Excerpt from Vegan Bodybuilding Nutrition
by Robert Cheeke (2010)
Creating a nutrition program as a bodybuilder is a lot different than creating a nutrition program as a non-bodybuilder. Constructing a nutrition program for a vegan bodybuilder is a whole other story – something quite foreign to most people, including vegans and up-and-coming vegan bodybuilders.
From the onset, one might ask a vegan bodybuilder where he or she gets their protein. Protein consumption is just a singular issue that is given a lot of attention, when really there are many components to a sound nutrition program. Protein is at the forefront when it comes to importance and interest among bodybuilders for good reason: it delivers results, time and time again. But not to be overlooked are the important roles that carbohydrates, fats, and total calories play, not to mention specific vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants as well. Even some non-essential amino acids become “essential” for optimal bodybuilding results based on their functions and contributions to muscle gain, fat loss, and overall health.
Like any quality nutrition program, variety is a major key to overall success. Granted, there are some bodybuilders who eat a very simple, very basic diet for prolonged periods, but I believe that true success in bodybuilding nutrition comes from some variety in diet. It allows for more creativity, enables a bodybuilder to enjoy diversity, and causes less stress emotionally and mentally compared to a very basic diet, which a bodybuilder will lose enthusiasm for over time.
Even though variety is an important key to any nutrition program, there are some keys to bodybuilding nutrition that are somewhat unique to the sport and lifestyle. Quantity of food becomes a major factor, for example. In a time when many people are looking to cut calories, reduce food intake, cut food costs, and lower their bodyweight, bodybuilders are looking to pour it on. Bodybuilders look to quality and quantity when it comes to their nutrition. I’ll be direct right up front. No bodybuilder is going to make any respectable gains on a low protein or low calorie diet. It just doesn’t work that way for the majority of athletes, especially bodybuilders. We require a lot of protein and calories to allow ourselves sufficient recovery material and to give our bodies ample opportunity to grow. Unless someone is amazingly genetically gifted and can gain mass and grow muscle without a lot of calories and with only moderate amounts of protein, an aspiring bodybuilder or strength athlete will need to pile on the food in championship style.
I had to learn this the hard way, because when I started bodybuilding on a vegan diet, I didn’t know anyone else in the world doing it. I had to just put ideas into practice and conduct my own trial-and-error education as a vegan bodybuilder. Like everyone else who lifts weights, I wanted to maximize my gains and give myself the best chance to succeed. Naturally, I turned to standard bodybuilding books and mainstream magazines. I took their advice and “veganized” them. When meals called for high amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, I was there with my vegan food options to answer the call. Luckily there were some things in my favor. I noticed right away that many of the most popular bodybuilding foods among professional bodybuilders were vegan foods, meals that I could eat without having to compromise any of my morals or ethical decisions to do so. That was highly encouraging, and I was thrilled to realize that some of the absolutely most popular foods among top bodybuilders included oats, rice, broccoli, yams, potatoes, and vegetables in general. The other foods that topped the list were red meat, fish, eggs, and whey protein, but two of the top three foods were oats and rice. All I had to do was find some “alternatives” to those common high-protein foods frequently recommended to would-be bodybuilders in plant-based form.
For ten years soy was my answer to everything. Soy protein was my answer to whey protein, tofu was my answer to meat, and soy foods in general were my answer to everything from protein powders to protein bars, meals to desserts. It worked well. Aside from the bloating and gas which were annoying by-products, I did gain a lot of strength, put on a lot of muscle, and transformed myself into a bodybuilder. I went from a 120-pound vegan teenager to a 190-pound vegan bodybuilder in a relatively short period. I gained 19 pounds over a 12-week period. I kept adding weight and looked like a completely different person from one year to the next as I continued to evolve as a bodybuilder.
Along with the consumption of other popular bodybuilding foods like oats, rice, veggies, and my own favorite foods like fruits, nuts, and pastas. I made a lot of progress. Those who knew me as a skinny teenager were impressed with my gains. After only a couple of years of lifting weights I was squatting over 300 pounds, pressing 100-pound dumbbells in each hand whether on a flat or inclined bench. I went from a very skinny and thin frame to a much thicker frame closing in on 200 pounds, all built on plant-based vegan foods.
