September is Fruits & Veggies More Matters Month, and despite the many popular misconceptions about available protein sources, it is possible to be powerful and strong while being completely nourished by a plant based lifestyle. Vegan body builder, Melissa Hauser, an advocate for plant fueled living, shares why she chooses to be plant powered among a field dominated by meat eaters.
Vegetarian and vegan diets focus on the high consumption of fruit, vegetables, soy, nuts, and legumes. Overall, they tend to have a lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol and the higher intakes of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, and cancer fighting phytochemicals. Animal sourced foods are the one origin of cholesterol, so vegan diets are cholesterol-free.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans support the benefits of a vegetarian diet: "Most Americans of all ages eat fewer than the recommended number of servings of grain products, vegetables, and fruits, even though consumption of these foods is associated with a substantially lower risk for many chronic diseases, including certain types of cancer." Extensive studies including the Adventist Health Study, the Oxford Vegetarian Study, and the Heidelberg Study have shown that overall, vegetarians tend to be slimmer, appear to be in better health, and have a reduced risk of chronic diseases and greater longevity when compared with their omnivore counterparts.
Well-balanced vegetarian and vegan diets have been approved for all stages of life, including pregnant and lactating women, children, adolescents, the elderly population, and even competitive athletes like Melissa. While many may think practicing a plant based lifestyle may put you at a disadvantage competitively, Melissa disagrees, as is relevant in her competition history. In the fall of 2013, Melissa placed First in Open Figure at the NPC Natural. In 2014, Melissa placed second in both the Open Figure at the INBF Naturally Fit Games (July 2014) and the in Open Figure at the NPC Colorado State Figure Championships (June 2014). An inspiring accomplishment for Melissa and plant built athletes everywhere.
Ellice: What made you want to compete professionally as a bodybuilder?
Melissa: Everyone who knows me will confirm that I am a goal-oriented person (to put it lightly). “Laser Focus” is the term that seems to come up a lot lately. I started working out with a trainer in April 2013 at a competitive gym (which I wasn’t aware of prior to joining). I slowly learned about the sport, and admired the physiques of the competitors in my gym. Once I began to see changes in my own physical appearance I was hooked, and as soon as my trainer mentioned the possibility of competing, I was on a mission!
Ellice: What do you think is the biggest misconception about being a vegan body builder?
Melissa: There are an endless number of misconceptions that come along with being a female bodybuilder, and with being vegan. So combining the two really leads to a lot of doubt and disbelief. The overriding myth is simply that it’s not possible to condition your body and build muscle mass without an animal-protein filled diet. My trainer is not vegan, so he was incredibly skeptical from the start. As I’ve racked in some wins though, he has admitted that a vegan diet does work for me. One of the most frustrating aspects of training is when others use my diet as reason for less-than-perfect performance. For example, I was vastly under conditioned going into a show earlier this year (meaning that I was not lean enough). A number of people at my gym attributed that to my being vegan, and neglected to acknowledge that perhaps I just hadn’t trained hard enough or had enough focus. There’s absolutely no reason that you cannot achieve leanness and muscle mass when eating vegan; you are simply using different food sources and types to hit your nutrition goals.
Ellice: How long have you been vegan? What inspired you to give up meat?
Melissa: My transition to a plant based lifestyle was gradual over the course of many years, and becoming vegan was actually never my intention. I first gave up meat back in 2009 purely for ethical reasons (I have Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma to thank for that one). It never occurred to me that dairy cows and egg-laying chickens faced the same plight as all other farm animals, and so I maintained a vegetarian diet for many years. However when my son was born in 2012, he had a severe dairy allergy which required me to eliminate that from my diet since I was breastfeeding him. As I researched how long it would take for dairy to leave my system, I was appalled with the health-related concerns that I learned. My research began innocently enough, yet quickly morphed into a huge self-education about the negative nutritional effects that animals products have on our lives. I never even questioned if I would consume dairy again, and also made the conscious decision to become 100% plant based.
