Alright, you’re going to love this one! Last week I talked on the phone to Brendan Brazier, the vegan professional Ironman triathlete, author of Thrive and Thrive Fitness, and creator of the Vega line of sports nutrition products that I often review on No Meat Athlete.
I’ve been collecting questions ever since my first interview with Brendan, and when I put them all together, I noticed that the common thread joining them all was “energy.” Not too surprising, I guess, considering the concept underlies all fitness and nutrition topics.
But in this conversation, we talked about it in so many forms: mental energy and caffeine, sleep and how much you really need, food combining, starchy carbs versus simple sugars, nutrition for ultrarunning and the idea of burning fat instead of sugar, and the recent controversy over agave nectar.
There’s so much good information here. I’m really happy with how the interview turned out; I hope you get as much out of it as I did.
Matt: Last time we talked, I had read Thrive but not Thrive Fitness. My favorite part of Thrive Fitness was the total focus on energy, not just physical, but mental as well.
I know that you promote caffeine for certain pre-workout and often pre-race nutrition. But in terms of mental energy, you say it robs you of creativity and makes you a “linear” thinker. Is there ever a time when you’d want to use caffeine for a specific mental purpose, the way you do for specific physical purposes?
Brendan: Yeah, but caffeine more-derived from either green tea or yerba mate. Actually, green tea specifically is really good mentally to give you that calm alertness. It’s not the jittery type of feeling you get from drinking coffee. So yeah, really good for people who are trying to study lots or plow through a bunch of work and stuff. And like I said, it’s just kind of a focused, good energy, not that jittery energy.
I find also that before an athletic event it helps you focus; it helps you get into the “zone,” as a lot of athletes call it. Just that really good focus, where you’re not distracted by other things and you’re just really focused on the task at hand.
So yeah, I do find it useful for that, but it’s not the sort of thing that you’d want to have all the time, only before big events. I only have it before a major workout, in the form of Vega Sport, which has yerba mate and green tea. Yerba mate is a little more physical, whereas green tea is a little more mental, I find. So the combination of those two helps both.
M: Interesting. I love Vega Sport! You guys sent me a canister of that and I couldn’t get enough of it; it’s been my favorite product of yours.
B: Oh good, yeah. I’m really pleased with how that turned out; I like it a lot too.
M: Okay then the next thing, which is also along the “energy” lines, was the sleeping. I enjoyed the section of Thrive Fitness about sleep. Every other book seems to say “Get as much sleep as you can; if you can get nine hours, go ahead and get it.” But you took the approach that when you’re sleeping, you’re spending time that you could maybe spend better if you were awake.
But I wondered how you start sleeping less. I’ve tried saying “Okay, I’m going to sleep six hours all the sudden tonight instead of seven or eight.” And when I do that, it doesn’t work. Is it just something you ease into, or is it that once you start eating well you’ll start feeling the need for less sleep?
B: Yeah, exactly. You don’t want to force yourself to have less sleep. You want your body to adapt to sleeping more deeply, which will improve the quality of sleep, therefore the quantity will just naturally come down. And how you do that is by reducing cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Then you do that by reducing stress, and the best way to reduce stress and not reduce productivity is through better nutrition.
So yeah, you start eating better, more high net-gain foods that I talk about in Thrive, alkaline-forming foods, nutrient-dense foods. You nourish your adrenals, cortisol over time will come down, and then you’ll get into that deep, delta phase of sleep, which is a really deep, rejuvenating phase. So you simply don’t need to have as much, because you’ll be sleeping so deeply.
And that’s a problem in America right now; the line between being asleep and being awake has become blurred. A lot of the time when people are awake, they’re hardly awake. They can’t focus, they can’t concentrate, and that’s because when they were trying to sleep, they weren’t totally asleep. So it’s this blurred line between asleep and being awake that a lot of us are in, and clearly defining the line between wake and sleep is a huge advantage. So when you’re sleeping, you sleep so deeply, but then when you’re awake, you’re completely wide awake.
And so it’s great for athletes, but it’s also great for anyone who wants to be more productive. It’s like having daylight savings time every day. You know, you set the clock back and get an extra hour in the day; that’s kind of what it feels like when you can get into the deep, delta phase of sleep, because, after six and a half hours, you’re done. That’s a great feeling, an extra hour.
