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The fitness industry is slowly changing in recognising that you don’t necessarily need to streamline seven egg whites a day to get lean and strong.
But there’s still a lot of confusion about how vegans can get all the vitamins and minerals necessary to get really fit.
The truth is, we can be as strong as anyone else – and Sophia Ellis, AKA SinFreeSophia is proof. A vegan for the past seven years, she’s now a national level powerlifter, deadlifting 185kg doubles and is going for 200kg. They’re weights many men could only dream of.
Adam Stansbury, the Plant Powered PT, used to be a Men’s Health cover model until his ulcerative colitis made him ill. He built himself back up on a vegan diet – and now dedicates his time to showing others just how easy and effective being plant based for improving fitness and physique.
The pair spoke at Tibits’ Veganuary event last week, answering a host of questions on everything health and fitness.
What are the biggest fitness benefits to going vegan?
Sophia: The plant-based diet is anti-inflammatory so for me, I found that it’s sped up my recovery compared to other omnivorous athletes. Especially in the fitness industry, so many people think that meat is the way forward in terms of gains but I found that I’m able to train a lot more without being tired. I have a lot more energy.
Adam: I totally agree with Sophia. There’s also the health aspect – the possibility of high cholesterol, heart disease when eating meat. Ultimately the plant-based diet is a lot more nutrient-dense.
However, it’s really easy to eat unhealthy vegan food now like fake meats and processed products. We have to be really careful that we don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire. A whole foods plant based diet is the optimum diet. It’s great to have a little fast food now and again – I tried the Beyond Burger last week and it was amazing – but a properly whole foods plant-based diet has more nutrients per volume of food. I have a lot of clients who when they start on a plant-based diet get a shock to the system because you can pretty much eat as much food as you want.
Are there any downsides to training as a vegan?
A: There’s the potential for deficiencies – B12, DHA (omega 3 fatty acid), D3. You can get omega 3 in chia seeds but you have to eat a lot of them. A better way of getting DHA is via algae oil; essentially all you’re doing is cutting out the middleman. You’re cutting out the fish. As long as you eat a very varied diet – eating the rainbow – you can get around that. It’s really simple.
S: I haven’t actually found any downsides, it’s more the judgement that comes with it. Gyms are full of bodybuilding meatheads who as soon as you say you’re vegan, they’ll just judge. You suddenly become the stereotypical person who judges, so that’s why I tend to try to inspire people by what I do and not preach about it. As soon as someone sees me lifting heavy, they ask what diet I’m on and then that’s when I’ll say, ‘oh, I’m vegan’.
Did you have any difficulties in transitioning to veganism?
S: I found the process quite easy – I just went cold Tofurkey. I’m someone who is all or nothing. My top tip would be to do your research. There are so many people who decide that they want to go vegan and then find that they’re lacking in nutrients and they’re just not doing it right. It is a journey – don’t feel like if you have something that has milk in that it’s the end of the world. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just start again. Take things at your own pace.
A: Exactly – it’s progress not perfection. Don’t try to be the perfect vegan overnight. It’s a journey that might take you two years to get ‘right’.
Once you open one door, suddenly a load of other doors open in terms of skin care and clothing and hair care – it can get a little bit overwhelming. It’s almost too much. Don’t be too hard on yourself – as long as you’re working every day to improve your position, that’s all that counts. Think about the long term plan rather than overnight success.
From a nutritional aspect, you wouldn’t get people to ditch long-held belief systems overnight, you’d try to encourage them to change little by little – sustainable progress. If it’s not simple, it’s not sustainable. Ideally, we want to be doing this for the rest of our lives, not just a 12-week program.
Do you have any good swaps for meat?
S: Obviously there are the easy swaps like fake meats but if you want more nutritious, whole food options, I go for lentils, pulses and tempeh. That’s just cultured soya – an Indonesian staple protein.
A: There’s a lot of scaremongering around tofu but the Chinese have been eating tofu for hundreds of years and it’s more important where you source it from. I always get organic, non-GMO tofu then you don’t really have to worry too much. I’m a big fan of tofu; I just marinate it and bake it for 10 minutes which gives it a really good deep flavour. It’s a good snack to keep in the fridge.
