Most people don't think of the terms "vegan" and "bodybuilding" as remotely related.
After all, how do you bulk up eating kale and sweet potatoes? Well, you might want to rethink your idea of bodybuilding.
Meet Natalie Matthews, a professional bodybuilder who’s powered by tofu. She’s also a certified vegan chef who loves to surprise people by revealing that she’s attained her chiseled body from solely eating a plant-based diet.
“I thought, ‘What better way to break the stereotype of being vegan than to be a walking billboard'” says Natalie, 28, a three-time Naturally Fit Federation bikini pro who lives in Houston and Instagrams as @fitveganchef. “Many people believe that it is impossible to build muscle, be strong and be healthy as a vegan. I'm here to show you that it is possible.”
Natalie has been vegetarian since her Puerto Rican childhood when she ate around the meat on her plate—tough to do since her culture's cuisine is very meat-forward. About five years ago, she also dropped the dairy to support her husband whose doctor recommended giving up milk and cheese to see if his sinuses improved. “I noticed such a difference. My acne cleared up and I had so much energy and focus that there was no going back,” says Natalie. “I’m in the best shape of my life not despite, but because of, the vegan lifestyle. There are vegan athletes all over the world thriving and dominating in all different sports.”
Her main strategy is to make sure she gets enough protein. Her favourite sources include:
The UK's dietary reference protein Intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. So, if you weigh 60kg, you should be eating around 48g of protein a day. During her training season, Natalie packs in more than double that amount at 110 grams and makes sure that 80% of her diet consists of whole foods.
Even during her off-season, she eats a lot. “One of my favourite things about being a vegan athlete is the tremendous volume of food I can eat,” says Natalie. “Plant-based foods are comparatively low in calories so you can fill up your stomach. I always feel healthy, properly fueled and satisfied.”
Women's Health asked her to let us peek into her daily food journal and check out her favourite recipes. Here's a typical eating day for Natalie:
Natalie starts every morning by drinking a big glass of water and a cup of black coffee sweetened with stevia. She likes to work out early in the morning, so her go-to meal is a bowl of oats and berries, which are filling but not too heavy before she starts lifting.
If she’s not in the mood for oats, she’ll make a protein smoothie bowl or eat fruit with homemade pumpkin granola. On weekends, she can be found whipping up her gluten-free vegan protein waffles, which include vegan protein powder, oats, flax meal and cacao nibs.
After her workout, she’s famished and eats a mix of protein, carbs and fats for recovery. She makes what she calls a macro bowl by adding lentils or tofu to a base of rice, potatoes or pasta. She then piles on steamed green vegetables, salad greens, probiotic raw sauerkraut and a tablespoon of nutritional yeast to add a cheesy flavour.
For healthy fats, she drizzles tahini mixed with lemon juice or adds pumpkin seeds and avocado. “This is a great meal to pack and bring with you on the go,” says Matthews. “I try to eat every color in the rainbow in that bowl.”
If she gets hungry while she’s answering emails, she dips into her stash of signature energy bites. Imagine cookie-dough balls made of dates, oats, vegan protein powder and peanut butter.
Other standbys are hummus with pitta or homemade chocolate peanut butter protein bars.
For dinner, she mixes up a batch of her famous (non-fried) vegan fried rice that’s made with tofu, rice, steamed veggies, garlic, and the anti-inflammatory spice turmeric. She’ll satisfy her sweet tooth with a probiotic kombucha.
“It feels good to know I’m helping my health and the environment and being compassionate towards animals,” says Matthews. “Now is a great time to be vegan because you can go to any grocery store or restaurant and find vegan options.”