How Vegan Bodybuilding is like the 1960s Space Race

Two years ago I began a vegan bodybuilding experiment to demonstrate that plant protein can support the same rate of muscle gains as animal protein.  I felt this would allow me to make a powerful point, particularly among a Chinese audience given that the Mandarin word for muscle (肌肉) contains the word for meat (肉) and the word for protein (蛋白质 dan bai zhi) literally translates as “egg white substance”.  Surely, gaining muscle without meat, or any other animal foods would challenge some engrained ideas and help raise some of the critical issues related to meat consumption, such as disproportionate land and water use and green house gas emissions.

Progress shots so far..

But as things progressed, I realized that the greatest benefit of this was not a propaganda victory for any particular group, but practical lessons.  Eating and cooking nearly 4,000 calories of high-protein vegan food in spite of a busy lifestyle is like the US sending men to the moon. It’s a seemingly crazy thing to do, but the problem-solving done along the way can create a lot of value for a lot of people who may never wish to fly to the moon or become vegan bodybuilders.

Solving Problems I didn’t know Existed

Comparison of my vegan physique and pre-steroids era Mr. Olympia, John Grimek.

Let me paint a quick picture for you to see the home-economics logistics nightmare involved in what became my obsession. I had to figure out how to consume about 180-200 grams of high quality vegan protein daily. Thus, all at once I needed to satisfy several constraints such as:

  • Cost: There’s gonna be a lot of food, so it has to be affordable.
  • Prep and Clean up time: Again, a lot of cooking and a busy lifestyle means that food prep has to be as fast and easy as possible, from cooking to clean up. (Have since hired an assistant to cook for me: phew)
  • Portability:  I have to find ways to eat healthy, high-protein foods on-the-go on a daily basis because hitting my nutrition targets requires eating throughout the day.  I’ve also had to fly between the US and China several times and, funfact about bodybuilding: it’s way easier/faster to lose progress than make progress and thus each eating “miss” can set you back by weeks. If I let up and eat just a normal amount of food for a few days in a row, I could easily lose a month of progress. I.e. My lifestyle became defined by eating right no matter where I was going.
  • Taste:  Here’s a fact of life: a man can only choke down so many kilograms of lightly salted beans.  So if you need to eat an enormous amount every day, you need to learn how to make the food taste good.
  • Protein:  Finally, the recipes, snacks and meals should all help me reach my daily protein targets.

It may sound like we’re just talking tofu, but a space engineer would refer to this as a “constrained optimization” problem.

For example, one can easily find cheap and high-protein vegan food, but making it also taste really good AND keeping prep/clean up time as low as possible makes things complicated. 

Then, you throw the vagaries of modern life into the picture and it requires solving subtle problems that almost everyone faces each day.  For example, as a writer, I needed to come up with some recipes that could quickly replace a large meal’s worth of protein without making me drowsy at the keyboard.  The answer ended up being a fruit and nut smoothie with water as the base to keep it light and low on sugar.  Details on that on my meal plan article.

Pro-tip: prep two smoothies at once and stow half of the ingredients in the fridge for tomorrow to lower your average prep time.

Another big problem was figuring out how to get all my nutrients prepared for the occasional weekend conference or a flight across the pacific, such as a trip to Thailand and back which had me in the air for 60 hours in a 4 day period. I had to figure out how to make large quantities of calories and protein portable to allow for on-the-go consumption between checkpoints with kitchens or, God forbid, convenience shops.

Airline trays of so-called vegan “food” just weren’t going to cut it, yet I wouldn’t have a kitchen and the nutritional targets weren’t negotiable. 

My 3 part answer to this particular puzzle was to prep and freeze a triple portion of date-raisin-nutballs (which I could get onto the flight because they’re basically just a combination of dry ingredients) and which are absolutely packed with calories and protein and to have extra large bulk meals before and after each flight.

These cocoa flavored date raisin nutballs got me across the ocean on target.

The result of logistical challenges like these has been learning a ton of recipes and life-hacks that I think can help others, regardless of whether they’re trying to reduce their meat consumption—though my hope, of course is specifically to help others towards this end. 

These include ways of minimizing dish-washing and prep time, ways to cut down a grocery bill and actually eat healthier and ways to sneak extra protein into your diet.

I haven’t gotten to the moon yet, but I’ve figured out a lot of small tricks that have made my lifestyle possible and which can make other people’s lives a little easier.

Gaining muscle on a vegan diet has been a good proof of concept, but for most people willing to consider the outsized social and environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption, the first question is how.  And the path I’m on has helped to illuminate an ever-widening constellation of “hows” which make healthy, low-impact living a little tastier and easier. 

For a quick look at some of the major issues related to meat consumption, read my article “If you love your country; eat less meat.”

For more information, please subscribe to my email list on the side bar or below the article and check out the nutrition section of this website.  And of course, please help share this with friends who might find it useful.

2 Replies to “How Vegan Bodybuilding is like the 1960s Space Race”

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I went through almost the same experience starting in late 2013 (except I consume 2 eggs/day). I’ve done fitness modeling and I compete nationally and internationally in grappling tournaments. Like you, my biggest concern about going vegetarian was that I wouldn’t get enough protein. It turns out that protein lore in the bodybuilding world is just that: it’s a myth. You don’t need as much protein as you think you do. I’m 5′ 11″ and managed to get to 202 lbs lean eating almost half the protein of what bodybuilding mythology would have you consume.

    In this blog post I link to the data and also include all my recipes. Hopefully, some of them are useful to you. Let me know what you think:

    1. Hey man, thanks a lot for the suggestions. I agree the protein req’s can be heavily exaggerated. Really liked the article too 🙂

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