If you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll hear this question at least once in your life: “But where do you get your protein?!” Despite plenty of scientific evidence to the contrary, there is still a pervasive belief that humans must eat meat — and lots of it — to ingest adequate amounts of protein and build muscle.
Not only that, but there’s also a stigma, particularly for men, that being vegan is somehow less “manly” than following a carnivorous diet. In fact, a recent study found that people tend to describe meat as more “masculine” than vegetables. The study’s authors say that, “To the strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American male, red meat is a strong, traditional, macho, bicep-flexing, All-American food. Soy is not. To eat it, they would have to give up a food they saw as strong and powerful like themselves for a food they saw as weak and wimpy.”
This is clearly a misconception that needs to be addressed, so we’re doing our part to show that there’s nothing wimpy about vegans. In fact, there are plenty of examples of strong, studly, masculine dudes who abstain from animal products, and we’re here to prove it. So, without further ado, we present our choices for the top 10 brawniest vegan men, with a vegetarian bonus.
Robert Cheeke is a bodybuilder whose vegan diet helps him maintain his ripped physique. He grew up on a farm in Oregon, an experience he credits with helping develop his compassion toward animals, and at age 15, he gave up all animal products. Now he gets his protein from legumes, greens and plant-based protein powders, and considers fruits and nutrient-dense burritos his go-to foods. “Yams and potatoes, quinoa, kale and artichokes are some of my other favorite whole foods. Thai and Indian dishes, especially Masaman and Yellow Curry and vegetable samosas and Aloo Matter, are by far my favorite dinner meals. Avocado rolls are another menu item I indulge in regularly,” he says.
VegNews named him one of its 15 most influential vegan athletes, and in 2006, Cheeke released a documentary about vegan fitness. He has also been involved in animal advocacy campaigns for PETA and VegSeattle.
Photo credit: Mikkei
Mac Danzig, an MMA fighter and UFC competitor who has won numerous titles, including King of the Cage Lightweight Champion and Gladiator Challenge Lightweight World Champion, is a strict vegan who has campaigned with PETA for animal rights. “Animals on factory farms and in slaughterhouses don’t have a fighting chance,” Danzig says in the PETA ad. “I don’t eat animals because I don’t want to contribute to their suffering — it’s that simple. Do yourself a favor, do the planet a favor, and help end animal abuse — go vegetarian. I am a fighter in the best shape of my life.”
In 2008, he was listed as a finalist in Men’s Health magazine’s 25 Fittest Guys in America, and in the profile, he explained how, due to an allergy, dairy was detrimental to his health. “A lot of people don’t realize how hard milk, whey, and other dairy products are on the sinuses and respiratory system, and the dairy industry would like you to believe that you need milk to get calcium. That notion is as oxymoronic as you can get. Although not everybody has as severe an allergy to dairy products as I did, I just wanted to point out that after years of battling with ear and sinus infections, eliminating dairy completely cured my problems. Anyone with similar problems may want to try it for a while,” he said.
Photo credit: PETA
He may have suffered a number of ups and downs in his career, but there’s one thing that can’t be disputed: this brawny guy was a really great boxer. A former heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson holds records as the youngest boxer to ever win the WBC, WBA and IBF titles (he was 20 at the time). Now retired from the sport, Tyson lives a much more peaceful life overall, shunning all animal products from his diet.
He credits the diet overhaul with helping him shed 130 pounds (revealing a sleeker, stronger physique), and explained in 2010 that it was part of an overall plan to revamp his life and improve his mental and physical health. “I wanted a different life. I felt like I was dying. I had an incident in life where I lost my 4-year-old daughter in a tragic accident at home. I don’t know. I didn’t want to live anymore. So I said, that in order to go there, I had to change my life. I am going to change everything I dislike about myself. I changed everything that I was as a human being. I started that journey in October or November…I don’t smoke anymore. I wanted to give up everything. I had to change my life.” Mission accomplished.
Photo Credit: CarlaVanWagoner / Shutterstock.com
This Canadian athlete is proof that a vegan diet is more than enough to fuel an active lifestyle. A former triathlete, Brendan Brazier won 50-kilometer ultramarathons twice: once in 2003, and again in 2006 (If you don’t do metric, that’s about 31 miles. In other words, a really long way to run!). An advocate for a plants-based lifestyle, Brazier is also the man behind the Thrive Diet and the Vega sports nutrition line (fellow brawny dudes Robert Cheeke and Mac Danzig are fans).
