Health and wellness

Meet the Hong Kong vegan fitness trainers who can help you transition to a plant-based life

It can be tough to transition to a plant-powered lifestyle – especially in a carnivorous culinary hub like Hong Kong. But a pair of body builders-turned-personal trainers at SoFit Vegan aim to help make that switch easier

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 7:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 7:37pm

Bodybuilders and fitness trainers Jess Soto and Maritsa Cortes successfully shifted from an omnivorous to a vegan lifestyle two years ago – soon after they arrived in Hong Kong from their native Philadelphia in America. Soto is still surprised she achieved this turn. She had been a self-described “total meathead” who devoured everything on offer, from bone marrow dishes to morcilla (Puerto Rican blood sausages) and seafood galore.

“For Jess, it was like what didn’t she eat?” recalls Cortes of Soto’s voracious appetite, adding Soto did not have much experience with healthy plant-based foods, having been raised on the “ugly pale green ones” from cans. So what triggered the dietary shift?

“It was Hong Kong, actually,” says Soto.

She had been offered work as a fitness coach for a female fitness-focused company in Hong Kong.

Even before the move, she had kept getting sick for prolonged periods. In busy Hong Kong, the couple dined out even more often than they had before, which exacerbated Soto’s health problems. They decided to try eating fewer meat and animal products.

After reading nutrition expert Dr Michael Greger’s bestselling book How Not to Die, on how to heal your body with healthier plant-based food choices, and watching the documentary Lucent, about the dark side of pig farming in Australia, the two gave up meat for good in 2015. A year ago, they set up SoFit Vegan to help others transition to plant-based lives.

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Despite veganism’s rising popularity, Hong Kong is still a tough place for vegans. Socialising with others and dining out became top challenges during their lifestyle transition. That meant asking the right questions at restaurants to gauge whether dishes contained meat or anything derived from animals such as dairy, even honey. “We learned over time to avoid places that are meat-heavy as they are not going to understand [our diet],” says Cortes.

Another challenge was finding alternatives to animal-based proteins that used to fill their plates; it took time to get into the habit of consuming enough food to be healthy. They had to rethink their mindsets shaped by popular doctrines that demonised carbohydrates and focused more on protein, beliefs ingrained in fitness-industry culture.

Today, both women consume a high-carb, low-fat diet with most of their intake sourced from natural, wholesome foods to get all the nutrients they need “for our bodies to have healthy metabolisms, immune system, brain function, fast recovery, natural energy,” explains Cortes. They encourage other vegans to achieve “calorie density”, eating more to weigh less while having enough fuel to sustain their lives, while foregoing processed foods, especially oils.

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They relax the restrictions when they dine out, indulging on foods such as meat-free pad Thai, as it is impossible to avoid oil used in kitchens. Besides rice and potatoes, they love tempeh, lentils, spirulina and all kinds of greens including broccoli and spinach.

“If you have a well-rounded meal and eat a decent amount, you get more than enough of what you need,” said Soto.

SoFit Vegan was designed to help transition participants to a plant-based lifestyle with initiatives that include a 10-week intensive programme – essentially a condensed equivalent of their two-year process of transitioning into vegans themselves. It consists of meal plans, strategies to calculate calories, mindset and lifestyle changes, plus insights on how food choices affect one’s surroundings. They have attracted some clients who are curious about how to eat more fruit and vegetables to meet their physical or mental goals.

Sometimes people adopt a vegan lifestyle on their own, without their partner or friends’ support, which makes the endeavour harder. Those who join the programme benefit from its sense of community, as they can share their concerns and successes with other participants. The pair have also developed a fitness arm of the programme that includes exercise schemes – home gym workouts, strength-building workouts and more.

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Some of their clients have had a big shock adapting to consuming large volumes of food, yet losing weight in the process. A male client lost 3kg in the first week of the programme despite ploughing through much more food than before he joined.

“The idea is to do it right, feel confident with it and get long-lasting results,” says Soto.

The couple have just learned that Hong Kong has been awarded the right to host the Gay Games in 2022, and they are excited. “We think this would be great for Hong Kong and its growth in diversity,” Cortes said. “We definitely think the Gay Games will have a great impact on our business and vice versa as far as plant-based nutrition and fitness education goes. We will try to involve ourselves and SoFit as best we can in the Gay Games to raise awareness of veganism.”

The pair advise women not to be afraid of lifting heavier weights, a question they are frequently asked. Many women often favour cardio and lighter exercises, to burn fat. These athletes counter that building muscle is a better strategy to burn calories and supercharge the metabolism. Still, many women mistakenly believe if they do, they will turn into a beefcake. “They think: if you go in, do a curl then boom!,” remarks Cortes while shaking her head. It takes women years of training to develop that muscular body builder look.

How can you tell if you’re not lifting heavy enough weights? If you’re doing arm curls in 10 repetitions with ease, those weights are not heavy enough. Repetition range is one way of gauging whether your workout is right for a stronger and healthier body or muscle growth, according to Soto.

“If I tell you to do a curl for six, the weights you are working on ... you should be kind of struggling by the sixth rep, that’s how I can tell if we are working on your strength,” she says.

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SoFit Vegan hopes to help more people opt for healthier plant-based food choices, but most of all, lead disease-free lives.

“Lots of diseases are lifestyle-created and lots of people think they are hereditary ... it’s not true, it’s about what you eat,” reveals Cortés. They also hope participants are more aware of how their dining choices affect the planet. The overfishing of oceans, environmental degradation and the cruelty of factory farming are some of the problems.

“It’s easy to focus on yourself and say I want to try this for diet or health reasons, but you’re doing greater things than just that.”

The two plan to get married. How are they finding the LGBT scene here?

“Being engaged in a city like Hong Kong is great socially,” says Cortes. “People seem to be accepting and open-minded for the most part. However, the government won’t recognise our partnership even if we are married in another country. This is quite sad as there are many families here that could benefit from the protection that marriage allows. Everyone should be entitled to these rights.”