Viva La Vegan!

Dr. Cyrus Khambatta received his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 2012, and started Mangoman Nutrition and Fitness in 2013 to teach people with diabetes the fundamentals of lifestyle management through informed nutrition and exercise. By providing nutrition and exercise coaching, he aspires to positively influence the lives of people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. 

Cyrus-Pushup 

Why Vegan?
How and why did you decide to become a vegan?
When I was 22, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in my senior year of college. It flipped my world upside down. I had grown up as a very active kid, playing soccer, baseball, basketball, running and generally being a rambunctious child. At the time of diagnosis, I had no idea what diabetes was or what it meant for my life. At that time in my life, I was ignorant about everything related to diabetes, and therefore listened to everything the doctor and nutritionist told me because I was afraid that something bad could happen if I did not listen to them.

I was afraid that I would go blind. I was afraid that I would lose my vision. I was afraid that my kidneys would fail. I was afraid that I would develop heart disease. Worst of all, I was afraid that I would lose my ability to be active. Beyond everything else, compromising my ability to play sports scared me the most. I followed the advice of my doctor and nutritionist, and adopted a low carbohydrate diet, the one-size-fits-all prescription for people with diabetes. At that time I was unaware about any of the health effects of low carbohydrate diets, I simply followed the advice of my doctor and nutritionist out of fear.

I followed the low carbohydrate diet to a tee, and modified my cooking and eating habits significantly. I increased my consumption of eggs, turkey, chicken, salmon, peanut butter, milk and cheese. I did this because in the diabetes world, carbohydrates are the enemy and should be minimized or avoided at all costs. As a result, I ate foods high in protein and fat. In a short period of time, I lost all my energy. I was constantly lethargic, and severely dehydrated. Even though my blood sugar was supposed to be easy to control in the absence of carbohydrates, I experienced chronically high blood sugars all day long, and bringing my blood sugar into the normal range required large injections of insulin. I knew that something was terribly wrong, I just wasn’t educated enough to make a change for the better.
 
Following about 365 days of a low carbohydrate diet, I hit “rock bottom.” On that day, I lay on the couch, depressed, anxious, dehydrated, confused, and alone. I knew I needed to make a change, but I didn't know what to do. I listen to the voice in the back of my head that said "you should learn how to eat." At that point, I started reading everything under the sun about nutrition. I attended scientific lectures, and I started talking to everyone I encountered, in search of more information. Before I knew it, I was introduced to the idea of being either a vegetarian or a vegan, and all the stories that I had heard from people made me believe that if I transition to a plant-based diet, I would experience significantly improved blood sugar control.
 
I was still nervous about becoming a vegan because I had not met any vegans who were athletes. Yes, I wanted better blood sugar control and improved insulin sensitivity, but I did not want to sacrifice my ability to be active - very active. Therefore, I hesitated in adopting a vegan lifestyle until I could be convinced that it was the right approach for maintaining an active lifestyle. 
 
After a short period of time I met Dr. Douglas Graham, the creator of the 80/10/10 diet. He took me under his wing and taught me the principles of eating a high carbohydrate, low fat and low protein vegan diet. He assured me that not only would I be able to remain active, but that transitioning to a vegan diet would actually increase my level of activity. I had nothing to lose at this point, so I followed his guidance and made the transition.
 
I told myself that I could commit to the 80/10/10 vegan approach for 1 month before evaluating it’s effects. After two weeks on the 80/10/10 diet, my insulin usage had fallen by 30%, my blood sugar values had normalized, I was no longer dehydrated, my muscles felt limber, and I had significantly more energy. At the time, I remember feeling as though the 80/10/10 lifestyle charged me with energy in the same way that a computer battery gets charged when plugged into a wall power outlet. The increase in my energy level was noticeable, pronounced and incredibly empowering.
 
