Rich Roll is the author of Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself.
I always tell patients that it’s never too late to make a change, and Rich provides an inspiring example that it’s truly never too late. At age 40 he was an overweight lawyer and he completely turned his life around and became an elite Ultraman competitor.
Here is a Q&A with Rich about his awe-inspiring midlife transformation and plant-powered diet.
Frank Lipman: I always tell patients that “it’s never too late” to make a change in diet and lifestyle. How did you decide to defy middle age and make a complete lifestyle change at age 40?
Rich Roll: My decision to make a lifestyle change was precipitated by a health scare. On the eve of my 40th birthday, I was defeated by a mere flight of stairs. Although I had been a champion swimmer in college, I had let myself go. Career and family trumped anything having to do with healthy eating or fitness and I fell prey to the old adage, “Who has time for that stuff?” Fifty pounds overweight at 39, I found myself buckled over with chest pains and terrified of having a heart attack. That’s when I decided I needed to make some drastic changes, which evolved over time into a 100% plant-based whole food diet. But when I began my goals were quite modest. Hardly a quest to “defy middle age”, my only desire was to lose the weight, feel better and be able to enjoy my children at their energy level. Instead, I have experienced nothing short of a miracle.
Frank Lipman: After you quit drinking you justified that you could eat junk food and chew nicotine gum to relax because these were your “only” vices. I hear this kind of justification from patients quite often. How did this form of relaxation end up causing more harm than good?
Rich Roll: Unhealthy habits can become so entrenched they seem impossible to overcome, particularly when accompanied by the “denial” common denominator. Why repair yourself in one category only to replace it with another unhealthy practice? Because we are human – with all of our frailties, justifications, excuses and self-destructive sense of entitlement.
Unfortunately, for most people (myself included), pain is the only true motivator to change. I had to suffer a palpable scare in order to snap out of it and change my ways. But it doesn’t have to be this way. All of us have domain over what we put into our mouths and how we spend our free time. You just have to make a decision to change for the better, followed up by consistent action. And nothing drastic need precipitate the shift, other than clarity at the expense of denial.
Frank Lipman: You explain in the book that there was one pivotal moment when you realized you were willing to make a major change. Can you describe how this is different than hitting rock bottom?
Rich Roll: Change isn’t for those who need it, it’s for those that want it. Hitting rock bottom is a great way to compel willingness. Willingness is the key that unlocks the door to change. Everybody’s bottom is different – it doesn’t have to be a heart attack or anything so severe, it’s just that moment when you decide enough is enough. But it’s important to understand that you don’t have to suffer in order to entertain the possibility that your life can be improved by taking a different route. The key is often letting go of long-held beliefs and entrenched behavior patterns and developing an openness to taking direction from someone like yourself who offers a better way. As I said above, it’s as simple as making a decision. And that power is always within us, irrespective of circumstance.
Frank Lipman: Sometimes my patients are worried about how their friends and family will react when they clean up their diet and lifestyle. How did your family react to your changes? Did anyone give you a hard time?
Rich Roll: Frankly, my wife was relieved! She had watched me abuse myself with food for years, so when I was ready to change, she was very supportive. But I understand that this is not always the case. Food choice, I have come to understand, is a very emotionally charged subject – right up there with religion and politics. And unfortunately, plant-based nutrition is still considered “radical” to most people, often prompting a backlash of criticism from friends and family, cloaked as “concern” and purported “good intentions”. Suddenly everyone is a nutritionist, very worried about your protein intake! Certainly I entertained a fair amount of criticism from friends and extended family initially. But because I knew how much better my body, mind and spirit were functioning harmoniously, I was able to block it out and stay the course. And now my athletic results are self-evident – I let my accomplishments do the talking. Today I hardly give it a thought. The important thing is to believe in what you are doing. No matter what anybody says, only you have the power to control what goes down your throat. So it is as much an experiment in self-sovereignty as anything. As you begin to feel and look better, the critiques will fade.
Frank Lipman: You describe yourself as overweight and “cheeseburger addicted.” Of all the junk foods you used to eat, which do you think was dragging you down the most?
Rich Roll: The trifecta of fast food: cheeseburgers, fries and pizza. I was never much of a sweet tooth; but greasy foods? Forget it. As a busy guy, I often found myself powerless to avoid the drive-through or delivery, particularly late at night. Breaking the behavior patterns associated with this, not to mention the cycle of craving, was difficult. But it can be done. If I could do it, so can you.
Thank you to Rich for sharing these insights with us and providing an inspiring example to so many. You can learn more about Rich at richroll.com, follow him on Twitter @richroll and check out the Finding Ultra book trailer here: