Muscles on a Vegan, Gluten Free Diet

I am often asked if my diet has caused me to suffer loss of muscle performance.

Since I wrote the blog earlier this year on my experiences with a vegan, gluten free diet I have become aware of yet another incredible benefit to the diet. I am not sure when this benefit first ‘kicked in’, but I became consciously aware of it in the spring of this year as a result of a couple of physical activities that I undertook.

As with the other benefits I have experienced, this one was a surprise that only occurred to me after the fact ‚Äď after I had done something that in previous years would have caused me some pain or even inability to perform a particular task.

The first of these events occurred one morning when I had a load of construction material that needed to be moved. Specifically, I had 12 boxes of flooring material, each box weighing 35 pounds, which I need to carry up 30 steps to place in a third floor apartment. Usually one of my helpers would do this for me, but this morning I was there early before they started and I needed to empty my van to fetch other items, so I decided to just go ahead and carry the materials myself. It took me about 20 minutes to do the task, in the middle of which I had a couple of other simpler tasks which I performed carry some garbage to a dumpster. It was only a half hour or so later that I realized that I had done this task without any sense of tiredness, with no shortness of breath that caused me to pause, and with no after effects of sore or tired muscles. And that latter lack of sore muscles stayed with me ‚Äď if I had done that task a few years ago I would definitely have experienced shortness of breath (and perhaps would not have done it for fear of risking a heart attack), and would definitely have had sore arm and leg muscles for a day or two.

The second of these events occurred one morning when I was painting a house. This is a clapboard house that had not been painted for a few years and so, to apply new paint, I needed to scrape the area I was going to paint. To do this I had to put a paint scraper at various positions in front of me on the clapboard surface. With my left hand I had to press down so the scraper would bite into the old paint. With my left and right hands I had to pull the scraper horizontally across the surface, always applying pressure. Now this is not a motion I usually perform and so this was something my muscles were not used to doing. I started about 9 in the morning and had the area that I needed to clear finished after about 2 ¬Ĺ hours of non-stop scraping. I decided to have lunch then before starting to paint. As I was eating I realized what I had done and also that I experienced no tiredness of my muscles and no after effects of sour or stiff muscles. Again, I probably could not have performed this work so easily a few years ago. I would certainly have needed to stop a few times to rest before completing the task and would definitely have experienced sore muscles for a day or two afterwards.

These two incidents, which occurred a few weeks apart, caused me to appreciate the rather incredible change that had occurred in the muscles of my body.

When we speak of muscle performance we usually think of three factors:

  • Strength: how much can a muscle handle in terms, say, of weight?
  • Endurance: how many times can the muscle perform that task before tiring?
  • Recovery: how quickly does the muscle return to its initial condition so it can perform again?

I am not a person who works out in a gym, or even works out with any particular regularity. I am not a couch potato. I just do things like walk a couple of miles most days, dig in my garden, do house maintenance and construction (not nearly as quickly and often as my wife would like!). So, with respect to strength I can only say I am not conscious of any reduction in my strength ‚Äď I seem to be able to lift as much as I ever could. With respect to endurance, I seem to have incredible endurance compared with a few years ago. And it extends not just to the items listed above ‚Äď it seems to apply to any physical activity I undertake ‚Äď I just do not tire. With respect to recovery, I just do not seem to have any post activity requirement to rest before continuing. I can dance for hours and feel as fresh as when I started. I can climb mountain trails and not get tired.

So my conclusion is that my vegan, gluten free diet has yielded yet another benefit. As I mentioned, I am not sure how and when this developed. I suspect that it was a gradual evolution in my muscular fitness but I am sure that I had achieved it by three years and a few months on the diet.

What of the experience of others with respect to muscles and a vegan diet? Here are a couple of links that talk about this aspect:

  1. Gladiators and the vegan diet
  2. Vegan diets for athletes




Three Years on a Whole Foods Plant Based Diet – Review of Progress

Just over three years ago, on 1 February 2012, I read a book by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. , “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease”, which has completely changed my health and my life.¬†Many have asked about this experience over the past three years and so this is a summary of my experience to date.

