Interviews with Vegan Veterans is an ongoing interview series where I get to pick the brains of long-time vegans and give the world access to the knowledge, wisdom and understanding that they have spent decades accumulating.
Most of the statistics that you see regarding the vegan population say that the majority of vegans are female, and in my experience that seems to be the case too.
But today's Vegan Veteran, the Canadian Karina Inkster - who gave up meat at an age most people start giving up their baby fat - definitely isn't your average vegan woman.
Karina is a Certified Personal Training Specialist with a Master’s degree in Gerontology, who specialises in health and ageing.
When she's not at the gym beating meat-eating men in chin up competitions, Karina can be found helping people achieve their own fitness and nutrition goals through her online coaching platform at her Healthy Living Academy and writing weekly articles for Lifetime Daily, an online magazine for active seniors.
Her second latest of four books, Vegan Vitality: Your Complete Guide to an Active, Healthy, Plant-Based Lifestyle, was featured in the Huffington Post and has an introduction by fellow vegan, bodybuilding champion, motivational speaker and author Robert Cheeke. You can see all of Karina's books on Amazon here.
Let’s start with the basics. Who are you and how long have you been vegan?
I’m a fitness coach and author based in Vancouver, BC. I’ve been vegan since 2003 (age 16) and vegetarian since 1999 (age 11).
I help vegans (and wannabe vegans!) live their best, healthiest, most plant-strong lives.
Wow, you got started young. Lucky you. Were your parents ageing hippies like one of mine?
One of my parents is indeed an ageing hippie, but they had nothing to do with my decision. In fact, it was my decision that started them on their path toward more plant-based eating!
I honestly can’t remember what it was that made me decide to go vegetarian.
When you got started, did you think you’d be vegan for this long?
It’s difficult to remember what I felt 15 years ago, but I’m pretty sure I knew I’d be vegan for life. I knew my ethics were strong enough, and I couldn’t “un-know” what I’d learned about animal agriculture.
Would you classify your current diet as anything additional to vegan?
Nope. I don’t support any of those “fad” vegan diets, none of which have any scientific support. I eat mostly whole foods (as any healthy vegan who wants to maximise micronutrients should), but I don’t label it as anything.
What are your thoughts on Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org’s recommendations? Have you looked into his stuff much? Sounds like exactly what you're talking about - evidence based nutrition.
I haven’t looked into his stuff much, but I do know there are some legitimate criticisms of his book. (Cherry-picking studies, misinterpreting study results - see this article for more.)
I try to get health, fitness, and nutrition information from a broad range of sources rather than one individual, and I prioritize large research organizations over single people. Eg. Examine.com, Precision Nutrition, and of course peer-reviewed studies and meta-analyses.
Whenever I hear someone say, “Dr. So-and-so says...” my BS detector starts beeping... :-P
The 5 biggest mistakes that Karina sees and hears about all the time when working with her clients (...and how to fix them!).
What does your usual diet consist of?
I eat between 3000 and 3300 calories per day, so I eat a lot! It’s basically a second full-time job. Lots of stir fries, Thai curries, Indian dishes, chilli, Buddha bowls...the list goes on.
Over time I’ve required more and more calories as my body needs more fuel (more challenging training, more muscle mass), but the types of foods I eat stay fairly consistent.
Do you take any supplements?
I use protein powder about once a day, after training. It’s certainly not necessary, but it’s convenient! I also take creatine because vegans don’t get it in our diets – it’s one of the only supplements that has a huge body of scientific support for things like athletic (and even cognitive) performance.
Why did you turn vegan initially? What made you make the switch?
I started by becoming vegetarian 20 years ago, which was 100% an ethical decision to avoid animal exploitation.
The only reason humans in the developed world eat animal products is because we think they taste good. That’s it. There’s no biological or medical reason to do so otherwise. So, I realized at the age of 11 that our taste buds are not reason enough to inflict suffering and death on animals, and that it was immoral to eat them.
It took me 5 years from when I went vegetarian to learn that there’s actually no moral distinction between meat and other animal products like dairy and eggs (it’s all the same industry, and they’re all intertwined; for example if you consume dairy you support the horrific veal industry), at which point I went vegan. Around this time I’d been doing a lot of research and realized there were three other major reasons for being vegan:
1. Personal health: A lot of research points toward incredible health benefits of a plant-based diet. And I got rid of many of my own health problems (most likely due to a dairy allergy) by going 100% plant-based.