I didn’t know a lot about nutrition or bodybuilding nutrition back then, but I knew what seemed to work well. I knew that I needed to eat . . . a lot. I knew that eating a lot of calories and being consistent with my training would allow me to reach specific goals that I had for myself. I knew that following the basics that I DID understand and doing them well would allow me to overcome some of the things I didn’t quite understand about bodybuilding nutrition. I picked what I knew best and did it the best I could. Of course, I had a lot to learn. I was eating as many as 18 tofu hotdogs in a day, trying to get as much protein as possible. My diet wasn’t the most exciting it had ever been, but it did work. I ate a lot of pasta, breads, peanut butter, beans, rice, tofu, and up to seven Clif bars a day. I rarely ate green vegetables. I chose to sit rather than stand and didn’t like walking or running long distances because I didn’t want to burn calories. I was in the game of gaining mass, and I was going to do whatever I could to make it happen, even if it meant years of stomach aches, bloating, and bypassing social activities so I could eat, rest, recover, or train at any hour of the day or night. I worked hard to be my best and wanted it so badly that I did it no whatever it took, even if it meant stuffing my face full of food until I was sick. I learned a lot from those experiences and not just mistakes that I made. I learned a lot about myself, my willpower, my determination, and my passion for excellence.
I ate this way for a long time, from the moment I started bodybuilding to the time I met professional Ironman Triathlete and fellow vegan Brendan Brazier in 2005. Brendan is the formulator of Vega, the plant-based whole food health optimizer and full line of nutrition products, and he was the person who introduced me to foods I hadn’t heard of, though they were common among many plant-based eaters. Brendan had an approach to nutrition that was focused around the consumption of plant-based whole foods. Because of Brendan’s influence, I started eating flax seeds, hemp seeds, kale, seaweed, quinoa, some exotic “super foods” like açaí, and a variety of plant-based whole foods I had never tried before. It was a nice change of pace to have some alternatives to soy, which was really my only alternative to meat. After spending some time with Brendan and then getting hired by Sequel Naturals, the manufacturers of Vega, I learned more about plant-based whole foods as an approach to eating. I had a lot more variety in my diet as a result. Brendan later wrote “Thrive” and his most recent book “Thrive Fitness”. He has been a great inspiration for me, and his books have been outstanding resources for thousands of people.
We learn by doing, or we learn from other people’s influence. In my case, I learned in both ways. I found my own way to success on a vegan bodybuilding diet, and I enhanced it by learning from another vegan athlete who had years of experience and lots of tried, tested, and true knowledge to share. I went from never eating salads to actually wanting to eat salads and even buying them when going out to dinner, even though many other options for sandwiches or wraps were available. I stopped drinking natural sodas, something I had been doing for ten years, and started drinking more water, natural and soy-free protein drinks, teas like yerba maté, nutrient-dense smoothies, and real fruit juice. I even started drinking coconut water. I began to buy avocadoes, seaweed, quinoa, and other healthy foods with names I didn’t even know how to pronounce before I met Brendan. Having a friend and a role model who was able to have this kind of influence and impact added so much value to my life and ultimately made me a better athlete, a healthier person, and a better role model for others. I stopped eating soy foods for breakfast, snacks, lunch, dinner, and desserts. I still eat some soy foods. In fact, I like many of them, but I found so many other things to include in my diet that are healthier, more natural, and whole in their unaltered state, which I think is very important for overall health.
I don’t regret the nearly all-soy diet I followed for ten years because it gave me incredible muscle-building gains and it taught me a lot about getting by and making due. Now I eat a wide variety of whole foods, organic foods, fresh foods, soy foods, super-foods, and pretty much anything that is vegan. Though I have cut back dramatically on junk food, I still have some every now and then, and it is enjoyable. But the more my diet improves, the more junk foods become less appealing. Even if there is soy ice cream in front of me or even coconut-based ice cream in the freezer, I’ll often pass. I prefer to eat fruits over junk foods any day. I often ask myself, “What will eating this food do for me?” If the answer is a negative or lacking positive benefits, I usually won’t eat it.
