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From Vegan to Vitality? with Alex Jamieson

Jonathan: Hey, everyone. Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. I’m delighted about today’s show because we have a very special guest. She is a Certified Holistic Health Consultant accredited through the Columbia University Teacher’s College and the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. There’s more! She has completed the professional training at the Natural Gourmet Institute and is the author of ‘The Great American Detox Diet’, ‘Vegan Cooking for Dummies’ and ‘Living Vegan for Dummies’. You’ve seen her on Oprah, CNN, MSNBC. She helped [Morgan Spurlock 00:40] recover from his 30-day McDonald’s binge. She’s here chatting with us! Alex Jamieson, welcome to the show!

Alex: Thanks, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Alex, you have got quite the story! Can you just start with that?

Alex: Well, it all started in the ‘70s in Oregon. I was raised by hippies. My mom had an organic gardening radio show and I had a really unique upbringing, in that I learned how to grow food from a very young age. But I also had an insane sweet tooth which led to twelve cavities by the age of 12 and my health really took a tumble in my mid-20s. I always say I’m so grateful I got so sick so young because it allowed me to really examine my life and where I was going and it set me on this journey of real self-discovery and healing that first led me to go to this amazing program in New York City, the Natural Gourmet Institute, which is one of the best culinary programs in the world that teaches you how to cook using the healthy gourmet systems from around the world – Ayurveda, macrobiotic, raw, Paleo, everything you could imagine – learning how to cook all of those different styles. This led me to working with other people, helping them heal their own bodies.

Right around the time I was exploring this new healthy path in the culinary field, I met Morgan Spurlock – this was before he was the famous filmmaker that he is today – and we were partnered, we were married, we now have a 6-year-old son together and we created the movie ‘Super Size Me’ together. If you haven’t seen it, Morgan ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month, he got extremely sick, and I helped him heal his body again – lose the 25 pounds, lower his cholesterol, the 60 points that had gone up. In three weeks, Jonathan, his liver was so fat…. He was giving himself non-alcoholic hepatitis in a month! It’s incredible what we learned could happen so quickly to your body when you don’t eat well, but also what could happen when you do eat well. We were able to turn around his health in less than two months. Everything went back to normal and healthy. Since then, I have been writing books and teaching.

Now, the second half of my story, I think, is that when we made ‘Super Size Me’, and for ten years, I was vegan. I was following a plant-based diet. It really helped me transform my health in that beginning part of my life, from 25-35. But as I got older, I had a kid; my body was changing…our bodies change, Jonathan. As much as we may try to fight it, they do. My hormones were changing, my body was changing, and I started craving animal protein again and I hadn’t wanted it in over a decade. It was a really challenging, emotional change for me because my whole career, my whole identity, had been formed around what I ate.

I think that’s true for a lot of people in the health and nutrition world and I think it’s an aspect of health that’s not talked about is how our identity is so tied up with what we eat. I finally had to come out, came out of the non-vegan closet, told the world, “This is what my body needs now. I respect, I admire, I’m so grateful for the plant-based diet that I followed for over a decade and now my body needs something else.” It may be forever or it may be for a short while, I don’t know, but being able to stay open to the evolution of my own body and stay open to the evolution of nutrition science.

When I first became vegan, I believed that “This is the way. Everyone should be vegan. Oh, my gosh! Why isn’t everyone doing this?!” But then, as those ten years progressed, I learned and I worked with a lot of people who vegan didn’t work for them and I stayed open to the possibility that what worked for me didn’t work for everyone. Now that my own transformation has taken place, I’m even more sure that we’re all different. There are some basic underlying rules. I don’t think high fructose corn syrup is good for anyone, but I do believe that some people need to eat animal products and some don’t. So now I’m in this evolutionary stage of helping even more people find out what’s good for them.

