Interview by Erika Satkoski of the CCV News Team
“There is something that changes in you when you gain control of your life, you begin to realize that you and only you are in charge of what happens next.”
“I hope that people like myself and my fellow vegan athletes continue to put out information that encourages people to make a change, for themselves, their families, our planet, and the animals.”
Plant-Based Living Q&A with Niccole Guggia
We would like to introduce you to a Central Coast native who recently shared her incredible journey with us. IFBB pro bodybuilder, self-employed businesswoman, wife, and mother of two, she is an inspiration! Niccole has been a vegan since June of 2017. Originally, she became a vegan for health reasons after she was advised by her doctor that she would have to take medication. Determined to find a solution through her diet, and after researching, Niccole changed her diet overnight. Within 4 weeks, she was able to stop taking all medications.
Niccole was inspired to become a bodybuilder by her husband Kevin, also a Central Coast native, vegan and professional bodybuilder. She began bodybuilding in March of 2018 and went on stage for the first time in September of 2018. After months of discipline and training, Niccole went pro at her first national show in Sept of 2020. After that show, she achieved the status of “professional athlete for life.” This has opened many opportunities for Niccole, including a chance to win at “Olympia,” the Olympics of bodybuilding.
After reading her interview we promise you’ll want to get to bed early this evening to get rested for an early start tomorrow, at 5:00 am, as she does on a typical day. Niccole does have busy days full of workouts and fueling her body to maintain her conditioning of course, but her family is a priority and she keeps that time well-guarded.
“I like to keep my Instagram real and authentic and will only share products that I personally believe in.” ~Niccole Guggia
Was there a single moment that lead you to bodybuilding or did this develop over time?
Yes! My husband and I were vacationing on the small island of Bora Bora. He somehow convinced me to go to the little hotel gym and workout with him. I have always been into physical fitness, but usually more boot camp, HITT style training, with some yoga and Pilates mixed in. I was fit, but not muscular, so lifting weights was and a bit nerve-racking for me, but wanted to give it a shot. My husband walked me through an hour-long lifting session and when I was done, I was amazed at how fun it was! The rest of the trip I followed him around the gym and did exactly what he did, I was hooked. I got home and immediately turned to Google to find a personal trainer. I was on a mission to build some muscle and get strong. I never in a million years thought that 3 years later I would be an IFBB (professional League of Bodybuilding) professional bodybuilder, I actually had no idea that there was even a division for women like me. My idea of a bodybuilder was Arnold Schwarzenegger! The online coach I found just happened to be the world’s first vegan professional bodybuilder and the world just fell into my lap. I went from wanting to put on a little muscle and learn how to lift weights, to taking a big chance, stepping way outside my comfort zone and signing up for my first bodybuilding competition in September of 2018.
Did you go vegan before you became a bodybuilder?
Yes. I went vegan in June of 2017. In 2014 I started experiencing some health problems. After seeing more doctors than I can count, I was told I was suffering from ulcerative colitis. At that time my doctors told me that my diet didn’t really play a role and that medication was the only answer. I knew in my heart that was not the answer for me. I read and research a ton and all signs pointed towards a plant-based lifestyle. At that point in my life, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I jumped into a full plant-based diet on June 15th, 2017 and within 4 weeks my health was under control and I was able to stop all medications. I started to come alive again and I felt unstoppable. There is something that changes in you when you gain control of your life, you begin to realize that you and only you are in charge of what happens next. I really believe that pulling myself out of a dark place, and gaining control of something that felt so out of control, gave me the courage to enter the world of bodybuilding. Although at the time I asked many times “why is this happening to me?” I now know that it was part of my journey and has made me the person I am today.
Were you inspired by a vegan bodybuilder?
My first coach, @samshorkey, was the first person who opened the world of bodybuilding to me. She taught me not only how to fuel my body as an athlete, but how to fuel my body as a vegan athlete. She gave me meal plans, recipes, and answered all my questions about the vegan lifestyle. I was only about 6 months into my vegan journey I still had so much to learn and she was there to teach me along the way.
