I work with them every day; so I know how awesome Precision Nutrition’s coaches really are.
Today you get to meet one of them, Ryan Andrews. This way you can find out too.
PN Coach Ryan Andrews reads. A lot.
He gave up cable TV, along with a lot of other material luxuries, including eating animals, in an attempt to lighten his footprint upon the earth. He won’t drive. He avoids flying. He recycles and composts. He grows his own food.
Right now, his carbon imprint is barely a shadow. In fact, he might be actively sequestering carbon, like algae.
But without cable, ya gotta do something. So he reads. And posts his reviews for the edification of PN members in the Member Zone. Which is funny, because he never used to be a bookworm.
“For much of my life,” Ryan laughs, “I hated reading. I made fun of people who read books! I was like, ‘Those people are nerds!’ I think as a teenager I read one book for fun: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. That was it.
“But once I was done with grad school and had finished my dietitian internship, I realized I didn’t want to become brain-dead. I wanted to keep challenging my own views. I always want to challenge myself and not just become certain of what I’m doing or get set in my own ways or thoughts. Certainty is scary. I don’t ever want to be an overly rigid person.”
This embrace of novelty and change is a far cry from his bodybuilding days, where rigid and restrictive control defined his journey to becoming a nationally ranked competitive bodybuilder between 1996-2001.
“Bodybuilding was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he says reflectively. “In some ways it was great, because it taught me that you need to work hard to get results. You have to work really hard in the gym to build muscle. You really have to change what you eat to lose fat.”
After growing up enjoying a comfortable life in Grand Junction, Colorado, hard work was a new concept. Book lurnin’? Feh.
His original life plan, he chuckles, was to “win the lottery or join the military”. In high school, he wasn’t an academic. He was a “meathead”. In fact, one of PN’s brightest researchers barely got into college. Instead, he and his best high school buddy lived for the gym and their portable coolers full of carefully measured food.
“It sounds kind of stupid now,” he acknowledges, “but I never really realized that I could achieve things if I just worked on them. I thought, ‘I’m going to apply this to school and see where it takes me.’ Had I never done bodybuilding, I might never have gone to college”.
His parents smile now too, when they think of their former scholastic slacker son. “They’re like, ‘Who are you?’” They might also laugh at the meat-eating meathead turned avid animal rights and environmental activist.
At the very least, most relatives would roll their eyes and keep offering just one bite of burger or asking why the heck he had to go and swear off sugar for a year, as he recently did. “Yeah, much of the time, people’s families will be resistant and think you’re a freak,” he says.
Yet no matter what the transformation, his family remains his biggest fans and his “best friends”. And they now host vegan potlucks.
“My parents were awesome about my choices in health and nutrition,” Ryan recalls. “When I got into bodybuilding at 14, I was pretty dependent on my parents for buying stuff. They embraced it. They helped me prep food. They even started to change their own habits as I changed mine. Now we eat very similarly,” although the rest of the family isn’t as devoted as Ryan to exclusively plant-based eating.
He also tries to pass on the love and plants to his two little nephews. He embraces the challenge of inventing vegan treats that a 5- and 7-year-old will like.
Sounds like healthy eating – inspired by bodybuilding, and now maintained by a concern for health, animal welfare and environmentalism – has been a win for over 15 years. So why was bodybuilding also the worst thing that happened to him?
“Competitive bodybuilding gets you really wrapped in physique, how you look, and dieting,” he says thoughtfully. “I developed some seriously disordered eating, and a level of focus on my physique that was not good for my life.
“When I was doing national competition around my 20s, that was all I thought about: my body. How do I look today? My diet. I’m going to plan for my non-diet and overeat. The spiral. It was feast or famine, restrict, overeat, binge. You thrive on restriction. You’re rewarded for it – for how little you can eat.
“Either I’m super-restricting, or I’m eating a ton till I’m stuffed and bulking up. That was all I knew. Both those things brought rewards. You can get high on restricting. Oh wow, today I had 1000 calories. You can feel like this is great. And people are impressed by your discipline. Then, of course, over-eating brings its own rewards.”
When he quit bodybuilding, he’d just turned 20, and was in school studying exercise nutrition. Ironically, he had no idea how to eat normally. “Right after I got done competing in bodybuilding. I didn’t know how to eat. Eating was always determined by my contests.
