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Follow a Vegan Diet Without Compromising Your Performance

An Exclusive Interview with Professional Ironman Triathlete and World Renowned Fitness and Nutrition Expert Brendan Brazier

[Editor's Note: Though the great majority of bodybuilders could not imagine undertaking a rigorous workout regimen without the fuel provided by plenty of chicken breasts, egg whites, beef, and animal-protein-based supplements, there is a sizeable subgroup of high-performance athletes (primarily endurance athletes) that choose to pursue a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle to some degree. When it comes to supporting muscle growth and recovery, the efficacy and primacy of a high-protein diet derived from animal sources is, of course, scientifically well-documented. Having stated this, however, recent advances in plant-based food technologies (and in our understanding of how a vegan diet and athletic training might interact) show interesting potential.]

Brendan Brazier is a man of many hats; professional Ironman triathlete, renowned speaker, author, fitness expert, plant-based nutrition guru, and creator of the highly successful Vega Nutrition line of products.  Though the list of vegan athletes continues to grow on virtually a daily basis, Brendan is currently one of only a few professional athletes in the world whose diet is completely100 percent plant-based.  As an Ironman triathlete, Brendan competed at the top level for seven years winning multiple races including back-to-back first place finishes in the Canadian 50K Ultra Marathon Championships. 

As an expert in the field of fitness and plant based nutrition, Brendan has authored two best selling books; Thrive; The Vegan Nutrition Guide for Optimal Performance in Sports and Life and the recently released Thrive Fitness: The Vegan-Based Training Program for Maximum Strength, Health, and Fitness. 

In 2004, Brendan teamed with the innovators at Sequel Naturals to develop a commercially available line of plant based nutrition products virtually identical to the formulas Brendan created for himself when racing professionally.  The Vega line of products hit shelves a year later and are now currently one of the top selling plant based supplement brands available in North America.  I recently had the opportunity to speak with Brendan about his professional athletic career, his philosophy of plant-based nutrition, and fitness.

PS: Tell us about your nutritional background. When did you first decide to focus on plant based nutrition and why?

Brendan: My curiosity for plant-based nutrition started when I was 15. At that time I didn't really care too much about eating for health purposes - my primary focus was on how I could make myself as good an athlete as possible, with the ultimate goal being to race professionally as an Ironman triathlete. So I began researching the training programs of some of the top endurance athletes in the world and what I found was that those guys trained pretty much the same as the average guys. This surprised me.  I figured that the top athletes implemented superior training methods and that was what separated them from the rest of the pack. Instead, what I found was that it had to do with their superior rate of recovery - the rate at which their bodies repaired and regenerated after intense exercise.

I ultimately came to the conclusion that nutrition played a huge role in helping boost recovery.  In fact, up to 80% of recovery can be attributed to nutrition.  To make a long story short, upon further research and testing my performance with various nutrition / fitness programs over a period of a few years, I concluded that a completely plant based whole food diet was the optimal choice for performance and recovery.

PS: Tell us more about your experience with shifting to a completely plant based diet.  Did you immediately see positive effects in your performance?  Did you find it difficult to make the transition when you first switched?
Brendan: To be honest, it was quite difficult at first and my performance suffered.  My recovery got worse and I was tired and hungry all the time.  Ultimately however, I got to a point where I became far more conscious of what I was eating, which early on was pretty much all starch; potatoes, rice, and bread and I was lacking in quite a few important nutrients: complete protein, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and omega 3 fatty acids.

This realization led me to put together my own blender drink formula of all the essential plant based nutrients that I had been lacking. In due course my energy began increasing to optimal levels and my rate of recovery was far superior than what it had ever been before.  The Vega Whole Food Health Optimizer actually evolved from that original blender drink.

PS: Please explain to our readers exactly what Plant-Strong or vegan is and what the differences are between a vegan and a vegetarian.

Brendan: A vegan is someone who not only doesn't eat meat but no animal by-products as well.  So no meat, dairy or eggs.  Vegetarians on the other hand eat no meat but do not abstain from eating eggs and dairy. 

PS: Why did you choose to become a vegan over just being a vegetarian?

Brendan: I actually did try eating a vegetarian diet at first, I ate lots of cheese, etc.  Not only did I not see positive gains in my performance, I just really didn't feel well from it.  So I gradually started cutting out dairy and other animal products and I started feeling better and my performance level improved dramatically.  I never had a conscious motivation to become a vegan, I just kind of fell into the life style based on the positive effects I gained from it.

PS: What are your thoughts on plant based nutrition as it relates to the pH balance of one's body?  How important is maintaining an acid-alkaline balance to one's health / fitness and athletic performance?

Brendan: I think it's very important. The balance of acid and alkaline within the body is referred to as pH (meaning "potential of hydrogen"), and measured on a scale ranging from pH 1 (the most acidic) to pH 14 (the most alkaline). A neutral or good pH balance is 7.35; maintaining this balance is vital. If the body's pH drops, meaning our body has become too acidic, the likelihood of ailments rises sharply. An acidic environment within the body negatively affects health at the cellular level. It is not possible to be truly healthy when the body is in a constant state of acidosis (characterized by excessively high acid levels).

Eating too many acid-forming foods dramatically inhibits an athlete's performance for a number of reasons.  Acid forming foods (highly processed and animal based foods) need to be buffered by the body so the blood stays in a neutral state.  In order to do this, the body pulls calcium from the bones.  Because calcium is naturally alkalizing, this keeps the blood neutral.  Over time unfortunately this leads to lower bone density, stress fractures, arthritis, etc.   However, if one consumes an increased amount of natural alkaline foods, (vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts/seeds), the body's pH level stays balanced, thus decreasing inflammation and essentially decreasing an athlete's recovery time.  
[Editor's Note: You can learn more about this by registering for the Thrive in 30 ]

Tell us more about your endurance sports background.  How did you originally get started?

