What I’m Reading: Thrive by Brendan Brazier

As a scholar and enthusiast of creativity and performance, I read A LOT of books.  So when I’m giving a talk somewhere or I meet with a successful person, they often ask me what book I’m reading.  In these blogposts, I’ll provide you some books I pass along to this crowd.

There are a few books that I consider very impactful on my life, and that have changed how I do things.  I would put Flow by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, Mastering Self-Leadership by Charles C. Manz and Christopher P. Neck, The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loerr, Uncommon Genius by Denise Shekerjian, and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson as my favorite, most impactful books.  Well, I’m adding a new book to my Favorite Books bookshelf.  That book is Thrive by Brendan Brazier.

Thrive is a book dedicated to nutrient dense vegan eating.  Now why in the world would I add a book about veganism to my collection of books on innovation and business?  Well, the reason is because Brazier does a great job of explaining what a traditional American diet does to our overall health and athletic performance.  Brazier wrote the book for endurance athletes, but he also does a good job explaining how your diet affects the rest of your life.

Brazier tells his own story of how as a professional triathlete he was struggling to improve his race performances.  Like so many driven athletes, he thought that to get faster that meant he needed to train harder.  Unfortunately, over the course of a year of increased training, he found his race performances actually got worse.  That’s when he turned to looking at nutrition to see if that would help with his racing dilemma.  Being a smart and obsessive athlete, he threw himself into learning everything he could about diet and performance.  What he discovered was that many of history’s top athletes like track and field star Carl Lewis were vegan.  He said he didn’t start the diet for ethical reasons.  He started it to get faster.  He later appreciated the ethical aspects of the diet, but his main motivation was to figure out why his racing was lagging.

The more he dug into the research, he discovered some key insights that changed how he looked at food, such as:

Key Insight # 1 

Red meat takes a very long time to digest.  That’s a big deal because when our body is digesting food, energy that could go to our muscles for performance and recovery is directed to our gut.  That’s why you feel lethargic after a big meal and want to lie down for a while.  But even after you think you’ve digested that food, you haven’t.  It’s still in there getting broken down.  That’s very taxing on your body.  As a result, your body kicks up cortisol (the stress hormone) during red meat digestion.  Your body is working extra hard to break down that particular food.

So here’s the performance trade-off: Red meat can be a very good source of protein and nutrients, BUT the effort your body makes in breaking down red meat outweighs its benefits.  Thus, something you think is making you stronger is actually making you weaker.

Key Insight # 2

Plant based eating can provide many of the nutrients, protein, and carbs your body needs.  This is called Nutrient Dense Eating.  You see, your body needs nutrients to function well.   Some foods have a lot of it, in particular vegetables, fruits, and nuts; and other foods have a lot of empty calories.  Fast food, white bread, and junk food are engineered to be tasty.  But that’s not the real reason people eat so much of it.  When you eat a lot of processed foods in one setting it’s because WE HAVE TO to get enough of the nutrients our body needs.  There are some nutrients in those processed foods, but not as much as the healthy foods.  So your body is CRAVING nutrients, and it gorges on the processed foods to get the quantity it needs.  When you live on junk food, fast food, and white bread, your body is always in starvation mode, even though you’re eating a lot.  It’s why some people never feel satisfied.

Now, if you eat healthy nutrient-dense food, your body IS getting what it needs, and you won’t be craving food as much.  And here’s the really cool thing about nutrient-dense foods: you can eat as much of them as you want.  Nutrient dense food is pure fuel for the body.  After awhile you’ll even find you your desire for food goes down, because your body is getting the nutrients and vitamins it needs in ample supplies.  It’s no longer starving for sustenance.  This was an amazing discovery for me.

Key Insight # 3 

Brazier also writes about PH balance.  That’s the amount of acid and alkaline we have in our bloodstream.  I didn’t know anything about this until I read his book.  Apparently, the American consumption of soda, coffee, and alcohol increases the acidic level in our blood.  From a performance, stamina, and attention standpoint, these drinks are really bad.  Also, if you’re having problems cramping in training or racing, this could be a key reason.  You might have a high acid level in your blood but need a higher alkaline level.  When your PH balance is off, muscles can cramp more.

Another issue with PH balance is when your body is full of caffeine, your adrenal gland goes into overdrive kicking out adrenaline.  Now this adrenaline does get you going for a while, but over time the adrenaline gland can get overworked.  When the adrenaline gland isn’t working well, people start to get that sluggish, tired feeling.  So what do they do to combat that?  THEY DRINK MORE COFFEE!  And this just makes the condition worse.

The good news is you can reverse this by cutting way back on caffeine.  I found the best way to do this is to cut out sodas.  That helps your PH balance and is better for your adrenaline gland.

