More than three years ago, The Biggest Loser fan favorite and poster child for healthy living had a shock at his physical. "The doctor said I had high cholesterol — and it had to be genetic because I eat well and exercise," Harper says. So he studied up on plant-based diets and tested out vegan living (no meat, eggs, or dairy) in an attempt to lower his cholesterol. To the shock of Harper and his doctors, his total cholesterol count dropped 100 points after making the switch. Since then, Harper has connected his diet with his love for animals. He's now the spokesperson for the Walk for Animals, a fundraiser for Farm Sanctuary, which aims to end animal cruelty.
Harper took a break from filming The Biggest Loser to chat with FITNESS about his vegan lifestyle, his healthy eating tips, and his crusade against factory farms.
FITNESS: "You certainly noticed changes in your cholesterol after you stopped consuming animal products, but did you also see effects in your performance, energy levels, or other areas of your life too?"
Bob Harper: "My body went through a major transition, but I can say as a vegan and now 45 years old, I feel better, stronger, and cleaner. This diet is a great fit for me. I'm not condemning animal eaters, but just showing there's another option that's out there."
"What are your favorite foods these days?"
BH: "Chef Tal Ronnen, The Conscious Cook, has a paella recipe that I absolutely love. Some of my favorite standbys include Ezekiel muffins, Quaker oatmeal, and a green drink, made of a mix of vegetables, hemp seed, and Maca Powder. And I tell people they can even have pizza! I make mine with a whole-grain crust, marinara sauce, and rice cheese."
"What is the biggest misconception about veganism, in your opinion?"
BH: "People always ask me how I get enough protein and other nutrients. I can get all that I need with the way that I eat — I just have to do a little recon. No matter what diet you follow, eating right isn't easy and takes planning."
"What are your go-to vegan meals?"
BH: "You have to have color on your plate. I keep kale salad in my fridge, because it's so hearty and will last for days. It's a mix of kale, walnuts, peppers, and currants. I also enjoy quinoa with black beans and salsa. Healthy eating can be easy if you plan ahead and have staples like these in your refrigerator."
"Do you have any healthy eating tips for our readers who may or may not be interested in full-fledged veganism?"
BH: "Absolutely. Eat breakfast! I've been in the health business for more than 20 years, and I've seen how much it can slow your metabolism to skip it. You also need to have healthy snacks readily available. This takes planning, but if you have fresh fruits and vegetables, hummus, or Greek yogurt with berries on-hand, that will help keep you on track. And complex carbs are good, but stay away from them at night if you can."
"How do you stay on track when travelling or have to grab something quick away from home?"
BH: "Finding good options with fast food is really, really hard. Salads can be good choices, but watch the dressing and skip anything fried on the salad. Seek out the lower-sugar options and bypass buns on sandwiches. If there's a grocery store nearby, that's a better choice than fast food. Grab dry roasted or raw nuts or fresh fruit to snack on to hold you over."
"What are some of the influences that helped you decide to eat the way you do now, or continue on with this plan?"
BH: "The China Study, [which discusses the link between nutrition and heart disease, diabetes and cancer] really spoke to me and opened up my eyes. President Clinton actually just started a plant-based diet and talks about the book. It's like a school book — thought-provoking and dense. And a documentary called Forks Over Knives was made recently and is so powerful. It's like Food Inc., but a whole new level."
"Why did you decide to work with Farm Sanctuary?"
BH: "I grew up on a farm where cows had pastures and a good life. Now factory farms are too painful. Animals have been turned into objects rather than living, breathing, and feeling beings. Farm Sanctuary is doing their part and I love being able to help out the organization."
"After filming more than 10 seasons, how would you explain the effect of The Biggest Loser on viewers?"
BH: "Biggest Loser gives inspiration. You can get back on track no matter how far you are off of it. I get e-mails and tweets every day from fit people who really get something out of the show. I think of it as informative reality TV."
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, November 2010.