Today we’re joined by Jennifer Cassetta, creator of the Strong, Safe, and Sexy Plan featured on ABC’s hit show My Diet Is Better Than Yours. On this show, you’re going to learn how to upgrade your mental strength, dial-in your nutrition, and kick some serious butt.
But first, here’s an update from the road: I’ll just booked gigs to speak at South By Southwest, Paleo f(x), and quite a few upcoming events, colleges, and conferences around the country. Stay tuned for the details.
If you’re in Austin for South by Southwest this month, I’ll be speaking on March 15th about my New York Times bestselling book, The Wild Diet. There’s even a rumor that Alyson and I might bake you some choconut cookies if you come to my talk at SXSW. 🙂
Onto today’s show with Jennifer Cassetta. You’ll learn:
- How to harness the strength of a Wild animal when threatened
- Why “healthy” means different things on the East vs. the West Coast
- What to do about having too much information
- How to calibrate your nervous system with ancient practices
- And much more…
JENNIFER CASSETTA: STRONG, SAFE & SEXY
Abel: Jennifer Cassetta is a clinical nutritionist, personal trainer and third-degree black belt. Jennifer has made appearances on The Today Show, The Doctors, Rachael Ray and ABC’s “My Diet Is Better Than Yours.” She also has a childhood crush on Rocky. Jennifer, I’m so glad you’re here!
I totally do. The young, buff Rocky in the first movie. Of course I like the others, but I stopped watching after Rocky III.
Abel: Here’s a factoid… you used to bartend at a hip-hop nightclub in New York City. You had “bartender habits,” staying up until 4am drinking and smoking instead of sleeping.
Bars closed at 4am, so I’d be counting money while smoking a cigarette and afterwards go to a diner for an egg and cheese, go to sleep, wake up at noon, and order more egg and cheese or some disgusting thing from the deli downstairs. I wouldn’t even want to walk downstairs. It was pretty bad.
Abel: Tell people about what you do now.
My life has progressed over the last 15 years.. Now I’m mostly speaking on empowerment, safety, and self-defense at college campuses across the country. A couple keynotes focus on health and nutrition, some are “Hear Me Roar: How to Defend Your Mind, Body, and Heart Against People Who Suck.”
HARNESSING YOUR INNER BEAST
Abel: I’m going to read one of my favorite quotes from your book, “If you ever feel backed into a corner and physically threatened, think like an animal in the wild. Become the tiger. Become the attacker and you no longer have to defend yourself. You then attack until your opponent becomes… dinner.”
I love The Wild Diet. It kind of goes with your brand. I remember exactly when my martial arts master taught me that lesson.
I was grabbed on the street late one night walking home from a party and not paying attention. A guy came up behind me, went up my dress, grabbed me, and in my head all hell broke loose. I was able to scare off my attacker without even using my martial arts, but what it did was teach me how to unleash my inner she-beast.
What my master told me was, if you’re ever in a situation like that, you need to attack the attacker.
This can be in the realm of self-defense, but it also applies to health and wellness and relationships. It’s about awareness. It all starts here, and that’s the first thing I teach—being more aware.
We are so busy on our phones, heads down, not looking up or connecting with people. It’s kind of depressing and not smart. I just read today that a guy got his face slashed at 4:30pm walking down a street in NYC and the first thing he said was, “I had my earbuds in and wasn’t paying attention.”
I saw you doing some Qi Gong on the show?
Abel: I do Qi Gong exercises every single day and have for years. With balanced movement, you’re calibrating with your nervous system to get you to be present and clear.
At first you might think Qi Gong, Yoga, Tai Chi, and other moving meditations aren’t doing anything… But then you do it for a while, it becomes a practice, and you see your life change and your skills improve. What are your thoughts on meditation?
I worked with so many people that would say, “What? I don’t have 30 minutes every day to sit down and do nothing!” I say, start with 3 minutes of silence. If that’s not working, we try something else.
Everyone has their sweet spot with meditation. Personally, I like the movement. I’ll teach an 8 count breathing movement meditation. It’s a great practice to have some kind of meditation in your routine.
Abel: If you sit down for that first three minutes, you’ll find that being quiet is really really loud.