Jonathan: Alex, you’ve made an excellent point about our identity being so tied to what we eat. One thing I’ve noticed, especially as of late, is the use of the term ‘plant-based’ versus the use of the term ‘vegan’ and I personally and I would imagine you as well, based on your history, I eat a plant-based diet but I am not a vegan. I do eat animal products but the vast majority of the foods I eat is plant-based, non-starchy vegetables, things like that. Why is there this conflation of these two terms? Because it seems like one could have a very healing, plant-based, super-high quality nutrient-dense diet that is not a vegan diet but when that term is used, it’s usually used as a synonym with veganism.

Alex: Yes, that’s very true. Well, here’s what happened. When I became vegan over 13 years ago, there was no difference between plant-based and vegan. If you didn’t eat any animal products, you were just vegan. ‘Plant-based’ was not yet a term that people used because vegan meant everything. It meant the reasons for why you were eating a plant-based diet were all inclusive under that term. If you did it for health reasons, like I initially did, you were vegan. If you did it for environmental reasons, like most people do, in general you were vegan. If you did it because you love animals and you don’t want to add to any suffering in the world, then you were vegan. That’s no longer true.

The movement, the vegan movement has….there is a schism. There’s a difference now. You’re only vegan if you’re doing it for animal rights. If you’re doing it for health reasons, you’re not considered vegan, which was not true then. I think it’s really unfortunate because it’s kind of bringing a religiosity to the whole thing; that you’re either doing it for my reason or you’re not doing it the right way.

I think it’s really unfortunate because a plant-based – I’m just going to call it vegan – a vegan diet can be amazingly helpful. It changed my body, it healed my body. I still encourage people to try it to find out if that’s going to help them heal, either just for a 4-week detox, for a season, for a weekend. Going plant-based, going vegan can actually change people’s lives. It can heal their bodies. I don’t want people to be so afraid to try it because they think, “Well, I’m not going to go out and do a PETA protest and throw red paint on my body to make it look like blood, so I don’t want to be vegan.” It’s scaring people away from a very healthy diet.

Jonathan: Alex, another critical aspect of what you’re saying is when people take on this extremist perception. It’s very unfortunate because I think what you and Morgan did so well in the ‘Super Size Me’ film was 90% plus of Americans are people still getting 40% plus of their calories from just processed garbage, just unequivocal garbage that is killing them. For example, we have people who care deeply about their health – we call them vegans. We have people that care deeply about their health and want to help other people, much like vegans, albeit with a different approach – maybe we call them Paleo. We talk about other people –we call them low-carb. With all of this, there seems to be a bit of mud-slinging going on, whereas in reality, I was talking with [Nell Stephenson 09:44], who is the Paleoista, like [Lauran Cordain’s 09:45] protégé, and we shot some film together and she said, “A Paleo diet is plant-based. The vast majority of the food you will put into your mouth should be plants.” So with that much in common, why is there so much animosity?

Alex: I think, unfortunately, humans tend to go an extreme route. Not all humans. There is a tendency for us to want to define things, to find a tribe that makes me right and you wrong. There is just always going to be a part of the human population that wants to do that, it wants to be right, and that goes definitely to our food which is one of the most personal aspects of being a human being. What you eat is so personal and it’s so emotional as well.

I have found it really interesting in the last couple of months. There was a big article that just came out in the AARP magazine. All the retired people in America are talking about Bill Clinton. The vegan community has put Clinton up on a pedestal, saying, “Look. He’s gone vegan for his health.” I start to quibble. “Okay. Well, he’s only doing it for his health. He’s never mentioned animals. Is he vegan?” But they’re putting him up on a pedestal because he has moved to a plant-based diet. Well, it turns out in the article if you actually read through it, he does eat fish and eggs, so he’s not vegan. However, because he’s a big name, because he has a lot of notoriety, there are people in that movement who have co-opted him and saying, “Oh, well, look. He did it. He’s doing it for heart benefit. Everyone should do it.”

So, it’s unfortunate this happens. It’s just extremism. It’s in every movement, it’s in every organization, and unfortunately the squeaky wheel tends to get the grease. People who make the most noise get the most attention. I know there are a lot of people out there – vegans, plant-based people, whatever health modality you are working in at the moment, who are very moderate and who are doing a lot of great work. They don’t tend to get the most attention.

