Robert Cheeke is a bodybuilder and a vegan. Bodybuilding has been long associated with meat-eating because of the belief that meat is the best source of large amounts of protein, but he has shown that eating plant-based foods can also work for the sport. What follows is an interview with him.
Why did you decide to stop eating animal-based foods?
I grew up on a farm and developed an appreciation for farm animals similar to the respect and appreciation someone might have for a dog or a cat. Given this perspective of farm animals and my closeness to them through my involvement in 4-H, raising them as pets, it seemed fitting to stop eating my animal friends. I no longer wanted to contribute to animal cruelty and suffering and decided to go vegan, as a teenager in the agriculture town of Corvallis, OR in the mid 90ís.
How long have you been vegan?
I have been vegan since December 8, 1995 (when I was 15 years old and 120 pounds Ė By 2003, I was up to 195 pounds and a competitive bodybuilder running veganbodybuilding.com).
What are some of your favorite sources of protein?
I honestly donít have a single favorite source of protein. I eat a wide variety of foods based on what Iím in the mood for, where I am on a given day, what my training and competition schedule is like, and so on.† In general, I like to eat Thai, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, and Ethiopian foods. These ethnic foods tend to be comprised of rice, vegetables, beans and legumes, and greens. Overall, they are incredibly filling, calorie and protein-rich and very tasty. If I feel like I want additional protein on top of my whole-food based meals, Iíll use plant-based protein powders such as Vega, which is primarily made up of hemp, pea and rice protein.
What are some of your favorite vegan foods?
I love fruits more than anything else. I travel regularly and have the amazing opportunity to pick fruit off the trees and eat the freshest, tastiest fruit available. Berries in the summer are perhaps my ultimate favorite, but Iím also a big fan of more traditional fruits available in anywhere America year-round including bananas, apples, oranges, and grapes.
My second favorite type of food is probably burritos. I eat burritos almost every day. They are made of up some of my individual favorite foods including rice, beans, and avocado and all together are calorie-rich, protein dense, and of course very tasty and filling. Yams and potatoes, quinoa, kale and artichokes are some of my other favorite whole foods. Thai and Indian dishes, especially Masaman and Yellow Curry and vegetable samosas and Aloo Matter, are by far my favorite dinner meals. Avocado rolls are another menu item I indulge in regularly.
Do you measure the amount of protein you consume daily because of your bodybuilding?
When I am preparing for competition or in bulking-up phases of my bodybuilding program I do measure my daily intake of protein. My levels of consumption are far greater than that of someone who isnít training for my specific sport, but Iíve noticed that consumption of 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, combined with intense resistance weight training sessions one or two times a day, allows me to build muscle, get stronger and improve as a bodybuilder.
When I am not training regularly, I donít consumer nearly as much protein, probably less than 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, because I am not creating tears in muscle and therefore donít need as much protein to repair, recover and grow.
You started as a serious distance runner, how did you decide to start bodybuilding and are there any advantages to began a vegan also?
I was a 5-sport athlete in high school (soccer, cross country, wrestling, basketball and track & Field) combined with a few other extra-curricular sports I did on my own (skateboarding, tennis, dancing) and after high school I chose to pursue cross country distance running in college. I was an NCAA collegiate runner at Oregon State University in 1999 and enjoyed it, but knew that in the back of my mind and in my heart, I always wanted to be a muscular person. I stopped running and started picking up weights immediately. I gained 30 pounds in my first year of real dedicated training and went on to win multiple bodybuilding championships and have competed more than 10 times over the past decade.
A vegan diet/lifestyle is very conducive to success in athletics because plant-based whole foods provide the best sources of nutrition, coming from their original forms. The nutritional components we need to thrive are vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids and glucose and those all come in their original and best forms from fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds and legumes. Whether weíre referring to running, swimming, football or bodybuilding, all athletes and non-athletes alike, can benefit from a plant-based, whole food vegan diet/lifestyle.
Do you receive messages via your website and YouTube Channel from people about their conversion to a vegetarian or vegan diet in some part due to the information about it you have shared?
I get emails, Facebook messages, Twitter comments and YouTube comments every day. I am pleased to know a lot of people have found my work and the work of my fellow vegan athletes to be inspirational and I am happy that collectively weíre saving a lot of lives and progressing forward in our quest for compassion and peace.
When you travel how do you maintain your diet and how do choose your foods when you eat at restaurants that typically don’t cater to vegans?
In 2011, I traveled about 250 days out of the year. This was for my Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness book tour, my work with Vega Ė a plant-based whole food nutrition company, and my work with the new documentary film Forks Over Knives. I drove thousands of miles in my car around the US and Canada and took nearly 50 flights, attending vegetarian, vegan, health, fitness, and animal rights themed events in all corners of North America.
As a bodybuilder I learned a decade ago to pack food with me at all times. I carry fruit, protein and energy bars, protein powder, nuts, and other vegan snacks and sometimes full entrees everywhere I go. Whether in the car, or on a plane, I always have lots of food with me.
When Iím stopped in a given city for a few days I seek out various restaurants and grocery stores. Iím very easy Ėgoing and donít always desire a vegetarian or vegan restaurant, but seek out ethic food restaurants, grocery stores and co-ops or even farmerís markets during the summer. I eat at Mexican, Thai and Indian food restaurants most often, followed by regular trips to the grocery store to stock up on produce and snacks. Iíve been to more vegan restaurants than I can count, and I do like to support vegan businesses where they exist, primarily in major cities.
Any restaurant is going to have some sort of vegetables, greens, fruits, etc. and whether the items are listed on the menu or not, I can find suitable food even if I end up in the least likely veg-friendly restaurant or town.
What has been the best part of becoming a vegan?
The best part of being vegan is knowing I am saving lives and being a role model for others to do the same. Seeing a rescued animal get a second chance at life is priceless and heart-warming.
Are other bodybuilders curious about your diet when you meet them?
Vegan Bodybuilding is becoming a lot more mainstream than it used to be. When I started veganbodybuilding.com in 2002, I was the only vegan athlete I knew of. Now we have over 5,000 members on our website and weíre discovering new vegan athletes all the time from professional and elite levels of our major sports to weekend warriors and everyone in between. Vegan athletes arenít quite as mysterious as they used to be so I donít have to answer the protein question quite as much as I did 10-15 years ago. In general, other bodybuilders are curious as to what I eat since mainstream bodybuilding culture still embraces meat, eggs and whey protein as their primary sources.
If I can share my story of going from 120-pound non-vegan to a 195-pound champion vegan bodybuilder, and share the stories of many others who have had similar or greater results, and have a positive influence on people, I am thrilled to do so. I plan to get back on the competitive bodybuilding stage in 2012 after† taking a couple of years off for my busy book tour.
@RobertCheeke on Twitter
Image Credit: Mikkei