Interview with Robyn O’Brien
By Mara Alexander
I had the unique opportunity to interview Robyn O’Brien, who is the New York Times best-selling author of The Unhealthy Truth: One Mother’s Shocking Investigation into the Dangers of America’s Food Supply– and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself. O’Brien’s work has been critically acclaimed by an impressive list of celebrities, politicians and musicians including Dr Oz, Erin Brockovich, Robert Kennedy Jr, Yoko Ono, Bonnie Raitt and dozens more. She has been featured on the Today Show, Good Morning America, PBS, CNN and been the speaker at countless conferences and seminars. She is also the Founder of Allergy Kids Foundation, whose mission is to restore the integrity of the food supply and restore children’s health.
Per her website www.robynobrien.com, “She has written pieces for the Washington Post, Martha Stewart’s Whole Living and other media. She has been named by SHAPE Magazine as one of 2009’s “Women To Shape the World”, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, was named by Forbes Woman as one of “20 Inspiring Women to Follow on Twitter,”and The Discovery Channel named her one of its 15 Top Visionaries. Her TEDx talk delivered in Austin has been widely received.” The TEDx talk has been viewed on YouTube over 400,000 times.
MA: Thank you for taking the time to speak to me, Robyn.
RO: With people like you and everything you are doing in the gluten-free world, and the pediatric disease world, it’s great that people are finding the courage to say something. And I know it’s not easy and some people roll their eyes. With the gluten-free thing, my husband and I are gluten-free, and sometimes people just don’t want to get it. You know?
MA: Yeah, believe me, I completely understand that.
RO: It was totally life-changing for me to go off gluten. Truly it was. It was really at that point that you realize the incredible power of food and the incredible power that we have to create these changes of health, all without this over-dependency on medication. I think so many people with gluten issues live with chronic distress. And when you remove that underlying trigger, it’s amazing what can happen.
MA: In your book, The Unhealthy Truth, what are some of the facts that you have discovered about gluten in our food supply?
RO: Well, you know, I was writing the book four years ago, so I wasn’t particularly focused as much on gluten. But I was seeing that it was one of the topic allergens. As the book suggests, the question really starts to become, are we actually allergic to the food proteins that have been around for thousands and thousands of years or are we growing increasingly allergic to these new derivatives or proteins that are finding their way into our food with the use of all these new technologies, with the use of all these new synthetic chemicals. Since my book came out, there’s the cardiologist that wrote, I’m sure you’ve read it, The Wheat Belly; he really gets into the way that food has changed so much even since our grandmother’s day and the way that wheat has changed. And that it has been re-engineered again to drive profitability for the industry which as a business model that makes great sense and for those shareholders; but at the same time, are we externalizing all these causes at the cost of the health of the consumers?
For me what’s fascinating about gluten-free is that a lot of people say “oh there’s no evidence of this” or “oh lots of people are self-diagnosing,” but when you look at the growth in the gluten-free products in the marketplace, it speaks to the fact that this isn’t just a fad. That people really are recognizing that food is incredibly powerful. It can make you feel incredible and it can make you feel absolutely terrible. I think if we can begin recognize this and to make these very moderate dietary shifts, people can begin to start taking back their health. You know, I can protect my health at the grocery store or I can manage disease at the doctor’s office. I think if given the choice and given the knowledge, and with the awareness, most Americans would say they would choose health at the grocery store.
MA: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more with that statement by the way. I have a lot of mothers that read my blog and watch my videos. What words of encouragement would you give to a mother who has gone through a similar experience as you [child having an allergic reaction or newly diagnosed]?
RO: The first that I would do is to find a friend. Because it can be isolating and today as mothers we are dealing with these situations with food allergies, autism, ADHD, and asthma. The statistics show that these four conditions, which are called “The Four A’s” impact 1 in 3 American kids. Our grandmothers weren’t dealing with this. As much as you would love for your family to understand, sometimes it is hard because they weren’t dealing with these same conditions. So, the first thing I would say is to find a friend to really team up and go arm in arm with someone who is dealing with the same concerns and who shares in everything that you do. Because you’ll have someone beside you when people roll their eyes, and that is going to happen. These are conditions that are relatively new. I mean we weren’t dealing with them at the same rate we are today. So, first I’d advise you to find a friend and the next step would be to remember that you don’t potty train a kid overnight. You don’t wean them from the sippy cup overnight. These changes, as quickly as you want them to happen, you have to recognize that it’s going to take time for a family to shift into a new pattern and to form a new habit. In some cases, it may be a spouse that has to come on board or to spend a little more at the grocery store. Or it may be your parents or your in-laws. And so to give yourself permission to do what you can, where you are, with what you have and to go at a pace that works for you.
