Saturday, December 15, 2012

Letter to President Clinton Sparks My First Interview!

Recently I noticed a Letter to President Clinton trending on many vegan and vegetarian Facebook pages, which immediately piqued my interest.

When I opened it, my eyes caught a glimpse of a large, unhealthy looking man named Eric. Off to the right of the page; however, was a photo of a very different looking man, also named Eric. This Eric was fit and lean and strikingly good-looking. Could it be the same man? Of course you know the answer. It certainly was.

Eric had penned an open letter to former President Bill Clinton, accrediting him with helping to change his life. Eric saw the now-famous interview with CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer, in which Clinton spoke candidly of his transition to a vegan diet. “You looked great, better and more presidential than I’d ever seen you look before. The jowls and large bags under your eyes were gone, and your face was oval rather than round. In the interview, you talked about getting back to your high school weight and reversing your heart disease by following a whole-food, plant-based diet based on The China Study and other research by Doctors T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn and Dean Ornish,” wrote Eric in his letter.

At the time of that interview, Eric was 51-years young and taking more than $1000 in medications per month. He had Type II Diabetes and a staggering cholesterol count of 300. At 280 pounds, his blood pressure was 160/100. Eric describes sleeping 10 or more hours a day, feeling lethargic and exhausted all the time and suffering from constant joint pain. “I was not able to tie my shoes, let alone walk up a flight of stairs without feeling out of breath,” he said.

Eric adopted a whole-food, plant-based diet in September 2010. In just eight months, he lost 100 pounds, saw his cholesterol drop from 300 to 130 and his blood pressure decrease from 160/100 to 100/60. Additionally, his glucose and all other medical stats were in the normal or optimal range. Best of all, he no longer showed any signs of Type II Diabetes!

I was so moved by Eric’s story and his journey to take back control of his health that I reached out to him for an interview to learn more about his transition to a healthful vegan diet. Below is Eric … in his own words.

Editor’s note: For the purpose of this interview, “vegan” refers to a whole-food, plant-based diet.

There are people all over the world who have lost weight or who maintain an ideal weight eating smaller amounts of the typical Western diet (meat, fish, dairy and processed food). Why make such a drastic change in your dietary lifestyle?
It’s true that some people, especially younger people, can live on the Standard American Diet (SAD) without becoming overweight or obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control; however, more than two-thirds of Americans over the age of 20 are presently obese or overweight so the SAD is not working for many of us. And as we age, it seems harder for many to maintain an optimum or “high school” weight. On the SAD, we seem to get fatter as we age, while we fight the losing weight gain battle.

The SAD definitely never worked for me. I was heavy in my 20s, and was obese for more than 20 years before I became a vegan. During that time, I’m pretty sure I tried every diet and weight loss program marketed to the American public, including Atkins, Weight Watchers, South Beach, Paleo, Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem, in addition to different medically-supervised programs based on stimulants and other controlled substances. On each of these programs, I found I could lose some weight, but neither my weight loss nor the programs were sustainable. And, just like trying to control my portions on the SAD, I experienced overpowering hunger and cravings on each of these programs. I could always drop 40 lbs. in two months on Atkins for example, but then I’d have a moment of weakness, eat French fries or a pizza, and then give up and regain more than I’d lost in a matter of weeks. After following this pattern for more than 20 years, I decided to schedule bariatric surgery at the suggestion of my doctor. Then I heard President Clinton interviewed, where he talked about his plant-based diet and I decided to try that as the final step before weight loss surgery.

I’ve now strictly followed a plant-based diet (no animal proteins of any kind, including any meat, fish, chicken, dairy or eggs) for the past two years. I also try to avoid all processed foods, especially sugar, to the greatest extent possible.

Let’s get the most frequently asked question of vegans out of the way. You write in your letter that in 2012 you’ll finish 24 races, seven of which will have been full marathons. Where do you get your protein and iron to be able to do that?
The iron question is easy -- legumes and dark leafy green vegetables are the best and most absorbable sources of iron for humans. But the most frequently asked question of anyone on a plant based-diet is, as you said, “Where do you get your protein?” Every vegan I know has this answer down to an elevator speech and here’s mine.

All plants contain protein. By eating a wide spectrum of plants, I get all the protein and other nutrients I need.  I do not take any protein or other nutritional supplements, with one exception -- a B12 supplement is recommended for everyone following a plant-based diet.

