Thursday, March 28, 2013

Approaching the Natural: Interview with Sid Garza-Hillman and GIVEAWAY

On the Rich Roll podcast, Rich recently had this really fascinating guest named Sid Garza-Hillman. He is the nutrition and wellness program director at the Mendocino Center for Living Well at the Stanford Inn Eco-Resort and has a pretty interesting way of approaching healthful living. After hearing the podcast, I contacted Sid and read his health manifesto Approaching the Natural. His book, is more of a pocket-pistol, a small guide and reminder about how humans should try to approach living. Perhaps what strikes me most about Sid is his complete sincerity when trying to teach people about his method as well as his desire to make living as simple as possible- while he promotes a plant-based diet, he argues we shouldn’t stress about nutrients or vitamins, there are no charts or tables about how much of X we should be consuming or how many tablespoons of Y we need everyday. Instead, he suggest we simple eat healthy plant foods until we are full and should fill our days with art, nature, and other things we see value in. In short, Sid promotes moving back towards the way we would live in nature, hence his title, Approaching the Natural

The result is a fun, and very easy but also engaging read that will help get you up and moving (literally) down the road to better health.

Sid was kind enough to allow me to giveaway a copy of his book and I consider myself fortunate to now count Sid as one of my friends. 

You’re book is written as if you’ve figured out a secret and are trying to clue everyone else in, do you feel that way?

I don’t think it’s a secret so much as information that’s not in the mainstream – i.e. the facts are out there, but not readily available. In the book I try and distil this info in as accessible way as possible.

I love that you consistently try to make nutrition and life as simple as possible, how did you come to this realization that nutrition and health are actually pretty simple concepts?

The concept of the book came to me when I began to look at humans truly as the animals that we are. When I look at humans this way, health and nutrition should be as simple for us as for the other species with whom we share this planet. And yet, we’re the only species that measures, counts, plans, prepares, processes our food, and buys into 21 day cleanses and ‘7 days to extreme health’ programs. And the fact is we are not getting any healthier or happier doing these things (completely the opposite actually) - in nature we’d be doing none of it. I argue that even if we get even a little closer to how we lived before we created this ‘modern’ world – a world of processed foods, tons of animal products, mechanized movement (cars etc.), and asphalt/concrete that literally separates us from nature—we’d see improvement in our lives. It used to be simple – we’d eat natural food (it was all that was available!), drink clean water, move around because we needed to or for fun, breathe fresh air, and get plenty of sunlight. I realize that as a species we’re not getting all the way back to that, but we can exist healthier and happier by moving (by degrees depending on how far you want to go) closer to how our species was designed to exist.

I think it is fair to say that your view of nutrition is much larger than just the food we put into our mouths. Care to share some of the other aspects of this larger picture of good health?

In the book I write both about physical nutrition, and what I call ‘mental nutrition.’ What we feed our bodies and what we feed our minds. I argue that we are naturally designed to consume a high quality of both in order to be happy and healthy.  Healthy body, healthy mind, but vice versa…I think conceptually people understand that, but in reality tend to feed one or the other (body or the mind) or neither in some cases! In our culture, fitness, or even worse, simply being thin, is associated with health and happiness, but I believe true health (and a healthy weight, incidentally) and happiness come with a healthy body and mind.

Bouncing off the larger picture question, let’s talk about mental nutrition. This was a new way of viewing mental health for me. Can you tell me more about that term as well as proper ways to feed the mind?

The human species is a naturally creative species. We use our minds to figure things out in ways more advanced than most other species. To foster this creativity is to live more fully as a human. Likewise, we crave information, learning, and education, and so feeding our minds good ‘food’ (art, music, books, film) is in line with our design and therefore doesn’t create conflict within us (just as eating healthy food is right in line with our design doesn’t create conflict in our physical bodies). I am the Programs Director at the Mendocino Center for Living Well at the Stanford Inn Eco-Resort, and part of what we offer, aside from nutrition, cooking, yoga etc. is Art Therapy and Gardening. Why? Because we think these types of classes are as integral to health and happiness as anything else we offer. Getting back to creating art without judgment, just for the fun of it, is extremely cathartic and beneficial, just as getting your hands in the dirt!

In your book you discuss the benefits of grounding. I had never heard about this before (and to be honest, I’m a bit skeptical) but what exactly is grounding and what are the benefits?

My editor tried to get me to reduce the amount of quotes/references I put in that chapter, but I kept them in because the concept of grounding sounds weird to most people and I wanted readers to read some research first hand. The concept seemed very strange to me too at first, but like most of my research into health and nutrition, the more I read the more obvious it became. For example, nobody questions the fact that when our skin is exposed to sunlight, our bodies produce vitamin D. The reason this occurs is because our bodies are designed to interact with the natural world in a way that sustains and continues our own lives and the ‘life’ of the earth as well. Similarly, we did not evolve with rubber mats on our feet (i.e. shoes), but instead were (until very recently) physically connected to the earth’s surface. In fact, every other wild animal is physically connected to the earth. In the book I simply explored the actual mechanism of what occurs when we are connected versus what occurs when we are not. Given that we are electrical in nature (electricity governs the functioning of our bodies—just think of the heart beating or impulses traveling in our nervous system), being electrically grounded to the earth has great benefit for our species, which I describe in great detail in chapter three.

I heard you talk about the link between food and violence elsewhere. Can you tell us more about your thoughts on this?

