Bonus: Dr. Rick Henriksen – Evolutionary Nutrition and Religion, Respect and Unity

Jonathan: Hey, everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Today’s show is going to be an extra special one because we’re going to talk about a subject which I’m not really sure I’ve heard covered in too many places. I know personally, I’ve received quite a few emails and questions about this. I am just so honored that today’s guest has come on the show and is going to share his personal, professional, and spiritual insights with us.

I do want to give a quick disclaimer at the beginning of the show that we are going to be discussing the thought of ancestral nutrition, the thought of evolution, and how that does or doesn’t fit with certain religious beliefs. For anyone who that might be not something you want to hear, I would encourage you to tune out now, very respectful conversation but one nonetheless that I want to disclaim, and also just want to again celebrate our guest today.

He is just a wonderful individual, super-qualified to discuss this subject with us, and he is none other than Dr. Rick Henriksen. He has quite an awesome track record. He got a BA in Behavioral Science and also some nutrition stuff and went on to get a Master’s in Public Policy. He is now a practicing physician who also teaches other students how to help individuals through the medical doctor practice. So we have Dr. Rick Henriksen joining us today. Rick, welcome to the show.

Dr. Henriksen: Thank you for having me. I appreciate being on.

Jonathan: Rick, one of the reasons I wanted to have you on the show not only because you do great work and I love how you embrace the modern science of nutrition and exercise, not only with your patients but also with the students you teach, because obviously that’s very important, but also you are a practicing Mormon, is that correct?

Dr. Henriksen: Yes, that’s right.

Jonathan: Rick, oftentimes I think there is maybe a belief that someone with a strong religious belief would not be able to live an ancestral lifestyle because there would be some incompatibility with the idea that we have “evolved” to eat a certain way and their belief in God; have you dealt with this issue much?

Dr. Henriksen: I certainly have. I think it’s always a question that comes up when we talk about foods that we’re best designed to eat. We kind of use that word in quotes, “designed.” Does that mean designed by God and created by God, or that designed by kind of this evolutionary process. We kind of examine it in a few different ways, but hopefully the end result is that we find a diet, we find a nutrition lifestyle, that’s best suited for what our needs are and what our body desires. I think we can look at it from both the scientific perspective but also the religious perspective, and I don’t think that they’re… They are not mutually-exclusive from each other.

Jonathan: Rick, I love that you say that, because that’s what struck me. I’ve actually gotten quite a few angry emails in response to my first book where individuals would say they were reading the book and they were enjoying it and then they just came upon the word “evolution.” Literally, they didn’t read any further, and they said, “I thought this was a book about health and you mention the word evolution; why are you taking a stance on God?”

In my second book, I now have a little disclaimer. I always was raised to believe that the belief in God and the understanding of evolution are not mutually exclusive because one could just say that God uses “evolution” as a tool, so it’s not a mutually-exclusive thing. What is your experience with that?

Dr. Henriksen: I think people have different ideas and different beliefs on it. I think it is hard because we come from different backgrounds, we come from different philosophies, and you don’t want to alienate people. I’ve certainly had patients that have come to me and asked why am I teaching this way. You kind of have to look at it in the perspective of, number one, you want to respect someone’s faith; number two, looking at some of the scientific literature that definitely is there; and then number three, being able to bring both of those together to make a lifestyle that’s going to work for each individual.

As a family physician, I work on more of an individual level. I am trying to see what works for one person. If someone’s religious beliefs or someone’s desires are really that they don’t really want to talk about evolution, I think that there are still ways that you can talk about these principles without that evolution.

But at the same time, I think it can help provide a good framework for us to understand how our body works. I think the theory that you talked about that maybe God used evolution in that creative process, that’s certainly one theory that people talk about.

I’m a moral man and I believe in God and I know that in some way he has provided some plan that is grander in scope than I can ever even begin to understand. So my limited understanding, I don’t think, is equipped to really understand how he created my body and how he made this earth. I think that there is plenty of leeway for me to use to kind of understand and try to learn a little bit more about his creation.

