The recommended route to powerful pecs and rippling abs is through pumping iron then downing lots of whey protein shakes and steaks – but is there a way to eat 0% meat yet be 100% muscle?
RISING Were you working towards muscle goals when you went vegan?
JV ‘When I decided to switch to a plant-based diet I was already into lifting. I had many worries about not being able to perform well in the gym and build muscle optimally on this diet, as at the time, there were no examples of people who had built an impressive physique as a vegan.’
RISING So you expected your gains to fall off from the start?
JV ‘After watching the eye-opening documentaries that led me to switch my diet, I decided to stick to it even though it meant I would lose muscle mass, in an effort to make a positive change on the environment. I was prepared for disappointment from the start and accepted that it could be a tough road ahead. Due to my fear of losing muscle I was eating as much as I could and pushing myself hard in the gym. I quickly started noticing that my lifts such as my bench press, overhead press and squats increased faster than ever before. After a few months I also realised I was putting on more muscle mass; this was surprising at first and a big relief.’
‘There are zero muscle-building limitations – that’s one of the biggest myths about plant-based nutrition’
RISING How did you go about making the switch in terms of food choices?
JV ‘The toughest part in the beginning was to figure out what was vegan or not – I remember spending 30 minutes at the grocery store in the first few days of going vegan to explore all my options. I didn’t make it convenient for myself as I was uneducated about what to eat. I ate boring foods, like rice and beans until I learned how to prepare my food so it tastes amazing. I had always eaten a lot of plant foods even when my meat intake was high. I simply cut out the animal products and continued eating everything else I was used to eating such as rice, beans, lentils, chickpeas, potatoes as well as some higher protein sources like tempeh and tofu. Now it has become super-easy to transition into a vegan diet as we have access to all sorts of mock-meats, plant-based cheeses and tonnes of restaurants offering vegan options.’
RISING What about whey protein – what supplements did you replace that with?
JV ’The only supplements I take are creatine and Vivo Life Perform protein powder. Creatine is the most studied supplement in the world and has been shown to help with producing more energy for muscle contractions. Protein powders are always a convenient way to increase your protein intake if you don’t have time to cook high protein meals, and plant-based protein [combined from multiple sources] has been shown to be just as effective as whey.’
‘If you base your diet around salads and veg, or junk food like fries, you won’t get very far’
RISING What are the limitations of building muscle on a vegan diet?
JV ‘There are zero limitations – that is still one of the biggest myths about plant-based nutrition. But it’s important to know that you have to eat according to your goals – you will not progress by simply eating vegan as it can mean anything. If you base your diet around salads and vegetables, or junk food like Oreos and French fries, you will not get very far. If you choose healthy, whole plant foods and opt for high protein grains and starches you will progress optimally in terms of building muscle. What I recommend to anyone looking for a convenient way to switching over is to simply eat the same things you already do, but buy a plant-based alternative instead.’
RISING In terms of amino acid profiles what’s the best source of vegan protein and how does it compare with meat?
JV ’The best sources of protein from vegan foods are beans, lentils, tempeh, tofu, chickpeas, mushrooms, quinoa, nuts and seeds. For a convenient source of protein you can always purchase a plant-based protein powder to supplement with. How these foods compare to meat is an important topic; even though isolated foods such as rice and beans do not have a complete amino acid profile as meat does, when you eat both of them you can get a complete amino acid profile. You do not need to combine these foods in the same meal as many believe – as long as you eat a variety of foods throughout the day you will get all the amino acids you need.’
RISING Do you think that vegan bodybuilding is going to become more common as diets switch to more sustainable foods?
JV ‘I have already seen a tremendous growth in vegan bodybuilding in the past two years and I don’t see it ever slowing down. As more information comes to light about health, the environment and the unethical practices of animal agriculture, more people will make a change.’
RISING There’s a lot of fibre in a vegan, high-protein ‘boosted’ diet – is it hard work to digest or does your body adapt quickly when you switch?
JV ‘If you’re already used to eating a lot of fibre-rich foods, it’s not going to be an issue and your body will already be adapted. Most people eating a Western diet are consuming far too little fibre in their diets, which can have serious health consequences in the long term. If someone is eating an unhealthy Western diet low in fibre, it is not a good idea to immediately switch into a super high-fibre diet. Instead, try gradually increasing your fibre over time. Focus on getting the bulk of your calories from foods with less fibre, such as rice and potatoes and slowly incorporate more fruits, vegetables and legumes into your diet. Increasing your fibre intake will help control blood pressure, reduce inflammation, absorb nutrients more efficiently and improve digestion.’
RISING What’s the other biggest myth about vegan bodybuilding that you’ve come across?
JV ‘That eating plant-based food is not manly – this is a view that even I shared before going vegan. We are conditioned from a young age and told what is manly and what isn't. What I learned is that taking responsibility for your actions and showing compassion for other people and animals wakes up the vulnerable side in us that is taught to be locked away. Getting in touch with our feelings is vital for good mental health and clarity.’
‘It’s super-easy to feel full on a vegan diet and cut down on body fat without much effort’
RISING Is there a surprising benefit to being a vegan lifter that you didn’t know before you switched?
JV ’Yes – it’s super-easy to feel full on a whole food, plant-based diet and cut down on body fat without much effort. I have several vegan bodybuilder friends and when they diet down for competitions they can eat so much more than their meat-eating counterparts. Even when ‘bulking' or going through a muscle building phase, there are so many interesting meals to experiment with and best of all, you never have to be afraid of carbs like meat-eaters often are (because meat is higher in fat, they can’t eat as many carbs). The truth is that when you eat healthy, clean whole foods, you can get away with eating way more food than you can imagine, making this diet perfect for anyone with a big appetite, and eating equals fun!’
RISING What are your three favourite high-protein vegan meals that you’ve discovered since transitioning?
JV ’I am a big fan of post-workout smoothies. My favourite is a green smoothie of spinach, kale, two bananas, 300g of frozen pineapple, 1-2 scoops of Vivo Perform Salted Maca Caramel protein, hemp seeds and almond milk. Another high-protein meal I love is the Burrito Bowl, which is made of brown rice, black/pinto beans, salad, scrambled tofu, guacamole, salsa and some hot sauce. Lastly, I really love stuffed baked sweet potatoes; sliced open and stuffed with seasoned lentils, salsa, guacamole, hummus and a side of BBQ marinated tempeh. You can follow blogs and channels for a tonne of food inspiration.’
WHAT NEXT? Check out Jon Venus’s YouTube channel for plant-based nutrition ideas and advice.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.