CRISTINA CUOMO: Naturalist writer Wendell Berry said, “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food,” which is very evident in each of your films. Watching all three of them was quite an intense process. In the first, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, you come to America, rather obese, and decide to only drink fruits and vegetables for 60 days. It’s incredible what happens—the transformation that takes place. When you filmed Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, you were living with a painful autoimmune condition as well. What made you want to switch to a more plant-based diet?
JOE CROSS: I came from a world of finance. It was all about how many boats, how many cars, how many watches—all about stuff. Somewhere along the way from being a little boy who loved going to the beach and playing rugby, running and being very active, the focus went to an obsession over my bank balance growing. With the bank balance growing, something else grew, and it was my waist size. Apart from that, I was ignorant. I turned my back on Mother Nature and lived predominantly on fast food. I was 32 when I first got sick. The doctor would give me some pills, the course of the medication would be a week, maybe two weeks, and good as gold.
Then I got really sick with a chronic autoimmune disease called chronic urticaria and angioedema, which is a fancy word for saying really bad hives that won’t go away and are not on the surface of the skin—they’re below the dermis, way down deep, which means that the histamine that’s released by your body to try and protect yourself leaks into your joints. If someone was to shake my hand with a very firm handshake, four or five hours later it could affect my hand as though it had been slammed in a car door and it would swell up to the size of a balloon. I lived with this fear of being touched, of feeling pressure, physical pressure. It was debilitating and when I went to the doctor, he gave me 80mg to 90mg of the steroid prednisone. Anybody who knows about that knows it’s an extremely high dose and the side effects are not pretty—moon-face, hunchback, excessive weight gain and, of course, osteoporosis because you’re leaching out a lot of your calcium. As soon as I started to lower the doses, the initial problem would recur. Then the doctor basically said, “You’re going to be on these for life.” That’s hard to comprehend, but because that wake-up call wasn’t enough to jog me, I did the pills for eight years until I was 40. When I hit 40, there was something about standing in front of that mirror in my birthday suit at 330 pounds, leaning over, looking for my pills with a hangover. And there was something about having a “4” in front of my age. It was like the crossover. I understood charts and trajectories and I knew where I was gonna end up with the trajectory I was on. To be honest, it was very frightening.
It was at that moment the title of Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead really came to me because when I looked in the mirror, that’s what I was. I had a choice to make. You don’t need to guide anybody who’s overweight and tell them they’re overweight. It doesn’t help. It actually makes them dig in. I had to start opening my own ears and listen. I decided to carve out all of the animals and take out all of the processed foods and just eat fruits and vegetables. That’s where the idea of juicing came in. I was going to do 40 days, but there was another J.C. [Jesus Christ] who did 40, so I just pushed it to 60.
CC: What was the end result of your efforts? What changes did you see in your health and your life?
JC: The first 10 days were really tough. I felt like I’d been run over by a 16-wheeler that backed over me a couple times, but then I broke through a barrier. I could breathe, I could smell, I could see better, I could hear better, I was sleeping better. After 60 days of just the juice, my medication dosage went from 60mg to 2mg. I decided to keep going, not with juicing, but to now eat what I’d been juicing and juice as well. I only ate fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and seeds. It took another three months to get off that last 2mg. Then I went down to Bondi Beach in Sydney after not having been able to walk on the sand for about eight years because the undulation of the sand would be too much pressure on my feet. I went down to the beach for a run and a swim. I hadn’t had kids yet, so I put that down as the best day of my life. That was 2009 and I can gladly report that I haven’t had to take that medication ever since.
CC: So you juiced the autoimmune illness out of your system and came to America. Why did you choose America?
JC: If you’re going to put the effort in telling a story, then you want to tell it where the largest audience is. I felt at the time that if I was going to tell a story to be seen by as many people as possible, I needed to place myself in America, talking to Americans.
CC: The positive changes to your health influenced so many others, especially that truck driver in the film who lost over 200 pounds by the end.
JC: Yeah, I interviewed over 350 Americans as I went across the country. One of them was this truck driver, Phil, who had been living in his truck, two marriages broken, hadn’t talked to his son in four years, penniless, and basically had the same autoimmune disease condition I had. I gave him my card with a number and said if you want to follow up on anything give me a call.
He called me in May the following year and I recorded that conversation. It was him, asking for help, and I think he opened up this door. That began hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world emailing and messaging me. Every day I get these incredible stories from all over the world.
CC: In your second documentary, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead: Part 2, you share the challenges you have had sticking to a healthy lifestyle.
JC: Emotions are a big player for a lot of people and I can speak from personal experience that there are certain things that I have had to take out of my life—that I just have to say no to. One of those things is Coca-Cola. When I say the words, I still feel joy. Now, I’m frightened of having a Coke because if I have one that’ll open up the floodgates. I think that emotion plays along those lines of when I’m in a place, when I’m with certain people, and of course emotions of happiness, sadness or stress that we all experience in life. My go-to thing for stress is 100 percent sugar. I’ve developed tools and skills to identify that I’m not going to let an event allow me to spiral. That’s not going to send me over the edge. It’s this awareness of your own emotions. It’s a little bit like that with food. I’m very conscious of certain foods that are going to cause me to spiral, and sugar is one of them.
CC: In your third film, The Kids Menu, you celebrate people who are making a difference in this world—the game-changers making it a healthier place to live. Who do you think are game-changers?
JC: It starts in the home at the kitchen table. Each family or each home has a nutritional gatekeeper. What they choose to have in the home is advertising to the family what’s in the fridge, what’s in the pantry. The game-changers are the ones who are loading up their house with micronutrients—that are taking the risk. For a lot of people it’s a risk. They’ve cooked a certain way and they’re proud of how they’ve cooked and they’re frightened of trying new things. Insecurity comes in because they haven’t got the confidence to put seven or eight things together and make a plant-based meal that everyone’s going to be excited about and say they want more of. Game-changers are those who are actually out there taking those risks. The government plays a big role, but it also has to come bottom up rather than only top down. The game-changers are those who are picking up this challenge and leading by example. It’s about showing rather than telling.
CC: What are your top tips for leading into a healthier lifestyle?
JC: I really believe that it’s about self-love. Love yourself and love your plants. You can be broken today and fixed tomorrow. Show me someone who’s broken and there’s a real good chance that one of those two relationships in their life is broken—the relationship with self and the relationship with Mother Nature. If we can get back to loving nature and ourselves and lead by example with that, it will shine through to your children, to your community, to your friends. rebootwithjoe.com