A common misconception about vegans is that they lack strength and proper nourishment. While this is far from the truth, it always helps to have tangible proof, right? Well, there is no one better than vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke to put those vegan stereotypes to rest. Believe it or not, Cheeke started out as the scrawny kid in school, but now he is a brawny vegan advocate who has a busy schedule that isn’t just limited to training–he is also a Vega representative, owner of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, a touring speaker, a published author, and yes he still has time for more!
Vegan Mainstream: What inspired you to become a bodybuilder? What about this industry intrigued you the most? How and when did a vegan lifestyle come into play for you?
Robert Cheeke: …I became vegan as a teenager and was the smallest kid in class even before I was vegan. I always wanted to be bigger and stronger–always wanted to be like a muscle guy and so that’s what led me into bodybuilding. As soon as I graduated from high school, I was a distance runner (a collegiate distance runner)…but my real passion was building muscle–trying to be like Hulk Hogan or He-Man–I had a long way to go being a skinny kid, but that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I worked hard at.
…In December 8, 1995 my sister, Tanya Cheeke organized an animal rights week at my high school and that’s what really inspired me. I grew up on a farm and was anything but vegan–eating all kinds of animal products. In fact, I was in 4H and showing animals at the country fair and selling them for food, etc. She decided to do this thing called animal rights week, and out of respect for her, a 15 year old kid…I read literature, looked at images, and then I just started looking at animals differently. That day (December 8, 1995), I became vegetarian, and vegan shortly after (within a matter of months).
For a complete biography on Cheeke, visit his website.
VM: Obviously, you have to consume more than an average person…have you had any difficulty maintaining your weight or muscle mass on a vegan diet?
RC: I was 120 pounds when I became vegan, and I shot up to about 195 pounds in a matter of six or seven years…so I don’t think so. I don’t think that I had difficulty…
It just comes down to a mathematical equation: consuming more calories than we’re expending, eating high quality foods and training consistently and that leads to success. [It's important to be] active consistently, which means being very accountable–training five days a week if that’s what it takes, six days a week if that’s what it takes and eating six to eight times a day.
VM: How do fellow bodybuilders view your vegan lifestyle? Are they surprised that you don’t eat meat for protein?
RC: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a number of reactions from fellow bodybuilders. Some are definitely surprised: how do you do it or yeah, right it’s not going to work…they think I’ve been doing it for one year or something and not 15 [years] like I have been.
There’s an element of surprise at first, and then there’s a sort of reflection and a lot of respect given and appreciation shown. I won a competition not too long ago…it was announced that I was vegan, and pretty much every single competitor came up to me and shook my hand and congratulated me, not just for winning or placing ahead of them, but because I’ve been able to stick to a lifestyle that’s important to me for so long in a sport that most people don’t think it’s possible to do that in. That was actually one of my bodybuilding highlights.
VM: Do you think that being vegan gives you advantages over other bodybuilders?
RC: Vegans are often looked at as being at a disadvantage. Oh, you have to make an excuse for the vegan guy or vegan athlete…and therefore, they’re going to suffer and have a less quality muscle and probably a longer road ahead. I don’t think that’s true…the primary sources of nutrition (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, glucose, protein, fats, carbohydrates, all of that stuff) come from plant-based whole foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, etc.)…basically, that’s where the advantage comes in…we’re [vegans] getting the highest quality of nutrition first rather than the secondary source, which would be any form of muscle from another species.
Another advantage is we’re often eating an alkaline-forming diet rather than an acid-forming diet, which you get from a lot of meat-based foods, whey protein, animal-based foods…
Vegans eat foods that are digested easily creating a positive net gain of energy rather than a net loss…animal-based foods will take a long time to digest.
VM: For those out there who are interested in the fitness industry, what advice can you give them?
RC: Here’s the biggest thing: when people switch their diet in any way…they stop exercising, because they fear, oh I’m having this major nutritional change I want my body to adapt and adjust, I’m just going to stop training…Athletes who switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet stop exercising and wonder why their muscle tone has changed, they wonder why their energy levels changed…it’s so easy to recognize that there’s a break in consistency…so often [when people] switch to a vegan diet, they start cutting things out [dairy, eggs, meat, etc.]…but for some reason, a lot of people just don’t replace those calories with anything…
VM: Have there been any vegans or non-vegans who have inspired or motivated you on your journey?
RC: I have all kinds of role models, starting with cartoon characters like He-Man and Captain Planet to other professional athletes, like wrestler Hulk Hogan and Steve Prefontaine who was America’s greatest running legend – he became my #1 hero of all time. He was from Oregon like me, was a runner liked me and worked incredibly hard to achieve things that mattered to him. He died before I was born in a car crash, but he has been my greatest source of inspiration in my life, primarily because he is known for testing the limits of the human heart by working harder and demanding more from himself than anyone else is or was willing to do. He was the best in the country and the world during his prime, something I strive for in my life.
And then I have a whole list of vegan role models – Brendan Brazier, Howard Lyman, John Robbins, Mac Danzig, Tanya Cheeke, Carl Lewis, and John Salley.
Some of my non-vegan role models include Steve Jobs, Tony Robbins, Gary Vaynerchuk, Jay Cutler, and Sam Harris.
Cheeke’s positive attitude and motivation are the driving force behind his success, and his advice is to “find meaning in what you’re doing–that’s what brought me into veganism.” Just listening to him speak can give you some ‘oomph,’ and his new book Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness has the same inspirational tone. He is definitely the face of a healthy, strong vegan, and he also proves that passion, hard work and dedication do pay off.