Vegan Strongman Patrik Baboumian is proof that you CAN be strong, muscular or athletic whilst being on a plant-based diet
This issue we’re taking a look at protein, and exploring protein-packed ‘wheat meat’ seitan, so we thought we better talk to a super strong leviathan of a human who also happens to be vegan – just to finally put to bed the common misconception that you can’t be strong, muscular, or athletic on a plant-based diet.
Enter Patrik Baboumian: ‘The Armenian Viking’, ‘The Vegan Badass’, an arm wrestling, power-lifting strongman somewhere between Wolverine and The Incredible Hulk. For those that don’t know, Patrik is something of a veteran when it comes to contests of sheer strength.
‘I have been a competitive athlete and have taken part in countless competitions in different varieties of strength sports for twenty one years. Starting with arm wrestling, then followed by power lifting and body building up to strongman – I tried everything during these twenty years that came my way, and in some of these sports I had reason to celebrate some major achievements like national and international titles and world records. I have taken parts in five word championships in strongman with my best result being a fourth place at log-lifting worlds in Vilnius Lithuania 2011. I have won a European champions title in raw powerlifting in Finland 2012 and I have set multiple world records as a vegan between 2012 and 2013.’
To help tackle the stereotype that ‘vegans are weak and don’t get enough protein’, Patrik Baboumian has written a book called Vrebellion with fiancée Katy Statetzny. The book also offers an insight into his very personal approach to vegan nutrition.
‘I wrote the book on the one hand to answer frequently asked questions about vegan nutrition and how my diet enables me to gain weight, power and muscles. On the other hand I want to provide a little insight into the unique particularities of my vegan diet, because I simply think that there are certain things I do differently. Maybe I can give one or two useful hints to people interested in the vegan lifestyle regarding how they can understand what it involves in practical terms that would save them time and trouble.’
A book like Patrik and Katy’s is much needed while so many people still assume that meat, eggs, and dairy are superior sources of protein, and that vegan diets are therefore deficient. So we asked Patrik what he says to those people who still believe in the whole ‘vegans don’t get protein’ myth…
‘I believe that there is a simple error in reasoning that plays a big role here: as soon as somebody mentions that he or she is living on a diet that is based purely on plant products, people immediately assume greens and vegetables. The first picture that comes to mind when one hears the word ‘vegan’ is a diet consisting mainly of vegetables and salad. We know that vegetables and salad consist mainly of water, so presumably one has to eat gigantic amounts of vegetables and salad in order to gain any weight. That’s why many people probably ask themselves how one can get so heavy while on a vegan diet. How is this even possible?
Well, you simply have to think about the fact that a vegan diet does not consist of salad and vegetables alone but also food like nuts or legumes with high calorie content. Even if we consider the food that many meat-eaters rely on as a source of energy, we find that much of it is of plant origin as well. Whether it is potatoes or oatmeal, rice or noodles made from durum wheat semolina, there are plenty of wonderful sources of energy for the body that are not meat. Peanuts, for example, are a wonderful source of protein. They contain a higher amount of protein than a steak and have a higher energy density than most animal products. The peanut contains lots of vegetable fats as well. It’s wonderfully suited to supply us with calories and with protein. I could go on and on about all kinds of other legumes like beans, lentils, or peas and list their contents as well. We would find that it is possible to supply one’s protein requirements as well as one’s energy needs through crop products without any problems. And, as you can see merely by looking at me, you can get fairly chubby through plant products as well.’
Patrik is irrefutable living proof that sheer strength and athletic prowess is in no way inhibited by a vegan diet, and that plant foods actually offer athletes more protein as well as numerous other added health benefits. Looking at Patrik, you could be forgiven for thinking that nutrition was his primary motivation for switching to a vegan diet, but it turns out that it wasn’t the benefits to his strength and performance that convinced the strongman to change the way he ate.
‘For many people I know, external factors have played a crucial role in their decision for a vegetarian diet or vegan lifestyle. For me, personally, that wasn’t the case. For me, at a certain point, a thinking process started. While following this train of thought, I reflected on my own actions and realized that my meat consumption wasn’t compatible with my own worldview and the compassion I felt for the animals. It was this contradiction that became clear to me and on which my decision to stop eating meat was based. The decision making was done in rather level-headed way.
There were no emotional, external factors that influenced me. What I realised after thinking about it was that all my life, starting in childhood, I always had felt very compassionate for animals. This was expressed in my need to help animals that were in danger or distress. For example I tried to nurse an injured bird back to health and let it stay over winter at my home. Another time I spent a whole day with a former girlfriend to save tadpoles from a puddle that was drying out. We provided refuge for a little abandoned hedgehog (Harald) one autumn to let him hibernate in our house and set him free the next spring. One day I realised the fact that when I see, on the one hand, a bird suffer in front of my eyes and I have the urge to help it that this is inconsistent with me going, on the other hand, into a supermarket the same day and buying chicken breasts or eating half a chicken that had to die for my meal.
It makes absolutely no sense that I feel compassion for the bird in the first case and that I don’t care at all about the product that I consume in the latter case. I understood relatively fast that in the one case I saw the suffering directly before my eyes and in the other case it just wasn’t visible. I also repressed the fact that my own consumer behaviour lead to animal suffering, just like the greatest part of our society does every day. But I didn’t want to carry on with that. I realised that I could not reconcile this with my own conscience and I had to make a decision. The decision could lead in two directions. One possibility could have been to decide not to be compassionate anymore and to say: “It’s important to me to be able to eat meat and not care about the animals.” The other possibility was to follow my compassion and change something about my life. I had to stop letting my habits as a consumer be responsible for the death of animals.’