I give the example of my early vegan bodybuilding diet to show that there are plenty of ways to get to a specific destination, even if your knowledge or resources are limited. If you understand some basics and work hard to apply them every day, you’ll be ahead of most people who are trying to do the same thing. Someone could have an outstanding comprehension of a bodybuilding diet and a background in nutrition but not have the work ethic and desire to put it into practice. That person won’t be as successful as the person who understands some basics and puts them into action regularly. Just as you can add muscle eating meat, dairy, and eggs, you can add muscle by eating soy foods or plant-based whole foods as I did. There are many more styles of eating that can also lead to positive results. As long as the proper amounts of calories are consumed with right ration of proteins, fats and carbohydrates, and a weight training program is in place to consistently support it, results will follow. The questions to ask are what is moral to you, what do you consider ethical, what is in line with YOUR belief system, and what seems to make the most sense and cause the least amount of harm in your opinion. Eat the foods that are in line with your own sincere answers.
Within a vegan nutrition program, there are still many diet options including processed plant foods, whole foods, raw foods, and a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, grains, and seeds. Those foods consumed with specific quantities and varieties will provide your body with the healthy nutrients it needs to thrive and grow. In fact, many will argue that it provides the most powerful form of nutrients, because the nutrition is coming from plant-based, whole food original sources. We know the body needs vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose to function, and all of those aspects of nutrition are found in abundance in plant-based whole foods. You wouldn’t eat a steak for Vitamin C; you would go to the plant-based whole foods sources of Vitamin C to get it. And that can be said for all other vitamins. Fresh plant foods contain everything essential for life and in their best sources. That is just the way nature works. If it comes from nature, such as a grain crop, a garden, or a fruit tree, it is a natural form of food and will contain the highest amount of nutrients which will support any nutritional lifestyle.
The reason why a lot of people discover that a vegan or vegetarian does not work for them is that they don’t make “whole foods” the foundation of their nutrition program, but rather a lot of processed foods like breads, pastas, processed soy foods, chips, and other junk foods that don’t provide much positive nutrition. There is a very clear reason why it doesn’t work. I fell victim to this way of eating in my early days as well. When I first became a vegetarian at 15, my idea of eating a vegetarian diet was having cereal with soymilk, bread rolls, candy, natural soda, chips and salsa, and other junk foods. I nearly gave up on my vegetarian/vegan diet when I was in high school, but stuck to it anyway because of my personal ethics. I learned as I got older that to eat healthier foods. I am absolutely convinced that the reason people give up on a vegan diet is because they are not eating healthy foods; namely, they are not eating whole foods. As a result, they may not feel very well, get scared, and go back to eating the poor diet they had before.
Focusing on whole foods gives any diet a better chance for success. A whole food is simply something in its original state. An apple is a whole food; a carrot, a potato, broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, berries, etc. are all whole foods. If it grows in the garden, in a field, on a bush, or on a tree, it is a whole food. Foods like bread and potato chips are not whole foods. They are a combination of many food extracts and ingredients, are processed, and not nearly as healthy as something that comes direct from the ground, a bush, or a tree, naturally.
Another reason a vegan diet may not work for someone is if they simply don’t eat enough food. Many vegans will cut all animal products out of their diet but fail to replace those calories with plant-based foods. Therefore, their caloric intake is reduced, they get thinner, they feel weaker, and decide that a vegan diet isn’t for them. In reality, they weren’t giving veganism a real chance by eating adequate amounts of proper foods.
If more vegans will incorporate more whole foods into their diets, I guarantee they will feel healthier, feel better, feel more energetic, and feel like a vegan diet is sustainable and worthwhile. Take time to learn on your own. Make a real, honest effort to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, and seeds every day. You will likely be healthier than most people on the planet, assuming you are getting adequate calories throughout the day from sufficient quantity of those whole foods and you are exercising regularly.
