It's been a tough week to be vegan in Australia.

Overnight, vegans became the most hated people thanks to several high-profile protests across the country.

But Emma Hurst, 37, is keen to show people that vegans don't always look like you'd expect to them — and she would know. She's a vegan bodybuilder.

"When I started training, I just wanted to lose a little weight and gain a bit of muscle. It wasn't long before I decided, no, I actually wanted to go all the way and compete," she told news.com.au.

Advertisement

"They said it would be too hard to go into a bodybuilding competition as a vegan — so I wanted to prove them wrong.

"I was also told that being 37, I was too old to compete — and I ended up winning three out of four competitions."

Competing for the first time ever in the Australian Natural Bodybuilding bikini competition, Emma ended up taking home gold.

"People said I was crazy, because most are exhausted after just one competition," she said.

"I came out of the first season feeling pretty good and thought I should just keep going."

Bodybuilding shred diets are notoriously restrictive, with competitors often only eating chicken, fish and broccoli.

Emma, however, discovered that her diet as a plant-based competitor was much more exciting, with oats, strawberries, bananas, dates, scrambled tofu, avocado, brown rice and quinoa.

"I could see the other girls in my competition, and how draining it was to live on a diet of two things for weeks and weeks on end.

"Whereas I came out of my competition and had a few doughnuts to treat myself and felt fine.

"I didn't feel like I needed to eat a pizza and chocolate or treat foods because I'd been eating a bigger range of food the whole way through. It wasn't such a shock to my body."

Emma later competed in three other Australian Natural Bodybuilding bikini competitions, taking out gold in two, and third place in the other — but she says she's most proud of that third place, given the competition she was up against.

Emma said there are a few vegans on the bodybuilding scene, including her partner Damon as one of them. He's been vegan for six years and is living proof vegans can be super-muscular too.

"There's a really strong myth among men in the bodybuilding sphere that you need all this animal protein to build muscle, and he's proven very clearly that's just not true," Emma said.

Emma originally went vegetarian at a very young age, before going full vegan at 18.

"When I was little, we had some rescue cats and I became very close to them," she said.

"I remember I was hugging a chicken once and realised it was purring in the same way my cat purrs when he's happy."

"I realised if I couldn't eat my cat, I couldn't eat this chicken."

Emma says more and more people are becoming interested in veganism and other bodybuilders often ask them about competing on plant-based diets.

"I think there's a lot of curiosity out there and when you show what can be done on a plant-based diet, it breaks down those barriers that suggest you can't.

"I think it's really important to show what can be done on a vegan diet to expel some of those myths that you can't build muscle."

Outside of competition, Emma has also run numerous half marathons and is planning for her next big physical challenge, either a 100km ultra marathon or taking up powerlifting.

"The myth of the sick, malnourished vegan simply isn't true," she said.

"I think people are just as likely to be vitamin deficient on a meat and dairy laden diet as they are on a vegan diet. You could be on a non-vegan diet, and still have the same deficiencies."

Dietician Ebony McCorkell said there are many benefits to eating a plant-based diet when done correctly — including a reduced risk of many health conditions, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and even certain types of cancer.

"Plant-based diets also tend to be low in saturated fats, high in vegetables and fruits, and rich in fibre and phytochemicals, leading to lower total and LDL cholesterol level, and better blood sugar control."

"Any way of eating can be used to gain muscle — and assuming a vegan is eating a wide variety of plant-foods like legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, higher-protein grain foods and higher-protein plant milks, they should be able to meet their protein requirements with little effort."

The accredited dietician, however, stresses the importance of getting the right advice.

"There can be the tendency to follow diets made up by influencers who have no nutritional qualifications whatsoever, and these can end up making you really sick and malnourished," she said.

Emma has been vegan for 19 years and says she has figured out exactly what her body needs to thrive in that time. Her diet includes plenty of plant-based proteins, vegetables, seeds, nuts and grains.

"If you're thinking about going vegan, just give it one month and see how much better you feel."

"The longer I'm vegan and eating healthier, the better my body looks and feels. I feel really good. I'm 38 this year, but I feel the strongest and healthiest I ever have in my life."