By Wayne Furlong
Robert Cheeke is a champion bodybuilder with a difference. Robert began bodybuilding five years after he became a vegan so all of his success was built on a diet of plants.
In many ways, Robert was an unlikely vegan. He grew up on a 20 acre farm in California where his family raised a variety of animals- cows, chickens, turkeys, ducks and even guinea pigs.
On December 8 1995 Robert, then a teenager, attended an animal rights conference at his school. At the conference he saw videos of animal experiments and factory farms. Upset by the cruelty he saw in the videos, he found himself also wondering about what really happened to his own animals when they left the family farm.
On that day Robert Cheeke became a vegan.Robert was a keen high school athlete and was determined to make this new diet help him perform at his best. If he could succeed as a vegan athlete, he could influence others to consider a plant based diet.
Five years later, in 2001, Robert discovered bodybuilding. He published his first book in 2010 and this led to travel all over the USA and to many other countries, as far from his home as China and Australia.
We met up with Robert at The ChinaFit Exhibition in Beijing.
GoVeg: Were you accepted by other bodybuilders when you began the sport in 2001?
Robert: I was accepted far more than I thought I would be. I think this is because bodybuilding is a niche sport- relatively few people do it. It requires discipline and hard work. Bodybuilders talk about it being a 24 hour a day sport- training, eating and sleeping are all critical to success.
Because bodybuilding is a small sport and because it is demanding, bodybuilders tend to support and not criticise each other. However, even though I was accepted, many in the bodybuilding community were sceptical. If I didn’t succeed it would be because of my diet, but if I did succeed they would wonder how much better I could have done if I had eaten six chicken burgers a day.
Of course, as I achieved success, the level of acceptance among bodybuilders increased. In 2005 and again in 2009 I was named Bodybuilding Champion by the International Natural Bodybuilding Association of North Western USA. I was also runner up in that championship four times.
GoVeg: Does a vegan diet give an athlete an advantage over other athletes?
Robert: 20 years ago veganism was considered dangerous. People would say to me, “I worry for your health.” Now many people associate veganism with health. They say things like, “I know I should be healthier and go vegan.”
In body building too, the attitude has changed as understanding of the role of nutrition has grown. There is an understanding that a vegan diet provides fuel, assists in recovery and in fighting disease, and lowers mortality. Notably in sport, a vegan diet speeds recovery. It provides vitamins, minerals, nitrous oxide, anti-oxidants, fiber and water while not burdening the body with saturated fats and other stuff that is difficult to digest.
A vegan diet supports an active life very well. Fruit, vegetables and grains are nutrient dense and have fewer calories than animal products.
GoVeg: Are there pitfalls for vegan bodybuilders and if so how can they be overcome?
Robert: Because vegan food is nutrient dense and calorie light people who exercise a lot need to eat more volume so that they keep up the calories. The Harris-Benedict Equation can help you to work out how much you need to eat. When I was training I ate more calorie dense plants such as potatoes, oats, avocados and nuts.
Protein is definitely not a problem. I learned from T. Colin Campbell that we only need 10% of our calories from protein. After studying his course I began a low protein diet in 2012. I stopped eating processed foods and protein powders. I dropped from 5000 calories a day to 2900 yet I got bigger and stronger. The key is to eat for nutrition. Watch “Forks over Knives.” Read Dr Michael Greger’s books or read his website (nutritionfacts.org).
The only other pitfall vegan bodybuilders is that they are still a fringe group, even though this is changing. For example, 2014 Mr Universe, Barny Du Plessis, is a vegan.
GoVeg: Apart from muscles and strength, what did you gain from bodybuilding?
Robert: Bodybuilding is not for everybody. The bodybuilding community is unique. You need to have an ego- there is a “look at me” aspect to it. Some people don’t like that. Many people consider it is a subjective sport as well, although this is not really true. There are very specific criteria for success.
Putting these concerns aside, though, bodybuilding is great for developing your self confidence as well as strength. It gives you a chance to shine, to accomplish something through hard work. It is also a form of self expression.
Personally, bodybuilding has given me a platform to spread the word on veganism, starting right back in 2002 when I launched my Vegan Bodybuilding website.
GoVeg: Do you have any advice for people starting out bodybuilding or who simply want to add some strength and muscle?
Robert: The key is consistency. There may be zero progress at first but don’t get discouraged. Put yourself in a position to succeed through consistent effort. At the beginning you may not be able to do too much until you build some strength and fitness. So start with 30 minutes of weights and aerobic exercise five days a week.
Improvement will come fairly quickly and you will soon be able to get to an hour of solid weights and aerobic workouts five times a week.