Categories super nutrition academy health class
Tana Amen is an inspiration and NY Times best selling author of the Omni Diet. In this episode you’ll discover her moving health journey and the lessons she’s learned that can help you better your health.
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Yuri: Hey, guys, how’s it going? Yuri Elkaim here with another episode of The Super Nutrition Academy Health Class. I’m really super pumped today because I’ve got a dear friend of mine—Tana Amen—on the line with me. We are going to be discussing some amazing things that I think you’ll find a lot of insightful life advice, as well as some, obviously, dietary recommendations to be very, very helpful for you.
Before we get in to bringing her on officially, let me introduce her in terms of her background and who she is. In case you’re unaware, she’s the author of The Omni Diet, which is an amazing book. She’s a New York Times best-selling author; she’s a highly respected health-and-fitness expert; and a nationally renowned speaker and media guest. Along with her recent book that I just mentioned, The Omni Diet, which is The New York Times best-seller, which I just mentioned, she is the author of four other successful books, and she and her husband, Dr. Daniel Amen, who is the brain guy—he’s got, Tana was just saying about 33 books on brain health.
You probably have heard of him at some point in the last couple years. This dynamic duo is really doing some amazing things. Recently, they put together a PBS television special called The Omni Health Revolution. They are just doing some incredible things to change the health, not just brain health, but overall health of Americans and people all around the world. I’m really thrilled to have her on the line with me, so welcome, Tana.
Tana: Thank you so much, Yuri. I’m happy to be here.
Yuri: Awesome. I had the pleasure and the luxury of having lunch with you a couple months ago, and it was really great to connect with you. You shared an amazing story about your journey into this.
I’m always curious to know why people get in to the health game. For pretty much everyone that I’ve ever spoken to, it’s usually something that they’ve had to go through themselves, and we kind of teach what we want solutions for a lot of times.
You shared an amazing story with me. Can you share with our listeners part of that and kind of your journey into doing what you’re doing now?
Tana: Absolutely. To start that off, my journey was, it was a little rough starting out when I was younger. That was something I didn’t talk a lot about.
One of the things I like to tell people is: A lot of us that come from more difficult paths, one thing I found, I thought that I had to have this perfect message of health if I was going to be this health messenger. What I found was, people don’t relate to that. So, don’t be too afraid to be vulnerable, because when you open up, people really can understand that more.
I created this program really to heal myself. I was a sick little girl. I actually wanted to be a doctor when I was younger, but I was a really sick little girl, and I grew up with a lot of trauma in my life.
When I was four years old, I remember the day, believe it or not, my uncle was murdered in a drug deal that went horribly wrong. I saw my mother and my grandmother, they fell to the floor, sobbing in grief. I grew up in a really low-income home.
I like to say I came from the right side of the wrong side of the tracks. It was a lot of love in my house. My mother was a wonderful woman who worked really hard, but she thought she had to take care of everyone, including my uncle, who had a drug problem. I was a latchkey kid, and I soothed my anxiety with, my best friends were Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch, and Pop Tarts.
Between the chronic stress and the poor-quality food that attacked my immune system, I was sick all the time. I was like a frequent flyer at the hospital and had surgeries and was on chronic antibiotics. A few years later my grandmother came to live with us, but it wasn’t so she could take care of me; it was so we could take care of her. Her diabetes had become unmanageable…and she and I shared the same diet.
It was really sad. I laugh more out of nervousness telling this story and not, remembering back, it was uncomfortable. But by the time I was 11, I actually gave my grandmother her insulin shots because she couldn’t see. She went legally blind from the diabetes. My mother had to work three low-income jobs so we could survive; there was no one else there except for me.
I spent so much time around doctors that I actually wanted to be one. But in my early 20’s, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer that had metastasized into my lymph nodes and came back three times, so that ruined my plans for medical school.
