Badass Vegan Athletes Part 2: Daniel Austin
Daniel Austin is a punk musician from Texas, turned animal rights activist, turned competitive powerlifter. Daniel went vegan in 2005, but he didn't begin to compete in powerlifting until 2015, at the age of 32. He has since gone on to compete in national and international championships in raw powerlifting's most reputable federations. His debut book, The Way of The Vegan Meathead: Eating for Strength, is a manifesto of Vegan Power for aspiring strength athletes.
What are some ways in which your active, vegan lifestyle contribute to your quality of life? What does it do for you? How does it enhance your life?
My powerlifting regimen has helped me develop self-discipline in many aspects of my life beyond just lifting. It keeps me oriented to stay organized and prepared to deal with life's curve balls while maintaining my sight on my immediate and long-term goals. Since I compete in a weight class specific sport, the powerlifting lifestyle has made me dial in my nutrition strictly—as needed, and it has made me hyper-aware of how I need to fix my schedule each week for making appropriate time for the gym. I wasn't always so good at planning or regimenting my life in general.
Prior to getting into fitness, I was primarily a traveling musician and animal rights activist throughout most of my twenties, and the state of mind that chaotic traveling lifestyle put me in was often not a healthy one. Surprisingly, I was depressed a lot in those years, despite traveling, standing up for what I believed in, and living my dreams. It's strange how that can work out. For me, that experience is definite proof that we need physical activity to help us hit the reset button for our anxious brains most days of the week, and to engage in a process of self-overcoming, no matter how great or small the task. Now I am in my late thirties, and I am stronger than I've ever been, and I'm easily in better shape than I was in my twenties. It's usually the opposite case for most people.
Psychologically, I have reaped many benefits from regular heavy lifting, and I've taken it to a higher level still through being competitive in my sport. Regular physical activity is proven to give your brain a boost and enhance productivity in other aspects of your life, and my experience completely aligns with those findings. I think lifting has helped me become a better writer, reader, thinker, communicator, and so on. Even if I am deadlifting super heavy, it's still a form of meditation, and I'd even say it's a form of yoga, because you are listening to your body's signals about what weaknesses need to be addressed within you, what your current limitations are, and it makes you more in touch with the presence of being in your own body.
Please share your best nutrition tips for vegans who are interested in healthy diets to support their active lifestyles.
This is a slightly weird one for me to answer, because as we discussed together on your podcast (www.nobullshitvegan.com/016), health has never really been my concern. I am an ethical vegan, so health was always a far secondary concern for me to begin with when it came to my vegan lifestyle. I also train for max strength, and I have found that strength diets and health diets are not the same thing. Furthermore, strength diets and endurance or cross-training diets are also not the same thing. Strength diets tend to be higher in fat and protein, and more moderate on carbohydrates, which seems to be a controversial stance on diet to take if you're talking to the "Whole Foods Plant-Based" crowd. They think high fat and high protein means an instant heart attack, which is silly, of course. However, the caveat there is that I do think a vegan strength diet, as put forth in my book The Way of The Vegan Meathead, is far less likely to increase health risks than a non-vegan strength diet, just for the absence of dietary cholesterol alone.
But to answer your question properly, I think anyone who wants to train for strength as a vegan should not be afraid of fat. Fat intake affects natural cholesterol levels, which happens to be a primary component of testosterone production, which is absolutely essential for strength and recovery. High carb vegans tend to have a harder time developing elite levels of strength, at least in part due to lower fat intake leading to less testosterone production. If you're trying to build muscle or increase your one-rep maxes, definitely experiment with eating over 20% of your calories from fat. As for me, I usually eat in the ballpark of 30-35% fat per day, or even slightly more. Four-time World's Strongest Man, Brian Shaw, eats about 30% or more calories from fat a day as well. Brian Shaw isn't vegan, but even one of the strongest vegans in the world, Patrik Baboumian, eats over 30% of his total daily calories from fat (according to his YouTube videos).
After six years of eating a high fat and high protein vegan diet, my cholesterol is still at healthy and safe levels, and at my last employer I even got kickback money for my excellent bloodwork, which was among the best in the company. I don't recommend high fat diets for people not pursuing serious strength, but it does seem to be that higher fat intake is essential if strength is your focus, so don't be afraid to experiment with higher fat intake. The 10% or less approach offered by the WFPB crowd and Forks Over Knives doctors simply does not cut it for getting strong.
On top of all that, I also just want to say F**K NATURAL. The appeal to nature fallacy is rampant in the vegan/plant-based movement, but let's be honest: "natural" does not exist, and the idea of eating fully "natural" holds a lot of athletes back physically (again, especially strength athletes). I eat lots of processed foods (mainly fake meats and protein powders), and since certain fake meats and protein powders have indisputably higher protein density than "natural" protein sources like beans or lentils, it just doesn't make sense to not eat "processed" fake meats if you have higher than normal protein requirements to meet your goals. Of course I still eat vegetables and fruit, and nuts, and seeds. I still eat "natural" foods, but I don't only eat natural foods. It's a balance between freakbeast-level protein requirements for strength training (which are not "natural"), and the cruciferous greens and antioxidant-abundant fruits that help us recover and grow optimally.
