Superbuff Hugh Jackman, as X-Men superhero Wolverine, looks as though he hunts down his dinner with his bare claws. But in real life, the film star is more likely to be seen gnawing on a carrot than a carcass.
Mr. Jackman attributes his ultra-muscular physique to an almost entirely vegan diet - devised by a Canadian.
His previous method of bulking up for films "normally would mean a lot of animal protein and synthetic protein powders," Mr. Jackman writes in the foreword of a newly released edition of Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life, the fitness bible written by triathlete Brendan Brazier, 36. "While this worked in the past," continues the actor, "I knew this wasn't sustainable, that at some point my body (and probably my heart) would rebel. Not to mention that I often felt extremely lethargic eating so many hard-to-digest calories."
On a plant-based diet, however, "Not only was it possible - it was easier and healthier."
Say hello to the beefy vegan.
Defying the wispy, slightly anemic, hard-as-tofu stereotype, veganism's newest converts are adopting a meat- and dairy-free diet to help them become bigger, stronger and faster. Among them are a growing number of professional athletes, including Montreal Canadien tough guy Georges Laraque (now deputy leader of the Green Party), NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez and NBA veteran John Salley. Even boxing heavyweight Mike Tyson, who once bit an opponent's ear, has recently given up his taste for meat in favour of greens.
"In the past, it wasn't that vegans couldn't be athletic; it was just that many of them weren't athletic and became vegan for other reasons," such as animal rights and environmentalism, says the Vancouver-based Mr. Brazier, whose vegan fitness principles have garnered a cult following. "…Those people are still around, of course. But we're seeing a huge influx of people becoming vegan or near-vegan or at least having an interest in becoming vegan to improve their athletic performance and their health in general."
Mr. Brazier, an Ultramarathon champion and Ironman competitor, says he first became vegan about 20 years ago around the age of 15 when he began experimenting with various diets to pursue an athletic career. At first, an all-plant diet made him constantly hungry and tired, he says.
But once he found the right combination of foods, "I was able to recover so much more quickly than other athletes I trained with, so I could start training more than them. I could improve faster."
Mr. Brazier says he realized his initial mistake was a common one new vegans make - his diet consisted mostly of bread and pasta, and not a lot of fruits and vegetables.
"The joke was I became a starch-etarian, not a vegetarian," he says.
The combination that eventually worked involved obtaining most of his carbohydrates from fruit, which is easily digestible and high in nutrients, and plenty of grains, salads and protein smoothies made with hemp, pea and rice protein.
Besides avoiding the risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes associated with meat and dairy, a vegan diet is alkalizing, he says, which minimizes muscle inflammation and lactic acid build-up. Vegan athletes are thus able to reduce their recovery time, allowing them to train harder.
"Just being vegan - even if it's a really good vegan diet - isn't going to magically make you a better athlete," he explains. "It will make you healthier, but the greatest thing it does is facilitates your own ability to work harder and therefore become a better athlete."
At 6-foot-2-inches and 165 lbs., Mr. Brazier says he must maintain a lean figure to compete in his endurance sport. But he says veganism can help individuals with all types of fitness goals.
Robert Cheeke, a six-foot, U.S. middleweight bodybuilder, says his vegan diet allows him to build muscle mass, as it makes him feel energetic. During competition, he weighs up to 195 lbs. His veganism is often met with surprise, he admits.
"People say, 'You don't look like a vegan. Vegan's aren't supposed to have muscles' or 'Vegans aren't supposed to out-lift me at the gym,'" Mr. Cheeke, 30, says. "I take that obviously as a compliment...but it's somewhat of an insult to veganism, as if all vegans are supposed to be these, you know, skinny, scrawny, weak people."
Mr. Cheeke, who adopted the diet for animal-rights reasons at age 15, says he's devoted his life to changing that public perception of veganism. He published a book this year, titled Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness: The Complete Guide to Building Your Body on a Plant-based Diet, and is working on a documentary Vegan Brothers in Iron, which he describes as a "vegan version of Pumping Iron," the 1977 film following Arnold Schwarzenegger.
On Mr. Cheeke's website, veganbodybuilding.com, he posts photographs of other strong, muscular vegans.
"I always get on Twitter and I write, 'That's what a vegan looks like,'" he says. "Why have this image that's hurtful to the movement of people who are weak and scrawny?"
Trionne Moore, lead nutritionist for the Canadian Sports Centre Ontario, says a high-quality, nutritious vegan diet can give athletes an edge, as some find meat and dairy congesting, leading to mucus formation, and poor digestion. She adds that avoiding hormones and chemicals found in animal products is also easier on the liver and less carcinogenic.
"You're basically running cleaner," she says.
Vegans, particularly high-performance athletes, can be at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies if they aren't careful, including low levels of iron, B-12 and zinc, she says.
She also warns that some people may not perform well on a vegan diet, depending on their body type, genetics and activity level.
"Definitely, definitely, it can be beneficial if it's used properly and for the right person," she says. But "is it for everyone? No, nothing is for everyone."