What happens when a lifelong meathead goes veg for a bulking cycle? John Berardi, Ph.D., is about to find out.
The call came in at 2 a.m.
"Hello," I answered, still half-asleep.
"We have a code red," the voice on the other end of the line said.
"Dr. John Berardi."
"But that's impossible," I said. "Berardi is one of us. He eats, like, a whole cow a week. Chickens fall over dead at the sound of his name. Fish mommies and fish daddies tell their fishy kids stories about Berardi to scare them into behaving. He's their boogeyman."
"No mistake," the voice said. "Berardi has gone ... vegetarian."
I hung up the phone, threw on some clothes, and grabbed my passport. Something had to be done. I couldn't let one of our own go veghead. I had to fly to Canada and organize an intervention for my friend John ... and maybe a barbecue, or two.
Five hours later, I landed in Toronto. That's when I learned what was really going on.
John, what the heck are you doing, and why the heck are you doing it?
I've always been interested in the vegetarian thing, simply because of all the debate. I leaned toward the anti-vegetarian stance early in my career.
As an athlete and a weight lifter, I grew up around guys who liked to eat meat. It's beyond scientific question anymore. It's beyond any sort of reasonable debate. It's almost religious. Eat meat and you're good. Don't eat meat and you're an idiot.
The fascinating thing is that vegetarians and vegans take the exact same approach, just from the other side.
So what gave you the idea to try it out on yourself?
I was approached by a vegan in the gym who was having trouble gaining muscle. He was a big fan of this site and my work here, even said he'd read all my articles. My first response was, "If you've read all my articles, why are you a vegan? They all recommend meat!"
The guy turned out to be a little grainophobic, and as a vegan you need to include a lot of grains. There was no chance he was going to build any muscle. He just wasn't eating enough calories. So I helped him tweak his diet plan.
When I was done, I thought, this actually doesn't look bad. The food looked appetizing, and it looked like a fun way to eat, at least for a short period of time. I mentioned to my friends that I was considering trying it, and of course their response was, "Dude, you just can't build muscle on a vegetarian diet. It's impossible! In fact, you'll lose muscle!"
Well, that became a challenge. I'm the eternal self-experimenter. I love trying out nutritional theories on myself. So I decided to put this to a test. Let's see if I can eat a nearly vegan diet and build muscle while doing it.
Wait, your goal is actually to build muscle on a vegetarian diet?
Absolutely. The last couple of years haven't been about increasing my muscle mass. I'm in my mid-30s now, I'm focusing on my company, and I'm actually really happy with how my body looks. I've basically been in a maintenance phase. So now I'm thinking, what the heck, why not try to build some muscle, and try to do it like a vegan?
What's your goal?
Gain about 10 pounds of lean mass over the course of the next month or so. Maybe I'll take this out to two months. If it goes horribly wrong and I lose five pounds of muscle and gain 10 pounds of fat, then I'll just quit.
Berardi before his plant-based diet: 179.6 pounds, 5.5 percent body fat
We've been saying "vegetarian" and "vegan" here, but I know you don't actually like those terms. Why?
I use "vegetarian" because people know what that means, but I like "plant-based" better. Bodybuilders especially have this immediate, visceral reaction to the word "vegetarian." Maybe it's because the vegetarians they've met were all militant and called them "animal killers" or something.
There's often this moral, emotional, or philosophical attachment to not eating meat. I really don't have any of those issues right now. I'm doing this for the humans, not the animals!
Also, "vegetarianism" can mean eating a whole bunch of crappy, processed foods, just not eating meat. I've seen vegetarians eating boxed cereals, foods with processed chemicals, TV dinners. Their diets were defined by the absence of meat, not by what was included.
Great point. So what is included? Is it all plant-based, or is there some animal food involved?
I'm going to have three eggs in the morning and I'm including some honey, which I've recently learned is a no-no for vegans. I'm also taking a digestive enzyme supplement that contains about 15 milligrams of ox bile, so technically that's not vegan-compliant. The rest is completely vegan, so I guess that technically makes me a pretend lacto-ovo vegetarian.
