Book Report: Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness by Robert Cheeke

Alright. It's safe to say that out of all the topics discussed here at TIV, I have never been more out of my element than with this one. And yesterday, I spent three hours writing a really great, thoughtful, witty piece about this book (not really, but how are you ever going to know?) that Blogger subsequently decided to eat just as I went to post. Conveniently, I also didn't happen to notice that it hadn't been autosaving at all the entire afternoon. Blogger is clearly also concerned about my ability to talk about this. Touché, Blogger. Touché.

But we're going to give it another try because I think the message in this book is really important.

I spent my undergraduate and graduate university years hanging around the sociology department, learning about people. Specifically, my interest was in symbolic interactionism/ethnographic research, a branch of sociology that centres on studying how people interact with one another in the various groups that compose their lives. Learning about different subcultures was my bread and Earth Balance in those days, and a passion I took with me after I left school.

So, when Robert emailed me asking if he could send me a copy of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness I jumped at the chance, not only to help promote the work of one of my fellow vegans, but also because I really love learning about people from all different walks of life. I love discovering what drives them and how they came to be the people that they are.

Naturally, the topic of bodybuilding is interesting to me because it's something I know virtually nothing about and the fact that it is vegan bodybuilding we're talking about makes it all the more intriguing. Robert Cheeke presents a particularly compelling example because he is not a bodybuilder that became a bodybuilder and then went vegan (which is great too, don't get me wrong). This is a story about someone who went vegan and then went on to become a highly accomplished athlete. The veganism came first, eliminating the potential for any dispute regarding how powerful a vegan diet can be.

Since there is very little that I know less about than bodybuilding, reviewing this book based on technique itself would be a tad ridiculous. Instead, I'm going to look at it through my old sociological lens and address why it's so important that we encourage Robert and all vegans in all their varied pursuits – the more things we do, the more ways we can show the world that there is nothing we can't do.

Being that I started the book knowing nothing about bodybuilding, I learned so much about this lifestyle. Robert leaves no stone unturned when it comes to pursuing this type of passion. He provides highly detailed meal plans for every stage of training (Mass-Building, Fat-Burning, Pre-Contest, etc). Furthermore, he discusses more than the plans that he himself follows. He has also prepared meal plans for vegan bodybuilders with gluten and soy allergies and even includes a meal plan for raw vegan bodybuilding. The only option he doesn't give you is animal product:

"If it had a face, a family, and the ability to experience fear and pain, it isn't food. It is the remains of an animal that used to be alive and experience life just as we do. Eat the foods that have caused the least amount of harm to be produced and "harvested" and you'll feel really good about your food choices everyday." (page 101)

Similarly, Robert provides extensive information on training and exercise for all areas of the body. The tips he provides are not all reliant on expensive gym equipment (I say this, because for years I used lack of a gym membership as an excuse to not work out). He discusses alternative types of care for building the body, such as massage therapy and chiropractic treatment. There are also chapters on how to turn your passion into a career and how to attain sponsorship, so that you have the means to pursue it.

Importantly, he also includes sample journal pages for logging nutrition, training and achievements that you are able to photocopy and begin using immediately, in an effort to create notions of accountability and personal responsibility. For me, being accountable for your actions is imperative in the pursuit of any type of goal, be it fitness-related or otherwise. There is something about putting things in black-and-white that makes them more real and makes you less likely to abandon them and I love that he gets you started right away.

If I had to pick a favourite chapter, the one titled "Where Do You Get Your Protein?" is up there. We everyday vegans are constantly bombarded with this question. Can you even imagine how often a vegan bodybuilder gets it? At least in bodybuilding it's somewhat relevent - to pursue their passion bodybuilders need to consume incredible amounts of protein (unlike many of the rest of us, with our low to moderate activity levels, who in turn need low to moderate protein intake).

Initially, I figured a good defense for this increasingly annoying inquiry would be to print off a picture of Robert and glue it to my forehead to fend off all questions about protein deficiency in a vegan diet. Instead I've decided to go with a more subtle method of tackling the age-old protein questions - with a simple "Google Robert Cheeke and click on 'Images'".

Robert's many "responses" to the protein question in this book are thorough and informative without the added snark of some other sources (and myself, quite frankly - God I hate the protein question!!!!). Although I do enjoy Response #4, which includes a little bit of the sass that I think a question like this deserves:

"Where do you get YOUR protein? How do you monitor your cholesterol intake?" (p. 152)

Really though, his message about handling the protein question with patience is sound and something we vegans should take to heart, regardless of the blood that starts to boil internally when the question is asked. The topic of protein has taken on hostile undertones for us vegans because we've most likely encountered it in a hostile environment at some point - asked as a challenge rather than an expression of genuine curiosity or interest. We have to remember that it's not always coming from that place:

"Care should be taken when answering the question. It would be harmful to the vegan cause to answer rudely or condescendingly. Some people are asking sincerely to truly learn because they innocently don't know better. Others may be asking because they want to know which are your preferred sources, so they can get ideas to incorporate into their diets. When the question is answered rudely and not with a lot of thought or tact, people receiving the answer will have a negative reaction and a negative reaction of veganism." (p. 150)

Another interesting aspect of this book is that Robert highlights the resistance vegan bodybuilders encounter not just from the bodybuilding community, which I suppose is somewhat to be expected because vegan bodybuilders are no doubt the minority, but also from the greater vegan community. As a result, vegan bodybuilders have to defend themselves twice - once to the bodybuilding community, and once to the vegan community, with members who often see bodybuilding as extreme, unhealthy or excessive. In 2011, veganism has become synonymous with weight loss as opposed to weight gain, no doubt as a result of the many folks that have joined our movement in an effort to combat weight-related health complications. Vegan bodybuilders tend to contradict the majority, so I suppose there is bound to be some resistance. Whether or not this is justified seems to be a source of controversy within the vegan community.

In general, there is often debate among vegans regarding the role of health and fitness in the animal rights movement. On the one hand, there is concern that veganism could become a health "trend", based on personal as opposed to compassionate reasons, making it all the more easy to abandon when another trend comes along, while millions of animals continue to be violently destroyed everyday. Conversely, modern health-oriented research about the destructive effect of meat and dairy on the human body have brought so many people to veganism that may not have found us otherwise. Furthermore, many of the people that go vegan for health or personal reasons often develop an interest in helping animals after the fact and are no less passionate about it than those of us who went vegan for the animals in the first place.

I myself went vegan for the animals, first and foremost. The health gains came after and they have transformed my life, but they still come secondary to my belief that using animals for human indulgence (be it for food, be it for entertainment) is unacceptable and if there wasn't the added bonus of optimal health in its most liberating form, I would still be vegan. Lucky for me, the two go hand-in-hand. By respecting the animals and the environment it in turn means respecting what nature intended for our bodies. As a result we vegans as a whole are rewarded with fewer health complications than our omnivorous counterparts.

Coming from an animal rights place, it took me awhile to learn that being healthy is a means of helping the animals. Giving proper attention to being a healthy vegan and taking care of myself means I'm able to focus my attention on animal issues and not on whatever health ailments might be plaguing me now or in the future. This doesn't mean that I don't think there is a place for vegan indulgences. Heaven knows I can pound back a deep fried chick'n sandwich with the best of them. It also doesn't mean that I don't think there is room for passionate vegans of all shapes and sizes - please do not mistake this as a message of body-hate or body-discrimination of any kind. The animals need us all. But for me, something Robert says in his book echoes how I feel about the entire controversial issue and how I will pursue my own personal veganism in the future:

"...We don't always get the opportunity to talk with people to explain ourselves. Most of our visibility is from afar. People see us from distance and form an opinion about us. Non-verbal communication clearly outweighs verbal communication in its ability to influence ideas, opinions and perceptions. How we carry ourselves and present ourselves non-verbally is of very high importance in the future success of our vegan movement. When you are fit or muscular representatives of the vegan lifestyle, you open up doors for others who maybe had an interest in veganism but feared they could never be strong on that diet until they spotted you and learned from your example. That is a pretty powerful position to be in to further the movement." (p. 154-155)

This is Vegan was formed as my way of showing that being vegan is fun, attainable and rewarding rather than limiting. In the future, as I put more focus on my own health than I have in the past, I hope that it can also be an example of the physical benefits of veganism, too. Don’t be mistaken, life is fun because it's fun but it's also fun because I'm well enough to have fun in the first place, a luxury that only the healthy are able to take for granted.

For me, there are two steps to being a successful component of the animal movement. The first is obviously abstaining from the use of animals and speaking against their abuses. The second is to be the best possible You that you can be. Because when you are the best Vegan You that you can be, you feel good physically and mentally, about yourself and the choices you make. Going out into the world feeling this way shines through to the others you encounter and unintentionally conveys an image of veganism as something positive, inadvertently encouraging people to take notice.

We're not all going to be bodybuilders. We're not all going to exist solely on organic wholefoods. But we can take note of what Robert is saying about veganism and extending our passion for helping animals to a passion for helping ourselves thrive, too. In turn we are helping the animals a second time because we are healthy enough to pursue justice for them and also because we are working as positive examples of the vegan life.

And on one final (probably controversial) note, I want to talk a little bit about the gendered component of veganism.

Vegan stereotypes are potent across the board but they are so much stronger with regard to vegan men. It is fairly evident that the concept of western masculinity is defined in terms of strength and size, but many fail to notice the inherent connection between strength and size and notions of dominance within these definitions. In turn, men who speak out against violence against less powerful beings both vocally and in terms of their lifestyle choices are often emasculated by the mainstream.

One could argue that the problem is with the definitions of masculinity/femininity in our culture and it is those that need to change. I spent my university career agreeing with you. But as I get older and as I interact with more people and attain more life experiences, I've learned that the abstract is so much less relevant than the actual. There will always be definitions of masculinity/femininity, so the key is to ensure that they are healthy, productive and not at the expense of the lives of others.

Paul and I are both vegans but his experience as a vegan is completely different from mine. Men are inundated with notions of what it means to be "manly" and vegan men are berated and taunted for their compassionate choices in a different way than vegan women are, in a way that can sometimes be so internalized that it sadly goes unaddressed. So many kind-hearted and compassionate men would never even entertain the idea of veganism because somehow, in our culture, what men eat has come to define who they are as men.

I think it's time we start addressing this gendered component of veganism and the obstacles many compassionate men face when they decide to no longer be a part of a system of violence against animals. I think Robert Cheeke's work, both in terms of this book and his tireless efforts as a motivational speaker, is an important component of dismantling the meat = masculine myth. Robert embodies the traditional traits of masculinity via physical strength and prowess without the added component of actually exerting dominance over other, less powerful living beings. He shows it is possible to participate in traditional masculinity without also subscribing to systems of violence. And that you can, too, if that is the vegan that you envision for yourself.

If you're not a fitness buff, don't let that deter you from this book and learning from Robert's story. This is as much a story of veganism as it is of bodybuilding, and I think all types of vegans can get something from it. Much thanks to Robert for taking an interest in This is Vegan and sending me a copy, I am happy to give it the This is Vegan: Seal of Approval.

You can purchase a copy of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness here, and check out Robert's website here (and check out the cute vegan running shorts he has for sale!). If you're from my neck of the woods, Robert will be speaking at this year's Toronto Vegetarian Food Fair on Saturday, September 10th at 6pm, where he will no doubt be sharing more of his story and offering words of encouragement.


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