Though my diet has changed significantly over my bodybuilding career, I always respect and appreciate each phase I go through and each experience I learn from. Some phases have been healthier than others, more expensive than others, more bizarre than others, more beneficial than others, more cost-effective than others, or more responsible than others. My job is to learn from ALL my experiences, choose the most beneficial aspects of each phase throughout my nutrition programs, and incorporate them into new programs today. As I extract the benefits from each program, I carry them over to future programs and continue to experience successful results. That is by design, to take what works, discard what didn’t work, and try new things along with what has proved to be successful in the past. As 8-time Mr. Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman says, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you always got.” Sticking to what works and then discovering new things that work well and incorporating them regularly is a recipe for success. I suggest doing “more” than what you have “always done” to get superior results. That goes for training as well as nutrition.
Vegan nutrition and bodybuilding nutrition can be complex on their own, and when you combine the two it becomes even more foreign to most people. When I travel around North America talking to about vegan bodybuilding nutrition as I understand it, I talk in very basic terms, because I believe it is the basics that are most important. You don’t need to understand the intricate details of a cell or have full comprehension of how carbohydrates get used as fuel or know the conversion rates of specific nutrients. You don’t need to name all the steps in ATP transport or recite the Kreb’s cycle, but if you know what foods to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat them, you will likely find success when you put it into action and follow through with accountability. The further you get into bodybuilding the more scientific you’ll probably want to be, but you’ll also find out that a lot of it is still the same; it still comes down to the basics.
There was a time in my life when I knew quite a bit about nutrition, and I loved it. I loved studying it, understanding it, and having intellectual conversations with people who also understood intricate details of human nutrition. For a time it was a strong interest of mine. Now I rely on the basics of nutrition and rely on conversations with other bodybuilders, or those studying nutrition. Listening, asking questions, talking, and watching those who understand it and put it into action is how I learn about nutrition today. I share from my experiences because I have had some success as a vegan athlete, even with my limited knowledge of sports nutrition. I eat every 2-3 hours and focus on consuming healthy foods, and find success in my approach. That is all the time and energy I have to devote to it at the moment because of my hectic and often excruciatingly busy lifestyle. I also know that pure hard work and application of intense effort will trump knowledge that isn’t applied, every time. Would I have more success if I had every aspect of my food consumption carefully calculated? Perhaps. But not to the degree that I am willing to take on the additional stress in my already stressful life. Some bodybuilders love the scientific approach to weighing and calculating each component of nutritional intake. Some bodybuilders thrive in that environment, carefully measuring just the right amount of rice or oats or protein powder. And to their credit, some have had a lot of success following these methods. I’ve also used my common sense approach and have placed ahead of these neurotic, compulsive, calculating bodybuilders in competition. It all depends on how far you want to go in the sport, what other passions you have in life, and how you find a way to balance them all out effectively. When it comes to the scientific aspect of bodybuilding nutrition, it is up to the personality of the individual as to what approach they will take. With hard work and dedication, all roads can lead to some form of personal achievement in the sport.
When you become more serious about your bodybuilding program, you’ll probably become more serious about your nutrition program too. I’m experiencing this at the very moment. I competed more times in 2009 than any other year in my career, and I’m training more consistently than ever. I crave new knowledge to become better, and I seek it out. You’ll gain more enthusiasm for the nutrition aspect of bodybuilding just as I am experiencing now. It can become fun and something to really look forward to learning more about.
