Ryan Henn: A Vegan Success Story!

If you’ve read my blog for long, you know that I mostly feature articles summarizing published research. But every now and then I like to have some fun that doesn’t involve comparing risk ratios and statistical significance.

I’ve known Ryan Henn since he organized the Vegans in Vegas conference in 2011. As serendipity would have it, he moved to the Sacramento area in 2012, right around the time I also moved back to the area. I actually never thought of Ryan as particularly out of shape but one day I ran into him and he was strikingly buff. I asked how he did it and thought his story was quite interesting, and he graciously agreed to write an article for my blog. I hope you will enjoy it!

How I Transformed my Body in Seven Steps
by Ryan Henn

For most of my life I’ve been fat. Not heavy, not rotund, stout, or any other euphemism you can toss out. No, I was fat. At age 18 I topped out at more than 300 pounds. Now a lot of that was due to chronic health issues, but my love of fatty meats, cheese, and refined food – and lots of it – was the major factor. By incorporating exercise and making small dietary changes, I was able to drop down to the 200-220 range by my early 20s. Even after adopting a plant based diet in 2004, I struggled with my weight, occasionally dropping down a few pounds only to watch them creep right back on.

In late 2013 I had my body fat measured using a dunk tank, also known as hydrostatic testing. I’d been working out pretty consistently through the years and figured I was in the 16 percent range. Turned out I was pretty far off as I was actually 20.1 percent; far from where I wanted to be. That meant I was carrying around about 40 pounds of fat, enough to fuel my body for more than a month and a half without eating a single bite of food. I knew it was time for a change. I renewed my commitment to getting fit and undertook a fitness challenge, vowing to lose the flab by the start of summer. So beginning in mid-December 2013 at 205 pounds, I began to buckle down with a cleaner diet and hit the weight room regularly. When summer arrived I had my body fat retested. I’d dropped down to 175 pounds and 7.1 percent body fat. That meant in six months time I’d lost more than 28 pounds of fat and also gained about four pounds of muscle.

I thought it might be helpful to others if I shared some of the lessons I learned during my weight loss journey. I’m no expert and I’m not pretending to be. In fact, I’m just getting started on my own fitness goals. There are many paths to getting fit and my only intention is to share the road I took in hopes that it will inspire you.

So here are the seven steps I used to transform my body:

#7 – Eat plants – lots of them

I’ve eaten a plant based (vegan) diet for nearly a decade. Despite this, I’ve always struggled with my weight. Let’s face it, just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Oreos are vegan. Enough said. Even though I actually ate pretty clean to begin with, and already limited my enjoyment of overly refined foods, I still couldn’t drop the pounds. I’ve always had a big appetite and get enjoyment from eating, which makes portion control difficult. However, compared with eating the standard American diet, I’ve found being vegan makes it much easier to stay within striking distance of my goal weight. Most natural plant foods tend to be lower in fat and calories while also containing a lot more fiber to fill you up. And of course, in addition to being very healthy, a vegan diet is also much better for the planet and our animal friends. I loaded up daily on green smoothies, peas, broccoli, zucchini, eggplant and squash.

#6 – Cut the cardio

I hate cardio. There I said it. Does that make me a weight loss heretic? Well, so be it. Turned out cardio was completely unnecessary in my success. I experimented with it at times to see if I could boost fat loss or stimulate my metabolism. And what did these efforts get me? Tired legs, poor sleep, and dramatically decreased recovery time. If you love running, keep doing it, but don’t think cardio is the only way to drop weight.

#5 – Eat those carbs!

Working out makes me hungry. That’s good since eating around your exercise session is ideal. Meals consumed pre-exercise help fuel your workout and meals afterwards help repair the damage inflicted. I typically worked out in the evening and always consumed 1/3rd or more of my calories post training. Post workout is also when I’d load up on carbs, although I also ate them throughout the day.

I found limiting my carbs killed my recovery and turned me into a general grump monster. So I aimed to get 40-50% of my daily calories from mostly healthy complex carb sources. The exception was post workout when I’d consume some sugary cereal and usually had a slice or two of whole multigrain bread with my dinner. The rest of the time I stuck to fruit, oatmeal, brown rice and the like. I aimed for a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight or roughly 25-30% of calories which left about 20-25% of calories from fat.