Jonathan: It’s just unfortunate that there has to be this conflation with, ‘conflation’ is not the right word, but it would seem that anyone who’s interested in the amazing healing power of food, as you so eloquently described and experienced yourself and helped Morgan to experience, that the goal should be saving lives, not being right. Am I missing something?

Alex: Well, there is a piece to that which the vegans would say, “Well, we are saving lives because we’re saving animals lives by not eating them.” And yes, I agree, nobody wants animals to suffer. However, humans are animals, too. Some animals need to eat other animals in order to be healthy. That’s just a fact of life. It’s a fact of nature. There are some people who do very, very well on a 100% vegan diet, maybe for their whole lives, maybe for a period of time. It does not make you a bad person if you need to eat some animal protein in order to be healthy.

Jonathan: Then why would anybody question that? I just don’t….maybe I’m not indoctrinated enough into the extremist nutrition community but if someone told me – this is honestly never going to happen – but if someone told me, “I went on Morgan Spurlock’s diet from the movie ‘Super Size Me’ and every single blood marker of health I have has went from horrible to perfect. I feel great.” Like, this person has some weird genetic transformation. There’s some sort of mutant that thrives on processed edible products. Wouldn’t we want to salute that person and say, “Wow! You’ve found that which optimizes your health. Keep going.” Why would anybody tell any person who is doing something that’s helping them to stop and do something that would harm them?

Alex: Because there are those in the vegan community, the Paleo community, and every…. in the raw community…. there are those in every food community that believe, “Our way is the right way and if you don’t do it my way, you are doing harm to others and you just aren’t trying hard enough.” That is the facts. Then it becomes a religious thing. You are either doing it morally and right or you’re doing it wrong. Unfortunately, there are people in every camp who believe ‘This is the way and everyone should do it this way”. When, in fact, we are all different and we all need to experiment.

It was really interesting to me. I had thousands of comments when I came out as ‘no longer vegan’ and a good handful of them were from young people from the vegan community who said, “You just didn’t try hard enough to make it work for you.” I wrote three books on….

Jonathan: You should’ve written four!

Alex: Yeah. I struggled with the health idiosyncrasies that were popping up for a couple of years. When I finally gave my body what it was craving and asking for, those issues went away. Hormonal imbalances, energy issues, my body healed itself with food again. People were saying, “Oh, you just didn’t try hard enough.” I wonder how old are they; how long have they been vegan? I did it for over a decade. We all change. I got lots of emails from other people who were vegan also for several decades, women who were in their 40s and 50s, who said, “I’m getting older. My hormones are changing and I found that I needed to eat some meat, too.”

It’s just a fact of life that we all change. Stay open to the possibilities. I encourage everyone, whether you’re eating a perfect vegan or Paleo diet right now, stay open to the possibilities of change. Keep learning. Keep experimenting. If you’re eating the standard American diet and you’re eating everything out of a package or a box, stay open to the possibilities that there is new and good information out there that can help you, wherever you are.

Jonathan: Alex, do you see hope for the future in this sense? May there be a general push towards food quality rather than food quantity? Even with the popularity of the whole foods, stores, and farmer’s markets and gluten-free this and organic that. It does seem maybe that the cultural zeitgeist is changing more towards food quality and could that be a bipartisan crossing-the-aisle place that these various nutrition religions could unite? Or am I just looking at this with rose-colored glasses?

Alex: Well, I think there are people who are always going to say, “It’s my way or no way.” No matter what. Even when you’re talking about kids, like the health of the children, we could all get behind that, right? Well, no, apparently not. Because some people think, “No! They want French fries and ketchup and ice cream and they should have access to it. We don’t want to starve them.”

