanted in this other culture. But I realized that wherever we go, we take our culture with us. We take our culture with us.
So even while we were there, I can’t tell you how many times people were coming up to us and asking us about our family, asking us, what do we do? Just kind of basic stuff, but also trying to inquire, “Why are you guys so happy and healthy, and why do you have so much energy?” Those kinds of things. They’re alluding to those kinds of things. It’s kind of infectious, because we are taking our microculture with us. You can’t help but do that.
And so that’s what the real mission is for all of us, to be a representation of it. Focus on yourself, focus on your family. And then when you leave outside your door, you’re going to be a walking, talking representation of change.
And that’s what it’s really about. Yes, we can try and focus on the macro stuff. We can try to work to create more access to health and healthy options, and all that good stuff. But I come from an environment where I didn’t have that. I didn’t have access, I didn’t have those exposures. But I had to take responsibility for my own life, regardless of the circumstances. Not to say that I didn’t go through very, very traumatic, terrible things. Not to negate that. That’s true, that’s part of my story. But the question was, what was I going to do about it, where I was with what I had?
And I was able to use that creativity that was inherent pointed in a direction of, “I’m going to use my creativity to create more health.” I’m going to use my creativity to figure out, even though I’m risking, I’m at the checkout line in Whole Foods, just hoping that this debit card goes through risking paying my light bill. I was making an investment into myself. I was turning up the wattage, the electricity in my own health, and the wattage, and electricity, and the capacity that I had to be a great teacher, to be healthier, to make stronger decisions, to be more consistent.
And what happened was I ended up being able to make more money. I ended up being able to impact more people. I ended up… Casey, even when Mark Hyman would just messaged me, he was trying to send me a box of all this pristine, regenerative seafood. I get all this stuff, now it’s just given to me, because I made myself a priority and focused on my health. And this can be possible for so many of us. And that’s really the mission behind this project.
Casey Means (01:06:23):
Yeah, I love that metaphor. You’re like, “I was at Whole Foods basically investing in food, potentially at the expense of my light bill.” But what you did was increase your own wattage and become this light in the world, that then just not only taught millions of others, but brought light straight back to you. I mean, it’s like it gives me chills.
I have two more questions for you. You’ve been so generous with your time. I think that for that person who they’re walking into a grocery store and money is super, super tight, and time is tight, all of it’s tight. You share some amazing strategies in the book for basically how to make the most of essentially a dollar when you’re thinking about food.
Can you run through a few of those strategies for anyone listening, of essentially creative ways to get the healthiest food in your life, when obviously things are tough, and tight, and we have limited time and resources?
Shawn Stevenson (01:07:20):
Absolutely. Absolutely. So one thing… And by the way, also, I don’t want to miss this part. When we were talking about grains before, and wheat in particular, I go through and I share different charts of a scary choice, a sufficient choice, and a smarter choice. And obviously, the conventional grains, ultra-processed, that whole thing. Then we get into more whole forms of those foods, and then we get into organic versions, sprouted, and/or fermented versions of those foods. And there’s data, again, just showing how that reduces the incidence of the impact of things like gluten and gliadin. These are just a couple of compounds that could be problematic for some people, but increasing certain compounds that really help to affirm health in many different ways. And so I just wanted to share that, by the way.
Casey Means (01:08:08):
Yeah, the charts are my favorite part, one of my favorite parts of the book. Because like you said, and for people who are hopefully pre-ordering the book right now while they’re listening on Amazon or anywhere, there’s scary, acceptable, and then optimal, is that right? That’s the three categories?
Shawn Stevenson (01:08:25):
Scary, sufficient, and smarter.
Casey Means (01:08:28):
And smarter. Of course, the book is called Eat Smarter. What’s beautiful about is you go through that for every category of food, and oil, and everything. So it really seals home this message, that this is not about giving up everything. It’s about making smarter choices within categories. So that’s one of the things that makes this book, I think, incredibly accessible, and also just incredibly practical. You could literally bring it to the grocery store and just pick from things on the smarter column or the sufficient column. But yeah, so amazing.
Shawn Stevenson (01:09:02):
Thank you, Casey. That’s so awesome.
Casey Means (01:09:04):
I love it. So strategies for people shopping, that they could maybe implement tomorrow, if they’re feeling overwhelmed about the cost or the accessibility of healthy food.