#4 – Stop cheating yourself out of results

There are a ton of questionable fitness articles on the web. Many of them proclaim that cheating on your diet with either a cheat meal or entire cheat day can boost your metabolism and help you drop fat faster. Of course they never have any hard science to back this up. I’m here to tell you it didn’t work for me. All it did was delay my progress and make it difficult to figure out if I was losing weight. Now, I’m not saying you should never “cheat” with a high calorie meal or day. I did and I think you should too. But not every three days and not even every week. At first I tried different schedules and carb cycling routines. However, what ultimately worked best for me was to listen to my body. In the beginning, about every two weeks and then about every week towards the end, I’d start getting hungry, like really really hungry. So I’d plan a day to eat at or above my maintenance calorie level and load up on carbs while trimming my fat intake back as far as possible. These excess carbs were used to fill up my depleted glycogen stores while not piling on a lot of excess fat. Chowing down on pizza and fries won’t give you this same effect and will just pack back on some padding (trust me, I learned this one the hard way).

#3 – Calorie counting sucks but you should do it anyway

All the tips and training in the world won’t do you a bit of good if you can’t control the basics – calories in vs. calories out. I struggled in the beginning and while I was losing weight, it was at a pretty slow rate. I was tracking calories consumed but had to make educated guesses about how many calories I was burning daily. Then I learned about the Bodymedia Fit (www.bodymedia.com) and it changed my whole life. Ok, not really. But it made losing weight so much simpler. You wear the Fit around your upper arm and it tracks energy expenditure to within a 5-10 percent margin of error. By showing you how many calories you’re burning, you can adjust your daily food intake accordingly to make sure you’re achieving your desired calorie deficit. If your deficit is too much, you will start to metabolize muscle for energy (see Calculating the Daily Calorie Deficit For Maximum Fat Loss). You can also see for yourself what does and doesn’t boost your metabolism and how many calories you are actually burning doing all that cardio. Turns out it’s probably a lot less than you think. I found it much easier to create a calorie deficit by reducing the amount of food I ate than by trying to pile cardio onto my weight lifting. I also knew that if I was hitting my daily deficit, daily fluctuations on the scale didn’t mean anything. Thus I was able to skip a lot of the second guessing and head games that can accompany dieting.

#2 – I don’t care about your politics so long as you’re a progressive in the weight room

Progressive overload is the concept that you should always be pushing yourself to be a bit better each workout. That means adding a bit of weight or an extra rep. Doing the same thing you did last week or last month just isn’t good enough. And if you’re not adding plates to the bar or pumping out an extra rep here and there, then it’s likely your recovery isn’t optimal. For me that meant I either wasn’t sleeping enough, wasn’t eating enough, or wasn’t resting enough.

For anyone who cares – or is even still reading at this point – I hit the weights 5-6 days a week using a three or four day body part split for about an hour each session. The body parts were split as: chest and triceps; back and biceps; shoulders, traps and abs; legs and calves. Roughly, I typically do 12-16 sets total per large muscle group broken into 3-4 sets per exercise (for legs, I count squats and dead lifts as both quads and hamstring exercises).

I alternate heavy and light workouts. For example, if I worked chest twice in one week I’d have a heavy day where I worked in the 2-8 rep range and a lighter day where I worked in the 8-15 rep range. This worked awesome and I was consistently able to add weight to all my lifts.

This sort of workout system might not be for everyone. The article Muscle and Muscle Fibers explains how to test your muscle fiber type to determine which workouts will be the best for stimulating your muscles.

#1 – Tank tops

Yep, tank tops are the key to everything. They’re light, breezy, sexy, and fun to wear. Plus everyone looks awesome in the gym if they wear a tank top – especially a Team Vegan tank top from Vegan Outreach!

