Personal Responsibility, (In)Dependence and Why You Should “Pay Now, Play Later”
Brendan Brazier is tall. But why does this surprise me? As a professional Ironman triathlete and a two-time Canadian Ultra Marathon Champion, Brendan Brazier is an “organic” force many athletes aspire to be.
Living his life how he chooses, Brendan Brazier has found what he likes to do and does it. This inspiration expects nothing from anyone, but yet helps so many through his message, his actions and his spirit.
I met with Brendan Brazier on a Friday afternoon, in a Hollywood Starbucks. The irony, notwithstanding (Brazier advocates that coffee is a drug and has taxing effects on the body), and amid the continual whir of blenders, I asked him about his plant based diet (he eats a lot of chlorella), what he thought of energy bars (most are highly processed ensuring their shelf life at the sacrifice of nutrition) and the power of the mind (“the body can subsist on stimulating, nutrient-absent food only so long before becoming either exhausted or sick –and where the body goes, the mind is sure to follow”). Here is more of my chat with Brendan Brazier:
Stefan Pinto: The topic of healthcare is one of Obama’s biggest challenges, possibly among the top tests that would define his role as an effective leader. However the U.S. healthcare system focuses on cure rather than prevention. If you were President (in spite of your Canadian citizenship), how would you address this issue?
Brendan Brazier: It’s about responsibility and our healthcare system encourages dependence. The system is not really a healthcare system, it’s about when we get sick we deal with the symptoms and not the cause. In a sense, it is a reactive system and not really a healthcare “system.” It’s like pumping up a slowly leaking bike tire. You pump it up, it will eventually go flat again. You must fix that leak or replace the tube altogether. You know, it isn’t the doctors’ fault. Many doctors, too are frustrated by the system. They don’t want to be treating symptoms for people who have to come back a few months, or a few years later and have not actually cured the problem. So obviously, prevention is the best solution. There are sure things that will allow you to drastically stack the odds in your favor with sound nutrition and exercise — it’s really just a numbers game; the odds of you getting a degenerative disease early in life — or any disease — is going to be significantly higher if you are not active or eat a fatty American diet. Any civilized society has a responsibility to help people when they need it however if [people] know that safety net is there and that a healthcare system will bail them out, they’re less likely to take the initiative to take care of themselves and will become dependent on their peers. The system should therefore encourage personal responsibility and encourage governments to get more involved in people’s health. People need to know what’s good for them and what’s not, all of the basics, and should be part of the school curriculum at a young age.
SP: But it is part of the school curriculum, Health is not an elective class.
BB: Yes, but it needs to start at the basics, with the reading and writing. And there are [food service] companies that have contracts with schools, that should provide healthy options for children. Kids will take the path of least resistance. There is a low resistance on getting healthy food if they are well educated on what to eat, the odds of them taking the healthy option will be greater. This affects society as a whole; if you are not dependent on a health care system that is overworked and a huge money draw, obviously then that is something that is good for the country. Another solution would be to start subsidizing organic farms and stop subsidizing the one’s that are actually hurting [the system], like the meat industry, for example, there is a lot of energy that is consumed when it comes to producing and farming meat; and the fossil fuels being the price that it is, the meat industry simply could not survive on its own; it is a highly subsidized system. A large part of our tax goes to subsidies which subsidize the cause of the problem, that is low-quality, animal based food and it also goes to the systems for treating the symptoms for when you get those diseases. You are basically paying for the cause and the short-term solution.
SP: Yes, it’s sort of like mechanics pay the government to control the roads, ultimately creating one viscous cycle.
BB: Right. Pay now or pay later. If you spend a little more money on good, healthy food now, the odds of contracting a disease later in life are greatly reduced. Of course people say that healthy food is more expensive and how can people afford it, but at the end of the day and over the course of a lifetime, they will actually save money.
SP: When you addressed Congress in 2006, you drew attention to the role that food plays in the prevention of the most chronic diseases plaguing Americans. It is three years later, has anything changed?