Jonathan: Well, I like that, Rick. It sounds like just from a high level, it seems that you are a perfect embodiment of this idea that science and faith are certainly not mutually-exclusive things. Oftentimes this bothers me. Anytime there is an individual out there who is making these false dichotomies like, “You either support this approach to eating or you support this one and there’s no overlap,” or, “You either support science or you support faith.”

That just seems silly. There’s plenty of doctors and scientists and researchers who have strong beliefs; and there are certainly individuals who are not into science who don’t have strong religious beliefs. How do you, in general, deal with this what I believe to be a false dichotomy between faith and science?

Dr. Henriksen: This is obviously nothing new. From the beginning of man, this kind of faith versus science has always gone on. I think for myself, just an approach in a way that I… with humility mainly, that I don’t understand enough about science, I don’t understand enough about religion to really say that these cannot coexist. I think that there are ways that maybe these principles are on the surface opposing; but for me, I think there is an underlying truth that maybe I just don’t quite understand.

I think God has a way of describing that to us that is maybe above what I can understand as a mortal. I look at it that way. And then I have to take a step back and I say, “You know what, is my health improved by this lifestyle? If I eat a certain way, if I eat these certain foods, am I healthier? Do I feel better? Do I have more energy?”

If the answer to that is yes, then it’s got to be a good thing. I think we often talk about looking at the fruits of our labor, looking at the fruits of what we’ve planted. If we have that seed and we plant that seed and it grows into this great tree, we know that probably that seed was a good seed. I think the same way that, as we look at this nutrition lifestyle and this exercise lifestyle, if I plant that seed, if I give it a shot, if I try it and after 30 days, after 60 days, or after six months if I feel great, if I’m doing better, if I’m off my diabetic medications, then yes, I can say this is probably a good thing for me. I think that you can give that kind of trial of the faith to see if that lifestyle works for you.

Jonathan: There are so many excellent points in there, Dr. Henriksen. Three things I just want to call out. One is you gave a wonderful sense of humility there, and a sentiment which I have heard and experienced in my own life, which is, for those out there who seem to be more absolutist, “We know this, and this is this,” especially in context of science and religion is often an indication, actually, of ignorance.

Because the more you know in the field of biology or psychology, or any scientific field really, the more you understand we don’t fully understand it. When people come out with these very dogmatic, absolutist statements which seem to imply 100% certainty, is that just a sign that the person really does not know what they are talking about?

Dr. Henriksen: I mean, it could be a sign of ignorance. It also could be a sign of passion. I think people get really passionate, and that we have so much success in what we are doing for our own selves that we try to then imply that that is the only way to do; and I think passion. But also I think ignorance. As we do learn more about a subject, as I see more patients in my clinic, I just know there are a lot of ways of getting to that optimum health.

Obviously, I think we have this foundation that we try to look at, but I think that if I went into every single patient’s scenario and said this is the right way for every single patient and it was the same, I think that I would probably have less success and that would not work for my patients.

Jonathan: I like that, and I like that you hit on that there are certainly these common denominators. The parallels between just the way we ensure that our physical body thrives are so similar to some of the challenges we face when thinking about how our spiritual side, if that is something we are interested in, thrives.

In the sense that if you look at, for example, many religions they all agree that killing people for fun is probably a bad idea and that there’s actually a lot in common. If you were to really draw like the core beliefs of many different faiths, they are very, very similar.

How they actually manifest that, like the ends are all the same, but the means vary. Sometimes I get frustrated when in the area of nutrition, we all have the same end goal and we all believe, for example, refined sugar is bad and vegetables are good, and that some level of protein is essential; but we focus on those small differences. Is that just human nature?

Dr. Henriksen: I think it is human nature. I think it is we are trying to impose some kind of structure on what is difficult to understand and so that sometimes happens. I think it also just comes from the fact that we as humans just like being right, and we just like having our way. So it does get hard when we have to step out of that. I have been in so many discussions with people about nutrition, and it really comes down to being open to looking at new ways and then seeing what works.