2. Athletic performance: Vegan fitness is a relatively new movement, so we need much more empirical research on this topic. Anecdotal evidence from professional athletes and experts like sports dieticians, though, point toward a performance-enhancing effect of eating an entirely plant-based diet. Researchers think it could be the increase in foods that are high in antioxidants – but again we need more studies in this area.
3. Environmental: Animal agriculture creates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined. It also contributes to deforestation, pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Only in the past few years has this idea of going vegan for the environment been catching on; even Arnold Schwarzenegger is now advocating decreased meat intake entirely for environmental reasons.
So, long story short: I started by becoming vegetarian, then went vegan (all for ethical reasons), and added other important reasons later on.
Why do you think you stayed vegan for this long while others didn’t?
I have absolutely no reason to go back to eating animal products, so the thought doesn’t even cross my mind. My entire career, identity, and life are built upon being vegan.
How have your views on veganism changed since you started?
Only in the past few years have my views on veganism changed. I’ve started getting very frustrated with the amount of pseudoscience that appears to go hand-in-hand with the vegan movement.
For evidence-based vegans like myself, things like detoxing, alkaline diets, or “fad” vegan diets like raw or 80/10/10 (all of which have zero empirical support) are damaging to veganism overall, and are often alienating people who’d otherwise give veganism a try.
We need more vegan professionals in our field who know how science works and who promote an evidence-based approach to veganism.
Vegans need 16% more protein in their diets than non-vegans (to account for amino acids that are less plentiful in plants). Vegan strength athletes like myself need between 1.8 and 2.1 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day. That’s between 102 and 120 grams of protein per day for me, since I weigh 56.8 kilos (125 lbs). On a 2000 calorie diet, that translates to between 20 and 24% of calories coming from protein. Since I eat way more (3000 calories per day), it’s between 14 and 16% of my total calories, but I usually aim for 20%. Either way, that’s a lot more than 10%.
A lot of ex-vegans say that they got really sick on a vegan diet. Has veganism has ever resulted in you getting sick or a disease?
Veganism helped me to increase my health, rather than the opposite.
However, a vegan diet doesn’t automatically mean a healthy diet. It takes planning and attention to things like overall food variety and micronutrients, and for active people and athletes, also macronutrients and calories. It seems that ex-vegans who cited health problems often were following extreme fad diets like 80/10/10, or in general weren’t meeting their nutritional requirements.
One of the major health concerns [of 80/10/10] is not taking in enough fat, which is necessary for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, producing important hormones, etc.
I’m not a registered dietician or a medical doctor, so I can’t comment on any specific cases where a vegan diet may not be appropriate for someone.
(By the way, vegan-friendly dieticians and doctors should be consulted by anyone serious about making sure their diets are nutritionally adequate. I get an annual blood test to make sure my nutrient levels are on point, and recommend the same to my clients.)
Have you ever had an eating disorder?
Have you ever had any thoughts of eating animal products again?
I never have thoughts of eating animal products, and I haven’t “given in” the entire 15 years I’ve been vegan. This is due to what I know about the animal agriculture industry, and my own strong morals.
Is there anything you miss about eating animals?
Not at all.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced with being vegan?
Not much! I’m lucky to live in an extremely vegan-friendly city, with many vegan friends and a supportive family.
Something that’s always been challenging for me is to eat enough food. Healthy vegan food is generally nutrient-dense, rather than calorie-dense. So I need to eat a high volume of food, usually 6-8 meals - plus snacks.
Follow Karina Inkster on Instagram for more images like this.
Have you ever been bullied or made fun of because of your veganism?
Sometimes I’m surprised how little I’m made fun of for being vegan – especially when I hear about other vegans who are bullied for their lifestyle choice. I can’t remember the last time it happened – probably 10 years ago when veganism wasn’t as common as it is now.
