Every few months, a familiar argument takes place on bodybuilding forums. More often than not, the fight descends into a mix of profanity, name-calling and the familiar accusations of being a “social justice warrior.” This, however, isn’t the result of the political debates that dominate every conversation and timeline these days — not directly at least.
It’s about whether or not bodybuilders should be vegans.
Needless to say, veganism is now mainstream. Writing in The Guardian, Dan Hancox describes how a growing movement of young people wanting to be ethically conscious about their food intake and carbon footprint, alongside the power of Instagram and YouTube influencers advertising vegan products and lifestyles, has made veganism the “quintessential lifestyle trend.” And last year, the health website Food Revolution estimated that six percent of Americans had converted to vegan lifestyles in just three short years — a boost of 600 percent since 2014.
Much of this growth has been driven by the fitness world. On Reddit, Vegan Fitness is among the site’s most popular forums, with more than 37,000 members talking about vegan diets and environmentally friendly ways of exercising. Meanwhile, there’s a growing number of male bodybuilders — including Torre Washington, Korin Sutton and Max Seabrook — who promote plant-based methods of getting swole as well.
So why does the culture of “vegan gains,” at least on the internet, seem so turbulent?
“The main fight is over whether vegan diets make you lose muscle,” says Mike Barns, a member of Bodybuilding.com and numerous other fitness sites. Barns started getting into bodybuilding a few years ago, and late last year, he decided to go vegan, largely because of the cost of meat, which “was way too expensive if you wanted to eat good quality, clean cuts every day.”
Like most people into fitness, he spent a lot of time on forums, Facebook groups and in the comment sections of YouTube, sometimes finding himself in heated debates with other bodybuilders. He describes the arguments as being “over stupid things like how many macros a certain food has and whether a fitness guy is bluffing about his body. It’s all mundane stuff, but it can go on for days. Sometimes it even ruins friendships.”
According to Barns, though, veganism has created a new set of rifts — the main difference being that “veganism is more openly political in the fitness world. Like when you say you’re going vegan, it’s not just like, ‘I’m making a different dietary choice.’ It’s saying that guys who eat meat — or who drink dairy-based whey — are unethically building their bodies.”
“It’s why some guys get so irrationally angry at vegans,” Barns continues. “You also have some high-profile vegans who have built their bodies on plant-based diets that act as if they’re morally superior. Just look at hashtags like #noanimalsharmed or #crueltyfreegains, and you’ll see comments saying how non-vegans, even vegetarians, are pursuing their goals unethically.”
The personality who best represents this conflict, Burns says, is Richard Burgess, who goes by Vegan Gains on YouTube. His channel started as one of the more innovative in the online fitness space — among the few that focused on plant-based muscle-building. But in recent years, it’s come under criticism, both because of Burgess’ aggressive behavior toward other YouTubers and because of his antagonistic behavior toward those who eat meat — both inside and outside the fitness community. In fact, in 2016, he was publicly called out after making a video in which he appeared to “threaten violence towards those who mistreat animals,” a statement that he’s since apologized for, saying he made it to “stir up controversy” and “get views.”
Vegan Gains might be on the extreme end of the spectrum, but Barns says his popularity on YouTube shows that “culture matters just as much, if not more so, in bodybuilding spaces as it does elsewhere.” He says that other vegan fitness YouTube personalities such as Vegan Physique and Joey Carbstrong all produce videos that promote vegan diets on the surface, but are made in ways that suggest that “eating plant-based foods elevates you as an individual — as if you’re working toward building a physique that’s unattainable to anyone who eats meat. Worse yet, there’s a sense of moralism that comes with them.”
Which to Barns, who as a vegan bodybuilder would ostensibly be the target audience, is a shame. “At one time, fitness was about individual self-improvement — and you’d use any means at your disposal to do so. Now it’s much less about that. It’s not about improving your body or your state of mind. It’s become about making a statement to the rest of the world. Part of that might be because of the impact of social media, and the communities it fosters. But a lot of it is the result of these bigger cultural battles — Right v. Left, ‘SJW’ v. ‘Conservative’ — that have taken over our entire lives.
“So it’s less about fitness fundamentally changing, and more about politics influencing fitness culture.”