“All I knew about eating was stuff like how many weeks out from a contest am I, am I trying to bulk, lose fat…? Now, I’m just a guy with a normal life. What do I do? I realized I wasn’t in a good spot. I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. I can totally relate to all the people in PN Coaching who have suffered through yo-yo dieting. I get that.”
Bravely, and with great humility, he sought out counselling. It helped. “I realize how little of my behaviour was about food at that point. It was about feeling in control of some areas of my life. How much feedback I got about how I looked, and how much importance I placed on that. My whole world was wrapped up in how I looked.”
Ever the keener and quick problem solver, he showed up to his counselling sessions with a notebook, “ready to write down the magical sentence that would cure me.” Of course, that sentence never arrived. As Ryan now tells his PN clients, real change and progress is slow.
And scary. “It was really tough to get out of that mindset. To let go. I was afraid that if I didn’t have rigid control, I’d become a fat glutton, a disaster, lazy and worthless. It’s weird, though, whenever I saw other people being that rigid with food, I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want to be that guy at a family dinner eating out of a cooler.”
He pauses. He’s obviously uncomfortable. I ask whether he’s okay. “Those were bad times,” he says, faintly. He’s reliving the struggle as we speak. “I don’t like thinking about it. It was such a selfish place to be.”
And now, despite his alphabet soup of postgraduate degrees and certifications, plus a stint in dietetics at some no-name dive of a place called Johns Hopkins Medical Center (have you heard of it?), he still feels a little less… physically credible. “People definitely want your opinion on eating and exercise when you’re big and ripped. Degrees and experience aren’t as easy to see.”
His body remains lean and lithe, and he twisted circles around me in yoga class. But just like his carbon footprint, he’s a lot lighter now.
He frets a little. “I think about it all the time.” Other people never bring his lack of swole up, but he worries that it’ll be an issue. “In fitness, a buff body is your business card.”
Now, though, he lives with deep integrity. This fills him with a quiet pride, despite the occasional insecurity. Confidence creeps back in to his voice.
“I live a healthy life. If someone were to follow me around with a camera, and watched how I live, I know I’d be proud of it. I’m not ashamed of anything now. When I looked like a Muscle & Fitness guy on the outside, I didn’t feel good inside. Now, I feel really good inside, because I’m living in accordance with the things I care about.”
As far as he’s concerned, the challenges are all blessings in disguise – an attitude he takes to just about everything in life these days, and an attitude he encourages among his PN clients too.
“I swore to myself, I’ll never be so selfish again. I want to help people. Volunteer. I don’t want my whole day to be taken up by eating, my body, my selfish little world. Had it not been for this time, I might never have gone into volunteering.”
And go into volunteering he did. Now there is scarcely a big-eyed puppy, old lady crossing the street, or planetary concern that escapes his devoted attention. He coaxes timid baby vegetables from the soil at a local organic farm. He volunteers with environmental organizations. He goes to Africa. He drops into faith-based gatherings, mostly just to high-five the project of collective enlightenment and occasionally rap about gluttony.
Basically, he spends his days giving the planet a big, warm hug.
“It sounds so corny, but I really want to leave the world better off when I’m gone than when I arrived. I don’t want to just suck up resources, create waste, and die. I really really care about the planet, everything, animals, people, resources, all that stuff. That drives a lot of my choices around how I eat, how I get around, where I volunteer. I just want to leave the planet better off than how I found it.”
He helps out with a school lunch program in Boulder, Colorado, close to where he lives. “Yeah, I’m a lunch lady,” he laughs. He makes sure that kids are eating their veggies and learning about good nutrition.
“I think it’s kind of nice to have somebody that is a little closer to their age being there. I just want to be there and be a positive role model. Most people in the public lunch system couldn’t care less. It feels good, because it’s something I believe in. Instead of just talking about it – ‘Oh, school lunches suck’ – instead of just complaining, go do something.”
Though his work helps society and the planet, it also helps him keep his head on straight and feet planted firmly in the compost heap.
“This has helped my transition away from extreme eating. It’s nice for me to have something to focus on with my eating and my life that’s not related to how I look. Instead of eating X calories because I want to look like Y, I’m eating this way because I don’t want to harm animals. Because I want to treat farm workers fairly. Because I want to sustain the planet. That’s much bigger and more positive than ‘How much can I restrict today to get as lean as possible?’”
He understands his clients’ struggles with food. He’s been there too. This experience helps him communicate with clients. He gently pushes them to be honest with him and with themselves.