Of course, once the world of bodybuilding opened up to me, I turned to Instagram for inspiration from fellow vegan athletes. I also created my Instagram page @niccolegonevegan_ifbbpro to share my journey with others. I found that there was a whole community of people doing what I was doing, I wasn’t alone! I connected instantly with one of my current posing coaches Natalie Mathews aka the @fitveganchef. She puts out tons of content that show just how easy it is to be a vegan AND an athlete. I also went to fit expos and got to meet so many amazing people that are spreading a “no meat athlete” message. There is inspiration all around us, I found that you just have to be open to it.
How have you needed to up your game in knowledge of nutrition, given the protein focus in bodybuilding? And if so, what are important things to know?
As an athlete, it is very important to know how to fuel your body. If you are not providing it with the proper nutrition you will not be able to perform at the highest level, your recovery will suffer and your progress will stall. Like you mentioned the bodybuilding world is hyper-focused on protein. You will see men and women talking about the copious amounts of chicken and fish they are eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, almost as a rite of passage into the industry. Bodybuilding is just as much of a mental sport as it is a physical one and some people feel that forcing yourself to eat food that you hate is proof that you are stronger than others. I have witnessed people gagging down their cold tilapia and white rice while looking at me eating my homemade seitan balls, sweet potatoes, and zucchini, wondering: how I am able to eat that?
The answer is simple, MACROS! I track my macros during both my prep season as well as my improvement season. This means that I decide what my meals will look like based on what macros my coach gives me. This is just a more precise version of tracking calories. She gives me a set number of grams for each protein, carbs, and fat to hit for the day and I build my meals around that. I use a free app called my fitness pal which makes this a breeze. For example, a 6 oz piece of chicken has approximately 30 grams of protein well guess what, so does seitan.
So instead of eating chicken, I am finding the equivalent macro vegan protein source. Seitan has the highest amount of protein per gram which makes hitting your protein goals very easy. Tofu also has a high protein count, the firmer the tofu the high the protein. Lastly, tempeh one of my favorites for the fermentation benefits is also very high in protein. Aside from these 3, legumes are a great source of protein and fiber to help keep you fuller longer. I do use vegan protein powders as a filler for any gaps I may have, they also taste really yummy. My favorite breakfast is a bowl of cream of rice, a scoop of organic protein powder, cut up strawberries, and some pumpkin seeds!
It is true that if you are trying to build muscle you need to eat protein. Protein is the building block of muscles. I like to aim for about 1-1.5 grams per pound of body weight. For me, I consume 120-150g of protein a day. If you are not an athlete 0.8-1g per pound is sufficient. Aside from protein, carbohydrates and fat also play a very critical role. Carbs are going to fuel your workouts, give you brainpower and let’s be honest keep you happy! I always choose whole food source carbs, my favorites are rice, sweet potatoes, legumes, and starchy veggies. I will load about half my days’ worth of carbs to my pre and post-workout meals. This will help me perform in the gym and help my muscle refill the glycogen lost during my workout. Fat is going to be important as a hormone regulator. When people, especially women go too low on their daily fat intake weird things start happening. I stick to around 40-80g fat a day depending on what season I’m in. My favorites are all the nuts and seeds, avocados, tahini, and nut butters.
The most underrated nutrient category in my opinion is micronutrients. You can eat all the protein, carbs and fat you want but without having a wide variety of plant-based foods your vitamin and mineral level will suffer. This is where plant-based athletes have a major advantage over others. We are eating lots of food from nature, our bodies know how to work with these whole foods. We are being fueled with all the nutrients Mother Nature has to offer and our bodies thank us for it. There have been studies that have proven that people are able to lose more body fat by eating a diet high in micronutrients versus those that are eating the same calories that are full of processed food. It’s a win-win, eat your fruits and veggies.
Do you think it’s easier, harder, or the same for vegans to build muscle versus omnivorous counterparts?
This is the ultimate debate. I have listened to many arguments for each side, always open to hear what people have to say on the subject. I feel that both sides have very valid points. Most people believe what they are doing is better than what someone else is doing and are willing to argue to the end for it.