The results were so quick and dramatic that I was absolutely convinced that there was something fundamentally important happening within my body. At that point, I got so excited about nutrition that I decided to study towards a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry, so that I could understand the scientific and molecular level details of nutrition to feed my “scientist” brain.
 
How long have you been vegan?
I was first diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 22, in 2002. I transitioned to being a vegan in 2003. It is now 2015, and this marks my 12th year as an 100% 80/10/10 raw food vegan.
 
What has benefited you from being a vegan?
When I first transitioned to a vegan diet, I wanted improved blood sugar control. Controlling diabetes was my main objective. There is no doubt that adopting a low-fat, high carbohydrate raw food diet has significantly improved my insulin sensitivity, reduced my insulin-dependency, and reduced my blood sugars significantly. I now maintain blood sugars that are technically classified as “non-diabetic.”
 
Despite these obvious improvements in blood sugar control, being a vegan has fundamentally changed my body from the inside out. Having grown up as an avid soccer player, I am very familiar with muscle soreness, muscle tightness, and frequent injury. All throughout my childhood and high school career, I felt as though I was constantly battling injury, jumping from one sore muscle to the next. As a result, I would stretch daily, sometimes for an hour at a time.
Now, having been a vegan for a sufficient period of time, I can safely say that I experience a level of athleticism that is well beyond what I ever dreamed possible. My muscles are extremely limber. I am constantly well hydrated. I can perform exercise at an extremely high intensity whenever I want. I can push harder for longer periods of time, and my muscles recover from intense exercise extremely rapidly.
 
If I do get injured, maintaining a strict vegan diet has significantly shortened my injury recovery. I no longer have anxiety about how long it will take to fully recover, because I know that by maintaining a strict vegan diet, I can accelerate the recovery process and return to sport in a much shorter time than previously possible.
 
What has benefited you the most from being a vegan?
Without doubt, improved blood sugar control. I absolutely love the amount of control that I have over my blood sugar values now, and I never could have achieved this on an animal protein diet. Having studied nutrition for over a decade now, I have come to understand that there is sufficient evidence in support of a high intake of fat and protein causing increased blood glucose. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have this knowledge, and as a result I choose to eat a low fat vegan diet that keeps me extremely insulin sensitive. 
 
Simply stated, I can't think of a single reason to going back to being an omnivore; living a vegan lifestyle is an incredible feeling from head to toe.
 
What does veganism mean to you?
To me, veganism means making a series of conscious decisions about what you put in your body. As a vegan, I think twice about every food that enters my body, and am now a 100% conscious eater.  If I don’t have the option of eating a plant, I will fast until I find the next opportunity. 
 
True, veganism is a way of life. But more importantly, veganism is a philosophy of nutrition and environmental awareness.
 
Training
What sort of training do you do?
On a weekly basis, I strength train 4 times per week. I play soccer twice per week for a total of about 150 minutes. I run once per week for about 3 to 5 miles. When I strength train, I perform a series of multi-joint compound movements, such as squats, dead lifts, pull-ups, push-ups etc. I focus on getting full body workouts as often as possible, and deemphasize isolation movements that were popular back in the 1980s and 1990s.
 
How often do you need to train?
Simply stated, exercise is my favorite part of being human. To me, movement is everything. I had 24 hours left on this planet problem, I would spend 10-12 of them exercising. No joke. That being said, if I had nothing better to do with my day, I would spend at least two or three hours exercising every day. However, given professional and social commitments, I choose to train for about one hour per day, seven days per week. By paying attention to my body, I can tell when it is time to rest, and therefore I take rest only as needed. My overall goal is to exercise seven days per week.
 
Do you offer fitness or trading services to others?
Yes, I am a personal trainer and small group fitness instructor. I train people individually, and I lead small group Boot Camp classes. I absolutely love inspiring other people to enjoy for this as much as I do, and I trying keep all my sessions fun, high intensity, and difficult - extremely difficult. One of my favorite things to do is to push people beyond their mental limits, and watch when they get excited about how far they can push themselves.
 
