Coby and Carl, healthy octogenarians

Today we interview Coby Siegenthaler, 86, and Carl van Luin, 85, companions who first met in Amsterdam more than 65 years ago.  Coby has been a beloved fixture in vegetarian/vegan circles in Los Angeles for many years. Carl is newer to the plant-based diet.

NuSci: Coby, when did you become a vegetarian?

Coby: I was born a vegetarian. My mother started to be a vegetarian at 16 years old. She did it because she could not stand the sight of beautiful fishes that she saw prepared on the table. Her father said, “Do you want to become a vegetarian? She said, “I don’t become one, I am one.” “Out!” he said. “If you want to live different than the family, you’re out!” So she moved out and became a teacher and she lived as a vegetarian. Her sister met a gentleman on a tram in Amsterdam who was also a vegetarian, and she told my mother, you two should meet each other. They did meet, and he became my father. My father was a health vegetarian, my mother was an ethical vegetarian. My father had polio as a child, and had very weak kidneys as a result. The doctor told him he had to go on a vegetarian diet to live longer. Well, he did not know how to handle that at first but he learned.

   So they were my parents, and they raised their children as vegetarians. We would sometimes put a drop of milk in our tea or coffee, but not more than that, because my mother said, “That milk was meant for a calf, it was not meant for us!”

   I am now 86 and a half years old, and have been in good health all my life. Sporadically, I get a cold.

NuSci: Do you take any medications?

Coby: Never. I’m never sick; I’m a healthy horse and can do my work in the garden. I never had a serious, chronic health problem in my life.

NuSci: Did you eat cheese back in Amsterdam?

Coby: Yes, in Amsterdam, I ate just a little cheese but I didn’t like it very much and I stopped eating cheese a couple of years after coming to America. When I was about 32 or 33, I became a vegan. So over 50 years ago. I stopped eating cheese when I learned about factory farming, that term was new to me. When I was a vegetarian, I thought, we are already so different from other people, why become still more different? But when I learned about factory farming and how they make cheese, then I knew, and I became vegan.

NuSci: So you’re mother became a vegetarian for ethical reasons and your father for health reasons. Would you say that all your life you believed in both reasons?

Coby: Yes. It doesn’t matter how people get to it, as long as they stop using animals for food.

NuSci: Do you try to eat a low-fat, oil-free diet?

Coby:   Absolutely, I try to do that. I can live without oil. If a package in the store says it has oil in it, I don’t buy it. I look at every package’s ingredients, I use a magnifying glass if I have to. I rule products out if they have oil or sugar. But I know it is hard for Carl, so once in awhile I fry potatoes in a tiny bit of oil for him. I do use avocado, I smear that on bread—that’s my margarine. Once in awhile I use a drop of maple syrup as a sweetener but mostly I use fruits from my garden.

NuSci: Do you ever drink any alcohol?

Coby: Never.

NuSci: Do you drink fruit juices?

Coby: Yes, from my own fruit trees. I have 17 fruit trees on my city lot.

NuSci: What are your favorite foods that you eat a lot of?

Coby: Every day I try to have a raw salad with dark green leafy vegetables and tomatoes. I never buy iceberg lettuce because it is so sprayed. I have raw granola that I make myself. In the morning I have some soy yogurt with the granola that I make from oats and nuts and raisins. As I’ve gotten older I don’t get hungry so often, so I eat two meals a day. I cook brown rice once a week, and beans once a week. Now and then I buy tofu, and I make it into a cheesecake, and I sweeten it with persimmons from my yard and a little maple syrup.

NuSci: Do you eat a lot of nuts and seeds?

Coby: Not a lot, but I have it in the granola that I make. I use 5 cups of raw oats, a quarter cup of nuts, a third cup of seeds, and raisins, and dried persimmons from the garden. Another breakfast I like is a smoothie with raw kale and berries.

NuSci: Do you go for a lot of walks, Coby?

Coby: No, I work hard in the yard. That’s my exercise.

NuSci: Carl, you grew up also in Amsterdam?

Carl: Yes, born and raised in the most tolerant city in the world.

