More than just a vegan movie star and top physician, Dr. Michael Klaper and his beautiful wife Alese share their recipe for LOVE & HAPPINESS.
VHF to Dr. Klaper: Can you please tell us when you became vegan and how that affected your practice as well as your relations with family?
Dr. Klaper: I became vegan in 1981 after getting two strong messages that it was time to stop eating the flesh of animals. I was a resident in anesthesiology at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver and, while on the cardiovascular service, I would put patients to sleep and watch the cardiac surgeon open their chest. From the coronary arteries in their heart, I witnessed the surgeons pull out long gobs of fatty, waxy material called atherosclerosis, which clogged the blood flow channels and spawned lethal heart attacks and strokes.
One day, while I was watching a surgeon pull a particularly slithery piece of yellow material out of an artery, I thought to myself, “That stuff looks like chicken fat.” It was then that I heard a little voice inside my head say, “There is a good reason why that looks like chicken fat, Doctor. It IS chicken fat - and cow fat, and pig fat, and the fat of every other slow animal that was walking past this man’s table when he had a fork in his hand.” My own father was already showing signs of clogged arteries and I knew that it was just a matter of time until I was laying on that operating table with that Stryker saw cutting through my sternum - and I knew I didn’t want that. I saw my patients when they awoke after this chest splitting procedure and I knew I didn’t want to be one of them. By that time, I was familiar with reports of atherosclerotic plaques melting away when people eat a plant-based diet, so I knew, from a medical point of view - and for self preservation - that it was time to stop running animal fat through my arteries. (Am Heart J. 1977 Jun;93(6):803-5. Angina and vegan diet. Ellis FR, Sanders TA.)
However, the decisive push to leave off the eating the flesh of animals came in a restaurant in Vancouver, where I had been pontificating to a friend about my desire to become a man of peace. You see, in my final year of medical school in Chicago, I had been spending my Saturday nights in the trauma unit at big, old Cook County Hospital and night after night I would see the effects of violence that humans would wreak up on each other. I saw the gruesome spectacles of shotgun blasts at close range, machete hacks to the neck, and the gaping exit wounds from the infamous “Saturday night special” .38 caliber pistols. On Sunday mornings I would leave the Trauma Unit shaken to my core from what I had witnessed. I knew then I wanted to do all I could to rid the violence out of my own life and my own being.
I begin to read the work of Mahatma Gandhi, and the Indian saints, on living a life of nonviolence. I tried to incorporate their teachings into my own life, to become a person who brought peace and healing into every scene I entered. One evening at a restaurant in Vancouver, I was pontificating to a friend about my desire to become a true man of peace. It so happened I was doing so while polishing off a 14-ounce Porterhouse steak at the local Keg ‘n Cleaver steakhouse.
My friend looked at me with great compassion and understanding and said to me, “That’s all very well and good Michael, but if you really want to get the violence out of your life and stop adding suffering to the world around you, you might start with that piece of meat on your plate, because in satisfying your desire for the taste of that flesh in your mouth, you are paying for the death of that animal - and for the death of the next one in line at the slaughterhouse.”
When he said this, all the classic rationales swirled through my mind, such as, ”Well, the animal is dead already,” and “That is what they raise them for,” - but, before the words could leave my lips, that same little voice that I heard in the operating room whispered loudly in my ear, “You know, Michael, he’s right.”
At that point, I realized that pulling out of my wallet and paying for that meal of meat was an act of violence, that I was complicit in the death of some beautiful, warm-eyed cow like those that I loved so much while a boy on my Uncle Charlie’s dairy farm in Wisconsin.
I could not finish eating the steak - and that was the last piece of meat I ate. It didn’t take me long to look at my leather shoes and leather belt and think of the pictures I had seen of lampshades made out of the skin of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust and they began to appear ghoulish to me - and I knew that I could not wear them again. I went into the backyard, dug a hole, and buried my leather shoes and wallet and belt and filled in the hole. As I stepped back from the hole, I silently apologized to the animals I hadn’t realized I had injured up until then, and knew that I would never buy leather again. I did not know the word “vegan” until a friend mentioned it to me several weeks later. After I told her about my experience, she said “Oh, you have become a vegan. “ I liked the sound of the word as soon as I heard it and I’ve proudly worn that moniker ever since.
I adopted a whole food, vegan diet and remarkable changes began happening in my own body. A 20 lb. spare tire of fat melted off my waste within 12 weeks, my elevated blood pressure normalized, as did my high cholesterol levels, and I felt great waking up in a leaner, lighter body every day. At this point, there was no turning back.
