Life As a Plant-Passionate Gym Rat

April 20, 2015

I began my plant-based macrobiotic practice 36 years ago when I was terminally ill. Given about nine months to live, all my attention moved to healing and what I had to do in order to well…live. I was committed to doing what needed doing, what needed changing.


Training and fitness were some of the last things on my mind, which was odd for me as I had always been fit…and thought it was a healthy part of my life (in hindsight, maybe the only healthy part). You see, as a teenager, my father got me into competitive swimming and other sports. It seems I was in the gym for most of my life, training or just for fun. I was active all the time, never sitting still.


With my diagnosis, I knew my lifestyle had to change dramatically.


I walked away from the foods that I believed had contributed to my illness; I stopped burning the candle at both ends in my work…and yes, I walked away from my beloved gym. I was told by natural living experts that I needed to conserve my energy for healing, which made sense to me at that juncture in my life. 


Fast forward to the present day…okay fifteen years ago. Obviously, I recovered my health. I turned to yoga for fitness because it was more ‘gentle’ for my body. Practicing for more than ten years, I was relatively fit and in shape. I still missed the gym, but a good Flow session left me feeling like I had worked out some.


Then one fateful day, I was washing walls in the kitchen (don’t ask…), fell off a step stool and broke my wrist. A year, two surgeries and 20 pounds heavier, I was soft, out of shape and frustrated…oh, so frustrated.


I watched film from the series of ‘Christina Cooks’ we were shooting and marveled at the fat girl hosting the show…Wait, what? It was me. Yikes!


Enter Fitness Works in Philadelphia. I began to work with a personal trainer…correction…THE personal trainer, Anthony Molino, who took on the task of getting me back in shape. I told myself it was only for a few sessions, until I got in the groove of working out again and then I would be back to yoga.


But, oh…the weights felt so comfortable in my hands; the stress on my muscles felt magical. I was back in shape in no time…and completely hooked on training…from one on one sessions to full blown, extreme boot camp classes to spinning to kettle bell workouts. I now work out and practice yoga and Pilates five days a week…it’s like coming home after a long trip.


A happy ending, right? Not so fast.


In the ‘gym culture,’ there are not that many vegans running around. You know the image of the skinny, out of shape 90-pound weakling up against the rock-hard muscle man. It’s not an exaggeration.


After the initial blush of getting fit, I realized that my workouts were leaving me exhausted. Anthony believed my dietary choices contributed to my fatigue, but there was no way I was leaving my healthy plant-based lifestyle behind. He said that my muscles were being torn down and had trouble rebuilding because I wasn’t getting enough good-quality protein (there’s that argument again…not enough protein, but this time it held water) and iodine. Iodine? I had to find a way to stay strong within my lifestyle and my food choices.


And I did. I reduced my whole grain intake to accommodate an increased intake of beans, tofu, seitan and tempeh for protein, since protein drinks just don’t work for me. My choices allowed me to keep my volume of food the same, but get enough protein to repair my muscle. 


My vegetable intake, which was always great, changed a bit to accommodate more raw foods to keep my body relaxed and my muscles supple. I found, for me, I needed a combo of raw and cooked veggies to thrive. I also increased my vegetable fat intake in the form of nuts, olives and olive oil. I just cannot eat avocados. I began to eat small meals, more often during the day and my strength rebounded in no time.


I also began to supplement the nutrients I missed, vitamin B-12 and folic acid, plus two amino acids, glutamine and L-carnitine. Some antioxidants round out the mix of supplements to bridge any gaps in my nutrition. I added a kelp supplement to the mix for iodine.


My workouts are sure and strong again. I’m tired after a good workout and my muscles ache with the pleasure of strain, but now, challenging my body keeps me strong and vital…not exhausted. I have the strength to take on any adventure life throws my way.


My life as a gym rat continues…who knows where the path will lead, but I can tell you this: there will always be a weight in my hands as I walk along it.


You should try it…working out and eating well…and if you do, try these fortifying recipes to keep you going…and going…and going.


White Beans with Fresh Tomato and Basil Sauce


Makes 3-4 servings


1 cup cannellini beans, rinsed very well

3 cups spring or filtered water

1 bay leaf



extra virgin olive oil

2-3 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced

½ (one half) red onion, diced

sea salt

generous pinch crushed red pepper flakes

6-7 vine-ripened tomatoes, diced, do not peel or seed

2/3 cup dry white wine

3-4 sprigs fresh basil, leaves removed from stems, shredded

4-5 oil-cured black olives, pitted, coarsely chopped


Place beans, water and bay leaf in a heavy pot over medium heat.  Bring to a boil, uncovered and boil for 5 minutes.  Cover, reduce heat to low and cool until beans are tender, about an hour.  Drain liquid away so beans do not get too soft.


While the beans cook, prepare the sauce.  Place about 2 tablespoons oil, garlic and onion in a deep skillet over medium heat.  When the onions begin to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and the red pepper flakes and sauté for 2-3 minutes.  Stir in tomatoes and wine and bring to a boil.      Cover and reduce heat to low and cook for 15 minutes.  Season lightly with salt and simmer for another 5 minutes. 


Stir in cooked beans, basil and olives and cook for 5 minutes.  Transfer to a serving platter and serve immediately. 


COOK’S TIP: You can use canned organic beans to save cooking time, but be sure to rinse them well before use.


Split Pea Hummus


Makes 3-4 servings


1 cup green split peas, rinsed very well

2 ½ cups spring or filtered water

1 bay leaf

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup sesame tahini

sea salt

2-3 cloves fresh garlic, very finely minced

2 teaspoons brown rice syrup

generous pinch crushed red pepper flakes

juice of one half lemon


Place split peas, water and bay leaf in a heavy pot and bring to a boil, uncovered and boil for 5 minutes.  Cover, reduce heat to low and cook until split peas are quite soft, about 1 hour. 


Transfer the peas to a food processor, add remaining ingredients and puree until smooth.  Adjust seasonings to your taste. 


Serve with organic corn chips, pita bread, whole grain toast points or celery and carrot sticks.