As the control center of your body, your brain plays a critical role in every aspect of your life, from work to relationships and beyond. However, many people overlook the profound impact that their diet can have on brain function. In this episode, host Margaret Graziano speaks with Ocean Robbins, CEO of the Food Revolution Network. Together, they explore the fascinating relationship between food and the brain. Robbins also gives expert tips on how to improve your diet to boost your brainpower, maximize your abilities, and achieve greater success in all aspects of life. Tune in now to discover the transformative power of proper nutrition and learn how to improve your life in countless ways.
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Food Revolution: How To Improve Your Life By Nourishing Your Brain With Ocean Robbins
My wonderful guest is Ocean Robbins, CEO of the Food Revolution Network. I'm fascinated by how food impacts the brain and its effectiveness in life. That is your business, the Food Revolution. How does food affect your brain and your effectiveness in life?
In so many ways. There is an old saying, “A person with their health has 1,000 dreams. A person without it has one dream. It is to get it back.” If you don't have your health, getting it back becomes the only thing that matters in your life. When you are in constant pain, getting out of pain is a prayer for many people. When you get your health, suddenly you have vitality. You can think, plan, and vision for the future. You can create a business and change the world.
It is deeper than just being out of pain though. Health isn't the absence of disease. It is an optimal function. Your body was meant to thrive. When you give it the right nutrients, you can have more energy, vibrancy, and clarity. You can have more ability to remember the things that matter the most to you, articulate what is in your heart, and do what you were born to do. In a profound way, that all comes back to the food we eat. When you give your body the right fuel, it can make the right choices. Your brain is critical but so is your gut.
Your gut is where neurotransmitters are produced to tell your brain whether or not you are happy. Nurturing your gut with healthy food, in turn, nurtures your brain, which is your most vascular organ. It is where 25% of your oxygen goes in your body. That all comes back to cardiovascular health and blood flow, which all comes back to food.
I have spent the weekend recording my book for Audible Ignite Culture. The whole first third of the book is about optimizing the leader within. It talks about neuroplasticity, how we can train our brains not to be reactive, how we can connect with our vision and values, and make sure that we are on. Food is the fuel for all of that. That is what was clicking for me.
I was raised by a woman who cooked at home all the time. We have always eaten healthy, but what I have noticed, especially since I have done some cleanses. While I was recording, I had vinegar on my salad, and I started wheezing. In my regular everyday life, I'm not recording myself so I don't hear the wheezing. I had bread like gluten and pizza crust. We made it at home, but I was wheezing. I'm like, "How could this happen so fast that we put something in our mouth, and our body is reacting that fast?” Can you say something about that?
Sometimes we get fast signals when we start to pay attention. When I was ten years old, I gave up dairy with my family as an experiment for a month. That is when I realized I had a stuffy nose for my entire life. I didn't know what it was like to be able to smell. I didn't know anything else was possible. I was allergic to dairy, not dramatically allergic, or healed over and died allergic, but it created mucus reactions in my body like inflammatory patterns. We find that a lot of people have fast reactions.
Sometimes, when your gut gets healthier over time, and you bring down the inflammation, you can tolerate more things that aren't optimal, and your body can deal with it. Over time, the insults add up. When your body is in a chronically inflamed state, it often reacts to all sorts of things as invaders that may not be. Chronic inflammation is the problem.
Rapid inflammation can be your lifesaver, but when you are eating foods that consistently are not healthy for you, your body gets in this inflamed state. The most pro-inflammatory foods are going to be sugars, bottled oils, hyper-processed foods, processed meats, and red meat. Whole plant foods, particularly omega-3 fatty acids and fiber are the two biggest things, tend to be anti-inflammatory.
If I'm experiencing a lot of stress at work and can't manage it, I might need to go back and look at what I'm eating. Inflammation helps us not fight stress.
The thing that is important to remember here is sometimes food can be a way to solve an acute problem. If I'm feeling like crap, what do I do? Eat better. Sometimes you get results fast with some things like blood pressure. A change in diet can bring down blood pressure in a matter of a few days. Diabetes measures. Your A1C markings can change in a matter of a few days dramatically. It is faster and more healthful than drugs. I'm talking about pharmaceuticals.
