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?
Having previously discussed Vince Gironda’s vegetarian meal plan, today’s post examines the vegetarian diet of another bodybuilding legend, Bill Pearl. 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.
Gonna try a vegan approach after my contest for a few months and see how things go.
Interesting, I know Vince Gironda often advocated going Vegetarian after intense bulking or cutting phases so am interested to see how you find it!
More recent nutritional advice says men shouldn’t consume so much soy because the phytoestrogens can cause hormonal issues. But it seems like bodybuilders of past decades (Steve Reeves too) took lots of soy protein without any such complaints.
It’s interesting right? And not something I fully understand if I’m being honest. Maybe such men consumed less soy then nowadays or farming methods have changed? Just a thought..
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Thanks Conor, I really enjoyed this. When I read books from the likes of Rich Roll and other Vegan athletes….it’s easy to think it’s a ‘new’ thing. Cheers!
Hi there, thanks so much for getting in touch. Yes absolutely, vegetarian and vegan diets for athletes are far from new. Eustace Miles, a British tennis player and physical culturist, heavily promoted vegetarianism at the beginning of the 1900s. And he was just a modern example!!
I’ve yet to find a world-level bodybuilder who’s won the Mr Olympia division (Mr Olympia open division, not “Men’s Physique” or “212”) whose diet was TOTALLY void of animal protein. Eggs and cheese are animal proteins, and both Bill Pearl and Reg Park consumed at least one of these two animal protein sources.
No doubt the vegetarian route is healthier, but I question how a completely meat-free competitor would do pitted against the likes of Ronnie Coleman, Phil Heath, Big Ramy, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger, in terms of pure muscle mass.
Hi Seduciary, thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoyed it.
Personally I find it difficult to believe they could do well against the modern bodybuilder. Aside from their nutritional content, animals products make life a lot easier. Having spent some time experimenting with vegetarianism and veganism, life was a lot simper with eggs and steak on my plate.
That being said on a lower level, I train with plenty of people who thrive on vegan and vegetarianism diets. It’s one of those things isn’t it?
For the Mr. O though, I doubt we’ll see the day!
I have compiled every physical culturist (or am trying!) that ever existed that was a vegetarian on David Gentle’s PC forum. I have created a thread you might be interested.
We are now at six pages.
Unfortunately David Gentle died last year and his forum was deleted so my thread on vegetarian bodybuilders was also deleted. Lionel Strongfort as you know was one of the first vegetarian bodybuilders. I have been recently going over Lionel Strongfort’s life. However, there are multiple death dates for Strongfort including 1967, 1970 and 1973 please drop me an email if you know the correct death date.