I Spent a Day Trying to Eat Like a Vegetarian Version of The Rock
Athletes have always told me how eating enough to fuel their training becomes a chore. I wanted to discover for myself what it feels like.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Spenser Mestel
I don't know what's wrong with me: On an average day, I can easily eat six hard-boiled eggs in one sitting, and today, in celebration of my Day of Bulking, I've even bought large eggs—instead of jumbo—to make them easier to pop into my mouth whole, like super-sized Tic Tacs. But after the third one slides down my throat, I've already lost my appetite. This doesn't bode well.
Today is my first time bulking, the process of eating more calories than your body burns in order to add muscle mass. Generally, there are two ways people go about this process, says Brad Schoenfeld, a professor of exercise science and director of the human performance lab at CUNY Lehman College. For the first—known as a "dirty" bulk—you add roughly 1,000 calories to your diet and gain both muscle and fat. For the second—known as a "clean" bulk—you add 300 to 500 calories, which adds muscle mass more slowly but reduces the fat you put on.
Schoenfeld, however, stresses that each person will gain muscle differently depending on their current diet, history of exercise, body composition, training methods, and goals. To prove his point, he shows me a study in which the participants weight trained for 16 weeks. The top quartile saw their muscle mass increase by 58 percent, the middle two quartiles saw an increase of 28 percent, and the bottom saw no gains at all. (My heart goes out to them.) The best way to bulk, Schoenfeld tells me, is to re-evaluate every three to four weeks.
For me, a 5'9" 175-pound CrossFitter of two years who generally eats well and consumes about 3,500 calories a day, Schoenfeld estimates that, over a three-month period, I might expect to put on four to five pounds of muscle and a couple pounds of fat if I did the 1,000-calorie bulk. When I tell him that I'll be attempting to eat as many calories as possible in one day—ideally, 6,000 total, 2,500 calories above his recommendations—he isn't encouraging: "The additional muscle you'd be gaining would be minimal."
I know that Schoenfeld is right—and, after today, I'll switch to a 4,000-calorie "clean" bulk the remainder of the month in order to gain strength without getting too heavy for bodyweight movements like pull-ups and rope climbs. For the next sixteen hours, however, I want to push my limits without any restrictions. Why? For one thing, I'm almost always hungry but never have the energy, time, or money to eat as much as I'd like. Athletes have told me how eating enough to fuel their training becomes a chore, and I want to discover for myself what it feels like to be on the same level as, say, Dwayne Johnson's 5,500-calorie cod-based diet or Michael Phelps' 12,000-calorie Olympic diet.
Also, as a more-or-less lifelong vegetarian, I want to lay to rest the question I've been asked at least 500 times: How do you get enough protein? Schoenfeld recommends two grams of protein for every kilogram that I weigh (about 160 grams total), and to prove how attainable this threshold is, I want to hit at least 200 grams. That’s one reason I'm considering funneling the last three eggs I've cooked: Ideally, I'll eat 24 today, which would give me 144 grams of protein. Should I fail on that front, though, I have a fallback option: Using all four protein shake ingredients that I've always been too squeamish to try—blended oats, olive oil, coconut oil, and navy beans.
I'm able to put down two more of the eggs, and then I start cooking veggie bacon. Unfortunately, most meat substitutes are made to be diet food. While these strips are delicious, each one has only 30 calories and one gram of protein, about a quarter of the value of ham-derived bacon. To beef up the numbers, I swallow my sixth egg. A half-hour later, I choke down a cup of cashews and clutch my belly. It's already noon, and I'm only 1,000 calories deep. Something needs to change.
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To burn off the egg yolks still sloshing in my belly, I walk a mile to a supermarket that sells another meat substitute I like, Beyond Meat, and also has what I need for my shakes. On the walk back, though, I'm still not hungry—the pressure of performing like The Rock is making me too nervous to eat—so I decide to take a 5:30 CrossFit class, which gives me two hours to make a shake and (hopefully) digest it without dire consequences.
In my kitchen, I fill the blender with nut milk, kale, half an avocado, Greek yogurt, protein powder, and nut butter. Because freedom lies in being bold, I then add all four of the ingredients I’ve never tried—the oats, the olive oil, coconut oil, and navy beans.
When I go to drink it, though, I discover that the kale is barely blended, and the texture in my mouth feels like cut grass sprinkled in applesauce. I can barely swallow the first sip, even in the name of bulking. I fill the blender again, this time using an apple instead of kale and adding only coconut butter (which, I'll later learn, a Harvard epidemiologist calls "pure poison"). The shake tastes much better, but now I'm late to my workout, and the liquid tumbles around my belly as I run to the train. As I start the workout, my fears about puking are replaced with fears about passing out. Per the advice of someone on Reddit—needless to say, a horrible source for advice of any kind—I haven't been drinking water in order to free up space in my belly.
Somehow, I make it through the workout, and when I get home, I add to my shake a handful of strawberries and a cup of oats, which I'm nervous will taste like cereal left too long in milk, but which are surprisingly tasty—another 300 calories. It’s 7:30pm, and I'm only at 2,640 calories for the day, but 124 grams of protein.
I consider another shake, which Schoenfeld recommends for "people who have difficulty getting sufficient calories" because there's "almost no digestion," but consuming mostly liquid meals reminds me of a dark period in my life when I drank too much Soylent, so I insist on having a dinner of solid food: beans, rice, faux chicken strips, seitan (less processed than tofu), and Greek yogurt (more protein than sour cream). 3,312 calories down.
Around 10:30, I make another shake—this time I double the serving of nut butter (YOLO) and the ingredient I've been dreading most: navy beans, which will supposedly give my shake a "creamy consistency." Thankfully, with all the fruit I add, I can't even taste them, so I get 8 free grams of protein, which puts me at 4,100 calories, the threshold for Schoenfeld's "clean" bulk. However, things are about to get very dirty.
Up until this point, my bulk has been calorie-heavy, but the food has been mostly unprocessed and nutrient-rich, which is what Schoenfeld recommends: rice, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, olive oil, and nuts. That's all going to change for my final dietary hurdle of the day—an entire, 2,000-calorie DiGiorno's pizza.
I'm putting away slices like they're saltines, and part of me wishes I'd spent the day eating nothing but oven pizzas. When I ask Schoenfeld why DiGiorno's is easier to eat than, say, hard-boiled eggs, he says that even though pizza isn't just empty calories (it has some good fats and carbs), it's more calorie-dense than nutrient-dense. He adds that, if I really wanted to up my calorie count, I could eat nothing but Twinkie's, which have almost no nutrients. (I politely decline.)
An hour later, I finish the pizza. It's 2 am. I consider making one last hake to suck the marrow out of this experiment, but I'm too woozy from the pizza's 3,000+ milligrams of sodium, so instead I lie face-up on my bed and add up the totals for the day. The bad news is that, with just six eggs, I'm not even close to hitting the goal I thought would be the easiest. The good news is that, with 5,929 calories, I've out-eaten The Rock—but I’m only halfway to Michael Phelps' Olympic diet. Perhaps most importantly, though, I took down 320 grams of protein (pro tip: over a quarter of that came from DiGiorno's), thereby settling forever the question of vegetarian protein intake.
On my bed, desperately thirsty but too full to drink water, I reflect on my choices. Bulking was, in fact, a chore, and a stressful one at that. I look forward to tomorrow, when I can return to being happy but hungry, and—as I try and sit up—wonder what I'll do with all those leftover eggs.
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