The Secret to Living Longer, From a Couple Who Feels Younger Than Ever
When you think about growing old gracefully, you envision yourself healthy, holding hands with your loved one, able to do all the things you love (like hike, play tennis, swim, or just hang out on the porch and visit), and most of all, you picture yourself as healthy. That is the goal, and that's the story of Bob and Fran German (the G is pronounced like girl), who are, in their 80s, active, healthier, and look younger than most people 20 years their junior. After two serious bouts with illness (he had cancer and she an autoimmune disease), they switched to a whole-food, plant-based diet 15 years ago, which they believe saved their lives. Now, they talk about their diet as the fountain of youth, and they want everyone to start drinking from it.
Bob and Fran started eating plant-based after she was diagnosed with an incurable autoimmune disease and he had the scary diagnosis of kidney cancer. Rather than listen to the dire prognosis of their doctors, they got busy researching holistic approaches to health and changed everything: How they eat, where they lived, even their livelihoods, to be stress-free and able to help others learn more about how to eat a plant-based diet. Now, decades after the first piece of devastating health news, Fran received from her doctor, who basically told her that her condition was degenerative and ultimately fatal, they are both symptom-free and living active, healthy, and love-filled lives. They are both as sharp-as-tacks and cheerful, not suffering from the brain fog or memory loss that many people experience in their 80s.
Bob and Fran told The Beet they love to cook spicy food, especially Asian and Indian dishes full of spice and flavor, and as they describe a typical day's menu, we want them to head to the kitchen and give us a cooking lesson. They could write a cookbook called: How to Cook to Live Long, Age Well and Keep Love Alive.
Here is their story. Read it and get inspired to eat for longevity, at every age.
The Beet: Your story is so inspiring, you should tell it. Why did you go plant-based?
Bob: The reason we like to tell our stories is that we truly believe that so many people think that when you get sick there's no hope. They're not given any hope from their doctor, they are just given some medication and told this is the way it's got to be. We actually have a phrase for that, called the "nocebo." You know what a placebo is, when you take a sugar pill? A nocebo is when you go to the doctor, and you are diagnosed with a disease and you are really given no hope. You are told "You will never get better." Or "You will have to take medication and there's just no way you can get better."
Fran: Well, here’s my story. In the fall, of 1992, we went on a trip to China for three weeks. And when we were there we both got really sick with upper respiratory infections, and when we came home and I got better, but a few weeks later, I woke up and couldn't open my left eye. We were living in South Florida at the time near Ft. Lauderdale. We went to the doctor and he took one look at me and he said, "I think you have Bell's palsy. And I looked at him and I said “I think I have Myasthenia Gravis.” Now, don’t ask me where this came from, because it's a very uncommon neuroimmune disease, but obviously, my intuition told me there was something going on that he was wrong about.
The Beet: That's amazing and your intuition turned out to be right?
Bob: Right. I had never heard about that disease.
Fran: At the time, we only knew two people who had ever had it. Aristotle Onassis and Anne Margaret’s husband. The doctor sends me across the way to the neurologist. The neurologist said, "Well we can find out if you are right." He gave me a little test. He shot something into my arm and my eye popped open. And he said "You are right. It is Myasthenia Gravis." So I went back to my doctor. And this is the nocebo: He said–and this is a friend of ours– "It is incurable, you'll have it for the rest of your life, you'll be on medication for the rest of your life, and your lifespan will be shortened."
My Doctor gave me no hope. But I happen to be a very stubborn person and I wasn't going to sit back and take that. And I started researching all the things I could do to get better. But let me tell you, for a while, I was really sick. We were working in real estate at the time, as partners and I couldn't drive. I had double vision so bad that they couldn't even put a prism in my glasses. It was horrible, I had to wear what looks like blinds going across a piece of plastic in my bad eye. I was so weak that I could barely hold my head up at times. I was just really really very, very sick.
The Beet: That is horrifying. How did you start to recover? What happened next?
Bob: I have to tell you that the essence of this disease is extreme weakness. In Fran’s case, from the neck.
Fran: Myasthenia gravis is a Greek expression that means extreme muscle weakness. And it couldn't have been more exact.
Bob: Her speech was very slurred. She could hardly lift her head up. She hardly could swallow. She lost her sense of taste. It was very bad and we were scared.
Fran: I was 52 at the time. We actually stopped working. We worked a bit for the next few years, but I was so sick I couldn’t work. And so here we are in the Ft. Lauderdale area with three counties, with millions of people. And I never met another person with Myasthenia Gravis. But I went to many different neurologists. And each time, it was pretty much the same story. They kept putting me on medication and telling me there’s no hope.Then, in 2003, we moved to a small town in western North Carolina. The first week we are here, Bob sees in the newspaper that there is a Myasthenia Gravis support group at the local hospital.