What’s fascinating is it’s the long game that we have to think about with food because, in most cases, you are not going to radically change how you think except for the placebo effects from changing your diet. Over time, it adds up to the difference between whether you are as sharp or not. Over half of our seniors over age 85 have Alzheimer's disease in the United States. We think it is an inevitable sign of aging that people are going to deteriorate mentally. Some deterioration is inevitable, but you can slow it dramatically.
One study out of Rush University found that people who weighed vegetables three or more servings per day had eleven more years of healthy brain function, not just survival but healthy brains. In another study, it’s two and a half years from eating blueberries regularly. What happens if you eat blueberries and greens? What if you add to that eating less processed foods, sugars, processed meats, and red meats? What if you also add to that eating more omega-3 fatty acids? You put all that together and we haven't even scratched the surface of what is possible for brain health.
I have many questions to ask you. You are passionate. Everybody wants to work with a CEO that is this passionate about their calling. I'm thinking business standpoint. If we want our employees to be sharper and more effective, then we need to start teaching them about health and how to eat right. Some companies are getting rid of vending machines and Coca-Cola.
When I go to a company to do a talk and they bring in snacks, it is not healthy snacks. Sometimes they’re feeding us pasta at lunch and no salad or fried chicken. I'm thinking, “This is completely incongruent,” and you’re saying you want people to think differently. Let's take a step back for a minute. What I talk about in my book is that people and individuals need a calling, a reason for being, or a personal noble cause. What would you say yours is?
I want to change the way the world eats. I want healthy, ethical, and sustainable food for all. On the deepest level, I want to bring more love and joy into the world. Many people are losing their lives, memories, and health way too soon. That is having a crippling effect on families and communities. I also want a sustainable world. I know that what we eat affects not just us but people in communities around the globe.
I founded Food Revolution Network, which is a for-profit business because I want to change the way the world eats. We can do that most effectively by leveraging entrepreneurship. I ran a nonprofit for twenty years. We did a lot of great stuff with leaders in 65 countries around the globe, but it was always limited by the need to raise money. I said, “What if money could be built into our business model?” The more we sell, the more good we do for the world.
What we have been trying to do is to walk the talk of congruencies. Our mission is healthy, ethical, and sustainable food for all. Along the way, we want to have a healthy, ethical, and sustainable organization. We want to contribute to health for our community and the planet, as well as ethics and sustainability. The question is, can we do all of that while having a thriving enterprise that is successful as a business?
So far, so good.
We got this personal calling that is grounded in love. It sounds like relationships and family. You have a business noble cause which is a healthy, ethical, and sustainable food for all. You are a passionate and intrinsically motivated human being. You are running this nonprofit and struggling for money. You said, “There has to be a better way.” It is what conscious capitalism, B-Corp, and keen alignment are about. What is your noble cause, and how do you assemble other human beings to want to join in that noble cause? What are some of the values that you hire and manage for, and operate with to make sure that your company is delivering healthy and sustainable food for all?
I knew you were going to ask me this. I went ahead and pulled up our core values here. When we say healthy, we say whole food, plant-based, and comprehensive lifestyle approach to preventing and reversing disease and expanding vitality and wellness. When we say ethical, we say food that is grown, manufactured, processed, and delivered in ways that are kind, conscious, and respectful to humans, animals, and ecosystems.
When we say sustainable, we mean food and lifestyle choices and policies that contribute to a stable climate, don't pollute or poison the world, protect water supplies, topsoil, forests, and biodiversity, and support a healthy world for current and future generations. When we say for all, we say we believe access to affordable, healthy, and wholesome food is a human right. We work for policies and choices that support the well-being of all people, including historically marginalized communities that are suffering disproportionately from the negative effects of race and class divides. We support fairness, opportunity, and health for everyone.
We try to bring this forth with values within our own company that includes sustainability within our culture. Diversity, which we look at as not having an annual report, but how to harvest the benefits of diverse perspectives, views, and cultures to help us better accomplish our mission. Visionary, we want to be guided by a vision of what we are standing for, not what we are against. I believe that we tend to create what we look towards. We are trying to always be rooted in a positive vision of what is possible.
Trustworthy, we want to be regarded with trust and respect, which means we start with facts first, not ideology. Accountable, we want to be accountable for the agreements we make and the commitments we make internally, as well as in the words of what people say they are going to do. We have a culture where if you need to renegotiate, that is fine, but you need to be accountable to your word.
