My Three Years as a Vegetarian

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

Fourteen months ago I ended my three year stint as a vegetarian. Here are the reasons why…

Firstly, I debated about even writing this article at all because the last thing I want is to start a whole debate about the morals and ethics of eating meat. For some reason a lot of people take it more seriously than religion and I don’t really want regular visitors to this site getting all fired up and arguing with each other about something so trivial.

But the fact of the matter is a lot of people ask me about my diet and would probably like to know what I’m doing now and why. Even though I know my explanation can’t and won’t satisfy everyone I hope you will at least understand why I did what I did and why I’m doing what I do now.

Four years ago this coming June I decided to start eliminating animal products from my diet. Friends and colleagues of mine who I have the utmost respect for, like Robert Dos Remedios and Jon Hinds had been vegan for years and they’re both jacked and in great shape, in their 40’s. At 47 Jon can dunk a basketball, walk the stairs of the Capitol building on his hands and perform various other physical feats that most mere mortals could never dream of. He’s also one of the coolest dudes I know and a big influence on me.

Becoming a vegetarian was an idea that intrigued me for a variety of reasons. As I expressed more interest in it a friend turned me onto The Food Revolution by John Robbins and told me it would change my life. If you are considering vegetarianism or on the fence about it Johns book will make the decision very easy. He makes a compelling argument and by the end of the second or third chapter I was done with meat and dairy.

At first I kept some fish and eggs in but eventually eliminated those as well. I experimented with various degrees of vegetarianism and veganism over the next three years and for the most part found it pretty enjoyable.

The Good
Within the first two weeks of eliminating meat and dairy I felt significantly better. Less inflammation and faster recovery from workouts were the two biggest positive changes. Looking back, I automatically assumed that this was from eating less meat and dairy but it could also be due to the fact that I instantly doubled or even tripled my consumption of fresh organic produce.

A lot of people make the same mistake when first switching to a vegetarian diet. They think it’s the lack of meat when in reality it might be the inclusion of all the extra greens and fruits.

I also cleaned up everything across the board and eliminated any food that wasn’t 100% organic. That right there makes a huge difference as well.

Being forced to eat so many more plant based foods brings out the need for creativity in the kitchen and Jen and I learned of countless new ways to prepare veggies, nuts and seeds into delicious meals that we still use today.

We also discovered new restaurants and plenty of foods we had never eaten before. The transition from meat eater to vegetarian was smooth and painless.

Now, for what a great majority of readers want to know…

How did being vegetarian affect my size, strength and performance?

Oddly enough, it had very little negative effect. Even I was somewhat surprised by this. I started my first day of vegetarianism at around 224 pounds. A year later I was right around the same weight. I cut my protein intake in half and it really didn’t have too much negative effect, which is what Brad Pilon talks about in How Much Protein.

But I was definitely getting a bit fatter from the extra carbs.

The Bad
After a while I loosened up the reigns and starting eating more soy and fake meat products. This was a huge mistake. I was just craving cheat foods and needed something to break the monotony.

I also started adding more and more legumes and grains to my diet. Since it’s hard to find protein sources that are vegan you’re really only left with legumes, soy and wheat protein. Those that know the problems associated with eating legumes and grains can see where this is going.

Eventually I started feeling worse. I slowly accumulated more bodyfat. My digestive health went way down hill and other issues started popping up.

The problem with legumes is that they contain lectins. Lectins are anti nutrients that can cause a lot of problems.

Here’s a brief description of lectins from Jonny Bowden’s excellent book, The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth:

“Lectins are substances contained in grains that originally evolved to fight off insect predators. But a portion of lectin can actually bind with tissues in our body and create problems. A highly respected researcher at the University of Colorado, Loren Cordain, Ph. D., published a paper in the British Journal of Nutrition detailing a theory that dairy foods, legumes, grains and yeast may be partly to blame for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases in genetically susceptible people, due in part to the lectin molecule. According to Cordain, the lectins in food are known to increase intestinal permeability- they allow partially digested food proteins and remnants of gut bacteria to spill into the bloodstream. Cordain calls lectins “cellular Trojan horses.” They make the intestines easier to penetrate, impairing the immune system’s ability to fight off food and bacterial fragments that leak into the bloodstream.”

The whole food combining thing is big for vegans because of the deficiencies that the diet can lead to. Another huge problem for a lot of vegans is staying lean because they have to eat so many starchy carbs. Actually, let me rephrase that… they don’t necessarily have to but they do. Especially if they want to maintain their size.

Eventually I tightened the reigns back up and cut out beans, some grains and all fake or processed foods.