MA: So tell me a bit about the Allergy Kids Foundation. I looked at the website [www.allergykids.com] and it’s a very very cool deal. Tell me about it and your inspiration for that.
RO: Again the story has evolved in so many unlikely ways. Initially, I started Allergy Kids to help raise money for other food allergy groups and then those food allergy groups kinda had an allergic reaction to me. And so I started pulling information on those groups and I realized that they were funded by the chemical industries and the doctors [were recommending them] and there were all kinds of relationships between the chemical industries and some of these other groups. And you know there’s nothing wrong with that at all. But they weren’t very transparent about it. And I felt there really was this need to educate and inform and inspire parents about the rule that all these ingredients in our food supply are [affecting] the health of our kids. But it was truly born out of a need to fill a hole. And as we began to grow, what I felt was so important was to stay with kindness and compassion and forgiveness. You know I was feeding my kids blue yogurt and nuggets and mac & cheese. So I wasn’t growing vegetables in a garden. This is really a challenge as parents dealing with all these conditions; we’re learning all these things about the food supply. It can be overwhelming. So we really want to emphasize not making the perfect enemy of the good and that this is about progress, not perfection. And so for that I felt that Allergy Kids would have this opportunity to serve as an on-ramp to say that you don’t have to be perfect. Just come to the table and sit down with us and we’ll learn together. I serve on the board of a lot of national organizations and that from there people can go on further on down the road. But I really do feel that when you’re first dealing with diagnosis or you’re first starting to learn about the food supply, it can be overwhelming. But Allergy Kids is there to hold someone’s hands and give them the towel after the water.
MA: Yes, very good.
RO: People keep coming to me with different ideas and concerns, and in the last year I’ve been working with scientists. Obviously I’m not a doctor. And last year some scientists approached me and asked if [Allergy Kids Foundation] would consider being part of an effort to fund a science that hasn’t been done. All these questions we have like why in the world are we seeing all these increases in gluten allergies and what has changed in our wheat. We don’t have that science and so one of the initiatives we are working on is to really fund the science. The industry doesn’t let us have access to the science that they’re doing. And so what can we do as citizens? Well we can come together and we call for these studies. And so that’s one of the things that we’re working on. If you go to the [Allergy Kids site], and punch in The Allergy Kids Citizens-Funded GMO Study, it’s taking blood samples from pregnant moms and tracking their kids and seeing all these different ingredients introduced into the food supply in the last 15 years, how they are finding their way into pregnant moms and infants, and the impact that might be having on the health of our children.
MA: Wow, I’d be very interested to follow that research.
RO: It’s truly shocking if you think about that have already done these things; we have introduced these things into the food supply without labels and without these studies.
MA: It is very shocking indeed.
RO: I know. My grandmother, and you know they weren’t dealing with this. They were dealing with other things. And one of the parallels that I make is that it was incredibly hard for me to learn that we use all these ingredients in the US in our food supply that aren’t used in other countries. And I told my grandmother, who turned 100 last year, and she said it’s shocking. And then I realized that for her generation that they were marketed to by their doctors selling cigarettes. So it’s not the first time that we’ve been in a situation like this. I mean we’ve really got to stop and say where is this information coming from and is this in the best interest of my children. Our grandmothers saw these ads from their doctors selling cigarettes. Again it’s really a call to mothers to really say how can I best protect the health of my children and how can we reduce the burdens of disease. The CDC says that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in kids under the age of 15. That is shocking to me and totally unacceptable. There’s a ton of information on my website [www.allergykids.com] if you want to direct your readers there too.
MA: Absolutely, I certainly will do that.
RO: And you know what I think is really inspiring? I love to highlight other women like you who are telling their story. It sort of gives people permission to do the same. It’s ok, tell your story… I really think that when we really raise our voices and share our concern and show it is so completely love-inspired, that it gives other people the permission to do the same.
Transcript printed with permission from Robyn O’Brien.