Die Young’s Daniel Austin on Vegan Powerlifting and Eating For Strength

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Daniel Austin is fighting a one-man war against vegan stereotypes. Weak, scrawny, hippie, lacking protein—Austin is none of these things. Vegan since 2005, Austin is a vocalist (previously interviewed here) and guitarist for hardcore punk bands including Die Young, Will to Live, and Tooth and Claw. Since 2015, he has also been a competitive powerlifter. His powerlifting total score exceeds 1200 lbs. That is, he squats 400+, bench presses 300+, deadlifts 500+, and he often wins or places highly in competition.

Austin has released the second edition of his book The Way of the Vegan Meathead: Eating for Strength. In his book, Austin lays out blueprints for vegan protein and supplements for strength athletes. Unlike musicians previously interviewed for Health Awaits, Austin approaches diet with science, not intuition. I talked to him as he prepared for the 2022 USPA Drug Tested National Championships in Atlanta. 

In your book, you say that you came to veganism through music. How did that happen?
My mom was vegetarian since before I was born, and my dad was the opposite. My dad and I would tease my mom [about it] up until when I was a teenager. I found hardcore punk and metal, and I found those voices talking about animal rights and veganism and vegetarianism. My favorite one that I identify with was Earth Crisis. So at 15, I’m, like, hey mom, let me try your food now. Maybe I needed to find that aggressive, maybe more masculine kind of voice about it.

You didn’t have male role models for this kind of behavior.
Right, until Earth Crisis, and then I got into Propagandhi, and from there I got into the Equal Vision Records and Victory Records catalogs. I saw all these bands that were politically conscious and even spiritually conscious like Shelter. So, it became this whole change of consciousness as a teenager. I guess it had to be packaged right for me ‘cause I didn’t know anybody other than my mom that didn’t eat meat.

I saw Shelter play in Houston back in the day. During the break, nuns came out with vegetarian treats for the crowd.
That’s one thing I recall, too, in the late ’90s. I got into hardcore about ’98, and there was a venue we had called the Abyss. That was my first show. I saw Hatebreed when they were just touring by themselves and local bands opened up. The people that I met at that first show, some of them were into Krishna consciousness ‘cause that was the thing at the time. Once I started going to local shows, the Hare Krishna people would show up and sell $5 giant plates of awesome food. So, I was like, yeah, I can get down with these people [laughs].

Harley Flanagan said something similar when I talked to him. He got down with the Hare Krishnas because they gave him free food.
I recall John Joseph talking about that, too, maybe in The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon book he did. How can you not like people who give you good food?

In your book, you don’t actually say why you’re vegan. You mention murdered animals, but you don’t feel like you need to make the case. I’m curious why you went that route.
I’m coming from the perspective of someone who worked for PETA for almost three years. What I find is, it’s better to relate to people and help them on their path versus trying to convert them. Maybe some people are going to be curious about how and why I came to be how I am, but the purpose of the book is to help people see that you can balance your diet the same way that the heavy lifting bros in the gym are doing, and [that] you can get the same results.

Some people aren’t that into the ethical aspect of it. I am an ethical vegan. Once I got exposed to the Earth Crisis lyrics and the “Meet Your Meat” video from PETA in my teen years, I stopped eating meat. It was always out of concern for animals.

What I find is that vegans have a horrible turnover rate. Most people, when they see those videos about factory farms, they think, “I don’t want to contribute to that.” So they’ll try to go vegan, but then they don’t know what they’re doing, and then they don’t feel good because they’re not getting enough calories because a lot of sources of fat have nine calories per gram versus four for carbohydrates. People don’t realize that they’re not eating enough fat, and therefore they’re not getting enough calories and their hormones tank. I see maybe one out of 10 people who try to go vegan stick with it for a really long time.

This is why I talk about my experience with changing my diet. I feel better. My blood work is near perfect. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of my energy levels and my ability to be stronger and perform better. And I’m not young, either. I’m 39, and, you know, dudes are worried about testosterone. My testosterone stayed at a pretty high, healthy level eating soy every day. So, I just want to show people that on the personal nutrition level, if you do this right, it can actually benefit you and not be a compromise. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself physically for an ethical choice.