So at that point I was limited to just sweet potatoes, rice, quinoa, fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. If you live across the street from Pure Food and Wine in New York or Planet Raw in Santa Monica (and can afford to eat there daily) this might be doable. But for me it started getting too hard to deal with and I was craving something else. Jon Hinds lives primarily on fruits and veggies and seemingly has no problem with it. I simply started getting burnt and would have loved a piece of salmon.

The health problems I had, while not severe or life threatening, weren’t getting much better and my testosterone took a dip as well. The funny thing is that I still felt better than 99% of the people I know my age (and plenty of people younger than me). But I always expect to feel like I’m 18 and be at the absolute pinnacle of physical health. Knowing what I know and considering what I do for a living I don’t think that’s asking too much. I like to lead from the front.

But I’m human and slipped up. Something had happened to me that needed to be fixed. I had to make some kind of change because living like that simply wasn’t worth it anymore.

Finally I decided to add back twice some fish and eggs a few times per week. It was a hell of a lot healthier than fake foods and buckets of grains so at least it was a step in the right direction.

Eventually I added back in some meat as well and my health improved. My testosterone came back up and I felt better.

Yet again, the protein intake didn’t seem to make much difference when it came to training. I had rotator cuff surgery at the end of my first year of vegetarianism that caused me to lose a ton of size and strength. Eventually I got back up to 220 plus with no animal protein. I was definitely fatter though, from my previous days at 220. So I do think that if you want to gain size eating more protein than less will, obviously keep you leaner. Especially if you have skinny-fat guy genetics like me.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think there is anything magical about proteins muscle building effects. In other words, double the protein does not equal double the gains. It simply allows you to eat more calories without getting fat. And that’s a good thing for those looking to build muscle.

Even though I added animal protein back in and cut out some of the other unhealthy foods I was eating I had, unfortunately, already done some pretty serious damage from the excessive consumption of legumes and grains. Because of the internal havoc that beans and grains can create they make you much more susceptible to parasites and fungus and a host of other digestive issues.

Robb Wolf explains a similar situation that he and many other vegetarians go through in his awesome book, The Paleo Solution and gives the steps necessary to get back to full health.

What I’ve Learned
I will never regret my three years as a vegetarian as I learned a lot and had some cool experiences from it. I even met some people I never would have otherwise. The great thing is it allows me to help any vegetarian readers or clients I have.

One thing you have to remember about your own personal diet is that what you respond best to will be largely based on what your ancestors ate hundreds of years ago. If they lived closer to the equator they ate more vegetarian foods. If they lived further away, in places where there was a winter, they obviously had to eat more animal foods to survive. That right there explains why some people do better on a vegetarian diet than others. I’m half Italian and half Scottish (where it seems like it’s always winter… kinda like San Francisco).

However, when examined closely you will find, through information packed books such as Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price that there were very, very few cultures that ever survived, and almost none that thrived on vegetarian diets.

If you choose to be a vegetarian for moral issues I completely understand and would never argue your right to do that.

Would I recommend a vegan diet to those interested in maximizing their performance and looking their best? Absolutely not. It can be done by some people but it’s tough. There are some deficiencies you will need to make up for as well. Adding in some eggs and raw dairy would make it a lot easier.

My job is to help people reach their goals as rapidly as possible so I have to use the most efficient, time tested means to do so.

I think animal protein and fat can definitely help anyone with performance or, especially physique, goals. It’s less important for strength and athletic performance than it is for body comp but it makes a difference for both.

I’ve read over a hundred books on the topic of nutrition the last four years and have talked with some of the top nutrition experts in the world. The major consensus seems to be that a lot of greens are good, pasteurized dairy is bad, grains and legumes are questionable, if not the devil (depending on who you ask) and animal protein in small to moderate quantities are healthy.

That’s where I’m at and what I’m following these days; following the Renegade Diet with tons of greens, moderate amounts of animal protein (about .8-1gm per pound of BW) and clean carbs like sweet potatoes. I usually have red meat three times per week, fish twice per week, and chicken twice per week. I believe it’s the smartest, healthiest approach to nutrition. If you want to gain a ton of size you may need a few extra meat meals per week. That’s up to you.

To any vegetarians who feel I let them down, I apologize. I hope you understand and maybe can even learn from my experiences. I had to do what was best for my own health and for my training goals. This stuff is what I do for a living so it’s important to me to be at my best.

Like you guys I’m always trying to learn more and better myself, each and every day.

Hopefully we can all continue doing so together long into the future.

Thanks for reading, my friends.