I also realized at that point that I did not want to be an anesthesiologist and spend my days putting people to sleep; I wanted to go back to general practice and help them wake up. So, despite having only six months to go in my anesthesiology residency, that is exactly what I did - much to the consternation of my parents (who eventually recognized that it was, indeed, the right move for their son).
VHF to Dr. Klaper: We have been fans since we first laid eyes on you in the award-winning film, “Diet for a New America” a couple decades ago. How did you get involved in that project back before most doctors even knew what the word “vegan” meant?
Dr. Klaper: In 1986, I read John Robbins classic book, Diet for a New America and it touched my heart deeply. His stories about what our animal-based diet does to the animals, to our health, and to our planet was such a profound revelation for me. I knew, as someone who loves good health, the animals, and this Earth, that this was the most important cause in which I could become involved. I closed the last page of the book, picked up a phone and called John Robbins in California and asked if he needed some help on his important mission. He said, “Sure.” I drove out to California and together we founded the organization, EarthSave, for which I served as Scientific Director for three years. It was in that role we were approached by film producer, Michael Weise and the staff at KCET public television in Los Angeles. I feel they did an excellent job on that production and I remain very proud of that highly educational film, which is still available today. (Happily, it was also in that role at EarthSave where I first met Alese, who was the head of the Volunteer Program there.)
VHF to Alese: Please tell us the story of when and why you went vegan.
Alese: It was 1980 and I was living in NYC. I was a professional dancer back then. Health food stores were beginning to sprout up around the city and I was interested in learning more about why people became vegetarian. I read about a free lecture in the city titled “Heaven and Earth Healing System” by David Fastiggi. I went to hear him speak on basically a “vegan” diet although I don’t recall the word ever being mentioned. As I listened to this man speak, something rang true to my heart. I just knew I was listening to the truth. It was such a strong feeling of truth that seemed to pierce my heart and tell me “Yes!” I remember feeling a burning sensation in my heart that was undeniable. So I went back to my apartment and started on a raw food vegan diet and never looked back. The changes in my health and emotions were so amazing. It was as though a vail had lifted. I no longer am totally raw in my diet, but it is a big part and my preferred way of eating. I was doing it for health and spiritual reasons until I read Diet For A New America. When that book came out, I was working in Desert Hot Springs as a raw food chef. Shortly after reading DNA, I quit my job, packed up my car, and drove to Santa Cruz, CA. I knocked on the door of the EarthSave office, the non-profit organization that John Robbins had formed, and said to the person who opened the door, “How can I help?”
After volunteering for one year, I was hired as Volunteer and Special Events Coordinator. My work at EarthSave was an education on the impact the meat and dairy industry had on the environment. It also raised my level of compassion. I watched all the videos John Robbins had made available on animal cruelty and factory farming. I knew then that I was an ethical vegan. I would never want any animal to suffer. As a yogi, I could live a life of ahimsa. It's wonderful to know that no animal has to suffer for my nourishment. I also believe that plant foods, primarily a raw food diet, raises ones vibration because of the higher vibrational quality in the food, namely fresh greens and fruits, so it opens you on a spiritual level as well. When you live this way you are living a more awakened life, a more conscious life.
VHF to Alese: Tell us the story of how you met your husband. Please tell us when and how you knew he was “the one.”
Alese: I first met Michael in Santa Cruz, CA in 1988 while working for EarthSave. Michael was involved with the organization and would pop in and out of the office between lectures. The moment I heard him speak on animal cruelty, I was smitten with him. It showed me what a deep sense of compassion and sensitivity towards life he had. We not only worked together at EarthSave, but also in Manhattan Beach, California where he set up the Nutrition Education and Research program. We were friends, nothing more. He eventually took a position at a vegan health spa in Florida, and a few months later, I was working there as “social director.” The paths of our lives had met up many times, but eventually time took us in different directions. We had not seen each other for 25 years, until he came to Florida where I was living, just to say hello and catch up with some of his friends. We had a lovely visit. It was then that we realized....Well, you know the rest.
VHF to Dr. Klaper: Please tell us about your work with NASA on astronaut nutrition.
Dr. Klaper: In 1988, the laws of physics and economics were such that, to get anything into low Earth orbit cost $16,000 a pound. NASA was, and still is, actively researching establishing space colonies on the moon and on Mars. When they considered what they would be feeding their long-term space colonists, they realized that, at $16,000 a pound, they were not going to be rocketing 700-pound dairy cows and 80-pound bales of hay up to the moon to feed them. That would make for very expensive yogurt and beef-burgers. They realized that their astronauts were going to have to be, (good heavens) vegans. They also realized that they had no idea what to feed a vegan human being, indeed, they didn’t know whether it was even possible.