Dr. Esselstyn revealed in his book how he had treated a small number of persons who had advanced cardiovascular disease and for whom no further medical treatments were available and for whom the prognosis was death within a few years at most. In lieu of medical treatments (medications, surgery) Dr. Esselstyn put his patients on a very simple diet: “No Fish, No Meat, No Dairy, No Oils”. Of the original 18 patients, only 12 stayed with the diet. The results for the two groups were remarkable in their contrast. Those who stayed on the diet survived for many years and were healthy in ways that they had not been for years. Those who did not stay on the diet continued in poor health had more cardiovascular incidents and died in a relatively short time.

[Note: This statement of the results is perforce short and lacking details. I refer you to Dr. Esselstyn’s book for a very readable, compelling treatment. Dr. Esselstyn has¬†¬†extended this work: Dr. Gregor of NutritionFacts.Org gives a short¬†five minute video where he reviews this later work].

I determined, in about 2002, that I had a sensitivity to gluten that was deleterious to my health and so stopped eating gluten — long before the current ‘gluten-free era’ in which such labels and food are prevalent in our grocery stores. To this I was faced with additional¬†dietary constraints: ¬†“No Fish, No Meat, No Dairy, No Oils”. To many this diet, ¬†if¬†not one of complete deprivation or starvation, is at least so draconian as to be completely impossible! And I will admit I was rather amazed by it. What then allowed me to adopt this diet, which I had to piggy-back onto my existing gluten free diet?

I had really two major motivations:

  • On October 6th 2004 I had 2 stents totaling¬†3.5 cm of length¬†placed in my heart due to a fairly significant blockage in a major heart¬†artery. This is a huge part of that artery in my heart. I immediately felt 20 years younger in terms of stamina. Yet I was told that such stents often collapse and that I would likely require additional surgery and might even die from heart failure in the coming years. Additionally, it was mentioned that these stents¬†dealt with blockage in my heart and that there might be other buildups in other parts of my body. By February 2012 I had been living with this condition for¬†over 7 years.
  • Around 2005 my father asked me to do his tax return for him as he was no longer capable of doing the calculations it required . This was a shock. My father had always been able to do mathematics and he was the one that others went to for help in completing tax returns. This was the first I learned that my father was having mini-strokes which were gradually affecting his capabilities. From then, until¬†my father’s death on January 21, 2011 (just¬†a year before¬†I read Dr. Esselstyn’s book), I watched my father decline as a result of his cardiovascular disease as it progressively weakened his mind and his heart until he was bed-ridden and almost unable to communicate. Perhaps the most distressing part of his decline was watching his awareness of how his vitality was being drained from him.

So, with a personal ‘virtual death sentence’ from my own cardiologist and the experience and threat of a very debilitating decline, I was certainly motivated to do something. That was how I had encountered Dr. Esselstyn’s book, in the first place — looking for information on heart disease. What grabbed my attention in his title was the one, very important word “REVERSE”!

An added motivation for his diet was its simplicity. Only 8 words — actually only 5 words since “NO” figures four times. So the rule was incredibly simple. Fortunately, I had traveled the world and even lived for a while in India, so that I knew that such a diet could be at least endured, and if the promise was a healthy life with a reversal of the¬†cardiovascular disease I knew I could do it. The two lessons in Dr. Esselstyn’s method were:

  1. You must strictly adhere to the diet — no moderation
  2. if you stop the diet, the cardiovascular disease will progress.

As I mentioned, I read Dr. Esselstyn’s book on 1 February 2011 (actually while on a three hour flight arriving about midnight). I started the Esselstyn diet on 2 February 2011, the very next morning. I started eating this way at the beginning of a trip on which¬†I was away from home for 3 weeks. When I returned home, I explained to my wife that I was on this diet but that did not mean I expected her to adopt it. However, she said she was on board with it, which definitely makes food preparation easier in our household.¬†To¬†me it was particularly appealing and easy diet because it only had a four rules¬† and did not have all sorts of complicated rules related to food types and calorie counting. Generally I could eat as much as I wanted.