In all seriousness, getting fit should be fun. Pick activities that you love to help ensure you stick to them. For me that meant lifting weights. But if you love running, cycling, hiking, or playing sports, then do that instead. While dropping weight wasn’t always easy and it required sacrifices at times, both from myself and my family, it was a ton of fun. There’s nothing as amazing as watching your body transform before your eyes.

I hope you’ve learned something from these tips and are inspired to embark on your own fitness quest. And remember, getting fit isn’t just about hitting a specific goal, it’s about the journey to get there. Oh, and be sure to pack a tank top or two just in case. You never know where your road to fitness might take you.

If you’d like more information or have any questions, always feel free to contact me at ryandhenn@gmail.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ryan.henn.

Useful Links:

Body Media – for monitoring energy expenditure
New Grip – non-leather workout gloves
Vegan Weightlifting: What Does the Science Say?

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24 Responses to “Ryan Henn: A Vegan Success Story!”

  1. Catherine Turley Says:

    impressive. and a good reminder that being vegan isn’t enough for optimal health. i hate working out. i’ve started and stopped 1,000 times, but i know that i must do it consistently to be truly healthy.

  2. Justin Says:

    Great article. This is an inspiring story with some great advice. I love seeing guys and gals that are strong and vegan, and especially loved the part about tank tops! Gotta show people that you can get strong and gain muscle eating a plant-based diet.

  3. Jason Silver Says:

    Inspiring article, but according to George Eisman , M.A., M.Sc., R.D, and other vegan nutritionists I’ve read, the ideal daily % of calories from carbs, protein, fat is around 80% carbs, 10% protein, 10% fat. Unrefined, whole food carbs are obviously best. Even for someone lifting weights regularly, the 25-30% from protein and 25-30% from fat is still way too high to be healthy long-term and I worry a bit about Ryan if he continues to follow this regimen.

  4. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Jason,

    I’m surprised to hear that George Eisman promotes the 80-10-10 calorie breakdown. You can have low cholesterol levels while eating a 30% fat diet: http://jacknorrisrd.com/of-oil-and-ethics.

  5. Andrea Says:

    He doesn’t seem psychologically healthy to me. He sounds like a workout junkie still trying to prove himself to the world; from one extreme of being overweight to the other extreme of being extremely buff and never finding happiness.

    Or maybe the article is a mask to sell tshirts?

  6. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Andrea,

    Your comment bordered on too vitriolic to put through, but I’m sure Ryan can handle it if he sees it.

    > Or maybe the article is a mask to sell tshirts?

    Where can you buy one?

  7. Alex Says:

    The vegan community can be awfully prone to the No True Scotsman fallacy… and I just don’t get it. “Oh, good for him, but he’s not doing vegan right. Or not right enough.” On what terms? By what definitions? By what evidence? It’s his life, and he’s not asking for advice. Certainly not pseudo scientific judgment.

    How about this? We support people who want to minimize animal suffering.

  8. Lindsay Rose Says:

    Great job, Ryan! I love sharing stories like yours with my guy friends. Stories like yours are necessary to shift the fallacies that the meat and dairy industries (and society in general) push, especially related to the concept of what masculinity means. Thanks for being a voice for vegan men…and for the animals!

  9. dave Says:

    In my experience and reading, Ryan’s macro-nutrient percentages are right on. Reducing one’s fat and protein each to a mere 10% of calories is a bad idea, especially if you are an athlete. You won’t perform or recover as well and depending on what you’re doing, will lose muscle mass or fail to put on more. Eating 25% fat and 25% protein long term is not dangerous but rather is healthy.

    I loved this well-written article. His recommendations are all solid (well, I would probably argue for keeping the cardio…but it depends on your goals) and delivered with humor – even better!

    Thanks so much for sharing your formula, and congratulations on your transformation!

  10. Danny Says:

    Awesome article, and even better results!

    Where can we link to the actual meal plans employed here (or an example of a week)?

    I’ve been vegan for 2.5 years and just maintain. I am starting a swim regimen and would love to see a plan that fuels the workouts.

  11. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Danny,

    You could send Ryan a message on Facebook. See the links at the end of the article.