And that’s another thing too of course; a lot of people say they don’t have time to exercise. Well, there’s your hour, right there. You just improve your sleep quality, and that frees up time.
M: Right, exactly. Yeah, that’s interesting. I heard somewhere that if you get an hour less sleep per night, at the end the year the amount of time it equates to is some huge amount of time, like a whole month or two weeks or something.
B: Yeah, it’s significant.
M: And then I’ve read a few things that say that to actually get to the rejuvenating phase of sleep takes two or three hours, and you have to have a certain number of these cycles to be rested. Do you feel like that is not necessarily true; have you in your experience realized that you just don’t need to sleep that long?
B: Yeah, and those studies, I’m sure, were done on average people. And average people have average diets, and we all know that an average diet is, unfortunately, not very good. That’s all based on the level of cortisol being quite high, unfortunately, but we have control over that. Of course, we don’t all control all of our stress; work and family and some of that is out of control. But what we eat is totally up to us, so we have a lot of control over our overall cortisol levels and, therefore, our ability to sleep easily.
M: Okay, so moving on to the next thing: food combining. I know a lot of poeple who talk about these energy diets are also being into eating certain foods with other foods, and not having certain combinations. But I never remember seeing anything like that in Thrive or Thive Fitness. Do you just think that’s not really important?
B: Yeah, for me it’s never been a big issue. I actually like having protein with sugary foods, which I know is not something that people who observe those food-combining rules would do. But I feel that sugar, in the form of fruit, for example, is actually a great fuel for your muscles and your brain. And it’s much more easily used by your body than starch is; your body doesn’t have to convert the starch into sugar, obviously, if you just give it sugar, provided it’s from a good source like fruit. So having protein, fiber, and essential fats with the sugary food, so with the fruit, actually prevents the sugar spike and the crash. So it actually acts more like a starch but doesn’t have the digestive issues that starch would.
So yeah, I guess it’s kind of against what food combining would suggest. But if people find that food combining works well for them, then I think a lot of this is trying different things and finding what works well for you. I know what works well for me and a lot of others, but there are other people who will find a different way works for them. And that’s good, that’s part of it, I say go with it if it works.
M: Okay, and something you just mentioned brings me to another question. I was doing some research for a few posts I wrote about general guidelines for pre-, post-, and during-workout nutrition. And I was looking at some of your stuff and I got to this idea that’s really different from so much else: You don’t recommend starchy carbohydrates because you say it takes a lot of energy to break down, especially during a workout. But when you look at old-school diet books, they say it’s all about whole grains instead of simple, processed grains because you want your body to work hard to break it down. Is that just the difference between eating for a workout and for everyday eating, or is there a distinction that I’m missing?
B: Yeah, I mean, my thought is you definitely want it to be easy to digest. You don’t want to have to spend energy digesting food. It’s true, I’ve read that too; some books will say you burn more calories by working harder to digest food. Well, that’s true, and I see that as a bad thing, not a good thing. You don’t want to be burning energy just for the sake of it; you want energy to be applied to something useful, not just digestive energy being used up.
So as far as I’m concerned, eating the nutrient-dense foods that turn off your hunger signal, so that you’re not chemically hungry, that primal signal telling you to eat will only be shut off when you have the nutrients, the micronutrients, the phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, all those things. That’s what you want to try and do—eat the nutrient-dense foods.
And as far as fuel goes, yeah, I think the easier it is to digest and absorb, the better. And I know, too, if you’re raising metabolism; so many people talk about that as being such a good thing, to basically get your body to burn more fuel. And I don’t see that as a good thing either. As an endurance athlete you don’t want your body to burn more fuel, you want it to burn less. That’s a sign of efficiency; when your body can go the same distance while burning less fuel, you know, like a fuel-efficient car. So it’s just a fundamental discrepancy there.
I know Dr. Joel Fuhrman, he also talks about that too, about not raising metabolism as being a good thing, just getting your body to be efficient so that it burns fuel efficiently and doesn’t waste energy. So I agree with what he says too.