I’m a runner, so not your target audience, but I’ve actually been trying to solve similar problems. I found that as athletic performance increases, so does metabolism. So, I’m constantly trying to solve for hunger. We know that protein solves hunger, and, of course, I’m not taking in as many grams of protein as you because my needs are different, but there’s some overlap there.
Sure, sure. Most people aren’t strength athletes. Most people want to just be generally healthy, but they want to have that control. If they want to do this or they want to do that, they want to know how to facilitate it. I’ve been having people ask me, I’m a grappler or I’m into wrestling or I’m a runner, do you think this would still apply to me? And if you’re trying to just be a vegan or a vegetarian, or just trying to incorporate more things like that into your diet, I think the book is really good knowledge for just about anybody, even for a normal person.

The strength athlete predicament for protein is the most extreme example. That’s the kind of athlete that needs the most. So if you learn how to get the most under any scenario, you can easily lessen that to meet your more moderate needs as an endurance athlete. I really made an effort in the second edition because the first edition didn’t really have the foresight to know all the kinds of conversations I would be having about people’s different preferences for fitness. I really tried to show the comparison between the protein consumption ranges for different kinds of athletes or different kinds of activity.

With the different types of weightlifting sports, how did you pick powerlifting?
I arrived at powerlifting because I was making attempts to be a bodybuilder. There’s a pioneer vegan bodybuilder named Robert Cheeke. He put out a book called Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness that was his experience about becoming a vegan bodybuilder at a time where there were, like, none. So, I was learning how to bulk by looking at his meal plans, and I was doing the very high repetition workouts. They weren’t so much focused on compound lifts, a lot of isolation for bodybuilders to pump up certain muscles that make you look like what people expect bodybuilders to look like, except it didn’t really work that well for me. It’s just my body type.

A friend suggested to me [to] try a beginner powerlifting program called 5×5. I ran this program for powerlifting, and that transformed my body, that kind of rep range. Bodybuilders will do higher repetition with less weight to really pump themselves up; it takes a long time. Powerlifting sets are a lot shorter, and I really liked that challenge of the heavy weight. It felt so much more rewarding. At a point some years into it, I decided I was going to start competing in powerlifting. Being competitive motivated me to keep going and actually get decent at it.

I have friends who are Olympic weightlifters. I have friends who are CrossFit people. I have friends who do kettlebell sport. I don’t know many people who’ve done much strongman. I mean, I go to a strongman gym right now. And when I lived in Memphis, I also went to a strongman gym, and I don’t really know any of those people that aren’t on performance enhancing drugs, and that’s not something I do.

Austin at the Arkansas State Championship. Photo by Julie Anderson

And powerlifting as a sport is cleaner?
Well, I compete in a drug-tested federation, USPA’s Drug Tested Division, but USPA also has a non-tested [component] where they just don’t ask you what you do. I’ve also competed in USAPL, which is the most strictly drug tested powerlifting federation in the world. I always do drug tested competitions, and, who knows, maybe people are cheating, but I think mostly they’re not. The drug tested thing in powerlifting is growing very quickly, and I think that’s cool.

What trends, if any, have you seen between the first and second editions of your book in terms of vegan culture or popular culture?
A big thing happened in 2019. The Game Changers movie came out, and it was a wildly successful documentary about plant-based athletes. My book had been out for about two years at that time, and so the sales had come to a lull. When The Game Changers came out, for two months my sales matched or exceeded [the sales] when my book came out. You had Arnold Schwarzenegger in that movie talking about eating plant protein. And I noticed when I moved back to Austin in 2020, I met some new people at a gym, and I had to reintroduce myself. Some people were like, oh, you’re vegan; their interest was in The Game Changers. It wasn’t like they were wanting to be ethical vegans: “I don’t have any argument with it, I just don’t think I can do it—except The Game Changers made me think, what if I’m not reaching my potential because I’m eating meat.” It’s very self-interested, which I don’t have any problem with. As an ethical vegan and someone who’s been an activist—the animals don’t care why you don’t eat them.

