Meet the jacked vegan strength athletes defying stereotypes

Over the past two years, Gigi Balsamico has won first place at more than a dozen strongman competitions in the eastern United States: Maidens of Might, Rebel Queen, War of the North, Third Monkey Throwdown. These events typically involve six to eight weight-lifting challenges on which competitors are scored based on criteria like the amount of weight they can handle and how many reps they can do. 

Last month, Balsamico came out at the top of her weight class at Delaware’s Baddest. There, she hoisted four 100- to 150-pound sandbags onto her shoulders after completing six reps of a 315-pound dead lift. As the pièce de résistance, she harnessed herself to a Chevy Silverado — which itself was attached to a food truck trailer — and dragged it 40 feet in 40 seconds.

Balsamico is also a vegan of 11 years. It’s an identity she’s vocal about, out of a desire to push back on the notion that you need to eat meat to be strong. When she was a vegan-curious teenager, it gnawed at her that giving up animal products could mean sacrificing sports.

“I thought I was going to shrivel away to nothing,” Balsamico told Grist. Her Italian, sports-loving family had always eaten meat and dairy. “That’s what was always said to me, that you would basically get so skinny and die.”

a woman in workout clothes pulls a white vehicle outdoors
Gigi Balsamico pulls a Chevy Silverado and food truck trailer as part of the 2024 Delaware’s Baddest strongman competition. Courtesy of Gigi Balsamico

But Balsamico’s love for animals compelled her to question these concerns. As a child, tending to neglected horses at a family friend’s farm prompted her to wonder why people didn’t see all animals as beautiful, each with its own unique personality. Horses, cows, sheep, dogs: “It was so apparent to me that there was no difference,” she said.

Meanwhile, veganism was at the beginning of a surge in popularity — concerns over the cruel conditions of factory farming, as well as the impacts of animal agriculture on the climate and environment, were helping to bring the marginalized diet closer to the mainstream. Although estimates vary, peer-reviewed research suggests that the chickens, cows, pigs, and other animals humans raise for meat and dairy contribute up to 20 percent of the planet’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Balsamico cut out all animal products from her diet at the age of 14, justifying the decision to her parents in a “39-minute PowerPoint” on the health benefits of plant-based eating. The weight lifting came a couple of years later, mostly out of curiosity: “I just wanted to see if I could do it,” she said. And she could — in 2022, she began winning first place for her age and weight class in every strongman competition she entered, racking up a streak of victories that she has yet to break.  

“I haven’t had meat in 11 years of my life, and I can pick up 700 pounds on my back,” she told Grist. Balsamico now coaches other aspiring athletes at a gym in Pittsburgh, and is affiliated with an international team of vegan strength competitors called PlantBuilt

Balsamico and her teammates are just a few of the many plant-based athletes who are using their “swole” bodies and competition results for social change, showing on social media and through word of mouth that you don’t have sacrifice “gains” — slang for muscle mass gained through diet and exercise — in order to eat a diet that protects animals and the environment. One block of tofu at a time, they’re defying expectations about what’s possible without animal protein — and weathering unsolicited criticism from those who insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that “soy boys” are inherently weak.

A woman squats while holding on to two weight handles in a gym
Gigi Balsamico, a strongman athlete on the vegan team PlantBuilt, has been meat-free for over 11 years. Courtesy of Gigi Balsamico

Eating fewer animal products — especially beef — is one of the most effective actions that people can take for the planet. Researchers have found that eating a plant-based diet is one of the four individual lifestyle choices that have the biggest impact on emissions, along with living car-free, avoiding air travel, and having one fewer child. An Oxford University study examining the reported food intake of more than 55,000 people found that the diets of people who eschewed all animal products generated one-quarter the greenhouse gas emissions of those who ate a lot of meat. 