Processed foods now are starting to wise up in terms of the ingredients they use because people are becoming more aware of what’s going into their foods. Manufacturers are changing what they’re doing, which is good.
Is it harder to retain muscle mass as a vegan?
S: I actually built more muscle mass on a vegan diet. I came from a background of suffering from anorexia and bulimia so obviously, I was very malnourished – my body was essentially eating my organs. But since (my recovery), I’ve just been building more muscle.
A: My own experience is that I’ve built as much muscle on a vegan diet as I did on a meat diet. I eat more than 100g less protein a day – on a good day I eat around 150g as opposed to 250g on a meat diet, and I’m still building muscle just the same.
Do you recommend any supplements?
S: The fitness industry has really grown recently and a lot of companies are out to make money. So many people will buy a lot of supplements aren’t necessary but there are some that you’re better off taking than not. I take creatine which isn’t found in a vegan diet, B12, vitamin D complex. I do have a protein powder but that is literally just for convenience, it’s not actually necessary – I could get it in my diet, I just choose not to.
A: Cover your bases with the essentials in terms of micronutrients like B12, DHA, D3, calcium. Rather than blowing loads of money on supplements, get tested to see if you’re actually deficient in anything first. Creatine and protein powder are also good. If you’re lifting heavy in the gym, creatine can be a game changer. When I first started, I felt like something was missing – then I added creatine and everything fell into place.
And then it’s down to super foods. Spirulina is amazing, cacao…it depends on what you need, what you like and what your bank account looks like. Supplements should be supplementing a good diet so start with getting a good selection of whole foods.
Do you have any exercise tips for people who have recently transitioned?
A: There’s no difference between being vegan or non-vegan – it doesn’t mean you have to pick up the Fisher-Price weights. It just depends what your goals are, taking it slowly and letting your body adapt.Training frequency is always going to be tentative. Rather than going balls to the wall, training all the time, it’s better to take it steady and train at 70-80 percent. That’s where you see the most gains – over the long haul. One of the worst things you can do is programme hop. The fact is that most programmes work as long as you follow them from start to finish. It’s that process of completing something that allows you to see how something has actually worked.
S: Find something you enjoy. Not everyone likes to lift weights. If you don’t enjoy it, there’s no point. Lots of people feel really intimidated when they go into the weights section – especially women – but it’s about going in and knowing what to do. I started weight lifting last year and I researched everything before I went in. No one’s looking at you – everyone’s looking at themselves in the mirror! I found my confidence growing and it saved me from my eating disorder.
As a woman, it’s really empowered me becoming so strong. My clients tell me they want to change their body shapes but as soon as they start training and see themselves change in terms of strength, they become so different. It can work across all aspects of your life – I love my body now and I’ve attracted so many good things since my relationship with it changed. Focus on what your body can do rather than what it looks like.
Where’s the fitness industry going?
A: I get lots of people coming to me now telling me that their PT is trying to force them to go paleo or eat chicken when they do actually want to eat more plant-based. I’m hoping that trainers start to wise up and realize that this is potentially a really good business opportunity.
PTs can become very dogmatic and religious in terms of nutrition so hopefully, they’ll become more creative with their nutritional prescriptions. I think the fitness industry will catch on and hopefully, they’ll become more conscious. Changing your body can become a pretty selfish endeavour but it doesn’t have to be.
S: I’ve definitely seen a shift. I’ve been vegan for 7 years now but I’ve definitely seen it moving forward – breaking records (like Louis Hamilton), winning medals – and people are questioning what these incredible athletes are doing differently. I’ve had men asking me in my gym to sort them out with a vegan plan.
Supplement companies are getting on board with their own vegna ranges. I remember having to bring a keep cup of soya milk for my coffee and now there are alternatives everywhere. It’s definitely growing.
A: If it’s good enough for an elite athlete, it’s good enough for the rest of us.?
Adam Stansbury is currently crowdfunding his book How to Transform Your Body and Our Planet. You can find out more here.