I had recently written a small book, entitled Vegan Nutrition: Pure and Simple (no longer in print) so my name was given to them as someone who knew something about the subject. NASA flew me and three other people, familiar with the science and application of plant-based diets, down to the Johnson space Center in Houston. There we met with NASA scientists, nutritionists and engineers to discuss the realities of feeding vegan astronauts.
For a solid week, we talked about the various nutritional requirements of healthy human beings and how they could be met on totally plant-based diets. We then helped them work out possible recipes to make such foods palatable and desirable.
The engineers, by necessity (though, probably not by philosophy) listened well, as they knew they had to incorporate what we were saying into their planning if sustaining humans living on foreign planets was going to be possible. By the end of the week, they had a much better idea of how to go about constructing plant-based diets for their space travelers and we stayed in touch with the NASA staff for sometime afterward through continuing correspondence. I am very proud to know, that as the astronauts and scientists on the International Space Station circle the Earth and enjoy their plant-based meals, that I was able to contribute in some small way to help nourish them while they do their important work. I may even have helped in making space colonies on the moon and Mars possible.
VHF to Alese: Please tell us about your yoga practice?
Alese: I received my teacher training in 1979 from Swami Satchidananda, the same teacher Dr. Dean Ornish studied with. I have been practicing ever since and it is a big part of my life. It helped me transition from a dance career into something that was still physical, but also with something much deeper that had been missing in my life in the NYC dance world. After my initial Hatha training, I studied Ashtanga with David Swenson and several other teachers that have molded my personal practice as well as my teaching. Now, at 66 years of age, I have fallen in love with Yin Yoga, the softer form. As we age, our yoga practice needs to change also. Sarah Powers was one of my important teachers, and I received my Yin Yoga training with her. Currently I teach meditation and yoga at True North Health Center. A restorative/Yin-Style class is appropriate for our guests that are detoxing. I have a DVD available on Dr. Klaper’s website (www.DoctorKlaper.com). It has two classes on it - Chair Yoga, for those with limitations for getting on the floor, and Gentle Yoga, an easy Vinyasa style. It is thrilling to see people on the mat that have never done yoga or meditation before. They slow down and really have a look at what’s going on in their lives. Silence is our greatest teacher. Just to sit with yourself and breathe, and open yourself to gratitude, is tremendously healing in itself.
VHF to Dr. Klaper: Please tell us about your work at the True North Health Center. What makes this health center special?
Dr. Klaper: True North Health Center in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour north of San Francisco, is a nutritionally-base clinic that sees patients with all kinds of medical problems, unfortunately typical of Western societies. As is becoming increasingly obvious, the vast majority of chronic, debilitating, medical issues that face most Western people today are the result of what they are eating. The current high-fat, high protein animal-based “Standard American Diet,’ based upon meat, dairy products, refined sugars, processed oils, and a host of food-related chemicals sends waves of heavy, irritating fats and other substances through the tissues, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. This is a key causative factor in the plagues of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, clogged arteries leading to heart attacks and strokes, intestinal disorders like Crohn’s disease and colitis and a host of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases of skin joints and other organs like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Since a whole food, plant-based diet is the definitive treatment for these conditions, the patients who come to True North are given a healthy, whole food plant-based diet, free of added salt, sugar and processed oils - for breakfast, fresh fruit, and often oatmeal (or just water if they are not hungry,) for lunches and dinners, colorful salads, hearty vegetable soups, lentil stews, bean chilis, tasty curries, steamed green and yellow vegetables and more colorful fruits for desserts - and clinical magic begins to happen in their bodies and before our very eyes. Obesity melts away, clogged arteries open up, elevated blood pressures come down and fat-clogged insulin receptors clear out - so diabetes disappears.
Cholesterol levels normalize, joints function normally again and people feel so much healthier waking up in their leaner, lighter bodies, just like I did when I originally made the change to a whole-food, vegan diet myself. Often we will use a water fast or juice cleanse to “jump-start” the healing process- but it is what people eat after the fast that matters. It is the food that we send through our bodies, day after day, month after month, year after year, that creates either a lean, healthy body free of diseases or one that is obese, clogged up and inflamed.
Consequently, the most important thing we can do with and for our clients at True North Health Center is to teach them how to prepare and enjoy healthy meals at home - so cooking classes, food demonstrations and instructional videos are the keystones to the educational process that really is at the heart of True North Health Center.
