Are Folks Choosing Between Eating to Get Swole and to Save the Planet?

I became a vegetarian when I was 15 years old after my biology teacher explained the caloric energy inefficiencies of a meat-based diet. Each step up the food chain costs energy, and more people would have access to more food with less environmental cost if more of us ate lower on the food chain. The argument was elegant, made sense to me as a compassionate, globally-minded teen, and it was enough to change how I ate for nearly a decade. I never became a vegan, although I lived in a co-op for a few years, and we served family-style vegan dinners so everyone could enjoy them together. I learned a lot during those years–how to make and pronounce quinoa, how to make vegetarian Hoppin’ John for good luck at New Year’s, and unfortunately that a higher-carbohydrate diet kept me feeling hungry, weak, and tired a lot of the time.

I’m noticing a lot of the evidence-based lifting folks I respect talking about moving towards a more plant-based diet, often exploring veganism in particular, with a mind for reducing the impact of their diet on the growing climate crisis. Eric Helms of 3DMJ and Iron Culture often discusses eating in a vegan or near-vegan way and has researched protein requirements for competitive bodybuilders on a vegan diet. Danny Lennon of Sigma Nutrition Radio has run half a dozen or so interviews exploring veganism, including last week’s excellent conversation with Simon Hill, on how to help people transition away from animal products. In the last few months, Eric Trexler of Stronger By Science has talked about choosing to eat a vegan diet as he develops his secular Buddhism practice. All these voices, it’s starting to feel like a trend.

Of course, there’s less evidence-based voices in the mix, too. Pseudoscience abounds the veganism space, with the Game Changers “documentary” last year being a prominent example.

I think it’s important for folks in the lifting community to know that they needn’t eat large quantities of meat and dairy in order to reach their strength and hypertrophy goals. It’s a false choice to say you can either save the planet or get jacked. AND I am worried that the focus on veganism creates another false dichotomy–the choice is not between all animal products or no animal products. A plant-based diet need not be a plant-exclusive diet, and there is still good done when folks move towards a more plant-based diet, both environmentally and for their health.

Those of us who are drawn to the health and fitness realm are often maximalists. We like things big, intense, over-the-top. We tend to be perfectionists, willing to sacrifice and put in hard work against the wisdom of our bodies to push ourselves to our limits, always looking to improve. There’s a lot of wonderful outcomes that come from this sort of mindset. We can excel where other people would not. It can also have major downsides, including a tendency to go too far for too long, and higher risk of extreme choices with a focus on the ends over the means. A healthy pursuit of our goals requires balancing our urges to succeed with the temperance necessary to endure. And to me, choosing to become vegan often fits into this maximalist mindset. It’s concluding that if animal-product consumption is harming our planet, then we should not consume any of it ever again. It can feel analogous to the same all-or-nothing thinking and food moralizing we see in folks with disordered eating and exercise tendencies.

And we have a lot of other options that are still healthier and more conscientious than simply maintaining the status quo.

Moreover, all of this discussion puts the onus on the individual, and if you’ve read my numerous rants about diet culture, this point will feel familiar to you. If we really want to solve the problem, we need to stop thinking small and start holding systems accountable to their impacts. I’m not saying our personal choices don’t matter, but what each of us eats pales in comparison to the worldwide energy infrastructure in terms of potential impact.

So, if becoming a vegan works for you, go for it. And if it doesn’t work for you, or someone you know, know that there are other ways to do our part that still matter and still contribute to making the world less dependent upon unhelpful practices. For me, eating as a vegetarian left me feeling hungry all of the time, so much so, I thought I was developing diabetes as it caused broad swings in my blood sugar. Eating more protein-dominant foods in the forms of lean meats immediately stabilized my energy and made me feel better.

So, I still choose to not eat any red meat. I don’t want to contribute more to the harmful cattle industry, and I think pork is disgusting. I’m fairly lactose intolerant, so the only dairy I consume is Greek yogurt and a small amount of cheese most days. I eat a lot eggs, but I buy cage free, local eggs when I can get them. I have looked for local chicken, but haven’t found a reliable and reasonably affordable source, yet. I only buy sustainable fish and seafoods. I also avoid many energetically-expensive processed, packaged foods, buying bulk staples whenever I can, and I drive the most fuel-efficient car I could afford when I bought it. I always make sure my elected officials know that these issues are important to me and that I expect meaningful, courageous solutions. If you can do more than this, great! But if you can’t, don’t discount the impacts you can have. Each of our decisions fits into a larger picture. Find what works for you; be willing to run the experiments. Don’t assume you won’t feel good or stay strong switching to a more plant-based diet. Collect the data, and in the meantime, make your voice heard. Write your elected representatives in government, vote with your fork, and insist on change.

Are you reducing your consumption of animal products? Are you resistant to it out of concern for your fitness goals? I’d love to talk about it! Here is our comment policy. You can also join the conversation on Facebook. Find and follow Progressive Strength!

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