Since a calorie is a measure of food energy, you may understandably assume that the more calories you consume, the more energy you’ll have. I certainly believed that. Conventional sports nutrition books had me convinced of it. Yet, in practice, we see that clearly isn’t the case. If it were, people who ate large fast-food meals would be bursting with energy, and they simply aren’t. In fact, it’s the opposite; immediately following a 3000-calorie fast-food meal, significant fatigue sets in (ever wonder why cultures who have their largest meal for lunch are the ones partial to siestas?).

So what’s going on?

Energy is like money; once spent, it’s gone. However, it is possible to make an investment, as opposed to an expenditure, that yields a return. That’s the way I began looking at food, as an opportunity of potential gain. Since I was racing Ironman triathlon professionally at the time, refinements such as these could prove to be the difference between joining the upper echelon or remaining average.
As I began to learn, if we’re going to spend energy on digestion and assimilation, it’s in our best interest to demand a return. But what do we actually seek from food? It’s not calories, nor is it volume or mass. It is, in fact, nutrition: micronutrients, which include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. These are components by which food can be assessed a value, and therefore, a decision can be objectively made as to whether it’s worth eating.

Will the nutritional return justify the digestive energy expenditure?

Without an adequate supply of micronutrients, not only are we less likely to sleep deeply, recover briskly from exercise, ward off sickness, and fully exploit our brainpower, we get hungry. And we stay hungry. Our hunger signal will remain active until we take in an adequate supply of nourishment. In fact, the number one reason for obesity in North America is simple: over consumption. And we over consume because we’re hungry. But it’s not volume, nor is it calories that we biologically hunger for. It’s micronutrients. And until we receive enough, the hunger signal will continually urge us to eat. Thankfully, there’s a simple fix: nutrient-dense food.

It became clear to me that a sensible approach was to base my nutrition plan on foods that are easiest to digest and contain the greatest amount of each micronutrient per calorie. That’s what I call high net-gain nutrition, which became one of the key concepts in my book, Thrive. Observing this principal, I began swapping out starchily refined foods, such as pasta, white rice, and bread, which are low in nutrition yet digestively intensive, for easily assimilated, less processed, nutrient-dense options, such as fruit and pseudo grains. Pseudo grains, technically seeds, are therefore gluten-free and are also comprised of about 20% protein. Amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat (not actually wheat, from the rhubarb family), and wild rice became the base. The result was greater energy plus a natural desire to eat less.

Brendan Brazier is a former professional Ironman triathlete, two-time Canadian 50km UltraMarathon Champion, formulator of an award-winning line of whole food nutritional products called VEGA, and the bestselling author of Thrive. He developed the acclaimed ZoN Thrive Fitness program and created Thrive Foods Direct, a national plant-based meal delivery service. Thrive Foods: 200 Plant-Based Recipes for Peak Health is his latest book.

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