As a clinician, for so many years I tried the standard work out more, eat less, that whole calories-in calories-out philosophy. I tried that and felt so many times that for me, I was looking for something new that really is actually older. Obviously the kind of standard way of looking at things is ancestral heath for me. I had to kind of step back, and I think that this lack of success in one area led me to kind of look…

There are some people that do really well with the philosophy of eat less and work out more, and they’re skinny and they feel healthy, and they don’t understand why we… you know, this kind of other area. So I think that their perspective is probably narrow in that area, that they haven’t necessarily seen those patients that have come in time after time and said, I do exactly what I’m supposed to do and I’m still not having success.

Jonathan: That gets back to a point you made earlier, Rick, which is being focused on if we plant this seed and a beautiful tree grows, then there must be something to the seed, and that focus on results versus a focus primarily on methodology or ideology or ego, truly I give a silly example, but if someone came to me, I’m curious what you would do in this context.

If someone came to me and said, “I was diabetic and overweight and depressed and tired, and then I started doing nothing but drinking soda and all of my blood markers are now better, everything about my life is better.

My diabetes has gone away. I’m rapidly losing fat and all I do is drink soda.” I would say to that person, “Oh, my gosh, we need to study your genetic makeup.” But to be clear, if it’s working, then like why…

But there are people who would say, “Oh, my God, no,” despite the fact that this is for you causing this amazing result, you still shouldn’t do it.

Dr. Henriksen: That’s certainly the case. I think that we have to be open and I think one of the reasons why I honestly love certain aspects of this kind of ancestral movement or kind of this whole discussion is there are a lot of people that are open for new science and new things.

If someone comes out with the new study, we examine it and we say, You know what, that looks like it’s a better way and we’ll adopt it. I think up to this point what we’ve been able to say is, Wow, there is so much science and so much background information that supports what you are saying, Jonathan, and what I am saying.

Up to this point, we haven’t seen something better. We cannot find the good trials and the good work and actual evidence that’s going to support something else. The all-soda diet, as you prescribed, if we were able to find that, then we would look into it. For me, what I have seen time after time after time is high-quality foods, high-quality exercise lead to improved health outcomes.

Jonathan: Rick, the point you just mentioned where I think a lot of the listeners of the show will see it as like absolutely that’s the way the world works and that’s why they like you and that’s why we have you on the show. If we were to see a study, a randomized, controlled trial that correctly adjusted for variables, and we saw that drinking an all-Pepsi diet made people healthier, it would be interesting.

But let’s think about this. A lot of other people would do a.k.a. what we call confirmation bias, and they would immediately say let me pick apart that study. I already have this existing belief, so I’m going to go into that study saying it must be wrong. Even if I cannot find a flaw in it, I’ll do something else like, Well, it’s just one study. And then if there’s two, they’ll be, Oh, well, there’s just two studies. I don’t know if it’s because you’re younger and like I’m younger, but what do you think it is that causes you to have more of that open mind?

Dr. Henriksen: I think part of it is this foundation of this framework. For me, I have an open mind but at the same time, I have the foundation that suggests that our bodies were designed, and however we got there, either through creation or through evolution, maybe both, our bodies were designed to eat a certain way, to live a certain way and that’s like the foundation. Clearly, our bodies did not come up in an environment with high levels of sucrose in our soda. We have this kind of foundation that we can always refer back to, that we can use as this kind of bedrock to when we go and read some studies. It is interesting to then examine those in that context of how it works into our framework, and I think that kind of helps me is that I do have that foundation. For me it is that foundation in God, that he loves me and he wants me to be happy, and that foundation that there’s a certain way that our bodies are best designed to work.

Jonathan: When you say there’s a certain way for our bodies to best work, we’ve already covered that there are some common principles. There is, of course, to be some individual variation. An analogy I often use is if… you do wear glasses, I remember from seeing your picture, and I wear glasses as well, or contacts. If I were to take my glasses of and put them on your face and you were to take your glasses off and put them on my face, chances are both of us would be…

If we thought that the success or failure of glasses was based upon our experience with me trying your glasses and you trying mine, we would be like, Well, glasses are stupid and don’t work. In reality, it’s just that your glasses are not perfect for me and my glasses are not perfect for you.

However, both my glasses and your glasses have a set of underlying principles that all effective glasses reflect. For example, the lenses are transparent. Like if you had glasses that blocked your vision, that would be bad. But that does not preclude there being individual customizations that each unique person needs to implement in their life, right?

