Derek Tresize has an unreal body. The 24-year-old has been bodybuilding on a plant-based diet for five years. This summer, he took third place in his class at the North American Natural Bodybuilding Federation competition, his second contest.
He grew up a multitalented athlete in San Diego. At age 19, he began reading the works of Dr. Joel Fuhrman (who invented the ANDI scale, which Whole Foods uses), Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (whose works are the subject of the documentary Forks Over Knives, about the health benefits of a plant-based diet). His reading convinced him to convert to a vegan diet, and he says his athletic performance increased across the board. He's now the director of personal training at a gym in Richmond, Virginia; a model; a "vegangelist"; and a competitive bodybuilder.
(See yesterday's profile of Danny David, a fitness guru who trains with vegan foods.)
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With a degree in biology and a plant-based nutrition certification from Cornell University, Tresize seems like a pretty scholarly dude. So I called on him to explain how bowling-ball-size biceps and organic radishes came to find a home in the same body.
Derek Tresize: I would agree with them. [Laughs.] Bodybuilding at a competitive level is all about pushing beyond your body's natural homeostasis and natural frame and trying to put on as much muscle as you can. I would agree that that's not a natural process and probably not ideal for long-term health. You're spending tons of time breaking down and rebuilding muscle. And a lot of studies show that calorie restriction [and not overconsumption] leads to a longer life in animals.
So why the heck do you body build?
[Laughs.] I like being big and strong! It's fun to be physically impressive, and that's the entire sport of bodybuilding -- trying to become physically impressive.
But it's also a great mode of spreading awareness. It gets people's attention. If you're a big, muscular guy and you say, "Hey, I eat this diet," people are going to pay more attention to me than say, a scrawny, pale "land vegan." So it's very effective in that regard. I do consider bodybuilding as somewhat of an unhealthy sport in that you're pushing your body beyond its limits, physically. But if you're gonna do it, it makes a lot more sense to do it on a plant-based diet. I mean, if you're just packing your body constantly with animal protein, you have to be stressing your heart, stressing your kidneys, stressing your skeletal system.
How did all of this start?
I was pretty much a red-meat, chicken, and broccoli guy before, which is what you see a lot of the strength trainers doing. Then I just started learning about the negative effects of animal protein on the body, and I thought I'd give it a shot. Just from reading in Dr. Campbell's China Study, and from Dr. Fuhrman's book Eat to Live, you hear over and over the promotion of cancer, the promotion of heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, significant problems that afflict millions of people.
Heart disease and cancer both run in my family. So I tried going 30 days without touching [animal products], and I noticed right away, aside from food cravings, I felt much cleaner. That's the best word -- you feel cleaner inside. Then, after the 30 days, I went back to trying to eat those foods again, and they made me really sick. And so that was kind of a wake-up call.
First thing, I lost a ton of weight, but it was body fat. It went from 12 percent to seven percent over a couple months. Which is a huge drop. I hadn't been able to do that with a whey protein diet, or with tons of cardio. But just by changing what I ate, the fat disappeared.
I was doing some endurance stuff at the time, but when I came back to lifting, probably six months after, once I had gotten my stride back, I noticed I'd gotten quite a lot stronger than I was. Which at first surprised me, but now it doesn't. The more I know, the more I realize that this is the ideal diet that we're built for.
What do you mean by that?
Just based on our physiology, based on our digestive system, we're really geared towards breaking down plant material. But all athletes are like, "No, you need to have animal protein -- it's a complete protein, all the amino acids," and all that, so I was kinda surprised to get leaner and get stronger pretty quickly.
I looked at all the medical studies and disease rates. People that eat a plant-based diet are healthier. And I looked at comparisons of us to a lion and to a horse. And we're nearly identical to the horse and nothing like the lion in terms of our digestive tract, which is pretty interesting. Because a lot of people would assume the inverse. And also look at us in terms of behavior. Carnivorous animals will be active a very short period of time. Like a lion will sleep 20 hours a day and be active for, say, four. Versus horses, you know, they spend their whole day foraging. So they're awake a long time. And people. People sleep eight hours; they're active for 16, 18 hours. And then you look at our teeth. Definitely not designed for catching and killing animals. So it really does make sense that we're designed to eat plants, and not eating plants causes problems.
Conventional bodybuilders use specific tonics and formulas to achieve specific physical goals. Is it the same for vegan bodybuilders? If so, what products serve what purpose?
I use some of the same products others do, but I know of raw vegan bodybuilders who don't eat anything cooked, anything processed, and they still are able to build their bodies.
I do use a protein supplement. It's called Sunwarrior Raw Vegan brown rice protein. It's a concentrated protein source, but it's raw. I also use a nitric oxide product. I've tried creatine in the past, and I haven't really noticed many results on it. It does occur naturally in meat. It's in animal muscles, so we make it in our muscles. But it's very cheap to make synthetically, so the supplements are universally made in a lab [and not derived from animals].
I've also had hemp protein blends. I know it's got some really good properties. But I get 80 to 90 percent of my protein from food. I'll have probably 300 grams of protein in a day, which is a lot. And probably I get about 50 grams from a powder and 250 grams from food.
How many calories do you eat a day?
Usually between four and six thousand.
Woah! What do you eat? Plants are not dense, calorie-wise. It's hard to imagine how much spinach or kale you must be eating. Or do you get more of those calories from quinoa? What's your typical diet?
I have to eat this much as a vegan to keep this amount of weight on. But I was eating just 2,000 calories a day and I weighed the same when I was a carnivore. Animal proteins promote growth the same way they promote cancer growth. They increase things like your sex hormones, your insulin, your human growth hormone, and that's why bodybuilders eat tons of it, because it makes growth easier.
I look at that as a healthier thing because I'm not eating those growth-promoting foods that promote the growth of things like cancer, body fat, etc., etc. And in our population, where obesity is such a problem, you can eat way more calories on a plant-based diet and have lower body fat and a lower body mass index.
Can a vegan bodybuilder achieve the same size that a conventional bodybuilder can?
Mainstream bodybuilders, the ones you see in magazines, are pretty universally on anabolic steroids. I've never heard of a vegan bodybuilder using anabolic steroids, but if one did, he would probably be able to, under the exact same conditions, go just as far.
But I think eating meat is almost the same as taking anabolic steroids. You're doing the same things to your body. It's just that much more potently effective in that regard.