Since I didn’t start bodybuilding until after I was vegan, I can really only speak for my personal experience. I am proof that it is 100% possible to build muscle as a vegan. Many times, people argue that vegans built their muscle as a carnivore then made the switch to a plant-based lifestyle, I did not! During my 1st true building season, I was able to put on 10 pounds of muscle in about 18 months. For a natural (no steroid using) female, under perfect conditions we can expect to put on about 0.5 pounds of muscle a month, which is exactly what I did. My husband, Kevin, also a professional bodybuilder has lifted weights for 20 years as a carnivore. After I went vegan, he jumped on board with me and decided to give the plant-based lifestyle a go! He hired his own coach and within 6 months he made more progress in the gym than he did for all the years combined, doing so as a vegan. I think that building muscle is hard, no matter which diet you choose. Consistency is really the key to success and if you enjoy the food you are eating, you feel healthy and full of energy you will be more likely to stick to your program for the long term and that is what promotes results.
Do you have to meal plan every day or more around competition time?
During my improvement season, which is the time of year that I am not in prep or competing, I am more flexible with what foods I eat. I am a creature of habit and enjoy eating mostly the same meals for breakfast and lunch because I love those meals so much. For dinner and snacks I will eat what I am craving. Sometimes I feel like a nice big Buddha bowl, sometimes I feel like tacos and sometimes I feel like pizza. I have found ways to make all my favorite foods fit my macros so I never feel deprived. Strict meal plans can work for a short period of time, but I have found that once you aren’t told exactly what to eat anymore, you feel a little lost and tend to go on bingers.
When I am about 4 weeks out from a show, I do switch to a meal plan that I have set for myself. I do this for 2 reasons:
- It makes my life easier, not having to think about what I’m going to eat. Prep is very time consuming, hours spent between cardio, workouts, posing and recovery, meal planning is the last thing you want to do.
- It keeps digestion very predictable. When we get on stage, we want a nice flat tummy and keeping foods that you know work well with your body is very important.
I do make sure I have some variety in fruits and veggies during this time. I will switch between blueberries and strawberries. I’ll mix up my nuts and seeds and I will eat a handful of different low fiber veggies that I know digest well.
How much time do you spend working out during the week? What’s the most challenging part and do you have a favorite workout routine or set?
I spend about 1.5-2 hours a day in the gym. This seems like a lot I know, but it is my happy place. I like to take my time with my workouts, focusing on mind-muscle connection making sure I’m working the muscle properly, not just going through the motions.
For me, the most challenging part is being patient with results. Both building muscle in my improvement season and with fat loss during my prep. Both are a very slow process and can get discouraging at times, but I have learned to take my emotions out of it and just stick to the plan. I start each day with intentions to do everything in my power to accomplish my goals for that day. I truly take it day by day and don’t look to far into the future.
I love working shoulders. I love how a nice sculpted upper body looks on women. The more developed your upper body is, the smaller your waist appears and we all want that!
I equally love working the booty! I am not genetically gifted in this department. I’m here to tell you, you can change anything you don’t like about your body.
My favorite Shoulder workout:
Banded lateral and front raise warm-up for 3 min
- Dumbbell overhead press
- Dumbbell Lateral raise
- Dumbbell front raise
- Bent over dumbbell rear delt fly
My favorite booty workout:
- Band around the knee glute bridge 3 min straight
- Barbell hip thrust
- Cable or banded glute kickbacks
- Dumbbell Bulgarian lunge
- Straight leg dumbbell deadlift for hamstring
- Seated or lying hamstring curl
- Abduction machine-if I’m at the gym
Of course, we have to ask, did you see the documentary Game Changers and if so, what did you think about it?
Yes, I did. I was anticipating the release of this movie for over a year. I know one of the bodybuilders in it, so I was so excited to see it come together. I felt like they did a great job making an argument for being plant-based and showed so many examples of amazing athletes not only performing but performing on top of their game. I feel like the biggest impact was on the non-plant-based audience. It was a huge eye-opener for so many people not willing to do it for the animals or the planet, but willing to give it a shot for their own health, and hey a win is a win, it doesn’t matter why. I had so many people reach out to me following the release wanting to give a plant-based diet a shot. The fact that this documentary was able to plant the seed in people’s minds that it can be done is a major win in my eyes. I believe that most of us that have been vegan for some time watched it and felt validated, almost like an “I told you so moment!” It was a huge moment for our vegan community as well as our plant-based athlete community. I hope that with all the success of Game Changers we will see more information hit the mainstream population. Until then I hope that people like myself and my fellow vegan athletes continue to put out information that encourages people to make a change, for themselves, their families, our planet, and the animals.