Patrik’s decision to go vegan was informed by ethics – realising there was that unconscious hypocrisy, that disconnect between his affection and care for animals, and the food he ate on a regular basis. Patrik hasn’t looked back since that moment of clarity and the decision to change, but he didn’t plunge into veganism without some concerns about how this new and different diet might change things for him.
‘To be honest I was very anxious how switching to a plant-based diet would affect my performances before I went vegan. The interesting thing was that none of my fears became true. I had expected that everything would be very hard for me to get used to. But that wasn’t the case. It was much easier than I had anticipated. Above all things this desire for dairy products was “swept away” within one or two weeks. In retrospect this is hardly surprising because when you’re addicted to something and you’re abstinent for a while the addiction is cured after some time. Within two weeks I had no urge to drink milk anymore. I had no yearning to consume anything that contained milk or dairy products. The second thing was my performance. I had assumed that it would suffer but nothing of that sort happened. My sporting prowess was totally stable, the only thing that changed was that my overall sense of well-being noticeably improved. I suffered from constant heartburn when I still consumed dairy products and was chronically overly acidified due to the gigantic amounts of animal protein that I consumed. It’s important to know that animal protein contains especially high amounts of sulphur containing amino acids. This leads to an over-acidification of the body. This becomes evident when one gets heartburn and the fiendish thing about that situation is that at first it helps to drink milk. The stomach has something to do in this moment and the acid gets balanced. Though that was my reasoning, I didn’t realise that the heartburn was caused by dairy products in the first place. I only understood that when I started to omit dairy products that the heartburn disappeared after two or three days. I asked myself what had happened. Before I switched to a vegan diet I had feared that I would die of heartburn without milk. I had assumed that dairy goods were a remedy for heartburn, whereas in reality they are the cause of it.
So for the record – and let us savour this one: Nothing of all the things I had feared had become true. What actually happened was the opposite of everything I had expected. My athletic performance stayed stable and even improved in the long run. Today I am significantly stronger than I used to be. And my well-being improved fundamentally. My acid-base balance is regulated, the heartburn improved, these were naturally only two aspects. If you have a balanced acid alkaline metabolism there are a whole lot of other bodily effects that are very positive. For example you recover faster after athletic training. A balanced acid-base metabolism is important for the body to be able to absorb nutrients. If your body is too acidic it can’t digest protein adequately and for a strength athlete who is concerned about a sufficient protein supply this is a nightmare. As a strength athlete you are anxious to consume huge amounts of protein. What you want to achieve with it is to make your body develop a considerable quantity of muscle and this demands a substantial amount of building material which, after all, is protein that has to be consumed with your daily nutrition. When your body is hyper acidic and consequently can’t absorb protein this is actually one of the worst things that can happen to you as a strength athlete. By changing to a vegan diet and omitting animal protein this has shifted to a gigantic part in a positive direction.
My recommendation to anyone who is striving for optimal athletic performance is to gather all knowledge he or she can get no matter if they are vegan or not. But for vegan athletes it is particularly important to educate themselves, as many coaches and nutritionists simply do not have sufficient knowledge on the subject and often give false advice – or even refuse to give any advice as they fear to be caught clueless on the topic.’
The Armenian Viking has had a long career full of phenomenal achievements, but the triumphs he’s racked up while vegan have helped smash long-standing stereotypes about plant-based living, and silenced the sceptics. It must be hard to single out something specific but, to tie up our talk with Patrik Baboumian, we asked him to tell us about his proudest moment.
‘A world record is always something very special. The moment when you realise you made it and the feeling that overtakes you then for the first few seconds are difficult to put into words. However, the world record that I established in Toronto was something very special to me. For the very first time I targeted a record for the sole reason of sending a message on behalf of veganism. Of course I have used my sport for years now to fight against the prejudices of the meat eating faction and try to clear things up. But this time I had travelled halfway around the world to not only take part in an organised competition but to raise my flag at the biggest vegan-vegetarian event in North America, and that’s why I felt an enormous tension before the record-breaking bid. I knew that when I would be successful this would result in a huge media response and I would generate lots of attention for my work on behalf of animal rights. That’s why, apart from the 555 kilograms I lifted, a great responsibility also weighed heavily on my shoulders and I nearly exploded when it was clear that I did it.
The record-breaking bid was, by the way, filmed for a documentary film called Game Changers. In Game Changers many amazing athletes who, like me, take part in typically male dominated sports and are committed to vegetarianism or veganism will get a chance to speak as living proof against the myth that there is a relation between meat consumption and muscularity. The documentary will be directed by academy award winning director Louie Psihoyos with none other than James Cameron being the executive producer so I’m very proud and honoured to be part of it.
I am planning to do one big final strike for ‘Game Changers’ at the end of this summer. I can’t say what it will exactly be but I can already tell you that I will try to do something that will overshadow everything I have done before and thus make a final statement in the name of VEGAN-POWER! ’
‘Vrebellion’ is available now. To get a copy and find out more about Patrik visit: www.veganbadass.com