Brendan Brazier is a man on a mission. Since formulating Vega’s first vegan nutritional smoothie back in 2004, Brendan has become the face of plant-based eating in Canada and around the world.
Today, Vega has grown to include a full line of smoothies, bars and supplements, and Brendan has authored four books on living the plant-based lifestyle. He’s also a dedicated runner and former professional Ironman athlete who’s out to tell the world that an athlete’s training diet doesn’t have to include meat. Brendan sat down with Ageless Living to talk about how he discovered the plant-based eating strategies that helped him win the Canadian 50 km Ultra Marathon—twice—and why “balance” is a word that’s just not in his vocabulary.
I was racing full-time professionally with Ironman, and I was trying to find a good nutrition plan for fuel as well as recovery. I didn’t go straight to plant-based eating. I tried a lot of things first. I tried the Zone diet, high carb, low carb, high protein, low protein, the whole range of diets, and some were better than others, but nothing worked amazingly well. Then I tried plant-based, and at first it didn’t work that well either. I was hungry a lot of the time and didn’t recover that well. But I realized that I was really just filling up on refined foods: lots of pasta and peanut butter and white bread, just a lot of things that didn’t have a lot of nutrition.
A principle I talk about in my books is high net gain energy: eating food that takes less digestive energy but returns more nutrition in the form of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants. It’s just trying to spend less energy and get more nutrients in. So I started eating that way and swapping out the starchy refined foods with things like amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, wild rice, hemp, flax, chia, lentils, legumes, beans, peas—all types of plant-based whole foods that have a lot of nutrition and are a lot easier to digest than a lot of the processed foods. It took about a year-and-a-half to really get it right. But once I did, it made a big difference.
Vegan Food as Fuel
Not eating meat and dairy is really quite easy to do—there’s such an abundance of food. A lot of plant-based foods can actually be quite heavy. One slice of sprouted grain bread has six or seven grams of protein, which is the same as an egg. That’s just one piece of bread with nothing on it, and then you put avocado on it and it can be quite filling for sure.
Of course, you can be a junk food vegan now quite easily. There are so many vegan options, like soy ice cream—and potato chips and fries are vegan. I think a lot of the mock meat burgers and hot dogs definitely have their place for helping people transition away from the standard American diet, but most of them are really not that great for you either. Most of them are gluten or soy based, and it’s just not clean eating. Clean eating to me is really just eating basic things without a lot of sauce and a lot of ingredients, really just simplicity.
The Diet of a Vegan Athlete
I do a lot of grazing. I get up and have some Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer in the morning. I go for a run and then come back and have a smoothie. I want something that digests easily, so Vega One—sometimes blended, or sometimes I’ll have it straight. I like fruit, vegetables and sprouted bread. I eat clean carbohydrates throughout the day—some of the grains I talked about before, or even sometimes just standard brown rice if I can’t get the other stuff. And I eat a big salad every night with lots of greens.
There are a lot of benefits to grazing rather than eating big heavy meals. If you go eat a big lunch, you’ll feel a dip in energy because all the blood has to go to your stomach to digest it. You also can’t think as well because the blood leaves your brain. Then there’s a lull, and you turn to caffeine and sugar to give you that shot.
Breaking that Sugar and Caffeine Addition
Plant-based clean eating really helps with overall energy levels and sleep quality. A lot of people need coffee and crave sugar just to get energy, but they just treat the symptoms of fatigue, not the cause. The cause is usually lower quality sleep than what is ideal, and that’s caused by high cortisol levels, which are the body’s response to stress.
Obviously, if people could sleep less because they’re sleeping more efficiently, that’s an advantage, so if someone can get six hours of sleep and feel great, that’s better than needing eight. Efficiency of sleep frees up more time during the day, and creates less dependence on stimulants and greater mental clarity, too. People often find they can think more clearly, and they’re more productive, so clean eating is really a good base for productivity—and companies are starting to recognize this. At the Vega office, we have an amazing chef who makes great food, and you just go and get stuff whenever you want. We find people don’t get sick as often, they’re way more productive, and there’s that sense of community too, since they’re all in there eating this way together.
How to Make the Transition
Start slow—don’t just jump in, but go through that transition phase because then it will be more of a lifestyle, it won’t just be a diet. People will find that their palate will start to change. They will start craving the good food and lose the taste for the bad. Then everything’s easy, because the palate has actually switched, so just be patient with it. If someone’s eaten the standard American diet for four decades, it’s reasonable to think it’s going to take a few months, maybe even a year, to fully feel good eating this way. But I think it’s just such a good investment because it becomes second nature and it becomes very easy to benefit from it.
The idea of the Thrive Energy Cookbook is to give people a really wide range of recipes, including some that are transitional for people want to get their palate used to some of the different foods without just jumping right in.
Find Synergy, Not Balance
I don’t like the word balance. To me that’s compromise—you give up one thing to get more of another, and it’s a trade-off. I look at things as complementary. I run. I don’t balance running and work, because that would mean that one would take from the other. I find that because I run, I have more energy, I can think more clearly, and I work better—so it’s more of a synergy between the two than it is a balance of the two. Everything I do kind of feeds the others. It all works synergistically. I never feel as though I have to cut back on doing more of one thing because I want to do more of another.
Voting With Your Purchases
I believe in conscious capitalism. It’s being socially minded when you’re selling a product or running a company, as opposed to the old model, which is engaging in any kind of business practice for profit and then maybe a giving a little bit of a donation to charity to feel good. Instead of just giving that money to someone else and hoping they’ll do good with it, I want to actually do good in my standard business practices.
Transparency is really important, so that when people buy a product, they know what they’re voting for with their money. If you’re buying a product that’s socially minded and environmentally conscious in terms of how it was put together, you’ll be contributing to less land usage, less water and fossil fuel usage, all those things. So I think you have to have transparency to go along with the social cause you’re trying to benefit.
And, of course, people should have the ability to know where their food comes from, and what’s involved, and who is affected by it. When people make food decisions, they’re not just about them—they’re about all the people the decision affects, which is a lot more people than I think a lot of people realize.
One Way Ironman is a Lot Like Life
In Ironman, the people who do the best are not the most talented—they’re just the ones who work the hardest. The longer the race gets, the less talent matters and the more it’s about hard work.
By Christina Newberry