Ellice: How does your diet change when you are training for a competition?
Melissa: Competition prep diets change dramatically from regular diets, and frankly, they suck. It doesn’t matter if you’re vegan or omnivorous, they really aren’t fun. An omnivore’s prep diet likely consists of plain oats, egg whites, rice cakes, sweet potatoes, chicken, turkey, spinach and asparagus. My vegan prep diet usually was plain oats, rice cakes, sweet potatoes, tofu, seitan, spinach and asparagus. I find that vegans in this sport tend to overthink their diet and overcomplicate the basics. But at the end of the day, you have a target ratio of protein-fats-carbohydrates to make up your daily calorie intake. You’re simply using different food sources than our meat-eating counterparts.
Ellice: What advantages do you think being vegan provides over competitors who bulk up on animal protein?
Melissa: Recovery, energy and leanness are the advantages that I’ve seen with myself, as well as with other vegan competitors. We load up our bodies with fresh (preferably organic) produce and grains year-round that are loaded with natural vitamins and micro-nutrients. These foods are easy to digest, and so our plant-built bodies can expend energy to repair and rebuild muscle (leading to speedier recovery), rather than using that energy to digest food. We can be in the gym more frequently, and make greater muscle gains. Additionally, we maintain leaner physiques year-round because we aren’t loading up on nutrient-poor indulgences like cheese, ice cream and burgers in our off-season. My weight fluctuates only about 20 pounds between regular- and competition-weights, whereas I see many other competitors in my division fluctuating by 40 to 60 pounds.
Don’t’ be misled that a vegan diet is the perfect solution though. I know plenty of un-healthy vegans! I had a vegan friend who survived on French fries and Dr. Pepper…..seriously. You must make a conscious effort to fuel your body with healthy, whole foods: grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Yes, there are great vegan indulgences (mmm….coconut ice cream), and processed foods (like veggie patties) are convenient and amazing at times. But to truly be a healthy plant-powered athlete, the majority of your diet should be clean whole foods.
Ellice: What is the one food you can't live without?
Melissa: I am truly a veggie nut, so broccoli and cauliflower are what I crave. It is not uncommon for me to load up with a steaming plate of cruciferous vegetables for the first meal of my day.
Ellice: You seem to have perfected the balance between strength and femininity - Is that something you consciously strive for? Do you think being vegan helps you maintain that balance?
Melissa: Perfection is such a misleading word, and I would argue that the balance in my life and physique is far from it! But yes, that is something that I strive for. Bodybuilding is an all-encompassing sport – if you are going to do it, then you have to commit to the diet and training 100%. However I constantly remind myself that I am also a mother, wife and have a career. Yes, I want to excel in this sport, but I want to be recognized for other aspects of my life as well. I’m repeatedly asked how I have the energy to do what I do, and I know without question that it is because of my vegan diet. I may be exhausted at the end of the day, but I am rarely run down, and almost never sick. I know that’s because I’m fueled by fresh real food.
Ellice: I know you are a mom, are you raising your son to be vegan? What are your biggest challenges when dealing with your own son and nutrition?
Melissa: This is a sticky subject in our household! I am vegan, however my husband is not. We both agree that our son should make his own dietary decisions, however at two-years old his food choices are completely dictated by us. At this point in his development, my primary concern is keeping processed foods, food dyes, and GMO-foods out of his diet. I do the majority of cooking in our household and only put plant-based foods on his plate. My husband will occasionally slip some meat on his plate (though I’m happy to report that Nolan has yet to ever take more than 1 bite of any of these offerings, and they’re usually spit out!).
On average, Americans consume 8 ounces of meat per day – 45% more than the USDA recommends. There is research linking red meat consumption, especially processed and preserved meat, with an increased risk of cancer, coronary heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Not ready to go vegan? Try going Meatless on Mondays to start. Going meatless just once a week can reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help limit your carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel. Many believe reduced meat consumption is the biggest contributor to the health benefits that are found with the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
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