Although the principles of the diet are those that I follow, the details have changed over the past three years as a result of experience and additional reading.

One of the first challenges, in our western society, is how to feed oneself on such a diet. Restaurants, food stores, and our advertising media do not easily provide such fare. Fortunately half of Dr. Esselstyn’s book was recipes which one could use.

During the first 18 months or so, using recipes from various sources in books and on the internet, we gradually evolved in what we ate and how we prepared it. For most of this time we adhered to the Esselstyn diet,¬†¬†“No Fish, No Meat, No Dairy, No Oils”, as closely as we could. As we accumulated this experience we decided we should share it through a recipe section in our Viva*Sparkle website.

Then, about a year and a half ago we came across Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s book, “Super Immunity“. Dr. Fuhrman takes the nutrition question a step further. While Dr. Esselstyn advocates a strict whole foods plant based diet with no added oils, Dr. Fuhrman raised the question of “What are the best foods to be eating?” on such a diet. His answer is the¬†simple acronym: “G-BOMBS”. I love this addition to the diet because it is again simple to remember and follow. He recommends that one should be eating:

  • G — greens — particularly dark, cruciferous greens ( broccoli, collards,¬†spinach, etc.)
  • B — beans — a variety of beans and legumes
  • O — onions — including garlic
  • M — mushrooms — a variety
  • B — berries — strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, . . .
  • S — seeds and nuts — including almonds and walnuts

We have incorporated this acronym into our food preparation and most days will have¬†most if not all of these foods in our meals. Although a little more complicated that the four rules of Dr. Esselstyn, it actually gives a bit more direction in ‘what to eat’ as opposed to ‘what not to eat’. The only major difference is that Dr. Fuhrman states it is okay to eat nuts whereas Dr. Esselstyn says to not eat them. When I discussed this with Dr. Esselstyn the major concern on nuts is the oils in them coupled with the fact that many people will take a can of salted nuts and devour it in one sitting. We eat unsalted nuts and I will have four or five walnuts or about eight¬†almonds, about four¬†times a week.

Do I ever violate the diet. Yes, of course. Often if I am in a restaurant I do not succeed in getting a meal that is free of added oil (usually olive oil in a salad or cooking). And, I admit, probably two or three times a year (usually when traveling) I will end up ordering a small order of fries. But, otherwise, I stick to it. It is my life and my health and I want the best.

So, the big question is: “How has it worked out?” Here are the¬†noticeable improvements in my life and health and when I became aware of them:

