20 June 2011

Get cookin' with vegan triathlete and cookbook author Rich Roll

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the world premier of Forks Over Knives, and I met a million incredible figures from the vegan community. One of them was Rich Roll, who is a world renowned vegan triathlete - yes, you read that right, a vegan and triathlete rolled into one. Actually, he's a lot more than a vegan and a triathlete, he's also a husband, father, lawyer, and most recently, a published author. After discussing the cool things we vegans so often discuss, I soon came to find out that Rich and his wife Julie Piatt have recently released a vegan cookbook. But this isn't your average cookbook. It consists exclusively of plant-based recipes that are not only delicious but are the very tools that are essential to Rich's triathlon training and recovery.

I was intrigued. Rich was kind enough to send me a digital copy of his book, Jai Seed, and I couldn't wait to dive in. What grabbed my attention off the bat was the unique layout and format of the book. It broke the traditional look of a cookbook. Instead of wordy recipes and boring layouts, it was vivid, vibrant, and full of colorful photos of Rich and his family, as well as original artwork by his wife, Julie. The recipes also stood out. Julie went as far as admitting that the ingredient measurements were merely recommendations and that there were no strict guidelines for the recipes. They were designed for the reader to experiment and get creative. All the dishes are highly nourishing - yet simple, easy to make, and often times require very little preparation. The book is exceptional for a wide array of people, from those who are looking to get the most out of their nutrition, to new vegans who are intimidated by the transition, to those who have hectic schedules and little time to cook (or like myself, and are not the most experienced in the kitchen).

After checking out the book, I wanted to know more about the man behind it and his reasons for writing it. So I decided to interview Rich about his book, his lifestyle, and family. Rich was a fantastic interview - he's highly insightful, wise, and inspiring.

What inspired you to write a cookbook?

My wife Julie and I were inspired to write our cookbook primarily as a creative expression of
our family lifestyle, as well as a response to demand. Because of my exploits in ultra-endurance
triathlon, and the success I have experienced performing at a high level in middle age on a 100% plant-based diet, I am constantly asked questions like What do you eat? How do you get your protein? How could you possibly fuel your body on plants alone? How do you get your kids to eat healthy? The cookbook was a natural response to these questions.
You've described it as "more than a cookbook" - Explain.

JAI SEED transcends the typical cookbook in a variety of ways. At its core, it’s much more an
artistic expression of our lifestyle than a simple transcription of recipes. With a presentation
more akin to a digital coffee table book for the iPad generation, it is graphically very modern
in its layout, with nutritional information and recipes embedded within a rich array of mixed
graphic media, gorgeous photographs, and several images of my wife’s art. The idea is that
plant-based nutrition isn’t just food – but energy. And the book strives to convey veganism not as the sacred purview of a marginalized subclass but as a progressive, healthy and manageable way of life for the modern contemporary family.

How long have you been a vegan, and what caused you to make the switch? Did
your wife and kids adopt the lifestyle as well? Was there any resistance from them?

My journey began on the eve of my fortieth birthday, four years ago. Although I was a
competitive swimmer at Stanford University in the late 1980’s, my health had decayed
and I had become quite overweight. Once world ranked in my sport, a simple flight of
stairs winded me. And with heart disease in my family lineage, I was terrified I would
succumb to a heart attack. It was only a matter of time. So I decided to change my life,
starting with my diet. After a 7 day fruit, vegetable juice and herb cleanse, I embarked
upon a vegetarian diet, which six months later morphed into becoming 100% vegan.
The surge in energy I experienced was dramatic and life altering. At the time, all I
wanted to do was feel better and lose a little weight. Instead, what transpired was
rather miraculous. I lost 50 pounds and now at age 44, I compete at the highest level
in ultra-endurance triathlon. Never in a million years could I have predicted just how
radically my plant-based diet would transform my life and that of my family.

My wife had always been essentially vegetarian, with the occasional piece of fish here
and there. But based on how radically I changed, this year she has gone entirely vegan
as well. We have four children – 2 teenage boys ages 16 and 15, and two young
girls, ages 7 and 3. Without strict rules and simply leading by example, they are all
now vegetarian. We have even weened our little one off cow milk in favor of almond
or coconut milk. We try to be flexible with them – they are kids afterall – so we are
amenable to preparing foods with dairy for them on occasion, things like pizza and
macaroni and cheese. But by involving them in the preparation of our meals, they have really taken to our regime, which has been very gratifying as parents.