Collaborative, we want to work with each other. Always ask, who else needs to be a part of this? What stakeholders are involved? How do we work together for synergy? Respectful, we interact with kindness, care, and respect in our interactions, being both honest, truthful, and forthright, having those hard conversations when we need to, but also at the same time doing so with kindness and care towards people's feelings and the well-being of the whole.
Mission-driven, we want to help everybody always remember what it is for. It is easy in a business context to get focused on the bottom line and make money the central driving force of a business. We have a lot of forces in our world that make money more important than human life and the survival of our planet itself. I believe money is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. We want to always keep circling back to what the mission is. We are reminding our team that even while we got to pay the bills and the bottom line is critical, it is not the whole story. It is not even the most important story.
Money is a means to an end. It is not an end in itself.
Proactive, which is entrepreneurial culture, where we value personal responsibility. We were proactive about solving problems and looking for gaps. We want everybody to think about where there are gaps in the system. It is not like saying, “It wasn't my job. We felt crashed and burned. That is not good enough.” We want the kind of people who see problems in the ecosystem and fill those gaps. There are all kinds of things that have to be done that aren't on anyone's job description, but they still got to get done.
Being proactive and positive. Back to focusing and not just the status quo but also being forward moving. That includes human interaction. There was a study done on marriages. They found that marriages were three times more likely to survive in the past ten years if they had a strong positive-to-negative ratio. When people express thank yous and appreciation, far more likely, they are going to be around together and happy together years later. You know how you feel when someone appreciates you.
In every team meeting, we have gratitude shoutouts and high-fives at the end, where people can appreciate other people's free-popcorn style on the team. We try to make sure that the people who are not appreciated often get appreciated too. Our leadership team is responsible for tracking it to make sure that nobody is getting left out on a consistent basis. Those appreciations are important for building goodwill and connection in a team.
Self-reliance. We want to help individuals to be responsible for their own choices. We want team members to be reliant. It is not a culture where anyone is focused on passing the blame. It is about how you take responsibility for your own experience. That also includes things like team member happiness. As a company, we want our team members to be happy. We want a healthy culture, but we are not going to be babying people and making ourselves responsible for everybody's happiness. Sometimes people have hard times in life, but we want to create a culture that helps them respond to those resiliently.
For example, our head of culture. We had a team meeting where she asked the question, “How are you taking care of yourself?” Team members shared their self-care strategies. It was such a lovely frame because it wasn't like, “How is this company responsible for taking care of you?” It is how we create a culture where self-care is respected, lifted up, and valued.
Evidence-based. We believe in data. For our choices, we do insane amounts of split testing in all of our launches. We want to see what works in the marketplace for revenues, leads, and all of that, but also data in terms of the issues we talk about. We will always want to be led by the facts on food. Inclusive, which means that we want to include diverse cultures and communities.
Food focus. We are focusing on a lot of issues, but because we are the Food Revolution Network, we have to keep coming back. We don't want to get sidetracked by the latest controversies in the medical world or politics. There are many divisions in the world. We want to bring people together. Compassionate. We want to have kindness towards people and ourselves.
There are many things that you said. For the companies we work with, we teach them to think the way you think. I know Ocean a little bit from his personal life. I have seen him at conferences around transformation. My calling is to forever liberate the human spirit. I could see in everything you are doing that you are about liberation as well.
What I love is in an ideal culture, it is about achievement. Achievement isn't the end of everything but without it, you don't have a business. That’s why you stopped doing nonprofit. It’s because you were begging and pleading for money rather than making money. Achievement's part of the Food Revolution Network's culture is humanistic. You are a humanistic organization based on what you are saying and how you share. You have a Head of People or a Chief of Culture. Humanistic is about caring fundamentally about the health and well-being of my people.
The third dimension or the third element of a high-performance, healthy, and intentional culture is affiliative. People are sharing their knowledge and working together. They are picking up a box that is in their way. They are pitching in. They are not like, “That is not my job.” The fourth piece is self-actualization, which is I get to be my highest and best self. I care about what the Food Revolution Network does, and I'm part of it. I'm not a cog in the wheel.
