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July 16th, 2008 JOHN MINERVINI | News Stories
 

Lean, Mean Meat-Free Machine

Portlander Robert Cheeke is the face of vegan bodybuilding.

     
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IMAGE: CHRISRYANPHOTO.COM

“Posing in car windows is the best.”

As he says it, Robert Cheeke scrutinizes his 17-inch biceps in the passenger window of a maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass parked on a sunny stretch of Northwest Davis Street.

“It really pumps you up. You’re like, ‘Hey sexy, where’d you get those arms?’”

Cheeke is a bodybuilder, but he has an even better reason to be proud of his massive muscles—they’re made of soy. (And almonds and tempeh and hummus.) Cheeke isn’t just vegan; he’s vegangelical. He’s preaching the good news that eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean being a noodle-armed wimp.

Admittedly, in this city o’ veggies, we’ve seen a lot: a vegan tattoo artist, a vegan prom, even a short-lived vegan strip club. But is Portland ready to be the American capital of vegan athletics?

Because of Robert Cheeke, we’re on our way there. Through his website, veganbodybuilding.com, the 28-year-old former security guard has reached out to more than 1,500 vegan athletes around the world, produced an award-winning documentary, and created two Portland-based events—Vegan Vacation and Vegan Holiday Festival—with a prestigious international guest list.

“Nobody else is doing what Robert’s doing,” says vegan fitness guru Brendan Brazier, a repeat champion ultramarathoner and bestselling author of The Thrive Diet. “His site is one of the best resources for vegan athletes, and in just a few years he has become America’s most recognized vegan bodybuilder.”

THE WORKOUT

At first, “vegan bodybuilder” sounds like a contradiction in terms, the human equivalent of a mosquito-drawn Hummer or a wind-powered submarine. But at the gym, it’s a different story.

Cheeke and his lifting buddy, Diane Angeluzzi, work out at 24 Hour Fitness in Portland’s Hollywood District. Even at 10:30 am, the weight room is crowded, but these two move through the sweaty throngs like royalty. It isn’t just their sculpted physiques that set them apart. Whereas everyone else seems a bit lost—flailing around confusedly with medicine balls and elastic bands—Cheeke and Angeluzzi know exactly what they’re up to. Grunting, Cheeke grabs a 195-pound barbell and begins a set of bent-over T-bar rows.

Angeluzzi, 42, a nurse anesthetist at OHSU, is currently training to compete as a vegan bodybuilder in the 2010 Vancouver USA Natural Classic. A street-smart bombshell from Philadelphia, Angeluzzi was never an athlete. But three years ago, after reading John Robbins’ The Food Revolution, she went vegan, and now she’s out to prove a point.

“I wanna show people that you can eat vegan and be as healthy as you want, look as good as you want,” she says.

What distinguishes vegan competitors like Cheeke and Angeluzzi isn’t just their special meat-free diet. They also refuse performance-enhancing chemicals common to the sport, such as steroids, diuretics and fat-burners. Instead, they rely on mounds of yams, quinoa, hemp protein shakes and multivitamins—and, in Cheeke’s case, “some truly massive burritos.”

That means, realistically, they’ll never be as big as mainstream, steroid-using bodybuilders like 2007 Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler or pro legend Ronnie Coleman—300-pound behemoths who routinely add 20 pounds of muscle in six weeks. On the other hand, vegan competitors don’t have to deal with uncontrollable aggression, gynecomastia (man boobs), huge heads or fun-sized genitals—all side effects of prolonged steroid use.

And fortunately for Cheeke and Angeluzzi, there are several rapidly growing contest circuits for natural bodybuilders, including the International Natural Bodybuilding Association and the Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders. At these bouts, competitors are routinely administered urine, blood and even polygraph tests to ensure there’s no juice in the caboose.

Back at the gym, Cheeke and Angeluzzi are working the muscles of the back: rhomboids, lats, erector, trapezius, and obliques. Grimacing, Angeluzzi begins a set of 135-pound cable rows.

“At first I didn’t understand why people make faces when they lift,” she confides. “But then I started throwin’ on the heavy stuff, and all of a sudden it makes sense.”

