I became vegan 13 years ago, gradually transitioning from an obese junk-food vegan to a fit whole foods vegan, losing 75 pounds in the process. At the end of that journey, as half of the Vegan Muscle and Fitness team (www.veganmuscleandfitness.com), weight lifting and good plant-based nutrition already played a large role in my daily life, and I looked perfectly healthy at around 17-21% body fat. I wanted to look leaner, especially in the legs, but my nutrition was already sound and I was working out twice a day with a lot of cardiovascular exercise and seeing no changes in my body as a result. I just sort of shrugged and accepted that cellulite on my thighs was a fact of life. There are worse fates!
Pregnancy inspired me to find a solution. While I was fortunate to have a healthy vegan pregnancy with minimal weight gain, I had severe lower back pain due to torsion of my pelvis and scoliosis that kept me from lifting weight. That, and being a stationary food source for 8 months, left me fatter and less muscular than I'd been pre-pregnancy. Fortunately, the formation of Team PlantBuilt to represent veganism at a major bodybuilding competition gave me the motivation I needed to improve my body. There's nothing quite like the prospect of standing in the spotlight before hundreds of people in a string bikini to get your butt in gear! With 8 months left to prepare for the show, I was at 29% body fat and 125 pounds and, given my previous experience with being stuck in a fat loss rut, I had my doubts that I could ever reach the goal of 12% body fat and 110 pounds that Derek (my husband and personal trainer/champion vegan bodybuilder) set me for me! But with one week left before the show, I checked in at exactly 12.006% body fat and 110 pounds.
So how did we do it? Why is it that I'd been on a whole foods plant-based diet for years already, which got me in excellent pre-pregnancy shape, but I hadn't gotten that coveted “ripped” physique in spite of all the good nutrition and frequent workouts? Before I explain our strategy, I want to point out that merely making the switch to a whole foods plant-based diet should be your first step! Reduce or eliminate refined flour products and processed foods. If you eat a variety of healthy whole plant foods and exercise regularly, you'll look great and will never need to scrutinize your calories, unless you have a rare medical condition of some sort. If you've already taken that step and find you want to look especially good for an event or a photo shoot, or just need to shed some resistant pounds as I did, you can implement some of the following strategies that competitors use to get lean. The details, complete with the meal plans used by both Derek and myself to prepare for our last contest, are available at the Vegan Muscle & Fitness online studio but here's an overview:
- Take the time to assess where you are now — you might need to increase your food intake and decrease your hours on the treadmill to lose fat. Counterintuitive, eh? This is what trips so many of our clients (and me) up, but Derek finally set me straight: keeping your calories low and your activity level high for an extended period is just going to put your body in starvation mode. You may need to take the time to convince your body that, hey, you actually aren't in the midst of a famine being chased by predators from dawn to dusk and can stand to let go of some of that fat. At 8 months out from my contest date, we determined that my maintenance calories were around 2500 and we planned to keep it that way for four months in order to stimulate my metabolism and allow me to gain muscle. During this four-month period, I lost 8% body fat — much to my surprise!
- Make small incremental changes and assess yourself often. Don't succumb to the temptation to make a drastic change in hopes of immediate results. Gradual changes leave you with somewhere to go if you stall, and the idea is to do as little as possible to reap the greatest results. Assess yourself visually or by measuring your body fat periodically, and don't change your diet until you stop changing. For the last month or two of contest prep, we dropped my calories by around 100-200 per week and increased cardio from three 20-minute sessions to six 60-minute sessions very gradually. This had the dual benefit, too, of “easing” me in and keeping my metabolism as high as possible throughout.
- Once you've achieved your goal, “reverse diet”. Once you've achieved your desired physique and no longer want to continue losing fat, it's important not to undo all of your hard work with crazed binging (see this article for more on that topic). However, you do want to get your calories back up to a level that will maintain you at a healthy body fat percentage — which, by the way, is not 12% for a woman, as I was at the end of my contest prep! My chosen off-season body fat is around 16% and I'm getting there by doing the reverse of what I did to lose the fat — increasing my calories by 100 per week.
I hope these general guidelines will help you on your fitness journey! If you prefer the accountability that comes with hiring a coach, Derek and I also offer contest prep and personal training services! You can learn more at our website www.veganmuscleandfitness.com or contact us at [email protected].