  12. Ben Says:

    Great article! The only negative thing I would point out is that his need to still count calories is due to his 20 – 25% calories from fat. That’s lower than the average American, but it’s still high (more than twice what he needs). Cut that in half, and he wouldn’t be able to eat enough food to warrant counting calories at all.

  13. tim Says:

    veggie for 26 years trying to be vegan for 4 years. totaly supplement and drug free. my question is this.. why do so many vegan bodybuilders think its ok to use steroids ?? cus thats not being vegan !! any thoughts
    ??

  14. Scotty Says:

    Howdy Ryan!

    Loved your article! – (Hopeful for me.)

    I’m over 50 (though by how much, your guess is better’n mine) so my question is, since it didn’t mention anything about age – as so extremely few of other articles do: What about old / oldish farts like me?

    Scotty
    2014Sep30Tue@11:47am(PDT)

  15. Chad Says:

    I’ve been extremely out of shape, extremely in shape, and everything in between many times during my life, and from my experience pretty everything in this article is spot on.

    @Andrea
    You don’t think getting into good physical shape is psychologically healthy? Interesting…

    @Ben
    How does lowering the percentage of calories from fat eliminate the need for counting calories? You could lower your fat intake to 0% of caloric intake and still eat a high enough amount of calories from protein and/or carbs that you will gain weight.

  16. Richard Says:

    Another great post. One thing I learned is that the old advice of 500 cal/pound of body fat simply isn’t a reliable way to lose weight. I read up on the subject of calculating body fat and stumbled across bathroom scales that also measure body fat and even bone density. So I was wondering: Are these scales accurate for measuring body fat and bone density? I know bone density is an important issue for vegans, so being able to measure this would be invaluable. The same goes for measuring body fat. I tried to read up on whether these scales are reliable, but found conflicting opinions and little in the way of reliable information. Does anyone have any insight/good information on body fat scales?

  17. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Richard,

    In terms of body fat, we were taught in my dietetics program that the different ways to measure it were consistent but not necessarily accurate. In other words, if you use the same method to test yourself at different times, you can rely on it to tell you if you gained or lost body fat, but you cannot know for sure that your body fat is actually the percentage it’s saying it is. I don’t know about bone density, but I’d be pretty skeptical that it can do that.

  18. Richard Says:

    Thanks, Jack, for the helpful information. Consistent is more than good enough for me right now, so I think I will grab one of those body fat scales. It’s a shame about the bone density question, but I can’t say I’m surprised. It sounded a little too good to be true.

  19. Ben Says:

    hi jack, i just came across this and i’d like to know what you think about it:

    http://www.businessinsider.com/experts-eat-more-fat-2014-10

  20. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Ben,

    Even though Ginny wrote this, it’s basically what I think about the recent pro-saturated fat hype:

    http://www.theveganrd.com/2014/04/paleo-advocates-get-vegan-diets-and-saturated-fat-wrong-2.html

  21. Sam Says:

    Really awesome 🙂

  22. Sheryl Says:

    Sorry, but he lost me at “calorie counting sucks but you should do it anyway.”

    No way. It’s just no way to live. It takes the fun out of eating and is a training ground for OCD. Trust me.

    P.S. Please write another book Mr. Norris.

  23. Sheryl Says:

    p.s. He is not fat in his “before” picture. Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot we are living in the 21st century body buff culture.

    To prove my point put on a movie from the 60’s. I was watching a James Bond movie the other day with a shirtless Sean Connery. He was considered a good looking hunk back then. Now he’d be laughed at for lack of “muscle tone”, etc. And I was watching The Sandpipers last week with Elizabeth Taylor. She was considered a beauty in her time. Now she’d be told to botox the creases between her eyes and lose 15 pounds.

    I think it’s sad that we’re so obsessed. I’d rather focus on compassion and kindness.

  24. Ana Paula Says:

    I think this is a great post!

    How could you build muscle even when if you were on a calorie deficit, do you surplus on training days and do deficit on rest days?

    Which foods do you choose to meet protein macronutrients needed?

    Can you build muscle with those amouts of fat and protein, should they be higher?

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