Strong, fit and vegan: Vegan athletes talk nutrition

Read Time:   |  19th August 2016

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Plant-based athletes at professional level are finding strength in body, mind and planet. Bodybuilders and fitness fanatics alike are turning to veganism to enhance their physiques and seeing incredible results. Talking first-hand to vegan strength-trainer Vanessa Espinoza, Charlotte Willis explores the rise of the vegan gym pack and how vegan nutrition is stronger than ever…


Vegan athletes talk nutrition

For years, there has been a stigma attached to veganism. Many scoffed at the very idea of any form of athletic prowess or strength being achieved without consuming copious amounts of meat, egg and dairy products. But as veganism goes from strength to strength and reaches the sporting community, the days when meat-eaters ruled the weights room could soon be over.

Introducing Vanessa Espinoza

Looking to gain insight from a well-respected vegan athlete, I contacted Vanessa Espinoza – a professional boxer, bodybuilder and personal trainer from Colorado, USA. This Colorado Golden Glove State champion has a huge following on her Instagram account (@plantbasedmuscle), where she posts motivational pictures of herself training alongside other vegan bodybuilders, including Robert Cheeke, author of vegan fitness guide Shred It! Vanessa also writes a vegan fitness blog on her website

Changing perspectives

Vanessa explains: “Most non-vegan athletes I meet are confused at first and always have a tonne of questions. Many people are just uneducated about where vegans get their protein. However, more and more people are now open to the idea when they learn about the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. You can build muscle, strength and do anything you want living a plant-based lifestyle.”

Personally, I turned to veganism after discovering the incredible health benefits associated with a plant-based diet. I have been fascinated, motivated and inspired ever since by those who achieve such an incredible level of fitness by following a vegan diet. Leading the way in the professional weightlifting spotlight are former Germany’s Strongest Man Champion Patrik Baboumian and former World Champion Bodybuilder Alexander Dargatz. Other famous vegan athletes include Fiona Oakes (marathon runner), David Carter (NFL player), Cam Awesome (Team USA Olympic boxer) and Venus Williams (tennis player). Veganism is making an increasingly large mark on the sporting world in general.

Vegan athletes talk nutrition

Plant-built bodies

Contrary to popular belief, muscle growth and veganism go hand in hand. Athletes who transitioned to veganism have experienced great health-based and training benefits, aiding muscle metabolism and strength. Reduced muscle soreness, fatigue and recovery time are commonly reported, along with a decreased rate of inflammation and injury occurrence after just months of plant-based eating.

Since becoming vegan 13 years ago, Vanessa explains: “My stamina increased, my strength increased, I was able to build muscle faster, had more energy and my immune system was so much stronger”.

This is due to the nutritional density and diversity of Vanessa’s diet. A wholefood plant-based diet incorporates a greater amount of healing antioxidants, complementary proteins, as well as essential vitamins and minerals that aid the body’s process of muscle synthesis and help shorten recovery post-exercise. When compared to a ‘traditional’ bodybuilder’s diet, which is dense in pro-inflammatory meat and dairy products, as well as cholesterol and saturated fats, it comes as no surprise that veganism is attracting the ever body-conscious gym-elite.

Abs are sculpted in the kitchen

To enable every training plan to show the optimum results, nutrition is crucial. Veganism is no different in this respect. Anyone who is looking to gain muscle mass or train on a vegan diet will need to ensure they incorporate a variety of nutrient-dense food sources.

To ensure such a variety, it’s out with the traditional three meals a day! Vanessa explains: “I will eat up to nine times a day. I keep track of nutrients. If it wasn’t for the nutritious food in my diet I wouldn’t be able to get through my day.”

Veganism can provide the optimum requirements for muscle growth and support – you only have to look at Vanessa, she is far from lacking in nourishment! An easy way to ensure you supply your body with the correct fuel is to construct a series of meal plans for the week. You can then be certain each day provides a varied balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. Vanessa’s secret: “Eat simply and clean, allowing yourself a cheat meal, such as a vegan cookie.”

Her favourite meal is quinoa with banana, peanut butter, chia and hemp seeds and cinnamon. Other typical meals include sweet potatoes, tofu, roasted vegetables and lentils. She also mixes up her snacking with nut-butters, fruits and nuts.