A little hack is setting the timer—start at three, get to seven, and in two months you’re at ten and twelve minutes of doing a meditation.
Abel: How did you catch the health bug? What drives you to do what you do now?
The health bug set in when I was a kid. My dad was super aware of nutrition and devoured books on it. He got into martial arts and it changed his life. He is the son of an Italian immigrant, a New York City detective, essentially opposite of the martial way. It changed his life. He became more aware and more sensitive to other people.
After college I decided to pick up the practice. I was bored of the treadmill. That’s all I really did. The minute I got the uniform on, and started learning the punches and the physicality, I was hooked. I started three classes a week at beginner level, and it went on and on. I wanted to do more, and all of a sudden I was there six to seven days a week.
I told the story on the ABC show—I had a big life event and I started to reflect on what happened there. I also had two jobs and one of them was down by the world trade center. I was walking there the morning of 9/11. All hell broke loose. I was forced into a closet with a lot of other people. The first tower collapsed; we thought we would die.
Then we were forced to leave the building. We were thrown out onto the street in the ash, running for safety. Then the same thing happened again. The second tower fell and we were forced out again. We finally made it to safety, and for months afterward all I wanted to do was get in the martial arts studio.
The only place I wanted to be was at the dojang. It was like a place of refuge for me.
Over the next six months, I decided to make martial arts part of my career. I wanted everyone to feel what I was feeling—the physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual part of it. I became a personal trainer in New York and did those combined until I went back to school for my nutrition degree.
SOMETIMES WE EAT CHEESY NACHOS…
Abel: Can you talk about the way that you like to create meals?
Sure. I shouldn’t tell you, when I’m not feeling so well sometimes I’m just like, “I want cheesy nachos,” so that’s what ended up on my plate last night.
Abel: We are all real people.
Sometimes. Now that I live in L.A. everyone here is fit. It’s amazing. It’s a lot easier to be good but it’s also like, whoa, do any of these people ever cheat?
I feel like some people in the fitness industry out here in L.A. are way hardcore, but I’m still a real person.
When I’m planning ahead, I focus on what protein I’m going to have. I’m mostly plant-based with some seafood. I eat a lot of eggs, then fish and seafood maybe 3 – 4 times a week.
The reason I became pescatarian is that I spent many years of studying and reading. I had an “aha” moment around animals and protein back when I was about 20 or 21. My childhood dog was dying of cancer and I went home to visit my parents. I’m an animal lover and took a look at her eyes sunken and no tail and when we had to put her down, for the first time in my life I connected cancer and pets.
Not being scientific, just being Jen, in honor of my dog Duchess, for one week I said I’m not going to eat animals. Weeks turned into months and years. Then 6 years later I decided to bring in some wild caught fish.
Years later I was sitting in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in NYC, and Dr. Mark Hyman and Andrew Weil were coming to speak to us. Joshua Rosenthal was telling the story. A student of his was married to a butcher. One day she went into the butcher shop and she looked at the hanging carcass and it had this green slime on it. She asked, “Hey what’s that?” The butcher said, “It’s cancer. We just cut that off and serve the rest of the animal.”
I was like ding, I got it. I don’t want to eat sickly animals. You don’t know what you’re eating unless you get the best quality meats.
Abel: We’ve been conditioned to not link our food as coming from an animal, even when it does. It’s so crazy to think of how sick these animals are and how disconnected we are from that. Americans are getting sicker and fatter than ever with diseases that are unprecedented, and then you see that these animals we are eating are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and things proven to be linked to cancer. And they’re pumped with all these hormones that make them as fat as possible as quick as possible, and the same thing is happening to us.
Back in the day, in our grandparents time, they were going to the butcheries and they were seeing the animals they were purchasing. Not just getting it all chopped up in a beef patty where there’s no connection. I recommend the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for connecting the food on your plate to where it comes from.
Abel: It’s funny because that book does something different for everyone. When I read it, I was vegetarian and it convinced me not to be vegetarian because I realized how bad the grains and “heart healthy oils” were. GMO’s, hybridized wheat, chemical fertilizers, environmental destruction from monocrop farming, etc.—sometimes you can have a little too much information.
What’s your main approach to helping others improve their health?
