Derrick Johnson has competed on USAW International Teams, holds the American Record Snatch and Total in the 62kg weight category and is one of the nation’s top weightlifters. Over the past four years, Johnson has changed his diet and has caused him to be the weightlifter you see today.

A couple weeks ago, Johnson took to Twitter asking his followers to ask him questions about why he eliminated Ibuprofen, pain killers, dairy, fish, processed foods, vegetable oils, etc. Fans began asking questions and seemed really interested in Johnson’s rationale for eliminating these foods, especially dairy and fish.

We wanted to learn more about why Johnson eliminated these things so we reached out to him for an interview. It’s a fascinating interview and one that might make you question if the foods you eat are helping or hurting your health and athletic performance.

The Barbell Spin: What prompted you to ask your Twitter followers to ask questions about why you eliminated Ibuprofen, dairy, fish, etc?

Johnson: I’ve actually been talking about the elimination, the lifter you see today is because I eliminated things. So the lifter you saw, of course I’ve been lifting for 20 years now and four years ago I made the decision to switch some things up. So the lifter you’ve seen in the 62kg class for the past four years is the lifter who has eliminated prescription pills, Ibuprofen, sugars, actually going to that first National Championships in 2013 that I won after being off for a year and a half, didn’t know if I was even going to continue lifting, multiple knee surgeries and all this stuff. But going into that 2013 National Championship I eliminated Ibuprofen, sugars, grains, alcohol, dairy for almost seven months going into the competition. I was the most clear-thinking, rested, clean athlete out there.

And so that’s what led to what you have here with my lifting career, being an American record holder, World Team member, I think some of the most dominant performances in my weight class I’ve been in the United States. In other words, getting the inflammation out of the gut and so the seminars I give actually start with talking about gut health. Actually talking about inflammation which is kind of combining different worlds here which I think is more of the shocker. But with all the books coming out lately, paleo became big because they eliminated a lot of things.

Gluten-free, the whole gluten-free thing came because we wanted to eliminate this thing that is potentially dangerous in the body. But the thing about gluten, or grains in particular, all grains are the toughest thing for the body to digest, for the gut to digest. And when the body has a tough time digesting something it can’t use those nutrients so it sits there and now it becomes an irritant in the gut. I haven’t had fish in so long. So even in my seminar six months ago where I was talking about how I don’t eat fish because all of the toxins it contains. The nutritional value of fish is excellent. It has protein, not really that fat.

The Barbell Spin: It has the good fats, right?

Johnson: Yeah! Omega-3’s. This is why people eat fish and take fish oil, but when I look at the good of things I always look at the bad in things. So literally when I started this four years ago it didn’t matter what item, what food item I was buying at the store. It didn’t matter if it was meat, seasonings, whatever the ingredient was I would sit there in the store, however long it took, and Google each ingredient to find out the good and the bad. The problem is people only research the good. So if you’re talking about dairy, people research the good – great calcium, vitamin D, protein, but they don’t ask the question 60% has some type of irritation to milk. Do humans need to be the only species that drink another animal’s milk? Humans are the only ones.

So the questions like that. So every ingredient that I’m looking at, whatever food I’m eating I know everything that is going into my body. Of course, that makes it hard to go to the restaurants at times, but you have to pick your spots here and there.

Why am I saying eliminate all this stuff? People say , “oh you don’t have to do all that. It’s not that important.” I’m not going to start with the athletic performance side. I’m just going to start overall health in the United States. We have the most information at our finger tips ever. This is the sickest society we have ever seen in the United States. The richest economy in the world, the most access at our finger tips, and this is the sickest we’ve ever been. And just to take another step further, the number one reason…medical bills. Every chronic disease is related to chronic inflammation. Inflammation can be controlled through the gut or through how we eat.

The Barbell Spin: How did you begin this journey?

Johnson: I wanted to switch things up and I was living in St. Louis. I was 27 years old at the time, I’m 32 now. And I had a friend that lived in Santa Monica, California. And I had been in Santa Monica in the past. It’s beautiful – the ocean, beaches, palm trees. So I said, let me start looking in this area for places I could coach at. I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to be lifting, but let’s look at gyms in this area.