Bob: We couldn't believe it.
Fran: We started going to these meetings every month and didn’t really learn anything and I saw a lot of sick people. And of course, they served really healthy snacks, like potato chips, cookies, and soft drinks!
Bob: I have to tell you the town we live in is small. We live in Hendersonville, NC. It’s a retirement community. There are only 10,000 people in this town, and they have this support for Myasthenics? So they were a group of very nice, very sick people.
Fran: One thing I noticed, Everybody there had not just Myasthenia Gravis, but they also had diabetes, heart trouble. They had kidney problems. Because obviously when your body breaks down it's not just one thing that goes wrong. I went to these meetings every month and really didn’t learn much, but then one-month a clinical nutritionist who’d come from Asheville to speak to our group. He showed us a slide presentation, and he talked about how important plant-based nutrition was, and that even eating white meat chicken compromises the immune system and he recommended switching to a plant-based diet
He recommended reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, and also Diet for a New America by John Robbins. I immediately went home got both books and read them cover to cover. And that’s the beginning of the journey of getting well. I had been to maybe 11 neurologists over a period of years, and nobody had ever mentioned food.
Our society doesn’t make a connection between what we eat and our health. Thank goodness I met this nutritionist because I do believe that when the student is ready the teacher will appear.
Unfortunately, I was the only person in the group who took his word seriously. I changed my diet. And the others with who I was friends within the group had all passed away. Not from myasthenia. But from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Bob: They all died.
Fran: Because they did not change their diet.
Fran: Back in 2006, there wasn’t nearly as much available in plant-based foods. There are so many resources now that it's easy. Now let me just tell you at this time, when this was all going on, Bob also developed a problem and he will tell you about his.
Bob: Well, I always kept in good shape. I always worked out. Just like Fran always thought we were eating properly when it was white meat chicken, turkey, fish. (Fran: We didn’t know any better). We got involved in race walking. This is an exaggerated thing where you are lifting your arms and you are really working out hard. I used to do maybe 8 or 10 miles a day.
I would walk so fast that I was actually passing people who were jogging, and I was doing this racewalking. Well, after some time, I decided to switch from the path I was walking on to another type of surface. Still doing all these miles every day, and I developed a pain in my groin.
I was not too pleased about going to a doctor for anything, but my groin--my private parts? I went to the doctor. It was a urologist. The urologist examined me, said, “I can’t find anything.” I want you to take a CT scan test, which I did.
He brought me back and said come into my office, I want to show you something. First of all, you don’t have anything wrong with your groin. You probably pulled a muscle and there’s nothing to worry abou. But he showed me that the scan on a screen showed where I had a growth on the outside of my left kidney. It was a tumor on my kidney.
And he said you have to get this off and I am not qualified to do it. So I got into Duke University Medical Center. It’s internationally known, and excellent in every way. They have an incredible cancer center there. I met a urologist there. He was only one of two people in America who used a special type of surgery for this.
They actually froze off the tumor. and as I was waiting for the results, I thought that the waiting was worse than anything. The doctor finally comes in and says: "Well, we took three biopsies after we took this tumor off. Two were okay, but one was not."
"You have renal cell carcinoma." I said, "What is that?" I made him repeat it three times. I said, "What does that mean?" He said, “Bob it means you have kidney cancer, but don't worry, we got it all.” Well, we’ve heard that before. “Oh, we got all the cancer.”
Fran: He said “We got it all, but I have to be honest with you, this type of cancer has been known to return.”
Bob: He really told me to be aware, to be on guard. This could return. He didn’t tell me to change my lifestyle in any way, but on our drive home, it’s about a four-hour drive, we said “We've got to do something here” and that’s when we both decided: No meat, no dairy, nothing like that at all, but that we would both eat whole food, plant-based. And that’s how it all started. Sort of a long story. That's how we both went whole-food, plant-based.
The Beet: Most cancer is never found in time so a groin pull may have saved your life.
Bob: I agree, but I think the diet saved my life. But you need to be ready to make the change. You can’t push anyone into it. They have to want to do it. I have a little post-script to my doctor at Duke University. Well, he was a young guy, and I came back for a follow-up visit, and I had to have several of them, and first, he scoffed at me when I told him that I went plant-based. And then, I learned that years later, he went plant-based. That sort of made my day that the doctor did it as well.