  1. month 1 — weight loss: The first change that I noticed in my body was weight loss. I was not looking for it and it was not a goal in any sense. In fact, although my waist line had gone from 28 inches at age 20 to pushing 33 -34 inches at age 69, I thought I was quite slim and did not have more than perhaps five pounds to lose. My body is calibrated to one inch on the waist = 5 pounds of weight. I dropped from 145 pounds to 123 pounds and my waist went to 33 – 34 to 28 – 29 inches. When I weighed myself yesterday it was 125 pounds.
  2. month 3 –lower cholesterol: This was a goal. From at least the age of 45 when it was first mentioned to me, my cholesterol had been high — generally in the range of 200 and as high as 220. I tried life style changes but they did not seem to have any effect. I was given statins and they would drop it to about 180 but I could not tolerate the terrible side effects and never took them for more than about a month at a time. Dr. Esselstyn, in his book talks of having a cholesterol of about 150 as being ‘heart attack proof’. My cholesterol is about 150 (with no medications). This had been my main (indeed sole) expectation from going on the diet, so the following, additional results were very pleasant and welcome surprises
  3. month 16 — allergies disappear: This was my first incredible surprise! I have suffered from allergies all my life and as my life progressed the sensitivities became worse and worse. I ‘lived’ on anti-histamines. At about month 16 I realized I was not needing them. And in fact I have not had an anti-histamine since that time. My allergies to dogs and cats are almost completely gone. I still suffer from sensitivities to pollen but not nearly as much as formerly and I just don’t bother with the anti-histamines. Previously a five minute exposure to a long haired dog or cat would likely incapacitate me for the rest of the day; now I don’t usually even feel any effect.
  4. month 20 — language skills reappeared: This was an amazing change. I have generally been very adept at picking up languages. As a teenager I used to converse (with differing levels of skill) in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish and Ukrainian. I could usually think in French and German and to some extent in Spanish. Usually a few days in a foreign country would have me speaking the language. By the time I was 60 my wife was commenting on how I seemed to have lost this capability. What a surprise when one day I was driving down the road and found myself thinking about things in German! This capability seems to be coming back and is gradually improving. To me this indicates that the arterial channels in my brain are clearing out.
  5. month 24 — I don’t get sick anymore. I used to always be getting ill with colds or flues and more often than I wanted I would end up on antibiotics. This condition improved considerably when I stopped eating gluten about 2002, but I was still getting ill a few times a year. At about month 24 I realized that if I got sick it was usually only for a day or two — in fact, now, it seems that I will realize I have been ill when it occurs to me that I wasn’t ‘quite right’ yesterday. I no longer seem to have those weeks of runny or stuffed up noses, mild fevers and general illness. How great!
  6. month 24 — sense of optimism. At this time, two years into the program I realized that my outlook on life was changing. To put this in context, by the time I was 65 I started to ‘realize’ that my life was effectively ‘over’. I would go into retirement. I would gradually lose my capabilities. I would ‘fade out’ or perhaps have a catastrophic heart attack or stroke. What a change was evident a year ago. All of a sudden, it seemed, I realized that I felt and was thinking like a 20 year old. When I was 20, I looked forward to perhaps 30 productive years and with the optimism of youth felt I would achieve great things. Now, here I was at 71, thinking again that I would have 30 good years ahead of me and there are great things for me to yet achieve!
  7. month 24 — balance improved. This was another welcome surprise.¬†I was on my morning walk one day a year ago when I realized that I had passed something I wanted to take another look at. Without stopping (I walk at a fairly fast military marching pace) I did a complete 360 degree turn to take a glance at the object ¬†and continued on my way. I realized a block later what I had done. I had not stopped, slowly turned around, and then looked and then turned around and continued — something I would have done a few years ago. No, I handled that maneuver like a young person. More recently I have been on ice skates for the first time in at least 25 years. I have complete sense of balance and no fear of falling.
  8. month 36 — corneal arcus disappeared. This was a welcome change. Corneal arcus is an easily observable buildup of fats and cholesterol in the blood vessels surrounding the cornea of the eye. It is¬†observed in people with high cholesterol, by opthamologists and optometrists, without any obtrusive action, during a normal eye examination. Such specialists will normally mention it to their patients because it is a sign that cholesterol buildup is occurring in the blood vessels. I had been advised of it when I was about 45 years old. Just recently I was advised by my optometrist that I no longer had corneal arcus! This is an independent measure of the “REVERSAL” that Dr. Esselstyn described in his work. I have written about this in an earlier blog.

The amazing thing about this story of the improvement of my health is that I am still discovering improvements. I am getting to the stage where I wonder “What next?”.

Will I stick to this diet? YOU BET!


Cholesterol and the Eyes

About twenty five years ago when I visited my opthalmologist I was told that it seemed as if I had cholesterol and should have it checked by my doctor. I was not surprised that I had high cholesterol, because a couple of months earlier I had been told that by my doctor. What did surprise me was that my opthalmologist could tell that just by looking into my eyes!

It turned out that I had “corneal arcus” a thin grey or white¬†ring around the cornea which is actually a deposit of fat and cholesterol in the eye. This, especially when it occurs in younger people is taken as a sign of high cholesterol which should be further investigated.

Of course, as I relate elsewhere, I had borderline high cholesterol for decades and eventually had stents put into my heart to prevent blockages that had occurred from causing a heart attack.

