He may be taking a break from competing in Ironman triathlons and ultramarathons, but high-performance athlete Brendan Brazier still seems to move faster than anyone else. Author of the best-selling Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life, Brazier, 34, parlayed a homemade sports-drink recipe into Vega,
a line of health-food products. These days the Canadian native lives mostly out of a suitcase, spreading the word about the critical links between nutrition, wellness, and athletic performance.
Q: As a high-school athlete, you created your own performance-enhancing drinks. How did you come up with your formulas?
A: My dream was to race professionally in an Ironman triathlon. I learned that recovery is a huge factor in performance, and that 80 percent of recovery has to do with nutrition. I started a plant-based diet with that in mind. Based on my research, I concocted my own mix for blender drinks, with ingredients like hemp protein, rice protein, flaxseeds, chlorella, and maca.
Q: How would you describe the ideal high-performance diet?
A: You want to gain energy through [calorie] conservation as opposed to consumption. Refined foods take a lot of energy to digest; raw, plant-based, whole foods give you a higher net gain. That's an important way to look at food: it's not just about the calories on the label, but also about the energy you get once the food is assimilated. Choose foods that are high in nutrients—hemp seeds, flax, algae, seaweed, fruit, spinach, kale, and leafy greens are all excellent. Try to buy local if possible, and from a farmers' market if you can.
Q: What about changing your eating habits for greater energy?
A: You need to start slow and ease into it, like training. A good way to begin is to have a smoothie in the morning, because it tastes good. You can mix in hemp, flaxseed, and a green component, like chlorella. If you have an intestinal reaction, which a lot of people do, go with smaller amounts and increase gradually. You'll eventually build these small changes into a healthful, whole-food, plant-based diet.
Q: Could you offer training tips for someone just starting to prepare for a race?
A: Don't do too much too soon. That's the No. 1 problem, and it's what I did when I started. You shouldn't increase your mileage any more than 10 percent each week. And stay true to your personality type: You might run because you need alone time. Or you may need to make it a social activity and join a triathlon training group, which can be terrific.
Q: You've testified about health and nutrition twice before the U.S. Congress. What points did you make?
A: People don't eat as much plant-based, healthful food as junk food because it's not as convenient. So we have to make it easier to eat healthy. Meat and dairy are highly subsidized. A hamburger could cost $35 to produce, but costs only $1.50 at a fast-food restaurant because of farm subsidies. I've been advocating for a system where meat would cost more and local organic fruit and vegetable growers could get subsidies to bring their prices down.
Q: On a recent speaking tour with the Canadian campus group Students for Sustainability, you discussed diet and the environment. What was your message?
A: Simply put, raising cows takes more energy, depletes more fossil fuels, and produces more carbon dioxide. Consider that 70 percent of [grain] grown in North America is consumed by animals, not by humans, and it takes 16 pounds of grain to net 1 pound of meat. That's a huge energy loss and an inefficient use of land. Also, because fields are overfarmed, the soil in which we grow our food is nutrient-poor. Organic farmers know this, of course. The bottom line is that if we eliminated eating meat, we could use more land to grow nutrient-rich food for people.