Torre Washington / Instagram
You have to eat meat if you’re going to succeed at bodybuilding, so the say, and drink whey shakes and eat eggs, so they say. But what they say never mattered to the muscular men and women on our list. These vegans and vegetarians proved all the naysayers wrong by thriving in physique and bodybuilding contests. We had just two requirements to make our ultimate honor roll of the best herbivore bodybuilders ever: Each had to compete successfully at a high level meat-free and they had to maintain the lifestyle long-term. This eliminated some notables who either went vegan after retiring from competition or experimented with the lifestyle before returning to steaks and eggs.
Here, in alphabetical order, is our honor roll of the seven best vegan or vegetarian bodybuilders of all time.
With a huge Instagram following and a Muscle & Fitness cover, Nimai Delgado is the most celebrated vegan bodybuilder of all time. Raised by Hindu parents in Mississippi, Delgado has always been a vegetarian, but he removed dairy from his diet to become a vegan in 2015. That was the same year he began competing in men’s physique contests, and by the next year he’d earn pro status. Nimai Delgado’s pro men’s physique placings include a fifth place in 2017. “There’s a huge misconception that you can’t build muscle without animal protein,” Delgado told Muscle & Fitness. “The moment people find out I won an overall title without ever eating meat, and did it strictly eating plants, they become very interested.”
Roy Hilligenn (1922-2008), was born in California but grew up in a South African orphanage. Noted for his strength as much as his physique, Hilligenn competed in weightlifting and bodybuilding. After winning the Mr. South Africa three times, he returned to America, and, in 1951, won the Mr. America. After 23 years off stages, Hilligenn won the Mr. South Africa for a fourth time in 1976 at 53; and, at 54, he finished third in his class in the 1977 Mr. International. It’s hazy when Hilligenn became a vegetarian. In his 70s, he claimed to have been “a vegetarian all my life,” but a 1951 article stated he ate meat. It’s most likely he embellished in his later years, though it’s possible he “closeted” his vegetarianism in his earlier years when it was viewed as incompatible with bodybuilding.
A vegetarian since age 15, Julia Hubbard adopted veganism in 2015 at 39. Previously a member of the British bobsled team, Hubbard took up bodybuilding (mostly in the figure category) and competitive sprinting in her thirties. Boy, did she ever! Hubbard has competed in more than 60 figure and bikini contests, mostly in drug-free federations, and won 19 pro titles, four world titles, and six British titles. (She’s also won gold medals in the master’s 200 meter dash.) Reflecting on her bodybuilding beginnings, Julia Hubbard wrote: “I was told I’d never achieve anything if I didn’t take drugs. That fueled my fire. Never give up!”
Jehina Malik is the only known pro bodybuilder who has been vegan her entire life. She’s never tasted meat, dairy, or eggs, which are often considered the muscle-making nutritional staples. “Being raised vegan was second nature for me and my five other siblings as being vegan was the only way of life we knew of,” she told Great Vegan Athletes. Malik began competitive bodybuilding at 19 and won the women’s physique title at the 2013 NPC Eastern USA before earning professional status at the drug-tested 2014 Team Universe. Forever vegan, Jehina Malik has, so far, competed in three pro physique contests.
When Jim Morris (1935-2016) won the 1973 Mr. America and tall class of the 1977 Mr. Universe, he was an omnivore. After retiring from bodybuilding competition in 1985, he converted to vegetarianism (with fish on “rare occasions”). Morris made a bodybuilding comeback at 61 when he competed in the Masters Mr. Olympia (for pro bodybuilders 40 and over) and won the 60-and-over prize. In 2000, for health and ethical reasons, Morris became a vegan. At 77, he posed tastefully nude for a PETA advertisement; and, at 78, he was the subject of a documentary short film. In the movie, Morris says: “Because of how I want to live in this world, and how I want to treat other creatures, I have to be a vegan. In order for me to eat meat, I would have to change all of my other beliefs.”
The late, great Bill Pearl (1930-2022) was one of the best bodybuilders of the 1950s and 1960s, winning the 1953 Mr. America and Mr. Universe the year he turned 23 and the Pro Mr. Universe in 1961, all while consuming lots of red meat. At 35, after a doctor warned him of his cholesterol levels, Pearl and his wife converted to lacto-ovo vegetarianism. Two years later, he again competed in the Pro Mr. Universe and won again. At 41, Pearl made a comeback, entering the 1971 Pro Mr. Universe. He won his fourth Mr. U title (and, for the second time, meat-free), defeating 3-time Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva and future 3-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane, among others. “Meat is definitely not the secret to bodybuilding,” Bill Pearl later said.
See also: Bill Pearl (1930-2022): The Life of the 4-time Mr. Universe
Jamaican-American Torre Washington describes himself as a Rasta, and that naturalistic Rastafarian philosophy is what brought him to veganism in 1998. In 2009, Washington began competing in drug-free bodybuilding contests and won his first of several titles that initial year. Torre Washington currently competes professionally in men’s physique in the IFBB Pro League. This year he finished 4th (out of 19th) in the Ben Weider Naturals Pro. “My commitment to being vegan is to share with the world how human beings can exist holistically with all beings and not only survive, but thrive as a vegan,” Washington said.
See also: Study Finds Similar Muscle Growth With Vegan vs. Omnivore Diets