Shawn Stevenson (01:09:16):
One of the things that I did, obviously… Well, maybe not so obvious. One of the biggest hallmarks today for the health of our microbiome for example, is diversity. One of the things that we see in the data is when to increase the diversity of inputs, you are increasing the diversity of your microbes.
And just makes sense, because different microbes have different preferred food substrates. And when we eat a food, we’re eating that food’s microbiome. When we eat a blueberry, we’re eating that blueberry’s microbiome, we’re eating that avocado’s microbiome, we’re eating that, fill in the blank again. We’re taking that on.
And so this thing that I was doing, and I didn’t know the benefit per se, but I was doing it because I was trying to save money, was I was simply taking advantages of sales. When I would go to Whole Foods, if something was on sale, that’s what I would get. That was going to determine what I was going to be making for the week. Maybe it’s grass fed ground beef, maybe it was cherries, maybe it was avocados. Whatever it was, I would stock up on those things, freeze certain things. Even with blueberries, for example, I could get something to eat for now and then freeze the rest. And that was enabling me to save, maybe it’s $100 at the end of the month that I saved, because I was buying based off what was on sale. So take advantage of sales, pay attention to that stuff.
When my wife met me… Because at this point, we met in college when I was about a year and a half into my career in working in health. And basically I was like a grandma with all these coupons. I had so many coupons, I had a coupon drawer. And I didn’t know that it was weird, because I was just so tapped in.
And so I was doing that. I was taking advantage of sales, utilizing coupons, and things like that. Where there was a will, there was 100 ways. So that was number one.
Number two is getting your food closer to the source, which is generally going to save you money. Now what do I mean by this? Even though I was living in Ferguson, Missouri, and again, just inundated with ultra processed foods at every turn… And I’m not exaggerating, I’m talking it’s everywhere. Every fast food place that you can name was within a two-mile radius of my house. And as soon as I walk out of the apartment complex I lived in, there’s a big convenience store, nothing but ultra-processed foods on the shelves, check cashing places on nearly every block. It’s just this structure of the community. And the question should be, how is that allowed with zoning and all those things? That’s a whole other conversation.
But about five minutes from my house in the “good part” of Ferguson, there was this weekly farmer’s market. And going there, not only did I save money on the same foods that I was buying from Whole Foods. Maybe if I was buying some spinach for example, or whatever the case might be. It might be $4 there at Whole Foods, and now I’m getting it for $2.50. It’s just like example, after example, after example, whether it’s from plant foods all the way to animal foods. Not only was I saving money, but everything was so much more nutrient dense. It was closer to the source. It’s cutting away from the potential cross country shipping. I’m getting local grown foods.
And there’s also a lot of data now pointing to the fact that the food in your environment could be very likely helping your body to adapt to the environment that you’re in. So it’s something really powerful to just put in your back pocket and think about later.
So that’s another thing. So farmers’ markets, CSAs. There’s a tremendous amount of really amazing food delivery sources, what I just referenced. Dr. Hyman sending me [inaudible 01:13:09] this new company that’s delivering. They’re dedicated to regenerative seafood and really having proper interaction with our oceans. Because what humans have been doing recently, it’s just been devastating practices. So helping to regenerate populations of the foods that we go towards, but also delivering a lot of wild caught seafood. So there’s companies that do that kind of thing.
There’s companies like, at the last Levels event that we were at together, like Thrive Market for example, that’s saving you a lot of money on a lot of stuff that you would be buying at a health food store, higher end place, whether it’s Erewhon, or Whole Foods, or whatever the case might be, Sprouts. The list goes on and on, direct to your door, and it just takes you to just go online, and order some of these foods, and save money. And so again, there’s a lot of options there.
This one was really cool for me to dig into the research on, and it’s save funds by saving food. All right, save funds by saving food. Food waste is a huge, huge problem here in the United States. Currently, we waste about 40% of the food that we grow, completely wasted. 40%, almost half of the food that we grow is wasted. And it’s contributing to nearly $3 trillion in global food waste annually. We have enough food to feed everybody. We have enough, and yet so much is wasted.
When I went into this part of the research, I had to get honest. I had to have that look in the mirror, man in the mirror moment. Started with the man in the mirror. How often do we aspirationally buy a box of spring mix and just throw that stuff away a few days later? It’s happened too many times.
Casey Means (01:15:06):
Probably the most painful feeling in the world, right? It’s like, “Oh God,” yeah.
