So, I was interviewed and featured in an Indian magazine catering for vegetarians and vegans. You can subscribe and read more over at – www.vegplanet.in. Here is the VegPlanet interview.
Name: Azadbir Singh Athwal
Profession: Personal Trainer
1. Why did you, as a bodybuilder, quit meat & dairy products and become a vegan?
I was previously an omnivore. Up until 2011. It was then that I went vegetarian because I felt hypocritical. Every time I watched a factory farming video or slaughter video I’d look the other way. That didn’t sit well with me so I made the step to vegetarianism. Then in November of 2015, I decided to go vegan after a few months of intense reading and research. It definitely wasn’t a quick overnight decision because I knew it would be a long-term thing for myself (and my brother actually, he’s also vegan – we watched and read everything at the same time).
I guess it dawned on me that I can’t be against the killing of innocent animals so much [why I went vegetarian] but be ok with the exploitation of animals for my dairy products. It’s the same thing I was against – the exploitation of innocent beings.
2. What do you eat instead of meat, dairy, and poultry products?
I eat a plant-based diet. We are lucky enough in the UK to have vegan alternatives for any dairy and meat product you can think of. We have milk, cheese, yoghurts and even kebabs and sausages all available from organic and vegan sources. This makes eating your favourite dishes really easy and not much of a change at all. I eat quite a lot of fruit, nuts and whole grains daily to get in the calories I need for my goals. Nut butters, oats, bran flakes, basmati rice, tofu, fruits (at least 5 variations), soya milk, pea protein powder and wholemeal bread/roti are staples in my daily routine.
I commonly get asked about protein. Extra firm tofu makes a great replacement for eggs; seitan is a pound for pound alternative to chicken breast; and there are many vegan protein powders out there to aid with intake too. There’s protein in almost everything so honestly it’s never a concern. So as long as you track your macros and know a little about food you’ll be fine.
3. Your inspiration for your transformation?
I have many inspirations in the world of fitness. I wouldn’t say I have a transformation yet – as in it isn’t over. I continue to transform daily, both mentally and physically. I think the whole ‘before and after’ thing is partly what’s wrong with the fitness community. It implies an end destination.
Back to the point, I was first inspired by my chacha (uncle) who had a great physique. It was through him I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger and got into the gym myself. My physique and content inspirations are Rob Riches and Ulisses Jr.
4. Any inspiring story behind your transformation?
Well I started out at 16 years old weighing around 50kg. A typically skinny Indian kid who was quite athletic but very slim, I had 8 inch arms! When I got to college level there were other guys who worked out harder than me, at this stage I only did home workouts so I had to go up a level so I decided to join the gym in December 2008 (aged 17) and I’ve never looked back since. Just 3 years later, I won a local strongman competition. I weighed 74 kilos and I deadlifted 200kg.
I ate a huge deal because I quickly realised I’d never really get fat. I guess I’d just like to inspire the slimmer guys out there who think it’s hard to put on mass. You need to eat big and lift big.
5. Where do you workout (parks, home, or gym)?
I workout at Lifestyle Fitness in Quinton, Birmingham. It’s a multi disciplinary commercial gym with some great facilities. It has all the strongman equipment I want to use. It has weightlifting platforms, a sled, and all the standard equipment you can expect to have at a good gym.
6. Your favourite supplement products, please mention the brands too.
I love soya protein isolate and creatine monohydrate from MyProtein. I also use Reflex vegan protein daily. I keep my stack small. Currently these two are the main things I take alongside vitamin D, vitamin b12, vegan DHA, turmeric and Udos Oil.
7. Please mention any challenges or hurdles you faced during your transformation.
Getting up everyday can be a challenge. I workout at 6am so fellow early birds will know about this one. I’m not going to lie and act like I spring out of bed. When life has you stressed and tired it can be horrible to leave a warm bed. But I get up and get things done because they need to be done.
Generally if you ignore your bodies signals which lead to idleness and comfort, you’re going the right way. With regards to other challenges, I’d say eating would be number one on the list. As a low responder and hard gainer it has always been the factor which I’ve had to pay the most attention to. I’ve always had abs after the age of 13 and before that I just don’t remember. I don’t think I cared. I’ve been up to 5000 calories daily and I still maintained some form of lean physique. I’m highly active and train very hard with weights. That’s the easy part for me. But to eat enough to grow is definitely challenging. This is definitely a bigger challenge on a vegan diet. For my goals, it is harder on a vegan diet (mainly because of convenience and eating out), but for me the ethical and environmental reasons outweigh the convenience.
