Most of my articles here on VeganBodybuilding.com have been technical, but I'd like to get personal for my last featured article as a sponsored athlete. As a vegan who is in the public eye (I hope that doesn't sound too incredibly pompous), I often hesitate to share the less flattering stages of my journey, or even any injuries or setbacks that might cast a negative light on veganism. A role model is someone who is looked up to because of what they appear to be, after all. While it's great to have an ideal to strive for, baring flaws and sharing lessons learned the hard way helps those who are just discovering how to get from point A to point B, in this case from non-vegan or new to the gym to fit vegan role model! There is so much speculation among the vegan athlete community about everything from proper protein intake to intermittent fasting to macronutrient ratios to finding just the right supplements...and that dialogue is no different than you would find among any community of athletes! We're all looking for what is going to improve performance and make us look our best. I just want to share with you what my major lessons learned have been, after going over seven years of meticulous photo records, workout journals, and food journals kept as I experimented with all of the diet, fitness, and supplement variations that Derek Tresize and I could come up with. They are:
A whole foods, plant-based diet is key, and everything else is just window dressing.
Hard work in the gym is necessary - that means lifting and cardiovascular exercise within reason and with recovery time scheduled.
First, let me say that I don't have good genetics for bodybuilding, and most people don't. What you see in some of these pictures is the result of daily hours in the gym and hard dieting, and that same amount of Herculean effort yields far better results in someone with the right genetics (such as Derek Tresize, who eats the same food and works out the same way I do)! I am only ever trying to be at my personal best, and my definition of that state is always changing.
I was obese for most of my childhood and all of my adolescence. Whether my portions were large or small, I ate a good chunk of it in the form of dairy. By the time I went vegan in 1999, no amount of diligent exercise seemed to slow my progress into morbid obesity. I'd tried weightlifting, daily hard cardio, calorie-counting, and portion control with only temporary results, if any.
Seven years of an unhealthy vegan diet yielded a fifty-pound weight loss. I'd gone vegan for ethical reasons and still cooked the same foods I'd eaten before, but “veganized” - I even fried my own donuts sometimes! Yuck.
When Derek and I began our life together in 2007, my veganism eventually combined with his athleticism and bro-science-based diet into a style of eating that we see in many of our new clients today: more whole plant foods, but also lots of protein powder, protein bars, and various other supplements. Having been vegan already for so long, I knew that I didn't need the protein supplements to keep me out of the hospital, but I thought I might need them in order to see results from the hard training I was now doing in the gym. I was gaining muscle, but had little muscle definition and didn't know what to do about it.
Between 2007 and 2009 we adopted a more “nutritarian” style of eating, a term coined by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live. This meant way more greens and beans and, over time, less protein supplementation and the elimination of oil from our diet. I quickly dropped 12 pounds of fat and finally started to look leaner. We learned a lot about contest prep as well, and how much work it takes to get lean enough (for most except for a few lucky souls) to get muscle definition. Although we were eating mostly whole foods, we still thought we had to adopt a vegan version of the sort of diets you see in muscle magazines to achieve our goals of looking lean and muscular enough for a few days before a photo shoot...Because that's all it is: a few days at best! Like some of you may be, I still thought it was possible for anyone to maintain a look like that indefinitely if enough work was put in. So, I put in a lot of hours in the gym, ate far less than I should have, and continued to limit starches and fruits.
Pregnancy in 2011 changed everything for me for a while! Back pain due to scoliosis had me training less over time, while simultaneously I was eating more processed foods like bagels or meals out of convenience. I could no longer take supplements of any kind and even cut out caffeine, even to this day. This, combined with new motherhood and a lower back that could not tolerate many exercises, was quite a setback for me! I wondered if I'd ever again “bring the intensity” to the gym, as Derek likes to say. Fortunately, the decision to join the Plantbuilt team in the women's bodybuilding division got me in gear. In eight months, I lost 23 pounds of fat and gained 5½ pounds of muscle. Our contest prep this time around was drastically different than it had been in the past: almost all of our protein came from whole foods. Eating in this fashion, with minimal protein powder and no faux meat, allowed us both to get the leanest we'd ever been. Derek was clearly the biggest and leanest competitor in the men's bodybuilding division, winning his class, and I didn't embarrass myself, which was my goal!
It is now 2014, and I have seven years of training and diet changes with their associated results to review and analyze to determine my next move. Throughout the years, my diet remained low in fat but my carbohydrate intake increased dramatically while protein decreased. I supplement with protein powder maybe three times a week, and I certainly don't limit starches or fruit anymore! Looking at the seven year span over which I ate various styles of a plant-based diet, I don't see a dramatic difference. Do I look better than I did when I ate more protein? Maybe, maybe not — but I am also training less, and in my opinion it's not enough of a difference to burden my body with processed food and excess protein. Again, my goals have shifted and my aim is now to be as fit as possible while eating a whole foods, plant-based diet with minimal supplements, both to maximize my longevity and health and because I think it makes a better case for a vegan diet.
This evolution of diet can be seen in much greater detail by looking through our blog, Vegan Muscle and Fitness, with posts going all the way back to 2009! Thanks for joining me on my journey!