M: So that brings me to another one. You said that, along with having carbohydrates that are easy to digest, you like to get your workout food in liquid or gel form because that’s one less step in digestion. Does that then lead you to need less fuel? Is there some rule by which you could reduce the number of calories you need per hour when getting liquid versus solid food?
B: I’d love to be able to give a number of calories that you could reduce, but there are just so many variables. And that’s what I find the trouble in with some books; they’re very black and white in terms of number of calories that a person would need to take in. And you know, just using fitness levels, for example. A very fit person is going to not need as many calories because that person burns fuel more efficiently. You know, the top marathoners in the world, they just drink water during the marathon. And guys who are inefficient, of course they take longer to run the marathon, but they’ll have 17 or 18 gels, in some cases. Because they’re body burns carbohydrate at such a rapid pace because it hasn’t been conditioned yet to burn it efficiently, or even more so, to burn fat as fuel.
Mark Allen, who is one of the best Ironman triathletes ever, got to the point just through lots of training, 25 years of training, where he got to a point where he could run at a pretty high pace, and burn fat as fuel. He spent a lot of time training in his fat-burning zone and got his body to be a fat-burning machine, essentially. And there’s a huge advantage there, because that means you preserve muscle glycogen, so you cannot hit the wall, you cannot bonk, and your body just burns fat. And as you get fitter and fitter, your body will burn fat at a higher heart rate so that you can be running at a really good pace and still burning fat, whereas an unfit person burns carbohydrate even just to walk and doesn’t even start burning fat. So that’s just one of the benefits of fitness, that efficiency.
M: It’s funny how your answers are leading right into my next questions! My next one is regarding nutrition for ultramarathons. Right now I’m training for my first 50-miler; I’ve never done anything more than 50K, and that’s coming up pretty soon.
B: That’s great, that’s a big one.
M: Yeah, it’ll be a big one, for sure. But I’m just trying to find out what differences there are in terms of nutrition. A lot of what I hear seems to be anecdotal. One ultrarunner will say you want to drink soda; another will say eat fat instead of sugar. So I just wanted to get your take, and I guess since Thrive is written by you, an Ironman athlete, that’s probably similar to a 50- or 100-miler in terms of difficulty and nutrition needs. So would the principles of Thrive fit with that, or is it more of a fat-focus than is described in Thrive?
B: What’s described in Thrive would actually fit quite nicely. There’s that section in there where I talk about fueling pre-workout or pre-event, and basically, the more intense and the shorter the workout, the more carbohydrate you’ll burn. And then, as you start going longer, of course the intensity goes down, and the ratio of carbohydrate to protein to fat becomes more balanced. So, for a 50-miler, your body is going to be burning a bit of fat; it’s going to be burning some protein too.
And actually that’s why we have Vega Sport Protein. It’s to help prevent muscle loss for endurance athletes, because of course when you’re training for endurance, you don’t just burn fat, you also burn muscle, and then over time you can become quite frail; your strength-to-weight ratio will go down. That’s why a lot of endurance athletes look really frail at the end of their long endurance training. They’re muscle has been cannibalized by training; it’s been used as fuel.
So yeah, it will take a bit of playing around with, because everyone’s at a different fitness level. What your body is going to burn exactly, in terms of ratios, is something you’ll want to play around with before the race. You’d want more balanced, so during the race, if you’re okay to eat bars, or just stick to liquid and gels, everyone’s different there too. I don’t like eating at all while I’m running; I like gels at most. I stick to liquid.
M: And some people say they only want solid food during that kind of distance. I guess everyone’s just different.
B: Yeah, that’s the thing, everyone is different. Some people can eat a few potatoes right before running, and I know guys who eat potatoes when they’re ultramarathoning. For me, that wouldn’t work.
M: And I saw you were actually the Canadian Ultra Champion, at the 50K distance?
B: Yeah, in 2003 and 2006 I won the Canadian 50K championships.
M: Wow, that’s neat. Have you done other distances too, beyond that, just running?
B: No, that’s the longest I’ve ever done. I’ve done three races over a marathon, and they’re all 50K’s. So that’s the longest I’ve done.
M: How come you haven’t done anything longer? Ironman, to me, seems very much equivalent to a 50-miler or even longer. Is there any reason you just didn’t get into it?
