January 23, 2014

Why Gandhi is More Important Than Protein to a Vegan Bodybuilder Champ. ~ Kathryn Buford

Place yourself backstage at the Northern Classic Bodybuilding women’s competition—bikini division.

The stench of protein powdered farts and tanning spray is thick. You feel the tension from competitors that have devoted years, if not the greater part of a lifetime, to win.

Because of her diet alone, many people did not expect to see the middle contestant posing strongly onstage. The tattoo along her ribs reads, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” That smile on her face is not just for the cameras.

Samantha Shorkey, the first vegan to win first place at the Northern Classic Bodybuilding competition is sincerely beaming because she’s silently reciting her personal headline, “There’s a new vegan in town, and she’s jacked!”

Through her work with The Vegan Project, a Vancouver based initiative sharing vegan cuisine, fashion and fitness, Sam educates people about the benefits of veganism to the planet and our bodies. Although she doesn’t consider herself highly spiritual, in our conversation, she shares that her fitness journey, involving a lot of lonely and isolating nights, tested her inner strength.

We discuss her preparations and challenges, misconceptions about the need for protein and advice to women who want to lose weight and maintain muscle on a vegan diet.

For those who made the resolution to get fit for 2014, take it from Sam, getting jacked is a process that starts from the inside out.

Kathryn: What made you interested in bodybuilding?

Sam: Well, to be perfectly honest, I dated a personal trainer/total meat-head for four years. It was a horrible relationship and for a year, we were doing the long-distance thing. I was basically miserable and wanted to get in really good shape to “blow him away” when he finally returned. I bought a weight bench, barbell and dumbbell set off Craigslist and did “at home” style workouts in my tiny bachelor apartment for that entire year.

Every time I was upset, I’d hammer the weights like a beast! Eventually we broke up and I graduated to a “real” gym. I’ve been in love with bodybuilding ever since that ghetto, little home gym. Lifting weights is such a stress reliever for me.

Kathryn: Can you share an example of what you would eat on a typical day? And, can you give an example of one of your hardest workouts?

Sam: I get asked about my diet more than anything—especially by vegan women who want to lose weight. To help them out, I made an e-book called “Jacked on the Beanstalk: Plant-Based Fuel for Vegan Athletes.” It’s $15 and includes a sample meal plan from when I was about 10 weeks out from competing. I also share my favorite spice combinations, a grocery list and 20 recipes. How was that for a shameless plug?

Generally-speaking in terms of diet, my main protein sources are tempeh and plant-based protein powder. I get my starchy complex carbs from sources like yams, squash and oatmeal. And for fats, I love my almond butter and coconut oil!

I pay close attention to macronutrients when trying to lean out and preserve my hard-earned muscle. I get 50% of my daily calories from carbs, 30% from protein and 20% from fats.

One of my hardest workouts—well my weakest areas are glutes and lower back/core. Here’s a brutal but quick workout that targets all these areas:

Do four sets of 15 for each of the following:

Crunches with feet on wall at 90 degrees
Hip Bridges—don’t arch your back. Hold at the top.
Plank (hold for 60 seconds)
Side Plank—arm extended up (hold for 60 seconds)
Supermans—lift opposite arm with opposite leg
Straight Leg Deadlift
Bench Step Ups—graduate to dumbbell

Kathryn: I like that after winning your first bodybuilding competition you drank right out of your champion cup. From everything I’ve read about you, you have such a fun, playful personality, but clearly you took this seriously.

What made you want to commit to such a strict regimen?

Sam: I can be pretty cocky. In fact, I was very cocky throughout my training so my pride (more than anything) made me take it very seriously. I also knew that if I wanted it badly enough, I could show the world that vegans can mold their physiques just as good, and perhaps even better, than any animal eater.

The competition “regimen” is a pretty huge mind f*ck though. The severe restriction, having no life outside the gym, being hungry all the time and having to listen to everyone calling you anorexic—not fun. I just stayed focused on what I needed to do in order to win and blocked out everything negative as best as I could.

Kathryn: I imagine that the process can feel isolating given that you probably have to cook a lot on your own and most other people wouldn’t be eating like you. Was this your experience? How did you get your mind right for all of this? Was a spiritual practice important to you?

Sam: When I hear the words “competition prep,” I’m immediately reminded of Ziploc bags, so much time spent alone, a life dedicated to nothing but working out, preparing food and washing dishes. I can’t wait to get back into it in 2014!

The support of the vegan community definitely helped “get my mind right.” For the most part anyway—there were some haters too—but definitely more love than hate.

I’m not the most spiritual person on Earth but I do believe in karma and the teachings of Gandhi. Two of the most thought provoking truths I’ve ever heard were his. They are: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” I actually have it tattooed down my ribs. And the other is “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” I definitely live by these words everyday.

Kathryn: When I told people I was interviewing you, many were amazed that vegans could get enough bulk to compete in bodybuilding competitions—they were shocked you beat out carnivores.

