Lost 18 Pounds, Improved A1C Blood Sugar Levels, & Blood Pressure Returned to Normal After Blue Zones Life Changes

[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders across the country.]

Following a discouraging doctor’s visit last March, retiree Bob Gruber made a commitment to improve his health. “My blood work did not come back well,” said the 64-year-old Bonita Springs, Florida resident. “I was diabetic, my blood pressure was high, even with medication, and there were a number of things that just weren’t right, including my liver scores.” At 6’1”, he also weighed in at 290, his heaviest ever.

Eating more plant-based foods, giving up alcohol, and continuing to move a lot, Gruber’s A1C has dropped from 7.3 to 6.7, his liver scores returned to normal, and he’s lost 18 pounds. His blood pressure also returned to the normal range while continuing medication.

“I made a commitment to really change my diet, my lifestyle, and be more active to see if I could get my scores down,” he said. Coincidentally, around that time he heard about a new Potluck Moai project organized by Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner and NCH Healthcare system in Southwest Florida.

He and his wife Helene had tried a Moai in 2016 with three other people in Bonita Springs. The group met on Saturdays to walk and go to coffee, but didn’t cook and eat together, and after about four months, the group stopped meeting.

This time, Gruber hoped things would be different. The Grubers signed up for the 10-week Moai challenge, and joined a Bonita Springs team, with members mostly younger than themselves.

Making & Sticking to Changes

For the challenge, the Grubers decided to eat a plant-based diet four days per week, which they continue to do today. For a man that grew up in Wisconsin eating a lot of meat and cheese, Gruber had anticipated the transition would be difficult. Yet, surprisingly, he found it easier than expected to give up meat, though he still eats cheese and dairy products. “I’m from Wisconsin so I can’t give up cheese. I mean I grew up putting cheese on cereal, so to be honest, I still like my cheese and a glass of milk on occasion.”

“I really don’t miss the meat,” he said. The Grubers learned to substitute meat with mushrooms and vegetables like cauliflower. Some of their favorite meals are eggplant parmesan, mushroom stroganoff, tacos made with cauliflower instead of meat, and cauliflower curry. “Most nights we have a salad and it’s fine if you use a spicy salad dressing, like Sriracha sauce; it curbs your appetite,” Gruber said. They prepare a lot of their meals in the Instant Pot multi-cooker that he was given as a gift for Father’s Day last year.

Helene is a registered dietician and a wonderful cook, which has contributed to their success because they eat primarily at home. Gruber says it’s more challenging to stick to the diet when eating out, which the couple now limits to once a week. “It’s expensive and there’s nothing healthy and the portions are too large. So frequently when we do eat out, my wife and I just split a meal. But it’s very hard finding food that’s plant-based that’s not deep-fried or has huge portions.”

During the Moai project, Gruber said, “We did potluck dinners. We hosted the first one and my wife was the Moai leader. Then another couple had us to their house and then another couple. We also went out to dinner a couple times to different places and tried some plant-based menu options, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so successfully.”

Moai members continue to meet Saturday mornings to walk, although Gruber doesn’t participate because he works Saturdays and two other days each week at a local golf course. The job, which he took after retiring to Florida, has helped him stay active. It also gives him a purpose.

Having a Purpose & Connections

“I get up early and go in at 6 o’clock and open up the shop and the barn and I get things moving. Then my customers start arriving at 7 and I’m talking to people all day. You get to know everyone, and they become your friends, and you learn their life stories, their illnesses, about their wives and kids. And it’s a real nice connection.”

Having connections like this is especially important today, when families are so spread out across the country, he explained. “We lived in Cincinnati for 40 years, where he worked in the juvenile court system, and my wife’s family is from there, but my son’s in St. Louis, and my brothers are in Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.”

Also motivating him to stay fit is a Fitbit that Gruber got for Christmas. He loves using it to challenge himself to take more steps each day, clocking more than a half-million steps every month. The Grubers have also taken up kayaking recently, which they really enjoy.



Lisa Oliver Monroe is a journalist and author of a travel book about  America’s Historic Triangle (Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown). Her writing has been published by Virginia Living, Boomer Magazine, Kirkus Media, Advance for Nurses, and Colonial Williamsburg,  among many others.

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