Brazier discovered veganism as a teenager, and has never looked back, even though he no longer competes professionally. “I’ve been vegan since I was 15, and I got into it just because I wanted to be a better athlete, I didn’t care what I ate,” he says. “At the time I would’ve eaten anything if I thought it would have made me a better athlete. And I just tried different ways of eating…That’s what brought me to it, it was really selfish reasons. I mean, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it. Then I found that a properly put together, plant-based diet was a real performance advantage, and I started racing professionally.” The rest is triathlon history.
Photo credit: Iknowiknowithink
This MMA and UFC competitor is a lifelong vegetarian and current vegan who cites the SunWarrior brand as his protein powder of choice. A middleweight and welterweight champion, Jake Shields is an animal rights advocate who teamed with PETA to support vegetarianism. The Srikeforce champ denounced the way slaughterhouses treat animals, and cited himself as an example of a successful vegan athlete. “I’m living proof that you can further, train harder, and pack a meaner punch without eating animals,” reads his PETA ad.
Shields has been advocating for a meat-free diet for years. Back in 2009, he explained, “I’m a life-long vegetarian and the diet obviously works. I also have two brothers that are strong and healthy. But you do have to have a good balanced diet and eat healthy foods. There’s plenty of ways to get protein other than eating meat.” Well said.
Photo Credit: PETA
The success of vegan documentary “Forks Over Knives” helped make Rip Esselstyn a household name (his father is one of the doctors profiled in the film), and now he has his own documentary touting the benefits of a meat-free diet. A former All American swimmer and top triathlete and current firefighter (and Lance Armstrong workout buddy), Esselstyn’s fitness background is impressive: “[Esselstyn] took first place in many major events, including the 2001 Police and Fire World Games, the world’s largest athletic competition. He also won the Capital of Texas triathlon eight times and was the leader and top-three finisher at many televised events, including the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, where he was first out of the frigid, shark-infested waters six years in a row. Rip still competes in various events, recently winning the master national championships and setting the national record in the process.”
Esselstyn is also the creator Engine 2 diet and hosts its companion film, “Forks Over Knives Presents: Engine 2 Kitchen Rescue” (it streams on Netflix if you want to check it out), which features him teaching two families basics of a plant-based diet. He initially created the Engine 2 diet to help save the life of one of his firefighter co-workers (it worked!), and now works with Whole Foods to spread the message about the benefits of a vegan diet.
Photo credit: Engine 2 Kitchen Rescue
Canadian athlete Georges Laraque may have retired from hockey, but the 6’3″ forward made quite an impression on the ice in his day: in 2003, he was named “Best Fighter” by The Hockey News, and Sports Illustrated crowned him “Best Enforcer” in 2006. Despite his tough on-ice persona, Laraque lives a decidedly more peaceful life outside the rink as a PETA supporter and vegan restauranteur. In a PETA video, Laraque says, “I don’t put up with much, and I certainly don’t want to put up with the cruelty of the meat industry. I’m Georges Laraque, and I’m vegan.”
His decision to abstain from animal products came after watching the documentary “Earthlings.” “After I saw that video…I encouraged people to watch it, because I am sure people, like me, are sensitive to cruelty. And when you see that animals go through so much cruelty, why would you want to encourage that?… I felt better, I have much more energy, and I feel even stronger, so the stereotype that says that big guys cannot be vegan, if you don’t eat meat, you can’t be strong, it’s not true,” he says. And not only did the film lead him to change his diet, but it brought on a whole new level of activism for Laraque, including participation in fur protests. Now that’s a fight we’d like to see him win.
Photo credit: PETA
It takes a lot to fuel 6’11” of muscle up and down a basketball court, but former NBA star John Salley knows the key to a healthy diet is abstaining from animal products. Salley has had a varied entertainment career since he retired from sports, but his real passion is health, and he’s an outspoken raw vegan who has worked with PETA and the PCRM and who has his own line of organic, vegan food products.