NuSci: When did you meet Coby?

Carl: I met Coby in Holland during the second World War, when we were teenagers.

NuSci: How did you meet her?

Carl: Coby, how did we meet in Holland?

Coby: At a mutual friend’s.

Carl: So I’ve known her a long time. I came to the United States in 1952, and Coby and Hans [Coby’s husband who died in 2003 from a work-related cause] came in 1955.

   My daughter lives in Simi Valley, and about three or four years ago I decided to stop by to see Coby to say hello. And it happened to be on a Saturday night, and Coby for the last twenty years has had vegan potluck dinners sometimes on Saturday nights. So we had potluck. And there was a point in the evening when everyone came to the living room and introduced themselves. And one guy said, “I’m forty-six years old, and since I became a vegan six years ago, I’ve lost my high blood pressure, my cholesterol problem, and my diabetes.” And another young fellow, he was in his twenties, he had basically the same story. And I said to myself, for the last ten years, I’ve also had high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. I’m a complete idiot if I don’t try this. I had been eating steaks, the thicker the better, all my life

NuSci: But you had known Coby and Hans for many decades. Did they ever try to convince you?

Carl: Oh, yes, but I called them “grass-eaters.” I had always said, “I’m not going to eat grass, are you kidding?”

   So the bottom line was that that evening, I made up my mind to become a vegan, and I had no difficulty with it whatsoever. I dropped steak first, and the first month I still ate chicken and fish. And I dropped that after a month. And after the first 3 months, I had lost 30 pounds, which I needed to lose, without even trying. I was about two hundred pounds, now I’m about 160. My cholesterol problem was gone. I no longer have high blood pressure. When I eat in restaurants I sometimes have problems with my diabetes, but when I eat at home, it’s no longer a problem. I met a woman who asked me, “What do you consider the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian?” And I said to her, “A vegetarian is someone who cheats.”

NuSci: Because of dairy?

Coby: Milk is liquid meat.

Carl: I like a glass of wine in the evening. That’s a habit that I still maintain after years of entertaining clients in business.

NuSci: Before you became vegan, did you take medications?

Carl: I used to take a lot of medications, for my high blood pressure and cholesterol and diabetes. Now I just occasionally take a pill if my blood sugar goes too high.

NuSci: Carl, what are some of your favorite foods?

Carl: I like potatoes and dark leafy greens and mushrooms.

NuSci: What do your doctors say about your new diet?

Carl:   They shake their head and say, “Oh, that’s interesting.” They try to be polite but they want nothing to do with it.

NuSci: So you’ve felt fine since you adopted this diet?

Carl: I’ve felt excellent. I was 82 when I started the diet, I’m 85 now, pushing 86. All my bloodwork numbers are better and I’ve dropped the extra pounds.

NuSci: How did your friends and family react when you told them you became a vegan?

Carl: That’s very disappointing. My two daughters sometimes tell me they left food for me in the refrigerator and I’ll look and there will be meat in it.

NuSci: So they don’t respect your choice?

Carl: They want nothing to do with it. So I try to lead by example. Coby and I bring to them leftovers from a vegan restaurant, so by example they see what I eat, and by fact they know that I’m almost 86 years old and still going strong.    

NuSci: Coby, is your daughter a vegan?

Coby: Yes, now she is, but she eats too much refined food. You shouldn’t eat refined food, you have to eat unrefined food. My daughter smears the bread with margarine. So she’s not on a very healthy diet.

NuSci: Do you take any vitamins or supplements?

Coby: Yes, because Dr. Michael Klaper says every vegan has to take Vitamin B12, I took B12 every day but when I went to the doctor my B12 was too high so now I take it only once a week or I forget altogether.

Before saying good-bye to Coby and Carl, we asked to see Carl’s bloodwork from his latest visit to the doctor. It was dated June, 2011. Here are the numbers that demonstrate how well he has protected his heart:

Serum cholesterol: 130

HDL (good cholesterol): 62

Triglycerides: 72

LDL (bad cholesterol): 54

Blood pressure: 120/57

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