Happy Valentine’s Day! Hope you’re having nice celebrations.
So I think it’s pretty clear by now that the majority of Choosing Raw readers are ladies. This is no surprise, given the food blog world demographics. And it’s nice for me, because I can often address some of the women’s issues—birth control, for instance—that are near and dear to my heart, along with others—such as eating disorders, body image, and peer pressure—that impact both genders, but affect women more prevalently.
That said, I have a solid and awesome male readership (wassup, Ian!) and I love to open up the conversations on the blog so that they’re of interest to men and women alike. In addition, I have a bunch of wonderful male clients, and I like to keep them reading, too!
I notice one big difference between my male and female clients. Women are mostly concerned with how proper nutrition will make them feel: how will their digestion improve? How will their energy levels increase? How will their relationship with eating and body image shift? How can they foster feelings of pride and enthusiasm for the foods they eat? My male clients, on the other hand, are interested in what proper nutrition will enable them to do. How will it boost their athletic performance? How will it help to transform their bodies? Will increased energy help them to function better at work, and accomplish more? Can it get them dates?
The answer is, of course, that proper nutrition can and will do all of these things. It’s not unusual for my male clients to ask me for evidence of that promise over the course of our first few sessions. They want guarantees that, if they’re willing to clean up some of their nasty little habits (fast food, drinking too much, too much red meat, or—for the gym rats—junky soy protein powders and brick-like meal replacement bars), they’ll see results. So what guarantee can I give them?
I give them Brendan Brazier. Which is to say that I nearly always give my male clients—especially the very athletic male clients—Xeroxes from Brendan’s first book, The Thrive Diet. I consider it one of the definitive books on vegan athletic performance, and it answers (better than I can or do!) some of my clients’ most burning questions about the vegan diet for athletes. Calcium, protein, iron, stress, recovery? The answers are all in there, in simple, well researched, and authoritative language. Brendan has a knack for making such complex concepts as acidity/alkalinity, athletic recovery, and adrenal fatigue feel comprehensible and clear. Best of all, he speaks from experience, from the vantage point of a professional ironman triathlete who has been fueling with a 100% plant based diet for over a decade now. Just as my own experience with raw and vegan foods can often help to inspire my female clients directly, Brendan’s lifestyle and achievement is an inspiration to my male clients. And he is, of course, an inspiration to athletes everywhere—male, female, vegan, or omni.
The cornerstone of Brendan’s advice is this: reduce bodily stress by optimizing diet. Reducing stress will, in turn, shorten and maximize recovery time. Brendan noted early in his career that recovery was an oft-ignored, but significant component of athletic performance–more, even, than the training process. Shorter recovery times mean more prolific and higher quality athletic output. Brendan began research the benefits of a plant based diet in depth, and what he found was that eating a diet that maximized alkalinity and minimized stress (stress to the adrenal system, the liver, and the kidneys) was likely to minimize recovery time. This diet, he concluded, was 100% plant based, with a focus on raw foods, along with ancient grains and legumes.
Adopting this diet has allowed Brendan to maximize his own athletic performance, and it has inspired him to help others. Since The Thrive Diet was published, Brendan launched his now famous Vega brand: drink infusions and bars that are 100% whole foods and plant based. Many bloggers have blogged about them already. I had my first introduction to them this month, when I was offered the chance to sample some of Brendan’s new Vega whole foods Vibrancy Bars. These—to quote from the Vega site–are:
“…a unique and utterly delicious blend of all-natural, raw, organic, and enzymatically-active plant-based superfoods including sprouted buckwheat, sprouted almonds, acai, Salba and hemp seeds.
Unlike any other bar on the market, Vibrance bars maintain a taste of guilty pleasure while also being vegan, gluten-free, sprouted, alkaline-forming, and rich in Omega 3, antioxidants and phytonutrients…Clean and green, Vibrancy bars contain no refined sugars, oils, gluten or soy and are GMO and pesticide-free. Decadent and delicious, Vibrance bars are available in Chocolate Decadence, Green Synergy, and Wholesome Original!”
More on these below!