My question is, do you have any openings? I want to apply. When you are hiring, how do you make sure people aren't coming there because it is like, “It is Ocean Robbins and I want to lose weight?” How do you make sure the people who come to work for you truly care intrinsically about what you are doing? How do you do that?
In hiring, there are a couple of major elements there. You hire for people and skills, and the third is a resume. Skills are more important. I rather have somebody who can learn how to do something and is the kind of person that will succeed than somebody who has done it 1,000 times before.
I would call those behaviors. How do you determine if they have that?
Values alignment is critical, but you don't have to sign a purity pact and say, “I'm a seventh-degree vegan,” to work for Food Revolution Network. We have all kinds of eaters on our team. They all know that they are part of something that matters in the world. That is more important to some than others. It is important to everybody. For some people, their life's passion is to change the way the world eats. Other people are techy. This is a good way that they get to use their skills for good in the world.
We do want people that are able to listen and communicate respectfully and forthrightly, and that have self-responsibility and accountability. We have a whole fairly in-depth screening process. We typically get 500 applications when we open the position. We are trying to figure out how to use AI to screen through the first bunch of those because I know a lot of companies have the first screening.
I have an assessment that I will share with you. It is a great way to screen. You can go from 1,000 candidates to 25, but you have to say what you want. For me, it is integrity and self-awareness. I need people who are self-aware because we are dealing with a lot of people who are not self-aware. If the consultant and the client aren't self-aware, we are not getting far out of the box. When you have an opening, you put it on your website.
We use Workable, and we promote through that. For highly significant roles, we will run some ad money to it on LinkedIn or in Workable itself to get more out there. What I have learned is if you don't know what you want, it is hard to get it. Getting the right position description and clarity about what you are looking for is such a big part of it.
We have had a few times when we hired the wrong person. We are like, “We didn't ask for what we needed.” We didn't. We figure it out like, “We need something different here.” The skillset we need, we didn't even say. Sometimes you figure that out along the way, but you got to keep learning and improving. Part of my job I hate the most is role descriptions. It drives me nuts to go over that. We got other people that focus there more. I read them but there is something about that detail that isn't where my brain shines.
Sometimes, you figure things out along the way, but you have to keep learning and keep improving.
This is not about me pitching you, but we have a proprietary process called role alignment. Every role in the organization connects to the noble cause. It is all online. It is evergreen. Anybody who does that in your company, we can help because we used to do something called conscious hiring. We changed it to keen hiring for marketing purposes. It is about bringing our highest level of consciousness to connect to the candidate's highest level of consciousness. As we are all aware, the Great Resignation had more people leave their jobs in 2022 than ever before in the history of labor. People want purpose and meaning. Do you have it on your website when you have openings? Do they just go to your website to the careers page?
There is a link from FoodRevolution.org. Whenever there is something there, there is a link to see what we have. People can check that periodically. We have about 25 staff. We are not in a big hiring phase at this moment. We have a wonderful team. In the last five years, we maybe lost one person that we wanted to keep, or a couple. For the most part, people haven't left, which I'm grateful for.
Any organization that wants to be kind and compassionate sometimes may struggle with the question of how you also have rigor. It is much easier to say “Great job” than “Not so great job” to somebody when you want to lift them up. A lot of us struggle with how to have those hard conversations in honest ways that create accountability. It is critical because if you don't, you get bitter and resentful. Our team wants honest feedback. Everybody does.
It pollutes the environment. It brings the energy down because the ones who are carrying the load start to resent the ones who are not. I have learned that the hard way. When I owned a recruiting company, I had fourteen staff. My overhead was huge. It was the day of 9/11. Out of a $5 million revenue, I was producing $4.5 million.
I was a raging b*tch. I hated my boss, and I was the boss. I had all those people who weren't producing. I hired a consultant and he said, “Which one of your parents was the alcoholic because you are creating co-dependency here?” I have had a long journey of no accountability than too much accountability. This is the work we do with our clients. Me not holding someone accountable is allowing them to die on the vine. It is like not taking care of the fruit. They know they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. They know it intrinsically, and they are waiting.