“You should see me on the leg press,” adds Cheeke, flexing his 25-inch thighs. “I’ll do 900 pounds, and my eyes are like a cartoon. It looks like my head’s gonna fall off.”

Cheeke and Angeluzzi have been lifting together for seven months, but they really became friends last spring, when, leading up to a bout, Cheeke didn’t have money for food. At the time, the two hardly knew each other.

“You have to buy all these tanning chemicals for competitions,” remembers Cheeke. “They’re really expensive, and I was already pretty much broke from paying to register and be drug-tested. It sucked; I was in the best shape of my life, but I couldn’t afford food. Out of desperation, I posted on my blog about it, and all of a sudden this big bag of groceries shows up at my door.”

A gift, as it turned out, from Angeluzzi.

THE MAN

Cheeke went on to place second at that competition, Portland’s 2007 Northwestern USA Natural Bodybuilding Championships, the same contest he won in 2005. Altogether, Cheeke has competed eight times as an amateur bodybuilder since 2001. He’s come in first, and he’s come in dead last.

How’d he become vegan? It’s a familiar story. In 1996, a 15-year-old Cheeke thought he’d try going veggie for a week, and he hasn’t had so much as a sip of half-and-half ever since. Initially, he made the switch to support his older sister, who had organized an animal-rights week at their high school. But his decision to remain vegan has more to do with animal cruelty than sibling solidarity.

“Growing up, I watched chickens get decapitated and saw piles of dead cows at the dairy farm next door,” says Cheeke, who was raised on a 20-acre farm in Corvallis. “That’s not something I wanted to be a part of.”

Bodybuilding came later. In fact, Cheeke had always been interested in another musclebound sport: professional wrestling. Between the ages of 8 and 21, he dreamt of little else.

“I actually got pretty close to being a wrestler,” recalls Cheeke. “I was in touch with the World Wrestling Federation’s athletic training department. I was going to travel with them and develop my own character, called Keegan the Vegan. My plan was to win and then refuse the championship belt because it was made of leather.”

Ultimately, Keegan the Vegan didn’t pan out, but it wasn’t long before Cheeke had rechanneled his enthusiasm for wrestling into weight training.

“I had always wanted to be this He-Man character, and I thought it was gonna be through wrestling,” he says. “But now I’m doing that same character through bodybuilding, and I think it’s a much better vehicle.”

Professional wrestling hasn’t disappeared entirely from Cheeke’s routines. Nowadays he performs to high-octane rock music and carries numerous props, including a replica wrestling mask, biceps bandanas, and a Velcro-foam-plastic championship belt. He’s always a crowd favorite, a fact he attributes to his unorthodox poses.

“I’m like the Ultimate Warrior,” Cheeke says. “When I rip off my mask, people go nuts.”

But building a vegan body isn’t cheap—or is it? One of the most common reasons for rejecting a vegan lifestyle is the assumption that eating a balanced diet is more expensive without meat and dairy.

To find out if it costs more to get big on veggies, WW consulted Ingrid Skoog, director of sports nutrition for OSU Athletics. Working with Cheeke’s body stats, Skoog constructed two sample days’ worth of bodybuilding meal plans—one vegan, the other non-vegan—and we priced them out (see "The Price of Vegan Bodybuilding," below for her full analysis).

Based on WW’s shopping trip to local markets, an average day of vegan sports nutrition cost about 25 percent more than a non-vegan meal plan. The higher expense came from items like soy milk and cheese (although shopping in bulk would cut the cost considerably). But that’s hardly the only place Cheeke spends his money. There’s also contest entry fees (approx. $60), bodybuilding association membership ($60), competition tests ($80), posing trunks ($25), tanning oils ($65), training and nutrition ($300) and gym fees ($200). Cheeke says he spends roughly $800 to prepare for each competition he enters.

Cheeke supports his vegan bodybuilding habit with a job as national events coordinator and Oregon sales rep for vegan food company Sequel Naturals—a post he got from co-star Brendan Brazier after becoming acquainted on the set of the 2005 documentary Vegan Fitness Built Naturally. Cheeke lives with three vegan athletes (all members of veganbodybuilding.com) in a three-story home in Portland’s Piedmont neighborhood. They have affectionately dubbed it “The Vegan House of Kindness.”

THE SITE

So how does one man’s vegan bodybuilding hobby turn into an international web sensation?

It started in 2002, when Cheeke launched veganbodybuilding.com, a Web community for vegan athletes around the world. At that time, the would-be muscle man worked as a licensed massage therapist aboard Celebrity Cruises in Europe and the Caribbean, working out drafts of Web posts by hand to save on the ship’s $9-an-hour Internet fees. At first, Cheeke admits, the site was little more than a domain name, a blog and a box of retro-printed T-shirts.

Since then, it’s grown substantially. Now, veganbodybuilding.com hosts a diverse group of athletes: from cyclists and racquetball players to capoeira masters and dodgeball champions. Its most important function is as a community of support; web forums offer mentoring, workout strategies—even an “Ask Rob” column. The site gets 10,000 hits per day, and after years of losing money, it’s in the black. Cheeke says the site rakes in about $10,000 every year.

And if this bright new world of cruelty-free athletics is a kind of Oz, then Portland is its Emerald City. Of the 1,500 athletes registered with veganbodybuilding.com, more than 50 hail from Oregon, 40 in Portland alone. That’s by far the largest number for any city worldwide—the next biggest is Toronto, with 12 registered athletes. (Other centers include Pittsburgh, and Frankfurt, Germany.)

One of those members is Brian Leitner. A vegan computer programmer living in Portland’s Buckman neighborhood, Leitner trains at One With Heart, a local center that teaches a form of Indonesian martial arts called Poekoelan Tjimindie Tulen. He says he turns to veganbodybuilding.com for motivation and extra energy.

“I think I’m the only vegan in the whole school,” says Leitner. “It’s tough, because most of the masters think you can’t train for your black belt without eating meat.”

Through it all, Cheeke keeps quietly preaching the good news of cruelty-free athletics, reaching out to vegans and non-vegans alike. Through his job at Sequel and a recent stint as a motivational speaker, he’s been able to address thousands at events like the World Vegetarian Day Festival in San Francisco and the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival. Next month, he’ll speak at the National Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C.

THE HYPE

So what do mainstream bodybuilders think of their vegan peers? Not much—at least, that was the consensus at the 2008 NPC Oregon State Open Bodybuilding Championships, held last weekend at Portland’s Parkrose High School.

“Vegan bodybuilding? I mean, anything’s possible.”

That’s Laurie Smith, a three-time competitor in the women’s open middleweight class. A svelte blonde with a baby face, she waits backstage, lying face-up on the floor, her legs elevated—a standard bit of pose prep designed to keep blood from pooling in lower muscle groups. She’s more than a little skeptical.

“It’d be extremely difficult,” she says. “Legumes and nuts don’t have anywhere near the amount of protein as meat products.”

Leading up to a contest, Smith regularly consumes massive amounts of protein—more than 200 grams per day, compared to the usual 50 grams most people eat—predominantly in the form of egg whites, chicken breasts and whey-based (non-vegan) shakes.

The same goes for Jonathan Lebel, a freshman competitor in men’s open middleweight. While his wife, Suzy, gingerly lifts a corner of Lebel’s electric-blue posing pouch—she’s smearing his lower abdomen with Dream Tan, a mahogany-colored cosmetic that smells like spearmint turpentine—Lebel discusses his pre-contest diet, which seems to consist primarily of one food:

“Eggs. I eat 60 eggs per week,” he says. “Leading up to a competition, you can’t eat the yolks, so I’ll eat two dozen egg whites in a day.”

Is a vegan diet really viable for athletes? According to Monica Hunsberger, assistant professor and clinical coordinator at OHSU’s program for graduate studies in human nutrition, it’s no sweat. Although Hunsberger cautions that getting adequate nutrition may be more difficult for vegan athletes, who choose to limit their sources of important nutritional components like protein and vitamin B-12, she maintains that “with a balanced diet, it should be fine.” She’s quick to add that although there are no specific benefits of a vegan diet to a bodybuilding regime, there are pluses for the environment and personal health.

