Plant-Powered: Vegan Women’s Bodybuilding

Think you need animal protein to build a muscular physique? A new generation of vegan women bodybuilders are busting that myth!

Ten years ago, the term “Vegan Bodybuilder” was little more than an oxymoron.

But as more athletes of all kinds turn to veganism for ethical reasons and/or for performance improvement, vegan bodybuilding is becoming ever more popular with many books, websites and podcasts now available and finally, last year, the first ever all-vegan team to compete in a bodybuilding competition.

Growing in strength 

Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness

The beginning of the movement for vegan bodybuilders can probably be traced to 2002, when vegan bodybuilder and fitness expert Robert Cheeke started Vegan Body Building and Fitness. Image: Robert Cheeke’s Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness book cover.

Although there have always been a small number of athletes and bodybuilders following a vegan diet, the beginning of the movement for both male and female vegan bodybuilders can probably be traced to 2002, when vegan bodybuilder and fitness expert Robert Cheeke opened his business, (Followed by his book of the same name) Vegan Body Building and Fitness

According to Dani Taylor, the co-founder of VeganProteins.com, and a team member at PlantBuilt.com, Robert’s forums at veganbodybuilding.com “became a hub for vegan fitness information when there was none. People interested in the subject, or vegans looking to find out more about nutrition in regards to bodybuilding and/or lifting weights would look there for answers and were greeted with an extremely welcoming community. Many women, myself included, began keeping workout journals publicly on the forum.”

The Motivation 

Plantbuilt Team for 2013

Many vegan bodybuilders decide to use their bodies as a platform to showcase a compassionate, vegan diet, free of all animal products. Image: the Plantbuilt Team for 2013. Photo courtesy of Dani Taylor.

Although many athletes have turned to veganism to help their performance, citing shorter recovery times from intense exercise sessions, many eventually decide to use their bodies as a platform to showcase a compassionate, vegan diet, free of all animal products. 

Since Ancient Greece, humanity has been inspired by chiseled, lean, strong physiques; now that we can see that no animals need be harmed in the making of such a physique, competitors hope that more people will be inspired to give veganism a try.

Busting the muscle-myths

Many people think you need massive amounts of animal protein to build a muscular physique. Traditionally bodybuilders typically would pound back steaks, chicken breasts, eggs, and protein shakes based on whey. Vegan bodybuilders also focus on their protein intake, however levels tend to be considerably lower than their meat-eating counterparts, and include foods like beans, tofu, tempeh, seitain, nuts and seeds, dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and broccoli, and often protein shakes made of hemp, sprouted brown rice, soy and pea protein.

While some athletes may choose to eat a lot of processed foods such as soy hot dogs or veggie burgers, the trend lately seems to be focusing on building impressive physiques on healthy, unprocessed, natural foods, like that consumed by vegan bodybuilder Chad Byers

Dani Taylor

As Ms Taylor points out “Bodybuilding is a vast, all encompassing term which includes all the female categories of bikini, figure, physique, fitness, and bodybuilding”. Image courtesy of Dani Taylor.

Another myth is in regards to women bodybuilders specifically, and the common misconception that weight lifting will make women huge and unfeminine. As Ms Taylor points out “Bodybuilding is a vast, all encompassing term which includes all the female categories of bikini, figure, physique, fitness, and bodybuilding. All of these categories have very different requirements and different physiques that they are looking for. A lot of people hear the words “female bodybuilding” and are immediately turned off. They are thinking only of the bodybuilding category, but it is important to note that the different categories have different levels of muscle development and leanness. Most natural physique competitors just look like normal people for most of the year.” 

Additionally, because women lack the testosterone levels of men, it is very difficult for them to put on huge amounts of mass without resorting to steroid use.  When you see a drug-free woman bodybuilder, know that a huge amount of work went into growing that physique, both in the gym AND in the kitchen! 

Fuel for training 

There are many vegan protein powders on the market that make it very quick, easy and tasty to blend up high protein smoothies, which are great for quick, no-cooking nutrition. But aside from shakes, vegan bodybuilders follow customized macro nutrient meal plans that include plenty of unprocessed complex carbohydrates, and protein rich pulses, such as oats wholegrain rice, quinoa, lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan, and a wide spectrum of vegetables and leafy greens. 

There are many vegan body building nutrition coaches who not only train clients in person or online, but also provide full meal plans for the different stages of training and competing. The podcast series Vegan Body Revolution by Thomas Tadlock includes interviews from many of the top names in vegan bodybuilding, including many of the women bodybuilders – namely, Pam Kalstad, Mindy Collette, and Mary Jo Cooke Elliot.  The interviewees share everything with Thomas from what exactly they eat and when, to how they train. 

The Plant Built Muscle Team 

The Plant Built Team was founded in the fall of 2012 by a group of physique competitors with the shared goal of promoting a plant based diet in a sport where eating animal products is widely accepted as the only way to achieve success. Vegan athletes in the full spectrum of fitness and bodybuilding divisions formed a group to compete en masse at the Austin Texas “Naturally Fit Super Show” in summer 2013. Fifteen vegan bodybuilders went up against 150 other competitors –  the vegan team dominated this event, taking home four overall titles, as well as five first place, five second, five third and one fourth place win. Members of the Plant Built Team won best male and female open bodybuilder titles, and the best male and female masters bodybuilding titles! 

After their incredible and inspiring results in 2013, the Plant Built Team accepted over 60 applications for their 2014 team stating: “We will now not only have a team of physique competitors, but also a Powerlifting team and a Cross Fit team to spread the message that you can be an outstanding athlete as a vegan!” 

My Inspiration 

Yolanda Presswood

Special thanks go to Dani Taylor, Yolanda Presswood and all the amazing ladies in the Vegan Ladies Who Lift Facebook Group. In the photo: Yolanda Presswood. Photo courtesy of  Yolanda Presswood.

As someone very new to the lifting scene myself, I had much help writing this article – so special thanks go to Dani Taylor and Yolanda Presswood and all the amazing ladies in the Vegan Ladies Who Lift Facebook Group where if you are vegan and a female, you can get the most amazing advice from the coolest vegan lady lifters, and find yourself an online lifting coach so you too can join this growing trend! 

For more info and inspiration on vegan women’s bodybuilding please follow the brand new, free online magazine, Definition. This magazine is set to empower women of all shapes and sizes to get off the cardio bandwagon, lift heavy weights, embrace their strength, build their muscles, nourish their bodies, and encourage them to do so with the plant-based vegan lifestyle. The magazine will feature interviews with athletes, nutritional guidance, effective workout tips, fitness gear reviews, positive lifestyle topics, inspirational transformation stories, and of course, recipes for quick and tasty wholesome meals. 

Cover image: Shutterstock.

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Emily is a board certified holistic health coach and the founder and owner of Triumph Wellness, an International Nutrition Counseling Practice.
Emily specializes in Plant-Based Nutrition, Sugar Addiction, Emotional Eating and Sports Nutrition.

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