Dr. Henriksen: Absolutely. I think one thing that has helped me look at this quite a bit is some of the work that Stefan Lindeberg has done. In his book Food and Western Disease, he has looked at and examined about 200 different modern hunter-gatherer kind of groups. You will look at these modern groups that are living without the modern technologies, and you kind of examine and you look at what they eat, we find a huge range of macronutrient percentages.

Some are almost living exclusively on animal products. Some are living almost exclusively on coconut and carbohydrates and food products. But at the end of the day, none of them are eating processed foods, none of them has high levels of sugar in their diet. They kind of all have this bedrock. For me that kind of…

I look at that and so I can look at an individual and say, Maybe we need to look at what’s right for your activity level. Are you an ironman triathlete? Do you stay at home? Are you a power lifter? Then we can say we have this kind of foundation and then we can tweak maybe our micronutrient percentages or whatever we’re doing to really optimize it for you as an individual.

But the baseline foundation of that diet is still the same: Foods that are not processed, foods that are natural, foods that do not cause inflammation in our gut, foods that are easily digestible. We have to look at that and make those choices for individuals.

Jonathan: Rick, I love the overall sentiment that we have here, which is you can have a base, be it faith-based, be it science-based, be it both, and to look at things with a critical but open mind. And also to seek, at the end of the day, results. Because we just want people to be healthier. And I do think, Rick, I’m sure you’ve seen this, there are people where if you really dig into it, that isn’t their goal. Their goal is not actually results. Their goal is to get people to believe like they believe, right? Like their goal isn’t actually…

There are plenty of people, for example, who may have tried just for example a vegetarian lifestyle. To be clear, the way I advocate eating, you can absolutely do, while being a vegetarian, you can be super healthy and be a vegetarian. However, I know plenty of people and have talked to plenty of people that have tried to be a vegetarian and it has destroyed their health.

If they stopped being a vegetarian, they have told me that some of their peers will say, You’re doing the wrong thing. Like, You have strayed from this ideology. To me, that just shows that those individuals are not actually concerned with that person’s health. They are concerned with the perpetuation of their ideology.

Dr. Henriksen: Absolutely, absolutely. If someone came and told me that, they said, “You know what, I tried your way and I just feel better the other way,” I’m like, “Okay that’s great. Let me work with you on seeing if we can improve your way and seeing if we can make it work for you.” Really, it’s all about results. When I’m in the clinic, I am not about my ego and my way.

If you come in and you have great numbers and you want to work your way, I’m all about working with you to improve your health. I think that is different, I guess, from sticking up to the dogma of your position versus what that result is, what is going to be best for individuals and communities.

Jonathan: What’s so empowering, I think, about your position, Dr. Henriksen, as well as mine is our position that there are these intuitive frameworks that we start with, and then there are scientific rigor that we apply on top of that. And then we have a heart that is full of hope to help people live better. If you attack it – attack is maybe the wrong word. If you approach it with that in mind, I think you end up in a world that is just so much more inclusive.

I can’t tell you how often people say to me, “Jonathan, it seems like you say that calories don’t count, but then you say that calories kind of do count.” I say to those people – well, let’s say that person’s name is Tom. I say, “Tom, which is true, the early bird catches the worm or he who hesitates is lost,” because those are both actually true but they are the opposite.

It depends on the context, right?

Dr. Henriksen: Right, yes.

Jonathan: And that’s what I hear you saying, is it depends on the context. If you have your mind set on that healing, you’re going to end up in the right spot. But we almost have to fight our human nature, because the ego side is always going to pull us towards, No, my way. But if your way is results, life becomes a lot easier.

Dr. Henriksen: Absolutely. I think this has been the biggest problem with my colleagues in the medical community over the last 20 or 30 years, is I think we have really pushed a certain low-fat lifestyle, this like low-fat, high-carb lifestyle that really has not shown results. We look at when the guidelines started in the early ‘80s, late ‘70s, and we look what’s happened with obesity, we look what happened with modern disease. We are not seeing results based on that principle.