Other than that I’ve always been happy with the idea that you only grow outside your comfort zone. I like to be grateful that I can actually take time out to exercise and increase my fitness and performance. Many people on the planet don’t have that luxury.
8. How do other non-vegan bodybuilders react when they come to know that you’re a vegan?
Generally the first response I get is of hate. There’s so many bad connotations with the word vegan, which is why I’ve decided to use the term ‘plant based’. It’s so much more intriguing and the response isn’t so harsh. Non vegans are usually concerned with my protein intake, vitamins, and minerals usually even if they don’t know anything about their own intake. I don’t blame them. It’s really hard to try to see things from a completely different viewpoint. To look outside of your own tunnel vision is difficult. I can only draw comparison to when I was an omnivore. I never even looked at what the definition of a vegan was. I didn’t know there was such a thing and whenever Earthlings or McDonald’s farms mistreatment videos were played on the screen in college, I’d be too busy purposefully ignoring them by messing around and having a laugh with friends. But once you do try to watch a documentary or read a book with an open mind (this is really difficult to do) and with no ego getting in the way, it’s amazing how much you can change your views. People who are vegetarian generally react in a more positive manner because they have some shared viewpoints.
I think it comes down to education. Once people know what vegans are and why they’ve made the decision to stop supporting animal exploitation, then I think there can be some respect. Once you look into the information and the studies, it really isn’t much harder to create the physique you want and get stronger on a vegan diet. However, I’d agree that it is less convenient.
9. Have you received any awards related to bodybuilding.
I have only competed in competitions where I actually do something with my body. No disrespect to bodybuilders but it isn’t really up my alley. I enjoy strongman, powerlifting, and rep based competitions like maximum push-ups, pull-ups etc of which I have 5 or 6 trophies. Competing in strength sports is something I want to go further into very soon, especially drug free powerlifting. I think I have what it takes to be an elite lifter in either the 75kg or 82kg weight class. I’m much more interested in a body that can perform also. I’ve seen many great physiques over the years of people who can’t lift much weight or get into positions which require basic mobility and really for this reason, they aren’t that impressive to me. They are representing the fitness industry and aren’t really fit for anything apart from Instagram photos. Weightlifters are my ideal athletes.
10. Any health tips for VegPlanet readers?
VegPlanet readers should consume 5-7 fruit and vegetable servings daily and use pea protein/soya protein/vegan blends to supplement protein intake although this isn’t necessary. Tofu, lentils, beans, nuts and green vegetables not only provide protein, but a whole array of vitamins and minerals. I’d go with either fortified foods or supplements for things like vitamin b12, Omega 3 (DHA), calcium, vitamin D and Iron.
Generally if you’re consuming a variety of plant foods then you shouldn’t really be deficient in anything. I’d also recommend everyone vegan or not to start to track what you eat daily – this means food journaling. You can use apps like MyFitnessPal. This is the single best thing you can do to begin to understand what you’re eating. TDEE calculators online can help you determine how many calories and macronutrients you need daily for your fitness goals and then you can track them in order to achieve them. What gets measured gets managed. I would also advise people to have a thorough look around local supermarkets. We often miss a lot of vegan friendly options just by staying in our own circle. It may take a few painful weeks of tracking calories and reading labels to determine what’s vegan but in the long run you’ll find things so much easier. I’d also suggest to everyone that weight/resistance training is vital. It is the only way to slow down the ageing process and bone deformation and will get you in better shape, stronger and protect you against the worlds largest killers. I can’t really praise anything else like exercising with resistance.
11. Do you think plant-based diet is better than omnivorous diet?
The facts speak for themselves. Research shows those who follow vegan diets have the lowest incidents of heart disease, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and less risk certain types of cancers. Having said that vitamin b12 deficiency is a concern for vegans. Calcium and Vitamin D should be carefully maintained too. So long as nutrition is well thought out, there shouldn’t be any issues. There is a lot of research going on as we speak on both sides of the fence. One will say high-carb and low-fat vegan diets are the way to go and another will say low-carb omnivorous diets are. Personally I’m not an expert in the area and don’t want to be accused of having a biased view. My decision to go vegan was mainly for ethical and environmental reasons. You certainly have to question heart disease (the world’s number one killer) and cholesterol. It just so happens that vegan diets contain no cholesterol.
Another distinction is that only plant-based foods contain fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals. I can only speak confidently about my own experiences and since going vegan I’ve lowered cholesterol levels, more energy in the gym, better recovery, lower resting heart rate, and have more regular bowel movements.
Thank you VegPlanet.
Once again you can read more and subscribe to the magazine here – www.vegplanet.in