More recently I worked in a gym environment where other trainers were very friendly but made underhanded comments like “Those are pretty good chin-ups...for a vegan”. They were trying to be funny, but the underlying message was that veganism was an inferior lifestyle choice. I just kept doing my thing, and beating everyone - including the guys - at chin-up contests.
Do you think your veganism has ever affected any of your friendships?
I have plenty of non-vegan friends. My vegan friends and I have certainly made our non-vegan friends consider their food choices, some of whom have moved in a more plant-based direction without going 100% vegan. But every small step counts!
I agree. Some people, especially newer vegans I think, get bent out of shape if someone won’t just up and go 100% vegan. But really, it’s small steps in the right direction that most people get there I think.
I’ve never experienced this myself, so can only suggest that a positive approach to veganism, including sharing ridiculously delicious food and, when appropriate, sharing the health and ethical benefits of veganism, works better than focusing on why someone shouldn’t eat animal products, or why what they’re doing is immoral.
I agree completely. Focus on the positives. Don’t push people away from something they like to do, instead pull them towards something better.
What are your thoughts on militant veganism?
“Militant veganism” is a scourge on our movement. It’s doing veganism a huge disservice, alienating us from non-vegans who could very well be interested in veganism if it were presented in a different light.
A lot of people also turn vegan from these militant vegans. People define militant veganism differently, but Gary Yourofksy comes to mind. Do you really think it alienates people from veganism in the long term?
In my experience, yup.
Maybe it’s the social circles I’m in, but I’ve converted many more die-hard “gym bro” types by focusing on sharing mind-blowing food, talking about veganism’s athletic performance benefits, and kicking all their asses at chin-up contests than I have talking about what’s wrong with animal agriculture and how unhealthy animal products are.
There’s a time and a place for both approaches, of course, but my focus is on the former.
Do you personally partake in any form of animal activism?
I focus on education rather than activism – some of which can overlap. Much of the so-called “activism” I don’t agree with (seemingly not taking human rights into account, engaging in illegal behaviour), and there’s a lot of research showing that the way in which activists often present information does nothing to change someone’s mindset, and can actually have the opposite effect (reinforcing someone’s existing beliefs and values).
Education, on the other hand – including the horrors of the animal agriculture industry, health benefits of a vegan diet, how going plant-based helps our planet, and of course examples of mind-blowingly delicious vegan foods – is often seen as more approachable, and in my experience has generated much more interest in veganism.
In my business, I partner with organizations like the Vancouver Humane Society and the Happy Herd Farm Sanctuary in their fundraising initiatives, but otherwise, I just walk my talk and try to be an example of a healthy, badass vegan athlete.
This is great, but I don’t see the difference between education and activism. I think education is at the heart of all effective activism. That’s what it’s all about in the end: Teaching someone something they didn’t know so they can do better in the future. If we all knew this stuff from birth it would be a very different world!
As far as im concerned sharing vegan recipes, working out in vegan shirts, talking about health benefits and what goes on in CAFO’s is very important and effective activism. Partly because of what you say - its more approachable, and relatable. Which, I think, is what activism should be!
Fair enough, I suppose what I do is a particular brand of activism then.
If you could say one thing to yourself when you first went vegan, what would it be?
“Like any lifestyle habit, at some point soon, veganism will be your new normal.”
Do you have any other advice for newer vegans or anyone thinking about making the transition?
Instead of approaching veganism with a mindset of deprivation (e.g. “I can’t eat that”, “I avoid that food”), approach it from a positive mindset of abundance. Cram your diet so full of delicious plant-based foods that the animal products automatically get crowded out.
I didn’t even know about many of the foods I now enjoy, even while I was vegetarian (lotus root, tempeh, freekeh, amaranth, etc.) If you need inspiration, I have a free grocery list with 350+ vegan items you can download.
Thanks for your time, Karina.
To see more from bad-ass Vegan-Veteran Karina Inskster you can head over to her website with one of the following links:
- Free grocery list: http://free.karinainkster.com/vegangrocerylist
- Free e-book on calories, macros, and fuelling fitness on a vegan diet: http://free.karinainkster.com/foodlogging
- Coaching programs: www.karinainkster.com/coaching
- Listen to the No Bullshit Vegan Podcast: http://www.karinainkster.com/podcast
And/or connect with her on social media: