Fitness and proper eating go hand-in-hand. As the adage goes: abs are made in the kitchen, and if you’re going to train hard, you bet your buns there are going to be a lot of green veggies, an array of good carbs and high-quality lean meats on that dinner plate. With lifters and bodybuilders, though, it goes one step further. To achieve their maximum vascularity (those pipe-like veins on their ripped bodies), they need more muscle, plain and simple. With the volume of protein required to maintain those gains they work so hard for, there exists a common misconception in the fitness world and beyond that big muscles = animal protein consumption.
But vegan fitness superstars, including the likes of world-famous athletes like tennis superstar Venus Williams, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and NFL players Griff Whalen & Tom Brady, have raised global awareness for a plant-based approach to professional athlete nutrition that would have been hard to fathom just a couple of years ago. Professional athletes don’t get to the top by accident and their decision to ditch meat has fueled a community of like-minded individuals advocating a plant-based diet and seeing improvements in their recovery time and performance. Today, going meat-free while remaining muscled up is a very achievable reality. Here in Hong Kong, Green Queen had the chance to meet some amazing vegan athletes who are leading the way for our city, demonstrating a passion for a vegan lifestyle and a commitment to rigorous training. We sat down like plant-based trainers Jessenia Soto and Maritsa Cortés of SoFit Vegan, and award-winning vegan bodybuilder Hin Chun Chui of Revol Vegan Fitness to find out how they got involved in the movement and what they eat!
Eat Clean, Train Mean
In a meat-centric city like Hong Kong where people are consuming red meat like it’s going out of style, it can be difficult to believe that you don’t need to eat meat in order to gain muscle. As a fitness trainer and former meat-eating American, Jess was keenly aware of the misconception. “If you’re not getting enough protein, of course you’re going to be hungry. But when you get a variety of protein coming from different sources of food, then you’re satiated, you’re full and you have energy.” So the million dollar question: what do you put on your plate in lieu of beef, poultry, pork, or fish? That’ll be high-protein vegan sources such as peas, spinach, kale, mushrooms and the like. (We’ve also got some amazing recipes right here.)
“We made the decision to cook more at home to cut out a lot of the processed stuff out there,” says SoFit Vegan co-founder Maritsa. “When we started eating more whole, natural foods, we noticed a huge difference in mental clarity, recovery, skin and our menstrual cycle. I was actually born with an iron deficiency and had it my entire life. People kept telling me to eat more red meat, but it didn’t alleviate the problem. Instead it caused more stomach and digestion issues. But as soon as I went whole food & plant-based, it went away.” To add more fuel to the herbivorous fire, a recent study tracked endurance athletes that maintained people who eat a vegetarian diet are just as strong, and possible even more fit, than those who consume meat.
After turning to a whole food, plant-based diet two years ago, both Jess and Maritza have noticed significant health-based and training benefits. Hin (who goes by Len) also echoes the sentiment. Fresh off his second-place win at NABBA Singapore Grand Prix, the 21-year-old shed light on his plant-based journey to bulk up. Six months into starting his bodybuilding journey over three years ago, Len realized consuming animal protein wasn’t helping him with his training: consuming eggs was hindering his health; he was constantly fighting colds. Eating chicken and beef weren’t doing anything to boost those prominent veins coursing through his body that bodybuilders are known for.
“I had so many friends tell me ‘you don’t want to eat meat but you want to be a bodybuilder, that’s impossible,'” recalls the local Hongkonger. But he was convinced there had to be another way. “Back then, Hong Kong didn’t have any information about vegan bodybuilding so I had to learn about things myself. I only knew soy was a complete source of protein so I tried to eat a lot of soy – drink a lot of soy milk, eat a lot tofu – but I had muscle loss; it wasn’t enough to support my muscles. So the first time I tried to be a vegan, I failed.” To prevent losing his hard work, Len incorporated dairy and cheese for a brief time to supplement while continuing to find alternate vegan resources. A few months later, he found a vegan group on Facebook. “They weren’t into bodybuilding but they knew how to get enough protein and taught me to eat more nuts, seeds and rice.” Len dropped the dairy and within two months, began to notice incredible results with his new vegan diet.
Today, the vegan resolve from these athletes are stronger than ever. Maritza credits her vegan nutrition on reducing muscle soreness, fatigue, and recovery time. “We were both power lifters in the states, and I remember when I was power lifting out there, it would take me a few days to recover whereas now my recovery is definitely a lot faster. Jess chimed in by adding that incorporating calorific and nutrient-dense foods aided her muscle metabolism and strength while training.
It goes without saying that we need to be conscious of what we put into our bodies. Jess, Maritza, Len and the other plant-strong athletes represent the diverse capabilities of being vegan. It’s possible to start building your vegan body, one that could rival that of the ‘traditional’ jock. Veganism is increasingly making a significant mark in the sporting world and its time those meatheads take note.
Images courtesy of SoFit Vegan (including lead), and Hin Chun Chui.