Given the messages we receive, it seems that it would be more advantageous to get into bodybuilding shape from a meat based, high-protein, low-carb diet.

Can you share why this is not necessarily the case? What do you think are the advantages of bodybuilding with a vegan diet?

Sam: I hear trainers all the time say that you at least need eggs or fish in your diet in order to get the proper kinds of lean protein. I believe that protein is protein and beans are just as effective for muscle building as bison meat or tilapia. Yes, I do believe that as vegans, it’s harder for us to get lean sources of “complete” protein because things like beans and nuts are higher in fats and carbs than say, egg whites or chicken. What people don’t seem to realize is that there is protein in pretty much everything and it’s very easy to get enough on a completely plant-based diet. Yes, bodybuilders have to consume a lot of protein. And I do. But I’d sure as hell rather be digesting copious amounts of spinach and chickpeas than animal secretions and/or the flesh of tortured souls.

Kathryn: Do you think the emphasis on protein is overrated? Why?

Sam: Yes! I am so sick of hearing “where do you get your protein from?” Beans, tempeh, tofu, nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables, oats, grains—the list goes on and on. There is protein in almost everything! Not getting enough has never been an issue for me.

At the same time, the lifestyle for vegan bodybuilders may require more attention for women given that our body fat shouldn’t get too low.

Kathryn: What are things vegans should watch out for when training for these competitions?

Sam: It sucks that we need to get our body fat levels that low in order to show muscle definition. There is a very evil side to the bodybuilding world, especially for my division—bikini. Women will take all kinds of fat burners, appetite suppressants and hormone blockers in order to lean down. Some obsess over their weight, others develop eating disorders. I actually didn’t get my period for five months during and following my competition because my body fat was so low. Strict diet and exercise is very hard on the body, especially for women. That’s why it’s so important to put your health first.

I would not compete if I felt it was having a negative effect on my mental or physical state. I do believe there is a healthy, holistic way to compete though. And I like to think that I’m proof it can be done naturally, on a vegan diet.

Kathryn: What was the first thing you couldn’t wait to eat once you were finished?

Sam: An entire tub of MaraNatha peanut butter. Oh how I yearned for that sweet, smooth, fat, creamy, deliciousness the second I stepped off the stage. And going out for cheeseless pizza at Boston Pizza too.

Kathryn: And, just to continue the indulge theme, can you give us your top three pleasure foods?

Sam: I am such a dessert freak. Bridget (of The Vegan Project) and I are such opposites too! She loves the savory, I’m all about the sweet! I try to keep my desserts as healthy as possible so I feel less guilty when I devour them in huge quantities. My three favorites in the whole wide world are probably:

The VP’s Gluten-free chocolate chip banana bread.

My pina colada-inspired coconut pineapple protein balls.

These super sweet vanilla oat protein balls.

Kathryn: I read that you enjoy sweets. What’s your favorite dessert? Can you share a five-word poem about your favorite dessert? (I love asking this question!)

Sam: Ooh fun. Protein balls all the way, baby! Here goes: Sweet and satisfying. Mmmm vegan balls.

Kathryn: What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Sam: I learned to really enjoy my own company and be independent. I also learned to not care so much about what others think of me. I know that sounds contradictory given I compete in the most shallow, esthetic sport imaginable. But what I mean is that you’re so focused on doing your best that you reach a point where you just don’t care about anything except accomplishing that goal.

You’re literally whipping out Ziploc bags of pre-measured food everywhere, practicing your poses anywhere, in front of anyone (in clear, plastic, stripper shoes of course.) You’re drenched in sweat at the gym, grunting, sometimes crying just to get through those long workouts. And to reach that point where everyone around you just doesn’t matter is a very empowering feeling. And of course, having the discipline to stick it out, the hunger, the lack of social life.

There are a lot of things that really suck about a competition prep but when you get on stage and you know that you did everything imaginable to bring your best package forward, it’s all worth it and you’re so damned proud of yourself. Nothing beats that feeling—except maybe the post-competition peanut butter hog fest.

Kathryn: What is the greatest misconception about veganism you would like to lay to rest? Why?

Sam: Well we all know the big “protein” misconception that people still seem to have so I won’t even go there! I think a lot of people also think that buying “free-range” eggs or “organic” meat from a farm somehow justifies the killing and treatment of the animals they’re consuming. At the end of the day, they are still being slaughtered. And “free-range” does not necessarily mean they’re wandering free, only that they have access to the outdoors. I think a lot more people would consider a vegan diet if they actually saw first-hand how their meat gets from the farm to their plate.

Kathryn: Can you give us a news headline/bumper sticker that explains what’s next for you?

Sam: I’m a new breed of vegan. Gone is the scrawny hippy stereotype. There’s a new vegan in town and she’s jacked!

Kathryn: Anything else you want to share?

Sam: Just a huge thanks to everyone in the vegan community and fitness community who have supported me throughout this fun and crazy ride! The praise and kind words I’ve received have been insanely motivating.

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Assistant Editor: Holly Horne/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Harry Leonard Imagery

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