Monday, April 22, 2013


Thrive Foods is the final installment in the Thrive trilogy. While each book (Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide, Thrive Fitness, and Thrive Foods) has it's own unique focus, the three works do share a great deal of overlap. Thrive was Brazier's original work and focused on proper plant-based nutrition. That work included nearly 100 recipes but most were geared toward athletic training- smoothies, plant-based gels and energy bars, ect. Instead Thrive Foods looks at sustainability and doubles as an everyday cookbook- with over 200 completely vegan recipes- many from popular vegan eaters around the world such as New York's Candle 79 and Dirt Candy among others. I must note that many of the other recipes are the work of my favorite plant-based chef and good friend Julie Morris.

While writing a healthy plant-based cookbook is it’s own challenge, this work is much more, as it  doubles as an original work of research. The first 150 pages build on Brazier's past research in a new and interesting way. In the past, Brazier focused on individual health and how to fuel one's self for optimal performance. As a former professional triathlete, this seemed to be Brazier's nitch, but Thrive Foods moves beyond this and takes a wider approach by examining more than just individuals, but rather the sustainability of our food production and health of our planet.

As you might have guessed, this is no light topic, and Brazier treats it with the same sincerity and authority as Michael Pollan, Mark Bitman, or Jonathan Safran Foer. However, unlike them, Brazier forcefully and convincingly argues that animal-based foods can never be sustainable. The only environmentally sustainable diet is a plant-based vegan diet.

As Brazier demonstrates, “animal agriculture is one of the greatest contributing factors to anthropologic climate change.” In fact, animal agriculture releases more green house gases (Carbon Dioxide, Methan and Nitrous Oxide) than all modes of transportation combined! To top this off, producing meat is simply inefficient. In perhaps the most startling but also interesting sections of the book, Brazier compares nutrients to fossil fuel ratios of normally consumed animal products with vegetable counterparts.

In this section, Brazier admits his method is not perfect but that it is the closest we can get to an honest comparison when discussing the amount of nutrition derived from food from each fossil fuel burned. Using the ANDI scores, Brazier demonstrates that one would have to consume 3.95 calories of animal products to obtain the same amount of micronutrients delivered from 1 calorie of lentils. Since, as Brazier explains, each calorie of animal protein needs roughly 25 calories of fossil fuel energy whereas lentils only require 2.2 calories of fossil fuels, Brazier shows that meat uses 45.4 times more energy to obtain the same amount of micronutrients from animals as from eating lentils.

Brazier also convincingly shows that the healthiest foods (plants) are also more cost effective than animal products. Meat and dairy are only affordable due to the incredibly imbalanced subsides that are given to these industries. If meat reflected it’s real price to include the amount of land and resources it actually used, Brazier argues that the average price of a hamburg would jump well above $30! Even with these artificially low prices for animal products, one would have to spend roughly 6 times as much money on chicken as on lentils to receive the same amount of nutrients. 

Even locally produced meat and dairy are large consumers of natural resources. Cows require 30 gallons of fresh water every day (producing one pound of beef uses over 2,500 gallons of water), and also requires far more space (arable land is also a precious and increasingly scarce resource). Because these grass-fed animals take so much longer to reach slaughter weight, they consume a far larger amount of these resources. To top that off, nitrous oxide and methane, both far more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide, are produced as a consequence of animal agriculture- and again since these local grass-fed animals are alive longer, they produce more of both. And let’s not forget that “food miles” comprise only around 11% of the total carbon foot print of a food, so even if you can get meat from nearby, it still required far greater resources than eating banana’s grown in Ecudor.

Brazier takes it even further. In fact, as he notes, if an average American refrained from eating beef for one year, it would save 1595 kilograms of CO2, which equates to driving around 7,000 miles. That is enough miles to drive from New York to Los Angeles and back… and then departing New York and driving to Miami. Rather than buying a new expensive hybrid, change your diet. It makes a larger impact anyway!

Brendan and I at the Miami Half Marathon Expo 

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a few words about the cookbook itself. While many of the book’s recipes call for the use of oils (particularly coconut oil), most of them can simply be made without, or subbed with vegetable broth if you follow a low-fat diet. What remains, however, is a stellar collection of foods, including the popular Thrive Pizza I featured last summer. So go and check out Thrive Foods. It is not to be missed and will give you some serious food for thought about where your next meal comes from.

Cheers and happy Earth Day!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thoughts on Blue-Green Algae, Spirulina, and Chlorella

It’s hard to ignore the hype these three types of algae have created over the past few years. Plant-based athletes are all too willing to boast about how Spirulina is over 60% protein as a counterargument to the “where do you get your protein” question they are constantly bombarded with. These pond scums also claim to have a superior overall nutritional make up, including being a particularly good source of vitamins and minerals. As a result, it’s become a common ingredient for superfood smoothies. Some even recommend drinking the stuff straight by just mixing a bit of the dried powder into a glass of water.

But what is the actual evidence say? Well, yes, all three do have certain properties which could be health promoting; however, blue-green algae and spirulina both come with harmful side effects that, in my mind, outweigh the good. I should note, that I wasn't able to find a ton of research on the topic but what I did find makes me think we are better off staying away from these “superfood” green heroes.

 The problem with blue-green algae and spirulina is they both have the ability to grow neurotoxins. These toxins impact both the brain and the liver and spirulina has also been demonstrated to atrophy muscles rather than building them. What was that about 60% protein?  Now, I don’t know about you, but I'd prefer my superfoods don’t kill me. In April 2005 a coordinated effort of researchers found evidence that almost all blue-green algaes seem to be able to produce a neurotoxin called BMAA (beta-N-methylamino-L-alanine). BMAA is bad stuff. It's been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases and as it turns out there are only two places you will be likely to find BMAA: in the brains of alzheimer's patients and on your pantry shelf.

Some take spirulina simply as a way to supplement B12 into their diet, because it has a considerable amount. But some evidence indicates that this isn't as bio-available as taking a B12 supplement and Dr. Varro Tyler, an authority on herbs at Purdue University, claims spirulina’s is typically contaminated with insect or animal fecal matter. This is not all that surprising since spirulina is grown in open lakes and ponds and is not thoroughly washed before it’s dried.

Chlorella on the other hand, seems to be free from these neurotoxins and other contaminants; however, it doesn’t really offer anything that can’t be found in other dark leafy greens and as Dr. Greger notes, kale tastes better and is much cheaper. So forget the expensive algae and instead focus on eating a clean plant-based diet. You'll get all of the nutrients you need -including protein, you'll save money, and you wont be drinking crushed bugs and fecal matter!