I actually became so overwhelmed, and one thing that a lot of people didn’t know until recently is that I became so depressed. I know what depression is like. I prayed that a truck would actually hit me so I could die. It was horrible. It’s the worst feeling; it’s something you can’t escape from.
At one point I was so sick that I was on nine prescriptions; nine. And I was taking medications to handle the side effects of medications. Half of the prescriptions I was taking weren’t what I needed; it was just because of all the side effects.
I complained to my doctor. I was very frustrated and I complained. He told me it was genetic; he said I was in denial, that I should see a psychiatrist to help me deal with my denial, that I would be happier when I could finally just give in to it. I thought that this was insane—I’m a nurse.
Not that I have anything against psychiatrists—I actually highly recommend them; I’m married to one. Oh, by the way, that’s not how I met my husband; I’m not a patient here.
What I’m getting at is that these are very personal experiences; they were very painful for me and not easy for me to, for the longest time I had so much shame around it that I didn’t open up to anybody. When you keep these things inside, the stress actually makes it worse for you.
Somewhere along the line I learned to become a warrior for my health. People ask me where I got that term warrior, why I’m so bent on being a “warrior” for my health.
One of the things that happened, when you grow up sort of in the environment I did, when I was 15 I was actually attacked on the street. I was walking to high school. I was dragged down an alley, and, believe it or not, I was nearly raped, but I fought really hard and I fought the attacker and decided I was never going to be a victim.
I don’t like that feeling, and I didn’t like being overpowered and I learned how to fight; literally, I learned how to fight. I take martial arts, I practice martial arts—really love it—and I’ve done it for years.
But when I got cancer, the attacker was inside my own body. I was fighting this invisible phantom, and I realized that I was in for the fight of my life. It’s very different; it was much harder to fight for my own health, and I was up against these huge adversaries—like Pop Tarts, Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms. Despite the fact that they looked really harmless, they were tearing me up inside, but I’d become a warrior.
And what I’ve learned, that’s what we tell our patients, that’s what I teach my clients. This is war and they have to be warriors for their health. This is serious. And we’re their messenger.
When people eat highly processed, pesticide-sprayed, genetically modified, low-fiber, high-glycemic foods, they’re at high risk. They’re as at high risk of being sick or even sicker than I was. My story has a happy ending; I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been.
Food is medicine or it is poison, and I have so many great stories to demonstrate this. This isn’t just about a sick little girl. There are some other cool stories that I’d love to tell; if we have time, I’ll share a couple of them with you.
I have a story of two gorillas, and I have some stories about, believe it or not, a drug chemical addiction recovery center with some drug addicts and criminals that I love telling that healed their minds with food. It’s amazing. And they all have the same outcome, and that’s so cool, it’s so exciting. You can heal your mind with food.
Yuri: That’s amazing. Yeah, even hearing this again, that story blows me away; it’s incredible. And knowing you, you look like the picture of health now. It’s really refreshing, I think, as you said, to be vulnerable and show people that you’ve gone through this, because everyone’s gone through something, and it’s really refreshing to see where you’ve come from and how you’ve kind of overcome that.
With that journey, when you were diagnosed with cancer—or even before that or afterward—even beyond the food, what was the mind-set shift that you had, or did it come part and parcel with the food that you were eating as well? What was the moment in time where you said, “Something’s got to change here. This is not working. What do I have to do? How do I have to think? What do I do here?”
Was there a moment in time where you can remember a mind-set shift happening and helping you make better choices food-wise and otherwise?
Tana: I had a lot of love in my house but such a lack of education, but I did know that I had heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia on both sides of my family, so I knew something was wrong. I had doctors telling me it was genetic, but when I saw my grandmother withering, literally rotting away from diabetes and I heard people saying, “Stop eating this, stop eating that,” and I realized I was eating the same things she was, I knew food had to have something to do with it.
And I also went to Loma Linda for college. Loma Linda is one of the Blue Zones even though it’s in one of the worst areas in the country for smog and drug addiction and all these things. It’s considered one of the Blue Zones because they’re Seventh Day Adventists and they practice this life of temperance.
