From Thrive to AliveFrom Thrive to Alive
Brendan Brazier wrote the book on thriving. Seriously, his book, Thrive: The Vegan Nutritional Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life, took the vegan lifestyle from the macrame jungle into the mainstream. He followed that with a magazine he called Thrive and will launch a new magazine, Alive, next year. He was also a founder of Vega and could be considered a pioneer of the modern plant-based movement. NBJ talked to him about that and about “thrive” as the word of the moment and how the meaning has changed for him and for the world at large.
September 22, 2016
NBJ: What does "thrive" mean to you in 2016?
Brazier: It means being able to do what you want, when you want, how you want, basically not having limitations, physical or mental, that hold you back from achieving what it is you're trying to achieve. So, of course, people who aren't thriving, I would say, are ones who get tired easily, need to rely on stimulants like caffeine and sugar to stay awake or have to sleep more, who are less productive. When all those things go away, when you get your mental and physical all aligned, then I think you can truly thrive.
NBJ: When people talk to you about thriving, what do they think it means?
Brazier: The context I've heard a lot is people say, "Don't just survive, thrive," like surviving is just you've got a heartbeat, you're still alive. But then thriving is having high levels of energy, feeling good, and growing and learning and progressing in some manner. I think it's a pretty similar definition.
NBJ: How common do you think it is among people to feel like they're thriving?
Brazier: I think most people would like to do more thriving, and I think some people feel as though sometimes they're just getting by, just putting out fires and dealing with the immediate things. To me, thrive also has an element of the future, and I know there's a lot that's been made of living in the present, but I tend to think to thrive I like to live a little bit in the future. I like to have that optimism for what the future's going to bring. I think that's what helps me to thrive. It's just an optimistic attitude and spending a fair bit of my head-space in the future thinking about what could be if I do certain things now.
NBJ: Could we consider the lack of thriving to be basically a condition? An ailment?
Brazier: I suppose you could. I think of it as quite holistic and kind of a general state. But there are certain things specific to lack of energy, for example, or being dependent on caffeine or sugar, or needing to sleep more. Of course, most people want to sleep better so they don't have to sleep as much. That's a really appealing thing to a lot of people. If you know how to eat properly and you understand hormones and all that and you can lower your cortisol through stress reduction, you can achieve things like that. I think any one of those could be considered specific but, like I say, generally I think thriving is pretty holistic.
NBJ: What do you think are the primary things we're doing that are self-sabotage?
Brazier: I think immediate gratification is a big one. I'll use energy as an example. When people are low on energy of course a lot of time they drink caffeine or eat sugary foods and there's a biological mechanism that tells us to do that. But if we can resist and be more holistic about it and think bigger picture, we reduce cortisol by reducing stress, which isn't necessarily working less. It can be cleaning up your diet, having more alkaline-forming foods, more plant-based foods that actually help lower cortisol. Do things you enjoy. That's going to help reduce cortisol, as well. Then you sleep more deeply because you'll get that deep delta wave sleep, then you wake up and you're better rested. It's more of a long-term approach. That's one of the reasons people don't do it. People tend to want that instant gratification and tend to think a little bit short-term. I think we can avoid that and resist that and we think more big-picture and more holistic, we can fix the problem instead of having to treat the symptom.
NBJ: Is the modern world the underlying cause?
Brazier: It can be, but it doesn't have to be. Productivity can be very, very good without all the stress. In my book, Thrive, I divide stress into two main sections: complementary and un-complementary. Complementary is any kind of stress, like if an athlete is training. Training is physical stress, it does cause cortisol to go up, but the return is better fitness, so it's a good trade-off. Working is the same. You work a lot, cortisol goes up, but that's OK. You've got a trade-off there. Whereas, eating low-quality food that doesn't have a lot of nutrition, doesn't have many micronutrients, that's a form of stress that has no return so that's un-complementary. If you're able to segment those and you're OK with the complementary stress because it leads to a payoff but you eliminate or greatly reduce the un-complementary stress, you can really get away with avoiding a lot of the symptoms. It's just being mindful of that and knowing what to target. You don't have to be a victim to the modern world that way.
NBJ: Do you think people have an understanding of that balance between the psychological side and the physical side of nutrition and exercise?
Brazier: Some people do but most don't. A lot of people just aren't aware of that connection. They aren't aware that by cleaning up your diet, you can reduce a very large amount of your overall stress, and therefore the symptoms of that stress.
NBJ: Can supplement companies' help people thrive?
