Getting Bigger, Faster and Stronger Without Excess Body Fat: Lifting on a Vegan Diet
Vegan Body Builder Jon Venus
Q: How has food impacted your life and health?
A: When I turned vegan, there was very little information online about bodybuilding on a fully plant-based diet. I could not find any examples of natural vegan bodybuilders with an impressive amount of muscle to look to for tips and inspiration. Because of this, the jump from eating tons of animal products to going 100 percent plant-based was very scary for me. I feared losing all the progress I made in the gym over the years, but as an effort to help save the environment and all living beings, I was more than willing to take that risk and decided to document my journey on YouTube. Since going vegan, my life has changed drastically; I saw the world very differently and became more open-minded. I started seeing how much control corporations have over our lives and how their narrative impacts all of our everyday food choices. Since then, I have always questioned the credibility of every statement made by nutritional experts by checking for reliable sources and “higher power” scientific studies as an effort to come closer to the truth. I have also found an enormous sense of purpose and motivation since going vegan, knowing that how I promote my actions to my audience is going to directly have an impact on people’s health, the environment and the animals.
"Along with the strength increases, I also gained muscle mass faster than when I ate meat. This was very confusing to me as my protein intake was lower."
Q: Were you a bodybuilder before turning vegan? If so, have you noticed any improvements since changing your diet? If not, what differences can you discern between vegan and non-vegan bodybuilders?
A: When I changed to a 100 percent plant-based diet, much to my surprise, I noticed countless improvements to my performance in the gym. The first change I noticed was improved strength and energy. This was most likely due to the fact I was choosing more carbohydrate-rich, whole plant foods as opposed to higher protein and fatty foods often found in animal products. My main compound lifts (such as the bench press and squat) improved by about 20 percent during the first three months of going vegan. At the same time, my recovery time also improved. I was feeling sore less often and always had the energy to give 100 percent effort in my workout sessions. Along with the strength increases, I also gained muscle mass faster than when I ate meat. This was very confusing to me as my protein intake was lower. At that time, there were no affordable meat replacement products I could find where I lived, so my protein came mainly from grains and legumes, which are lower in protein. However, even with a lower protein intake, I put on a couple of pounds of lean muscle mass in those same three months. After seeing what this diet was capable of, not only did I know that I was avoiding the health, environmental and ethical problems associated with consuming animal products, but I also felt that I had a huge advantage in terms of physical performance. I was able to get bigger, faster and stronger without putting on a lot of excess body fat; it felt like I hit the jackpot.
"I was able to get bigger, faster and stronger without putting on a lot of excess body fat; it felt like I hit the jackpot."
Q: What advice would you give to somebody who wants to gain mass on a plant-based diet?
A: Don’t overthink it. Most people looking to get in better shape always stress about the small, insignificant details such as meal timing, protein intake and supplementation. Instead, I recommend just focusing on eating the right foods and lifting heavy weights. I always recommend that people eat as many whole foods as possible, including any fruits and vegetables, grains (such as oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole grain bread, quinoa, buckwheat and barley), legumes (such as beans of any sort, lentils and chickpeas, nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, chia and flaxseeds), and optionally, organic soy products (such as tempeh and tofu). We have to remember that just because something is plant-based doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Nowadays, especially in the U.S., there are tons of highly processed foods and fast-food restaurants that should be avoided if you want to get fit and healthy. It is great to have all the veg - an burgers, cheeses, ice creams and other treats available, but if we consume these products too often, we will not be able to reach our fitness and health goals. Keep it simple. The key to succeeding with eating simple whole foods is to experiment in the kitchen. Subscribe to vegan recipe channels on YouTube and other blogs/ websites for ideas and you will see that it doesn’t have to be boring or time consuming. Now, the most important thing (after knowing what food to eat) is knowing that you need to eat enough calories in order to build muscle. This may require trial and error. I often recommend tracking your caloric intake if you are new to this to make sure that you are eating slightly above your maintenance calories, or the calories you need to consume in order to maintain your current body weight. The third thing to focus on is to make sure you are getting a good amount of each macronutrient (carbs, protein and fats). There are many different macro ratios to choose from, but from my experience coaching hundreds of clients to build muscle and lose fat, the macro ratio that works for the most people is around 60 percent of your total calories coming from carbs, 20 percent from protein and 20 percent from fats.
Q: Is there any health secret (outside of going vegan) that made a huge difference in your health?
A: The biggest tip I can give to anyone looking to improve their health is very simple: EAT YOUR GREENS, and eat a ton of them! Over 90 percent of Americans eat less than the minimum recommended fiber intake, and a vast amount of people are low in many important micronutrients, such as vitamin A, magnesium and calcium, all of which are abundant in the plant kingdom, especially in leafy greens and vegetables. By super-sizing your vegetable and leafy green servings, you will change your health almost instantly and feel a whole lot better.
Q: How do you stay motivated?
A: Like everyone else, I have struggled with motivation, and the truth is that motivation will not spontaneously find you; you have to work for it. What I find helps me the most through rough patches is to force myself to do something that will positively affect me and somebody/something else, no matter how much I don’t want to do it. It will always be hard during those first few days or weeks of sticking to something you are not motivated to do, but doing things that are uncomfortable and pushing through them gives us a feeling of control over our minds. Eventually, this persistency will lead to more self-confidence, but only if you have a PURPOSE. If you figure out why you want something, you will be able to use that purpose to push you through the difficult times. For example, my purpose is to help save our environment and improve the lives and health of other people, and by knowing that it’s not only about me, I feel a responsibility to commit to what I set out to do, no matter how I feel.