I think about that often. We all have a similar approach. No-one’s eating a bunch of junk food and we’re all trying to be as clean as possible. I’ve worked with hundreds of clients over the years, and I can’t put my pescatarian diet on everyone. Bio-individuality is what we learned in 2005 at IIN. That’s the main thing. Everyone has different needs for their body.
Some clients won’t eat animal protein for a personal or religious reasons. There are many factors in their lives that dictate the foods they’re eating.
I have a vegan and a gluten-free meal plan, and a Paleo Lite program (not so heavy on the protein). The one on the show is pescatarian and gluten-free. It’s the way I eat, therefore I made it the program for the show. I adopted that way to eat because I think it’s the healthiest for me. Do I think it has to be for everyone else? Maybe not.
As you know, it’s about the quality of food.
Abel: And it’s about your goals. If you’re trying to look yoked like The Rock, you’re going to have a different eating plan than someone trying to maximize longevity.
I do hope people who are trying to get jacked think about their long-term health. Just because of what someone looks like on the outside, doesn’t necessarily set them up for success in the long-term.
Abel: Keep that in mind, West Coast Girl!
That’s not me. I’m all about balance.
EAST COAST VS. WEST COAST HEALTH
Abel: There’s a difference between health in New York and LA. What does that look like?
For me personally it was very different because I spent most of my time in a martial arts uniform. And living in New York, I spent my winters wrapped up. I come out here and people are wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts all year round. That’s the difference—here you’re always showing your body.
The health out here in L.A., in my view, is that it’s mostly about looking good. Health in New York is more about surviving.
People would come to me so broken and burnt out. Their adrenals were shot. It happened to me, too. By the end of my 15 years in New York, I was completely exhausted. I wasn’t focused on my body at all. I was eating out probably six nights a week. How can I make the best choices possible and how can I take care of my body? It was about self-care.
Abel: People come into health from various directions. Some want to look good. In the end you have to tell them that comes second.
In New York I had hardcore clients, guys on Wall Street. They didn’t miss training sessions, they listened to me, they did what I said. Here I get a lot of women who just want to lose that last five pounds. They’re having hemp milk and grapes for dinner… this is not for me. So I put a disclaimer on my website that if you just want to lose that last five pounds, I’m not the trainer for you.
I want to work with people who really want to change and transform their lives for health reasons, not just because they can pinch this much skin on their stomach.
Abel: One of the things you teach is confidence. How do you do that?
This is a good question. I think I’m making an impact in the college market because young women can be vulnerable at that age to the media and always comparing themselves to what the ideal idea of beauty looks like. I want to try and work with people, and show them there’s a bigger picture.
I also work at a rehab here in Malibu for teens, and I see so many young women with eating disorders, and body image issues so bad it literally paralyzes them. It’s crippling. It blows my mind. Hopefully. I can make more of a positive impact in that arena.
Abel: I think you are. Let’s talk about your mantra—strong, safe, and sexy. Can you expand on that?
STRONG is about being mentally and physically strong. It’s important for your body to be strong. A lot of women try to stay away from weights because they’re afraid of bulking up, but it’s so cool to really feel powerful in your body. Mentally and emotionally you have to work those muscles just like you work your biceps.
SAFE means physically learning to protect yourself. Self-defense is so empowering. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have fear. I can still feel the fear, but then I can say, “Okay, I know what to do if something happens.”
And then obviously the diet is SAFE in that it helps prevent disease in the long run.
SEXY is an inner feeling of confidence that exudes from you.
Abel: You did the fire walk at a Tony Robbins’ event. What’s it like standing before those coals?
The whole evening leading up to that gets you so amped; you’re in an altered state of mind. You’re high. He gives you a mantra. He did two ways of preparing the audience, which is how you motivate clients. One was the carrot (here’s what you want, move toward it), the other is the stick (here’s what you don’t want, run away from it). People are motivated in two different ways and he used both ways.
He kept saying “charred bloody stumps…” I don’t think he uses that anymore. But I’m like, “Darn it, I don’t want charred bloody stumps.” It’s not like it’s blazing fire, it’s hot hot coals and there’s thousands of people doing it and I’m thinking if all these people can do it, I can too.
