Why you should care

Because you needed a good excuse to reconsider your diet.

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Patrik Baboumian was so sensitive as a kid he sheltered hedgehogs in the winter and once spent a day rescuing tadpoles from a drying puddle. He was your classic 135-pound weakling as a teenager and at age 26 became a vegetarian; a few years later, plagued by an increasing awareness of animal suffering, he made the jump to veganism. You might have him pegged as a beret-wearing, Berkeley bean-sprout enthusiast — but if so, you’d better think twice about making a nasty crack within earshot or even giving him a sidelong glance. Because Baboumian, though only 5-foot-6, is built like a human wardrobe and can drag a half-ton of weight with his neck.

You really don’t want to mess with a fellow known as the “Vegan Badass.” Of course, you wouldn’t be in any real danger; Baboumian, 36, is a gentle soul who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly. He just didn’t see why animals had to die so that he could lift 300-pound barrels over his head. In that, he’s hardly alone; other well-known vegetarian athletes include vegan sprinter Carl Lewis (yes, that Carl Lewis), vegan ultramarathoner Scott Jurek and Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder. Baboumian lives to dispute the notion that animal protein is necessary for athletic success; serve him up beans, grains, potatoes and nuts, not to mention the odd bowl of oat porridge with chocolate soy powder, and he’s happy.

He’s done well by it too. In 2011, after years of a vegetarian diet, he won a strongest-man competition in Germany, where contestants drag airplanes and carry around giant concrete spheres. Two years later, as a vegan, he set a record by carrying 1,216 pounds a distance of 10 meters, or almost 33 feet. (Afterward, he reportedly bellowed, “Vegan Power!”) “We live in a cerebral society, in which we have forgotten how fascinating strength is,” Baboumian says. “Children never say that their father is the smartest; instead they boast that he’s the strongest.”

“I grew like a weed — mostly from side to side.”

With his squat, hyper-muscular proportions, mutton chops and long, swept-back hair, you could almost take Baboumian for the X-Man superhero Wolverine (minus the adamantine claws and Hugh Jackman’s movie-star looks). And there really is something superheroic about the way he tosses washing machines around like Styrofoam boulders. Baboumian can hold a 45-pound weight for almost 90 seconds with his arms outstretched and can balance a 30-pound barrel in the air. Hey, he also holds the record in tree-trunk lifting.

Born in 1979 in Iran to Armenian parents, Baboumian and his family fled the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War, eventually ending up in the central German city of Fulda. Growing up, he loved to watch professional wrestling on TV; when he was still a skinny 15-year-old, he signed up at a gym. Within a year, Baboumian had gained 50 pounds. “I grew like a weed,” he says, “though mostly from side to side.” At 16, he did his first youth-class power lifting and was soon city champion. He started bodybuilding at 18 and on his first outing came in fourth in the German national championship. A year later, he was German junior champion.

Of course, Baboumian ate meat back then, even though now he says he never liked the taste. At the time, it just didn’t seem possible to be a real strongman without lots of steak and turkey breast — after all, the protein had to come from somewhere. Raised by his mother and grandmother — his father died in a car accident when Baboumian was small — he remembers growing up “in a politically explosive situation” fraught with insecurity and helplessness. Small wonder he kept looking for ways to make himself strong enough to protect those around him.

Baboumian went vegetarian in 2005 — the result of a long struggle with conscience — and only got stronger, he says. He’d recently discovered the strongest man contest and started winning titles. After a few more years as a poster child for the vegetarian movement, he decided to take the plunge and cut out milk, eggs and other animal products from his diet. It wasn’t easy; dairy represented the biggest part of his protein consumption, and Baboumian says he was “afraid to fail” on a vegan diet.

He didn’t and instead went on to become an outspoken vegan spokesman. He rails against the forcible impregnation of dairy cows whose calves are killed and against the close confinement of laying hens as well as the agro-industrial complex that, he says, conceals animal suffering from consumers “so that no one can make the connection between the living creature and the meat product.” If that sounds like a PETA advertisement, it’s probably not a coincidence; Baboumian did a 2012 campaign with the activist group. Baboumian also says going vegan allowed him to eat less, claiming that eliminating animal-related protein made his metabolism more efficient by eliminating amino acids that “over-acidated” his system. Nutrition experts find such claims dubious. “There is no credible evidence that vegans metabolize more effectively,” says Frank Hu, a Harvard nutritionist.

The strongman insists otherwise, but it remains possible that Baboumian has peaked. He’s still active as a strength athlete but hasn’t set a new record since 2013 and sometimes seems more focused on spreading his athletic and dietary philosophy. (He wrote a 2014 book in German outlining exactly that.) Although as we wrapped up our discussion, Baboumian told me he was off to buy new weights. His old ones just don’t cut it anymore; soon, he plans to be walking around with more than 1,300 pounds on his back. Now that’s practice.

Libby Coleman contributed reporting to this article.

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