Shawn Stevenson (01:15:12):
How many times do we do that? And also same thing with, we might buy berries and then they go bad so quickly. Simple preparation strategies or preservation strategies, like just rinsing our berries and a little splash of water and vinegar, can help them to stay even for a week or longer, stay fresh and edible. Yes, the nutrient profile does go down over time, but it’s far better than throwing it away completely, because now it’s degraded and molded with a whole thing.
So I share a wealth of preservation strategies in the book as well for foods that we commonly buy. Even things like our spices and just being able to… When we get our spices, just say basil for example. When you bring it home, put a little bit of water just like this, and put your basil stems into that. Keep it fresh longer. Just little stuff like that can help to preserve our food and stop wasting so much money by wasting our food. So those are just a few strategies. And again, there’s much more in the cookbook.
Casey Means (01:16:19):
Okay. So I think maybe just as a final question with… This is also just a very practical one. This is about hydration. And you mentioned in the book that for maybe 20 years, you’ve started every morning drinking a ton of charged water. And I think you have a term for it, which I’ll let you share of what you’re doing. But this also just feels like another one of these free strategies to feel better and start the day right. So talk about your perspective on hydration, charged water, and why it’s important to start the day with a lot of water.
Shawn Stevenson (01:16:59):
Absolutely. Absolutely. So number one, everybody’s heard this. The human body is mostly made of water. The human brain is mostly made of water, but we really don’t get that. This is the most important proactive thing that we put into our bodies to make our tissues. It is that important. Because it’s very difficult to not take in oxygen. You got to breathe, or you’re going to die. But water for many of us is optional, right?
And I’m saying this from a perspective of, I might have drank one glass of water a day when I was struggling so mightily with my health. I was drinking a lot of other liquid substances, be that “juices” or red drink was my favorite, getting these things. It’s just food dye and sugar, and food scientists using a gas chromatograph, and being able to isolate certain flavor notes to make, “This is a strawberry flavored drink with 0% juice.” So that’s the kind of stuff I was drinking on a daily basis.
Hawaiian Punch was my boo. That was my love affair. Hawaiian Punch was killing me softly, because it was barely keeping me alive because of the water that was in there.
And so with all that being said, water is critical to… If we even just talk about our hormones, not only is water needed to build our hormones themselves, but our hormones and neurotransmitters are moving throughout our bodies on a water super highway, on a liquid matrix that everything is traveling through. So just for yourselves to be able to communicate, just for yourselves to be able to have substance, water is required. So that’s just a snapshot of how important water is.
But one of the things that I shared in the book was from recent data that was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, and it detailed how just mild dehydration, just a 2% drop in your body’s baseline hydration rate is enough to increase your fatigue, to disrupt your mood, to lower your mood, to decrease your reading speed, and just to basically decrease your mental capacity overall. Basically, we become dumber. We become a less resilient version of ourselves with just a 2% drop in our body’s baseline hydration rate.
And the practice that you mentioned that I’ve been doing for many, many years, and many of my friends and colleagues have put this practice into some really big books out there as well. But I call it taking my inner bath to start my day every day. Because generally the longest stint that we go, especially if somebody is dedicated to health without drinking water, being hydrated, is when we’re sleeping at night.
And so when we get up in the morning, you’ll probably notice that your urine is much more concentrated. And this is just again speaking to, hey, your hydration levels have gone down some. But most importantly is that when you’re sleeping at night, I’m just going to just talk about just one aspect of our biological functions, the human brain. Your glymphatic system, so this is the glorified housekeeping system in the human brain. Shout out to the glial cells. But the glymphatic system is helping to clear out metabolic waste from your brain. Your brain is incredibly active, and there’s a lot of metabolic waste. And it’s 10 times more active at clearing out these waste when you’re sleeping than when you’re awake. All right? This is when it really goes into high gear.
The same thing with your rest of your body. That’s when it’s a true anabolic state of repair and the removal of waste. And so there’s a lot of waste that are left over from this process that you need to clear from your system, and water is that clearing mechanism.
So when you get up in the morning, you are yet in fact dehydrated, and you’ve got all these waste to clear out. That if you go right to coffee, or you go right to eating something, or you don’t have anything at all, you’re allowing that stuff to just kind of sit and gum up your system. And being that our lymphatic system is our kind of extracellular waste management system, it gets really nasty.