Abel: I had a similar experience doing a polar bear plunge on the way to Whistler up in Canada. Don’t overthink it, just jump.
What are some things people can do if they find themselves in that back alley unsafe situation?
The first and foremost is awareness so you’re not caught off guard. That’s the most vulnerable place you can be—paralyzed in fear. So you want to be yelling and using your voice. Using your body will shock your brain out of that paralyzation.
There’s so many different points that I talk about in self defense, but if you’re at that point you know someone wants to harm you, just yell.
Stay aware beforehand. Get off the phone. Put it away. Put it in your purse. And make sure as soon as you get into a closed situation—an elevator, a car—that you are aware. You lock the doors, and you lock your apartment as soon as you get home.
Awareness is the first thing.
Then it’s boundaries – physical and personal boundaries. Make sure there aren’t negative people sucking your energy.
Next it’s communication. 55% of communication is body language. If you’re walking down that dark alley or parking garage keep your head held high, shoulders back, chest out, direct eye contact, walk with purpose. Do not be dinking around on your phone and not paying attention because you’ll be a giant target.
Abel: It reduces the chance that you’ll ever need to get into any altercation when you walk with purpose. Can you hammer that home? Just walk like you could fight or put up with anything and they won’t come after you because predators are looking for weak targets.
I tell my audience to think like a predator. A predator will look for the weakest link. If someone is walking with their head down low, shoulders hunched or is just distracted, they become an easy target.
A lot of times women know their attacker, whether it’s a first date or someone from a class or they just know them from around. They’ll be watching you. That predator is going to watch its prey and learn its habits. So if you ever do feel like you have someone stalking you, change your habits, don’t go home the same way. Change your hours, try to be unpredictable.
Awareness. Awareness. Awareness. Because we’re so busy and have so many things on our mind, take the 3-5 minutes a day to ground yourself. It really does enhance awareness and our gut feelings. We all have gut feelings and you can’t pay attention to them if you’re doing 5,000 things at once.
Abel: Let’s talk conditioning. You could beat me up if you wanted to. You’re not just fit. Your fitness performs a function.
A lot of women struggle to find that link between looking good and feeling good. Not only do you look good, but with martial arts, you can do something tactical and strategic. How can you convince more people to live that life?
I think that martial arts was the impetus to change my whole life and well-being. I had mentors and role models in strong, beautiful, fit women. Some were thinner than others—but it wasn’t about that. I was in awe of what they could do. Now they’re in their mid-40s and have had children and they all bounced back because they trained before, during, and after. It’s a lifestyle, not something that comes and goes.
Now I’m out in LA and I don’t really belong to a dojo anymore, but I still train on my own just to go through my forms because it would suck to lose it.
Abel: It feels good to do something physical daily as part of your life. I pick my dog Bailey up and do “puppy squats” just about every day.
Being a human being, making sure you are functionally fit, being able to handle yourself—there’s a lot of confidence that comes from that.
I love what you do.
Now I’m at the age where everyone’s trying to have babies or has had babies already. That’s an intense thing you do with your body. I want women to be strong before hand so that they can carry this baby with strength and not hurt themselves.
I hear stories and have had clients on bedrest because their bodies couldn’t handle that much pressure and stress. It’s a cool thing to do as you’re planning on children.
WHERE TO FIND JENNIFER CASSETTA
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I have a ton of talks planned, but if anyone wants me to speak at their organization, I’m doing that. Also if you have questions about martial arts, the pescaterian lifestyle, or anything else, get in touch.
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BEFORE YOU GO…
I’d like to give you one last reminder about something new we just created for you.
You may know that Alyson, my dog Bailey and I have been traveling North America and living out of state and national parks for the past two years. We know first-hand that no matter where you are, getting the highest quality food can be a challenge… especially if you don’t want to break the bank.
That’s why we created a handy-dandy guide to help you save time and money on your grocery bill so you can get real food for less. In fact, we saved more than $300 on our grocery bill last month!
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Which specific brands of supplements, protein, and ingredients my wife and I trust, recommend, and use at home.
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And since we just launched the shopping guide, you can get a discount to grab it for less than $10 bucks.
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One of our readers, Tom says:
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How do you train? Share your favorite meditations, awareness practices, and strength training workouts in the comments below.