Since Brendan has been such a personal inspiration to me, I asked whether or not he might be willing to answer a few questions about his experience and his nutritional philosophy with my readers. And, much to my delight, he graciously said yes! So it’s with great excitement that I present a short Q & A with bestselling author, ironman triathlete, and environmentalist Brendan Brazier.
1) Welcome, Brendan! Let’s start at the beginning. How did your fascination with vegan and raw nutrition begin?
Well, I guess it began in 1990, when I was in 10th grade. I liked running and swimming and biking and wanted to do it as a career. I was constantly looking for ways to improve. What I noticed was that the top training programs didn’t differ much from most regular programs. And those programs didn’t really differ much from one to the next. This led me to suspect—though it would become clearer later on—that recovery was more decisive than training in boosting athletic performance. And I quickly realized that recovery was all about nutrition. So I understood the value of recovery at the beginning of my career, and that has made a huge difference for me.
Of course, this didn’t all come together for me right away. Like most athletes, I tried a bunch of popular regimes at the beginning: high carb, low carb, high protein. I even tried a plant based approach, but it didn’t work at first. I was always tired. My coach (this was in 1990) was a great coach, but he didn’t understand the connection between nutrition and performance, and he was dubious about vegetarianism. So I became proactive, and I took a good look at my diet, determined to clean it up and also see what I was lacking.
Well, it turned out I was lacking a lot of basic things: protein, B-12, calcium, and iron. I decided to put them in a blended drink after my workouts; it seemed like an easy and efficient way to do it. I added pumpkin seeds, for example, and my iron levels immediately shot up. The whole experience—adding whole foods to a blended drink—planted the seed and the habit that later that became Vega.
2) It’s definitely not an unusual experience for a new vegan to find that he or she hasn’t quite mastered the art of getting enough dietary variety, balance, and nourishment. Tell us more about what you were low on, and how you remedied it.
Well, iron was the main thing. But again, when I started adding ¼ cup soaked pumpkin seeds to my smoothies, my iron issues disappeared. Today, I’m also sure to frequently eat greens with citrus, because Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron. This means big salads with citrus dressing!
Well as you know, the problem is that we’re losing calcium, not that we need to ingest more and more of it. High acid foods force our bodies to leach calcium from our bones. So what we really need to do is increase our alkalinity. But what I did to boost calcium through food was to add unhulled sesame seeds to my blended drinks, and it worked really well.
4) I find it interesting that all our national conversation about athletics is all about training or performance—with almost no attention paid to recovery. Can you talk about how you discovered the importance of recovery?
Well, as I said, noting the similarity of various training programs and had a lot to do with the “aha” moment. It must have been recovery, rather than training, that helped to distinguish who excelled.
Really, exercise is nothing more than muscle tissues and cells being broken down. And when you rest, the body grows back stronger — it overcompensates. Good food provides the building blocks for this process. The body pools the resources you take in through food and helps you to grow muscle back. If you eat poor nutrition, cells don’t grow back after athletic strain—they don’t have the resources—or they grow back abnormally (which can proceed to cancer). So although lots of athletes load up on junk food after grueling performance—they figure they can afford to, or that they’ve earned it, now that a competition is over—it’s actually the worst time to eat junk food, because that’s when the body will assimilate most quickly and seriously. If you want to eat junk, fine, but eat it later—not right after a workout, when the body will assimilate it directly, and be less likely to filter it out.
5) How has your athletic performance changed since you went vegan?
Once it started working, I was able to train significantly faster, which meant that I could become professional more quickly. I think my having been able to go professional so fast was a testament to my attention to detail and to good nutrition. I feel like a lot of athletes are overfed and undernourished. They’re getting the total calories they need, but not the enzymes and vitamins and nutrients. They suffer overconsumption and weight gain later on—and all the problems that accompany them.
6) Amazing point, and part of the reason I think calorie counting is such a flawed practice. Many of my athletic clients do, though, get very hyper-concerned about caloric intake. How many calories do athletes really need?
People put so much faith in calories out, calories in. I was doing that for a long time, eating a ton of peanut butter and bread, but they were the highly processed variety, which means that that I was expending so much energy trying to digest them [of course, my readers know that hard-to-digest foods sap us of energy and make us exhausted!]. The net-gain, in other words, was low.
That’s what I wrote about in Thrive—high net gain foods—foods that allow you to expend very little and gain a lot of energy.
After I changed my diet, I was getting far fewer calories than I had before—at least 20-30% less. And I was performing so much better. You would think that more calories would mean more energy, but if that were the case, people eating a ton of McDonalds would have a ton of energy! Today, I eat far fewer calories than the conventional athletic book would dictate. People would never see my age and calorie intake and believe that I maintain the kind of training and athletic regime I do, but again, it’s about net gain, not a calorie in, calorie out abstraction.
7) So this clearly factors into the idea of smoothies and recovery shakes. They’re a ton of nutritional gain with very little expenditure, since they’re all whole foods and they’re blended, to ease digestion…
Right. Here’s what the drinks have going for them:
1) Convenience—they’re quick to make
2) Digestive ease
3) After a workout, blood needs to be in extremities, delivering oxygen and cleaning up lactic acid, so you can’t have it rushing all to your digestive tract to digest heavy food
4) They can add a lot of high quality, plant based protein really easily, as well as variety of foods in one single source
5) You don’t crave things as much, because you’ve gotten all the nourishment you need
7) They provide energy through nourishment, as opposed to stimulation in the form of short term chemicals
8 ) Let’s move on to your incredible understanding of high-raw, vegan foods. You offer, I think, the best, most condensed account of the acid/alkaline balance of any author I’ve read. In fact, I Xerox your chapter on it for new clients! Say a few words about acidity and alkalinity, and how/why they matter.
Well, it sounds complex, but when people hear it, it makes such sense. If your body is acidic from too much caffeine, processed food, toxins, and tough to digest animal proteins, everything suffers, and your body, again, has to leach minerals from your blood to neutralize the acidity. The more alkaline you become, the better. It’s that simple!
9) So here’s a confession: compared to most people in the raw community, I have a fairly skeptical attitude towards “superfoods.” I know that you’re a fan of some of these, but not to the kind of fanatical degree I’ve seen elsewhere. Could you share a bit more about your feelings on superfoods? Which ones do you really support, and why?
Thrive Diet mentions a few of these. Maca, chlorella, spirulina, and rooibos tea—these are the kinds of foods that can really give you a boost. But without the basics—proper diet and lots of greens, etc.—they’re not going to guarantee health.
10) I usually tell my clients and readers that, if you’re eating well, dietary supplements aren’t necessary—with the qualification that many vegans do need B-12 or D3. I know you’ve mentioned before that multivitamins shouldn’t be necessary if you’re eating a varied and plant based diet. But of course, the Vega infusions are supplements of a sort. Can you tell me more about them? What purpose do they serve, and how did you formulate them?
Vega is a fairly faithful replica of what I was making myself when I was fifteen. The vibrancy and energy bars are the same as what I used to prepare at home. I really liked them and they worked for me. The bar recipes are in the book, so people can make them themselves, without too much cost. None of the Vega products are proprietary, and there are no special secrets. My recipes aren’t hard to make. It’s all just food. The same idea goes for the Vega line, and it’s important for people to get that.
The Vega smoothie infusion is really popular. A lot of parents like giving it to their kids because it tastes so good, and it has fiber, so it won’t create a sugar spike. Stable, nice. Several parents have actually said that they thought their kids had behavioral problems, and in fact it was just dietary—usually too much sugar.
The Vega smoothie infusions and whole foods optimizers also have EFA oils. As athletes, you breath more and oxidize quickly, so you need more antioxidants.
Vega sport is a pre-workout drink. It has brown rice protein, herba mate, green tea, trace minerals, naturally occurring caffeine, which preserves muscle glycogen, kombucha, and coconut oil.
As for vitamins, well, I thought I needed them, but I got over that when I stopped taking them, and nothing bad happened. My bloodwork stayed the same, and my health stayed the same. If people want to take supplements, fine, but for people who are looking for alternatives, they can get everything they need through good, conscious food choices.
11) A lot of my male clients who are vegans or vegetarians get skepticism, even teasing, from other men about their diets. Of course, they look and perform better than their doubting friends! Is it hard to be a male vegan athlete, socially? Is it hard within the industry?
I used to get teased, but I don’t anymore. People just see the results. They see the steady improvement, and the ability to train harder. There are a lot of athletes I know who aren’t vegan yet, but they’re close. The culture is really changing. Many used to think they needed to go plant based to perform, but now they also like the taste and the lifestyle, which is an important distinction. They eat the food cause they like it. Every athlete I know now eats no meat, and no dairy.
And by the way, I think really people are really catching on about dairy [I hope so!!]. Frequently when they become vegetarian, dairy consumption goes up, and people immediately don’t feel well.
12) So you think that professional athletic culture is shifting with regards to food, and how people think about food? That makes me really happy to hear! Is this lifestyle gaining traction?
I’m sure I’m a bit skewed, but from what I see, there has been a lot of progress in the last few years. People are open minded and willing to try. And when things work, people stick to it.
And you don’t have to make it complicated! I don’t spend a lot of time preparing food. I think people get the impression that I spend more time doing recipes than I do. When I’m on the road, I spend most of my time eating from the salad bar at Whole Foods, and I make a lot of big salads at home. Not complicated.
13) Final question: what’s the future of Vega, Bredan? Tell us how you plan to see it grow and expand!
More of the same, but keep expanding. Get more good products and messages out there that are going to help people make good choices. I’d like to do a whole sports line: recovery drink, electrolyte drink, gels. I also just started another book, one that will go beyond sports or diet. It’s going to be a food issues book—so it’ll have a lot to say about nutrition, but also the environment, health care, animal rights, and more.
Wow! I can’t wait to read that book. I have to say that what distinguishes Brendan in my mind from other athletes or fitness/lifestyle writers is this: he’s tremendously thoughtful in ways that extend far beyond food and fitness. Brendan isn’t just interested in recipes or meal plans—though he offers readers both—or in workout tips. He envisions being active and eating well as only two parts of a much bigger vision of how we ought to nourish ourselves in this world: consciously, with thought given to the environment and to each other.
I know this, because I had the tremendous pleasure of sitting down with Brendan to lunch two days ago! A phone interview simply didn’t give me enough of a chance to hear about his vision, and luckily for me, Brendan came into NYC for a few days to promote Vega at GNC (um, vegan, whole foods supplements competing with the usual sea of soy, whey, and processed junk? Yes please!!!).
Upon realizing that we are both devotees of Bonobos coconut soup, Brendan and I decided to grab lunch there, where we proceeded to enjoy the soup and giant salads (OK, his salad was slightly more giant than mine).
We chatted about healthcare, the planet, school lunches, the raw community, and the writing/editing life. And what became increasingly clear to me was that Brendan is as much an advocate as he is an athlete. He has a positive vision for changing the planet and the national dialogue about wellness, and he’ll continue to explore and expand this vision in his work. I expect that Brendan’s writing career will—to make a terrible pun—thrive for a long time to come, moving into topics that go far beyond nutrition.
But while we’re thinking about nutrition, let me mention that the Vega bars are really good. Here’s the chocolate and the green vibrancy, both of which I’ve tried:
I love that these are sweet but not too sweet. And I can taste the green, which may be a turnoff to some, but guess what? I’m all over it!! Hardly a surprise. My only issue is that the bars are a little miscombined (buckwheat + nuts/dried fruit), but the amount of buckwheat is minimal enough to be too problematic. I’ve also tried the Vega smoothie infusions, which are delicious! I like them with just a big of almond milk or hemp milk and ice.
OK. I hope you’ve made it this far in a very looooooong post, because a) Brendan is awesome and b) I’m giving away a copy of his new book, Thrive Fitness: The Vegan-Based Training Program for Maximum Strength, Health, and Fitness, along with samples of the new Vega Vibrancy Bars. In order to win, simply comment on this post. Period. And tweet it for a second entry. Winner will be announced next Sunday, Feb. 21st.
And naturally, if you haven’t yet entered to win a Tribest Blender, you really should.
Thanks again, Brendan, for your throughtful interview. You are an inspiration to all of us!!!