I think the medical community ego has gotten in the way and, I think, gotten in the way of really making some substantial changes in how we approach nutrition and health. I think that if we really were looking at what we are doing, we’d say what we’re doing, what the community and the nation is trying out is not working. We really need to examine that, and I think that that’s what we’re trying to do, is taking this open mind to really look at maybe this way, this ancestral-lifestyle way, or this SANE kind of lifestyle way that we advocate is a better way. I think that ego certainly gets in the way of a lot of success.

Jonathan: Rick, have you seen just maybe in your personal life or your professional life, like how do we… we’re going to try to take the high road, it sounds like here. It’s very easy to take that more base route of just ego and argument and, I’ve said this in the past so I have to continue to say it in the future.

How can we, when we engage with individuals who maybe in that more-limited mind set, what would be your recommendation or what have you done with your own medical peers who might just say this is quackery, just eat less and exercise more; fat clogs your arteries because it’s solid at room temperature. Which would mean vegetables clog your arteries… but I digress.

Dr. Henriksen: I think the basic underlying principle is first, you have to believe that the other person truly wants to help people. I think you cannot go into that situation thinking, You know what, they are just trying to fight for their own battles. I think we kind of talked about this.

If you approach them that way, then there’s going to be no success. I think you have to approach it that we both want to help people, we both want to help that patient. I think that gives us a better foundation to start with. So that’s the first.

Then the second, I think we really just have to kind of slowly help with those results. Giving them this kind of knowledge, I think, laying out in a systematic approach, I think talking about it reasonably with good science will really help out. For about a year or so, I practiced in my clinic, making some changes. And there’s kind of this buzzword like, Dr. Henriksen’s doing this, what’s going on?

I’m trying to figure out exactly what I’m doing. So what I did is I was able to present to my whole department in a grand rounds presentation – and that’s actually on my website that you can watch. But it’s this grand rounds that I was able to kind of outline the science, kind of talk about what I’m doing in this kind of logical manner.

I think that really helps out people, too. I think other people are seeing us as this kind of quacker, this fringe type of thing. And without good understanding, they jump to conclusions. So I think it is trying to find the appropriate forum. And slowly, without being pushy or proselytizing, you might say, being able to help them understand what’s going on. I think seeing those results, giving them the opportunity to try it for themselves, I think is really the way it works.

Jonathan: It’s so fascinating how much parallel there really is here, Rick, between how we, for lack of better terms, feed our body and how we feed our mind or feed our spirit. Because this has become almost in certain context a religious debate, literally. Like people are abandoning proof and abandoning results and are just approaching it from a religious-fervor perspective. It sounds like what you’re saying is well is if you are a religious individual and if you are trying to beat someone into following your religion, that never works.

Dr. Henriksen: It’s right. That’s absolutely true. Exactly.

Jonathan: It’s even like political. We have to continue to remind ourselves if you’re a staunch Democrat and you’re talking to a staunch Republican, especially someone who has maybe publicly stated that they are that way, and you come at them just trying to batter them into your way, that will… it’s hard to say “never.” I’m going to say never. That will never, ever work, ever.

Dr. Henriksen: Absolutely. I am also a liberal Democratic type of person living in Utah, the hotbed of Republicans. So I see that all the time, too. It’s so similar. Religion, politics, I mean, all these issues in which we get passion about it, they are near and dear to our hearts, and we really have to approach it in different ways. It’s just not going to work, this kind of front-on assault with anger and loud voices; it just certainly does not work.

Jonathan: Rick, just another example of why I wanted to have you on the show. Because you just told us another bit of information that I think most people might find hard to believe. And that is here we have a medical doctor who has very, very liberal beliefs in certain contexts, and is a fan of ancestral nutrition, and is a Mormon. And again, it’s just… yes, it is possible to hold these things in our mind simultaneously when we understand with a sense of humility, rather than it’s black or white, it’s this, it’s that. How do you exist… this is more of a personal question. But how do you exist as both a Mormon and someone with more liberal social beliefs?

Dr. Henriksen: Yes, it’s interesting. I have faced this a lot. I went to medical school in the Bronx in New York, and so in my school, I was in a very liberal area there. When I lived there, I was the most conservative person that they had ever met. And I was always sticking up for the conservative side. And then when I would visit back home in Utah, I was the most liberal person that anybody had ever met.