MASS-BUILDING VEGAN BODYBUILDING NUTRITION & MEAL PROGRAMS
A mass-building vegan bodybuilding program can be a lot of fun! Of all the areas of bodybuilding nutrition, bulk-building is probably my favorite. I can lift much heavier weights simply because I am eating much more and have more overall mass to move the weight with. The increase in my bodyweight along with my total calorie and protein consumption allows me to get bigger and stronger. Here are some general tips for bulking up on a vegan diet:
Eat Plenty of Protein – You will need to eat lots of protein. That is all there is to it. Forget what the agencies and administrations say about recommended daily intake; that is for average people and certainly doesn’t apply to lifters and bodybuilders. You will need to consume 1-2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight if you have any aspirations of adding muscle or even maintaining the muscle you’ve worked hard to build. If you are a 200-lb. bodybuilder, consuming 35-50 grams of protein at a time, six times a day should easily keep you on course for muscle growth. Combine that with adequate consumption of carbohydrates and fats and you will be well on your way to adding mass, bulking up, and achieving your goals. Once you figure out the best food to eat to reach those targets it won’t seem difficult or challenging, but will soon become second nature. If you work ethic and training programs support your sound nutritional programs, your results will be all the greater.
There is a lot of talk about low-protein diets in the general community and especially in the vegan community. This focus on low protein consumption is sound advice for the typical inactive person and non-athlete, people who dimply don’t require large amounts of protein to be healthy. I support this notion of a low to moderate protein diet for the average inactive or low activity person. But when we’re talking about bodybuilding and the strength and power sports a high protein diet is required for success.
Every time my protein intake has been at its highest, I have experienced the best strength and musclebuilding results. There is no question about that. I have over 100 pages of documented nutrition journals to back up my results. Conversely, every time I have lowered my protein intake to a standard amount, I experience inferior results, and in some cases I wasn’t even able to hang onto the muscle mass and strength I already had.
In this section I have included five mass-building nutrition programs. I will also list my all-time favorite mass-building vegan foods, which may serve as a good resource for you to extract some ideas to incorporate into your own nutrition program.
Be Prepared to Defend Yourself – As always, when you’re on a high-protein/high calorie diet, be prepared to properly defend yourself among those in the general health community. You will need to be able to express the personal fulfillment benefits you get from this kind of diet clearly so it is easily understood by others without a similar goal.
Keep Your Total Caloric Intake High – Just as important as ingesting large amounts of protein is the consumption of a high total calorie diet. Bodybuilding and the strength sports are physically demanding and once engaged in them you will need calories to recover from the exertions of your training, plain and simple.
A 200-lb. bodybuilder will likely want to consume 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day to add mass. It may seem like a lot of food, and it is, but for an athlete of that size such an amount of calories is necessary to improve athletic performance. Don’t be afraid to eat big. If you work out enough, and hard enough, you will be hungry and eating won’t seem like a chore. When you eat smaller meals throughout the day the calories really add up!
Mass Building Meal Program #1.
Meal 1 – 3 large vegan pancakes with maple syrup and vegan butter, 12 ounces of orange juice, protein drink.
Meal 2 – 2 protein bars, 2 whole fruits, protein drink, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 3 – 2 large burritos, 12 ounces of fruit juice, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 4 – 2 whole fruits, Vega meal replacement drink, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 5 – 2 tofu sandwiches with avocado, 16 ounces of fruit juice, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 6 – Bowl of quinoa, broccoli, carrots, peas, peppers, and tofu. Large green salad with nuts and seeds and omega 3-6-9 EFA oil. Protein drink, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 7 – 2 almond butter sandwiches, 16 ounces of hemp milk, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 8 – A collection of vitamin supplements (B-12, Omega 3 and 6, multivitamin, etc.), 2 whole fruits, green smoothie with fruits and protein.
Estimated Totals – 6,850 calories, 300 g. protein, 1200 g. carbohydrates, 80 g. fat, 150 ounces of water (factoring water for protein drinks too).
Mass Building Meal Program #2.
Meal 1 – Plate of tofu scramble with potatoes, peppers, broccoli and other veggies, 2 veggie sausages, 2 slices of bread with almond butter or jam, 12 ounces of orange juice, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 2 – 2 pieces of whole fruit, 2 cups non-dairy yogurt, protein drink, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 3 – Bowl of whole wheat pasta with pinto beans, large green salad, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 4 – Plate of vegetables with hummus dip, 4 slices of pita bread with lentil pate, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 5 – Bowl of brown rice with broccoli and asparagus, avocado and sprout sandwich, large green salad, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 6 – Protein drink, 3 yams, large bowl of vegetable soup, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 7 – Rice and vegetable stir-fry with baked tofu, small bowl of kale leaves, 16 ounces of hemp milk, 16 ounces of coconut water.