Working at a clinic like True North, where people get healthy before my eyes is this physician’s dream come true. I have colleagues around me who know about the healing powers of plant-based nutrition, I enjoy three, delicious vegan meals prepared for me every day (I don’t even have to wash the dishes!) and I see the miracles of the healing forces at work in the human body daily- what more could a vegan doctor want?
I see patients from all over the world, and I invite your readers to contact True North Health Center (707-586-5555) to consider either coming for a stay or to arrange a telephone or video consultation with me.
VHF to Dr. Klaper: Please tell us how and when you first knew that Alese was “the one” for you.
Dr. Klaper: As Alese has related, we had known each other since our days at Earth-Save in 1986. However, throughout our occasional meetings over the years, we were each in relationships with other people and it was just not appropriate to become romantically involved. All of that changed in 2009, when, after living in New Zealand for three years practicing acute care medicine, I returned to the U.S. seeking my next place of medical practice. I swept through south Florida checking out medical opportunities. Knowing that my “old friend” Alese lived and worked in West Palm Beach teaching yoga, I came by her house to say, “Hi.”
We had a lovely visit, where we both learned the other was unattached, and as she walked me out to my car we shared a kiss on the driveway. There was something in that kiss that definitely said, “There may be something here way beyond a friendship, so why don’t you come back and check it out.”
No fool am I, when given a signal from the gods like that, so there then unfolded a cross-continental courtship, with me coming to Florida several times and Alese journeying out to the land of the redwoods for some wonderful - and romantic - visits. After two years of the relationship maturing and deepening, on a weekend getaway in romantic Bodega Bay, California, I got down on one knee and asked her for her hand in marriage. She hesitated not a millisecond and said, “Yes” - instantly making me the most fortunate man in the world.
VHF to Alese: Please tell us about your home life together. Who does the cooking and what are some of your favorite dishes to enjoy together or with family?
Alese: My husband is way too busy to cook and it’s not really his thing. We take most of our meals at True North since we live across the street. But a favorite for him is Sunday morning when I make him scrambled tofu with kale, mushrooms and toast. He loves it! When I do cook, it’s mostly simple - Buddha salad bowls, lots of greens, tofu or grains. After 36 years of eating vegan, it gets simpler. It seems to be what the body wants. In the winter time, we enjoy having our dinner around the fireplace. We can talk and laugh for hours. Sometimes I feel that Michael is “the most interesting man in the world!” And he doesn’t even drink “Dos Equis”! Honestly though, it’s impossible to be around Michael and not learn anything. He has a brilliant mind and teaches me so much about the natural world. He is also very funny and very romantic. At home, I plan his travel itineraries, speaking engagements, and the logistics of his busy life. We have a flower and vegetable garden that I tend to. We also have bird feeders in our lovely gazebo where I love to sit and read spiritual books and have afternoon tea. The birds come everyday and enjoy the garden as well. Hummingbirds come to our kitchen window where we have placed a feeder for them. We love our home, and our lives are rich and full. We have much to be grateful for.
VHF to Dr. Klaper: How does your philosophy of health and nutrition spill over into your family life?
Dr. Klaper: Alese and I have both been vegan for over 35 years, and although I am a physician who knows the health advantages of a whole food, plant-based diet, neither of us have chosen to eat vegan for predominantly health reasons. Although we both enjoy the benefits of radiant health and abundant energy that a wholesome vegan diet provides, we are vegan for the animals, for the Earth, for the inner peace that a non-violent diet provides. There is no price on the clear conscience we bring to our pillows each night, knowing we have not contributed to the suffering and death of innocent creatures.
VHF to Alese: You are so beautiful and such a wonderful role model for readers on natural beauty. Do you have any tips to share?
Alese: Thank you for your kind words. For me it is yoga, meditation, and a plant-based diet as a foundation. I try to eat as much raw food as I can, take retreat time for myself, live in gratitude, love and service. As far as beauty tips, I do lots of exfoliation on my skin. I moisturize during the day, but leave my skin naked every other night so it can breathe and normalize. But most important is to see that beauty is an inside job. When we feel good, we look good, so I do the things that are fulfilling and make me happy. I also feel that learning and growing spiritually and living with an open heart keeps me feeling young. Speaking of doing things that make me happy, a big part of my life is fostering animals for the Sonoma Humane Society - mostly bottle feeding baby kittens. It brings me such joy to hold and feed these little babies. I love being around animals, and when I am not traveling, I volunteer for “Compassion Without Borders,” a non-profit founded by vegan veterinarian Dr. Christi Camblor. She has been a role model for me. Dr. Christi is compassion in action. Just being around her is a gift in itself. She rescues dogs off the streets of Mexico and the Central Valley area in California. She rehabilitates them and finds homes for them. Most of the dogs are starving and injured. The fact that she is vegan and a veterinarian makes a big statement. I have been around other veterinarians that medically care for farm animals and then go home and eat them for dinner. I just can’t wrap my head around that. I wish all veterinarians would read Melanie Joy’s book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.
