Hilda Labrada Gore: Our guest today is Richard Morris, author of A Life Unburdened, a man who unsuccessfully tried diet after diet for weight loss. At one juncture Richard weighed over four hundred pounds. He would wake up most mornings asking himself, “Is today the day I die?” Today you’ll hear how he lost weight by ignoring the experts and using the power of real food. I have heard people use the expression, “I’m a changed man.” But I think you really are a changed man, aren’t you?
RM: In my case this is literally true. Back in 2002 I weighed over four hundred pounds. And I was sick—I was pre-diabetic, I had asthma and high blood pressure. I was in really bad shape. Then I lost most of that excess weight, and I have kept it off. I’m running obstacle races. I’m signed up for a Spartan race. I’m running five K’s and ten K’s and really enjoying life.
HLG: Oh my goodness what a drastic change! Four hundred pounds. Excuse me but that sounds like a couple of people’s worth of weight. Please tell us first about how you got in the position of being so overweight?
RM: This is going to sound a little strange, but I honestly had no idea how large I was. It’s like putting a crab in water on the stove and then slowly turning up the heat; the crab doesn’t notice it because the water heats up slowly. I was gaining a pound here and five pounds there. I would look in the mirror, and every day I knew I was overweight but every day I looked sort of normal to myself. It isn’t until you see yourself in a photograph or in a video that you realize you’ve gained a lot of weight. It snuck up on me—I was never fully conscious of it.
HLG: What was the turning point? What made you realize that something had to change? RM: It happened in 2002 when I was commuting to work in New York. I walked to work, as in New York nearly everybody walks to work if it is not too far from home. For me a walk of several blocks began to feel like walking ten miles or climbing Mount Everest. I mean I would be out of breath by the time I got to the office. One day my knee gave out on me as I was stepping into the elevator and I almost fell down. I had all kinds of aches and pains. Just standing up for more than a minute was painful for me. That’s when I would wake up every morning and ask myself, “Is today the day I die?” I realized I needed to do something different and the thing that I did different was the food that I was eating.
HLG: When I read about your struggles—including the painful details like your belt buckle digging into your waist, or sweating profusely after the slightest exertion—my heart went out to you.
RM: Actually, there’s one thing that I didn’t put in my book because it was so painful. I was always drenched in sweat by the time I got to work, and one day I got to work and opened my desk drawer to find that someone had placed a container of deodorant in there. I was taking baths and showers and washing and trying to be as hygienic as possible but that four- or five-block walk to work might as well have been ten miles. So you can imagine what a painful thing it was to find the deodorant.
HLG: Richard, you said food made the difference—I thought food would have been part of the problem.
RM: Food was part of the problem but like a lot of things, it also turned out to be part of the solution. I worked in the software industry and one thing about that industry is you spend a lot of time at your desk in front of the computer. If you’re writing code, reviewing code or designing software, there’s not a whole lot of time to go out and eat. The software companies want employee productivity and so they make eating very easy. They bring in pretzels and donuts; sodas from the machine costs only ten cents per soda or they are even free. And so it was really easy to put down lots of junk food very quickly at work. I calculated that on some days I was putting away up to seven thousand calories. And many of my colleagues were doing the same thing. It’s not uncommon in the software industry to find overweight people.
HLG: So how did you figure out that the food you were eating wasn’t the best, that you needed to change what you were eating? You must have tried a million diets?
RM: I would say a million and one diets. I talk about them in my book A Life Unburdened. One of the diets we did was the cabbage diet, where we basically ate a lot of cabbage—which is just a horrible way to live. And then there was the exercise diet where I was going to the gym twice a day—just burning myself up. And I actually lost weight on these, but these diets are unsustainable. They don’t work over the long term. In every case where I lost weight on a diet, I gained it all back. I was a vegetarian for a year and lost some weight but then gained it right back. The change for me came one day on the way to work. I felt so terrible that I decided I was going to fast for that day. And I did and felt pretty good. At dinner time I did get some food—grilled chicken with vegetables, and I drank water. When I woke up the next morning, I felt 50 percent better and thought, “Wow that was amazing!” so I did it again a second day. And when I woke up the third day I felt like a new man. I could not believe it. At first I thought I must have been eating some kind of magic chicken. But then I realized: no it’s not what I was eating. It’s what I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t eating the potato chips and a lot of processed food out of the vending machine. That’s when the light bulb went on.
HLG: In your book you mention that your wife was struggling also, that both of you were in this together. How did the light bulb go on for her?
RM: When I realized that I’d been eating all of the wrong foods, I got on the phone and called my wife back home in Virginia. “I would like us to change the way we eat,” I said. “I think we need to go back to eating the way our grandparents ate.” Now at the time I weighed over four hundred pounds, and my wife was pushing two hundred pounds, so we were both overweight. It just so happened that she was thinking along the same lines; she knew that we were both headed in the wrong direction. We have two girls and they were gaining weight also; we knew we were doing something wrong. She didn’t give me any pushback on it but said, “I think this is a great idea.” So while I was still in New York, she and my daughters went to our kitchen cabinets and took out every box, every can, everything that had a list of ingredients you needed a laboratory to reproduce, everything with items in the ingredients list that you couldn’t pronounce. And from that point we started going to the grocery store and buying whole foods and cooking our own meals.