For their part, local vegans have been supportive of Cheeke’s enterprise. Each year, regional vegan businesses fill more than 60 exhibitor spaces at his Vegan Holiday Festival. Several, such as PDX restaurant Blossoming Lotus, have even comped plane tickets for veganbodybuilding.com’s out-of-state visitors. Webly Bowles, co-author of local vegan food blog stumptownvegans.com, thinks that athletes like Cheeke and Angeluzzi provide a nice counterpoint to more unhealthy stereotypes.

“Every vegan is an ambassador,” says Bowles. “An unhealthy vegan makes us all look bad.”

But what matters most to Cheeke are his less visible successes. He recalls recently meeting a fan at Bye and Bye, a Portland vegan bar. The young man, who wore a Vegan Bodybuilding T-shirt, was Calvin Hagenson, an 18-year-old from Phoenix who says he joined veganbodybuilding.com in 2006, during a difficult time in his life.

“Yeah, all my friends were kind of fading away, partying and getting into drugs,” he says. “I didn’t wanna do that stuff, but I was basically on my own. Seeing pictures of Robert and reading his essays totally inspired me. It showed me how to take care of myself.”

After getting to know each other at Bye and Bye, an emotional Cheeke thanked Hagenson the best way he knew how: He took him for a midnight workout at 24 Hour Fitness.

At that same 24 Hour Fitness, Diane Angeluzzi is just wrapping up a set of one-arm dumbbell rows. She and Cheeke are almost done with their workout; afterward, they’ll hop into Angeluzzi’s Prius and grab some vegan lunch. But first, Cheeke has to finish the day’s most difficult exercise—pull-ups. Gasping, he turns to Angeluzzi.

“Hey, can you give me a spot?”

“That depends,” she answers. “What’d you have for dinner last night?”

TASTE TEST: VEGAN BODYBUILDER GRUB

To experience what Robert Cheeke and his fellow vegan muscle folk go through food-wise to ensure maximum bulk, we taste-tested three vegan nutritional supplements he currently uses, as well as one non-vegan supplement (to find out if vegan ones are noticeably worse or if they all taste like trash). All these products can be found locally at Whole Foods markets. Our WW staffers’ unedited reactions led us to believe that the old maxim’s true: Sometimes beauty does equal pain.—Whitney Hawke

Vega Smoothie Infusion ($2.39 per one-serving packet)
When mixed with soy milk, this packet of vegan protein powder creates an olive green concoction full of lumps and speckles.
Key ingredients: Yellow pea protein and organic hemp protein.
Reactions: “ It’s like sawdust suspended in ass…soy ass.”
“It looks like there’s filtered poo in here.” “This tastes like bitter filth.”
“This is wrong [five-second pause]. Oh! This is fucking disgusting!”

Clif Builder’s Bar, peanut butter flavor ($1.29, one serving)
This “cocoa-dipped double decker crisp bar” looks like a Snickers from the outside—a promising sign.
Key ingredients: Soy protein isolate and chicory syrup.
Reactions: “ I can tell it contains nuts... but whose?”
“It tastes like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, if peanut butter cups were made out of gym mats.”
“This makes me not hate vegans for life.”

Organic Food Bar, “protein” flavor ($2.49, one serving)
This nondescript bar (it’s brown, that’s about it) has the consistency of a dense, undercooked brownie.
Key ingredients: Organic almond butter, organic brown rice protein.
Reactions: “ If you keep chewing, you get this weird apple-peel taste.”
“This stuff sucks.”
“It’s like retarded cookie dough.”

Jay Robb Egg White Protein, vanilla flavor (NOT VEGAN, $2.29 per one serving packet)
When mixed with milk (from a cow, gasp!), this packet of white powder (which has Jay Robb’s beefy picture proudly printed on front) makes a drink that looks like a tall glass of jizz.
Key ingredients: Egg albumin, xylitol.
Reactions: “I’ve had worse in my mouth.”
“I’m so glad that I’m buff already.”
“The second it hit my mouth, I didn’t want to swallow it.”

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Video

THE PRICE OF VEGAN BODYBUILDING

To find out whether it costs more to build muscle as a vegan, WW consulted OSU Athletics director of sport nutrition Ingrid Skoog. She built us a vegan and non-vegan menu, each covering two days, designed for athletes whose body composite statistics match those of Robert Cheeke.

