Veganism, Athletes & Aesthetics

Alice O'Connor · Feb 15 2017

Recently I made a massive life change. I went from a diet consisting of chicken, eggs, turkey, fish, and beef to a vegan diet. “Hey Ally, aren’t you worried about your sporting performance?” Hmm, good point random voice. I was. So I did some digging, researching, and reading. What did I find? Well have a read.

Firstly, let’s clarify what veganism actually is.

While vegetarians eat a plant based diet and include products like eggs, and honey, vegans do not consume animals or animal products. No eggs, no milk, no meat, no chicken… some of the standard foods associated with athletes.

Now there are so many myths about vegans being athletes. We have all heard the old school reasons against veganism like, “How could you get enough protein? What about B12? Calcium, that can only come from cows milk, right!?” Such questions have pretty much been asked since the word “vegan” popped out of Donald Watson’s mouth in 1944.

With claims like these, it makes sense that many think one cannot expect to reach athletic excellence on a vegan diet. There is just no it could support optimum performance… right?

Meet Clarence Kennedy (aka Clarence0, aka “The Wizard”). Clarence is a world class athlete. He is a weightlifter, powerlifter, and tricker. Clarence is well known in the world of youtube as being abnormally strong, and I mean really strong. Just to give you an idea, at a body weight of 100kg (I’m from Europe, we use kilos but that’s 220lbs for all my American friends) he can pause back squat 300kg (660lbs), deadlift 340kg (748lbs), pause bench 200kg (440lbs), snatch 185kg (407lbs), clean and jerk 220kg (484lbs), clean 225kg (495lbs), pause front squat 250kg (550lbs).

Oh, and did I mention he’s powered by a plant based diet?

So, clearly I had to track him down and find out a bit more about his vegan lifestyle. I managed to find him in a small town in Ireland to answer my questions.

The number one question I had was “why did you go vegan?” For an athlete of that calibre, even small changes in nutrition can have huge effects on performance. Clarence hasn’t always been vegan. His reason for change is a common one. Ethics.

“The arguments against veganism were just weak and I felt like an idiot for eating the way I had been,” he says.

This was an interesting statement. All we have ever heard is reasons against veganism for athletes, but it is evident now that these arguments are inherently flawed.

Clarence admits that, in the beginning, if a study came out to 100% prove eating meat made you stronger he would have gone back to his old carnivorous ways. However, there was a slow and gradual change in his mindset. The more blogs he read, the more papers he researched, and the more videos he watched he realized that he would never go back to eating animals, regardless of the outcome to his performance. You could say Clarence’s feelings towards the ethical side of things might even be stronger than his deadlift… and that is strong.

“Before, I used to see a packet of chicken in the store and that’s all I’d see. Now I see all the steps it took to make it, and it just disgusts me”.

So the reason behind his plant based diet is very powerful, but the change didn’t happen over night. Clarence used to have a diet that was stacked with meat, milk, and eggs. So how did he change? Slowly. There was no Harry Potter spell that made him wake up one morning and say ‘cool, I’m magically vegan now.’ It was a gradual change over three months. Clarence suggests that anyone looking to move towards a plant based diet slowly reduces the amount of animal products they eat in each meal and replace them with plant based substitutes like beans, grains and vegetables. He also recommends swapping your cows milk for soy milk or a nut milk such as almond milk. Soy milk is Clarence’s go to as it contains a lot of calcium (myth busted!).

For such a large human, how can he get enough calories in on a plant based diet? Easy. You add more fat. Throw in some avocado, some coconut oil and nut butters and your calories will increase.

“People forget that fat as a macronutrient is the most calorifically dense with 9kcal per gram, while protein and carbohydrates have 4kcal per gram,” Clarence says. More vegan myths proven wrong.

Here’s the big question, how has it affected his performance?

“No change,” he says. “It’s not better or worse. It’s the same. The reason people won’t change is because it is inconvenient.”

A very honest answer. The idea that living off a plant based diet will radically change your athletic performance for better or worse does not seem to be true for Clarence. What holds people back is tradition, social acceptance, and perhaps fear of change.