Great job for creating the kind of culture and environment that supports your noble cause. It sounds like you've built some architecture, which is how you hire. Part of our model is you have the intent, which is your noble cause. What kind of energy do we want to create? If we are changing the world, we need high energy and high passion. We need to tap into the collective genius of all of our people. We also need structure and systems like hiring processes. What else are you doing that other leaders can hear from you to make sure you are creating the environment to support your noble cause?
One of the things we do that is a bit unique is an annual survey of all our team members to assess how we are doing as a company and what’s the culture. We ask questions like, “Do you believe somebody at work cares about you? Has a manager appreciated you in the last 30 days? Do you feel confident that if you had an HR complaint, it would be taken seriously? Do you know how to file grievances or complaints if you feel the power is not being held responsibly? Do you feel that this organization is sincerely committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion? Do you feel there are equal opportunities for advancement for people regardless of race or gender? Do you feel you have an upward growth trajectory that you can envision?”
You mentioned meetings. In these meetings, different things happen. Do you have a remote workforce?
Can you share about what kind of geography are people spread out? How do you bring them together to remember to check in and stay conscious to the cause?
Our team is technically all US. More and more, we have people that are realizing the benefits of remote work. We got people living in Malta, Greece, and various places in South America. You can't even tell as long as they show up. What we do is we create a certain amount of hours or those overlap hours where people need to be on so we can interact with each other. The way we have structured it is between 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM Pacific time or 12:00 PM and 6:00 PM Eastern time, Monday through Thursday. People should be reachable 80% of the time during those hours. If they want to live in Europe, they can but they are going to be working some evenings four days a week, and that’s fine.
What kind of meetings do you have? It sounds like you are unique in the kinds of meetings and agendas that you have. Give us a sense, specifically meetings that breed accountability and inspiration.
We breed accountability through mostly one-on-ones between team members and their managers, which are weekly in most cases. It is sometimes a little less frequent, but generally weekly. Every subteam has weekly meetings. We try to limit those to a half hour. Every meeting has to have an agenda. It is one of our critical pieces because if you step in and create the agenda at the start, you have already wasted 5 or 10 minutes. You may not get to the things you need to. Sometimes meetings didn't need to happen because there wasn't an agenda. If there isn't a need, let's not do it. Death by meetings, we all know that.
Connection, purpose, growth, and collaboration are awesome, but meetings suck. What is the difference? We try to create a culture where we start every meeting generally with a brief check-in of how everyone is doing because we want to know. If your mom just died, we want to know that. We want to know where people are. It is a brief pulse check. We then get into the topics. We always have a facilitator, somebody who is responsible for making sure we get it done. It is the manager meeting me one-on-one.
We have a core team meeting with our full-time staff once a week for about an hour or a little bit less. We focus a lot on the culture there. We will have a question of the day. Often we will go in, and each person will answer it for 30 seconds each minute. It is something that drops in a little bit in an interesting way to your values, what you care about, and what is real in your life without going deep in 30 seconds or a minute. We try not to do updates in meetings.
What do you mean, trying not to do updates?
If we are going to do a report on how a launch is going or a product strategy, we will try to do that in a Loom video or email everybody so people can absorb it on their own time. If we are all together, their culture is the point, not data transmission. If you can transmit data in other formats, people will absorb it at different speeds, but inspiration transmission maybe is an appropriate use for a meeting. If I'm pen to be the inspiration person because I'm passionate about this, we will have five minutes for Ocean to inspire everybody.
In my book, I say, “It is the CEO's job.” I have clients who are like, “I don't want to do the staff meeting. I don't want to do the Monday morning kickoff.” I'm like, “You don't have a choice. It is your company. Your job is to breathe life into people.
My business coach said this. I said, "I notice I'm multitasking in meetings often." She said, "That is a sign that you should not be there." You know when your brain is bored. We should make sure that the CEO is present for the meetings where it matters. I can't say I'm perfect on this. I'm dealing with a few things like, “Let me check on this.” There is a boring moment.
It is a good sign that we need to shift it around. If you want us to strategize, every minute of a meeting should be important to everybody who is present. Anything less than that is a waste of money, time, and energy. When you waste someone's time, you are not just using up whatever dollars they spent for that hour. You are sapping their passion. You are turning down their life force and their level of engagement. They are less present for everything else.