HLG: So it took effort, it didn’t just happen. Did you have cravings? Did you want to go back to the old stuff?
RM: There was one incident that occurred after we had made this change. We had been eating whole foods and cooking our own food—and it was delicious. I had forgotten what home-cooked meals tasted like. And after several months, I started losing weight—I was making progress and feeling good. Then one day—it must have been a stressful day—after I got off work I stopped at the store and picked up a bag of potato chips, not a small bag—it was a family sized bag. And so I’m eating this bag of chips as I’m driving home, and you know what you can’t eat just one. I was almost through with the bag of chips when I realized that they didn’t taste good. Why was I still eating them? Instead of making me feel better like chips used to—at least temporarily—they made me feel worse. It was more than guilt about eating something that I knew that I shouldn’t—literally those chips did not taste good and I think that’s because my taste buds had changed. My general idea of what tasted good had changed. I ended up crumpling up the bag with some chips still in it, and I threw it on the floor of the car. That was the moment I was pretty much done with those cravings. So the more you continue to eat whole foods, the more those cravings for industrial overly processed foods will subside.
HLG: Did you feel like the people around you were thinking “This is another fad diet, he’s going to go back to ‘regular’ eating,” or could they sense it was for real this time?
RM: Nobody was really saying anything to me at work. At home, my wife and I began to go for walks in the neighborhood, as part of our change. I had a next door neighbor who did comment that I was losing weight and looking better. But for the most part people didn’t say much about it.
HLG: They probably didn’t know what to make of it. The important thing is that you and your wife were feeling the difference. I bet your girls were feeling the difference also.
RM: Yes we were, within a very short period of time. We felt better—I mean really better. And there was a period where I was dropping six pounds a week. And I wasn’t counting calories or exercising too much. I was just eating real food and going for walks in the morning. The weight just fell off and you know that success breeds motivation. Feeling better, seeing myself get a little bit smaller and my clothes fitting better—that just kept me going.
HLG: And you were saying earlier that diets are not sustainable. What do you mean by that, Richard?
RM: Diets don’t last; I like to say that diets don’t work long term. Diets can work short term but really what you want is a long-term solution for losing weight. Long term with these diets you not only gain the weight back but gain extra. So the approach to dieting needs to be something that is sustainable, which means it has got to be something that you can do not just for a temporary period of time but for the rest of your life.
HLG: And eating real food cooking at home—these are things that are sustainable, right? Tell me how your grandparents ate? Did they eat real food?
RM: Yes, they did. My mother was an Alabama farm girl. Her parents were rural people doing small-scale, subsistence farming. On my father’s side it was the same thing. I never met my grandparents but my mother told me stories about them. Even when I was a kid and my family was living in Michigan, it was not uncommon for my father to go out on a Sunday and buy a live chicken at the market. He’d bring that chicken home and my mother would slaughter it. And we would have fresh chicken for dinner.
HLG: Wow. And how is it that your family and you departed from that kind of real food?
RM: I like to say that as humans it’s just part of our nature that we’re always looking for ways to streamline, to reduce the amount of work that we have to do. When my family moved from Michigan to Arizona, we found ourselves surrounded by cheap processed food. Since it costs less, you get lulled into the idea that it has a higher value. You begin to rate your food by the price rather than by the quality of that food. The other thing is that there was a period where we were pretty poor, and we were getting government food. That means we were basically getting corn syrup and white flour—basically all of the junk foods. That’s what was being given to people on public assistance. I used to make the sandwiches when I was a kid—two slices of white bread with corn syrup as the filling and that was a sandwich. Sometimes I’d throw some peanut butter on there. It was a horrible diet but it was a diet that we were forced into because of our financial situation at the time. But also because the culture, which just sort of moved us in that direction.
HLG: So how did you reconnect with cooking and real food? Where did you turn for guidance?
RM: Initially it was just a gut feeling. After my successful experience in New York, I returned to Virginia where I continued what my wife had already started. We just began cooking. I like to cook; if I could have a second life I’d come back as a chef. And so I started cooking. We taught our daughters to cook and the food just tasted better. At the time I didn’t really know too much about diet and nutrition—all I knew was that, wow, this food tastes a lot better than the stuff that I normally buy. I also figured out that when you cook it yourself, when you make your own food with real ingredients, it actually does cost less over the long term. So not only were we enjoying good food, we were saving money. And although I say “good food,” at that time I didn’t have any farmer contacts, I was going to the regular grocery store. What I was buying was industrial chicken, industrial beef and industrial vegetable oils. But it’s a spectrum. You jump into this approach wherever you fit. If you’ve got the money to buy organic or if you have a local farmer that you can purchase from, then definitely go that route. But if you are like we were, where we didn’t really know what we were doing at the time, then going to the regular grocery store is a good place to start. I like to say that an industrial whole egg is better than eggs in a box.