Nutritionists say a vegan diet can be healthy for most people, as long as they take supplements to ensure adequate intake of certain micronutrients that are hard to find in plant foods, like vitamin B-12. James Loomis, medical director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit that promotes plant-based diets, said non-animal foods are more than adequate sources of protein. Contrary to popular belief, he said, the idea that plants can’t deliver all of the essential amino acids is “complete mythology.” 

Veganism is a tougher sell for strength athletes, who have higher protein needs than the average population. Whether plant- or animal-based, dietary protein is the only way to get the amino acid building blocks that can grow and maintain muscle mass. But due to what some nutrition experts call “bro science” — a cocktail of personal experience and information gleaned from social media — strength athletes often believe that the only way to fulfill these requirements is through large servings of eggs, yogurt, chicken, dairy-based protein powder, and other high-protein animal foods.

Vegan athlete Ben Berman, seen here in a workout compilation, wears a “proud soy boy” shirt to promote plant-based fitness, but says it is often misinterpreted. “Some feedback I keep getting is that, on first glance, it seems to be more of a reference to ‘Proud Boys’ than ‘soy boys,’ unfortunately,” he told Grist. Images courtesy of Ben Berman

Carol Johnston, an associate dean and professor at the Arizona State University College of Health Solutions, said it may be easier to absorb protein from these animal foods. Nonathletic “regular Joe” vegans could be at risk of deficiency if they don’t compensate by eating a slightly greater amount of plant protein. But for protein-obsessed strength athletes, she said there’s no reason they can’t swap out whey, yogurt, and steak and build muscle on their plant-based counterparts.

“They just need to consume extra protein” compared to omnivores, Johnston said. Most serious athletes know this, she added. “There are a lot of pro athletes who are vegan and they perform just as well as the nonvegans. That’s because they take a lot of care with their diet, they know how to maneuver through their nutritional needs.”

an illustration of people in workout gear standing on top of three tiered containers of plant protein
Lily Lambie-Kiernan / Grist

According to Loomis, “reasonably active” people should be getting about 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. Most people don’t need to worry about hitting this target, he said, as long as they’re eating a diverse diet of unprocessed foods. Athletes need more calories overall, and therefore their protein intake should scale up — to about 0.55 to 0.73 grams per pound for endurance athletes who are less concerned about building huge muscles, and to 0.68 to 1 gram per pound for strength athletes like powerlifters. Beyond a certain limit, the body can’t store excess protein, Loomis told Grist, and some studies suggest that too much can promote the growth of cancer cells. (It may be, however, that this relationship only applies to animal protein.)

Most of the plant-based strength athletes Grist spoke to reported trying to consume between 0.68 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. For someone who weighs 200 pounds, that would be 136 to 200 grams of protein per day. For context, a block of extra-firm tofu has about 40 grams of protein, and a typical serving of vegan protein powder has about 20 grams. 

Those foods both play a prominent role in the diets of the vegan athletes Grist spoke to. Protein powder, which can be blended into smoothies or stirred into oatmeal, represents a fairly low-effort way to up one’s daily intake. Katie Chetcuti, a vegan fitness coach with more than 45,000 followers on Instagram, said she uses a barley, rice, and lupin bean-based protein powder from the brand Fyta. Other athletes named Orgain, PlantFusion (a sponsor of PlantBuilt), Vedge, and TB12 as their preferred brands. Bradie Crandall, a powerlifter with PlantBuilt who uses the social media handle Vegan Hercules, said he saves money by mixing an admittedly “chalky” blend of unflavored pea and rice protein powders, which he buys in bulk. He blends his powder into post-dinner protein shakes, along with orange juice, mixed fruit, and beets, which he says help improve blood flow.

Katie Chetcuti is a vegan fitness coach who uses plant-based protein power to supplement her diet. Courtesy of Katie Chetcuti

Beans are another popular staple — especially among a small but passionate circle of vegan strength athletes who subscribe to a whole food, plant-based diet that emphasizes the importance of dietary fiber. (Americans are much more likely to be deficient in fiber than in protein.) 