What sports do you play?
I play soccer, weight train, run, and swim. In truth, I love playing all sports, but these are the sports that I train on a weekly basis.
 
Strengths, Weaknesses and Outside Influences
What do you think is the biggest misconception about vegans and how do you address this?
In my experience, many people view veganism as a “restrictive” lifestyle. Often, people make statements like, "I could never be a vegan because I can't give up cheese." My understanding is that when people think of being a vegan, they think about all the foods they can't eat, and rarely focus on the foods that they can eat. Given that we have grown up in a meat- and dairy-heavy society, the concept of veganism seems like a radical approach to nutrition, when in reality it's simply about eating a large amount of whole fruits and vegetables.
 
People also tell me that they can't be vegan because it is too socially isolating. I hear phrases like "none of my friends are vegan. If I become a vegan, I won't be able to eat out at a restaurant." In my opinion, statements like this could not be farther from the truth. The reason is simple: every restaurant can provide vegan options. Every restaurant can make a salad. Almost every restaurant can provide a vegan with an interesting meal. By focusing on what happens 10% of the time instead of what happens 90% of the time often leads people to make erroneous conclusions about how veganism will negatively affect their social life, even before trying.
 
To me, veganism is also a mindset. If you open your mind to the idea that being a vegan can be delicious and fun, then that will be your experience.  On the other hand, if you view veganism as a restrictive and socially isolating diet, you are likely to experience just that. In other words, your experience is often influenced by your preconceived notions.
 
What are your strengths as a vegan athlete?
The most noticeable strength as a vegan athlete is my ability to push at high intensity. Up until I was in my early 20s, I felt as though I was always operating at about 70% of max. The top 30% was incredibly difficult to access, and I'm not convinced that I ever actually accessed the top echelon of my athleticism. I knew that my athleticism was being slowed down by something and that I was capable of more than I was consistently performing. The problem was that I simply didn't know how to access that top 30%.
 
When I transitioned to being a vegan, I noticed that the intensity with which I could exercise significantly increased. I noticed that accessing the top 30% became automatic, and this allowed me to run faster, push harder, and exert myself for a longer period of time. As a result, my friends, family and clients refer to me as a “fitness junkie” because they understand the profound effect that being a vegan has had on my ability to push the limits. 
 
Another noticeable strength of being a vegan athlete is significantly improved recovery time. Currently, when I exercise, I try to exercise at the highest intensity level possible. Following demanding workouts, I find that my muscles certainly get sore, but the soreness feels less debilitating than the soreness I experienced on an omnivorous diet. Even brutal workouts leave me with moderate tightness, and after a full day’s rest, I am often fully recovered and ready to exercise within 24 hours. As an omnivore, sometimes it took me up to 72 hours to recover from high-intensity exercise, leaving me sidelined for longer than I wanted. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, and I count my blessings every single day.
 
What is my biggest challenge as a vegan?
When I first became a vegan, I had a difficult time communicating to friends and family about why I choose to be this way. I would often get interrogated about my food choices, and conversations with friends often devolved into having to defend my position as a vegan. Overall, I found these types of conversations to
be very uncomfortable and frustrating.
 
Over time, I have noticed that my friends and family understand that being a vegan is not a phase, but a long-term approach. It is a decision that I have made - and choose to stick to - because of the benefits that it provides for my diabetes and athletic health. Now, when I communicate my experience of being a 100% 80/10/10 raw food vegan for the past 12 years, people usually respond with "Wow, 12 years is a very long time."
 
Interrogation sessions do not happen nearly as frequently as before, and when they do, I simply tell people that I eat like a monkey. That usually makes the situation lighthearted and more enjoyable for everyone. When in doubt, I make fun of myself and others follow.
 