Then I found one gym. It was called AFP Center. They specialized in injury-prevention, movement prep and glue work. I remember my first meeting with them I had flown to LA and just some of the things they were saying were so different than anyone else. They were talking about things that I do today. I don’t do sit-ups, I don’t do crunches. I eliminated leg raises, Russian twists – anything rotates or loosens the lumbar spine I eliminated.

But what they also had at this particular gym is the elimination-style diet, which they would help clients get back into better overall health without the western medicine, which is surgeries, prescription pills, over-the-counter medicines. All those things I eliminated.

So the elimination diet, which means you’re remove possible irritants in the gut, resulting in less inflammation. They didn’t give me a lot of information, but I just observed how they were helping their clients. So I started looking at it wondering if it could help me. Because for all these years, before every training session I would 800mg of Ibuprofen, sometimes Vicodin after the workout, the muscle relaxers. That was a daily cocktail of how athletes are “supposed” to get through the workout. That’s what we were taught. I would be at the doctor starting at 17 years old. I was already taking prescription pills in high school. It was just a normal part of athletes. You take your insurance card and you go see your doctor. He writes you a prescription. That’s day one. That’s without assessing your nutrition, your diet, anything. Day one you get a prescription.

So now I’m on my own researching. So you eliminate things like dairy, sugar, processed foods. I was living in the Midwest, fast food was the normal way of eating. Not that people on the west coast and everywhere else don’t eat fast-food, but the typical Midwestern diet is full of unhealthy foods. Even when I was eating that stuff I was just 5-6% body fat so it’s not just a look. Just because someone looks ripped that doesn’t mean they’re healthy internally.

So now I’m looking at it and I’m questioning to myself because I don’t even know if I’m even going to be lifting anymore. This is the end of 2012. I had already been lifting for 15 years. So if I eliminate these things there should be less inflammation in my joints and I’m just thinking, okay, if there’s less inflammation in my joints wouldn’t I be able to lift more and because with people that go on this elimination-style diet they lose 5-10 pounds in the first week. I’m a solid 69kg. I had been in the 69kg class for years at that point. There was no way that at 6% body fat that I could lose 10 pounds…in the first week.

I decided right after that in February 2013, literally during the Super Bowl so the Monday I was going to eliminate everything. Boom! I think I dropped seven pounds in the first five days. I was like, Wow! I remember a couple weeks later I was talking to my mother on the phone and she remembers the prescription pills and all that through the years. I told her there was no inflammation in my knee anymore. I didn’t need any of that.

Now my quest was even more. Now I need to learn. Now I’m sitting in the store wondering about every ingredient – good or bad – because what I’ve known all these years is not the truth. The typical American diet is inflammatory. The typical American diet has more Omega-6 than Omega-3 and that can be anything from the oils restaurants cook with, or the oils you cook with, so I only cook with olive oil or coconut oil. Those two oils are very low in acidity, great fat burning. They are actually good fat also. So just learning about fats and getting rid of the bad fats. Getting rid of the processed foods. I say goodbye to the microwave because of how it changes the structure of food, how it can be a potential carcinogen.

From getting rid of the processed foods that could be carcinogens, potential irritants to the gut. I never was a big fish eater, but I would from time-to-time eat fish. And of course I was loading up on fish oil at that point because I wasn’t using any of the Western medicine. So fish oil I would use up until about a year and a half ago. This is how I’m going to be less inflamed. And for somebody like me, I don’t know what people think but I’m a big documentary guy. I love watching documentaries. I follow politics on the daily basis and then weightlifting and stuff like that. Then basketball and watching the Lakers is next, but every day I want to learn something new.

Of course a lot of the people follow me because of the movement prep that I show on social media. The core exercises, the glute exercises, that could be another conversation. But today’s point is inflammation and certain things about protecting the gut. So when we look at something like fish, which I threw it up there. Again, I haven’t touched fish oil in a long time. Actually, so you ask, what would vegans use? Vegans would use flax oil. Of course, I still eat meat, but vegans would get their Omega-3’s from flax so that’s our alternative right there.

So I said here’s flax oil and here’s fish oil. Flax is just a plant. As long as you respect the company making it, there should be no toxins or anything like that. So now of course I’ve already eliminated fish because I know there are toxins. Everybody knows the ocean is polluted. Nobody even brought up the subject of fish. It was just me.

