Bodybuilder Jim Gurtner was stunned when he first read Ellen G. White’s advice on following a plant-based diet.
For a decade Gurtner had chowed down on meals heavy on meat, milk, and eggs. He ate whole chickens for lunch, 24-ounce (680-gram) steaks for dinner, a gallon (4 liters) of milk a day, and 70 jumbo eggs a week.
But then Gurtner, whose career led him to cross paths with Arnold Schwartznegger and other bodybuilding champions, began to read the Bible and the writings of White, a cofounder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He couldn’t believe that the reading materials seemed to indicate that a plant-based diet best promoted health, strength, and longevity.
“But I decided to step out in faith,” Gurtner said in an interview. “I believed that God’s inspired diet had to be superior for health and strength.”
He said the first few weeks were rough, but he hasn’t looked back. Today the muscle-bound resident of the U.S. state of Georgia follows a vegan diet that he believes has put him in better physical condition at the age of 54 than ever before.
Plant-based diets have gained renewed scrutiny in recent weeks after the World Health Organization created shock waves in late October by declaring for the first time that processed meat and, perhaps, red meat cause cancer. At the same time, a growing body of evidence is linking vegetarian diets to improved health. The internationally recognized Adventist Health Studies, for example, found that physically active Adventists who eat a plant-based diet live about 10 years longer than the average American.
Vegan bodybuilding has a narrow but active following, especially in the United States. No one tracks the number of Adventist bodybuilders who are vegan, but the figure appears to be small. The Adventist Review is aware of four such bodybuilders in the U.S.
Dr. Peter Landless, a cardiologist and director of the Adventist world church’s health ministries department, said a balanced, plant-based diet is very healthy and has many benefits. But he cautioned that total plant-based diets — so-called vegan diets — require supplementation of vitamin B12, vitamin D and sometimes, calcium.
“People engaged in bodybuilding and other strenuous physical activities should seek the advice of a suitably trained health professional with an understanding of nutrition when contemplating — and most certainly before implementing— changes in diet for extreme sports,” Landless said. “This is a specialty area and our church has been blessed with much excellent information for the needs mainly of the norm, or average individual.”
He urged balance in all areas: rest, temperance, and even in bodybuilding.
“It should be emphasized that the spectrum of balanced vegetarian diets can yield effective and efficient body-building outcomes,” he said.
Gurtner developed an intense interest in nutrition, a key element in bodybuilding, at the age of 12 when his mother showed him some of her college books with pictures of well-nourished and malnourished mice. He began to regularly listen to a radio show about nutrition.
His interests expanded to bodybuilding four years later when as a 16-year-old high school student he was stunned to see a 14-year-old freshman with incredibly built biceps.
“I asked how he got them. He replied, ‘Bodybuilding,’ and I was hooked!” Gurtner said. “He was my mentor for about a year.”
Shortly after he began working out, Gurtner met Schwarzenegger at a book signing of Schwarzenegger’s Education of a Bodybuilder in 1978. Incidentally, the book signing was also attended by a 14-year-old boy named Richard Gaspari who would go on to become Gurtner’s friend and the No. 2 bodybuilder in the world, second to Mr. Olympia Lee Haney, for three years in a row in the late 1980s.
Gurtner met Schwarzenegger two more times at Arnold Classic bodybuilding shows in 1989 and 1990.
Gurtner grew up in a family with Christian roots but no belief in God. His American father was brought up in the Methodist church and his mother, a Brazilian, left the Adventist Church when she was 19 after immigrating to the United States.
“Basically I was brought up an atheist but with Christian principles, including an interest in health,” Gurtner said.
Then he married an Adventist woman in 1990 with a promise to her father that he would take her to church every Sabbath. He kept his word for a few weeks but quickly grew tired and stopped going.
One day after being married for about three months, he said he came home to find his wife “wasting her time again with ‘that book.’”
He flipped on the television set and was pleased to find one of his favorite horror movies, a Hollywood film about the antichrist and the end of the world.
“I proceeded to explain to my wife with great zeal the details of the story, and she asked if I wanted to see what the Bible had to say about the mark of the beast and the antichrist,” Gurtner said.
It so happened that the Sabbath School study guide at the time focused on the book of Revelation.
“As she opened the Scriptures to me and revealed the identity of the antichrist and his mark, it was like my life was split in half by lightning!” Gurtner said. “I asked if this was the belief of the church, and it she said it was.
“The biblical prophecies, I saw, fit perfectly with history, and after a study of Biblical creation, I asked the pastor of the church if I could be baptized immediately.”
Gurtner’s joy in his new faith was contagious. Shortly after his baptism, he excitedly read a passage from White’s Ministry of Healing to his chiropractor while receiving a tedious eight-minute ultrasound treatment on a shoulder.
After the eight minutes, the chiropractor asked, “How do I become a member of your church?
“I almost fell of the table!” Gurtner said. “After some Bible studies he — and later his wife — were baptized.”
Gurtner, meanwhile, was taking a closer look at his own lifestyle and how it fit into God’s plan. He said he was particularly inspired by White’s description of Solomon’s temple as “the most magnificent building which the world ever saw” ( The Great Controversy, page 23).
“Shouldn’t our bodies, temples of the Holy Spirit, also be magnificently built, as well as healthy and strong?” he said. “We are called to develop spiritually, mentally, and physically. Unfortunately, the physical is the most often neglected.”
But adopting a plant-based diet was rough, especially for the first couple weeks.
“I would feel so weak and get the shakes,” he said. “One time I ran down to Roy Rogers and wolfed down a couple of roast beef sandwiches.”
Only later did he read in White’s book Healthful Living that his experience was not unique. White wrote: “After they discontinue the use of meat, they may for a time feel weak, but when the system is cleansed from the effect of this diet, they no longer feel the weakness, and will cease to wish for that for which they have pleaded as essential to strength” (page 98).
Gurtner said that over the course of six months he noticed that his energy levels started to surge during workouts. He also experienced better muscle pumps — the engorgement of the muscle with blood during exercise, essential for maximum muscle growth — than before.
He said he believed his meatless diet also improved his mental performance.
“Academically I was terrible in high school and was a barely ‘B’ college student in the ’80s.” he said. “I went back to college in 2003 and not only did I get straight ‘A’s in every subject, but I also was eventually admitted to Georgia Tech’s electrical engineering program.”
There he maintained an “A” average and was hired full-time by Georgia Tech Research Institute to do research on radar pulse de-interleaving algorithms as a software engineer.
“The vegan diet I had adopted certainly did not hurt my new academic achievements but I feel helped immensely!” he said.
Long gone are the days of fat steaks and whole chickens for lunch. Asked what he eats nowadays, Gurtner e-mailed a photo of his lunch: lentils, whole-grain rice, tofu scrambler, stir-fried zucchini and red peppers, cold chyote salad with lime juice, and raw brazil nuts. A giant-sized portion for a giant-sized man.
Jim Gurtner deadlifting 475 pounds (215 kilograms) to win first place in the master’s class (over 40 years of age) in 1998, eight years after he started a plant-based diet. When he took his bodyweight from 200 to 247 pounds in a year to qualify for the 115-kilogram class for the Natural Athlete Strength Association Georgia State Championships, his dinner was like lunch and he added a soymilk smoothie with almonds, frozen bananas, and strawberries.