No Meat?! But What About the Protein?

Any time I get asked about my diet, people tend to be really surprised to hear that I’m vegan. That means I don’t eat meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, or any other animal products. “But then where do you get your protein?” tends to be following question, and then I go on trying to explain that plants have all the protein we need to be strong, muscular, and healthy. I always try to be very patient and understanding when talking to various people, including my clients, about a vegan lifestyle. You see, just a few years ago, I used to be on the same boat - strongly opinionated that I must eat meat to be strong, that the more meat I eat the more muscle I’ll gain after my training sessions, that I need dairy products like yogurt to have strong bones. I used to have a typical “meathead” diet that would start with 4-5 eggs and sausage for breakfast, followed by lunch that was always loaded with all sort of different meats, followed by another meat-heavy meal for dinner. My snacks would include 1 lb of yogurt with peanut butter and honey and occasional a serving of fruit. Being vegan or even vegetarian was absolutely not an option in my mind. Animal products had been the core of my diet for about 27 years at that point and, in my mind, not eating such food would mean losing all of my strength and muscle.

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Then one day I watched a documentary about animal agriculture that forever changed the way I eat. The documentary showed some graphic videos of the miserable and painful lives of those farm animals. While I was watching the footage, I tried to envision myself in those horrible conditions where I couldn’t freely move or see the sunlight, where I had been separated from my parents, get beaten, and eventually end up getting slaughtered. To me there was no worst way to live a life than the life of a cow or pig at a factory farm. Every single fiber in my body screamed uncontrollably while I was watching the video, and I was mad at myself for paying for animal cruelty this whole time. After I finished watching, I decided that I will do my best to avoid contributing to animal cruelty going forward, although even then I still did not consider going vegan. Instead I started buying pasture raised eggs, grass fed meat and wild fish but eventually I realized that there is no right way to do the wrong thing when it comes down to animal welfare. Eventually, after a year of slowly excluding animal products from my diet, I became vegan.

Now that I shared with you my old diet and the reasons that made me go vegan, let me explain the process from a fitness perspective. I lost 10 lbs within my first 2 months without meat. While this could sound amazing for most people - it did not work for me. My goals were to stay between 180 and 190 lbs (I’m 6 feet tall), gain as much muscle mass as possible and get as strong as I could. Losing 10 lbs was not a “step forward” by any means. The reason why I lost the weight was that I took out high-calorie food like meat, fish, and dairy out of my diet without adding any substitutes. My meals suddenly became a lot smaller and of course that led to weight loss. Slowly but surely I started figuring out what kind of plant-based food I liked more and which foods fueled me better. I started eating a lot of potatoes, lentils, beans, tofu, rice, veggie burgers. Almost every meal also came with various plants like baby broccoli, tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic and more. I learned which vegan foods have high calorie contents and added those to my diet to help with the weight gain. Some of the additions would be considered "junk food", but this comes in handy when you are trying to gain weight. My go-to vegan weight gainers were guacamole, hummus, pizzas, peanut butter, muffins, cookies, protein shakes and many other delicious things! On top of that, I was eating plenty of fruit like apples, bananas, oranges, pomegranates, mangos, kiwis, etc. At this point my diet was full of vitamins, minerals, essential fats, all sorts of carbohydrates and, of course, protein. These additions to my diet made me feel great! I was full of energy again, I was sleeping great, and my strength training program was going full force. It was at that point when I realized that I can now show other people that you can look the way you want without needing animal products.

At the end of 2016, as I was putting together a list of goals for 2017, I decided to compete in the first physique show of that year - Iron Eagle. It was scheduled for March and would take place in beautiful Savannah, GA. I was pumped! For the next 4 months I trained 5-6 times per week working on some really advanced calisthenic moves like one arm push ups, pistol squats, advanced pull up variations, and more. Six weeks before the show, I started cutting on my calorie intake which required me to get rid of all the weight gainers I listed earlier. I never stopped eating high carb foods such as potatoes, lentils or rice, which is important to note because so many people think that these high carb foods attribute to weight gain. Even though I was saving a lot of money by not eating meat, participating in a physique show wasn’t cheap - so I asked a few vegan companies for sponsorship and was fortunate to receive a “yes’ from Butler Foods! They agreed to send me a month supply of their soy curls, which I happily accepted in return for representing their brand at the show.

In 6 weeks I went from around 185 lbs to 170 lbs a few days before the show. My weight on the stage however was 166 lbs due to a pretty intense final 2 days on top of reducing my water intake the day of the show. When I arrived to Savannah I was really excited! I knew that I was ready, I had the support of my friends, and I was eager to show the South that you can look the way you want without eating animal products. As the show began, my stage opponents and I began moving on the bright stage and performing poses requested by judges. In shows like these, judges look for the best “beach body” with very pronounced midsection, proportioned body, and effortless stage performance. The last one is very hard since you are flexing and smiling the entire time! By the end of the show, judges started announcing results starting with the last place. I didn’t have high expectations for myself since it was my first competition, but I was certainly hoping to not receive last place. They kept calling people until there was only 2 guys left. A second later, they called my last opponent which meant that I received FIRST PLACE!!! I was the only vegan in my group and I got placed first. I was beyond happy and could barely believe it! Looking at the photos after the show I certainly noticed how much leaner I was in relation to the other guys on the stage (who by all means looked extremely fit). I came back to Atlanta with my 1st place trophy and even more confidence in my plant based diet. I’m now back to my optimal weight of 188 lbs, and I’m working on building more muscle. It is important to note that in addition to my strength and muscle gains, I have yet to experience any deficiencies according to my doctor that I see for annual check ups. I sleep well, I feel well and I train harder than ever!

I hope my example will encourage other people who want to stop eating meat but are afraid to lose muscle and strength. I’m just a single example and there are numerous vegan athletes whose strength and physique are way more impressive! I encourage you do your own research and take care of your health, our environment, and animals.

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