B: Yeah, I kind of like shorter. 50K is the farthest I’d want to go. I really like marathon, I like half marathon. I like that feeling of being able to feel good and fast. I think if you start going longer than that, it kind of beats up a bit, and obviously you have to slow down a bit. I like a good pace; I like running at threshold and I find much beyond that you have to slow down too much. To me it’s just not as enjoyable. I have no interest in doing a 100-miler or anything like that. People have asked me that and I just don’t.
I’d love to get faster at marathon, to be able to put a good block of time aside and do some really good, serious marathon training and see what I could do at that distance. I really do feel comfortable at that distance, and half marathon too. They’re just races that you can run hard, it doesn’t beat you up for weeks after. But again, I guess everyone’s a little different there.
M: Alright, good. So this question is kind of unrelated to everything, but I have to ask. People keep asking me about the agave controversy; people are saying it’s glorified high-fructose corn syrup. And I know it’s in so much of your stuff, so I’m sure you’ve been asked this or at least thought about it. What’s your opinion on the agave controversy?
B: It’s funny, I get that question almost as much as “Where do I get my protein?” That’s like the new “Where do I get my protein?”
M: Right…sorry to ask it then!
B: Oh no, it’s fine. I think a really important distinction to make is what you’re using it for. I think as a sweetener, it’s not very good. If you’re sitting there having tea, I would not put agave in it. It’s very high in fructose, which is not something you want to be loading up on if you’re just sitting around. It’s like eating three bananas. If you’re just sitting around, there’s no need to do that; you don’t need that much fuel.
Whereas if you’re using it as a functional ingredient for training, I think it’s great. It’s like easily-digestible bananas. You can have some right before a workout to make sure your muscle glycogen is stocked up, and I think during a workout I think it’s good.
So I think it depends how you’re using it. If you’re a sedentary person sitting around, I wouldn’t be using it as a sweetener. I think stevia is a great sweetener for tea and things like that, but as a fuel, I think agave is excellent. With maple syrup, molasses, sprouted rice syrup, any of those things, the whole point is that they’re sugar and that’s what your body wants. You know, some people hear “sugar” or even “carbohydrate” and they get scared. But it’s not bad when it is a fuel. I know there’s a lot of misinformation out there, but as a fuel, I think it’s excellent.
M: That makes sense. Okay, the last thing: I got an email from Kelly the other day about Vega Shake & Go, a new product. Maybe you can tell people about that?
B: Sure, there are four flavors. They’re more of a mass-market product, so it’s Shake & Go Smoothie; you just mix it with water and it volumizes. It tastes like a blended smoothie and you don’t need a blender. It’s really good, nutrient-dense, whole food. Pretty basic, it’s protein, essential fats, fiber, greens, probiotics.
It doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of nutrition as Vega Health Optimizer, but it’s a really good, quick, on-the-go sort of thing. I think people who will want it most are people in a hurry and people who are new to this whole way of eating. It’s definitely a more conventional product than Vega Health Optimizer; it’s not all gritty. You know, it’s really smooth. I see it as more of a mass-market product to help people get really good, healthy food conveniently.
And I see it as being sold at all the supermarkets, not just health food stores. It’s interesting; only six percent of North Americans actually shop in health food stores, so there’s a huge market that we’re not even in touch with. I’m sure you’ve heard it; people would eat better if they didn’t have to go so far out of their way and if the prep time was shorter. So this is our attempt at catering to that. You know, here it is, it’s quick, it tastes good, it’s convenient, and you can buy it anywhere. So hopefully it’ll bring a whole group of new people into the health food industry.
M: Let’s hope so. Well, I’m looking forward to trying that one, and I guess that’s it for today. Thanks a lot for doing this; these were questions I’ve had for a while and was really looking forward to hearing your answers to.
There you have it! Hope you enjoyed hearing Brendan’s take on all these energy questions as much as I did. If you’re interested in reading more, check out my first interview with Brendan, from back when I was a starry-eyed young blogger.
And just so that there’s no confusion, the links in the interview to Brendan’s Vega products are my affiliate links; that means if you buy any of them, I earn money for referring you. In my experience, they’re great products, so I’m comfortable with the arrangement.