The prices were determined and added by WW. We recognize that there is no hard-and-fast methodology for determining cost, as prices and availability vary according to season and location. Also, we had to include prices for items that the average person already has in their cupboard, including peanut butter, jam and rice, so think of it as a bodybuilder's "starter" grocery list. Most groceries for both the vegan and non-vegan lists were priced from Portland-area Safeway stores. Specialty organic and vegan products priced from local Whole Foods and New Seasons markets.

-John Minervini

Additional reporting for this story was provided by Joe Watts.


From Ingrid Skoog, OSU Athletics director of sport nutrition:

Robert Cheeke's Menus

Assuming that he is training to gain mass, (muscle and not body fat). Cheeke's body fat level is already high enough to NOT limit muscle gains. His diet plan should be 1.8-2.0 grams protein per kg body weight, 7 grams carbohydrate per kg body weight, with a calorie goal of 4000-4500 per day. If this is a lot higher kcal intake than normal than a gradual increase in food is important to prevent GI upset and he needs to keep the focus on increasing Kcal intake in the am and lunch time to avoid overloading on the evening with the increased happening in the morning and lunch as long as it does not interfere with workouts.

He needs to get up early, start eating and eat every 2 hours with the exception of sleep time. Keep his liquids between meals instead of with meals and make sure the liquids always contain calories (soy milk, 100% juices, non-dairy real-food drinks).

He needs to consume his calories spread over entire day, front load and consume 7-15 grams protein within 30 minutes prior to OR within 20 minutes post lifting with a follow-up meal within 2 hours post lifting. It is not the quantity of protein that is important it is the timing that is most crucial.

This menu exceeds protein needs, is adequate in Kcals (4300) and meets all micronutrient needs with the exception of B-12.

The 4 diets were very closely matched in calorie (4200-4400) and the protein per kg was also very close and well over calculated need for mass gains.



Day 1 vegan Day 2 vegan Day 1 non vegan Day 2 non vegan
Calories 4327 4430 4186 4223
Protein grams 205 208 227 217
Protein per kg 2.4 2.4 2.6 2.5
% protein 18 18 21 20
% Carbohydrate 59 60 56 61
% fat 22 23 23 19

2 Days Vegan Meals

Meal Vegan Day 1 Vegan Day 2
Breakfast Whole grain bagel - $0.59

3.5 tbsp organic peanut butter - $2.99 for 18 ounces

Large banana - $0.30

Soy yogurt 6 oz - $2.99 for large container.

2 cups orange juice (after solids eaten) - $3.99

2 large pancakes - ($4.99 organic mix)

1/2 cup berries/fruit - $3

1 cup soy yogurt - (existing purchase)

2 TBL peanut butter (existing purchase)

3 TBS maple syrup - $3.65

Snack Shake: soy milk ($2.99 for half gallon), 2 oz protein powder ($4.78 = two 1 oz Vega single serving packets), 1 cup fruit ($4.99 for enough fruit for both days)


Shake: 2 soy milk (existing purchase), 2 oz protein powder ($4.78 = two 1 oz Vega single serving packets), 1 cup fruit (existing purchase)
Lunch Whole grain bun - $1.29

2 vegan burgers - $4.49

Tomato ($1), lettuce ($1.29), onion ($1.12) as desired

3 Tbsp Hummus - ($3.99 for full tub)

1 cup carrots - $.89

2 cups berry smoothie ($3.99, pint of Oregon raspberries) with 24 grams protein powder ($2.39 for 1 oz Vega single serving)

2 whole grain bagels - $2.50

4+ TBL tofu pate or tofu spread -$3.99

2 TBL hummus - (existing purchase)

2 ounces Baked chips - ($3.79, Lays Baked)

2 cups fruit: melons, pineapple, apples, bananas, berries - ($9.98, $5 just for the pineapple).