You are an elite athlete, so obviously nutrition is highly important to you. How
specifically have these recipes been instrumental to your success?

People ask me all the time whether a plant-based diet makes me a better athlete. The
answer isn’t that it makes me a better athlete per se, but that the foods I choose to
fortify me help me recover more quickly between training sessions. To be healthy, your
blood must remain within a very narrow pH range. A plant-based diet is very alkaline
forming, whereas the typical American diet is incredibly acid-forming. Acidic foods such
as dairy and meat cause inflammation, place draining stress on the immune system
and force your body to leech nutrients such as the mineral calcium from your bones in
order to balance out blood pH. These events impede the body’s ability to recover from
training, lead to a wide variety of illnesses both common and chronic, and have even
been linked to turning on cancer cells. By contrast, a plant-based whole food alkalizing
regimen is not only very nutrient dense, it allows the body to side step these negative
health effects such that the body can quickly rebound between workouts. Thus I am
able to train harder and more frequently without getting run down. And over time, this
allows me to become a better athlete.

I'm sure you love all the recipes in the book, but which one(s) do you find yourself gravitating toward most often and why?

I love the vegan mashed potatoes! After a hard workout, there is nothing I’d rather have
to sate my hunger. Another good comfort food recipe is the cashew cheese nachos.
Delicious! For dessert, the chia seed pudding is great. Not only do the kids love it, they
love making it.

In the book you delineate which foods are best for pre vs. post workout. What makes certain foods better than others in this regard?

As for pre-workout foods, I am always looking for things that will help boost my
endurance and provide me with good long-lasting energy. So I don’t overdo it on the
fruit, which can lead to a sugar crash, instead opting for a more complex carbohydrate,
like gluten free toast or quinoa with coconut milk and flax seed. In my morning vitamix,
you are likely to find beets and beet root, kale, macca and chia seeds – all proven
endurance boosters.

Post-workout, its important to replenish your electrolytes, glycogen stores and protein.
For electrolytes, I love a cold glass of coconut water. For glycogen, it’s a brown rice
dish or brown rice pasta (gluten free) or even just a simple serving of yams. For protein,
I will drink a fruit and veggie Vitamix with ingredients like Vega, Living Harvest Hemp
Protein (a complete protein), hemp seeds, spirulina and chlorphyll.

There is something very inviting about the simplicity of the recipes - that anybody
could easily adapt them into their diet and lifestyle - especially vegan beginners or those who aren't a pro in the kitchen (like myself) . Was that intentional?

Absolutely and I’m glad you noticed. We are an incredibly busy family. When I’m not
with my wife and kids, I train 20-30 hours a week, practice entertainment law and am
writing a book for Random House, which will be out Summer 2012. My wife is an artist,
a musician, a healer and a yogi. And all our kids have busy lives outside of school.
Like most people, we simply have no time for elaborate recipes. If it’s too complicated,
it’s not sustainable. And if its not sustainable, what’s the point? It has to work within the
construct of the modern busy family or it won’t work at all. The whole point of the book
is to convey the idea that indeed it can be simple. All of our recipes are incredibly easy
to prepare, do not contain difficult to find or expensive ingredients, nor involve a lot of
prep time.

Your wife, Julie, who co-wrote the book with you says that she "kept dubious notes" regarding measurements and quantities. There is a charm to the lenient and free-form recipes, in that you can just kind of make the food taste the way you want. Was that the aim?

Definitely. Julie is not one for exacting measurements. She operates on pure intuition
and feel. And the idea behind the recipes is to say that it doesn’t have to be exact. In
fact, it shouldn’t be exact. The recipes are intended purely as a launching off point for
each person to play with the guideposts as a means to express themselves in their own
unique way. In other words, to guide the reader to discover their own culinary artist
within. I think there is real beauty in this sense of empowerment.

What's your typical daily menu like for you?