HLG: So true. It’s a matter of taking those small steps to upgrade your diet, moving away from those labels with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Once you got rolling you probably realized that organic food would be better. Then what did you do?
RM: Once I start something, I go whole hog, I jump in with both feet, so I was all over the Internet, searching and searching, and then I stumbled across this organization called the Weston A. Price Foundation. I thought, who are these people? But as I was reading the website, I thought, “This is it, this is what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been thinking but couldn’t articulate it at the time.” I realized that these people had the information I needed. It just so happened that shortly after that the Foundation was doing a talk somewhere in DC and I decided to go. I was just blown away because all of the things that I suspected were true. The Weston A. Price Foundation became my number one source for information about whole foods.
RM: And you know what I picked up from the meeting was honesty. I mean I didn’t feel like I was being sold. For once in a very long time I’m getting real honest information.
HLG: How much time went by from the chicken experience in New York to when you were really feeling good? When did you start running races for example?
RM: From the day I ate that magic chicken to the moment when I really felt terrific was eighteen months. I lost over one hundred fifty pounds. And I didn’t really notice that I had lost that much weight until people began saying. “Wow! He’s lost a lot of weight!” People began urging me to write a book. That was back in 2003, but believe it or not, I just got into racing last year. I didn’t think it was something that I would like but I sort of stumbled into it. You know in my book I talk about the Ten Steps to Success, and I think step number nine was “Find Your Motivation.” It turns out that I’m just passionate about running races. Racing has became another motivator for me to stay on this path of eating the foods that are more likely to yield good health for me. But it’s also fun. I’m getting out there and running because I enjoy it. I do a five K here and a ten K there. I just finished a ten miler a couple days ago. I’m looking forward to doing the Spartan Obstacle Race later this year.
HLG: And the Spartan races have more challenges than a regular race, right?
RM: The ten-miler I did was just straight running for ten miles. The Spartan races have obstacles that include all kinds of stuff. You might be in mud up to your hips or climbing eight-foot walls or on monkey bars. It’s like a big kid’s playground but I don’t think I’ve ever been as exhausted as I was at the end of that race.
HLG: Does your wife join you on the track and Spartan races?
RM: No, she’s not so much into that extreme kind of racing but we hike together—she loves hiking. We live in a rural area so there’s a lot of places to go for long walks. We typically do a three-mile walk together two or three times a week.
HLG: It sounds like activity is a piece of the puzzle as well.
RM: It’s a big piece of the puzzle. There was a period when I was solely focused on food. We do need to take what we eat seriously. But I realized that what I eat is not disconnected from the rest of my life. All of our lives are complicated and everything is connected to everything else. I realized that there has to be a reason for eating good food and for me eating good food was a way to fuel my racing. Another reason: my wife and I are small-scale farmers raising pigs, chickens and turkeys, which can be strenuous work. And so eating good food is a way to fuel us to do that work.
HLG: A lot of athletes are looking for the perfect optimal fuel such as protein powders and energy bars. Is that the kind of fuel that your body needs to sustain and meet these challenges?
RM: I’ve read about protein powders and I did try them for a while. But they seem like a waste of money to me. You don’t really know how much protein or how much filler is in those products. And why use a protein powder when I’m producing high quality protein right here at home. I can just go out to my freezer where I’ve got pork, chicken, turkey and beef. I’ve also got eggs. I have found that real food is the best source of all the nutrients I need to fuel my life.
HLG: I’m sure your grandparents were more likely to eat real food than they were to have protein powders. We are trying to go back, which is actually part of the mission of the Weston A. Price Foundation, to honor the traditions of our ancestors.
RM: Absolutely. The more you process a food, the more you’re going to lose some of those core nutrients. You could wind up with something that tastes okay but it’s just not the same thing. Since I’ve been powering my activities with real protein from good sources, my output has been better. The ten-mile race I ran a couple days ago has been my best race so far. That’s because I’m constantly honing my diet and using real food to get where I need to go.
HLG: And how old are your girls now?
RM: My youngest is twenty-one, and my oldest is about to be twenty-six. And both of them are in good health now. My oldest daughter started developing breasts at a really early age. My wife and I asked the doctor whether it could be the food. And he just dismissed us—he waved that away: “Oh no it can’t possibly be that.” So my next daughter comes along and we see the same thing. At that time we were eating a lot of industrial chicken. And so we stopped feeding her that and switched to pasture-fed chicken—and the condition reversed itself! So I do think it was the food. You know industrial chickens get growth hormones and in some cases antibiotics because these chemicals make them grow, and make them fatter faster.
HLG: Well here is a marvelous story about not only your own health turnaround but that of your family. As we prepare to wrap up is there anything you would like to tell our listeners? What is one thing you would recommend they do to improve their health?
RM: I think everything starts with education. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions for anybody and so it really is on us as individuals to educate ourselves. Find a source like Weston A. Price Foundation website where there’s lots of information. And you can educate yourself. Don’t just take anybody’s word for what is best for you; educate and then experiment to find out what works.