There’s this belief that to build muscle you have to eat meat, and to build lots of muscle, you have to eat lots of meat.
“There’s no way you can be a pro bodybuilder without meat. I’ve never heard of anyone who doesn’t eat protein,” says Dexter “The Blade” Jackson, who last year won the premier international bodybuilding championship, Mr. Olympia.
Jackson routinely bookends a day of steak and chicken eating with 10 egg whites. (“My metabolism is very special,” he notes.) Meat is such an obvious delivery device for protein that bodybuilders often use the two words interchangeably.
But can someone become a bodybuilder without going this route? Is it a myth that if you don’t eat meat that it’s impossible to build muscle?
“I can’t think of any reason why muscle can’t be built on a vegan diet,” says nutrition professor Marion Nestle, the author of What to Eat. Going vegan, she explains, should have no effect on the performance of normal athletes, provided they eat a balanced diet.
Kenneth Williams is a prime example of the fact that not eating meat and building muscle are not mutually exclusive. He’s a professional body builder who five years ago made the switch from a full-blown meat eater to a vegan.
Now 41 years old, he’s currently 6 feet and 190 pounds. He took the last four years off from body building, but is now back in full training mode and hopes to gain another 25 pounds. And he’s doing it all on a diet of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, and lots of soy protein.
In 2004, before he went on his hiatus from body building, Williams did the same thing most every other body builder did: eat lots of meat-based protein. But then one night in 2004, Williams had what he called “the awakening.” He was fixing a meal of two pieces of fried chicken, rice, and salad, but for some reason, he couldn’t stop glaring at the chicken.
“I was thinking about all the killing and the destruction going on in the world. And I looked down at that chicken and said, ‘I’m eating death, and I don’t even know why.'” He scraped the meat off his plate and went back to sleep a changed man.
He had never heard the word “vegan” before. All he knew was, “The spirit told me, ‘Nothing from an animal. You don’t eat nothing from an animal until you find out what’s going on.'” He entered the 2004 Natural Olympia, which is the one of the pharmaceutical-free-bodybuilding circuit’s premier contests, to prove a point to his meat-loving gym buddies.
In a feat that he claims “shocked the world,” Williams placed third in the novice division of the Natural Olympia in 2004, becoming a major figure in the exceedingly minor subculture of vegan bodybuilding.
So far, just a few vegans have infiltrated the elite levels of professional sports, such as Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, the former Atlanta Hawks guard Salim Stoudamire, and Ultimate Fighting Championship bruiser Mac Danzig.
Williams is on a mission to inflate his body into a bulging rejoinder to the myth that you can’t build muscle on a plant-based diet.
“If you think of a vegan,” he says, “you think of someone who is skinny and frail, who has issues. A tree hugger. Smells funny. I’m putting the breath of life back into people. I’m out to save lives.”
Williams generally eats between 210 and 250 grams of protein a day—what you’d find in about 2.5 pounds of lean top sirloin. He eats six or seven meals daily, and a few mornings before the most recent Natural Olympia, he prepared his second breakfast: a shake of water, 50 grams of soy protein, and three supplement powders made by HealthForce Nutritionals, his sponsor.
He has three of these a day, supplementing a diet of tofu, red and black beans, nuts, lentils, and leafy greens like kale.
The point of this article is that even if you have no intention to become a professional body builder and enter the Natural Olympia, there are many ways to build muscle, and it’s a myth that eating lots of meat is the only way.
As Williams shows, there are great sources of protein from vegetable sources, so there’s no way you can become protein deficient if you eat no meat or less meat.
The reality is that most people, particularly Americans, eat far too much protein.
If you recall, that’s the point I made when I wrote the article about the China Study and what their findings were. They precisely said that a diet high in animal protein is very detrimental to the health.