Brazier: Something we found when we first launched Vega, is that Vega is nutrient-dense, whole food, and it's going to help you reduce cortisol, but it's not going to do it overnight. A lot of people, especially people new to the natural health industry, they want results right away. They're from the drug culture, really. Take a drug and the effect is almost immediate. I think it's kind of a tough thing because supplement manufacturers want to make something that is going to be noticeable right away, but at the same time you don't want to have people think too short-term. They need to think that a supplement that may treat their symptom is actually a long-term solution. That can be a challenge because sometimes people aren't going to stick with it for the time required, which could be several months, in some cases. It can be a little bit tricky to navigate at times.
NBJ: How do supplement makers get people to see that holistic approach? What should the message be?
Brazier: Just getting the information out that there are certain things you can do that will help treat your symptoms in the short-term, but long-term, here are some meal plans that are going to help by eliminating other types of foods that cause cortisol to go up, which is what I try and do with my book and, obviously, through Vega, as well. Of course a lot of other companies are doing similar things now, so it's good. I think it's just making sure people realize it's a lifestyle. As with exercise, it's not so much about exercising for six weeks or eight weeks or whatever and then taking before and after pictures. It's more about consistency and lifestyle as opposed to a program. When people talk about their nutrition program or workout program, they're usually looking at it in a way that's not sustainable. Find a plan, find a lifestyle that is sustainable and just stick with it.
NBJ: Let's say somebody who hasn't seen your magazine or hasn't ready your book asks you "What's my first step?" Is it nutrition? Is it more about attitude adjustment?
Brazier: It can be more complex sometimes than I'd like it to be. I think nutritionally, just be mindful of adding some good foods. Don't even think about eliminating the ones that aren't good right away. Just keep it simple. Perception, too, is a very big thing. You can become mentally unfit just by basically depleting your willpower. If you're constantly doing things you don't enjoy, things get harder and harder. Replenish that. Do things you like. It sounds strange, but if people are on a new program and they get home from work, especially jobs they don't like, and they have to go right into an exercise routine program they don't enjoy, that's not sustainable. They've got to find things that are going to help them even if they have to just recharge their batteries by doing something they really enjoy even if it's not necessarily the healthiest thing. If it helps them get up the willpower to approach bigger challenges, like maybe making bigger changes in their diet or maybe changing their career, whatever it is, certain things can really help.
NBJ: Have you seen a change in awareness?
Brazier: Yes, absolutely. I have a tenth anniversary edition of Thrive coming out in January of next year and there's been a big shift since the original edition. I think people are just better informed, generally. They think more holistically. They feel as though they have more control than they did in the past, which is obviously really positive. They feel that if they make changes, they will see the results and that's very positive. They don't feel as much like victims of the modern world. A lot of people are far more optimistic now, and that's great.
NBJ: What do you tell people who ask you about supplements?
Brazier: I'm certainly not anti-supplement. I think they make a lot of sense for people who need them. Eating well all the time can be tough, especially out of season, depending on where people live. If they live in an area where food has to travel a long distance, it can make sense to take a good food-based, plant-based supplement to cover those bases. One thing I would just make sure people are well-aware of is that you've got to know if you're deficient. There' are some things out there that people probably don't need. Deficiencies can be picked up on blood tests. Just taking supplements blindly will be of little help if you don't need them.
NBJ: What's a specific product or company or something out there that you're excited about right now?
Brazier: One thing I think is really cool is called the Sage Project, a smart labeling system (sageproject.com) that a friend, Sam Slover, started at New York University. It's basically data on food, so you can get as much data as you could possibly want and then put it into a user-friendly form. You can look at the cost-to-nutrient ratio, for example, because you often hear ‘Healthy food is too expensive.' But when you actually look at the amount of vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals, anti-oxidants you get from good food, it's actually quite a lot less expensive. It also looks at the nutrient-to-resource ratio—the amount of land, water, fossil fuel used to produce the food in relation to the amount of nutrition it delivers. It's in a partnership with Whole Foods 365, so it will be used for their products and then rolling out to all the Whole Foods products soon after.
NBJ: How long is it going to take before people really understand that equation between the price of food and the value of food?
Brazier: I think the folks who shop at Whole Foods are the right place to start, for sure. Getting to people who don't know as much about food is going to take a while. Twelve years ago, not a lot of people knew about hemp protein, pea protein, rice protein. The demand was for soy and whey. It will take a while, but I think it's a worthy thing to start on.
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