I don’t know if you know anything about Seventh Day Adventists; they’re vegetarians. I don’t practice a vegetarian lifestyle, but what I loved about my training was: They were heavily focused on food, nutrition, and a life of temperance, meaning stress management, exercise, focusing on treating people as a whole person and their psychology, their biology, their relationships.
They believe in treating the whole person, not just one aspect, not just using Western medicine. That was invaluable to me, and that was when I really looked at my life and said, “Okay, there’s more to this than what my doctors are telling me. This is not just genetic.” In fact, they told me that.
I really started looking in to it. Fortunately for my patients, unfortunately for me, I tried a lot of red herrings, went down a few rabbit holes. I tried everything. I did the food pyramid first, then I went to all the extremes.
I call the Omni Diet a bipartisan plan; it is the bridge between the gap between the extremes. I speak to a lot of groups, and in those groups are often both extremes. I see a lot of vegans in my lectures, as well as a lot of cavemen, whether they’re dong these high-protein diets, and I’m telling you, there’s a food fight every time. It is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. They will fight more about food than politics or religion, which is crazy because your body doesn’t care about your food philosophy; it needs what it needs.
Yuri: It’s frustrating within the whole diet space that there’s so much bickering and debate and animosity when you consider that even like a caveman diet or a vegan diet is very similar minus the meat. A lot of the fundamentals are very similar, and it’s unfortunate that so many people waste so much energy on those types of debates and discussions. Sorry, carry on.
Tana: It’s one of the reasons I agree with you, and it’s one of the reasons that I don’t have a vested interest in someone’s food philosophy. We want to help you optimize your health, end of story. What we do is we treat the whole person, the four cycles—bio, psycho, social, and spiritual—and we also want to know you as an individual.
We actually do genetic testing and we test your blood. We go from there. And we want to know: Is this a core value for you? What are your core values? I’m not going to try and convince somebody that they should change that; that’s next to impossible. But if they’re lacking something in their diet, we need to optimize that.
Yuri: Yeah, awesome.
Tana: That’s a starting place for us.
Yuri: Very cool. You mentioned this story about two gorillas. Do you mind sharing that?
Tana: Oh, it’s so much fun. On my journey, there’s this concept of nutrigenomics, which I know you’re familiar with. When I’m talking to patients, they start to glaze over when I start talking about nutrigenomics, which I think is so exciting, but nutrigenomics is really just a big word that’s really simple. What it says is that the food that you eat talks directly to your genes every single day.
Now, I think this is exciting because what it means is that genetics only plays about 20 percent in the outcome of your health. It means that you actually have more control than we used to think in chronic disease and what we call diseases of lifestyle, like diabetes and heart disease.
We used to think that you got most of it from your genes; now we know you don’t. You do have those genes—they load the gun—but what you eat and how you live your life determines whether or not the trigger gets pulled. If you come from a family like man, that’s really good news. But for some of y’all and for some of the people that we treat, that means they’re committing suicide.
And, yes, I’m trying to create a little bit of anxiety, just enough for people to go, “Oh, okay. I need to do something about this,” because it’s not just about you; it’s about generations of you. Guess what: This affects your next generation—your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren—long before you get pregnant. So, how’s that for a guilt trip?
Yuri: It’s important to know, though. People need to realize that.
Tana: It is, it’s important to know. And it’s not just moms; it’s dads. But the good news is: You can change it today!
Here’s a really cool story that I love, because people start to glaze over when I talk too much about the science, but this story’s really fun. There are these two gorillas, Bebac and Mokolo, two gorillas from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. They are barely middle-aged and they’re dying of heart disease, which is the most common cause of death in warehoused gorillas. Warehoused gorillas are what we call gorillas in zoos.