In chapter nine of my book, we talk about Donna and the adrenaline bias. She is a CEO of a busy eCommerce company. Everyone is multitasking in the meeting, and she is leading it. She is not looking at people when they are presenting because their meetings are all about data, but she is bored and doing other things. The message it sends to her people is that they don't matter. Before we end, we got all this passion, and this is wonderful. You are walking the talk of a healthy, intentional, high-performance culture. I want you to share with the audience how did you get into this and what sparked this level of passion for food?
My grandpa founded an ice cream company. It was Baskin Robbins. My dad, John, was groomed to one day join and run it. He grew up with an ice cream cone-shaped swimming pool rather famously in his early twenties. As his uncle Burt Baskin was dying of heart disease, he was offered a chance to join and run the company. He said, “No.”
He walked away from an ice cream fortune, a company that is now valued at over $8 billion, to follow his own rocky road, as we say in our family. He ended up moving with my mom to a little island off the coast of Canada, where they built a one-room log cabin, grew most of their own food, practiced yoga meditation for several hours a day, and named their kid Ocean. They almost named me Kale way before Kale was cool. We did eat a lot of veggies.
A few years later, we moved to California. My dad began working on a book called Diet for New America, which came out in 1987. The media called him the Rebel Without a Cone. It became his runaway bestseller. He walked away from this ice cream fortune. He is now a healthy food advocate. One of his readers ended up being my grandpa, Irv Robbins, who was dying of heart disease and diabetes. His doctors told him if he wanted to live, he should read a book. They gave him a copy of Diet for a New America, my dad's book. My grandpa read it. It saved his life. He ended up living nineteen more healthy years.
I was inspired by my dad's example. He founded a nonprofit when I was sixteen to inspire young people to be positive change agents in the world. It is still going strong. It is called YesWorld.org. I directed that for several years and had amazing experiences learning with amazing leaders all over the planet. It was all about leadership development at its core.
I decided that I was frustrated by the nonprofit model. My family was hit by the Madoff scandal. My parents saved up from all my dad's books. It was all eviscerated. Ninety-eight percent of their savings had gone overnight. Interesting how tragedy can sometimes provoke opportunity because as devastating as that was, that is what led me to leave the nonprofit. I was like, “I want my parents to be able to retire in dignity. I want to be able to take care of my special needs twins. We are not going to get there on a nonprofit salary over here.”
It is interesting how tragedy can sometimes provoke opportunity.
That is when I decided to join my dad directly in launching Food Revolution Network. It was partly driven by money and a vision of seeing the impact my dad had but realizing that books were not the only way to change the world. We got to create online tools and resources. Launching Food Revolution Network was an innovative strategy. We held our first Food Revolution Summit in 2012. We modeled it after something a friend of mine had done. We went from nothing to 30,000 people on our email list and $200,000 in revenues in three months. It has been growing ever since. I knew we were onto something at that moment.
That is the split testing that works.
We have been going ever since then, but the passion keeps going deeper for me as I see the impact that it has on people's lives.
I could tell by the energy that you even walked into the studio, which is my house. It is emanating. I know you have a TED Talk. Would you like to tell us the name of it so people can Google it and find it?
Eating Your Way to Happiness.
Eating your way to Happiness, Ocean Robbins, the Food Revolution Network, WORKLiberated, Ignite Culture. He is an awesome guest to teach people how to do it.
Thank you so much.
About Ocean Robbins
Ocean Robbins is the author of 31-Day Food Revolution: Heal Your Body, Feel Great, and Transform Your World (Grand Central Life & Style, February 5, 2019). He is the CEO and co-founder of the 500,000+ member Food Revolution Network. He's served as the adjunct professor for Chapman University. And he's received numerous awards, including the national Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service and the Freedom's Flame Award.
Robbins was born to John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America. He is the grandson of Baskin-Robbins cofounder Irvine Robbins. Robbins spent much of his early life advocating for environmental change. At the age of 15, he co-founded the Creating our Future speaking tour aimed at empowering students for environmental change and also presented at the United Nations. In 1990, Robbins founded the non-profit Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!) to continue his mission of advocating for sustainability and social justice. He directed the organization until 2010. In 2012, Robbins co-founded Food Revolution Network in conjunction with his father. Robbins has also served as adjunct professor in the Peace Studies department at Chapman University.