Vegetarian bodybuilding? Is such a thing even possible?
Oftentimes when vegetarians embark on the weightlifting adventure, they’re met with derision from those already on the path. How could you possibly get in enough protein? Won’t your diet be carb heavy? And how do you plan to avoid deficiencies?
Today’s post, examining the vegetarian diet of bodybuilding legend, Bill Pearl, suggest that it is. Whilst nowadays most lifters think meat is the only way to go, Iron legends have been more open to different means of attaining a solid physique. Given that Pearl was a five time Mr. Universe and one of the greatest bodybuilders not to win an Olympia, any diet he adhered to is good enough for me.
So what did Bill eat and what can aspiring vegetarian bodybuilders learn from him?
Well before discussing Bill’s specific vegetarian diet, it must be noted that Pearl was not born a vegetarian. Until his late thirties, the five time Mr. Universe consumed animal products with gusto. Horsing down vast quantities of red meat, liver and milk in his quest to become bodybuilding’s biggest star. In fact, it wasn’t until a workplace health check revealed to Pearl that his cholesterol levels were dangerously high that he decided to become a vegetarian.
In Bill’s accounts, the revelation that he was a prime candidate for a heart attack and that cholesterol ran through his veins like syrup, was enough to see him change his ways. From that point on, Bill and his wife Judy became lacto-ovo vegetarians. This understandably, changed Bill’s dietary approach considerably. Prior to his health check, the muscleman had been eating something along the lines of:
- Tomato Juice with Brewer’s Yeast
Two of the following:
- Eggs fried in butter or corn oil
- Whole grain toast with butter
- Milk with Hoffman Protein Powder
- Oatmeal with Raisins, Honey and Milk
- Wheat Germ Cereal with Milk and Honey
- Pancakes/Waffles made with Whole Grain Flour and Honey
- French Toast Made with Whole Grain Bread plus preserves
- 1/2 Pound Broiled Ground Beef
- Liver cooked in butter or corn oil
- Cheese Omelette
- Meat (Beef, Chicken, Fish or Ham) or Protein Shake (Milk, Raw Eggs, Protein Powder)
- Large salad (consisting of green vegetables, avocados, cheese) or a Hot Soup
- Similar to Lunch
Bill liked meat as was clear from his old way of eating. Nevertheless with Pearl’s change to vegetarianism, he did a complete dietary 180. Describing his new way of eating to Bodybuilding.com a number of years ago, Bill detailed his vegetarian meal plans as shown below.
Vegetarian Bulking Routine
- Six or Seven Eggs (Removing the yolks from 3-4 eggs)
- A generous portion of fresh fruit and raw vegetables
- Similar to Breakfast
- Meat substitute (Tofu, Tempeh, Soy etc.)
- Fresh Vegetables (Raw or Cooked)
- Fruit (Cantaloupe, Watermelon or Honeydew)
- 14 ounces of Protein Powder consumed throughout the day
As regards food groups, Pearl focused on vast quantities of eggs, dairy, legumes, lentils, and fresh fruits/vegetables to fuel his physique. Pearl would aim to hit roughly 3,500 calories a day when bulking and roughly 2,500 calories when preparing for contest. Below being Pearl’s contest prep diet:
Contest Prep/Weightloss Diet
- Three Poached Eggs
- Lowfat cottage cheese
- Homemade soup (Lentils, Beans, Cabbage, Carrots, Tomatoes, Celery and Onions)
- Big Salad
- Diet Soft Drink
- High Fibre Fruit
Did it work for him?
While Pearl had won the majority of his bodybuilding titles prior to his conversion to vegetarianism, the above diet saw him emerge victorious in the 1971 Mr. Universe contest against fellow Bodybuilding legends Reg Park, Frank Zane and Sergio Oliva. So in that sense, it worked very well for him.
On a personal level too, Pearl found himself much happier and healthier eating a vegetarian diet, later revealing in an interview that
WHEN I CHANGED MY DIET OVER, I HAD LESS AND LESS JOINT PROBLEMS. ALL THE POISONS FOUND IN YOUR SYSTEM SUCH AS URIC ACID . . . IS GOING TO BE STORED IN THE JOINTS OF THE BODY IF IT CAN’T BE EXPELLED THROUGH THE KIDNEYS OR LIVER. I THINK YOU’LL HAVE LESS AND LESS JOINT PROBLEMS THE LONGER YOU ARE OFF RED MEATS, ESPECIALLY GLAND MEATS. I AM REALLY AGAINST ORGAN MEATS SUCH AS LIVER. I THINK IT IS ONE OF THE WORST FOODS YOU CAN CONSUME, IN MY OPINION.
Lessons from this tale?
Firstly, listen to your body. Whilst Pearl was achieving great things on a meat based diet, it was having an adverse effect overall on his health. Similarly his move to vegetarianism removed several small health issues he was having. By listening to his body and not being afraid to experiment, Pearl was able to find a diet that suited him.
And secondly, vegetarian bodybuilding, although rarer than meat based bodybuilding, is more than possible.