Brendan Brazier is one of only a few professional athletes in the world whose diet is 100 percent plant-based. He’s a professional Ironman triathlete, bestselling author of The Thrive Diet (www.thrivediet.com, Penguin, 2007) and the creator of the award-winning VEGA line of whole food products. He is also the 2003 and 2006 Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion and an advocate for a vegan lifestyle, to which he attributes much of his athletic success. Brendan also had the chance to speak to congress on capital hill and made a case for the connection between food and health. You can read more about him at www.brendanbrazier.com. The following interview took place between Brendan and Jason Wiedlin, an employee at Amy’s Kitchen, on July 20th, 2007.
What literature or sources could you recommend to a person trying to understand nutrition’s impact on one’s quality of life?
I started trying to figure out what works for me by experimenting with nutrition when I was around fifteen. I read a lot of medical journals and science books to find out what I needed. I wanted to make sure that I was recovering fast from exercise.
All along my goal was to be a professional athlete. The best athletes trained pretty much the same as the average athletes, which surprised me. I found that it had more to do with recovering than it had to do with the training itself. That is what interested me because nutrition is a huge part of recovery.
Brendan BrazierDid you work with any dieticians or health professionals in developing your diet?
I did talk with a lot of dieticians early on because I was always hungry and tired when I first became a vegetarian and I couldn’t figure out why. They all said that I should go back and start eating meat and that I shouldn’t be a vegetarian if I wanted to be a high level athlete. I really didn’t get a lot of help from many of them because they were really conventional and so I explored vegetarian nutrition on my own.
Was it difficult to stick to your diet while traveling?
It’s actually not. Most grocery stores now have healthy foods sections and lots of organic fruits and vegetables that I can graze on throughout the day. When I eat out, I’ll sometimes get a big salad, and because I’ve been grazing throughout the day I’m usually not too hungry during the evening.
What kind of advice can you give to everyday people trying to incorporate a more vegetarian lifestyle?
I think starting slow is helpful. I know some people try to do it overnight which can stress your body. Incorporate small amounts into one meal, like one snack-a-day that’s plant-based and slowly transition out meat. Usually what I suggest, such as in The Thrive Diet, is to try a fruit smoothie each day in place of, say, bacon and eggs for breakfast, or something not as healthy.
So what are some of the differences between the diets of vegan athletes and vegan consumers with less demanding lifestyles?
As long as you are eating healthy food, quantities can be determined by appetite. I think timing is also important and often overlooked for athletes. Before a workout it’s really important to have more carbohydrate based foods that are used for fuel. It’s important to not eat really protein rich foods right before working out because they just won’t burn efficiently and your body won’t have energy. In The Thrive Diet, I have a chart that shows what are the best foods to eat before during and after a workout. It’s based on intensity of exercise with the more intense the exercise requiring more carbohydrates, percentage-wise, before whereas the longer slower like for long hikes, for long bike rides, for example, you would want a bit of protein and a bit of fat in there because your body would be burning more fat and less carbohydrates.
What would a typical day’s meals be for you?
In the morning I usually have fruits. Anything from berries, mangos, papayas, and apples, whatever is around. I try to go in season or local if I can. Aside from that, I’ll have it with VEGA, usually half a serving of VEGA, half fruit and then graze throughout the day.
Sometimes I’ll plan ahead and make recipes from the book like energy bars, or plantain cinnamon chips, which are really good and simple. You can put them in a bag and snack on them throughout the week.
I’ll usually have a VEGA bar, they are 100% raw 10g of protein from hemp and also have sprouted flax, along with a big Salad every evening.
I eat lots of leafy green vegetables. The good thing about green leafy vegetables is that they are high in chlorophyll which is really alkaline, and after exercise your body can become quite acidic. Getting alkaline foods into your diet really helps speed recovery and reduces inflammation which is really good for recovery and also for people who have arthritis or any kind of inflammation. The easiest way to tell is the more a food has been processed the more acid forming it will be whereas the more natural and whole the food is the more alkaline it will be.
So acidity of food is a major point for you?
Yeah, blood has a pH of 7.35. Foods such as refined flour and meat are going to have a pH in the low 5s or the low 6s, but certainly will be acidic. If you are eating lots of acid forming foods it can cause the body to pull calcium from the bones to keep the blood neutral for survival’s sake. The body can do that but over time it will lead to weak bones. That’s why osteoporosis is occurring in a younger and younger age than ever before. It’s not that we don’t have enough calcium in our diet, it’s because we eat too many acid forming foods. Often osteoporosis is treated with Calcium pills, but really the best way would be to stop the body from leeching calcium out of the bones by eating more plant based whole foods that are alkaline forming.
What are your thoughts on organic products and their impact on people’s diets and the World’s sustainability?
For health benefits, you don’t want to be eating pesticides. Environmental health is also important to consider. I’ve found that organic farming is very concerned about treating the soil, not just the plant, so even after that crop is gone a new crop can be grown and can be really nutrient dense. The soil is where the plants get their nutrients from and the plant is just the median. If you don’t treat the soil well, and conventional farms don’t, it can lead to a less healthy plant which of course means less nutritious food.
The important thing is that food is grown without use of herbicides or pesticides. There can be some really good small local farmers who can’t afford organic certifications because they are very expensive. We would really like to support them too. Me, personally I like to buy local when I can, from farmers markets and often they don’t have organic certification, simply because they can’t afford it.
As Wal-Mart and major players are getting into organics, one of the concerns is whether or not the organic standards will stay high or will they fall with powerful lobby groups trying to ease standards. I have really been kind of conscious about supporting local farmers who can’t afford organic certifications and then of course by supporting them they get more money and can afford certification and compete with these bigger companies.
What are your thoughts for what Amy’s is doing?
I like the fact that Amy's makes plant-based options available to the everyday people. Because of this, the transition to a healthy plant-based diet is much easier.
You have certainly kept busy with two books and your own supplement aside from your extensive athletic career. What is next for you?
There are a lot of things going on right now. My book The Thrive Diet, launched in Canada this year and will come out in the US January of ’08. I’ll be doing a national US tour at that time and we are really going to get going in the US in January too as far as VEGA goes. I think they are really focusing on trying to get it out there and get good convenient healthy whole food options into people’s hands at a reasonable price. There is also a production company in Toronto who’s making a documentary on me right now, on my tour. Basically I’m homeless right now traveling around so they are going to make a documentary about that and on my career and my athletic career and how it evolved into this. I am also doing a video blog now as well for the G-living network which is gliving.tv. It’s a contemporary green network. I’m taking some video clips each week and then writing a short blog each week to go with those when I am in different cities. I will be keeping up-to-date like a travel/lifestyle video type blog, so that’s kind of fun too.