But others center their diets around plant-based products designed to taste like meat. Chetcuti said these can serve as a one-to-one replacement for more conventional proteins: an Impossible burger instead of a beef patty, for instance, or soy-based chicken substitutes instead of chicken breasts.

“Vegan nutrition is really not that different from nutrition for other athletes,” she said — you just take the meat, eggs, and milk, and swap them out for high-protein plant-based lookalikes.

an illustration of a woman in workout clothes leaning on a giant sippy cup and standing near bags of vegetarian protein snacks
Lily Lambie-Kiernan / Grist

There are plenty of options available for those who look for them, and more products are being introduced all the time. Balsamico said she’s come to love plant-based jerky, faux steak cutlets from the brand Meati, and a more old-school product called textured vegetable protein: defatted soy flour pellets that mimic ground beef. She also makes her own protein-rich foods — for example, strawberry shortcake muffins with added protein powder, or mini quiches made from a blend of silken tofu and a mung bean-based egg substitute called Just Egg.

Across the board, the athletes Grist spoke with said their diet has improved their athletic performance, especially their ability to recover quickly between workouts. Ashley Kitchens, a registered dietitian and competitive CrossFit athlete on the PlantBuilt team, said she’s felt “unstoppable” compared to her meat-eating training partners, who take longer to recover from intense gym sessions. Robert Rogers, who spent 12 years as an omnivorous weight lifter before switching to a plant-based diet in 2020, thinks he looks “10 times better” than he did five years ago. “I can do more pushups and pull-ups, I’m leaner, I’m more cut.”

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A man does bar dips on an outdoor play structure

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    <figcaption> Ashley Kitchens of the PlantBuilt team of vegan athletes, left, lifts a barbell during a strength competition. Vegan athlete Robert Rogers, right, works out in his backyard in Richmond, California. <strong>Photos courtesy of Ashley Kitchens, Robert Rogers</strong>

But better performance and aesthetics are often seen as side benefits. Most of the people Grist spoke to said they’re vegan primarily out of concern for animals or the environment, and that this concern is what motivates their advocacy. Some learned about the brutal conditions animals face in factory farms, and said they didn’t want to contribute.

Crandall said veganism “wasn’t even a choice” for him. He recently completed his doctorate in chemical and biomedical engineering, but while doing sustainability research as an undergraduate, he felt ethically compelled to ditch animal foods after learning about their contribution to climate change. “I felt guilty. I wanted to be able to sleep at night,” he said. “I’d been spending all day working in the lab to reduce CO2 emissions.” To then go home and eat meat just “didn’t feel right.”

He believes others would feel the same way if given the right information.

“I think there’s a lot of people that, once they have the capacity for empathy and knowledge of our food system, they’re going to want to go vegan,” Crandall said. “They just need to know that by doing that they can still compete at a very high level — they can still be strong, they can still build muscle. I want to make that very clear to them.”

Bradie Crandall competes in a strongman competition. Courtesy of Bradie Crandall

Having role models can be an important confidence booster for the vegan-curious athlete, for whom scrutiny can feel inescapable. 

Since as early as the 19th century, critics have derided people who choose not to eat meat as “odd” or even “half-crazed.” In 1907, one researcher at Yale expressed surprise that so-called “flesh-abstainers” could keep up with or outperform their meat-eating counterparts in movements like deep knee-bending and leg-raising. 

In the 1970s — at a time when vegetarianism was more exotic than it is today — professional critics blamed the injuries of NBA superstar Bill Walton on his vegetarianism. And when he was performing well, it was in spite of his diet. “The vegetarian tiger played as if he had dined on red meat all week,” a Time Magazine article said in 1974.

The same goes for modern vegan athletes. When Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was sidelined by a sprain in his left foot in 2019, the media implied that his slow recovery was diet-related; one sports nutritionist told The Charlotte Observer that he would “immediately” feel better if he ate animal protein.