Meal 8 – 2 pieces of whole fruit, green protein smoothie with Vega Smoothie Infusion, bowl of coconut ice cream.
Estimated Totals – 7,000 calories, 350 g. protein, 1,100 g. carbohydrates, 130 g. fats, 150 ounces water.
Mass-Building Meal Program #3.
Meal 1 – Breakfast burrito, bowl of fried potatoes, 16 ounces of grapefruit juice, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 2 – 2 high-protein food bars (Vega Bar, PROBAR, Clif Bar, Organic Food Bar, others), 3 non-dairy yogurts, Fruit smoothie with protein and greens, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 3 – Large plate of Pad Thai with noodles, veggies, tofu and peanut sauce, 2 cups of brown rice, small green salad, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 4 – Protein drink, 3 pieces of whole fruit, 2 servings of walnuts, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 5 – Five slices of vegan pizza, small green salad with 3-6-9 EFA oil, 16 ounces of hemp milk, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 6 – Green protein smoothie, 2 almond butter and jam sandwiches, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 7 – Large spinach pie, Middle Eastern food platter with garbanzo beans, lentils, hummus, rice, etc., 4 slices of pita bread for dipping in the platter, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 8 – 2 slices of vegan chocolate cake with vegan ice cream, small bowl of assorted fruit, protein drink.
Estimated Totals – 8,000 calories, 315 g. protein, 1,200 g. carbohydrates, 200 g. fats, 130 ounces of water.
Mass-Building Meal Program #4.
Meal 1 – Large bowl of oats with meal replacement protein smoothie, Whole wheat bagel with vegan cream cheese, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 2 – 2 tofu sandwiches on sprouted bread, medium green salad with 3-6-9 EFA oil, protein drink, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 3 – Veggie taco platter with beans, tomato, avocado, lettuce, rice and tortillas. Green protein smoothie, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 4 – Green salad with Field Roast Grain meat, bowl of dates rolled in coconut flakes, protein drink, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 5 – Tempeh Reuben sandwich, bowl of chips and salsa, small bowl of lentil soup, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 6 – Large bowl of assorted fruits, green protein smoothie, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 7 – 2 baked potatoes with seitan, broccoli, carrots, and almond gravy. Green salad with hemp seeds, seaweed and Omega 3-6-9 EFA oil, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 8 – Bowl chocolate tofu pudding with strawberries, 12 ounces of rice milk, 2 pieces of fruit, 8 ounces of water.
Estimated Totals – 7,500 calories, 300 g. protein, 1,100 g. carbohydrates, 200 g. fats, 170 ounces of water.
Mass-Building Meal Program #5.
Meal 1 – 3 pieces of French toast with maple syrup, Bowl of cereal with rice milk, 2 pieces of whole fruit, 16 ounces water.
Meal 2 – Vega meal replacement drink, 2 pieces of whole fruit, 1 protein bar, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 3 – 6 Vegan corndogs, medium green salad with Omega 3-6-9 EFA oil, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 4 – 1 large cucumber with hummus, 3 large carrots, Green Protein smoothie, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 5 – Plate of steamed vegetables and tempeh, green salad with seaweed and hemp seeds, an assortment of nuts, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 6 – Celery sticks with almond butter, 2 pieces of whole fruit, protein bar, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 7 – Kale salad with dulse and pumpkin and hemp seeds, Green Smoothie, 16 ounces of water.
Meal 8 – 2 oranges, plate of flax crackers with almond butter, 12 ounces of water.
Estimated Totals – 7,750 calories, 300 g. protein, 1,275 g. carbohydrates, 160 g. fats, 170 ounces of water.