As a plant-based athlete, what sorts of foods do you prepare or pack when you travel?
I always bring protein powder with me, and protein bars as well. I notoriously get stopped at the TSA checkpoint when I fly, because the agents there always want to swab my protein and creatine. Traveling is no excuse to eat less protein or forego proper supplementation, so you must prepare to have your required goods by your side at all times. Other than basic protein sources, I usually have almonds or cashews for healthy sources of fat (and a fair amount of protein) to consume while in transit. It's easy to get carb-heavy foods wherever you go, but wholesome fats and proteins are not as easy to find in airports or gas stations, especially vegan sources, so I make sure I always have options with me. If I am just making a day drive for an event or a show, I will prep my usual meals of fake meats and green vegetables in Tupperware to eat in the car, but of course, if I have to fly somewhere it is more limiting, and that is when I rely more on supplemental foods like protein powder, bars, and nuts. Other than that, I just do my best to prep properly or stock a fridge as needed whenever I get to my destination.
How do you think your life would have been different had you not decided to become vegan?
I think I would feel shittier about my body and performance, be less motivated to act for change in the world, and I also think I would enjoy eating less, because it would be more opportune for me to make my food choices for granted. If I could eat treat foods like donuts or pizza everywhere, all the time, I'd–for one–be in much worse shape than I am now, and two, I'd be so glutted by those kinds of foods I'd likely take them for granted because it wouldn't be a big deal or special occasion to eat them. There is also the paradox that the dietary limitations I placed on myself by becoming an ethical vegan actually made me experiment with more kinds of foods. Before I went vegetarian (7 years before going vegan), I didn't know what falafel was. Then, even when I became vegan, I didn't know the joys of eating an Ethiopian veggie platter, or chana masala. All the years in which I had a million other generic food options in America, I never thought to try those cuisines, or many others. They seemed intimidatingly exotic and weird to my spoiled and sheltered mind. After going vegan I became more open to trying anything and everything that didn't have animal parts in it, and I found whole new worlds of flavor. Going vegan really encouraged me to open my palette up to new flavors and world cuisines, so I think eating has only become more interesting because of veganism. Convenience really does dull us more often than not.
Do you have any active living tips to share with vegans who are just beginning to exercise, or those who want to be more active?
Aim at a version of you that you want to be, and stay focused on that version of you, especially in the beginning because that ultimate focus might be the only thing to get you through the first part of the gauntlet. When I was a personal trainer, so many people would come in to train after New Year, and they would give up after the first month, or even sometimes before the first month, often just because of the "alarm reaction" of being sore after those first few workouts. You really have to give your body and nervous system time to adapt to the new movements you are teaching them to do, especially if you've been unconditioned most of your life. Being strong or in shape is a lifestyle, not just something you do from time to time. The adjustment to getting into better shape than you were before is almost always going to be most uncomfortable at first, but if you eat well (according to your goals), sleep well, and maintain some consistency with your training, you'll see major differences in the long term that you weren't able to discern in the day to day along the way. This is why AIM matters. Also, in a matter of time you'll notice that you're handling more volume and intensity than you were at first and you'll delight in the fact that you feel unphased by the very same weight or intensity that you used make you hobble around and groan for a week afterward. Conditioning simply takes time.
As a competitive powerlifter, I can say this: it took me about four years of inconsistent powerlifting training and developing my skills with compound lifts before I decided to get totally consistent and get the guts to start competing. Once I started competing, it took me almost another year to start placing in the top three or winning meets, and from there it took another year or so to start qualifying for national competitions. When I look back on it all, it was actually a really long process, but when I approached my goals day by day, workout by workout, programming cycle by programming cycle–all with my long term AIM in mind–it never felt like a monumental task at all. We must always proceed from where we are. Do not be ashamed to start wherever you are at. All that matters is that you do your best to move forward from there. F**k wherever anyone else is at. Where are you at?
What has been the greatest diet- or nutrition-related challenge for you as a plant-based athlete?