Americans on the SAD consume six-to-10 times more protein than they need. That excess protein overworks the liver and kidneys, causing both these organs to become enlarged and injured. Excess protein consumption causes the kidneys to pull large quantities of calcium from the body, causing bones to weaken and kidney stones to form. (Dr. John McDougall).

I’m actually asked this question several times per day, and rather than go through my elevator speech, sometimes I find the best response is just to ask, “Do you think I need more protein?” Then I show a muscle, such as my calves, pictured below.

The first time I ran outside more than two miles was in Dec. 2011. In Oct. 2012, I qualified for the Boston Marathon, which I’m registered to run in April 2013. I could not have done this without my plant-based diet.

So even though I only eat whole plants and use no protein or other supplements, I still have more muscle than I’d prefer to have as a long distance runner since excess muscle adds weight and excess weight reduces my speed. I try to feature low protein plants in my diet. As a percentage of calories, my diet is about 80 percent carbohydrates, 10 percent plant-based protein and 10 percent plant-based fats.

Let’s talk about your transition. Did you move to a vegan diet in phases or all at once?
Success in transitioning from an omnivore to a plant-based diet requires a plan, education and support. Most people I talk to that failed on a plant-based diet tried to eat just salads and apples and such, then quit when they didn't feel well. In my case, I found a vegan nutritionist who was covered by my medical insurance. I hired her and met with her every week, following exactly what she advised. By the end of eight months I had lost 105 pounds and became a pretty good vegan cook. But to answer your question, I stopped eating all animal proteins within a month after first meeting with my nutritionist.

What were your biggest challenges?
I adjusted to my new diet quickly. I was surprised to learn that my biggest challenge was clothing. I started with a 50-inch waist and 3XL shirts. I found that I needed to buy new pants for every two to three inch reduction in my waist size. It was less expensive to buy cheap temporary clothing than to pay for expensive alterations and have my suits re-cut  so my strategy was to buy the cheapest clothing I could get by with until I hit my final weight goal. I actually spent more on clothing to transition from 280 pounds to 175 pounds (about $3000) than I spent for the weekly insurance deductible for my nutritionist (about $1000) to lose all my weight.

Do you miss meat and dairy?
Not at all. The hardest part of the SAD for most people is eliminating dairy because cow’s milk contains opioids and is addictive. Therefore, people who say they can’t live without milk and cheese are suffering from a food addiction. My experience has been that anyone who has successfully quit smoking, alcohol or substance abuse will have an easier time eliminating dairy because they are stronger and more experienced in recovering from a prior addiction.

After you stop eating meat and your taste buds reorient to a plant-based diet the thought of eating dead animals becomes gross to most vegans. I do not proselytize about my lifestyle to others, but when I see people eating meat, I honestly feel sorry for them because I know from my own experience that they would be happier and healthier eating plants rather than dead animals.

Does it cost more to eat this way?
People new to a plant-based diet often buy processed and packaged vegan foods, which generally cost more than packaged and processed omnivore foods. But when you invest the time to learn how to incorporate a plant-based diet into your life and how to really become a good cook using just organic, whole-food and spices, you can spend less feeding your family extremely healthy food than you spend buying frozen, boxed and packaged junk at traditional grocery chains. By staying away from all packaged foods (though I still buy unprocessed items such as frozen blueberries because I use them almost daily and they have such a short season) and only buying organic whole-food and dry bulk grains, legumes and nuts, I spend less on groceries at farmer’s markets, Whole Foods and other organic sources than I spent buying meat and processed junk at traditional grocery stores. For a good resource on how to live inexpensively on a vegan diet, I recommend Eat Vegan on $4.00 per day.

People always ask me what I eat, sans meat, dairy and processed food. Tell me about your menu and what you do to make vegetables fun, flavorful and sexy.
I take whole plants and make them into foods that look and taste similar to what most omnivores are used to eating, only better, healthier and more flavorful. My favorite dishes are what I call “vegan comfort foods,” such as lasagna, Mexican, Chinese and similar ethnic cuisines. So when people ask me what I eat, I turn the question around and ask them what they like to eat. When they answer my question, I explain how to make those same dishes without animal products. This isn’t as mystifying as people assume, you just leave out the meat, cheese and butter and substitute healthy plant-based ingredients instead. One reason I started my new website/blog was to provide my favorite recipes, some of which are original, but many of which are “veganized” versions of traditional favorite recipes.