“When I know a client is feeding me a line – the line they think the ‘nutrition guy’ wants to hear, I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I know that isn’t real.’ Then we can have a really authentic conversation and make some progress.”
It’s hard for guys, he says. Men aren’t expected to struggle with eating, body image, and restriction. With feeling powerless over food. After all, they’re rewarded for over-consumption.
“Everyone thinks that guy who can pack his food away is a big macho guy. Well, maybe he’s a compulsive eater and is suffering in isolation.” His experiences and insight help him build trust and openness. He connects. He gets it.
“Just like the way I struggled with body image when I lost some muscle, men really tend to fear becoming small people. We want to be big and muscular. Men know they have to eat enough nutritious food to get a big strong body, but it spills over to being big, fat and unhealthy. A lot of guys fear becoming small little people, skinny guys. A lot of guys express fear with that.
“Unfortunately, when guys do better, it’s frowned upon by a lot of the people they spend time with. ‘Oh, you’re listening to hunger cues, are you a girl?’ It’s not a manly thing to be comfortably full. To pack the food up and save it for later. That’s a strange thing for guys to embrace. For a 45 year-old-guy, who played football in high school, and who is now encouraged to be a big eater, it’s weird to embrace hunger cues.
“That’s huge, the peer pressure. Men are supposed to just live on eating huge amounts of meat – burgers, steaks. We eat till we’re full. We eat to get big and strong. Talking about listening to your body, eating more plant foods, it’s like a foreign language to guys at first.”
His history as a bodybuilder works to his advantage in this case. His clients accept that although he’s hitting the lentils and kale pretty hard these days, and would probably prefer to live on air and mist, like a epiphyte, he’s already punched his macho carnivore card. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, you did that thing where you ate a bunch of meat. Where you were a meathead.’ I checked that off my list of things to do with my manhood.”
It’s been a long journey from meathead to vegan. Through it all, Ryan’s kept his characteristic curiosity, courage, and honesty. He observes the world carefully, curiously, and with profound integrity.
This observational commitment was recently tested when he visited a cattle feedlot. It wasn’t a casual drop-in, either. He had to work for over six months – “It was a real pain in the ass, frankly” – just to gain access. But he was committed. He realized he’d been speaking and writing about the politics of meat, but had never seen actual industrial farming. With his usual humility, he set out to prove his own null hypothesis.
“I thought this would be something unique, new, and rare. Vegan dietitian goes to Colorado feedlot for an unbiased look. Well, it was unique all right.”
The result was one of the most contentious and explosive articles yet written on the PN website. The reaction was swift and often harsh. People stopped speaking to him. He was dumped unceremoniously from communities that had once considered him a big-name ally. Some “friends” quit returning his calls.
Part of him wishes he’d never said anything. Wishes he’d stayed safe in his eco-friendly community.
“It was a lose-lose situation for me,” he sighs. “I had no idea it would have such a negative outcome all around.”
The other part of him knows that growth and development – just like in PN Coaching – comes from stepping out of one’s comfort zone, even if you step straight into a pile of cow poop.
“Sure, I could have gone to the feedlot and said, ‘This all sucks! I’m going to burn this place down!’ A lot of people are like that – ‘My way is the right way!’ But I feel I do a good job of seeing things other ways. In this situation, I wanted to go in with an open mind. I feel like I did. I’m not OK with the whole project. I don’t believe in using animals for food. But in this situation, I can see how it’s working for some people.
“Whether you’re an activist or coach, you really need to keep communication lines open. You can’t just shut down or turn off discussion.”
Since getting kicked in the proverbial gut, he’s become a little more sober and clear-eyed about who he chooses as friends, but no less idealistic about his life’s purpose. He’s transformed himself from selfish to selfless. From Austrian Oak acolyte to tree hugger.
He loves what he does, and he believes in it deeply. He continues to work tirelessly, whether that’s behind a lunch counter or a computer screen. He wants to help. Everyone.
“So many of us want similar ultimate goals with our eating, and with how we want food to be produced. Nobody is going to say, ‘I want an unsustainable food system that hurts the planet and is bad for me and treats animals like crap.’ But you’ve gotta accept baby steps. With something like a feedlot, if they compost, or provide more balanced rations, OK great. It’s not ideal. I’d prefer those guys didn’t exist. At least we’re moving in the right direction.
“It’s the same thing with clients. You work with their own individual needs, step by step, and meet them where they’re at.
“Let’s work with what we have. Let’s move in a positive direction. I think we all have the same goal.”