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Forget what you think you know about veganism and fitness

I've covered a variety of health and fitness topics in this column, although there's one in particular that I've refrained from tackling despite it being the most near and dear to my heart. Well, here it is: My name is Paul and I'm a vegan.

This is hardly the radical statement it may have been 10 years ago. When you can find dairy-free ice cream and organic tofu at Walmart – or when McDonald's announces the test launch of a vegan burger – you've officially entered the mainstream. Hollywood, health gurus (both phony and legit) and pro sports have all embraced veganism with a fervour typically reserved for pseudo-religious cults (which, some might say, is exactly what veganism is, but that's a topic for another time).

So while, yes, it's now easier and more socially acceptable to live a plant-based lifestyle, in the gym, the idea still raises some skeptical eyebrows. To many lifters, vegans are skinny, patchouli-stinking hippies that can't bench-press worth a damn. I assure you, this is not the case. I'm not the biggest or strongest guy on the block, but I can dead-lift more than twice my body weight, fire off 30 strict push-ups with relative ease and, last I checked, my pull-up max was 15 reps. These numbers won't win me any world titles, but they do prove you can build muscle and get strong without eating animals.

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The belief that meat equals muscle is deeply entrenched in lifting culture, but that's changing. Strong and shredded vegans such as Mike Mahler, Scott Shetler, Vanessa Espinoza and Torre Washington have helped disprove many of the myths surrounding our ever-growing subculture. Now, here I am doing my part: I present to you three of the most pervasive fallacies that dog athletic vegans.

We're not protein deficient

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me where I get my protein from. No joke, it happens every day.

For such a protein-obsessed society, we know little about what this macronutrient does, how much of it we need and where it comes from.

Dietary protein is needed because it delivers amino acids to our bodies. Amino acids perform many important functions, including tissue repair and muscle growth, so it's understandable why lifters value it so highly. Here's the thing, though. Protein isn't hard to come by.

You can easily obtain all you need (1-2 grams per kilogram of body weight is sufficient for just about everyone) on a plant-based diet. Lentils, tempeh, beans and quinoa are all protein-rich foods that never had a face.

We're not hormonally challenged

Earlier this month, I heard my favourite bit of anti-vegan misinformation. In between sets of squats, a newly vegan lifter was talking about his recent conversion with a group of friends. They were discussing diet when, upon hearing the word "tofu," the largest of the group snorted and said, "Dude, you know that stuff is filled with estrogen, right?"

Dude-bro wasn't wrong, but he wasn't right either. Tofu is made from soy and soy contains a plant-based estrogen (also called phytoestrogen) compound called isoflavone.

But guess what? So do dozens of other foods – apples, yams, carrots and coffee, to name a few – that people eat all the time. Outdated studies once linked phytoestrogens to breast and prostate cancer, but they have since been discredited. The hysteria over soy's estrogen-like qualities are overblown, to say the least. Guys, fear not: You won't need to go bra shopping if you pour soy milk in your smoothies.

We're not paragons of virtue and health

A small but vocal contingent of vegans carry themselves with an obnoxious aura of healthiness that would make Gwyneth Paltrow proud.

These people, well-intentioned as they may be, are misguided. Removing animal products from your diet isn't a magical panacea. It's true that, when done right, a vegan diet has a bunch of health benefits, but the same goes for non-vegan diets, too.

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The key here is the "when done right" part.

I know proud vegans whose vegetable intake is limited to french fries and onion rings, just as I know meat-eaters who pile greens on their plate at every meal. I don't buy the notion that eating meat is inherently unhealthy. Processed and packaged meat is garbage, yes, but so are processed and packaged meat alternatives.

A healthy diet looks the same for everyone: lots of fruits and vegetables, some whole grains and healthy fats, plus some protein.

The Globe's Life reporter Dave McGinn shares what he learned over the last 6 months of eating healthy and working out The Globe and Mail
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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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