BB: Encouraging government to make it easier for people to get healthy food was the topic. It is about having a choice. It makes sense to invest in our future. Take a look at what’s happening with the car industry. Why does the average American car cost around $1,500 more than the average European or Japanese car? The reason is simple, most American auto workers are in a poor state of health when compared to Japanese workers, therefore health insurance premiums are higher and that has to be passed on to the buyer in the bottom line price of a car. In order for American car manufacturers to price competitively, they might have to lower quality. If people are healthier, our country would be economically healthier.
SP: Let’s talk about “cheap health insurance.” Taking charge of one’s health, being more responsible for what we put into our bodies, is the epitome of “prevention.” I Twittered once that people say “no time to exercise or eat right, but people will make time to go to the doctor.”
BB: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. For people that don’t eat that well, they may gain a bit of convenience by going to a drive-thru however, there are several ways to find good, nutritious food. Take the farmer’s markets; it’s local, it’s cheap, it’s organic and it’s fresh. The food is in season and it’s no more expensive to get a wholesome meal there, when you eat simply. For a lot of people, this is not time consuming. I stock up on basic needs there. Also on the topic of time, you can actually be more productive if you are well rested as your cortisol levels are lower; you’re refreshed, you’re rested and you can have more true waking time during the day. You slept sufficiently. It’s really gaining time through more efficient sleep. You need to find that line between being asleep and being awake; now when people sleep, they’re not totally out. It’s sort of restless sleep and when they’re awake, they’re not totally there. That line has been blurred. This is all translated into increased productivity. Let’s look at Google for instance. On their campus, they installed “healthy cafeterias.” Sure, it’s a huge expense but it pays itself back quickly; there are fewer sick days. A considerable gain is also through productivity. Employees return to work, feeling satisfied having consumed nutritious, dense meals that are easily digestible. You do get more work done. It is really a smart way of doing things and it represents a big shift. Google values their employees.
SP: You know, it’s one thing to advise people that they should eat healthy for all of these reasons, but it’s another thing to tell people that once they start, don’t give up. How would you then advise people to persevere?
BB: For me, I saw the results; I was improving as an athlete. My goal was being reached. If people see results, it fuels them. It really makes a big difference. It’s also important to try and not to do to much too soon. People want change overnight. One meal, one snack a day that includes healthy foods, like hemp, Maca, Chlorella. Your body will start craving these foods, but realize it will take time probably a year to try and transition. And that’s okay. It’s a great investment in yourself.
SP: Don’t you feel as though everywhere you turn you are constantly faced with poor food “choices?” Sure you preach of nutrient dense choices in an environment where all of the bad foods are all around us. Look, here we are meeting in a Starbucks and who knew that Frappucinos could be so annoyingly popular. The more you talk about healthy eating and hemp and chlorella, that infernal blender seems to whir more often, increasingly becoming louder and louder, creating an egregious cacophony of “no, nos don’t you dare speak of such things in here.”
BB: [Laughs] That’s funny. Alot of people do know what is good. In a general sense, in terms of what foods are good and what’s not. Making it available. Making it convenient is the key.
SP: Would it just be easier if there were more organic supermarkets? Are we simply not used to seeing and having good choices?
BB: Well some organic markets are trying to do that. It is what I try to do with my Vega Whole Foods creation (FYI: Brazier is wearing a fashionable t-shirt with “Vega” clearly printed in the center), making it convenient, to a broader market. Also having more juice bars and smoothie bars around, we’re seeing it more and more. I don’t think we have to get rid of the bad foods, I’m not saying that. Just at least have good options. That is the number one reason why people don’t eat well; it’s not convenient. There’s actually a report on the top reasons: one is taste, you develop that. You do start to physically change your chemical reactions in your brain and how it changes over time. Obviously, taste is subjective and everyone’s will be different, but it does transition. Then there is convenience and knowledge through education, and then there is expense. All of these things do have practical solutions which will require some initiative initially but I think in the interest of our society, our economy, of America in general, it makes the sense to pave the road–so to speak–to these things and help get the ball rolling. Even subsidizing ways to get us to eat more healthy like what has been done for so long with these inefficient industries like meat and dairy. You know, every dollar that the government spends on prevention, they save six on treatment.
SP: This is pretty substantial, but don’t you think it is a bit idealistic?
