Important Lessons from the Life and Death of Rheo Blair
by John Paul Catanzaro
I love studying the roots of the iron game, and in particular bodybuilding. I’ve written in the past about many pioneers that have forged the path for us. People like Harry Paschall, Peary Radar, Vince Gironda, Arthur Jones, and the list goes on. These were real training experts that knew their stuff, but when it came to nutrition, there weren’t many gurus. One name that definitely sticks out though is Irvin Johnson. You may know him better as Rheo Blair.
Blair’s nutritional ideas were revolutionary. His high protein and fat approach was ahead of its time, and he was considered as one of the original low-carb diet gurus. Blair was also the first to push a milk and egg protein supplement for building muscle during a time when cheap and inferior soy-based powders were popular. A countless number of individuals, from competitive bodybuilders to highly-paid celebrities to extremely-ill patients, experienced great success following the nutritional guidelines set out by Blair.
Protein was the foundation of the Blair philosophy. As he put it: “You are made of protein, so a protein diet builds you better!” In a nutshell, Rheo Blair proposed the following:
The Blair approach combined a high protein diet with supplements, or as he called them “food concentrates.” If you were looking for the ultimate food steroid, it would be mother’s milk according to Blair. Short of shoving the baby aside while your wife is half asleep, an anabolic meal would consist of milk, cream, eggs, and of course, some of Blair’s protein powder.
As Blair stated in his book Protein Way of Life, “Nature seems to indicate that protein and fat should be taken in even balance… by mixing the protein [powder] with half whole milk and half heavy cream we restore some of the fat removed during processing and we achieve a product more normally balanced as to proportions of protein and fat… one may use the protein in pure cream, with no milk at all! One pours cream into a bowl and stirs the protein powder into it, making a delightful pudding to be eaten with a spoon.” He suggested that these protein puddings be consumed throughout the day as many small meals so that the stomach was never overloaded.
I’ve come up with my own concoction over the years. My Blair-like pudding involves full-fat ricotta (whey) and cottage (casein) cheese, colostrum, raw pastured eggs, and organic heavy whipping cream. Sometimes I’ll add organic blueberries and sometimes a touch of raw (unpasteurized and antibiotic-free) honey, and occasionally I’ll add some protein powder to the mix. I’ll sit down and eat that concoction slowly – it can take me easily a half hour or more to finish off a rather small serving. And to aid digestion, I’ll take some betaine HCL and broad-spectrum enzymes with my meal, just like Blair recommended many moons ago. Not only does this meal taste great (it’s more like a dessert), it sits quite well in the stomach (unlike some foods that sit like a brick), and I swear it builds muscle! It makes for a great snack before bed.
The Calcium Risk
In order for an individual to meet their nutrient requirements, Blair recommended as many as 500 supplement pills a day. One of those supplements was calcium to be taken with meals, especially when consuming red meat to improve the calcium to phosphorus (Ca:P) ratio. (Blair believed that the high phosphorus content of meat would disrupt an ideal ratio of two parts calcium to one part phosphorus and could cause “phosphorus jitters,” i.e., anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, and restlessness.) His calcium supplements (Calcium Plus and Calcium P-F) listed 2-5 pills per day, but Blair and his pupils were known to pop handfuls of this stuff on occasion. As mentioned in an old (May 1967) Iron Man article by author Howard Sanford Young: “What did Rheo have for lunch? Well, first of all we entered the restaurant with Rheo carrying a bottle of hydrochloric acid tablets and some calcium capsules. He placed them on the table and then proceeded to order some ox-joints for all of us…”
There were other authorities back in the ‘50s and ‘60s who recommended calcium. Guys like Professor E.M. Orlick (Muscle Builder, October 1959), Dr. Frederick Tilney (Muscle Training Illustrated, September-October 1966), and Bob Hoffman (Muscular Development, August 1969), for example, believed that calcium was important for muscle growth. Blair was by no means alone in that regard. But that was then, and this is now! There’ve been a number of recent studies showing serious health risks from calcium supplements. Do an internet search on the dangers of calcium supplementation, and you may be at cardiac risk just reading the results! Below is an excellent review of the literature from functional medicine practitioner Chris Kresser.
Calcium supplements are associated with some pretty serious health risks. Studies on the relationship between calcium and cardiovascular disease (CVD) suggest that dietary intake of calcium protects against heart disease, but supplemental calcium may increase the risk. A large study of 24,000 men and women aged 35–64 years published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2012 found that those who used calcium supplements had a 139% greater risk of heart attack during the 11-year study period, while intake of calcium from food did not increase the risk. (4) A meta-analysis of studies involving more than 12,000 participants also published in BMJ found that calcium supplementation increases the risk of heart attack by 31%, stroke by 20% and death from all causes by 9%. (5)
An analysis involving 12,000 men published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that intakes of over 1,000 mg of supplemental calcium per day (from multivitamins or individual supplements) were associated with a 20% increase in the risk of death from CVD. (6) Researchers suspect that the large burst of calcium in the blood that occurs after supplementation may facilitate the calcification of arteries, whereas calcium obtained from food is absorbed at slower rates and in smaller quantities than from supplements. (7) It is also suspected that extra calcium intake above one’s requirements is not absorbed by bones, but rather excreted in the urine, increasing the risk of calcium kidney stones, or circulated in the blood, where it might attach to atherosclerotic plaques in arteries or heart valves. (8)
The Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health has compiled a comprehensive review of the health risks associated with excess calcium, particularly from supplementation. (9) For example, daily supplementation of calcium at 1000 milligrams is associated with increased prostate cancer risk and an increase in kidney stones. (10) Additionally, a recent Swedish study reported a 40% higher risk of death among women with high calcium intakes (1400 mg and above), and a 157% higher risk of death if those women were taking a 500 mg calcium supplement daily, compared to women with moderate daily calcium intakes (600-1000 mg). (11) A Consumer Lab analysis found that many of the calcium supplements they analyzed failed quality testing, including lead contamination and mislabeled contents. (12)
And if you want even more ammunition, listen to what Dr. Ron Rosedale has to say in the following video.