Fran: Many, many people don't do what we did. We lost several friends and relatives because of that. We had three friends who died of prostate cancer because they refused to give up meat and dairy.
The Beet: Not everybody would be willing to do what you did. And you are both so healthy today.
Bob: I think that Fran had the secret. We eat amazing meals. People that we know who know we are plant-based think that we just eat brown rice with some cooked vegetables on top. So Fran has made cooking more of a hobby, more of a challenge.
The Beet: The thing I hear all the time is: Cooking plant-based is a creative act.
Bob: The thing is I think you can eat amazing dishes when you're plant-based. And we eat whole food plant-based, so we don't eat oil as well. You can be that way by making creative food. By creating some delicious meals. We like international foods for example. Say one of you in your household wants to go plant-based, wants to try it, but thinks: “Oh my husband no way, he has to have his meat.”
I think one of the breakthroughs for people, can be to create beautiful looking and delicious tasting meals, not just super simple, but with a little bit of flare. And when we used to entertain before COVID, we would entertain people who loved to come to our house, they still want to come to our house because they know they are eating healthy and they are eating delicious food. High tasting food. It’s a winner.
Fran: Typically in the morning we have oats in some form. Either oatmeal or I make granola out of rolled oats. On the weekend maybe it's pancakes or french toast, all healthy, all oil-free.
When we switched to the plant-based doctor here, the first thing he had us do was read Reverse and Prevent Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstein. We thought we were eating very healthy because neither one of us has ever had a weight problem so olive oil was never an issue for us. I used it in salad dressing. I used it in cooking.
But reading this book prompted us to cut out all oil, and in the first month we each lost 10 pounds, and we didn't need to lose any weight.
Fran: It's just wasted calories with no nutritional value. So I either use water or vegetable broth in sautéeing. We eat a wide variety of foods, in many different countries. Indian, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese. We are just all over the place.
We can't travel, but we can travel with our tastebuds. I usually have a pot of soup all the time. I have a big pot of soup all the time in the fridge. Wonderful for lunch or if you need a quick dinner, a pot of soup and a baked potato, and I have this cheese sauce that I made with cashews or white beans. I’ve got an air fryer, and I love to fry—air fry french fries, total oil-free.
F: Tonight I am going to make zucchini circles in bread crumbs. I use nutritional yeast and some spices. You air fry them and they're delicious. And of course, I've got an instant pot that makes wonderful soups and stews. And when you make a big soup or stew, you’ve got food for several meals so you don't have to cook all the time.
It's very affordable to eat this way. With COVID, the price of meat has gone up. How could you possibly eat cheaper? You are buying fruits and vegetables and grains—and you are not buying meat and fish. So it's actually much cheaper to eat plant-based.
Bob: Some of the dinners that we've eaten recently: Enchiladas, and Pho which is the national Vietnamese soup, and we’ve had Chinese stir fry. We’ve had Indian food... lasagna.
We spent many years in Thailand.... Fran and I got friendly with a couple of the top chefs in Thailand where our headquarters were, and she’s a great Thai cook. So we have delicious Thai curries or Thai stir-fries. Or noodle dishes. I love the noodle dishes Drunken noodles we had this week. It’s one of my favorites.
(For more on their cooking and other tips check out their YouTube Channel.)
Bob: And you don’t need oil. I think the idea is—be creative, it’s fun, experiment with this time, but give it a try. We tell people if you are unsure that you want to go plant-based or not, just give it a try, even if it’s for one month. Just eat no meat and no dairy products for a month and see how you feel. The energy level alone is a turn on.
Fran: One thing I wanted to mention, is that our stories are not unique. There are scores of people who reverse disease with a plant-based diet. We met a man who had type 2 diabetes so badly—he was a veteran and he was going to a Va hospital, and he had an insulin pump. He switched to a plant-based diet, and he went back—first of all, he had lost 60 pounds. He went back to the VA hospital. They said something's wrong with your insulin pump. It’s not working. He said it’s not working because I am not using it anymore. He reversed his diabetes. And that’s not an isolated story.
The Beet: So you believe you are both symptom-free, cancer-free, because of the diet?
Fran: Absolutely. It’s been 15 years.
Bob: I want to say that people are not living longer, they are dying longer. And our goal is to enjoy the third third of our lives. I don’t want to be beholden to doctors and pills and tests and hospitals. I don't want that in my life, and I don't think anyone wants that whole thing. So, we are enjoying being in our 80s. We aren't walking around feeling old.
We are actually reversing our age. We were actually 104 (before we started eating this way) and now we are back down into the 80s. And Fran is older than me.
Fran: I am older than Bob by 3 months. But we plan to keep feeling young