I have been able to kind of live in both those worlds. You see ideas, you see things that are actually very positive, and you see good people on both sides of that aisle. So I think you kind of look at it like people are genuinely trying to do good. We have different philosophies on that, but it does not mean that we’re evil or we’re stupid or we’re trying to hurt people.

Jonathan: That is so powerful, Rick. Sometimes we talk about how a common enemy… like you will have a couple groups of people throughout history – this happens all the time – who don’t like each other. But then this person or group of people they don’t like even more comes into play, and they band together to fight against that third party. We see this in Independence Day, the movie, right?

Dr. Henriksen: Yes.

Jonathan: Like the entire world comes together to fight off the aliens. I wish… we do have that happening. That is happening, and our common enemy is called diabetes, and it’s called obesity, and it’s killing millions of our loved ones.

Dr. Henriksen: Yes.

Jonathan: Just spending any time fighting among each other when we all share the goal of combating that fatal, shared enemy just seems like a waste of time.

Dr. Henriksen: That’s absolutely correct. I think if we can remove the venom, remove the ego from our conversations, I think really as we look together, I think our movement of health for ourselves, I think, can be also put together with our movement for the health of our country, the health of the earth, I mean looking at natural ways of growing produce. All of these groups really should be working together to make positive changes.

Jonathan: Well, Rick, I really appreciate you being that change we see in the world, because you certainly embody it as being a medical doctor, a master of public policy, a practicing Mormon, and an ancestral-health supporter, and just a general positive influence in the community. So, thank you.

Dr. Henriksen: My pleasure, thank you.

Jonathan: Folks, if you want to learn more about Rick, I would highly encourage you to do so and you can at his website which is Rick, what’s next for you?

Dr. Henriksen: This summer is a great summer. I’m doing a lot of biking and having a good time. And in kind of this ancestral world, I am getting ready to go in August to the Ancestral Health Symposium. It’s going to be in Atlanta this year. We are really looking forward to some great speakers. I’ve been on the program committee and it’s going to be a fantastic time of really coming together and doing some good networking. I’m looking forward to that in August, and just enjoying my summer.

Jonathan: Rick, again, I don’t mean to just be gushing here, but I know it is not easy to take that high road, and I know it’s always easier to give into the short-term ego boost. For you to just have the strength to live a life that is so in line with that which matters is that which gets results and not which makes me feel best or is easiest to do, I very much salute. So I appreciate that, Rick, very much.

Dr. Henriksen: Well, thank you. The work you’ve done is also pretty fantastic. As I thumb through your book, it really does, you take this really straightforward and smart kind of approach that really makes sense. One of the things, the videos that your group has put out really… if we take this kind of simple, straightforward approach, I think it can help out with so many of my patients and our community, that we can really make a big difference if we stick together.

Jonathan: I love it, Rick. Well, I will stick together with you if you will have me, sir.

Dr. Henriksen: You got it.

Jonathan: I love it. Well, folks, his name is Dr. Rick Henriksen, again And one more time, Rick, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Henriksen: My pleasure.

Jonathan: Folks, I hope you enjoyed today’s show as much as I did. And please remember, this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Rick Henriksen. In his own words:

I am a Family Physician. It is not my career or my job. It is who I am. 

Growing up in Salt Lake, I always knew I wanted to become a doctor or lawyer.

Seeing my dad read countless court decisions quickly helped me decide on medicine. From middle school through college at the Univeristy of Utah I knew I would become a physician. I received my B.A. of Behavioral Science and Health, and then entered medical school at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx, NYC.

After a few short months, I knew I wanted to be a Family Physician. The job description just fit.

I love the clinic.
I love keeping people healthy.
I never thought that the hospital is where medicine should be focused.

Upon graduation, I was proud to declare that I was one of only 2 in my class of 180 going into Family Medicine

I returned to Salt Lake City to complete both my residency in Family Medicine and a Master of Public Policy both at the Univeristy of Utah.

I’m a general Family Physician at the University Health Care Madsen Health Center”