It makes you wonder if popping all those calcium pills had something to do with Blair’s untimely death at the age of 62. Up until now, there’s only been speculation – some say hepatitis, others say heart disease – but was calcium supplementation the ultimate culprit for his death? The question will never be answered.
Magnesium, not calcium, may be the missing nutrient for bone and cardiac health (see Twelve Reasons To Take Magnesium), not to mention that magnesium will facilitate muscle growth if that’s something that interests you? In fact, taking calcium may promote an unfavorable calcium to magnesium (Ca:Mg) ratio, which may be more important for overall health than the Ca:P ratio. Getting adequate calcium levels from diet alone is usually not a problem, especially if you eat fairly clean and consume foods such as dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, collards, bok choy, broccoli), seeds and nuts (sesame seeds, quinoa, almonds), fish (sardines, salmon, perch, rainbow trout), and the occasional bone broth, which is probably the best source of calcium around but only if you add a splash of vinegar to the stock before cooking to pull the minerals out of the bone. And if you’re worried about bone density, routine weight training should keep you in a positive calcium balance.
However, getting enough magnesium may indeed be a problem! Even with magnesium supplementation it can take quite a while to replete levels to sufficient status because it’s not just filtered water and depleted soils that can lead to a deficiency, but there’s also absorption issues, excessive sweating, and stress is known to deplete magnesium levels, so getting to a high-normal state may prove to be quite difficult!
Blair knew about magnesium and he prescribed it to clients when they went on his nutrition program, but he did not include it as part of his retail line because “the dosage was so high, the FDA would probably not pass it!”
Zinc is another mineral that is highly deficient in today’s society, especially with athletes. It’s the reason why ZMA has been so popular for so many years. And by the way, calcium can significantly reduce zinc absorption by as much as 70%. In fact, on the ZMA label it states: “For best results, avoid taking with foods or supplements containing calcium.”
Although the two most common mineral deficiencies are magnesium and zinc, from my experience you can replete zinc in no time, but magnesium is a different story. So taking ZMA can be beneficial especially for athletes; however, you should cycle on and off it periodically to allow the body to normalize. Staying on forever without testing because you believe you should is like putting on a blindfold and throwing a dart. You have no idea where it’s going to land. Instead of clubbing this weekend, take that money and consult with a healthcare professional that can help you.
A Balancing Act
The bottom line is that a mineral imbalance can hinder your progress in and out of the gym. Too much or too little of any mineral is not ideal. Also, there are optimal ratios that should exist among minerals. Often minerals work in a seesaw fashion with each other – as one goes up, another goes down, and vice versa. Balance is the key. Supplementation may be fine for a period of time – one month, two months, possibly even three months depending on the level of deficiency – but staying on a particular mineral for an extended period of time (i.e., daily for months or even years) may be detrimental to your health and longevity, and if that doesn’t scare you, it may negatively impact muscle size and strength!
We know that grains are acidic and by association meats are also considered acidic, so taking an alkalizing mineral like calcium with these meals may help buffer the acidity, although it would be best to balance it out with other alkalizing agents (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and botanicals). That is, of course, if you eat grain-fed meats. Grass-fed meats are another story. Although the occasional use of calcium won’t hurt and may actually help if you decide to drink a two liter bottle of pop or during a high-lactate energy system workout, for most people calcium derived from primal eating, a decent comprehensive and well-balanced multivitamin/mineral supplement, and routine “heavy-ass” weight training should be more than sufficient.
As right as Rheo Blair was on so many nutritional concepts, you wonder if he was wrong, dead wrong about calcium? Blair may not be with us anymore, but his principles live on, and the whole calcium issue, well, that just may be another lesson that he taught us in the end.
If you want to learn more about Rheo Blair, here are three of the top internet resources in no particular order:
About The Author
John Paul Catanzaro is a CSEP Certified Exercise Physiologist with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private facility in Richmond Hill, Ontario providing training and nutritional consulting services. John Paul has authored two books, The Elite Trainer (2011) and Mass Explosion (2013), and has released two DVDs, Stretching for Strengthening (2003) and Warm-Up to Strength Training (2005), which have sold copies worldwide, been featured in several magazines, and have been endorsed by many leading experts. In 2013, John Paul released two new webinars, Strength Training Parameters and Program Design and Body Composition Strategies, providing the latest cutting-edge information to fitness professionals. For additional information, visit his website at www.CatanzaroGroup.com or call 905-780-9908.