Powerlifting is a sport full of conservative people. It’s a lot of farm boys, a lot of military guys, cops. And I remember I was doing a meet in San Antonio about a year ago, in which I won my weight class. And I always put on my “VEGAN” socks when I deadlift. And so I had multiple people [asking me about it], all military guys. It’s like enough things have changed in the climate [so] that the tide can turn.

Your book indirectly points at this in the section where you analyze the composition of many different food products. The landscape was probably much smaller when you came out with your first edition.
Oh yeah. There’s exponentially more protein powders and protein bars, and all these non-vegan supplement companies have vegan options now. The most generic gym bro brands all have plant-based formulas now. I’ll walk into a GNC or a Vitamin Shoppe—eight years ago, the vegan protein section was a little corner in the back of the shop, and there were, like, five to six options. Now you walk into a GNC, it’s the first big wall right when you walk in. And they’ll be like, yeah, these things are flying off the shelf because it’s not just vegans that want it. There’s not enough vegans to actually make that much of a demand. People find that whey upsets their stomach, and they want something that’s less upsetting.

I’m not about eating intuitively. I’m about calculating how to make the diet work for your goals. So when you break it down by percentage of protein per calorie, and you compare the options vegans have now versus the animal-based options that people have always had, you find there’s less and less difference. And that’s a benefit of the food science. These are formulated things; they’re not necessarily natural. And that’s another reason why I tell people to stop worrying about what’s natural. I mean, is it natural to pick up 600 pounds? For most people, no. Do you want to do freakish things? You’re going to have to change the way you eat.

Do you feel that your athletic performance influences your musical performance?
I will say that since I got into heavier lifting, most of the things I’ve written have gotten slower and chunkier. When Die Young came back 2014, I think that the old school fans were a little disappointed ‘cause the music was more metal and less punk. And it got that way, I think in part, because I wanted to make music I could lift to, not run to. I have a vegan band with members at Die Young called Band of Mercy, which is like Tragedy and Disfear worship. It’s very D-beat influenced, and it’s great running music. There’s no breakdowns—it’s punk. The older Die Young stuff was more punk when I didn’t lift. And then as I lift, I’m like, man, we need to make this slap harder. So, a lot of the Die Young stuff got slower and more metal—not completely, but it’s notably different than the early stuff.

I also play guitar in a band called Will to Live, which is one of the flagship hardcore bands of the Houston scene from the late ’90s, early ’00s. I wrote the guitar stuff on this new Will to Live album that sounds somewhere between Crowbar, Sepultura, and Sick of It All. It’s got a homage to really heavy doom and death metal, but also traditional hardcore. When you hear it, it’s definitely lifting music. There’s parts that you’re going to want to, like on a classic Crowbar album, wait for that breakdown to get your set in. So [lifting] influences me in my writing that way where I’ve gotten more metal-influenced and, and I focus on heavier parts and riffing more.

But as far as being on stage, I’ll never be as well-conditioned as I was when Die Young was touring 200 days a year. My chops were developed for holding my breath better and not getting winded. Since now we play shows on very rare occasions, when I’m three songs in, and we’re playing those fast old songs, I’m, like, whoo! I don’t do cardio like I used to ‘cause I’m just lifting.

Austin executes a 525-lb deadlift

John Joseph said that he does triathlon training so that he can bring it on stage.
For a guy that age to have the energy he has, totally. Endurance training is really better for a frontman.

Do you talk with other musicians about veganism?
It just naturally comes up because I used to work at PETA. I’ve been vegan for about 17 years now. And I’ve done other activism outside of officially working for PETA, with other groups and volunteering, particularly dog and cat rescue stuff. Going on tour with other bands, and even with members of Die Young and Will to Live who aren’t vegan, we always have discussions about it. They’re interesting conversations ‘cause they’re ethical. It’s about exploring your own beliefs. I try to not be judgmental, because we’re human beings, and a lot of times we don’t realize we’re behaving the way we’re behaving. We behave that way ‘cause that’s the way we learned in our families or our communities. Family and community reinforces how you feel about yourself, whether you’re a good person or not. And if you feel like you’re a good person, it’s hard to question stuff.