Wild gorillas don’t die of chronic illness like heart disease or diabetes…at all. They usually die of acute infections where they’re poached. But warehoused gorillas also demonstrate these really odd behaviors that are never seen in wild gorillas. Things like pulling out their own hair and they eat it; and they regurgitate their food and re-eat it up to four times an hour, and that’s never seen in wild gorillas.
This causes zoologists to wonder why worldwide, and a lot of them suspected the diets that were being fed to warehoused gorillas, because almost all warehoused gorillas are fed nutritional cookies, believe it or not. I’m thinking, what are they, stopping at 7-Eleven, because they don’t find this in the wild. These cookies are filled with starch and sugar to ensure that they get all of their nutrients.
It reminds me of children’s vitamins that are encased in sugar. It sounds a little crazy to me. Why do we do this?
But since wild gorillas don’t eat grains or starch, the zoologists at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo decided to radically change the diet of Bebac and Mokolo, and they started feeding them their natural diet of wild grains and nuts berries, bamboo, flax, things like that. What a concept, right?
They started scattering the food around their habitat so the gorillas had to move more. It took them up to 75 percent of the day to forage for the new diet but guess what: The new diet was double the calories of their old cookies. Double.
Within a year, the gorillas lost 65 pounds each. Bebac reversed his heart disease, and Mokolo dramatically slowed the progression…on double the calories. The neurotic behavior stopped completely. This makes me think of the patients that we see at the Amen Clinic, at our clinics, that come in, with similar behaviors of trichotillomania, which means pulling out your hair, and bulimia, regurgitating your food.
So, were the gorillas crazy, or were they being poisoned? I know correlation’s not causation, but it’s certainly food for thought.
Yuri: Totally. It reminds me of my dogs. I took my dogs to the vet probably about a year ago, because our smaller one had a bit of a weight issue. Probably due to my fault of not walking her enough or feeding her too much.
Anyways, the vet said, “We have this new special food that is specially formulated to help dogs lose weight.” There was another vet that came in and explained it to me.
They had specific portion sizes that we had to give them, and then I looked at the ingredients on the package of the food. There must’ve been, the first ten ingredients must’ve been grain, sugar, or some type of additive. Where in the history of dogs in the wild are they consuming whole grains?
Tana: They’re not at all, ever, and that’s what gives them skin problems. It’s crazy.
Yuri: Yeah, I can definitely relate to that because there’s no way I was going to feed my dogs that. But it’s really unfortunate that us humans feel that we know what’s best for animals when, in reality, if we just let them do what they’re supposed to do, they would be a lot better off. There’s obviously a lot of truth to that with humans as well with respect to our more natural diets too.
Tana: Right. And the part that frustrates me is that, clearly, food is medicine or poison. We know this…or should know it. And yet, people in churches, prisons, hospitals, homeless shelters, drug-treatment facilities, these are where we feed people the worst diets.
And don’t even get me started on schools, because I’m a mother and this just drives me absolutely insane. It’s crazy. And we wonder why the incidence of ADD has gone up 53 percent since 2011. Twenty percent of boys have been diagnosed and 11 percent of girls. It’s like, what’s going on with that?
And in two studies from Holland, did you know that they showed that eliminating sugar, gluten, soy, corn, dairy, and food dyes improved the symptoms in more than 70 percent of kids with ADD? Just cleaning up their diet.
That’s exactly what my book is based on, The Omni Diet. It’s basically eliminating the bad stuff, but we don’t focus on all the stuff you don’t get to eat. I have 126 recipes in there. We really heavily people away from what you don’t get to eat because then people feel miserable and really focusing on all the replacement foods; it’s about replace, don’t erase.
But that’s huge, because in our clinics, we really try not to, we don’t ever start people on those medications that have a lot of side effects. We’re not anti medicine but we don’t start there. We do all the natural stuff we can do first, because they have side effects. If we can clean you up and heal you without medicine, guess what, or giving you some supplements and cleaning up your diet, your life is going to be a lot better.