So help your body out. Start your day with an inner bath. Help to flesh that stuff out. A lot of us start our day with an exterior shower or bath to present ourselves to the world, but my argument is that, isn’t the inside more important?
And so every morning, including this morning for the past, it’s getting close to 20 years now. The first thing that I do when I get up, I drink just under… It just depends. It used to be a liter of water every morning. Now it might be around maybe 24 ounces. It just kind of depends. And I really just listen to my body, if I need a little bit more water when I wake up.
And you mentioned charged waters, because water is a very conductive substance. And it should make sense because it makes you, and you’re highly conductive. A big reason that you have so much conductivity, this kind of electrical output, is because of the water medium that this stuff is operating in. But it’s water plus electrolytes. Electro, it’s in the word. These are minerals that carry an electric charge.
And so it’s not just water. You won’t find water, “H2O” that we were taught about in school anywhere in nature by itself. You don’t find water, pure H2O anywhere in nature. It’s the universal solvent. It’s always water with other things dissolved or integrated with it, namely minerals from the environment. It’s just constantly binding to those things.
And so giving your water a little bit of an electrical input, or as I call it, charged water. So this could be in the form of just a little bit of sea salt, or even, this is why we have this proclivity towards putting some lemon in our water or some lime. Those are electrons. Those are electrolytes that we’re putting into that water, making it more hydrating.
If you are going to do an electrolyte supplement, then you want to avoid sugar if at all possible. That’s kind of counter to this process. But there are many ways to add some more charge to our water, and thus making it more hydrating.
Casey Means (01:23:26):
Amazing. Well, this is something I can definitely improve at. So this is very inspiring. I was choking down some water while you were talking. I was like, “This is a great reminder.” But that is really helpful and really practical, and free, and just a big bang for the buck when you talk about hydrating in the morning. Because we don’t want to be dumber than we need to be, so we got to fill up those cells with water, clean out all the waste.
Well, you have been incredibly generous with your time, Shawn. And I mean truly, I just thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing this book, for doing this work, for sharing your wattage with the world, with me. I’m so grateful that you’re on this planet, and I really hope that everyone listening right now just goes and pre-orders the book. Tell everyone how they can do that. And then also, how they can find you.
Shawn Stevenson (01:24:23):
Casey, you’re the best, really. Thank you so much. So right now, everybody can go to eatsmartercookbook.com. So it’s eatsmartercookbook.com. And this year, we’re also doing the 2023 Family Health & Fitness Summit is coming up here in October. And when you pre-order the book, you get a free ticket to the event. It’s a $297 ticket you get for free. So you’re going to be able to hear from world-leading experts in fitness and nutrition who have families, and kids, and grandkids. Whatever the case might be, how do they create a culture of health in their own household?
So we have people like Laila Ali. She’s an undefeated boxing champion, obviously the daughter of the greatest of all time, but she’s also, a lot of people don’t know this. She won the cooking show Chopped twice. She’s one of the best cooks. I mean, my goodness, her food is so amazing. We actually make some of her recipes pretty much every holiday during the holiday season. She’s an amazing cook, and she’s made it a mandate. She’s also one of the busiest people that I’ve ever met. She’s got so many things going on.
She makes dinner for her family four to five days a week. And I’m just like, “How on earth is that even a thing, Laila?” And so you get to hear from her on that and many other things. We’ve got Dr. Daniel Amen. We’ve got Dr. Amy Shah, Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, Gabby Reece. The list goes on and on. You get to hear, how did they deal with picky eaters, how did they save money on their shopping bill? And just the list goes on and on. You get to learn from not just me, but people who figured some things out and created a culture of health in their family.
So it’s really special. You get a free ticket to that event. We’re also doing a 25K health and fitness giveaway. So we have gifts that are going to be coming that we’re giving away, ranging from Thrive Market groceries, to fitness equipment, and the list goes on and on. So we’re really working to create a movement with this. So again, go to eatsmartercookbook.com to get the book and get connected with these bonuses as well.
And people can find me wherever they’re listening to this awesome podcast. They can find my show. It’s called The Model Health Show, and it’s available on all podcast platforms. And Casey, what we do is masterclasses on every subject matter that you can name, and also the very best experts in the world in their respective fields. I teach many of the masterclasses, but I bring on the best of the best as well. So you get to learn directly from them. Yeah, so that’s where people can find me.