Back to talking about fat... The years it took me to discover the hormonal benefits of eating a higher fat intake were certainly filled with challenges. When I first started doing some form of weight training as a vegan, which would have been late 2010, I definitely started gaining a lot of weight, but I certainly didn't look great with my shirt off doing it. Granted, I am not in a sport where aesthetics matter, but still, no one wants to look flabby, especially when you do a lot of work in the gym and train hard. Furthermore, many of the most successful powerlifters and strongmen in the world are actually flabby as hell, but I found that the "bear mode" style of bulking didn't equate to efficient gains for me. Yes, I made some gains while hyper-bulking and eating every bit of vegan food in sight, but I realize now that I could have been more responsible with my diet and gotten just as strong, if not stronger, just as fast. Back then I was aiming for high protein target numbers each day, but I never evaluated how many carbs were attached to my protein sources. Once I started to experiment with the fat-carb-protein balance of my diet and began eating more fat overall, I found I was maintaining (or even gaining) strength while I was losing bodyweight and body fat percentage. That was a balance I had to find through experimentation, and it took time, but as of now I have my high-fat diet approach on lock, and I have been maintaining competition bodyweight while gradually improving my max strength ever since. People who haven't come to Team Vegan yet, especially the strong or aesthetically chiseled folks who train a lot, seem to most often have their doubts about veganism based on concerns of protein quality or protein quantity, but as I've found, the biggest issue is really about finding the right balance with fat consumption.
How do you promote muscle recovery?
I've got a four-pronged approach to recovery:
1) Meet caloric and macronutrient targets with your diet. Every day.
2) Supplement accordingly. (I find creatine and glutamine particularly helpful for managing soreness and fatigue, and other vitamins and minerals are essential as well, but I can get long-winded about all that...)
3) On average, sleep enough or slightly more than enough. Life happens, and sometimes sleeping well consistently can be really hard to achieve, especially if you're super busy or aspects of your life are in shambles. Research has shown that we can often get a away with 2 or 3 days of poor sleep before it really catches up with us in performance quality, but to chronically sleep poorly can shut down your ability to make gains quickly, even if you train, eat, and supplement properly. So do whatever you can to prioritize and defend your time to sleep as often as possible. Resting is actually when our bodies do the most repair work and replenish growth hormones.
4) Utilize recovery days in the gym to elongate tight or sore muscle groups and get more bloodflow to them. The more blood you get to affected muscles means more mineral and antioxidant delivery to relieve the soreness in stressed muscles.
To some people it may seem counterintuitive to train a sore muscle group more, but it's really about how you train it on non-heavy days that matters most. For example, in powerlifting you really can't annihilate any muscle group with high intensity training more than one day a week. That seems to be true about squats and bench most often, and regarding deadlifts, many advanced lifters can't train heavy even once a week because the central nervous load is too much to recover from in just one week (this is me at this point). So in between those heavy sessions for each major lift you need to be doing assistance work and variations of your major lifts with lighter weights to recover from the tears your created on your heavy days. Two days after heavy deadlifts, when my low back is about as sore as it can be, I will do hip thrust movements like high-rep kettlebell swings, light reverse hyperextension to engage my low back and glutes, or light deficit deadlifts for speed to engage my hamstrings and lats, and I find these approaches very helpful for deadlift recovery, which is also key to recovery for squats since squat and deadlift muscle groups overlap.
What are some athletic achievements you’d like to highlight?
Last year I placed second in the 82.5kg weight class at the IPL Drug Tested World Powerlifting Championships in Ireland. It was my first time traveling abroad to compete, and I think the stress of the long travel and extreme time zone change caused me to sleep poorly and come down with a cold, so I ended up missing my target weight class of 75kg by about half a kg. Had I made my intended weight I would have placed first in the 75kg weight class. Either way, I consider that trip a success, and I learned a lot about managing my health when traveling to compete. Also, to be at the absolute bottom of a weight class in terms of bodyweight and place near the top is something worth noting.
The year before I was the only vegan male to compete in the USAPL Raw Nationals in Washington. USAPL qualification standards are considerably tougher to meet than USPA/IPL standards, and the USAPL two-hour weigh-in rule is a real killer. I did very poorly at that meet, again due to travel factors and the two-hour weigh-in, but I do consider it an accomplishment to have qualified to be there, I am proud that I've been able to put up numbers that have qualified me for the highest levels of competition in both major powerlifting organizations in the world, and likewise rank in the top quartile of lifters for each. Aside from that, I have won first or placed in the top three at most of my local or qualifying meets, and though that doesn't necessarily mean anything in terms of national or international rankings, it's always nice to win and represent for the animals.
Daniel on the No-B.S. Vegan podcast
Daniel joined me on episode 016 of the No-Bullshit Vegan podcast for a discussion of how to eat to be strong, myths about the vegan strength lifestyle, and why more vegans should be in strength sports.
The Badass Vegan Athlete Series
Sprouted Gains: Your guide to gaining muscle, losing fat, and fuelling your strength training on a plant-based diet.
Karina's ebook, Sprouted Gains, shows you how to enjoy delicious plant-based foods while making sure you nail your fitness and physique goals.
The best part? You don't have to cut carbs, chug 3 protein shakes a day, forgo your favourite foods, or spend 5 hours meal prepping every Sunday.