Ask Vegan Athlete Brendan Brazier
Brendan Brazier is a professional triathlete from North Vancouver, and the 2003, 50 km Ultra Marathon National Champion. A successful vegan ironman, Brendan contributes to our magazine with a feature called Ask the Vegan Athlete. In each issue Brendan answers questions posed by readers and offers advice to other athletes who choose to eat a plant-based diet.
Brendan is the author of Thrive: a Guide to Optimal Health and Performance Through Plant-Based Whole Foods. His website addresses concerns of vegetarian athletes, provides a forum for vegan athletes, and includes his schedule of activities.
For more info visit his website at http: //www.brendanbrazier.com
I heard that Omega 3 is hard for vegans to get yet is essential for general health, even more so for athletes because it helps increase endurance and lean body mass by improving fat metabolism. How do you deal with this?
It's true that Omega 3 is essential for good health. In fact, along with omega 6, omega 3 is categorized as an essential fatty acid (EFA). Being labelled essential simply means that the body cannot manufacture it from other nutrients; it must be present in the diet for good health to be achieved.
Omega 6, on one hand, is very easy to obtain. You would have to eat a poor diet consistently to fall short of the body's requirement for omega 6. It is found in most nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu and also, to a lesser degree, in many fruits, vegetables and grains. The only caution here is to be sure to consume the nuts and seeds in raw form; otherwise the fat will be altered by roasting, and, therefore, less usable by the body.
On the other hand, omega 3 is less plentiful, but equally important. The most common source of omega 3 is salmon. Obviously, this is of little help to vegans like you and me. Interesting to note is that salmon is not as good a source as it used to be. Farmed salmon have considerably less omega 3 than their wild counterparts. Omega 3 levels in wild salmon are also declining. The algae they eat, giving their meat a high omega 3 content, is declining in both quantity and quality due to less-than-ideal environmental conditions.
The greatest plant source of omega 3 fatty acids is flaxseeds. In order for the body to digest and utilize the nutrients, the seeds must be ground into coarse flour. I personally use a coffee grinder. Once every two weeks I'll grind about a pound, put it into a glass container, and store it in the fridge to protect the EFA's from becoming rancid. If I don't plan on using all the ground flax within two weeks, I'll store it in the freezer to insure freshness.
Flaxseeds are also available pre-ground. If you buy them in this form, make sure they are in an airtight container or have been kept in the fridge or freezer. Also, be sure not to buy flax meal. Flax meal is little more than fiber, with all the EFA's removed by pressing.
A daily serving of about 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds will supply all the omega 3 an average person needs. However, a highly active person will require up to three times that amount. When an athlete consistently trains for a long event, his or her body becomes more efficient at burning fat. This is essential for success in an endurance event because the body's ability to use fat as fuel translates to spared glycogen (carbohydrate) stores, which significantly improve endurance. With the diet lacking adequate essential fatty acids, endurance will decline.
Essential fatty acids are also important for skin health. Many people treat flaky skin topically with a moisturizer cream, when the real cause is quite often a lack of EFA's and poor hydration.
The easiest way to incorporate more flaxseeds into the diet is to sprinkle them on cereals, salads, and other foods. Another way is to use them in baking, replacing a portion of the flour.
Here is an example from my book THRIVE using ground flaxseeds to replace less nutritious traditional flours.
Toasted Apple Cinnamon Cereal
1/2 cup (120 ml) hemp protein powder (protein, EFA's, vitamin E)
1/2 cup (120 ml) flaxseeds, ground (omega 3, fibre, protein)
1/2 cup (120 ml) sunflower seeds (EFA's, protein)
1/2 cup (120 ml) sesame seeds (calcium, protein)
1/2 cup (120 ml) almonds, diced (EFA's, alkalizing protein)
1/2 apple, diced (pectin)
1/4 cup (60 ml) hemp oil (essential fatty acids omega 3 & omega 6)
1/4 cup (60 ml) molasses (iron)
2 T. apple juice
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. whole stevia leaf, dried and ground (blood sugar regulator)
1/4 t. sea salt (sodium)
This is an excellent, nutritionally balanced cereal. Unlike traditional cereals, this one has lots of fiber, complete protein, and lots of essential fatty acids and calcium.
*You'll notice this cereal is toasted at a lower temperature than traditional granola. The reason for this is to preserve the essential fatty acids. Heating foods with essential fatty acids above 350 F (Gas Mark 4) is not recommended since the heat can convert EFA's to trans-fats.
Keep refrigerated to extend freshness.