People ask about my vegan journey all the time. “How did you transition from eating meat to going completely plant-based?” “How could you give up cheese?” “Isn’t being vegan and gluten-free really hard, especially if you want to go out to eat?” To be honest with you, my transition to going vegan was fairly easy. But it was also difficult and honestly a little scary. Here’s why:
So I grew up eating only chicken, fish, and turkey. My mom was an avid health and fitness enthusiast. She was also an aerobics instructor at one point. Growing up, she would make my twin brother and I delicious healthy meals: our favorite was eggplant parmesan. Instead of going to the local grocery store or bakery and buying a birthday cake, my mom would make our birthday cakes from scratch, substituting healthier ingredients for less healthy ones (i.e. replacing butter with applesauce, using less sugar, and adding hidden veggies into our desserts, etc.). So that’s how I grew up. In my house, we never had sweets like cakes and cookies, or even sodas. Our refrigerator was stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables and our freezer was absent of processed foods, packaged TV dinners, microwave meals, and frozen pizzas.
I had always admired my mom for her love of fitness nutrient-dense eating. She was my role model. In 2006, on a vacation to Colorado, my family and I went out to dinner and I made the conscious decision to order an entree of Ratatouille. My parents were shocked! But, for me, in that moment, I made the conscious decision to eat healthier.
Of course, if you know me, you know that I’m an over achiever. So, I took “eating healthy” to the extreme, which actually wasn’t necessarily healthy. I ate a lot of salads, a lot of steamed vegetables (which is all great!). But I stayed away from oils, nuts, nut butters, salad dressings, and even chicken and fish had to be from the can because I hated eating the fatty parts that you get sometimes. I was fixated on not eating really high caloric foods. In hind-site, I realized that I was building a really negative mindset of food in my brain. I started being aware of calories and portion sizes and only eating until I felt full. Ultimately, this led me to not achieving my necessary caloric intake for the day and I lost a lot of weight.
Two years later, I’m a sophomore in high school, I started to not like the idea of eating animals. when I saw a piece of chicken or fish, I immediately saw the live animal in my head. Not to mention, I was also really intrigued with a vegetarian and vegan diet. So, I asked my mom if I could go vegetarian. She said, “yes, but don’t loose anymore weight.” A few months later, what happened? I lost a lot of weight. (What the heck Collin?). At 5’10”, my weight was 115 pounds. Again, I took it to the extreme. I ate a lot. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t like I wasn’t eating. But everything I was eating was going right through me. I was burning calories faster than I was taking them in. I was eating a very well balanced diet, but not eating a lot of high caloric foods to maintain a healthy body weight. I had no idea. I look back at pictures of myself in high school and think, what was I thinking? There was definitely something wrong. I looked emaciated. It was scary, and you know what? I ignored the signs. I was tired all the time and I would get dizzy spells from low blood sugar. I didn’t think anything of it.
Beginning my junior year of high school, I started to develop digestion issues. I saw several different doctors, some more radical than others. One, told me to eat chicken, grits, and butter, and to take loads of digestive enzymes. I obeyed the doctor’s orders. But my stomach and digestive pains persisted. Eventually, going into my senior year of high school, I went to a GI doctor and had some tests done. There was nothing seriously wrong, thank goodness. From all the tests, I looked completely healthy. The doc did say that I may suffer from stress-induced IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). We also did a dairy and gluten intolerance test and both came out negative. So what was wrong? We still didn’t know. Yes, I had IBS. But how can I manage the symptoms and the pain? My mom encouraged me to try going off gluten for a month and see if it helps. She has several friends who have a high sensitivity to gluten and felt so much better going off of it completely. At this point, I was desperate to try anything. I just wanted to stop being in pain. In 2011, the month of April, my senior year of high school I went off gluten for the entire month. What was the result by April 30th, you ask? 95% of my symptoms were completely gone!!!! Intestinal cramps, gone! Indigestion, gone! Nausea, gone! Stomach aches, gone!
That summer, I met with a nutritionist. She said that my diet was really well-rounded. However, as for my weight, I was almost borderline anorexic. The nutritionist said that I eat really well, I simply just need to eat more. The best way to do that was adding more higher calorie foods into my diet. With my mom’s help in guiding me on my diet, I gained 20 pounds in one summer. I exercised a lot and simply ate a lot of food. I still maintained a healthy diet that consisted of fruits, vegetables, non-fat plain greek yogurt, plant-based protein powder, quinoa, grits, nuts, seeds, and canned chicken. My mom helped me put together a plan where we basically added 500 calories to my diet each day. Not that hard to do, with the help of avocados, nut butters, and salad dressings. I would go to the gym with my mom at least 5 days a week, I would do mainly weight lifting and resistance training and some cardio, and by the end of that summer, I reached 125lbs.