I generally blend two Vitamix drinks per day. One for breakfast / pre-workout and then
another post-workout recovery drink. I will drink half of this, then thermos the remainder
to sip throughout the afternoon. For lunch I generally eat light. My Vitamix blends are
so nutrient dense that I am essentially fortified without craving a large lunch, which is
typically a salad. For snacks, I much on almonds, berries, pepitas, maybe some gluten
free toast with almond butter and again sipping off my post-workout Vitamix left overs.
For dinner I generally eat a large carbohydrate based meal with a large salad. Anything
from the veggie burgers to the pilaf to vegan lasagna. I’m not a big dessert guy but I
can’t resist a little chia seed pudding or coconut milk ice cream once in a while.

Do you have any fitness tips for people who want to lose weight or get in amazing shape like yourself? Can you tell also tell us about your own work out regimen?

I think the most important thing is to find a physical activity that you genuinely enjoy.
Again, it’s all about sustainability. And exercise should be fun! If you hate going to
the gym (I do!), then find something else. For me, there is nothing better than running
alone on a remote trail or riding my bike in the Santa Monica Mountains. I absolutely
love it. So I don’t perceive my training as suffering. Sure its hard, but I still look forward
to it. And if you enjoy the activity you choose, you are more apt to form a lasting habit
pursuing it. Find what you enjoy, and create community and accountability around it. If
you like yoga, then find a group to do it with who will keep you company and on track.
Develop relationships with like minded people who enjoy your chosen activity; pursue
it together and the social aspect of exercise will only enhance the enjoyment and the
likelihood that you will stick with it. And over time, you will experience health gains. In
other words, weight loss should be a by product of an enjoyable lifestyle pursuit, not the
end game.

But if you want to get in shape like me, well that’s a different story. With 20-30 hours
of training a week, it’s essentially a second job for me. And although I am an amateur
athlete, I approach my regimen and racing as close to professional as my life allows.
But again, it’s my passion. I love the outdoors, and there are few things in life I’d rather
do than swim, ride my bike and run.

Do you ever have a cheat day, where maybe you'll eat some vegan cupcakes? If
so, how often do you allow yourself to indulge?

Of course. I don’t cheat on being vegan, but I have a soft spot for vegan junkfood –
things like vegan cookies, and particularly potato chips. That’s my big guilty pleasure.
I’m working on it…

You and your wife seem to have a very inspired yet busy life with the multitude of projects your family has going on, not to mention raising a house full of kids. What does a typical day look like for you? How do you find the time to do it all?

Its not easy, but we do the best we can. On a typical day, we rise around 6 am, get the
kids up and ready for school over breakfast, then divide the driving duties, as all the kids
attend different schools in different areas, which is challenging given that we live in a
relatively remote area of Malibu Canyon. Then I generally train until about noon, eat
and head to office, where I practice law and work on my book. Sometimes I will pick up
one or two of the kids from school, but Julie generally takes care of this. I come home
for dinner, then more often than not head back to the office, where I work until 10 or 11
at night, trying to make up for daytime hours spent training. Saturdays are long training
days for me, but I always take Sunday off to spend time with Julie and the kids. There
is simply no time for anything that does not advance our mission.

Finally, in the athletic community have you received any skepticism about choosing a plant based diet? What do you say to the naysayers?

Of course I weather criticism from time to time. But I don’t waste any energy on it,
preferring to let my race results do the talking. For the most part however, I enjoy a
great deal of very gratifying support and curiosity, not just from athletes, but from people
of all walks of life looking for inspiration to make their own healthy changes. I can’t say
I expect everyone to suddenly go vegan. But by standing out on an extreme limb, my
hope is that people might move just a little bit closer in my direction.

For more information on JAI SEED and to purchase for download, visit:

For more information on Rich, visit his website, follow him on Twitter, or like his fan page on Facebook.

Hayley Marie Norman | @xoHayleyMarie
Hayley Marie, a vegan, is a Los Angeles based actress that has appeared in numerous films including Hancock and Fired Up, as well as several tv shows such as Crash, CSI:NY, and CSI:Miami. She is also known as being the girl with the wild crazy afro, aka #25, on Deal or No Deal. For more information about Hayley Marie check out her blog.

Photo credit: Richroll.com