Smashing The “Weak Vegan” Stereotype One Rep at a Time

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Like most vegans today, I was the furthest thing from veganism at birth. Born in Canada to Italian immigrants, famous dishes like pizza, lasagna, and pasta with meat sauce often graced my family table growing up. Looking back on things, all I can think is “Yikes!” but unfortunately it was the reality of the situation.

Although it would be a very romantic thought to say that I went vegan overnight, my story went very differently. Vegetarianism and veganism had never even crossed my mind until my mid-20s. Despite this, I believe that my transformation story starts at a fairly young age with many small but impactful influences throughout my life that lead me to realize that going vegan was the right and only choice for me.

My furthest recollection is when I was under the age of 10. I refused to eat the traditional Italian meal of rabbit. It simply didn’t register with me. Why would we kill and eat a cute and fluffy bunny? Any time the dish was served I would tell my parents, “No! A bunny is not food!”

My bond with animals has been very strong for as long as I can remember. I grew up with birds, dogs, fish, and even lizards. Although today I disagree with the domestication of certain species of animals, these experiences throughout my childhood were invaluable. Each and every moment with these animals taught me about their extreme loyalty, intelligence and unconditional love. Life lessons that were imprinted upon me, humanizing these amazing creatures. I also had an affinity for animated movies starring animals, such as 101 Dalmatians, Lion King, Rescuers, All Dogs Go To Heaven and Land Before Time. These were significant influential elements that primed me for my transition to veganism later in life. 

Also at a young age, I developed my love for physical activity. I played provincial level soccer which then lead  to strength training as a primary form of activity. My passion for activity and more particularly lifting weights led me to a career as a personal trainer. Since regular strength training puts more emphasis on meeting specific nutritional goals (particularly protein), my consumption of animal-based foods increased dramatically. Meat, eggs and dairy were absolute staples for me to realize performance goals and at the onset I really did not think much of it. My recovery was ok, I was performing well, but as any good health professional should do, I started researching the health effects of my food choices and wondering whether my heavy meat consumption was ideal.

At first I found myself running into misnomers like “grass fed,” “free range,” “organic,” and “humane.” Oblivious to these consumer confidence tactics and wanting to feel like I was doing my part to reduce the suffering while still continuing to consume animal products to reach my performance related goals, I took part.

It wasn’t until I stumbled across a little documentary called Food Inc. that the floodgates opened. I started to dig deeper to find the truth. I followed PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) which exposed me to slaughterhouse investigation footage. I read The China Study which painted a glaring picture around the health benefits of a plant-based diet (and the unfortunate consequences of consuming meat and dairy). And I read Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness which allowed me to realize that I could transition my performance-based goals in a vegan-friendly way. The disconnect was no longer on many different levels and my transition to vegetarianism and then onto veganism was solidified.

Typically when one thinks of fitness or particularly strength training the inevitable question, “Where do you get your protein?” starts to pop up—and for good reason! Protein is required for muscle tissue repair as a result of training. Unfortunately, over the years protein has become synonymous with animal flesh or certain animal products such as dairy and eggs. Billions of animals are at the mercy of these false suggestions every year and suffer a fate that no one would wish on their worst enemy.

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For non-athletes, protein recommendations for adults is a mere ~0.4 grams per pound of bodyweight, a mark that many far exceed due to acquired taste and the grossly exaggerated marketing around the importance of high protein counts in your diet. For someone who regularly engages in strength training you are still only looking at 1-1.3 grams per pound of lean body mass—not bodyweight. So needless to say, in hearing and seeing this myth get perpetuated day-in and day-out in the gym and even amongst family and friends, it was immediately a goal of mine to push my own limits and put the vegan diet to the test.

I would set my sights not only on getting the most conditioned I have ever been but also the strongest, by competing in a men’s physique competition as well as a preparing for a magazine photoshoot. I set out to prove that you can indeed get bigger, leaner and stronger just eating plants. After a successful dieting period and realizing my desired body composition, I can say with confidence you are at no disadvantage being on a vegan diet as it pertains to fitness-related goals.

Three things in particular come to mind:

  1. Having always favored a calorie-counting method (macronutrients—protein, carbohydrate and fat) it was a simple swap from animal-based to plant-based foods to hit the necessary macronutrient targets to realize my goals. I immediately discovered how easy it was to hit not only the biggest macronutrient in question—protein—but also carbohydrates and fat. Protein exists in all plants—yes, to varying degrees, but it would all add up to allow me to realize my protein intake goal for the day. I would and still typically do rely on tofu, tempeh, seitan and legumes to make the bulk of my protein intake. Here I was, not even batting an eyelash during the transition hitting every macronutrient target that I had.
  2. I started to notice my energy level and ability to recover increased dramatically. No extended delayed onset muscle soreness or joint pain from my strength training sessions and always ready to get into my next session. This was particularly advantageous because training volume (total of pounds you push in a training block) increased meaning I could get more work in and see faster and better results. I attributed the increased recovery to the dramatic influx of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) I was getting from all these additional plant-based foods I was consuming.
  3. Last but not least, my mind rested easy knowing that I was realizing all my goals cruelty-free. I was able to fully celebrate life and cherish it by not contributing to the unnecessary pain and torture animal agriculture creates. My inspiration and motivation to continuously hit the gym never waned knowing that I could be a potential inspiration to someone else who may be contemplating the switch.

All in all it was a complete transformation of mind, body and soul. Even today, I am forging forward and pushing the limits in regards to what this diet can truly achieve in regards to fitness related goals. Having previously dieted down to a low body fat percentage to compete in Men’s Physique as well as a photoshoot for “Veganism in Fitness,” it is now my goal to push my limits of strength, putting on more weight and size to compete in powerlifting. So far things have been going unbelievably well. I’ve gained over 35 pounds and record personal records in every single lift, Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift.

I’m thrilled to be here today to set the record straight with my first-hand experience. There is no disadvantage to being vegan when it comes to reaching any fitness goal. No meat, no dairy, no eggs—no problem!

I would encourage anyone who has contemplated veganism and given it a quick pass because it didn’t seem easy, accessible, or possible to hit fitness-related goals to please rethink the rationale because it certainly is. What might be the more challenging part is finding the mental strength that comes with ditching any kind of routine and embracing a new approach. But where there’s a will there’s a way and the hard work and effort required will certainly follow.

As always, my friends, eat plants and get strong!

This article was written by Alex Ciccone. You can connect with Alex on Twitter and Instagram

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