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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
April 02, 2023
Arnold Schwarzenegger has one of the most iconic physiques of all time. No one represents the sport of bodybuilding better than the seven-time Mr. Olympia and former California Governor.
And despite being in his 70s, the bodybuilding legend is still in great shape. So, what's his secret?
In addition to continuing to lift weights and regularly biking, Arnold also primarily eats plant-based. It wasn't always this way, but for most of the past decade, Arnold has dramatically changed his eating habits, proving muscular men don't need to eat meat.
Gone are the days of smashing pounds of ground beef, steak, and chicken. These days, you are more likely to see him digging into a giant salad or a large bowl of fruit. Turns out, you can teach an old dog (or in this case a highly respected former Olympia champion) new tricks.
So, why did Arnold swap out meat for greens? What foods does he eat now, and most importantly, what are the benefits? Let's discuss!
Table of Contents:
A vegan diet consists of only plant-based foods. Examples include fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Vegans do not eat any animal products, including eggs and dairy.
Plenty of health-conscious individuals, even professional athletes, follow a vegan diet. In fact, take a look at these vegan bodybuilders' physiques, and there's no doubt you can build muscle on a vegan bodybuilding diet.
A vegan diet is loaded with micronutrients, fiber, and healthy fat if set up well. And, you can hit your daily protein needs by combining food sources and taking advantage of vegan protein powders.
In a strict sense, no Arnold does not follow a vegan diet. His meals consist of around 80% plant-based food, which is a far cry from his bodybuilding days. Although he always ate healthy foods, his diet contained many animal proteins.
During his bodybuilding prime time, when he was Mr. Olympia, Arnold's diet consisted of large amounts of eggs, milk, cheese, ground beef, and chicken. Now, he considers the occasional steak or Austrian wiener schnitzel a treat.
You can get away with a ton in your twenties and thirties. And from a health perspective, you can eat a lot of high-fat meat or even highly processed unhealthy foods without it negatively impacting your health. However, as you get older, the margin of error decreases.
Now that Arnold is in his seventies, he wants to ensure he is doing everything he can to maintain good health. One of his health game-changers was eating more plants.
In addition to following an 80% vegan diet, Arnold is still a regular at Gold's Gym in Venice Beach. He lifts weights almost daily and rides his bike all over Los Angeles.
In the YouTube video below, Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed why he switched to plant foods, discussing the meat-heavy diet he used to follow compared to what he eats today, and how it helped him feel like a different person. It's pretty interesting to hear him talk about how significantly plant foods transformed his health.
One of the scariest moments of Arnold's life came in 2018. He was scheduled for non-invasive heart surgery, which as far as heart surgeries go, was supposed to be pretty straightforward. However, something went wrong during the procedure, and they had to perform open heart surgery.
During the lengthy recovery from surgery, Arnold decided he wanted to start making some changes. The first place he looked was his diet. Schwarzenegger began transitioning from a meat-based diet due to his doctors' recommendations.
Some health benefits linked to focusing on veggie protein sources, rather than meat, include:
Arnold has had multiple heart surgeries. A plant based diet is one of the best for improving heart health. Not only are vegetables and fruit loaded with micronutrients, but they are also low-fat and nearly void of saturated fats.
How you feel while on a specific diet can be highly personal. Some people claim to feel best following a Whole03 meal plan, while others say a vegetarian meal plan helps them perform at peak performance. In many ways, the meal plan someone chooses is highly dependent on how their body responds to certain foods.
But despite whatever diet spectrum someone lands on, you'll be hard-pressed to find an expert who states plant based foods won't help you feel better.
Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed that when he originally switched to a plant based diet, it made him feel healthier and younger. It's hard to argue with that.
Without meat in his diet, Arnold says he eats more oatmeal, greens, vegetables, and healthy foods. Not all plant based foods are healthy, but if you make the right food choices, a plant based diet is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Arnold claims one reason for sticking with a primarily plant-based diet is the environment. Raising animals for meat causes "so much pollution," he's said in past interviews.