You write that you are “fully awake for the first time in your life.” How quickly after adopting this lifestyle did you begin to experience these transformative feelings?
After about 2-3 months of strictly avoiding all animal products, processed sugar and all processed and packaged foods, including all vitamins and supplements, I began feeling physically and mentally amazing, with energy and mental clarity that I’d never experienced before. It was later I came to understand that I was now feeling “normal” for the first time in my life.

Many people who have adopted a whole-food, plant-based diet report experiencing a backlash from some of their friends and family. Unlike fad diets, veganism can sometimes be viewed as an assault on the Western diet. Are your friends and family supportive of your dietary choices? If not, how do you handle/respond?
A real friend will not berate or criticize a friend for wanting to make positive changes in his/her life. If anyone outside your family is outspoken against your decision to pursue a healthy lifestyle, isn’t the best solution to remove that person from your life? Regarding family members, I’m fortunate that I live alone and with my son. So I control what food comes into my home, and don’t need to worry about anyone else bringing junk into it. Many people in my life at first expressed concern about what I was doing and based on ignorance and misinformation informed me that meat and dairy were a required part of a healthy balanced diet. But I proved them all wrong -- most of those who shared their incorrect opinions with me are still obese eating what I used to eat, while I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my entire life and living a life I never dreamed possible. By the way, once I learned how to cook, my son also learned to like what I make better than what he used to eat, and sometimes even complains when I suggest going out to a restaurant.

A bigger adjustment for me has been dating, and I haven’t quite figured this out yet. I’ve been single for about 15 years. During all of that time except the past two years, I was obese and felt like I was invisible to women so I didn’t attempt to date. After I lost my weight and became athletic, for the first time in my life, I feel attractive and women sometimes seem to notice me. A big disappointment has been, however, that after someone initially acts interested in me, they often change their mind when they find out I’m vegan. I was recently on a date when a woman told me I was a “radical” because I wouldn't eat meat. So I’m choosing to just be patient and live with this and someday hope I’ll find a compatible vegan girlfriend.

What do you do at parties and restaurants that aren't vegan-friendly? Is it a struggle for you to maintain your lifestyle outside the home?
I have a wide circle of friends now, and anyone who would invite me to their home for a party would have at least some plant-based foods I could eat. At almost any restaurant, it’s easy. I ask the server questions about menu items I am interested in. Rather than get into complicated explanations about what “vegan” means (because many really don’t know), I tell my server to leave off the meat and dairy and add more of something else to replace those calories. For example, at a Mexican restaurant, I tell the server no meat, no cheese and no sour cream but extra beans and rice. I’ve never had a problem eating a strict vegan meal at any omnivore restaurant. I simply engage my server in conversation and ask a lot of questions.

The only really difficult situation would be in a steak restaurant with no vegetarian options. In this case, I would end up eating potatoes and steamed or grilled vegetables.

When people hear that I follow a healthful vegan lifestyle, many will respond with, “Well good for you. I could never do that.” Why do you think there is such a rebellion against our way of life, yet so many people were willing and are still willing to adopt fad diets like Atkins, The Zone, etc. without any long-term scientific and clinical research demonstrating effectiveness?
I think most people are just afraid of what they don’t understand and haven’t tried. But as my mother used to say, how do you know you won’t like it if you haven’t tried it? For someone who is young, slim and apparently healthy, there is little you can say to influence that person to switch to a healthier lifestyle unless they are also concerned about animal cruelty, the environment, world hunger, national healthcare costs and similar issues. If the person isn’t interested in the medically accepted health benefits of a vegan diet, are they interested in the equally important moral and humanitarian issues affecting animals, other people and our planet?

I personally know many people who are resistant to accepting the decades of research and scientific study presented in books such as The China Study and movies like Forks Over Knives. What is your advice to them and to those who may be considering a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle?
This resistance has best been described as The Tomato Effect. Don’t worry though, in 100 years, common sense will prevail and everyone will be vegan.

Thank you, Eric! Learn more about the power of a whole-food, plant-based diet. LIKE us on Facebook.

Eric’s journey continues today. You can follow his blog Vegan Dinner Parties and Facebook page to stay in touch.


  1. Thank you for doing this article, Kellie. You're a fabulous interviewer!

  2. Great interview! Very informative and motivational.

  3. Anonymous1/15/2013

    Good, incformative interview. Thank you