Is meat really bad to begin with? Are the vegetarians on to something, or are they just weird smelly dudes in hemp sneakers?
I see good arguments on both sides. There's no question that eating the right kind of meat in the right amount fits into an overall healthy diet. You're getting high protein, high B vitamins, and important vitamins and minerals that you really can't get in any other way unless you supplement. Health and muscle-building are severely compromised if any of these nutrients are missing. That's the argument for meat.
But there's also a relationship between eating meat and cancer risks.
I just heard the state of Texas scream.
It's not just speculation. Over 100 published epidemiological studies show a link between eating meat and cancer.
But what's the link? Can we buffer the risk?
Well, in large part, the link exists because meat eaters tend to eat less of other healthy things. So their diets tend to be very high in calories, high in saturated fat, low in fiber, low in antioxidants, and low in vitamins and minerals.
The solution isn't to not eat meat. It's to balance out the meat with other healthy foods.
This reminds me of your "Defeating Dietary Displacement" articles. The problem is that meat eaters are displacing things like leafy greens.
That's exactly it. But it's not the only concern.
There's some pretty compelling evidence that potentially carcinogenic [cancer-causing] compounds are introduced into our bodies when we eat cooked meat. The most problematic seem to be processed meats – lunch meat, canned meats, jerkies – and heavily grilled or charred meat.
But again, saying we shouldn't eat meat because of this is a mistake. These risks can be managed.
So what do we do?
Don't overcook your meat, especially on the grill. And avoid or at least limit processed meats.
Finally, you've got to increase your intake of fiber, fruits, and vegetables. You know, fiber has protective effects against the specific cancers meat is correlated with – stomach and colon. Eat more fiber and reduce your risk. Balance it out.
I've also heard that meat is saturated with hormones and antibiotics given to livestock to make them meatier and keep them from becoming deadstock. But this one seems easy to me – just get some grass-fed, free-range stuff and don't sweat it. Right?
That's exactly right. If you eat mostly farm-raised meat, you're getting hormones, environmental pollutants, and antibiotics.
I'm guessing some of the bodybuilders reading this will say, "Hey, if these hormones make the cows grow, maybe they'll help me grow too!"
A huge percentage of every anabolic cocktail given to cattle is estrogen, because estrogen increases marbling in the meat. But again, why not just eat more hormone-free, naturally raised, grass-fed meat? No vegetarianism required.
Every wacky vegetarian I know mentions the large amount of "undigested, rotting meat" in my belly. What are they talking about?
Ever heard the John Wayne story?
Something about finding 40 or 50 pounds of meat in his colon?
That's the one!
The story goes that when John Wayne died of cancer, they did an autopsy and found 40 pounds of impacted fecal matter. Now you hear some vegans using the claim to "prove" that we aren't evolved to eat meat.
Well, John Wayne never even had an autopsy. The story is completely made up. It's possible to get some fecal build-up in the colon, but if you get anything approximating a pound in there, it's incredibly painful and you'd start bleeding from the rectum. Forty pounds is completely impossible.
A pound of undigested foodstuff might happen under a couple of conditions. Some people may be genetically susceptible. To compound that, some North Americans have almost no fiber [in their diets], and take drugs that decrease gastrointestinal motility, like some blood pressure medications and antidepressants.
So it could happen, although it's not likely. If it did, meat wasn't the cause. It's more about what's missing from the diet and what drugs people are taking.
Before we move on, I have to bring up Bill Pearl here. Bill won his fourth Mr. Universe title in 1971, when he was a 41-year-old lacto-ovo vegetarian. He said he'd been steroid-free for the past 10 years. Since he won his first three Mr. Universe titles as a meat-eater, what does it mean when he wins his last one without meat?
After 1969, Bill Pearl's inner universe didn't include meat.
Most bodybuilders who claim to be vegetarians became vegetarians after they built their muscle, or after they retired. So that's not exactly evidence that you can be a successful bodybuilder as a vegetarian. He's the only example in the history of pro bodybuilding of someone being successful on a vegetarian plan.