A recent study on the health and environmental impacts showed plant-based diets were associated with better ecological health. Further, researchers discovered that red and processed meat had the highest environmental impact out of all food groups in participants' diets, producing the most significant share of greenhouse gas emissions and requiring the most irrigation water, cropland, and fertilizer1.
Eating a vegan diet has many health advantages. Here are the top four.
Heart disease has many risk factors that can be improved through a healthy diet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), high blood pressure and high cholesterol are two leading risk factors for heart disease2.
The good news is you can improve high blood pressure and cholesterol simply by following a healthy diet. Research looking at vegetarian diets found that plant-based diets effectively lower cholesterol3. And Arnold states that the same thing happened to him.
He was featured in a documentary titled "The Game Changers," which discusses myths surrounding not only how "real men eat meat" but also the idea that athletes need meat products in order to do well in their respective sports. In the documentary, Arnold stated that he saw his cholesterol lower to 109 after switching to primarily a plant based diet. He's even joked that his numbers looked so good that his doctor thought he might be a different person.
Additionally, compared to omnivorous diets, vegetarian diets are associated with significant reductions in blood pressure4.
One explanation is that plant-based diets are naturally low in saturated fat. Saturated fat is found in butter, cheese, sausage, and bacon. Eating a diet high in saturated is shown to increase the risk of coronary heart disease5.
Type two diabetes has been on the rise over the past few decades. It is a disease that affects how the body regulates and uses blood sugar for fuel. Currently, there is no known cure for type two diabetes, but eating a healthy diet, losing weight, and performing regular exercise can help you manage it.
A 2018 study comparing plant and animal-based diets found eating a plant-based diet may lower the risk of insulin resistance, prediabetes, and type two diabetes6.
Anyone who has been affected by cancer knows how devastating it is. Although not entirely in our control, there are lifestyle factors that can reduce our risk.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to half of all cancer deaths are preventable by modifying or avoiding key risk factors7. One of the modifications the WHO recommends is to eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
People who follow a diet rich in fruits and veggies have a reduced risk of developing cancers of the pharynx, larynx, mouth, esophagus, stomach, and lungs8. Additionally, a 2017 meta-analysis found people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet have a significantly reduced risk of the occurrence of total cancer9.
Following a vegan diet can help you lose weight. One of the most significant benefits of eating a diet full of fruits and vegetables is low-calorie intake.
Weight loss is all about eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain weight. We refer to this as a calorie deficit. And, due to their high fiber content, plant-based foods keep you full longer, which helps prevent endless snacking and increases your chance of diet adherence.
The short answer is no. Meat is fine for you. In fact, there are many health benefits to including high protein low fat foods, like chicken and turkey breast, white fish, and lean red meat, as a part of your diet. However, when people think of meat, chicken breast, fish, and lean cuts of beef are not always what comes to mind.
Bacon, sausage, and fast food burgers are high in calories and loaded with saturated fat. As noted, high saturated fat intake has been associated with heart disease.
Lean protein, like many of the ones included in our high protein meal plan, are high-quality protein sources, low fat, and carbohydrate free. Additionally, meat is an excellent source of iodine, iron, zinc, Vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids.
As an athlete, including lean meats in your diet makes it easier to hit your daily protein requirements without consuming too many carbohydrates and fat. Although you can get enough protein through vegan sources, you must be mindful of calorie intake because many vegan protein sources also contain a substantial amount of carbs and fat.
Being a vegan athlete or bodybuilder is more challenging, but it's possible. It's a common misconception that eating meat is essential to building muscle and strength. But, all you need to build muscle is enough calories and protein, which is attainable through eating plant foods.
The benefit of consuming animal-based proteins is that they naturally supply all nine essential amino acids, which must come from the diet. In contrast, most plant-based proteins are incomplete, meaning they're lacking in one or more essential amino acids.