Three years ago, on 1 February I adopted the Esselstyn diet for preventing and reversing heart disease. On this diet (no fish, no meat, no dairy, no oils) which I follow fairly closely, The general evidence is that the cholesterol buildup that has occurred during a lifetime will gradually disappear on this diet.

So, naturally, when I was having my eyes examined yesterday I asked if there was evidence of corneal arcus in my eyes. I was really happy to learn that there was none! This is just yet another benefit from the diet and just another motivation to stay with it.


A Christmas (vegan) Feast

One of the challenges on some of our traditional holidays, is what to eat in lieu of such traditional meat dishes as turkey, ham, lamb and beef. We solved this nicely this past Christmas with a lovely feast that took little time to eat, yet was delicious as well as nutritious. It could be served for any of the traditional events on which we enjoy a great meal . . . . more

Do you need meat to get protein?

Quite a number of people that I have spoken to about our diet have started it and continued it for a time. They start feeling better. So then they start to ‘work out’ — to take their improving health to the next level. Somehow at that point they decide that they need to consume meat to be able to build up some muscle.


This post addresses some of the errors in that thinking (with thanks to my son Adrian who first suggested writing this up).

There are a couple of aspects to this issue that are worth considering:

  • how much protein do you need?
  • what is the protein content of foods and is it possible for a whole foods diet to provide this?
  • are there actually athletes (body builders, iron men, professional athletes) who get their protein from a whole food plant based diet?

How much protein do you need?

Proteins are complex molecules which are made up of amino acids. The human body requires 20 different amino acids to function properly. These amino acids are combined in the body to create proteins. Proteins, in turn are broken down into amino acids which are recycled in the chemical processes of the body.

A complete protein source provides all 20 amino acids, whereas an incomplete protein source is low in some of the necessary amino acids. So it is necessary in a diet to ensure that a complete set of amino acids is provided.

The question of how much protein you need in a day is a bit more subjective and clearly depends on such factors as age and activity levels. That said a mature male in the United States is said by the Center for Disease Control (CDC — the government body that sets such standards) to require 56 grams of protein per day. On their protein webpage they provide a calculator for other age/sex/activity situations.

Generally people in the United States or western world get far more protein than they need.

A search on the internet will easily provide other pages that give suggestions for protein requirements and they will be in the order of those suggested by the CDC.

What is the protein content of food?

On their site the CDC address in particular the question of whether a vegetarian diet can provide the protein required, and in particular make the statement “protein needs can easily be met by eating a variety of plant-based foods”. They also provide information on the protein content of various foods.

It does take a bit of planning and one must eat a variety of foods to ensure that all amino acids are included. Fortunately, there are many sources of information on how to prepare such menus. We have some recipes on this site which meet those requirements. And, in addition, the books by Esselstyn, Campbell and Furhman, which I review on this site, contain considerable numbers of recipes and menus.

Can a body builder or athlete succeed on a whole foods diet?

The answer is YES!

An interesting example is Rip Esselstyn, son of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn who was a professional iron man competitor for many years. There are many other persons who play professional sports or who are in bodybuilding or similar pursuits — just do a few searches on the internet and you will find them.

You will also, if you look, find a large number of celebrities who are vegan — including former President Bill Clinton.

Some Interesting Links on this subject

Protein in the Vegan Diet

10 Vegan Sources of Protein

Top 10 Vegan Bodybuilders

How to Build Muscle Mass on a Vegan Diet



What is my nutritional approach?

I am often asked what the guiding principles are to my diet — and how closely do I keep them?

Basically I try to adhere to what I term a ‘modified’ Esselstyn diet. Dr. Esselstyn’s diet is simple, a feature in a diet that I consider very¬†attractive. It states:

  • no meat
  • no fish
  • no dairy
  • no oils

What could be simpler! Essentially no products that come from animals. I do not have to count calories — I can eat as much as I want subject to those four limitations.