Well, I do believe that things are changing. They are changing. While they’re getting better, some things are still getting worse. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, these things are still on the rise. However, I do see that the rise of popularity of whole foods, the rise in juicing, it’s an explosion in juicing and grain smoothies that you never would’ve seen ten years ago! I see organic farmer’s markets popping up everywhere. I get so excited talking about vertical farming, how our own cities could be producing half of their own food in the next 20 years. I mean, these are things that are real world solutions to the problems of us being overfed and undernourished. And people do want to feel good. I’m always inspired by the transformations that I see with my clients and people online, so I just believe in the goodness in people and them wanting to feel well and I know that there’s a lot of different ways to get there. There’s really just one thing we want. We want to feel great. There is a lot of avenues to that way, so I’m open. I am open and I know that you’re going to keep working toward that, too.

Jonathan: The many means to that shared end. Certainly very powerful. I get so excited to use the phrases ‘inspirational’ and ‘transformation’ and I do think that that is an area of hope because you and I know, and many of our listeners know, the amazing transformational power of high-quality eating and whenever anyone does something and it transforms them, they tend to talk about that, even if they don’t want to, they can’t not. It’s almost impossible for someone who transforms their self to the extent that you have, for example, to not begin to influence others even if they don’t mean to. Just sharing by example and that seems to be something to be quite hopeful about.

Alex: Absolutely. Absolutely. The people who listen to the show – your show – they get information from you, they feel great; they share it with their friends. It’s a process of learning and self-discovery and just continuing to stay open, that what worked for you when you were a teenager may not work for you when you’re in your 30s or 50s. So you just have to stay open, stay malleable, stay excited and engaged with what’s possible for you. But I think that’s my main job – is to get people excited to try something new.

Jonathan: I love it, Alex. As we stay open and as you keep us excited, what can we expect next from you?

Alex: Well, I have a lot of things coming up. I’m working on my new book, that won’t be out for a while, but if people want to stay in touch with me, we’re going to have a ‘Super Size Me’ 10-year Anniversary Telesummit in January of 2014. So I definitely want people to stay in touch and go to my website, sign up to my newsletters so that they can get in on the ‘Super Size Me’ 10-year anniversary party and my new book when it comes out.

Jonathan: What’s the name of the new book?

Alex: The new one is going to be ‘Women, Food, and Desire’.

Jonathan: Ooh!

Alex: Yes, juicy!

Jonathan: Three things, all of which I like very much.

Alex: Yeah. Very good.

Jonathan: Well, folks, if you want to learn more about all these wonderful projects and more, please do check out Alex’s website which is alexandrajamieson and I’m sure if they do a web search for Alex Jamieson, they will also find you. Correct?

Alex: Yes.

Jonathan: Lovely. Well, Alex, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Alex: Thank you so much, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Listeners, I hope you enjoyed today’s chat as much as I did. Please remember this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Alex Jamieson. In her own words:

The Great American Detox Diet: Feel Better, Look Better, and Lose Weight by Cleaning Up Your Diet

“Oprah Winfrey turned and asked me, “Why were you crying, Alex?”

“Because these people touched me so deeply, Oprah. They had so much to work against and were so generous,” I said.

This was a wild moment.

I was on Oprah with Morgan Spurlock, then my fiancé, talking about living on minimum wage for our documentary-style TV series, 30 Days. Our month of living on minimum wage was powerful – we met people who were struggling to make it every day, and people whose financial and physical health were in danger of tipping over the edge.

And every time I think about that month, I remember why I love what I do.

I get to help people take control of their health – with natural foods and habits.

They have more energy. They feel more positive. They look better. They can work better.

And they learned skilled resilience. To make it through their lives with health, vitality, and joy.

I wrote this bio for the skeptics.

I know you’ve probably tried diets and cleanses and other approaches to living a healthier lifestyle before, and you’re probably sick to the brim of people gushing about how the only true path to happiness is by eating nothing but lettuce leaves and wheatgrass – as if this were the easiest thing in the world to do.

You often get the impression that this enlightened person has never allowed a speck of sugar cross their lips – ever.

I’m not that person. I can speak to the difficulty of changing your habits because I’ve been through that. I know how cravings can sabotage you because I was a complete slave to my own for many years. I understand that happiness is about so much more than your physical health, and I know that it’s hard to pursue happiness when you feel like hell all the time.