Snacks 1 cup trail mix: nuts and fruits - (Aunt Patty's Bulk Mt. Jefferson Trail Mix; $8.49/pound = 2 cups) 1 cup trail mix: nuts and fruits (existing purchase)
Dinner 2 small whole wheat tortilla - $3.49

1 cup black beans - $1.49

1 cup rice - $2.72

4 tbsp salsa - $3.29

2 oz soy cheese - ($3.59, Tofutti American Soy Cheese slices)

Baked sweet potato with skin - $0.32

1 cup mixed vegetables - $2

2 cups pasta ($3.59, Bella Terra Organic Whole Wheat Penne Rigate, 12 oz)

Tomato sauce ($3.49) with

4 ounces tempeh ($3.99, Surata Soyfoods Multi-Grain Tempeh,12 oz),

1/2 cups white beans ($1.49), 2 ounce soy cheese (existing purchase)


recovery/pre-lifting food 2 cups chocolate soy milk - ($2.99 for half gallon) 2 cups chocolate soy milk - (existing purchase)
Evening Snack PBJ on wheat - ($2.82 jam + Alvarado Bakery Sprouted Multi-grain Bread (24 oz) is $3.99; peanut butter existing) 1.5 cups Vegan fruit sorbet - $3.49


2 Days NON Vegan Meals

Meal Non Vegan Day 1 Non Vegan Day 2
Breakfast 2 pancakes - $3.85 (Bisquick)

2 TBL peanut butter - $2.99 (Jif Extra Crunchy)

2 TBL maple syrup - $3.65

2 cups skim milk - ($1.99 per gallon)

3 egg whites scrambled - ($3.99, pourable egg whites)

1.5 cups low fat granola ($2.88, Safeway's $3.85 per pound)

2 cups skim milk (existing purchase)

1 large banana - $0.30

Snack 1 banana - $0.30

1 cup trail mix: nut and fruit - ($2.50, Safeway, non organic)



PBJ (existing purchase)

whole grain bread ($4.09, Franz)

3 tbsp peanut butter

and 2 tbsp jam ($2.82)

1 cup fruited low fat yogurt - ($0.75 per single serving)

Lunch 4 oz grilled chicken - ($1.62 = 6.49 per pound)

Whole grain hamburger bun - $1.29

2 oz teriyaki sauce - $3.79

1 cup baked beans - $2.35

2 ounces baked chips (Baked Lays, $3.79)


2 tuna sandwiches using 1 can tuna ($.89, Bumblebee), 3 TBS low fat mayo ($2.99), pickle relish ($2.49)

2 ounces baked chips (existing purchase)

2 cups orange juice - $3.99

Snacks Shake: 2 cup soy milk ($2.99), 1 oz protein powder (20 grams) ($2.29, Jay Robb Egg White Protein single serving), 1 cup fruit ($3.99, pint of Oregon raspberries)


Shake: 2 cup soy milk (existing), 1oz protein powder (20 grams) ($2.29, Jay Robb Egg White Protein single serving), 1 cup fruit (existing purchase)


Dinner Whole wheat tortilla (2 small)-- $3.49

4 oz grilled chicken breast ($1.62)

1/2 cup black beans - $1.49

1/2 cup rice - $2.72

4 tBS salsa - $3.29

1 cup mixed veggies - $2


1 large grilled chicken breast ($1.62)

1.5 cups cooked rice (existing purchase)

2 tsp vegetable oil margarine - $3.19

1.5 cups cooked mixed veggies - $2

recovery/pre-lifting food 2 cups chocolate soy milk ($2.99, half gallon) 1 cup fruited low fat yogurt - $0.75
Evening Snack 1 cup low fat granola - $1.92

1 cup skim milk (existing purchase)

1.5 cups low fat frozen ($3.49) yogurt with 1 cup fresh fruit ($3.99)

PUMP YOU UP: Veganbodybuilding.com’s third annual Vegan Vacation is scheduled for July 19-26. Find out more about upcoming events at veganbodybuilding.com. To see natural bodybuilders in action, check out the Washington State Natural Bodybuilding & Figure Championships on Friday, Aug. 1, in Everett, Wash. Visit inbf.net for info.

Although most vegan athletes eschew performance-enhancing chemicals like steroids, many—including Robert Cheeke—supplement with lab-derived creatine, a muscle-building compound produced by the human body that’s also found in meat.

 
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