I do modify the diet in a few simple ways:

  1. Firstly, I have a gluten sensitivity, so no gluten — that means nothing with wheat, barley or rye grains. I do eat whole grain oats, brown rice, quinoa, and various other flours. (Note that gluten is in almost all processed foods — for example, in all but one or two brands of soy sauce!)
  2. Secondly, I avoid adding salt to anything I prepare and always look for low sodium versions of the few processed foods I consume (e.g. I will use low sodium, organic canned kidney beans if I haven’t had time to prepare beans from scratch)
  3. I do eat nuts, but only small servings. For example, I often put 4 or 5 whole walnuts in my smoothie and I will put shaved almonds on my salads or in my trail mix cookies.
  4. I almost never eat refined products such as white rice or quick serve rolled oats (one needs to consume the old fashioned rolled oats that take at least 15 minutes to cook). However if one is in a restaurant it is difficult to get brown rice or long cooked anything!
  5. I almost never consume sugar or sweeteners. I will sometimes use a little honey (preferably organic — my neighbor, Steve, an apiarist provides mine) or agave nectar or molasses. I do not eat the usual range of deserts — I stick to fresh fruits or, occasionally a cobler which is made with gluten free flours and no added sugars.

As a general rule of thumb I avoid processed foods. However, I do use frozen foods, preferably organic, if they do not have preservatives added. Similarly I use some canned goods, but again, preferably organic, low sodium and without other additives.

And do I sometimes stray from this diet? Yes. This happens particularly when travelling or when I go out to a restaurant. I eat a lot of salads and hold the cheese, chicken or shrimps, and dressing, but sometimes a bit of oil creeps in and I don’t fight with the kitchen.¬†And I might order an entree that really sounds vegan but does come with much more oil that I would ever use myself. Too, I do eat tortilla chips sometimes — in small quantities and low salt — with a dip, however I prefer to use celery or carrots or broccoli for such occasions.



Colin Campbell’s “WHOLE”

Colin Campbell, famed author of the bestseller “The China Study” recently wrote his follow up book, “WHOLE”, in which he argues for a holistic approach to medical research and promotes the concept and benefits of a whole foods plant based. See my book review for more details. This is a “must read”!


Green Pans

From time to time we encounter products that really make cooking easier for someone on a whole foods plant based diet.

One of the challenges is how to fry things without using oil. Yes, I know, virgin olive oil is supposed to be good for you. But, you might want to hear what Dr. Esselstyn says . . . NO OIL

We do consume a bit of oil in our diets, but anything to reduce that consumption is helpful so we were really pleased to encounter the “Green Pan” line of pots and pans and frying pans. These are really incredible. Nothing sticks to them. They are ceramic coated surfaces developed using nono-technology techniques. They do not exude PTFEs the way teflon does. Nothing sticks to them. If you happen to burn or sear something you can usually wipe it off with a paper towel. You can saute mushrooms without oil (I usually put a tablespoon of water in to start). You have to use these to realize just how great they are.

We bought our set at Target, but you might find other combinations and prices more suitable to your needs.

These help immensely in achieving NO OIL

Phytoceramides for the Skin

One of the things I want to do this year is improve my skin — to make it softer, to get rid of wrinkles and ‘age’ spots.

I came across a Dr. Oz video on phtyoceramides (phyto == plant) which suggested they might help. They are in pill form so that has the potential to address all of the skin on the body, unlike creams that are only going to impact the area treated — I don’t see myself putting lotion all over my body!
So I am trying them. Apparently one will only see results after about 4 weeks, but I seem to feel my skin is softer already? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I thought I should mention it. I am taking Revive which you can see some reviews on and/or buy at the Amazon link. It is a gluten free version — something that is important to me. The cost is about $.80 a day — a real bargain if it works!


Every few days a friend or acquaintance asks me about some aspect of my lifestyle, health or nutrition — or perhaps I read something I feel I should pass on.

This blog is one way of providing that information to anyone who comes to the site.

I hope you find something interesting here

wishing you health, good nutrition and longevity