Needless to say this really eased my mind in terms of performance on a vegan diet… but I was still worried. Clarence is a male. Men and women are not the same physically, so I wanted a female model. I googled, YouTubed, insta-stalked, and emailed around like Sherlock Holmes searching for clues. I came across a another YouTube phenom, ChelseaLifts.

This is Chelsea Karabin, a vegan fitness YouTuber, Strength Coach, Gym-owner, entrepreneur, previous Power Lifter and even competed in a Figure competition. Not bad for a 24 year old.

Chelsea used to be all about those processed protein powders, chicken, rice, eggs, and all that jazz. It’s clear she is one strong and lean lady- just check out this back double bi pose!

For Chelsea, her decision to go vegan was an emotional rollercoaster.

Her choice to change would impact a lot in her life, including some sources of income. She lost some sponsors because of her decision to no longer use certain supplements (like whey protein powders) and she worried her decision would put a strain on many of her relationships. So why go through all of this?

Much like Clarence, Chelsea’s decision to change was ignited by things she read and watched, the likes of documentaries like Conspiracy. Chelsea admits that the things she read and the documentaries she watched were difficult to sit through. She describes it as a very emotional time but it made the decision to change easy.

“Something just clicked,” she remembers.

While Clarence is a great example of performance, Chelsea is a wonderful example of aesthetics. Chelsea is a very strong female, no doubt about it, but one of her YouTube channels most popular series is one called Diet Diaries.

Going vegan means you will be eating more vegetables, grains, beans, and fruits.

So it is potentially a pretty high carbohydrate diet. I admit to being that person who has a bit of irrational “carb fear” because we have been conditioned to think that carbohydrates = body fat and weight gain. Well, the fears I had were put to rest after questioning this lean, mean, lifting machine.

“I’ve increased my carbohydrate intake overall along with generally just eating more whole foods,” says Chelsea. “When I was not vegan, I had a horrible habit of really overusing the highly processed lower calorie foods that really don’t offer your body much in terms of water and micronutrients. I’ve gotten leaner during the periods of time I have not tracked my intake in the gym and enjoyed my workouts more due to having more energy overall. My workouts have definitely gotten better!”

So, if you are worried about going vegan because of aesthetic reasons (whether you are a body builder or just like looking good), then you really have no need to worry. In terms of creating a lean physique, a vegan diet has the same pros and cons as a standard meat filled diet, but as a vegan you will just be saving animals from an unfortunate end.

“You still have to be conscious of your choices,” explains Chelsea. “Yes, you won’t be chomping down on hamburgers and chocolate, but you can still over indulge on vegan ice cream and bread! Quality and quantity are still important.”

If veganism doesn’t affect your performance, your physique or your health, why don’t more people go vegan? According to Dr. Melanie Joy, it comes down to social blindness. There is a great video by Dr. Joy in the topic of Carnism that I recommend, but this is a blog about performance so I won’t delve much deeper into the “why everyone should be vegan” mindset. I feel nobody should force their ideas on another person.

Myths have been busted, fears addressed, and my decision has been made.

Performance and aesthetics are two very important things to athletes. Many wouldn’t change a thing because they worry about losing all their hard earned muscle, numbers, and bodies. The stigma that is attached to veganism and sports is slowly being cured thanks to people like Clarence and Chelsea. These two vegan athletes are not forcing their beliefs on anyone else, or saying that going vegan will improve everything in your life. They are giving honest accounts. I found the most intriguing to be that there was no change to performance for Clarence when he changed his style of nutrition. Many people would take this statement and say “then why bother?” Well, think about it, if it won’t harm you to change, they why continue to harm those who cannot defend themselves? But that’s another story.

If you are considering a plant based diet but are worried about your sporting performance, then your mind can be put at ease. Be mindful of your food choices, make the transition slowly, educate yourself on the right foods, take your supplements like B12, D3 and DHA and you will be just fine.

Oh, and as always, #getnested. 😉

If you are interested in learning more, check out Clarence (Clarence0) and Chelsea (ChelseaLifts) on YouTube!

[Photos via Cass Du Barry and Chelsea Karabin]