Are the non-vegans in your industry supportive or not?
Yes, even the non-vegans in my industry are very supportive of a vegan diet, because they understand the profound benefit that it has given to me, and they understand the benefits it has had on my clients as well. I believe the support has come with time, as people have seen that I have an unwavering commitment to being a vegan, as opposed to trying out a fad diet for six months and then transitioning to whatever else was popular at the time.
 
Are your family and friends support of the vegan lifestyle?
Yes, absolutely. All of my friends and family are now in full support of the vegan lifestyle. People often ask me questions about what they should be eating, and when I give them gentle recommendations, they incorporate them and usually report back to me about how great they feel.
 
What is the most common question/comment that people ask/say when they find out you are a vegan and how do you respond?
The most common question I get from people when I find out that I am a vegan is "what do you get your protein?" I know that is a common question that many people many vegans yet, and I don't feel alone in answering this question. I respond by telling them that I get my protein from marijuana. I tell them that I eat about 1 pound of hemp protein per week, and that it keeps me feeling like a million bucks. I tell them that there are many protein choices on the market, and hemp protein is anti-inflammatory, easily digestible and tastes great. 
 
Who or what motivates you?
I am motivated by the stories of people who I interact with who have transitioned to plant-based diet and felt significantly more energy. Every time I hear about somebody who has made the transition to eating a more plant-focused diet, I add a tally mark in my head. I think it is only a matter of time before vegetarian and vegan diets are as common as meat-eating diets. Perhaps that will happen in my lifetime, perhaps it will take another 50 years. Regardless, slow progress makes me extremely happy.
Cyrus-jumping
 
Food & Supplements
What do you eat for breakfast?
For breakfast, I usually eat the equivalent of 4-5 fruits, 4 tablespoons of hemp protein powder, 2 tablespoons of chia seeds hydrated in water, and cinnamon, cardamom or cocoa powder. I construct a fruit bowl in which the fruit is sitting at the bottom, hemp protein powder and chia seeds are poured on top, and the spices are then sprinkled on top of that.
 
If I have extra time, I will construct an acai bowl. I will blend in one packet of açai with a banana, and then I will construct a massive bowl including mangoes, papayas, dates, raisins and figs. I will then pour the açai mixture on top, sprinkle on some cinnamon and go to town.
 
What do you eat for lunch?
For lunch, I generally eat about 1500 calories in 10 minutes. Lunch is my favorite meal of the day, because I am ravenously hungry following an intense exercise session. Generally, I eat 5 or 6 bananas, a handful of medjool dates, 1 or 2 mangoes, and 4 tbsp. hemp protein powder. I like to see how fast I can eat this giant bowl, because I eat like a caveman and love shoveling food into my mouth.
 
In the middle of mango season, I go crazy. It is not uncommon for me to eat 5 mangoes at lunchtime, on top of a heaping pile of bananas. In the height of mango season, I try to eat at least 10 mangoes per day, because I am addicted to them. In my early twenties, I lived in Oahu, Hawaii for two years. This island paradise was the perfect place to grow my mango eating experience. Armed with a pickup truck, a 5 gallon bucket and a voracious appetite, I traveled around the island in search of the best mango trees, and would regularly return home with 20-30 freshly picked, ripe, fragrant mangoes per day. 
 
In 2007 I applied to the Guiness Book of World Records to set the record for the most mangoes eaten in 24 hours. I had practiced diligently in the preceding months, averaging 23 mangoes per day or a total of 1,750 mangoes in a 2.5-month period. My plan was to eat 50 mangoes in 24 hours, and exercise as much as possible during that time to burn off the excess energy. The Guiness Book of World Records promptly denied my request, claiming that they "do not sponsor food-eating records because it promotes unnecessary one-upsmanship." For that, they replied, "consider applying to the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE)," - the same organization that sponsors the ever-popular hot dog eating contests. So for now I claim to hold the "unofficial mango eating world record" although I have absolutely no documentation to back up this invented claim. 
 