Salley’s discipline is both physical and mental; he considers his body a temple, and takes care of it through fitness, diet and spiritual study. And he believes it’s up to adults to spread the message of good health to our children. “As a former athlete, I know that the nutrition of the food I eat has a direct impact on my physical and mental performance on the basketball court. More fruits, vegetables, and other vegetarian foods help you stay healthy, fit, and alert. Adults influence kids’ eating habits. We have to improve kids’ eating habits — and re-educate adults about what is food and what is not food. People can have pizza and pastries without dairy products and eggs. They can have tofu mozzarella cheese or egg substitute and they should use agave in place of high-fructose corn syrup and refined whole sugar,” he said back in 2010. Here’s hoping his suggestions catch on.
Photo credit: Joe Seer / Shutterstock.com
Also known as Daniel Bryan and the Red Dragon, this vegan WWE superstar has a litany of credits to his name, including: “former Ring of Honor World champion, two-time Pro Wrestling Guerrilla World champion, a one-time Westside Xtreme Wrestling Heavyweight champion, a one-time FIP Heavyweight Champion and a one-time World Heavyweight Champion in WWE.” He’s also integrated veganism into his villainous wrestling persona to elicit crowd reactions.
Like many of the athletes on our list, he’s partnered with PETA to promote the benefits of a vegetarian diet. In a video for the animal-rights organization, he says, “As a WWE superstar, staying healthy and having a lot of energy helps me succeed in the ring, and that’s why I choose to be a vegetarian. My vegetarian diet allows me to lead a healthier lifestyle, reduce my carbon footprint, and save the lives of more than 100 animals every year. I’m stronger and healthier than ever, and I feel good about doing something positive for myself, animals, and the planet.”
Photo credit: PETA
Carl Lewis is one of the United States’ most decorated athletes. Standing tall at 6’3″, this former track and field athlete competed from 1979 to 1996, racking up nine Olympic gold medals, one Olympic silver medal, eight World Championship gold medals, one World Championship silver, one World Championship bronze, and three Pan American Games medals (two golds and a bronze). He was also drafted by both the NBA and the NFL, although he opted not to play in either league. All this and he’s a vegan — now that’s what we call impressive.
So, just how did his meat-free diet enhance his career? Lewis says, “In the spring of 1991 – eight months after beginning to eat vegan…I was drinking 24 to 32 ounces of juice a day. I ate no dairy products. And I had my best year as an athlete ever! You have total control over what you put in your body. No one can force you to eat what you don’t want to eat. I know that many people think that eating a vegetarian diet – and especially a vegan diet – will require sacrifice and denial. Jannequin Bennett demonstrates…that eating vegan does not have to be tasteless and boring. As she says, ‘vegan eating is a truly indulgent way of life, as vegans regularly partake of the very best foods that nature has to offer.’ Your body is your temple. If you nourish it properly, it will be good to you and you will increase its longevity.” Well said, Mr. Lewis.
Photo credit: Manfred Werner
Michael Clarke Duncan
Actor Michael Clarke Duncan is the 11th guy on our list, and we’re including him as a bonus. He’s not a vegan (yet!), but he adopted a vegetarian diet three years ago, and is a prime example that meat is not necessary to maintain a strong, manly physique (according to Wikipedia, he’s 6’5″ and 315 pounds). The star recently teamed up with PETA to advocate his animal-friendly diet, which helped him lose weight and improve his overall health.
In the video for the campaign, he says, “The best thing about being a vegetarian for me, number one, is I know I’m not harming any animals. The number two thing is increased strength. I’m a lot stronger than I was when I was eating meat. Most of your most powerful animals in the wild are vegetarian, so I’m trying to get my strength to that level…Don’t think that you have to have these gigantic steaks to get your protein. The protein you put in from the beans, legumes, fresh fruits, and vegetables will last way longer, and you’ll get more out of it than you will in that 12 ounces of meat.”
Photo credit: PETA
This pretty much proves it — there’s nothing un-masculine about abstaining from meat. On the contrary, these guys all concur that it’s not possible to be healthy, fit and strong on a vegan diet, it’s actually easier! And not only are they taking care of themselves, they’re also helping to save lives and protect the planet. That level of kindness is just plain hot.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com