I’m the 2016 American Open Champion (my 8th American Open title)!!!!!

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I was getting ready for another seminar in a month and a half so I’m always reading, looking into things I’m going to talk about. So the past two seminars I’ve talked about how I’ve eliminated fish and now fish oil. And now I’m still training at the same intensity, but with flax oil that has Omega-3’s that is plant based. I also do walnuts. Most people don’t think about the tree nuts and walnuts that contain Omega-3’s. Now I take flax oil and walnuts every day I’m getting a lot of Omega-3’s. I’m fighting inflammation and I’m getting ready for the workout today and by taking these things after the workout, that’s part of my recovery.

The Barbell Spin: What does typical diet look like on a normal day?

Johnson: This morning I started off with apple cider vinegar. It’s been around for so long and I have been researching that lately. But normally I’ll do lemon water which has almost a similar effect. It gives you energy. It balances your pH levels. The body has so much acid in it that it helps the body become more alkaline. So alkaline and pH is something I’ve been really looking into the past few months also.

If we just look at the benefits of apple cider vinegar and what it’s done before Western medicine came in with the pills and all this, it’s just been around for so many years here.

Let me tell you what you can treat in the gut. Every single chronic disease and every disease out there is related to chronic inflammation, from a headache, ADHD, ADD, dementia, insomnia, type 2 diabetes, heart disease. All of that is inflammation. So something like starting my day off with apple cider vinegar is going to lower the acidity in my body and lower the inflammation in the body. So now I’m recovering.

Let’s say if I had a cold or the flu, I know I need to strengthen my gut. I need to heal and seal my gut. So that’s just the health related part. If we’re talking sports, let’s say my muscle soreness is inflammation. If I’m reducing inflammation in my body with apple cider vinegar, turmeric. Turmeric is something every athlete should be pumping in. Even if I had a headache, take turmeric. I wouldn’t grab any aspirin, just turmeric. It’s just a natural holistic approach. Once again, these things have been around much longer than any of the stuff that we can buy in the store or prescribed by a doctor.

The goal is to eliminate anything that can potentially cause inflammation in the body, which is how I’ll eat. So after I had the apple cider vinegar, I’ll usually an hour or an hour and half before I eat just so the body can process that. And now we break the fast, which is where we get the word breakfast from. So just learning how to eat. Most people start with breakfast being the heaviest meal of the day. So now you’re weighing yourself down. The gut didn’t get a chance to awaken. So that’s why I drink lemon water or even juicing with vegetables or apple cider vinegar is a really good thing to wake up the body before it’s loaded with stuff.

After that I had grilled chicken thighs. I’m trying to reduce my red meat intake. Meat of course has inflammation, but red meat has even more inflammation. So I had chicken thighs, cucumbers, spinach, I cooked it in olive oil and topped it off with olive oil dressing. That gives me healthy fats. I also topped it with a whole avocado. I eat two avocados a day. So from the olive oil, the avocados I have a really healthy amount of fat there. And then I drink some flax oil so that’s another 300 calories, just from the flax oil. Just two tablespoons of flax oil is 300 calories and that’s all good fats. Olive oil, I’ll put about 300-400 calories in there. I used to try to measure everything, but now it’s all just in my head now. That meal I had right there was very low in inflammation. It doesn’t weigh the gut down so now I’m ready to process. I’m ready to work out after our conversation.

Everything else I’m trying to look at what I eat, even the protein bars I eat are vegan protein bars. Once again, not that I have any issue with meat, but I do not do dairy. So dairy and meat are not the same. Dairy and dairy products, which I do not believe there is any evidence from my understanding that humans need it.

The Barbell Spin: Are you avoiding whey protein?

Johnson: I haven’t taken a whey protein shake in probably a couple years.

The Barbell Spin: How should people go about beginning this journey? How should they get started?

Johnson: I think when people go to the store and they see products, they think that every product is good for them. But pretty much the products we see in the stores are from companies. At the end of the day, it is our responsibility to do our own research. Like I said earlier, I will look up the good and the bad of every single thing. Does it cause issues in my digestive system? Is it a gut irritant or does it cause inflammation? So that’s where I would start. So if you think dairy has great qualities, okay, be open-minded and look at the bad qualities. And if you say, fish…I’ve never gotten so many DMs. I talk about this stuff all the time. I talk about eliminating grains, dairy, no messages. And I bring up fish because I know a lot of people actually stop eating red meat and other meats like that and they start eating fish and are kind of vegetarians.

