By Ned Morgan.
“Are you getting enough protein?” Vegetarians and vegans hear this question a lot. The belief that humans need animal protein to stay alive is the product of millennia of meat-eating culture, dating back to the time of our mastodon-hunting ancestors.
Today, with no more Pleistocene megafauna to hunt, we do triathlons instead. For endurance and strength, former pro Ironman triathlete and two-time Canadian Ultra Marathon Champion Brendan Brazier proposes a plant-based diet.
And its adoption by serious athletes dispels the notion that only meat can deliver protein and build muscle. The 38-year-old Canadian has become something of a poster-man for the clean/raw food movement in the athletic community and beyond.
Mountain Life: When you were first developing your plant-based program, what were the initial reactions from fellow athletes and coaches? Were they focused on animal protein–based diets?
Brendan Brazier: It was 1990 when I started eating that way and people didn’t know much about it and thought they needed animal protein whether they had any supporting evidence or not. Iron in meat and calcium in dairy – they thought that’s what you need to eat as an athlete. But when I cut down on that, I found that my recovery was much faster, so I could train more in less time, which was very appealing – trying to train for an Ironman Triathlon event, you can pack in more training which of course makes you a better athlete in less time. So that was the initial appeal to me. And I found I could digest food more easily which meant I had more energy because I wasn’t spending so much in digestion.
ML: Do you still find an animal-protein philosophy out there in the athletic community?
BB: I work with a lot of athletes now – NFL, Major League Baseball, UFC, Olympic athletes – people you wouldn’t expect would be into a plant-based diet, but they are, and they’re the ones who seek me out because they want to boost performance. They don’t really care what they eat; they just want to perform better. And when they tried [Brazier’s diet program] Thrive, it worked, and they want to keep doing it. There has been a huge shift over the last few years.
ML: Do you see this shift as a part of a movement toward more consciousness about diet?
BB: That is part of it… People are disenchanted with what they see going on – I think we all know someone who’s had a cardiovascular issue due to poor diet, Type Two diabetes, arthritis, or osteoporosis. Whether communicated through books, movies, or news segments, it’s become clear that the way we’re eating in North America is really not getting us what we need. And of course the environmental movement has continued to grow and that is tied into food as well. Some people want to eat more plant-based because they want to be less environmentally taxing.
ML: What sort of diet would you recommend for a pro skier or boarder to boost performance?
BB: The big thing is digestibility. Food like for example pasta, white rice and white bread – the traditional starchy foods – really don’t have a lot of nutrition and take a lot of energy to digest. Foods like quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat – the so-called “pseudo-grains” – digest much more easily and return more nutrition, so that would be what I call high net-gain food. And green foods will help reduce inflammation. When you can move more efficiently, you don’t have to work as hard, so you conserve more energy.
ML: What sort of diet would you recommend for a pro skier or boarder who has a big race tomorrow?
BB: I would suggest not changing things too drastically before a big race. There’s an adaptation period. The off-season is the time to play around with your diet. Right now I’m working with the Garmin-Sharp cycling team at their training camp in Boulder and now’s the time for them to play around – in the off-season.
I’d recommend something light, that digests easily. And I would make sure the person doing the race has recovered, with good nutrition, from previous workouts. I try to make the pre-event meal “unimportant” – just making sure that muscle glycogen has been restocked after the last workout, and raising blood sugar a bit. If you are depleted nutritionally the night before the race, it’s too late to get what you need to counter that.
ML: Catching a cold or flu must be a concern for winter athletes. How can they (and the rest of us) boost immunity?
BB: Training beats up your immune system. People can get sick when they’re really fit because they’ve been training so much that their immune system is low. One thing is astragalus, to help keep the immune system strong right after a workout. And just eating well in general will keep your immune system stronger – again, more of an ongoing process as opposed to a reactive thing when people think they may be getting sick.
“People are disenchanted with what they see going on – I think we all know someone who’s had a cardiovascular issue due to poor diet, Type Two diabetes, arthritis, or osteoporosis….. It’s become clear that the way we’re eating in North America is really not getting us what we need.”
ML: How do some foods create stress in the body?
BB: Stress is stress – it doesn’t matter where it comes from. The body perceives it the same whether it’s too much work and not enough rest, or breathing polluted air, or worrying, or eating foods that take a lot of energy to digest and contain very little nutrition. White bread for example – you’d have to eat so much white bread to actually be nourished, and the amount of digestion that would go on is very high. So eating a lot of food without a lot of nutrition is a form of stress. Nutrient-dense foods – foods that have more nutrition and fewer calories – will reduce cortisol, the stress hormone.
ML: Many people believe that meat makes you strong. Could you point out a plant food that builds muscle and increases strength?
BB: It’s an amino acid combination and many plant foods have that. Or combinations of plant food. In the Vega formula there’s hemp, pea and rice: this will build muscle, plus it will reduce inflammation. It’s not acid-forming.
Refined flour, dairy, meat, synthetic vitamins, synthetic drugs – basically the standard American diet – is highly acid forming. When you eat acid-forming foods, calcium, which is highly alkaline, has to get pulled out of the bones and into the blood to neutralize the acidity, and over time that leads to weaker bones. That’s why osteoporosis is on the rise in North America. It’s not really a lack of dietary health, but the consumption of highly processed, acid-forming food.