Then college came around. Long story short, my freshman year of college was a stressful time. I got really sick with bronchitis and I found out that I was basically allergic to Chicago. ha ha. JK. I was allergic to the midwest allergens. Oh ya, and my IBS symptoms came back full force due to stress from my living situation, academic stress, and being away from family. As you can imagine, trying to eat healthy in a college cafeteria can be a little tricky. Add that to a very physically demanding BFA Musical Theatre academic schedule, and going to see a new GI doctor at least once a week at the University of Chicago, I ended up loosing all that weight that I had gained over the summer. I was now 5’10 1/4″ weighing at 110 lbs. Scary!
Freshman year of college photos:
So… here come my heroes.
Doing several months of research, I came across Brendan Brazier (one of the world’s leading authorities on plant-based performance nutrition) and Robert Cheeke (two-time vegan body building champion). These two gentleman became my idols for living a plant-based lifestyle. I read all of there books and I even met Brendan at a Q&A Discussion on Plant-Based Nutrition at Whole Foods in Chicago. It was that day where my life truly changed for the better.
Once my freshman year of college was over, I immediately returned home and devised a plan (with the help of my mom) to start gaining weight and building lean muscle over the summer. That summer, I used Brendan Brazier meal plan in his Thrive books and both Brendan’s and Robert Cheeke’s training and advice on building muscle on a plant-based diet to gain 30 pounds of muscle in one summer.
I returned to college for my sophomore year a healthy 130 pounds. I was in the best shape of my life. If you would have seen me for the first time ever, you would have thought, that kid looks like a lean skinny guy at first glance, but you would have had no idea the skeleton I was, the obstacle course I had to trudge through in the mud to get to that healthy 130lbs. While it took me some time to get used to my body at the new weight (that is definitely a thing fam!), I was and looked so much healthier and I had muscles for arms!!! It took me about a year to feel comfortable in my body. I wasn’t used to the way my stomach looked 30 pounds heavier (my stomach does this indent thing near my belly button). I wasn’t used to how hot I would get (I was always cold prior). Or even, how quickly I would start sweating since my literal body temperature changed due to gaining more weight. (Truly, things you would never think about). In praises and delights, I felt like I had so much more energy and I wasn’t getting dizzy all of the time anymore. This new body was a gift.
My journey now was to maintain that weight or continue to gain weight and build more muscle. I opted for maintaining and leaning out. I wanted to get used to the new body that I had built. Again, trust me, I needed that time. It definitely took me about 2 years for me to get used to my new body. That’s right, I said it, 2 years! After a year, I continued to eat a lot and workout a lot and build more muscle. I got really into weight lifting and fitness in general.
Well, a few more years went by and by my senior year of college, I weighed in at 150 lbs. 150 lbs of lean plant-built muscle. I have to say, I was extremely proud of myself. I don’t think it was until I hit this weight, 150 pounds, where I actually felt good and comfortable in my body. So, folks, that took about 3 years. To see where I had been, a 110 pound 5′ 10″ kid, to now a 150 pound man in the best shape of his life and thriving!… How could you not be proud of yourself. I was SOOOO proud of myself.
Now 6 years later, yes, I still have body images dysmorphia sometimes. There are days where I wish I was more muscular or that my stomach was flatter (because it does this indent thing. ha ha). But I have to remind myself that I was literally a skeleton. I had no muscle. It all atrophied due to not having enough calories in me. Now, I am thriving. Right now, I will always be the lean, tall vegan guy. And I’m okay with that because I know where I’ve been. I know what I’ve accomplished. I took my health back.
What next you ask? Well, It’s been 6 years since my senior year of college. My weight fluctuates now between 155 – 160 lbs. I continue to exercise a lot and eat a lot. And I manage my IBS symptoms as best I can. Some days are harder than others. But now I’m not so concerned about following a specific meal plan or fitness regimen. I have learned over the years how much I need to be eating to maintain my weight. It’s more intuitive now. I’m more aware based on how I look, how my body feels and my energy level. The body is an incredible machine. It’s amazing what you can put your mind to. Now, do I have washboard abs and guns of steel? No. I would love washboard abs and guns of steel, I mean, who wouldn’t? I always remind myself that it’s about the process and everyone’s body is different. But you know, that’s the next goal!
If you have any questions on how to build muscle on a plant-based diet, any questions on my vegan journey, or on building muscle in general, feel free to contact me using the contact page on my website.