Key Insight # 4 

Another concern Brazier had was that he wouldn’t like the taste of the diet.  He was worried about missing out on his favorite foods.  He grew up eating a traditional diet.  But what he found after adopting the nutrient dense diet is that he reprogrammed his taste buds.  Now he loves the natural flavor of nutrient dense foods.  I can attest to this myself.  Since switching over to a nutrient dense diet, I no longer crave junk food, fast food, and red meats.  In fact, I recently tried a hamburger and just couldn’t eat it.  It tasted horrible to me.  And if I eat fast food, it tastes grungy, like it’s been sitting in grease all day.  It tastes industrial to me.  Imagine you saw some French fries on the ground next to your feet while you’re fueling your car at a gas pump.  Now imagine you reached down and started eating them.  Well, that’s the way fast food tastes to me now.  You’ll be amazed after switching to this type of eating how quickly your taste buds adapt.  It took me two weeks to get used to it, but once I did there was no turning back.

The Bottom Line

Okay, from a business perspective, what does this mean to the Bottom Line?  Well, plenty.

Payoff # 1

You will get leaner and drop weight.  If you eat a nutrient dense diet, you can’t help but lose unnecessary fat.  I’ve always lived an athletic lifestyle, but I found in my forties I was not quite as lean as I used to be.  I attributed this to aging, and there’s some truth in that.  I used to eat whatever I wanted, because during a 70 mile training week of running I could burn off anything.  But then as my training backed off a bit and my metabolism slowed, I gained 10 pounds in my forties.  So I was still fairly lean at 155 pounds, but not at my younger fighting weight of 145 pounds.  Those 10 pounds make a big difference between feeling lighter than air and being a little bit more stuck to the ground.  Since switching to nutrient dense eating I weigh around 148 pounds now.  My waist size is 30, and yet I’ve retained my muscle mass.  From a performance standpoint, that means better Power to Weight ratio.  Training feels a lot easier.  And when I’m cycling, I can go a lot faster and climb the toughest of hills with no problem.

So Payoff 1 is you feel better and look better.  You will look much younger than your age, and I’ve always believed looking and feeling fit was a competitive advantage not only on the playing field but also in the workplace.

Payoff # 2 

When you eat a nutrient dense diet, your stress levels go down in your body.  When stress goes down, you think better.  People have no idea how much stress they’re actually living with because it just becomes part of their lives.  But when you start to feel better, you’ll think better too.  And more importantly, life gets more enjoyable.  So, much of your psychological well-being can be changed by how you eat.

Payoff # 3 

Since I’m interested in helping people get better ideas for their businesses and life, I highly recommend switching to this type of eating.  I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons Silicon Valley has so many good ideas coming out of it is because there are more health food restaurants and stores there.  And on the flip side, I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons we don’t see as much innovation coming out of the Midwest and South is because of our diets.  Bad diets lead to more health problems, higher stress, and poorer energy levels.  I can’t imagine that’s good for thinking up new ideas.  Time spent worrying about our life is time not spent on thinking up the next big idea.  Mental energy is spent worrying about problems instead of building solutions to move yourself forward.

So, I believe when we feel better, we’re going to think better.  Therefore, if I were to make one major suggestion for bringing more innovation and creativity into a region, it would be to transform the way people eat there.  It would be a cheap fix too, and bring down other costs on the system.  Think about it.  What else could we do with the resources being funneled to battle diabetes, heart disease, and chronic stress?  Maybe that money could instead go to hiring more teachers for classrooms and to building up infrastructures that benefit everyone.  You see, I firmly believe a society with people feeling better would generate better ideas and improve overall productivity.  Well, I guess a person can dream, right?

Okay, one final note: You might find it hard to figure out at the beginning what you’re supposed to be eating if you go this route.  I recommend reading Brazier’s books and trying his Vega powder mixes.  They have all the nutrients and vitamins you need for the day.  I drink mine with breakfast.  I should note that I have no connection to Brazier or his company, but I do like his products.  There’s a lot of junk on the market selling to this crowd, but I think he’s legit.

Also, I should let you know I’m not 100 percent vegan, but I have heavily modified my diet.  I’ve cut out soda, red meat, white bread, junk food, fast food, and cut way back on coffee and alcohol.  But I still have a couple cups of coffee in the morning to get myself going and drink a couple beers with dinner to wind down at night.  I also eat fish and poultry.  I read where Ironman legend Dave Scott added those foods to his vegan diet, and I agree with his reasons.  He thinks some meat is needed to ensure you get all the essential proteins and nutrients you need.  But like Scott, I don’t eat a lot of it.  I eat one portion of fish or bird per day, and occasionally pork.  So as you modify your lifestyle, you don’t have to adopt Brazier 100%, but I think making even a few of these changes will have huge benefits for you.  Experiment to see what you like.

To get a better idea of how to do this, I suggest watching the video below to get a good overview of Brazier’s story and his approach.  I promise you’ll learn a lot in this one hour video.  And if you switch to this diet, I hope you’ll let me know how you’re doing.  Get your gears turning!

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