Once again, I’ve researched the nutritional value. But with the fish being in the ocean where it’s polluted, where there are chemicals and big agriculture have dumped into those oceans creating dead zones. Just looking at the dead zones…

The Gulf of Mexico right by Texas used to be one of the biggest places to get shrimp. They have a dead zone there, meaning oxygen is not in the area under water. The fish can’t live there. When the fish go into this area they die. The dead zone outside of Texas is the size of New Jersey. That’s just from human activity.

To go a little more into human activity, we have the oil companies dumping their toxic waste. We have so many plastic bottles like that. We have the big farming with the pesticides and the hormones. All that goes to the local streams which goes to the rivers and then ultimately end up into the oceans or Gulf of Mexico. So even something that is 2,000 miles away from the ocean gets right back into it. So everything we put into the ground does play a factor.

So getting back to the fish, so the fish that live in this polluted ocean ingest these plastic, microfibers, PCBs, which are carcinogens. The EPA lists PCBs as a carcinogen. Mercury, the FDA is saying nearly all the fish contain mercury. Mercury is horrible on our brain functions, our cognitive functions. We have these watchdog government agencies that admit that nearly all fish fish contain microfibers or plastics, which changes their biological/neurological system. Mercury, PCBs, DDTs, so all these are chemicals and toxins that these fish ingest. It’s not that you take them out of the water and that’s the end of the chemicals. It’s just a part of their flesh. It’s a part of their muscles. It’s a part of their tissues. So what you put on your plate is contains toxins.

They even put out strong warnings to women who are trying to conceive or are pregnant to reduce their consumption of fish. It used to be that you could eat fish seven days a week, no warning. Now, they tell you to only eat fish 2-3 times a week. Zero is coming. That would be my thing. So if you have an issue with that I’m saying about fish, no worries. Once you Google the good and the bad, you start seeing the bad outweighs the good.

I’m a person that my shampoos, toothpaste, my lotions, anything on my body, my laundry detergents, I make sure it is chemical free. I can’t guarantee that with fish. As a matter of fact, the FDA and EPA don’t guarantee it. They actually say, yes, nearly all fish contain that.

Just look at water. Water goes through a distillation process, whether you go with reverse osmosis or other cool terms they put on there. So there’s actually a process that water can go through to filter the chemicals out. There is no process for fish.

The Barbell Spin: Do you have a water filtration system?

Johnson: No, but I’m all about the bottled water. Even if I’m boiling tea I still use bottled water at this point. I think people have gotten to the point where if the government says I can do it, it’s okay.

Just look at soda, it has so much more sugar in it now that it had in the 70’s. Is that even the same thing any more? And now there’s all the other alternatives to sugar, which we are finding out these are the same things. Sugar is more addictive than cocaine.

The Barbell Spin: The artificial sweetners have zero calories, but just mess up your body.

Johnson: Yeah, so anything chemically engineered I try to keep away from my body.

The Barbell Spin: Do you take any supplements?

Johnson: It’s pretty much food at this point. Now I realize that how do you heal the body? I want to heal the body naturally. A lot of times with the supplement companies, the supplement industry, it’s not natural. They have this great thing, but then they fill it in with all these other ingredients that are not natural. They’re just fillers. Anything not natural is just an irritant to the gut.

I try to pump the turmeric. I do take pre-workout from time to time. When competition time comes around, I’ll switch ginseng, etc. and herbs to help me concentrate because caffeine, too much consumption of that can be an irritant to the gut. So I try to go into a competition with my gut as strong, healed and sealed, as possible. And why is that important? Because once again, if your gut is healed, your inflammation is very low. If your inflammation in your gut is low, that means inflammation in your joints is low. So now, when I go to that competition the inflammation in my shoulders is very low. My hips, my knees, I’m ensuring myself optimal performance.

That’s why if we’re talking about an athletic standpoint why inflammation is something athletes need to be aware of on a daily basis. A lack of sleep could also lead to inflammation. Environmental factors, the air we breathe can lead to inflammation.

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