VHF to Dr. Klaper: Are there family members you have rescued from illness or family members following in your footsteps spreading the word on healing with nourishing food?
Dr. Klaper: The phrase “a prophet without honor in your own home” certainly has been true in my life. My older brother, Bob, 40 pounds overweight with heart disease, would surely have benefited from adopting a whole food plant-based diet - but, over many, often heated discussions, he let me clearly know that he would rather die than give up his “All-American” eating style - and, indeed, he did. Similarly, my father developed clogged arteries and diabetes after years of corned-beef sandwiches and ice cream sundaes. Despite my passionate pleadings, his diet brought him, and me, to the operating room twice— he as the patient and me to assist the surgeon in helping to amputate his right leg, twice—once below the knee, and when that wound did not heal, we had to go back to the O.R. and amputate it above the knee. As I was holding my dad’s leg while the surgeon worked, I will never forget the “plink” the bone saw made as it cut through his femur (the thigh bone), and I felt my dad’s leg come off in my hands. As I held the now-dead leg that had walked with me through museums and national parks and strode forward as my dad taught me how to throw a fast ball, I grieved over my inability to help him avoid such a fate.
I had somewhat better luck with my mother, who, after living on her own for several years as a widow (eating her version of the Standard American Diet) began to show signs of dementia. I brought her to live with me on Maui where I was living and practicing medicine and she had no choice but to eat a healthy vegan diet because she was living in my house! She quickly adapted to and began to enjoy the delicious, plant-based meals we served her - and I have no doubt that healthful food contributed to the six happy years we spent together on that beautiful island before she passed quietly in her sleep at age 87.
I am happy to report that four of my adult cousins have also become vegan, and if my example had something to do with that, I am honored and happy.
VHF to Both: Dr. Klaper says on his website that the most important ingredient to health and healing… is LOVE. How have you both witnessed this in your life together?
Dr. Klaper: On our wedding day on Maui on April 8th, 2014, as I was putting the ring on her finger, I solemnly vowed to my beautiful bride that I will never lose sight of what a gift she is in my life. I swore that my words to and about her would make her feel seen, acknowledged, and treasured as the powerful, accomplished and radiant being that she is.
Over the years, I have witnessed so many couples throw sarcastic and cutting remarks at each other, embarrassing their partners in front of others, inflicting wounds upon their spouse’s spirit, and sewing seeds of resentment into their relationship from which grew the weeds of revenge and, ultimately, divorce. I daily strive NOT to be one of those husbands. To Alese, I vowed that every word out of my lips would build her confidence and increase her enjoyment of life and of living with me—and that I would never ridicule her or make fun of her, especially in front of other people, but even when we are alone. I promised that I will always speak to and treat her with the kindness and the respect she deserves as competent, loving adult, and a valued co-journeyer with me on our mutual spiritual path.
I believe I have lived up to those vows, so far, and I intend to continue to do so every day that I have left on this Earth. Every morning, I awaken and say silently, “Thank you” for this angel of a being lying next to me in our bed.
True love is the greatest treasure of all, and is especially rare and, so, most highly prized when it finds one later in life - as Alese and I well know. After failing at many relationships in the past, I know I am ready to give my all to doing this one right - and that starts with my “Good morning, Princess,” at every dawn and my “Good night, Love,” before we sleep - and with every thought, word and gesture in between. I know that it is up to me to make our love grow and to thrive. Alese’s love makes me the luckiest, happiest man I know and I intend to cherish and protect and nourish that love for the rest of our lives together.
Alese: Giving and receiving love is the most important thing in the world. Love comes in many forms and I am grateful for that. Love equals happiness - loving what you do, loving your partner, family and friends. Even when I was single, I was able to express and receive love. We can easily do that with a pet. But I do believe that all is Love. It heals, brings laughter and joy, and there is no end to love. It can just keep growing and growing.
VHF: Lastly— favorite holiday recipe?
Alese: Yes! If I’m having guests for the holidays, I want to serve something satisfying and comforting so they don’t feel deprived that they are missing a traditional turkey, etc. I like Cathy Fisher’s Lentil Rice Loaf with creamy mushroom gravy from her website - www.straightupfood.com.