Now, I’m grateful for the medicine I will take for the rest of my life. I’m not anti medicine and some people need it. For the right people, you want to give it to them because it’s like withholding glasses; you don’t want to do that. But when we can make people better without it, wow.
Yuri: Totally. The Omni Diet, I think it’s an awesome concept, and I think the book is great. For people wondering, how is it different from the next diet on the bookshelf in the bookstore or on Amazon?
Tana: I was actually frustrated about calling it a diet; I tried my hardest Not to call it a diet. Unfortunately, publishers have to have their words that work for search engines. Which is why I called my PBS show The Omni Health Revolution, because, really, that’s what it is. It’s about creating a revolution.
I’m trying to create warriors; as you know, I like that word. Diet is really just the word I use to indicate that you’re eating food. I call this a diet to end dieting, frankly, because this is not a calorie-restriction program. In fact, if you eat the right foods, you get to eat a whole lot more food, just like we saw with Bebac and Mokolo.
This is not a calorie-restriction program; this is about cleaning up your diet, getting out the toxic garbage that is stealing your health, that is not only stealing your health, but your mind. Just like we saw with the program we put in at one of the largest chemical-recovery programs in the country. And these people are healing like crazy.
They were using words like, “I thought I was stupid. I could never work. I couldn’t pass my GED,” and now we’re seeing them not only lose weight, but the weight loss is the stunning side effect. They’re healing their minds and that’s amazing and the science shows that; this is backed by science.
And that’s what The Omni Diet is about; it’s really about healing your body from the inside out because we’re getting rid of the toxic stuff and we’re starting to replace it with all of the amazing abundance of incredible food that we have available to us, but we have been hijacked, frankly, by the food industry.
Yuri: Yeah. Obviously, you and your husband, you do a lot of work with brain health and ADD and all this other stuff. If you were to average out the patients or clients that you guys work with, what would be the one or two foods that you see are the most prevalent or problematic in relation to these different disorders? Not disorders but medically, as they’re claimed, disorders, like ADD or different things.
You mentioned sugar and gluten and stuff. Are those two of the big ones that you guys often see as big triggers?
Tana: Absolutely, no question. Sugar because it’s absolutely 100 percent clearly addictive.
In fact, there are a couple of recent studies that came out that showed that what sugar does is it’s actually more addictive than—this was just a brand-new study that came out; we have many studies that show it, but this is a brand-new one that came out just about a month ago—shows that sugar is more addictive than morphine and cocaine, because what it does is it works on the same exact part of the brain that morphine and cocaine work on in your brain called the nucleus accumbens. That’s your pleasure button in the brain.
Problem is is that it actually turns on more of those neurons, more of those cells in the brain, and it’s more easily accessible. When rats are given the choice, when they’re first given drugs and then they’re given the sugar and then they’re given the choice, they go for the sugar every time. That’s the problem and we have multiple studies showing that. That’s one problem.
And not only that, sugar causes erratic brain cell firing; it causes kids to not focus, it causes all these problems besides all the problems with diabetes and obesity and all that stuff. That’s one problem. Gluten actually causes some patients to literally go crazy.
That same part of the brain that I was just talking about, gluten has something in it called exorphins, and I won’t go too deep into that, but these little buggers, think of them like little, tiny Pac-Man type things that cross over the blood-brain barrier. They actually cross into your brain; they bind to those same receptor sites exactly the same way that those drugs do.
Bread is literally addictive. But what it does is it actually exacerbates and increases the symptoms of certain psychiatric illnesses. Gluten and sugar are definitely some of the big ones, but dairy and corn are bad too for some people.
What we do is we put people on elimination diets for certain foods, just some of the big trigger foods, and then we have them try it for a couple weeks, see what happens. Most of them are hooked after that.
We don’t tell them it’s going to be forever; we just tell them to try it for two weeks. That’s what my book is all about; give me two weeks and it will change your life forever. It’s not because the two weeks is all it takes; it’s because that’s when they’re going to see those results, that’s when they’re going to go, “Wow! I had no idea.”