Vegan athletes talk nutrition

Calories in versus calories out

When training, it’s essential to increase the net calorific intake of your diet in order to meet the body’s demands for increased muscle usage and metabolism. Simply put, the calories consumed in a day should outweigh the total calories burned – for an average 30 minute strength-training weights session this can range from 90-250 calories burned, depending on your body mass and gender. When planning your meals, incorporate calorific and nutrient-dense foods, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, wholegrains and pulses to compensate.

The protein debate

The most frequently asked question to every vegan, athlete or not, is surely: “Where do you get your protein from?” Proteins are made up of basic building-blocks called amino acids. Vanessa explains: “Every fruit and vegetable, nut, seed, grain and legume contain amino acids, which are what our bodies absorb. Our bodies only need 5-10% of daily calories from protein to thrive.”

Nutritionally speaking, for a trainee, this intake should be around 1-1.5g of protein per lb of body mass, spread throughout the day.

Protein sources are extremely varied and rich across the plant kingdom, although certain sources such as quinoa, buckwheat and soy contain what is known as a complete amino acid profile – meaning they contain all the essential amino acids required by the body for optimum muscle metabolism. Vanessa incorporates these sources in her daily diet: “My favourite muscle-building foods are quinoa, buckwheat, hemp, peas and soy.”

However, by eating a variety of protein sources throughout the day you are guaranteed to meet the body’s daily needs for every amino acid, which in turn builds muscle tone. Great sources include:

Pumpkin seeds

Peanut butter


Tofu and tempeh

Wholewheat bread


Natural products containing plant proteins.

Start building your vegan body

Vanessa and other plant-strong athletes perfectly represent the diverse capabilities of being vegan. By following a planned and varied diet, increasing calorific input to meet energy demands, and following a regular exercise routine, you can truly shape a muscular and strong physique in an incredibly healthy and compassionate way.

Whether you’re a regular gym bunny or a complete dumbbell-lifting novice, a plant-based diet will, without a doubt, enhance your training. And I hope these athletes are as inspirational to you as they are to me – proving once and for all that when it comes to the gym, no meat is no problem.

Vanessa’s typical daily diet

4am Cup of matcha green tea with lemon

6am 90g (3¼oz) cooked quinoa, 2 tbsp peanut butter, 2 tbsp chia seeds, 1 banana, cinnamon
and 2 tbsp hemp seeds

8am   Apple and pear

10am Workout

12pm Protein shake with 235ml (8fl oz) almond milk

1pm Half block tofu, sweet potato, black bean burger, sprouts, squash and seasoning

3pm Snack of 225g (8oz) dried peas

6pm Kale and spinach salad, half cup black lentils, cucumber, tomatoes, onion, carrots, avocado, cauliflower, marjoram, dill and pepper

8pm Protein shake with 235ml (8fl oz) almond milk

Vegan athletes talk nutrition

Vanessa’s tips for training

Get a variety
By eating a variety of real, plant-based and healthy foods you will eat a nutrient-dense diet rich in all the protein you need and more.

Prep in advance
My nutrition is very consistent. I prep meals on the weekends so I always have food ready for the week.

Train 5-6 times a week
I focus on one body-part a day, really blasting that area of muscle. My intensity is high and I usually train for around an hour.

Refuel correctly
After my lifting I always have a protein shake. I just mix it with almond milk and ice immediately after my workout. It’s very important that you have some type of protein and carbs after a lift to replenish your glycogen energy store.

Mix it up
I also sprint and box. My father and I would run outside together in winter when I was growing up. He would tell me ‘don’t let the cold beat you’. And so, till this day, I run outside in any kind of weather. I always make time to walk my four Chihuahuas (I have a total Chihuahua obsession).

Don’t be afraid of supplements
There are many great vegan supplements on the market, such as raw protein powders that can enhance your diets. Sometimes I drink two a day! I also take a multivitamin and spirulina with chlorella and branched chain amino acids.

Written by

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis is an Assistant Psychologist at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and has a MS degree in Clinical Neuropsychiatry from Kings College London. Charlotte is also a marketer for ethical brands, author of Vegan: Do It! A young person’s guide to living a vegan lifestyle, and a regular contributor to sustainability and plant-based publications.

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