Vegan athletes are “under a microscope,” Crandall said. “If you’re not performing at tip-top shape at all times, people are going to say that it’s because of your diet.”

an illustration of a person weightligting two bell peppers while a magnifying glass with eye floats above
Lily Lambie-Kiernan / Grist

When Crandall tore his meniscus in the lead-up to a recent powerlifting competition, he said people online blamed it on his veganism. (He still won the competition.) Chetcuti said she gets similar comments — “If you weren’t vegan, you’d be stronger” — or more toxic ones focused on her physique.

Perhaps the other most significant barrier to the adoption of veganism among athletes is the equation of meat with strength, power, virility, and other qualities typically seen as masculine. Refusing animal products is seen as “weaker, homosexual, and unmanly,” according to vegan and vegetarian respondents to a 2023 survey. Crandall said that, as a young man, he was wary that veganism would cause others to perceive him as feminine. Balsamico said she gets the sense that some of the male clients she works with would think it too “girly” to eat a tofu salad sandwich. 

“If you don’t eat meat, you’re a p-ssy — that’s the vibe that people are putting out,” Chetcuti added.

Bradie Crandall says he felt ethically compelled to ditch animal foods after learning about their contribution to climate change. Despite winning strength competitions, he says people still question his choice to go vegan. Courtesy of Bradie Crandall

In the U.S., some historians link these perceptions back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when once-common expressions of American masculinity — war, expansion of the Western frontier — began to decline. Food helped fill the void, as dietary advice and corporate advertisers cast meat-eating as a symbol of status, power, and domination. Foods like salad and Jell-O were seen as dainty and understood to be women’s cuisine. 

Today, Rogers said fears around veganism seem strongest among those on the political right, who feel their masculinity is under threat or that policies to reduce meat consumption are an affront to their personal freedom. Democrats want to “take away your hamburgers,” they say, and force Independence Day barbecuers to “throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled Brussels sprouts.”

“They see it as maleness under attack,” Rogers told Grist.
There is research to support this hypothesis — and more broadly to support the conclusion that people dislike vegans and vegetarians because of their resistance to entrenched social norms. One 2015 study found that people had more negative feelings toward vegans and vegetarians who were motivated by animal rights and the environment, compared to those motivated by personal health. A separate analysis from 2022 described how Australian men perceive plant-based burgers as a “symbol of eliminated freedom.”

In the absence of a political transformation, many vegan athletes aim to present a different reality and, as Crandall put it, “transcend these arbitrary labels” of masculine and feminine. Ben Berman, a New York City vegan who began a serious weightlifting regimen last year, said he’s trying to reappropriate the epithet “soy boy,” historically used to emasculate vegan and vegetarian men. One of his favorite shirts bears the phrase — he said he hopes to one day be muscular enough for people to look at him and say, “Oh, that’s what a soy boy looks like.”

Balsamico said she’s resilient in the face of unkind online conduct. In addition to sharing vegan training tips at her Pittsburgh gym, she likes bringing vegan snacks to social gatherings — an innocuous but effective way to pique the curiosity of nonvegan friends and community members. “I don’t want people to ever feel that I’m pushing stuff on them,” she said. 

It’s a strategy that is notably different from the one that radical veganism might call to mind: masked activists standing in a public square, confronting passersby with enlarged photographs of the cruelty that transpires on factory farms. 

Not that there’s no alignment between those vegans and the plant-based strength athletes of Instagram. “I definitely have my moments of being a crazy vegan,” Chetcuti said. “I’ll show you slaughterhouse videos, I have them on my phone if you want to see them.” 

But overall, her theory of change is less about shocking people into action than leading by example. “It’s much more inspiring for me to be a regular-ass person,” she said, “to be a fitness coach, to be an athlete.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Meet the jacked vegan strength athletes defying stereotypes on Jul 11, 2024.

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