I met Jonno as a result of browsing through Reddit's forum r/plantbaseddiet. It is a unique world we live in where people on completely different ends of the world can meet and have something to talk about. Jonno runs the website Strength Without Cruelty designed to showcase how a plant-based diet can be both healthy for you (yes, even for those doing intense workouts) and a lifestyle choice that does not revolve around the abuse of animals. I hope you are able to get a good sense of Jonno, the Australian powerlifter, from his answers to the questions I proposed.
What is the plant-based lifestyle like in Australia? As we are based in the US, we often are subjected to hearing a lot of statistics that are US-centric (i.e. the meat industry in the US is killing the environment), but I’m curious how Aussie’s react to living a lifestyle like this.
I’m proud to say that the plant-based movement has made some big steps forward in Australia. For a country that topped the U.S. when it came to meat consumption last year, we’re taking steps in the right direction. I recently read some stats that 9.1% of Australians now identify as vegetarian, and almost half say they’ve actively reduce the amount of meat they consume compared with a couple years back, according to Roy Morgan Research.
In my hometown of Perth, Western Australia, you’ll find that almost all cafes, restaurants and food courts now offer vegan or vegetarian iterations of your favourite dishes on the menu - It’s basically the capital of the plant-based movement.
You can also easily find tofu, tempeh and a huge range of meat substitutes on the shelves of of supermarkets everywhere, thanks to the huge demand for plant-based food products.
Are meat-focused diets a component of Australian culture in a similar way that it is in the US? This is one of the large hurdles with educating new people to take on a plant-based diet, as meat is fed to us practically from the time we are able to chew food.
In many ways, Australia shares a lot of similarities with the U.S. when it comes to our eating habits: meat and dairy products take centre stage for pretty much every meal.
There’s definitely a stigma still surrounding meat-free diets in the country thanks to millions of advertising dollars sunk into promoting beef, pork and lamb every year. I mean, I can’t think of a day I didn’t see an ad on TV spitting out the ‘benefits’ of eating meat.
Another example of just how deeply ingrained meat-eating is in the Australian culture is Australia Day - one of my favourite national holidays. Each year the lamb industry spends a fortune on high profile ads telling the us that we’re ‘Un-Australian’ if we don’t throw some lamb on the barbie (AKA: barbeque for anyone outside of Australia) to celebrate our country.
But the good news is that the stigma around plant-based diets is slowly dissolving. I mean, just five years ago if you mentioned the word "vegan," people would lose their minds, but now it’s more widely accepted.
What has inspired you to take on a plant-based lifestyle?
In 2014, I had a pretty tragic event happen in my life that gave me the opportunity to really dig deep and look at what I actually cared about: health and happiness. I realised the way I was living wasn’t aligning with those values had to change.
Thanks to my partner who had been eating mostly vegetarian at the time, I was introduced to documentaries like Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives and those horrific, horrific clips of animals being inhumanely slaughtered you see on YouTube. It was the wake up call I needed. I realised that the way I was living was not only negatively affecting my health, but destroying the Earth, and depriving kind, caring, innocent animals of the right to live just so I could look ‘big and strong’. It became clear to me. From that point on, I slowly began to cut meat and dairy out of my diet over time and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s been 9 months since since I last ate meat.
As a powerlifter, how often do you find yourself conducting your workout routines? How much can you lift? Have you seen your lift numbers increase since converting to a plant-based diet? Have you seen your numbers decrease in any way?
Although my goals have shifted from strength to health, I still hit the gym 3-4 times a week. For the past few months I’ve been really into full body workouts since they're so quick and effective (I’m usually finished in 50 min or less). A typical workout for me includes all the big compounds movements like bench press, squats, deadlifts, pull-ups and shoulder press, and a few isolation exercises thrown in at the end.
I don’t like to put too much emphasis on numbers anymore, since I feel too many guys get too caught up on how much they can lift instead of their health.