Now, I think you can actually build a pretty great body being a vegan. I don't think that's a problem. I think you can be a successful athlete as a vegan too. But I think being a very successful bodybuilder as a vegan is a tough challenge. You have to build a maximal amount of muscle mass, get shredded for the stage, and win at the highest level of competition. It's unlikely to happen.
As a vegan you have to go through carbs to get your protein. It's a challenge. You'd have to have the right genetics so you can tolerate carbs, and you'd have to do a lot of drugs.
One more question about veganism before we get back to your specific plan: Is there some net health effect of an all-vegan diet? Vegetarians claim there's a cleansing effect.
I don't agree with anyone arguing that it's fundamentally healthier to be a vegan. Yes, a proper vegan diet is healthier than the typical North American diet. There is a cleansing effect – you'll be cleaner, but only if your diet was dirty to begin with. But that can happen when you start eating healthier, whether it's vegetarian or not.
Quick story: A girl I met told me she was doing "a cleanse." I thought it was some silly juice-drinking nonsense, and I was all set to mock her for it. Then she told me her "fast" was to eat nothing but chicken breasts, brown rice, and broccoli for a month. She said she was feeling great.
I was like, no shit. You got rid of all the fast food, all the sugar, and all the junk that was making you feel so bad!
A lot of vegetarians experience this. They feel great because they got rid of dietary chemicals, processed food, sugar, caffeine, hormones, all that stuff. Then they eat more fiber, antioxidants, and micronutrients. And for the first time they're eating them in abundance. So it's not a magic vegetarian thing, it's an eating right thing.
Plus, they eat fewer total calories when they first switch to veganism. And that helps some people feel less weighed down and more energetic.
Let's just break down your plant-based diet and talk macros. Where will your protein come from?
I'm getting around 150 to 200 grams of protein per day on my plan. It's coming from eggs at breakfast, a small amount of soy milk during the day, vegan protein supplements that give me 60 grams a day, and two cups of beans per day, with whole-grain sprouted bread.
A couple of my snacks have seeds and nuts. I'm also supplementing with branched-chain amino acids. When I wake up in the morning I take around five grams of Biotest BCAAs, and during my workout I take about 14 grams of liquid amino acids.
Now, complete proteins are probably the best way to go, so the big question is, with adequate calories and an ample amount of protein, can you build muscle on a plant-based diet?
I think the answer is yes, but there hasn't been a study where you weight-train men, overfeed them, and see if they gain muscle on a vegan meal plan.
I do recall a couple of studies like this, but the results were mixed.
One of them was done by Bill Campbell in the late '90s.  Two groups of newbies ate identical calories and weight trained. One group ate a vegetarian diet. The other included meat.
The vegetarian group didn't lose any fat or gain any muscle with the strength training. In fact, they lost a tiny bit of muscle. In the meat-eating group, they actually saw muscle increase and fat loss. We used that study for a long time to say that vegetarianism wasn't the best for weight trainers.
But another study by Mark Tarnopolsky replicated the original study and found no differences between the meat-eating and vegetarian groups.  It's important to note that these studies were not vegan, but vegetarian. The non-meat eaters could eat dairy and eggs.
So I haven't seen a really well-done study looking only at veganism.
What do your total calories look like on this plan?
Around 4,000 per day.
Where are the fats coming from?
I get fats from whole eggs, mixed nuts, homemade hummus, flax seed and olive oil, and a vegan EPA/DHA supplement made from algae. This EPA/DHA product is three times the price of Flameout® – which is what I normally use – and each capsule has a lower amount of DHA than a fish oil-based product would, but I wanted to keep it as vegan as possible.
Getting adequate carbs is the easy part, right?
It is. But here's the interesting thing for me: I feel it's actually going to be pretty easy to build muscle on a vegan plan – you just have to eat a lot of food. What's probably difficult is getting super ripped. These foods have a high percentage of carbs compared to proteins and fats.
It's not a problem getting lean on a vegan plan. But to actually preserve muscle mass and be bodybuilder-lean, that might be a challenge.
I'm able to tolerate carbs well. I'm naturally an ectomorph, so I need a high-carb diet to begin with. But the classic endomorphs who put on fat easily and have a harder time with carbs, they're going to have trouble because you just can't avoid carbs in a vegan plan.
What's it like to eat all those beans and the grains? I think you mentioned something to me on the phone about, er, issues ...
On the first day I was pretty much farting nonstop. The sheets floated a foot above the bed. I didn't think I could deal with it.
On the third day, I measured my stomach circumference when I woke up and it was 32 inches – normal. I measured it at 10 p.m., after a full day of vegetarian eating, and it was 42 inches! I looked like a mini-Ronnie Coleman.
My abs were visible, but they were sticking out an extra 10 inches. It wasn't fat or water, just straight-up air. I started taking the digestive enzyme, and it's a lot better now.
I'm told that it takes about two weeks to adapt, so if it's gone in two weeks, no problem. But it is something you need to be prepared for.
You've just started your plan, but what lessons can the typical omnivorous bodybuilder learn from a vegetarian?
I've learned some valuable lessons already. But let me tell you, you have to learn from propervegetarians and vegans, who actually eat the right foods, cover all their nutritional bases, and stay lean and healthy.
Proper vegans find some really interesting ways to eat all their fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds. Most omnivores don't, and maybe that's why they don't like these foods. They just don't know how to prepare them.
Vegan cookbooks are some of the best for showing you how to prepare vegetables in a tasty way.
One of Berardi's vegan meals.
The second thing is to eat more whole, unprocessed, natural foods. I don't know a lot of guys who seek out whole grains like quinoa. Proper vegans spend more time learning about where their food comes from – they have to. If you're interested, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan, are a great place to start.
Carbs aren't so bad for your physique if they come from whole, unprocessed sources. But I don't think people really know what "whole" and "unprocessed" actually mean.
It's not wheat bread?
That's just regular white bread with a little caramel food coloring added in.
I'm talking about things like quinoa, which looks like an uninteresting bag of pellets, but it ends up tasting really fantastic if you learn what to do with it. Proper vegans know how to include these in their diets. And you aren't going to get fat from whole, high-fiber, low-glycemic-index, unprocessed grains like you can from other carbs.
I don't want to glamorize the vegan lifestyle at all because many vegans could learn a lot from omnivorous bodybuilders too, especially about protein intake. The learning can go both ways if both camps keep their minds open.
Where do things stand with you right now?
As of this interview, I'm one week into my vegan-ish eating plan. So far, the food choices are great. I'm not craving a steak or anything. When you're eating 4,000 calories of anything, you're pretty full all the time.
My training is going very well, my pumps are great from all the carbs, energy is good, and I'm up four pounds. So far it looks like lean mass. I'll be doing skinfolds and measurements at the two-week point.
Any revelations so far, besides "don't put your head under the sheets"?
I don't think meat, whether it's in or out of your diet plan, is the most important factor in your success. It's all this other stuff, all the food selections.
Also, I don't see myself hating this at all, though when my month or two is over, there's no question I'll be going to eat a steak at The Keg. That's a forgone conclusion!
I'd say that most vegans probably could use meat in their diets, and most heavy meat eaters could stand to eat a little less. We'd be a healthier North America if we agreed to meet in the middle.
So where can Testosterone readers go to follow your progress?
I'm posting all about it on our Precision Nutrition site in the blog section. I'll post updates every two weeks. Also, we'll be including a plant-based diet guide in the new Precision Nutrition 3.0.
And I'll post updates here at Testosterone too.
Awesome. Good luck!
- Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Dec;70(6):1032-9. Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men. Campbell WW, Barton ML Jr, Cyr-Campbell D, Davey SL, Beard JL, Parise G, Evans WJ. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Exercise Laboratory, Donald W Reynolds Department of Geriatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock 72114, USA.
- Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Sep;76(3):511-7. Effect of protein source on resistive-training-induced changes in body composition and muscle size in older men. Haub MD, Wells AM, Tarnopolsky MA, Campbell WW. Department of Human Nutrition, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506.