Interviews

How Nimai Delgado Built a Championship Physique on a Meatless Diet

Vegan IFBB pro Nimai Delgado is proving that you can build a championship physique without eating animal products. Here’s how he used the produce aisle to sculpt a trophy-winning body.

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Nimai Delgado
Per Bernal

Nimai Delgado has never eaten meat in his life. Not a bite, not a morsel, not a taste.

Delgado (his first name is pronounced “KNEE-my”) was raised as a vegetarian by his parents, practicing Hindus who lived in a temple in southern Mississippi. Now 28, Delgado maintained his vegetarian lifestyle on his way to becoming a mechanical engineer and later moving to Bakersfield, CA, where he currently lives. He became a vegan three years ago—that means he eats no cheese, milk, fish, or eggs.

This is relevant because of what Delgado does in his spare time. He’s a successful bodybuilder, weighing 175 pounds (much of it rippling muscle) while competing in the IFBB physique category. He’s a living refutation of the stereotype that you can’t build quality mass without meat and dairy protein. And he’s fixing to change the public’s attitude of what’s possible as a vegan.

“There’s a huge misconception that you can’t build muscle without animal protein,” Delgado says. “The moment people find out I won an overall title without ever eating meat, and did it strictly eating plants, they become very interested.”

Delgado won his pro card at the 2016 NPC USA Championships in Las Vegas. He competed recently at the Arnold Sports Festival in the physique category, where he finished a disappointing 11th. But Delgado is determined to bring his placings up to make his mark. And to make history.

I’ve never eaten meat in my life, so I’m proof that you can build muscle with just plants.

“I’m the only IFBB professional who’s competing as a vegan,” he says. “I plan to compete a couple of more times this year and then hopefully be the first vegan to make it to the Olympia stage. That’s my ultimate goal.”

A Place in History

The list of notable IFBB vegetarian bodybuilders is a short one. Bill Pearl, one of the great legends from the ’50s and ’60s, became a lacto-ovo vegetarian (someone who doesn’t eat meat but will eat dairy products and eggs) early in his career. Andreas Cahling, the 1980 IFBB Mr. International, competed as a vegetarian, as did the late Jim Morris, the 1996 Masters Olympia champ (over-60 category). But none of them have been vegetarian since birth.

“Normally the argument when bodybuilders go vegetarian or vegan is that they built their muscle on animal proteins, and now they’re just kind of maintaining it,” Delgado says. “In my case, I’ve never eaten meat in my life, so I’m proof that you can build muscle with just plants.”

While today’s fitness pros are more open to vegetable protein sources (e.g., pea, soy, quinoa) than those in decades past, eating a strict vegan diet is still a hard sell to athletes, especially bodybuilders. It doesn’t help that some vegans can be militant, their scolding meat-is-murder messaging alienating the very people they wish to convert.

Delgado has a different approach. While he chose to go vegan partly for ethical reasons, he makes a strong case that forgoing all animal products can improve your overall health and physical integrity.

“Immediately after I went vegan, I could feel a huge difference as far as my recovery time and energy levels,” he says. “Now I have less inflammation, muscle soreness, everything. I’ve never looked back.”

Delgado acknowledges the challenges of adopting a vegan diet if you’ve been eating meat and dairy your whole life.

“A lot of people are interested in trying veganism, but they don’t know where to start,” he says. “They don’t know how to structure a diet. Most of the time what happens is that they diet for a day or two, and they become frustrated. Then they give up.”

In order to help athletes put together a vegan eating plan, Delgado offers recipes on one of his Instagram sites (@veganbodybuildingfood). He has also assembled a team of doctors and dietitians to create veganfitness.com, a centralized resource for athletes interested in going vegetarian or vegan. (For examples of what he eats, see “Power Plants” below.)

“My main goal is to help spread the message to nonvegans, just so they can be a little bit more open-minded to trying it,” he says.

A big part of Delgado’s campaign to bring the vegan lifestyle to gyms around the world is his success on the IFBB stage. He’s realistic—he doesn’t think he currently has the body to win the Olympia, but he’s determined to eventually get there.

“My first goal is to qualify for the Olympia,” he says. “If I were to be the first one to make it to the Olympia as a vegan and step onstage as one of the top 30 guys in the world, that would be kind of like being the first astronaut to walk on the moon. Now the possibilities are endless.”

Engineering Muscle Mass

Unlike with his unconventional diet, Delgado takes a more traditional approach to training. A mechanical engineer, Delgado applies a studied scientific method to working out—avoid entropy and produce maximum results from your energy input. The “Power Cardio” routine here is emblematic of that strategy: time-efficient and intense.

“I focus a lot of my energy on intensity when I train,” Delgado says. “I try not to have long rest periods. I manage my time inside the gym to get it done within 45 minutes.”

He’ll do a body-part split of three to four sets of eight to 12 reps for a majority of his workouts. As for his split, he takes after a certain famous Austrian meat eater. “I like to do Arnold’s split. He did a lot of push-pull splits,” Delgado says. “I’ll also do isolated muscle groups, so one day I’ll focus on chest. The next day, I’ll do back, then legs, and then take a rest day. The remaining two days I’ll focus on auxiliary movements for the shoulders and arms. Then one day a week I’ll do a high-intensity, bodyweight workout just because I like to maintain my athleticism.” He’s a stickler for perfect form.

“Too many guys focus on the amount of weight they push rather than form,” he says. “I feel like I’ve progressed quickly over the last couple of years by optimizing my form, concentrating on the mind-muscle connection, doing a full range of motion, and really isolating the targeted muscle group as opposed to just kind of doing heavier lifts.”

To Delgado, maintaining flexibility is important. “I’ve always been an athlete, so I like to make sure that I’m not losing mobility or agility by getting too big,” he says. “Most bodybuilders use linear movements. Our joints are meant to be more circular in motion.”

Spoken like a true engineer.

Power Plants

As a practicing vegan in the IFBB, Nimai Delgado has a message for bodybuilders who are apprehensive about cutting dairy and meat from their diet: You can eat carbs. Lots of carbs.

“You can eat them all the time, even during your contest prep,” he says. “They’re loaded with fiber and micronutrients. You don’t have to worry about gaining weight. It’s putting high-quality fuel into your body. You’re going to burn it.”

Too often, people think of vegetarian and vegan diets as deprivation diets. Delgado says it’s just the opposite: “The volume and variety of food you can eat is what makes it so fun to go vegan. Usually when I talk to other bodybuilders, they’re really sick and tired of eating fish and asparagus leading up to their shows. Meanwhile, I’m over here eating 300 carbs a day.”

For protein, Delgado likes tofu and tempeh. The rest of his protein comes from beans, lentils, edamame, hemp, seeds, rice, potatoes, and quinoa. “I also eat a lot of broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and kale,” he says. “Some- times I’ll stir-fry them.”

For protein shakes, Delgado uses a pea-and-hemp protein powder. And for snacks, he’ll have oatmeal, fruit, avocado toast, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, vegetables, and hummus. Again, he stresses the diversity of the foods you can eat as a vegan.

“You’re not eating empty calories,” he says. “And it’s easier than you think to get the amount of protein that you need.”

To learn more about Nimai Delgado, follow him on Instagram: @nimai_delgado. For more on vegan lifestyles for athletes, go to veganfitness.com.

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