However, my best numbers in competition were a 220 kg deadlift, 170 kg squat, and a 115kg bench press (although I’ve benched 120kg in the gym). Since switching to a plant-based diet my numbers, along with my strength, have remained completely unchanged. The last time I deadlifted in the gym, I pulled 150kg for a few sets of 8 without any problems. But don’t just take me as an example. Just look at guys like MMA fighter Nate Diaz and vegan strongman Patrik Baboumian - they show how strong you can truly be on a meat-free diet.
How did you come to the decision that “meat is unhealthy?” I know there is a lot of new scientific research that has been slowly but surely coming out of the woodwork revealing this fact, but it seems to be an uphill battle. In the US, we see a lot of lobbying from corporations motivated primarily be money that keeps the government invested in the meat industry. It seems that for every piece of literature that says meat is bad for you, there are multiple dissenting voices insisting it’s just fine.
Before I decide to do something, I make sure I educate myself as much as possible on the subject. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I spent every night researching studies and articles online when it came to the health benefits of cutting meat out of your diet. I read as many different views as I could on the topic (Google Scholar is your best friend), and came to my own conclusions.
Once you filter out the studies, blog posts and articles funded by supplement companies and the meat and dairy industry, you’ll find that it’s glaringly obvious that the scientific community at large acknowledge meat = sickness.
What really sealed the deal for me, was my own first-hand experience that made me come to the decision mainly. Health problems that I had while I was eating meat every day completely went away after just a few weeks without meat. The recurring stomach problems, random pimple breakouts and aches and pains in my body that were part of everyday life before vanished. I battled with severe tendonitis in both my elbows and knees for years, and because of my new plant-based diet, I could move again without pain.
I’m not saying that cutting out meat was a miracle cure, but it really was the closest thing to one I can think of.
As you are currently vegetarian, do you have any plans to fully convert to a vegan diet in the future? What holds you back from going completely vegan?
I’ve always been hesitant when it comes to labeling myself anything. But I guess vegetarian is the best category you could fit me in. I wouldn’t say I eat a vegan diet because while I don’t drink milk or eat eggs, I do very rarely have low-fat yoghurt and eat foods that may contain dairy/egg products. For me it’s about improving my health, happiness and reducing the harm I cause to the planet as much as possible, while not restricting myself in any way. Right now this diet works great for me, although a vegan diet is definitely on the horizon.
The only thing holding me back from going completely vegan at this point where I’m currently living abroad in a country where finding vegan foods while out with family and friends would be very difficult. I’m also very comfortable with my diet choices, and that’s the main thing. Over time I’m sure that’ll change, and that’s when I think I’ll make the next step.
Do you have a “strategy” when it comes to deciding on meals? Do you reference recipe guides (online or in book form)?
I don’t really have a strategy when it comes to meals, but the main thing I focus on is variety. I try and include different foods in every meal I have. For example, I might include spinach, banana and peanut butter in a shake for breakfast, sweet potato, black beans and broccoli for lunch at work, and have some wraps with falafel for dinner.
If a good plant-based recipe really grabs my attention when I’m browsing online, I’ll save it to my phone and try it out when I have the time. Whenever I’m feeling adventure and wanting to spice things up I head to subreddits like: r/vegrecipes, r/veganrecipes, browse hashtags like #veganfoodshare on Instagram, or simply look for my favourite meat-centric meals online and then replace the meat. Of course there’s a plethora of plant-based recipe resources out there you can use - just start searching! It’s always fun to discover new recipes that you never thought of before and increase your cooking skills (or actually get some if you’re anything like me).
What is your favorite vegetable? What is your favorite meal(s)?
Sweet potatoes hands down. They’re absolutely delicious, come packed with pretty much every nutrient you can think of and best of all - they’re super versatile. Bake them, mash them or fry them. You can even make the most incredible, healthy muffins using sweet potatoes.
My favourite meals right now would have to be Indian-style spinach and chick peas with fried naan bread, or a black bean burger with avocado, spinach and relish with a side of sweet potato fries. But most of the time I enjoy ‘random’ dishes at home, where I throw together whatever I have in the kitchen at the time. Just the other night I had baked potato, red kidney beans, veggie patties, broccoli and fried onions and capsciums together for dinner - it was delicious!
Do you also follow a “whole foods” diet (which is a diet wherein you remove processed foods)?
I would say that 90 - 95% of my diet is based around whole foods. I absolutely love to eat fruit and veggies. However, I do eat a few meat substitutes and might have some chocolate every now and then, but tend to limit these as much as I can.
As a powerlifter, what are your thoughts on acquiring protein from plants? I know this is a huge topic for people thinking about switching to a plant-based diet.
Protein is probably the most overrated nutrition ever. Like a lot of guys starting out in bodybuilding or powerlifting, I was sold on the ‘you need 200 grams of protein a day if you want to be strong’ crap. I bought every protein powder I could, drank litres of milk, tones of meat, and half-dozen of eggs most mornings. I have to admit, I was skeptical about what would happen to my strength once I cut meat out of my diet. Afterall, I was told that animal protein was king my whole life. But after doing a little research online and seeing the positive results in my own health, I quickly realised that plant-based protein is just as good, if not better, than animal based. After researching this topic for months on end, I couldn’t find one scientific study that proved that consuming any more than the generally accepted RDA protein intake of 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight improved muscle recovery or growth.
I know a lot of people out there are probably thinking “but where do you get your protein without meat?”, just like I did when I first made the switch last year. But once you start to educate yourself on the food you’re eating you find out pretty quickly that almost all whole foods contain protein, even ones you wouldn’t normally think of: broccoli, sweet potatoes, beans, pasta, oats, peanut butter, the list goes on. Broccoli, in particular has more protein per 100g than beef.
Simply put, if you eat a varied diet rich in whole foods every day, there’s simply no one you can be protein deficient. Even if you're a fitness junkie like me.
What do your friends and family think of this decision to live a plant-based lifestyle?
My family and friends are really supportive of my decision to switch to a plant-based diet. Take my Mum for example. She’s in her 60’s now and can be a bit set in her ways (sorry if you’re reading Mum). Growing up, roast beef, T-bone steaks and pork chops were the staple of our family meals. When I first cut meat out of my diet she was a little skeptical, so I started cooking really tasty meat-free meals for the family. It didn’t take look for her to realise the benefits herself and begin reducing the amount of meat in her diet, too.
I didn’t have to force my views on my family and friends to win their support or anything like that - in fact I think that approach can do the complete opposite. Instead, I simply led by example and let my own positive results speak for themselves. It didn’t take long for the people around me to start ask me “why do you look so healthy all of a sudden”?
What is your goal for Strength Without Cruelty?
My main goal is to inspire others to become the strongest versions of themselves possible - mentally, physically and emotionally - by sharing the benefits of switching to a plant based diets through my own experiences and the stories of countless other inspiring vegans and vegetarians. With that, I hope that we can all cause less harm to ourselves, the planet and the animals.
I also want to make plant-based diets more accessible. Whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian, or something in between, Strength Without Cruelty is here to inspire, motivate and support you. We all choose these lifestyles for different reasons, but they at the end of the day they’re all working towards the same goal: making a positive difference. That’s something that should be celebrated.
Jonno has a motivational story that help promote the plant-based movement as a legitimate alternative to the Standard American Diet (SAD). The fitness and weight lifting community have had a long standing relationship with dairy and meat as they are two major food groups often touted as holding the key to strength and "manliness." I like Jonno's story as we can see how the results of his workouts have been retained even though he has converted to a plant-based diet. This truly shows how plant-based foods can nourish our bodies as well as our minds. Strength Without Cruelty is shaping up to be a great endeavor that will help convert diet into lifestyle, and it's vision is incredibly clear just by name alone.
You can visit Jonno through his website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts!