Spotlight On: Raw Foodist Ironman Brendan Brazier

Brendan Brazier is showing the power of raw food every day. This triathlete lives the raw vegan lifestyle and has peak performance.

Brendan is one of only a few professional athletes in the world whose diet is 100 percent plant-based. He is a professional Ironman triathlete, ultramarathoner, bestselling author on performance nutrition, and the creator of award winning line of whole food nutritional products called Vega. Brendan has twice won the Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion, including setting the course record in 2006. 

At the end of 2003 Brendan was hit by a car while cycling, and could not race in 2004. Down, but never out, he wrote a book that outlined his successful diet. The book became a bestseller in Canada and is titled "The Thrive Diet".

Brendan is recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on plant-based nutrition. He is a guest lecturer at Cornell University and teaches an eCornell course called The Plant-Based Diet and Elite Athleticism.

Brendan was chosen as one of the 25 Most Fascinating Vegetarians by VegNews Magazine, the Top 40 Under 40 most influential people in the health industry by Natural Food Merchandiser and has been nominated for the prestigious Manning Innovation Award twice for creating Vega.

Brendan’s intentions of spreading the word of an ethical, environmentally friendly, and healthy lifestyle through plant-based foods have taken him across North America, speaking at events such as the Chicago Green Festival and the United States Humane Society Gala. Brendan was also invited to address US Congress on Capitol Hill, where he spoke of the significant social and economic benefits that could be achieved by improving personal health through better diet. The focus of his speech was to draw attention to the role that food plays in the prevention of most chronic diseases currently plaguing North Americans.

Spanning the whole month of October of 2008, Brendan was a keynote presenter on a cross-Canada university speaking tour called Students for Sustainability. Speaking at 21 universities, along with others such David Suzuki and Stephan Lewis, the tour went coast to coast offering practical environmental preservation solutions to students. It was Canada’s largest environmental tour.

Among Brendan’s other achievements are his active involvement with initiatives such as a new exploratory adventure movie on health and wellness, Back from the Edge, and a photo feature alongside the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Maher in the Charity book A Rare Breed of Love (Simon & Schuster) recently featured by Oprah Winfrey.Having appeared on CTV and CBC in Canada and on NBC, ABC and FOX in the United States, Brendan has become a sought-after speaker.
Interview With Brendan Brazier

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 became Vega.

I became a vegetarian in 1990, and then in 1998 I became a very strict vegan. I have further evolved my diet to mostly raw foods. All unrefined, unprocessed, natural whole foods are what my diet now comprises of.

When I first went vegetarian my first challenge was to curb the constant hunger and lack of energy that I experienced. I have since learned that I went about transitioning to vegetarianism incorrectly, the way most people do. In 1990 I'd fill up on refined starchy foods such as pasta and bread. That put an end to the constant hunger, but sufficient energy to train at a high level was not there.

Once I began paying close attention to the quality of food that I was consuming and not just the caloric intake, I made large gains. One thing that I realized about two years ago is probably the most valuable to date; it's the pH factor of food. I used to consume a large amount of highly processed, isolated protein powder.

I was having no trouble maintaining my daily protein requirement, but I was not recovering as fast as I would have liked, plus I was experiencing muscle stiffness and mild joint pain. As I discovered it was because I had been consuming too many acid-forming foods, such as denatured protein powders.

Once I began eating more raw, natural, alkalizing, foods, my recovery time dramatically improved, as did the muscle and joint concerns. Raw, natural hemp protein is now my number one choice.

t’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.

Talk to me about calcium.
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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

What's your typical meal plan like?
Breakfast: homemade nutritionally balanced ginger pear granola with homemade raw almond milk and fruit.
Pre Workout Snack-Vega energy pudding.
Post Workout Snack-One serving of Vega Meal Replacement Formula and fresh fruit.
Lunch-Raw soaked lentil salad and vegetables.
Dinner-Raw spinach hemp soup or large salad with various sprouted beans or seeds.

What is your usual performance/training schedule like?
During peak training I'll train about 35 hours a week. I have gone as high as 43, but find 30-35 to be about right.

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 xeroxed 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.

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.

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, yerba 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.

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 people are really catching on about dairy. Frequently when they become vegetarian, dairy consumption goes up, and people immediately don’t feel well.

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.

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.

What has being a vegan taught you?
I've learned to be open minded and think critically. Just because everyone else does something, doesn't necessary mean that it's the best way. Also, the simplest solution is usually the best, in this case, whole natural foods grown without pesticides or herbicides - simple.

-by Brendan

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