However, eating a balanced vegan diet with various vegetables, legumes, grains, and high protein nuts and seeds will provide all essential amino acids. Since each plant protein source contains a different amino acid profile, what one food lacks, another has. So, even though hardly any plant-based foods are complete proteins, all essential amino acids are consumed by the end of the day, if your diet is diverse.
The key for vegan athletes and bodybuilders is to focus their diet on high-protein plant-based foods. Examples include lentils, beans, seitan, tofu, tempeh, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanut butter, and plant-based protein powder and bars.
If you're unsure where to start but want to try eating plant based, check out our 7-Day Vegan Bodybuilding Meal Plan!
The other issue vegan athletes and bodybuilders may run into is a vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is essential in the body, making red blood cells, keeping the nervous system healthy, and releasing energy from food.
The best sources of Vitamin B12 are meat, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese. However, vegans can get Vitamin B12 by eating fortified breakfast cereals or taking supplements.
Speaking of supplements, I also recommend that vegan athletes take creatine to help them build muscle and improve strength. Most creatine does not contain animal by-products, which makes it vegan-friendly.
If you're still not convinced that athletes can perform optimally on a vegan diet, take a few minutes to watch the video below. It talks about Arnold's vegan journey and also highlights some other major athletes who swear by plant-based foods.
Arnold’s diet is loaded with enough fruits and vegetables to make all mother’s proud. Although it is hard to nail down precisely what Schwarzenegger eats daily, the below meal plan is similar to what someone could eat while following a plant based diet.
The entire day of eating comes to 2,124 calories, 130g of protein, 239g of carbohydrates, and 72g of fat.
I do want to point out that if you're in bulking mode, you may need more calories than this, so always adjust menus based on your specific goals.
1 cup of oatmeal
2 patties (8oz) plant-based ground beef
8oz almond milk
If you are thinking about walking away from the meat industry and embracing a plant-based diet, here are some tips Arnold followed when he started making his switch.
The most significant piece of advice Arnold has touted in interviews is to start slowly. You don't need to follow a strict vegan diet from day one. Begin by limiting meat consumption to only two or three days per week.
From there, cut it down to only one or two days. Before you know it, you will be eating only vegan food.
The key to any diet is adherence. However, it is hard to eat foods you don't enjoy consistently. Following recipes, like these high protein vegan breakfasts, can help make the food as flavorful as possible. After a while, you might like plant-based meals better than meat.
If you watched the first video we shared in this article, Arnold discusses how his friend James Cameron sent his chef to teach him how to cook vegan meals. At first, Arnold thought it was a strange gift to get, but after he learned the new cooking techniques and recipes, he realized it was a gift that would keep on giving.
Knowing how to prepare meals you'll actually eat is key to success.
Last but not least, Arnold recommends treating yourself now and then. Don’t be too strict. If you love a juicy steak, have one occasionally.
As long as you get back on your diet the next day, no harm or foul. Having a special food now and then is one of the best methods to stick to a long-term diet. If you are too restrictive, it makes the diet harder than it has to be.
Any remaining questions about Arnold Schwarzenegger's plant-based diet? Let's answer them here.
Although he eats a plant-based diet primarily, Arnold is not a strict vegan. About 80% of his diet is plant-based, but he occasionally eats eggs and has a juicy steak for a treat.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has been following a primarily plant-based diet for over five years.
Arnold eats many fruits and vegetables, almond milk, plant-based protein shakes, nut butter, cucumber salad, and occasional schnapps or tequila.
Arnold started eating more vegan foods to improve his heart health and feel better.
Shortly after his 2018 heart surgery, Arnold decided to make a change to his dietary habits and started eating more plant-based foods. Once he started feeling better, it became a permanent part of his diet.
Now that you know how to eat like Arnold Schwarzenegger, you can learn to lift like him too, following the Arnold Split.
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