Veganism and Strength Sports

What follows are my personal, unscientific, non-triple blind tested observations on the effects of a plant-based diet on training for strength sports. Is it better, is it worse and, if so, why? Is it harder to stick to a vegan diet? What are the non-sports benefits? What is over-rated about a plant-based diet? What are the unexpected benefits of eating plant-based? How much cooler would eating plant-based be without certain vegans ruining it for everyone? Finally, faux-meat, a “faux pas”? Come with me as I meander into the cultural minefield that is VEGANISM…

*** Disclaimer: Gentle reader, know that your esteemed author is not, by most definitions, a vegan. However, to employ a hackneyed phrase, some of his best friends and favorite family members are down with that plant-based life so your intrepid scribe is well versed in the milieu. In fact, he rarely eats animal products himself, but when he does he likes to wear a velvet smoking jacket like the suave old dude in the Dos XXs ad. Seriously, though, I have gone through extended periods of eating only plant-based in the past 2 years, and even now when I do eat dairy, eggs or meat, it’s maybe twice a week.

  • Plant-based diet for strength sports: Yeah, yeah, of course you can…there are veritable scads of vegan body-builders, powerlifters, strongmen, and cross-fitters who compete successfully. All high level competitors have to on top of their diet but I’d say that vegan competitors have to be even more dialed in to make sure they’re getting enough protein, B6, etc. Have I noticed a difference going from a conventional diet (albeit a healthy one) to a much reduced animal products diet? I can’t say hat I feel any better or worse. My lifts have gone down some from my all time PRs, but that’s probably more because I’m not training as seriously as I did in the past due to recent work constraints. Verdict: Doable, yes, laudable, I guess so, slightly more complex to track, yep and does it make me stronger or weaker, jury is still out.
  • Is it hard to “go vegan”?: Somewhat, in my experience. Bear in mind, however, that I live in Northern Europe in what is essentially small town, albeit a very well-heeled one. I already cook a lot, so the fun part was coming up with wholesome plant-based menus that covered all the nutritional bases. I even discovered that I’m much better at plant based dishes than meat-based. Though it pains me to admit this, my meat game was/is relatively weak. So it takes effort and planning at first to go plant based at home. The real challenge is going out to eat. It’s limiting at the best of times in my town. There are a few vegan restaurants but mostly they suck, are overpriced and are populated by smug yet weirdly tense individuals. In big cities like Berlin, London, NYC and Toronto it’s much easier. Not to mention in places like Toronto or Boston, most of your fellow vegan restaurant goers will have recently blazed a big ol’ legal joint and are thus markedly more chill than in my town.
  • General benefits of a plant-based diet: I am not convinced that 100 percent plant based diet is good for all people, all the time. I think the same applies to any dietary regime. People react to food differently. However, does vastly limiting your animal product intake have health benefits? From a common sense perspective, I’d have to say yes. More important that being stringently one diet or the other is the quality of the food you are stuffing your face with. Avoid processed foods and eat organic as much as possible and you’re going in the right direction. So the big biggest benefits I have noticed regarding a plant-based diet is that the raw materials are often cheaper, one is much less concerned with spoilage and for the most part I feel good, not lethargic, after eating plant-based or mostly plant-based meal. Also, if you source your products carefully, it’s good for the planet. The same can be said for animal products but it’s MUCH harder and more expensive to find local, organic animal products from sustainable agriculture.
  • Plant-based – is it over-rated? In many ways, yes. It won’t make you into Superman overnight. If you had a crappy, processed food diet before and then implement a carefully considered plant-based diet then, yes, you will notice health benefits. It’s entirely possible to eat vegan crap. Hey, the vegan Ben and Jerrie’s flavors are just as awesome as the other flavors, but sadly no better for you. As the market matures, more processed vegan-junk food is being made available which I think is a step in the wrong direction. Again, done well, it’s a healthy dietary regime for many people that is sustainable for the planet…but the same argument can be made for well considered vegetarian and omnivore diets.
  • The less well-know benefits: For me, it’s increased mindfulness regarding what I eat. I know more now re: the dietary benefits of many legumes, herbs and vegetables than I did before, and how they all can be combined to make a wholesome diet. I tend to plan my meals at last a few days in advance. Now, even when I do incorporate animal products, I fit them into the bigger nutritional picture of what I will be eating that week.
  • The annoying-a** Vegan: We all know at least one, and many of us know dozens of them. Veganism is both a diet and, for many, a philosophy or way of life. And that’s absolutely cool. I’m always impressed when I meet somebody, get to know them and then discover, in more of less discrete way, that they have strongly held beliefs that influence their actions. They are not virtue-signalling, they are just living their lives according to their principles. Unfortunately, there are always attention-starved dip sh((s in any group who tend to ruin it for everyone. Some vegans can truly come off as unhinged as tinfoil hat wearing flat-earthers, or worse. Perhaps one of the worst vegans on Youtube is “Vegan Gains”, a deeply troubled young man who ostensibly talks about veganism and strength sports…but really just uses the platform to spew hateful invective. Way to help the cause, guys.
  • Faux Meat: I will say this, I just tried the McDonalds vegan burger and it’s really, really good. I was expecting to be underwhelmed but it’s genuinely good. Much better than any Mickey Ds meat product, however that’s setting the bar pretty low. McDonald’s, aside from their fries, is pretty rank. And I say that as somebody who eats meat. It works so well because a fast food burger is more about texture than quality meat, which you will not get at that price point. This is encouraging because if a large percentage of McDonalds customers switch to vegan burgers simply because they taste better, that’s a win/win for everyone and the planet. If you’re going to eat meat, even occasionally, don’t blow it on a fast-food burger. On the flip side of the coin, in my experience the “vegan versions” of meat dishes in many hipster vegan restaurants are often nasty. I can still not the get the taste of a vegan “Philly Cheesesteak'” out of my mouth. Blech…

An ode to fringe activities…

OR THE LONELINESS OF THE POWERLIFTING WINE-CHUGGER.

OR HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE BY NOT BORING THEM TO TEARS WITH YOUR HOBBY/SPORT/LIFESTYLE CHOICE/DIET

Happy new year, everyone.

I made an early night of it last night so after a nice dinner with friends I went to bed shortly after midnight CET. As a consequence I was up early this morning which left ample time to reflect on last night’s dinner as well as my powerlifting training session later today. I was pretty excited about the wine choices for the dinner last night as well my upcoming training session but I knew, as everybody in a subculture eventually learns, to keep my enthusiasm to myself or be labelled a “bore”. Believe it or not, most people don’t want to discuss the need to reform French AOC rules or whether Sumo dead-lifting is cheating.

It got me to thinking when it’s appropriate, and not appropriate, to discuss one’s weird-ass fringey activities with the general populace. I’ve come up with the following observations.

  • Subcultures can be intimidating to people who don’t engage in that activity. In a weird way (we all do this) people think you’re judging them via a specific lense (powerlifter, wine enthusiast, martial artist, vegan, etc) when, unless you’re a real a-hole, you’re not. If an opportunity to discuss your interest comes up, let others ask you questions and when the questions dry up, move on.
  • It’s OK, in a very broad sense, to let people know about your interests and what you spend your time on. It’s not OK to give them constant updates and/or commentary about a subject that really doesn’t interest them. Anybody who has a beginning crossfitter or a vegan in their life knows what I’m talking about. People are generally happy you’ve found this awesome thing and, yes, it’s probably a good idea if everyone did it but ramming it down their throats doesn’t win any converts. We’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another.
  • If you want to share your passion with other people, set an example first. See above re: intimidation. So people know you do this thing, that’s great. Just keep doing your thing and, from time to time, somebody with a genuine interest might ask you about it. This is a green-light, now’s your time to share. To give you an example, as a powerlifter people sometimes tell me in conversation that they’ve started going to the gym and they have this great trainer who has them doing bosu-ball hula-hoop jump spins and the like. The old me used to say ” Cool, but why don’t you also ask them to show you proper squat form, that’d be really useful” and, in 100 percent of the cases, the person reacted as if I’d insulted their mother. The proper response is “That’s great – keep it up!”. Why? If they continue to train they will eventually learn about compound movements and might just ask you about them. Then, and only then, it’s OK to discuss in detail. A few years ago I started going to a globo gym with colleagues. I’d do my usual PL style training in the corner and they’d go all YOLO with machines and dumbbells. I often got a lot of comments and criticism (hey, man, you’re not going to failure with every set, why squats, etc) but I just continued to do my thing. After a while they began to ask me questions and eventually asked me to show them proper form, explain programming, etc. Even then they were resistant to many of the ideas so I’d just shrug and do my thing. Fast-forward to now, they are all training for powerlifting. I’m not a vegan but cook/consume vegan dishes roughly 85 percent of the time. I’m familiar with the milieu, shall we say. The strict vegans who always make an impression on me are those who I find out are vegan indirectly. It piques my interest and more often than not I’ll ask about it.
  • Find like-minded individuals/Let your freak flag fly: Let’s face it, the only time you’ll ever be able to fully express your enthusiasm for your passion is amongst like-minded people so you must search them out or forever have the feeling of not completely scratching an itch. Whether it’s wine-tasting, a serious powerlifting gym, a cool vegan cafe or whatever, this is your chance to geek out to your heart’s content. Not to mention learn new things and meet new people

Anyway, I’m off in a few minutes to engage in one of the aforementioned fringe activities. I wish you all happiness and health in the new year as well as the chance to engage in your geeky passion(s) to the fullest.

Starting Strength – The vegans of the strength-training community

Yes, the title of this post is very much tongue-in-cheek but, like all humor, there is a lot of truth to it.  On the surface, the communities couldn’t be more different.  Peruse any Starting Strength forums or groups and you’ll quickly realize that their 2nd favorite topic is probably the consumption of meat.  And I’d very much doubt there are numerous threads in Vegan forums extolling the virtues of powerlifting, much less Starting Strength.  If both communities were cars, then Starting Strength would a used Ford F150 pickup with a gun rack and Vegans would be a Toyota Prius.

I respect the ideas and the body of knowledge of both camps.  In any given week, about 75 percent of my meals are technically vegan, with the remainder containing some very well-sourced organic meat and dairy products.  I find this “omnivore” approach works best for me.  Similarly, Starting Strength was huge influence on me when I first started strength training.  In the past 8 years I have bought 4 copies of the Starting Strength book as I gave my first 3 copies away to friends.  It’s a fantastic book, perhaps the best strength training book ever written for the general public.  I still strive for perfect “starting strength” form in my squats and deadlifts.

To be fair to Starting Strength, the methodology is very science-based and is all about protocols and form what will elicit strength gains for most, if not all, lifters.  It’s very pragmatic and no-nonsense about its stated goal.  Veganism can be considered both a dietary regime and/or an ethical choice.  Which seems fairly straight-forward,  you’d imagine, yet there exists a very vocal strain of “magical thinking” amongst some vegans (more about this later).

So how are they similar?  Simply put, both communities are very Orthodox to a really weird extent.  I stopped reading Starting Strength forums because it became very apparent a favorite past-time was ridiculing “heretics” who dared question any of the methodology.  Many people posting seem to consciously mimicking  Rip’s (the founder of Starting Strength) style of treating most questions as inherently stupid so, cue the weary sigh, let me lay some common sense on you.  This is also why I quickly stopped watching any Starting Strength youtube content that isn’t strictly a form tutorial.  Rip’s manner is grating but it’s his personal style,  you can either take it or leave it.  That so many people want to emulate it is strange and, I think, makes Starting Strength a drag.  So there are some really great ideas, but the overall vibe of the community is sort of off-putting.

Vegans, well, what can I say that hasn’t already been said?  It’s a shame that the bat-guano crazy vocal minority give veganism a bad name.  It’s a highly viable dietary regime for many people, for general health and even for athletic performance.  There is a long, growing list of vegan athletes.  The ethical reasons, if that is a prime motivator, are sound.  So why must it be sullied by the zealotry of a fairly large minority?  Many of us have met the stereotypical smug self-righteous vegan with a capital “V” in real life, you know the one with whom no actual discussion or discourse if possible.  Why do so many vegan Youtubers (and especially that guy who did the “What the Health” documentary) come off as easily triggered, programmed cult members?  You can literally see, when looking into their eyes, that some function of critical thinking has been switched off.  And speaking of “What the Health”, why the bad science and misrepresentation?  Guys, the facts literally speak for themselves…why twist things?  And why the hyper-sensitivity to criticism?  It makes the whole community look “cray-cray”.  When’s the last time you saw an easily triggered vegetarian?

The Starting Strength methodology is a great tool.  I believe that everyone interested in strength training should read the book and run the protocol a few times.  You may find that at some point another training protocol fits your needs and that is (or should be) OK.  Eating solely plant based is great but the reality is that the majority of the population will likely never do it.  Pragmatically speaking, what is the greater good;  that 5 percent of population become strictly vegan or that a much larger percentage reduce their meat consumption significantly?