In my experience as a certified nutritionist, I have seen first hand that what we put in our bodies affects our mood. When someone feels good (and looks good, for that matter), they feel better, and that affects how they interact socially with the rest of the world. Think about how irritable you can be when you’re sick or haven’t gotten enough sleep, for example. Studies have been done in schools and prisons whereby increasing the quality of the food decreases the instances of violence. The thing is, studies aside, it comes down repeatedly to this: we can either work with the natural inclinations of our minds and bodies, or against them. When we work against them, there are serious repercussions. The violence in the human species is way out of control and on a completely unnatural level. One could argue that lions are violent, but they don’t kill with the recklessness that our species does, nor does any other species for that matter. I posed the question of why that is, and believe the answer to be because we’re becoming more and more unnatural in every way and paying for it as a species.

In the past few weeks a couple of "big" name vegan and plant-based people have gone back to eating meat and dairy. Since you are a nutritionist, do you have any thoughts about this?

Couple things: 1. There is a tremendous amount of fear associated with food (most of it economically driven). We may read that even though the US consumes more calcium than almost any other country in the world we still have the worst bone health, but we're bombarded with advertising about calcium and dairy, and MD's and many dieticians are still recommending yoghurt, milk, and cheese -- we come to feel that we'll literally break if we don't eat our Greek yoghurt. Same thing goes for protein--billions of dollars are made by convincing the public that we need protein above all else. Most people don't want to take the risk of not consuming animal products, and especially when it comes to their children.  Many try vegan, but if it's not immediately better, they'll recoil into the safety of how they were raised and told to eat. 2. Being vegan or plant-based doesn't necessarily mean you're eating healthy...chips, french fries, white flour, white rice, scotch, coca-cola are all vegan but super unhealthy. If you eat processed and refined plants, you're nutritionally better off eating meat and dairy. But if you're eating whole plants (unrefined fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans) you're better off than eating animal foods or refined foods.

I've been plant-based for 10 years, my wife and children are plant-based. My wife gave birth to three children (two of which are twins) on a whole plant-based diet. Rich Roll, Scott Jurek, Brendan Brazier, and tons of other extreme athletes are not just surviving, but thriving on a whole plant-based diet. The people you're referring to may think they need to consume more protein, and perhaps they do (I wouldn't know without working with them personally), but they're making an ill-informed choice as to where they're choosing to get it. There's an abundance of protein in the plant world that comes jam packed with micronutrients in a way that animal products simply don't...

Let’s talk about the Paleo diet and the Cross Fit movement which currently have been getting so much attention. What are your thoughts?

First, these plans/programs all have benefits. The question becomes whether people can stick with them or not and whether they will deliver health and happiness. Diets and plans don’t typically do the trick. The paleo craze is, a little nutty (scientifically speaking). On the plus side of paleo, it’s dairy free, but again, it’s too involved for most people to stick with for the rest of their lives, and way too meat-heavy. By most accounts, the meat consumption of the human species was pretty minimal (about 5% of our caloric intake). Paleo for most people is just an excuse to eat as much meat as possible, much in the same way as Atkins gave people a perceived license. If people want to truly adopt Paleo they should consume predominantly wild (and therefore whole) plants, and when plants are scarce, get out into the wild, chase down an animal, and eat it raw and fresh. Going to Safeway and buying corn or soy-fed beef wrapped in cellophane ain’t what our ancestors were doing.  I would eat flesh today if it were the best caloric source I could find. The fact is I have access to an absolutely huge variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, so animal foods are completely unnecessary. As for Crossfit, I’ve heard definite pluses and minuses (McKenzie and I were back-to-back guests on the Rich Roll Podcast), but the fact is, it’s a plan for people with heavy-duty fitness as their goal. In contrast, I’m trying to reach super busy people who want to improve their lives, but need to learn how to get themselves going right away, by taking however small steps as necessary to get them to begin living well.

How do you discuss nutrition with friends, family, and even strangers in a positive accessible manor? What are some of the most helpful tips for people looking to become healthier?

As much as possible I don’t discuss the topic unless it’s brought up by someone else. If someone asks me about something I’ll definitely weigh in. On a case by case basis if erroneous comments are made (i.e. milk it does a body good) I’ll speak up if I think the person will be receptive…I’ve helped family members and friends along the way, but again, only when they’ve approached me. Over the years I’ve realized that it’s useless to provide unsolicited advice to anyone. If they want to know they’ll ask (or buy a book!).

As for helpful tips (besides reading my book)…ease your way in. It’s much harder than it sounds, as we are bombarded with quick-fix solutions and hope so much they’ll do the trick. Unfortunately most often they just don’t. We’re all busy and taking small steps is simply the most effective way to make life-long changes.

Reach me:
twitter: @sidgarzahillman

Great! Thanks so much! 


Here are the rules. First, the winner needs to live in the United States (sorry international readers, no disrespect). The contest will end on April 5th at midnight. To enter, you must be a subscribed reader to BYOL. There are several ways to increase your chances of winning; either leave a comment on this post, follow BYOL on Twitter, Like BYOL on Facebook, Follow Sid on Twiter, Like Transitioning To Health on Facebook, or tweet about this giveaway. 
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  1. Great post!! :) Very interesting, and raises some great conceptual ideas to consider!

  2. Keep up the great work... Need to make Approaching the Natural & Finding Ultra & all the information that these books provide THE MAINSTREAM! #plantpower

  3. Nice interview, addresses some important misconceptions and concerns with the plant-based lifestyle. I've been eager to read Sid's book since hearing him on Rich's podcast.

  4. It is great to here someone say simpler is better! Just because you're vegan doesn't mean you need to become a scientist(with supplements and vitamins) to eat and live healthy.

    1. I couldn't agree more. The book is really thought provoking while completely approachable.

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