How do you make your extreme protein demands work on the road?
I always think back to when John Joseph’s first nutrition book Meat Is For Pussies came out; I guess he was quoting Benjamin Franklin. And he said, “If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.” So I started bringing my protein powder on tour and protein bars and bags of nuts. And the guys would complain, like, oh, you gotta lug around all this stuff. And I’m like, well, when we got this five-hour drive, and three hours in y’all are starving and complaining, I’m fine. If I didn’t prepare to bring that stuff, I would fail in my goals when I get back into the gym. If you want to meet a goal, if you really do, you won’t let anything get in your way. I bring my food on tour, my supplements and my snacks, because I know there’s going to be intervals of time where it’s hard to get a good meal.

What about lifting? Do you bring equipment on the road?
I bring my synthetic leather lifting belt for my squats. I bring my knee sleeves. I’ll make sure I bring flat shoes for squatting, deadlifting. I’ll find a gym, and I’ll buy a day pass. Usually I can pack those things in a suitcase or backpack in a way that they don’t really interfere too much. They don’t take up that much space, but I do prioritize which shoes I bring so that I can get to the gym on a road trip. And I do find a way to pack my lifting belt and my sleeves in my backpack.

Do you talk lifting with other musicians?
Powerlifting and hockey and BJJ [Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu]—that’s what old hardcore dudes all get into. A lot of my hardcore scene friends have gotten into lifting and, and as we get older, those are the things that we just gravitate towards talking about. So it’s almost like how we all got into music together, now we’re all getting into our alternative fitness lifestyles together, too.

Why do you think that is?
In my 20s, I didn’t think about my health. I was just 110% band band band, play play play. And I called the band Die Young. I was so I myopic about my goals in a band in my twenties that I neglected my health a lot, and I neglected my mental health because I neglected my health. I went through a big breakup in my mid-to-late-20s. And when I got back out being single, I started getting self-conscious again. So, in my late 20s I started lifting, mostly just to try to take care of myself for once in my life. In terms of the trend of people in hardcore getting older and getting into alternative fitness lifestyles, I think sometimes it has to do with people going through breakups and divorces and needing to find something to help bring them back to center and to believe in themselves again. And if maybe they’re not having a divorce, maybe they have kids and they realize they let themselves go and they want to fix it.

You get to that point in your late 20s or maybe your early thirties where it’s not all about the scene points, and it’s not all about the vinyl, and it’s not all about the tour. You have real life problems, and maybe some people start to notice their health is getting bad. And a lot of us reach a turning point where we have to find something we enjoy doing to save ourselves.

My theory is that as we get older, we start to face mortality, so we try to get healthier to stave off the reaper a bit.
It can get bad real fast. I’ve got friends in their 30s who’ve got gout. Dude, that’s some old man shit, like you’re really fucking up. And they know it, and they don’t feel good, and they have their doctor telling them, hey, you’re going to have to change some things because you’re too young for this. In the hardcore scene, we’re not initially well-adjusted people. We have to learn to be well-adjusted. And I think the physical part of it, the fitness part, helps us find that mode of balance.

For someone who’s been sitting on the couch, eating badly and starting from ground zero, what advice would you give to them?
I would say we’ve all been there, and that’s nothing to be ashamed about. And I would say also give yourself realistic expectations to take steps, not to just get to the goal. I think so many people discourage themselves because they set lofty goals, and they don’t try to focus on the incremental improvements.

Another thing I would say is to diet responsibly. Do not under-eat Some people who’ve been more sedentary and eating junk food, a lot of times they have this idea that you need to eat less. Actually, if you’re going to get more active, make wise food choices, but you’re probably going to end up eating more, and that’ll support the muscle you want. And really, what people want is muscle. People say, well, I want to get more slim, but I don’t want to get too muscular and bulky. You know how hard it is to build muscle? You have to work really hard at it consistently.

So, especially as you’re getting older, try to build muscle. Don’t worry about the bulky thing. So few of us end up actually being bulky, especially the ladies. The muscle and the bone density from resistance training is what’s going to help you in terms of longevity and control of your body as you get older. When you get older and you don’t have that muscle, that’s when you’re at risk for fractures. Muscle is like insulation. It gives you a better chance at having a safe and healthy old age. So, make the investment now, and just start.

Austin performing live with Die Young. Photo by Skip Zhang

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