I’m not perfect, and I’m not enlightened. What I offer is a lot of hard-won knowledge, personal experience and empathy, and a helping hand to create an approach to health that will draw you closer to the life you want to live.

This is my story:

If my parents had had anything to say about it, I probably would have grown up to be one of those people who can’t imagine why you’d want a bag of chips when there was such a thing as wheat germ in the world.

My parents grew their own produce, cooked at home, and canned and preserved their own food. We rarely ate out, and my mother actually had a radio show on organic gardening.

When I hit my teenage years, I did what all teenagers do and rebelled. I had a serious sweet tooth and signed up for my first job as a dishwasher at a coffeeshop called The Muffin Break. Being a dishwasher had one incredible perk: I got to lick the icing bowls before washing them.

It was heaven.

Between the ages of 14 and 25 I subsisted on a diet of soda, fast food, and bowl-icing. When I was 25, my eating habits firmly ensconced, I got a job at a corporate law firm working the standard New York 12-hour day. After knee surgery, I was put on antibiotics and pain medication, and the combination of my lousy diet, tons of stress, and medication finally did my immune system in.

I crashed hard.

I was absolutely addicted to caffeine: couldn’t wake up without it, couldn’t stay awake unless I kept pouring a constant stream of soda and mochas into my mouth. I had migraine headaches several times a week and my joints hurt like an arthritis sufferer’s. I was a solid 20 pounds overweight and horribly depressed.

I didn’t hit rock bottom. I didn’t wake up with a moment of crystal clear revelation. I didn’t have a sudden conversion to natural foods.

I started eating a healthy diet purely because a doctor prescribed it.

I’d gone to this doctor with my litany of aches and pains, and he recommended a diet of unprocessed foods with no sugar and no caffeine. I did it with the same grim determination you carry out your doctor’s orders for any other illness: drink lots of fluids, get plenty of rest, etc.

Usually, when you do what your doctor tells you to do, your illness goes away and you feel a lot better within a week. But he hadn’t given me any medicine. I wasn’t going to get better just because I gave up soda, was I?

Turns out: yes. Yes I was.

In less than two weeks, my body stopped hurting. My headaches were gone. I had energy every day and was wide awake. I was finally thinking clearly.

And my clear head started to say, “What the heck am I doing with my life?”

I quit my draining corporate job shortly after, picking up an enjoyable gig at a secondhand store. I enrolled in culinary school at the National Gourmet Institute because I wanted to learn to make healthy food that tasted good and satisfied my cravings so I’d never go back to that foggy-headed existence.

I met Morgan Spurlock, and we fell in love, moved in together, and came up with the idea forSuper Size Me, a documentary in which Morgan ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days.

We knew his body would take a beating from the diet, and the plan was for him to get sick and for me to heal him with a healthy diet. That diet eventually became my first book: The Great American Detox Diet.

Since then, I’ve traveled the world, appeared on national television, met Oprah, became a single mother to my wonderful little boy, Laken, and founded my own business around holistic eating.

I work with people who know what it’s like to feel like they can’t possibly defeat their cravings. I work with people who are too busy to think about their diets or their health. I work with people who have spent their entire lives taking care of everyone but themselves.

Together, we find out what works and what doesn’t, why they feel the way they do, and what will help them create a healthy lifestyle that allows them to pursue their happiness with passion, energy, and boundless enthusiasm.

The Official Bio

Alex Jamieson is a Certified Holistic Health Counselor accredited through the Columbia University Teacher’s College and the American Association of Drugless Practitioners.

She has completed the professional chef training at The Natural Gourmet Institute, and is the author of The Great American Detox Diet, Vegan Cooking for Dummies, and Living Vegan for Dummies.

Her approach to holistic health undid the damage Morgan Spurlock’s 30-Day McDonald’s binge did to his body in the Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me, and she has spoken on Oprah, CNN, and MSNBC.

She currently blogs at Dr. Oz’s ShareCare.com and The Huffington Post. A full list of publications in which Alex has been featured can be found here.”