Yuri: I think what’s amazing is that once people feel empowered and have alternatives to sugar and grains and all that stuff and they’ve seen the light, it’s almost like they’ve kind of died and they’ve seen the light or whatever comes after in the afterlife and they come back like, “Oh my God! I had no idea I could feel this way.” There’s a huge element of motivation to not want to have that stuff, because as soon as they do again, they feel like crap.
Tana: Well, and with our guys in the addiction-recovery arena, that’s one of the big things: We really focus on empowerment for them because they have felt so disempowered for so long.
When they realize that this is their opportunity, that when they eat their way, they’re actually increasing their risk of relapse, and when they eat this way…they get it really fast. This is your opportunity to take control of your life, and they so get it. You’re absolutely right; it’s all about empowerment.
Yuri: That’s awesome. I think it’s really cool that you guys work with so many different groups of people because whether it’s kids or inmates or psychiatric patients, we’re all humans and we all can benefit from very similar approaches to nutrition. That’s why I love your work and I love the message that you guys put out. It’s awesome.
Tana: Well, and what I try to explain to people, I was that kid from the other side of the tracks. I easily could’ve ended up one way or the other. I connect with them because of my background, so that’s why they’re willing to listen.
None of those people started out thinking, I think I’ll be a career criminal. I think I’ll be a career drug addict. It doesn’t start out like that.
Yuri: That’s awesome. Just before I forget, everyone listening, you can check out The Omni Diet at TanaAmen.com, and you can learn more about Tana and her awesome stuff.
Again, I would highly recommend grabbing a copy of The Omni Diet; it’s a really, really good book. It’s amazing how many recipes you come up with it. There are so many amazing recipes. And not only this book, but you’ve done other cookbooks and stuff and you’re working on another one. How do you come up with all these different recipes?
Tana: It truly is a passion. My husband always—this is kind of funny because he likes to say that I went from disaster to master. I couldn’t cook at all, but because of my desire to really leave this legacy of help for my family from where I started, it’s just something I really work on. I play with my daughter in the kitchen. I always say if I can do it, anybody can do it.
I’ve come up with, I’m working on my fifth cookbook right now. There are a lot of free recipes if you sign up for my newsletter at TanaAmen.com. Sign up for the newsletter. If you can’t start out buying the book right now, start out at least with the newsletter, get the free recipes, you can get a quick-start guide, and get started; there’s no excuse not to get started.
At least start there. We want you to be successful, so get started right now. The book will give you more information, but there’s no reason to not start right now. There’s, like, 300 recipes.
Yuri: And they’re pretty spectacular. The great thing is that not only do they help you lose weight, feel better, but I often tell my clients how you heal anything is how you heal everything. Obviously, there are small nuances depending on the condition, but a lot of times, the way to eat for better brain health is also the way to eat for easier weight loss and everything else.
Tana: Absolutely. And like what we like to say, what’s good for the brain is good for the heart, is good for… You’re not a bunch of individual systems; you are a person. What you’re saying is absolutely true, and that’s how we treat people.
Yuri: Great. Just before we finish off, I want to thank you very much for taking the time, Tana, it’s been amazing. Do you have any final words of wisdom you’d like to share with our audience?
Tana: I just want to repeat: Great health is about abundance, not deprivation. You will not feel deprived. It takes two weeks but you have to be a warrior. Don’t let what you’re hearing from the food industry hijack your health. Be a warrior.
Yuri: Awesome, very cool. Thank you so much, Tana. Once again, everyone listening, go to TanaAmen.com. At the very minimum, check out her food recipes and her newsletter, so you can sign up for that, and, obviously, I recommend getting a copy of The Omni Diet; it’s a great book.
I want to thank you so much, Tana, for taking the time. It’s been a pleasure connecting with you again. And for everyone else listening, I look forward to seeing you guys in the next episode.
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