What you eat for dinner?
Dinner is also very fun meal for me. The reason is because dinner is my opportunity to be extremely creative. I enjoy making green papaya salads, kale salads, iceberg lettuce tacos. I have gained a reputation for making giant salads with a ton of hot spices, and people often ask me to make a "Cyrus salad" and bring it to their house for dinner.  I think my friends are using me!
 
What do you eat for snacks?
For snacks, I usually eat 1 or 2 pieces of fruit, or a giant handful of medjool dates. I am addicted to dates, and will eat pounds of them unless you take them away for me.
 
What is your favorite source of:
Calcuim - I like to pretend that mangoes have a ton of calcium. 
Iron - I also like to pretend that mangoes have a ton of iron.
 
What foods give you the most energy?
Bananas, dates and mangoes. Sometimes I eat up to 12 or 14 bananas a day, especially when I am very active. I have a serious addiction to medjool dates, and I can easily eat 1 pound at a sitting without even thinking about it. Mangoes are my weakness. Clearly, I have a sweet tooth.
 
Do you take any supplements?
Yes, I eat mangoes.
 
Advice
What is your tip for gaining muscle?
In the bodybuilding world, protein is king. Bodybuilders constantly nitpick how much protein they are consuming you with every meal. I have found that focusing on carbohydrates from whole foods, (especially fruits) significantly increases glycogen storage.
 
I like to think of glycogen as rocket fuel for humans. The more glycogen you store in your muscles, the more responsive your muscle tissue will behave. Therefore, in order to build muscle tissue, I instruct my clients to consume a large quantity of readily available and easily digestible carbohydrates from fruits and starchy vegetables, and then to increase their protein intake from either beans or lentils or hemp protein powder. The combination of a significant quantity of carbohydrates and a high-quality protein from whole foods is a winning combination for increasing strength, power, quickness, recovery, and endurance. No questions asked.
 
What is your tip for losing weight?
In graduate school, I studied the effects of calorie restriction and intermittent fasting. There is no question in my mind that intermittent fasting is the single most effective long-term strategy for weight control, and an incredibly fun mental and physical exercise. Performing a once-per-week 24-hour fast is a very easy way to control bodyweight, and promote weight loss at a reasonable weight rate of about 1 pound per week.
 
What is your tip for improving metabolism?
In my experience, the term "metabolism” is thrown around loosely, even though most people do not know what the word actually means. The term “metabolism” technically means "the sum total of all biological reactions,” therefore developing a strategy to improve all chemical reactions is theoretically not possible. That being said, when it comes to improving metabolism I have two general recommendations:
  1. Significantly reduce the amount of dietary fat from all sources in your diet. Focus on eating a large proportion of carbohydrates, between 70% and 80% of total calories.
  2. Eat multiple servings of high antioxidant content foods on a daily basis. These foods include raw onions, mangoes, squash, berries, acai berries, cinnamon, turmeric, and anything with a purple color.
We've all heard the term "eat the rainbow." I could not agree more, the rainbow is nutritious and quite delicious.
 
What is your top tip for toning up?
Train like your life depended on it. Be diligent, be consistent, surround yourself with people who are superior athletes, push yourself beyond what you think is possible. Your body is a machine: treat it like one and you will be pleasantly surprised.
 
How do you promote veganism in your daily life?
I promote veganism in my daily life by eating ridiculous quantities of fruits and vegetables. I love eating large piles of mangoes, papayas, dates, raisins, and bananas in public places. I enjoy acting like a monkey, because I often feel like one.
 
How would you suggest that people get involved with what you do?
I would suggest that people open their mind to experiencing exceptional health by making small changes to the way that they eat. The first step in making a transition to a vegan lifestyle is believing that dietary change is possible, the second step is pure execution. Without believing that eating a plant-based diet can lead to exceptional health, reduced disease risk and abundant energy, nothing will happen. When you believe, anything and everything is possible.

 

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