Brendan: When I was fifteen I started running track in high school and began swimming and biking pretty soon after.  I did my first triathlon in 1994 and I enjoyed it so much it became my goal to race full time professionally.  In 1998, I did my first Ironman triathlon and continued with it fulltime at the professional level for the next seven years.   

PS: How do you feel your plant-based diet supported this? Do you feel that being a vegan athlete gives you a competitive edge performancewise?

Brendan: I absolutely do.  If the diet is properly put together and well thought out it can put you in a position to train harder and therefore improve quicker.  Of course it may take some time to adjust to the new diet and lifestyle, but once you do, you'll see some huge performance gains.  

I'm often asked about bodybuilders and strength athletes compared to endurance athletes. Obviously I'm an endurance athlete so my main concern was properly balancing my strength to weight ratio.  My goal wasn't necessarily to get big muscles, but rather strong and efficient ones.  However, despite what some people believe, a plant-based diet and lifestyle can also actually help those who are trying to pack on good lean muscle mass.  By decreasing inflammation in the body, functionality increases, and as functionality increases, the ability to lift heavier weight goes up, and obviously lifting heavier weight makes you bigger and stronger. 

I'm not saying that eating a more plant-based diet automatically makes you a better athlete, it doesn't.  However, it does enable you to make yourself a better athlete. It will shorten recovery time and increase functionality and those are two huge keys to achieving peak performance and continual success as an athlete and bodybuilder as well.

PS: I'm a huge fan of your popular Vega Nutrition products .  Tell us about the genesis of the products.  How did you get connected with Sequel Naturals ?

Brendan: I was making a very specific blender drink for myself when I was competing professionally and I was seeing a tremendous amount of success with it performance wise.  One of the specific ingredients in the drink was 2 1/2 grams of Maca, which I found to really help replenish my adrenals - which were fried from the physical stress of my training regimen.  Within two weeks of adding maca to the blender drink, my sleep quality improved, my body-fat percentage decreased and my overall energy went up dramatically.  To make a long story short my agent contacted Sequel, the commercial brand of the maca and also chlorella products I was using (MacaSure and Chloressence), and arranged for me to meet with Charles Chang the owner of the company.  Because I was so impressed with his products and was experiencing success using them, we began discussing the possibility of making a commercial replica of my blender drink.  The next year in 2004, Vega hit the shelves in Canada and a year later in the U.S.

PS: The Vega Whole Food Health Optimizer is 100% vegan, comprised with a protein complex of hemp, pea, rice and flax.  How do these plant-based proteins stack up to proteins such as whey, casein, and even protein from meat?
Brendan: This was something I put a lot of thought into when I was developing the product.  The Vega Whole Food Heath Optimizer contains 26 grams of high quality healthy protein.  Hemp is the base of the complex and is a complete protein containing all the essential amino acids.  However, some of the amino acids in hemp are slightly low, like tryptophan for example.  So I added rice protein, which is very high in tryptophan to balance it out.  Furthermore, because glutamic acid is moderately low in hemp and rice, I added pea protein, which is very high in glutamic acid.  The end result is a potent protein complex with generous amounts of all the essential amino acids represented.  
Another thing that sets Vega's Whole Food Health Optimizer apart is the fact that the pH level is neutral at 7.2.  This means that the complex is not going to cause inflammation, or bone loss. The Optimizer is not only a complete meal replacement, it's also an ideal daily health-optimizing supplement containing optimal levels of B12, calcium, vitamin D, Iron, etc.

PS: Are you currently involved with any other projects, books etc?

Brendan: Yes I recently released a new book called Thrive Fitness, which deals mostly with fitness in sports, although it also has a performance nutrition section as well.  It's a unique book in the fact that it doesn't focus on building big bulky muscles, it focuses more on building strength and therefore efficiency.  A lot of fitness books focus more on achieving the end result of a fitness plan, Thrive Fitness focuses more on the process and the lifestyle of maintaining a fit and healthy body and mind.  The rewards are in the process, it's ongoing, it's a lifestyle. 

Also, I'm doing an online video series called Thrive in 30  based on the information in my books.  It's a convenient way for people to acquire some of the important info from my book by going online and signing up to receive three emails a week for four weeks.  It's totally free and each email contains a text segment and a five minute video segment with various topics addressed in each email. 

PS: With high profile actors such as Natalie Portman, Casey Affleck as well as mainstream athletes such as Prince Fielder and Tony Gonzalez going vegan, it seems that the plant-based / vegan lifestyle is gaining in popularity as of late.  Why do you think this is? 

Brendan: People are more open to this lifestyle / diet than they were a few generations ago and the people who try it see it really works.  The people who give this lifestyle a chance and start incorporating more plant-based foods into their diet, feel better, it's that simple.  There are also the environmental issues that a lot of people are quite interested in and a plant-based diet is environmentally far superior to the standard American diet.

PS: If there is one important tip or piece of advice you could offer an aspiring athlete / bodybuilder or even just the everyday person who works to keep fit, what would it be?

Brendan: Consistency is key, and the best way to stay consistent is to find things you enjoy doing.  Don't engage in fitness activities you don't enjoy just because you think it might benefit you.  Everyone has things they like to doing as a fitness activity.  Personally I love running, so for me to go for a run, I get a greater benefit from it than someone who has to force himself or herself to run and just doesn't enjoy it.  When you force yourself to engage in fitness activities you don't enjoy, the body perceives it as stress and cortisol levels go up which ultimately inhibits your ability to lose fat and build muscle.  So again, do what you like, and stay consistent...It's really that simple.    
Thanks Brendan!