BB: Yes, that’s the thing. Especially for pharmaceutical companies.
SP: But I wonder then if, for example, if their ever will be a cure for cancer. Do you know how many people will be out of jobs?
BB: Well, it’s a business, you’re right. More so here than in Canada. There are doctors who are asked to perform preventable procedures, do they want to have to do these things? And this goes back to the general structure of the system, if we instead try and help people to make themselves healthier — to take control of their health — while also making available to people — and having them know — what they need medically, what procedures they need, what they don’t…
SP: Do you think that will ever be? There will always be a select group of people that are healthier presumably always better compared to those who choose to want to be better, for whatever reason.
BB: I think for some people, they spend a lot of time looking for ways to make themselves better, maybe something is wrong, but most of the time, nothing is. They’re just convinced that something is wrong; they read in a magazine about something or saw it on TV and they start to feel this way or that, “maybe I’m fat,” “maybe something is wrong with me.” People start to believe that they’re not healthy and eventually they become not healthy. I see it a lot in this industry. To me, I see health as something that you have and it becomes the foundation for you to use. I call it “fitness capital.” Once you build fitness it’s not just getting fit for the sake of it. You do it because it allows you to perform better, mentally physically and it allows you to do more things in your life, allows you to achieve more, create more, working longer hours, not needing a lot of sleep. If you’re healthy, the odds of you achieving whatever goals you have for yourself are greater, no matter what you’re interested in. I’m not interested in nutrition, I’m interested in doing what I want. And that’s how I started off with the triathlons. I didn’t care about nutrition, I just wanted to be a professional tri-athlete. I was concerned about the means to getting it; the clarity, the strength, all of those things that you need. It allows you to work harder, because you felt better. And I think that is what is important. People sometimes expect “things” to do other things for them, but it’s really about you and what good foods allow you to do these things — better.
SP: How much sleep do you get?
BB: It varies. On average around seven hours a night.
SP: Do you need seven hours?
BB: I go through stages where it is definitely less sleep. And then I go through stages where there is a bit more…
SP: I read in The New York Times, that Bill Clinton said, “great men only need five hours sleep.” It got me thinking… maybe I’m not great, ‘cause I need eight! Anyway, I know you talk a great deal about “delt sleep” and I was wondering, if you combine adequate, restful sleep with adequate nutrition, that helps your mental outlook, and once your mental outlook is… I prefer not to say “right,” let’s say more stable or balanced, I suppose, your ability to cope with stress is greatly increased. Stress, in and of itself, is our reaction to outside events. Essentially we are choosing to be stressed, whether we realize it or not and the foods that fuel our bodies do play a critical role. And stress predetermines our health and even aging. You wrote about this in your book, Thrive.
BB: Coffee is a drug. Sugar is a drug. They cause a chemical change in the brain and people become addicted to those things. It’s harder to stop consuming these things as they have such an effect on the brain chemistry. A lot of people have a great deal of difficulty breaking away from these things. It takes discipline, it takes an internal desire to want to break away and a lot of people simply don’t have that. You know, you can actually burn out your will power. It can become depleted. If you do things all day that you don’t like doing, like maybe in a job that you don’t like, then when you are faced with a challenge, for example switching over your diet, it is going to be very difficult if your will power is gone. There was a study, a long time ago, where they took two groups of kids, seven to eight year olds; Group A went to the beach, they built sandcastles, flew kites, had a great day. The kids in Group B were in a classroom with no natural light, made to study their least favorite subject, with a teacher hovering over each student the whole time. A totally unenjoyable day. Both groups were then taken to separate rooms, each with a one-way mirror, so researchers could observe. In each room, a freshly baked bowl of cookies were placed on the table. The kids were told to not touch the cookies as they weren’t made for them. The kids in Group A, sat there and looked at the cookies briefly, and started talking, joking and looking around the room. Basically ignoring it. The kids in Group B however, smelled the cookies, sitting on their hands, getting closer and closer to the cookies. They wanted them. Their will power was gone. They were tapping their will power reserves all they long. They could not meet a challenge. Whereas Group A was fresh, they could rise to the occasion. It’s tough. If people realize that if they restock their will power by doing things they enjoy, the odds of them succeeding when they try and take on a challenge will be greater. Just knowing that it will be hard, you’re having a chemical reaction to a drug, and you must allow yourself to slowly wean yourself off. Eventually you just lose interest. Slowly. Once it happens, it feels good, it’s a lifestyle. You don’t have to force yourself to do things you don’t want to do. You want to put in the initial work, the dedication, the investment and it’s done.
SP: It’s sort of a rebellion. We’re told to “not eat a cookie” and you almost want to eat a cookie. You want to naturally buck authority.
BB: That’s interesting and a lot of people I know, look at rebelling as eating the good stuff not the bad stuff. Because the norm in society is “when you do good, you get a cookie.” Rebellion is thinking for yourself, and not being fed by other messages, and billboards and advertisers. Thinking logically and doing what’s in your best interest and your best interest can make you better. Advertisers want you to buy things. Take a look at Germany, it’s conventionally made up of a huge meat-eating culture, they’re one of the highest meat-eating countries in the world. But a lot of the German kids now don’t eat beef, they are in a sense rebelling against their culture and doing things for themselves.
SP: Right. Rebellion can also be doing what is needed, perhaps even, what is right. Tell me more about your cycling accident in 2003. It prevented you from racing. But you used your incapacity to write your first Thrive book. I’m a firm believer that opportunities aren’t always wrapped in a turquoise box and as you have realized, they can come in the form of events we conventionally see as “bad.” Thrive became a bestseller. What made you realize this was an opportunity? Did you even realize it then?
BB: Well, I’ve been racing professionally for seven years. People knew I was on a plant based diet and I was constantly being asked where I was getting my protein, my iron, my calcium all of these things. I found myself answering the same questions. So, I thought “well, now I don’t have time to train, I can’t train, I will use the time to do something else.” I realized I could write a book to address these questions, I noticed there was a need for it. I probably realized on some level that it was an opportunity to use my time effectively, but I didn’t really see it as quite the opportunity it became, spawning a whole new direction — even a career.
SP: You were already on the right diet and these foods do affect one’s mentality, one’s outlook, in terms of what’s inside will not only show, but perceived, on the outside. It affects how you perceive the world.
BB: I think so. Of course we all control what we think, what we want –
SP: Well, some of us do.
BB: Yeah. But I think just knowing that you have the power to affect your mood is compelling. You feel good. You can control that. You control what you eat. You control how you feel. You know, I’m not one of those people who says, “oh, you’ve gotta stay positive.” If you’re not feeling positive, then you’re not. You want to be sensitive to things that are not good. Otherwise, if you just gloss them over, pretend they don’t exist, you can never address the problem, you can never fix it. So, I became very sensitive to things that were not the way I wanted in my current career. I used to be really bad at running up hills, and coaches and trainers would say “no, no, no you’re good, you’re fine” and then you would want to be content or just sweep it under the rug. It wasn’t until I realized that “no, I’m not that good” and devised a plan; you go away, you don’t come back until you really are good. And now, you have a reason to be confident because you’ve addressed the problem. You’ve earned that confidence and your brain knows the difference and your body responds accordingly. You now have “justified confidence.”
SP: How appropriate, especially nowadays where many people claim to be this and that, automatically expecting praise, but lacking confidence… these are just some quick questions, mostly because of the noise level. Incidentally Brendan, the next time you suggest a place, let’s make sure it’s not a Starbucks in Hollywood at lunchtime. I’m silently wishing that blender breaks. How pressed are you for time? I know you’re busy and I’m due at an audition at three o’clock.
BB: Oh really, what are you auditioning for?
SP: It’s a theater play about vampires. Remember the scene in Interview with the Vampire where Brad Pitt and the girl, I forget her name, go to the vampire theater in Paris?
BB: No [Brendan is reserved, but I can tell he is curious.]
SP: Well anyway, it’s a show they went to see. I’m auditioning for the role of “vampire.”
BB: Oh. Well I hope you get it.
SP: Yes, but I made a choice that if I got the audition the same time I had my interview with you, I would have to choose one. Would you believe the audition was scheduled after this interview?
BB: How great is that?
SP: Yes, things work out wonderfully. Okay, let’s talk testosterone. I’m writing a pitch story on testosterone levels and I read about Maca, the Peruvian adaptogen. Do you take Maca?
BB: Yes, it’s in Vega and I also have MacaSure. I learned about it seven years ago. It helps lowers cortisol, gives you better energy, you feel better rested. I started putting two to three grams in Vega. I lost body fat, my strength to weight ratio went up and I became a better athlete. Yes, it does affect testosterone, too. When your cortisol is out of balance, it affects all of your hormones, and if you testosterone is low, which it is for people with high cortisol levels, Maca is going to make a significant difference. Maca has been around for quite a while. It’s grown at 15,000 feet in volcanic soil. Nothing else grows at this height, making Maca nutrient rich. It’s been used for centuries.
SP: Spinach is protein already in amino acid form, making it easier for our bodies to process. Is this particular to raw spinach? I know broccoli gets activated when you cook it, I steam mine. Is this the same for spinach?
BB: Some say you do get more if you steam it, some say raw is better. I eat it raw. It’s more convenient. There is also freeze dried spinach in Vega when in season.
SP: What is the one food you, Brendan Brazier, must eat everyday?
BB: Hmm… green algae. I eat a lot of chlorella, straight.
SP: Do you drink Vega every day?
BB: Usually half serving as part of breakfast and a half serving after workout and sometimes another half serving later in the day. I know people that drink more, maybe for improved performance.
SP: People probably assume that improved performance is related to athletic performance. Do you think that being on plant based diets is just as rewarding in terms of mental performance? Again, in terms of stress and drama, you bring it upon yourself.
BB: People seek it out. You know there are people if there’s not a problem, there’s a problem? The reason for it is chemical as well. Some people crave that drama more than others. It makes them feel alive. People who don’t need that, are not stressed. Stress has a lot to do with perception; for me, going for a run is enjoyable. But if someone forced him or herself to go for a run who really hated it they would not benefit as much physically, as I do because cortisol goes up. It’s forcing, it’s not enjoyment. With exercise, people need to find what they enjoy. I write about this in my new book (Thrive Fitness: Mental and Physical Strength for Life).
SP: But some people thrive in perpetual unhappiness. What they like is misery. If you were to take them out of their so called unhappy existence and place them into what is a perceptually happy situation, they wouldn’t know what to do. They need to be told.
BB: You know, people say to me “you need to really motivate me to eat well and go to the gym.” And you know what? I’m not going to motivate you. I’ll let you know what works for me and it’s up to you. If you really dislike it that much, then don’t do it.
SP: Your general philosophy surrounds eating whole foods, foods that have not been heavily processed. In one of your Thrive in 30 Days clips, you declared that “people can become biologically younger.” How?
BB: It might sound weird, I know but when you exercise, your body breaks down muscle tissue. When you eat and you rest, you rebuild it and over time it becomes stronger. If you exercise on a regular basis your body is being broken down on a regular basis and therefore when you have good building blocks, through high quality foods, it rebuilds itself stronger. Your body is in a constant state of regeneration. Your cells have been fabricated more recently than having not been broken down, which biologically, makes you younger as your cells have been created more recently. And you can tell. People who exercise on a regular basis and eat well look younger than people who do the opposite. Pretty basic and I know it does sound weird, being considered biologically younger.
SP: Well, it sounds weird to people who don’t want to believe it. It’s like believing in ghosts. People who do, see them. It is possible. It’s like that pervasive ivy plant. I tell people who’ve been growing one for months and it looks sort of stringy and viney, to simply cut it. It’ll grow bigger, the leaves will be huge. And the clipped off part will also grow and now you will have two.
BB: Pruning a plant, the little bits that grow in-between gets filled out. Yes, that’s a good way at looking at it.
SP: What is the one piece of advice you would give to people? I tell people to eat more vegetables.
BB: Hmmm… yours is a good one.
SP: It can be the same one, it’s okay.
BB: [Laughs]. Find what you like and do it. When that happens everything is easier. If you’re enjoying it, you can do other things. You can master a challenge and everything else falls into place.