Max Smith-Ferguson is currently living out the ultimate Bondi guy’s dream trip… surfing his way around the world. He has just finished his Sports Science degree, packed up his Nutribullet and headed off into the sunset chasing waves and potentially a career on the pro circuit… not on the board but as a plant-based diet advocate, helping pro surfers reach peak physical performance. What a ride! Max, we wish you luck and can’t wait to hear about your trip.
This interview is well worth a read. Max has been so generous with his honesty and time sharing the story of his personal journey to optimal health through the plant-based diet. I am sure you are going to enjoy!
As a sports science graduate how do you see the link between healthy plant-based nutrition and optimal health and physical performance?
I see the two as inextricably linked. Although plant-based nutrition was not taught in my degree, the elements to obtain optimal health and performance were and now learning about the nutrition side of the equation, it seems you cant fully have one without the other. To be at peak performance and feeling the best you can you must eat the right foods. You need to keep your arteries clean to deliver the purest oxygen and blood to the working muscles. Your joints must be flexible but strong to handle all loads placed on them daily. Your body must be a powerhouse in cleaning up waste after a workout and rebuilding muscle tears to grow stronger. All these things can be achieved with plant-based nutrition, as the foods provide the right split of macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins, minerals along with all the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties needed for optimal health.
It is amazing how good you can feel and the feats of endurance your body can withstand with the proper preparation. Ultra-endrance athletes accomplish some of the craziest, mind-bending feats imaginable. Dean Karnazes is an ultra-endurance runner who has ran 350 miles in 81 hours, not sleeping for 3 days. Further, he ran 50 marathons in each of the 50 states of America in 50 consecutive days. Although he spends a majority of his time training, he puts as much preparation into training as he does eating, experimenting with different foods to see which foods fuel him the best and allow him to go past the point of possible.
How did you first become aware of the plant-based diet and what initially sparked your interest in trying it out for yourself?
Funnily enough, it wasn’t through my Degree, which a lot of people assume is the source of my interest and knowledge. Nutrition was just 1 subject out of 24 in a 3-year degree. Further, all of my subjects except for 2 were pre-selected for me in the course outline, so there was little room for me to pursue nutrition further or choose an advanced nutrition course.
I think I first became aware of the plant-based way 2 or 3 years ago when I tore my meniscus playing soccer. I was struggling to find ways to keep fit and healthy without the use of my leg for exercise. I was very impatient with the rehabilitation process and kept re-injuring the same knee, which further increased my rehabilitation time. I love to surf and play soccer and keeping fit and healthy both mentally and physically. I have had previous struggles with weight management throughout high school and so after I graduated, I made a conscious effort to stay fit and healthy.
I thought if I can’t exercise as much then I need to consume fewer calories. This led me to do research online and inevitably, like most people, I found the film forks over knives. Although my initial interest on this way of eating was weight management, the disease prevention side of not eating animal protein soon appealed to me also.
Personally, what are the benefits did you experienced after switching to a plant-based diet?
The most notable and enjoyable benefit was my sustained energy levels. After experimenting with this diet for narrow-minded reasons of weight management, all the other benefits become apparent.
The logic behind plant based whole foods that are nutrient dense and provide long-lasting energy like sweet potatoes, quinoa, oatmeal, nuts and seeds really appealed to my lifestyle and me. I used to snack quiet often in between classes or surf/soccer sessions but found my energy levels to always be fluctuating. By eating more whole foods and complex carbs I found my energy levels sustained meaning I didn’t need to snack as much, which helped me both physically and mentally.
Another benefit was decreased recovery time in between workouts and games. Previous to this way of eating and my injury, I had been playing soccer since I was 6 and training frequently since I was 16. It is hard to say with certainty which variable in your training and dieting regime you change caused the improvements in performance, as you are not conducting an experiment and there is no ‘control’ group. However I feel before this diet change on days after a heavy training session, or on Sunday after a big day of soccer my muscles were tight, sore and often cramping, with a general lack of energy lasting the whole day. Even the day after my recovery, I was still sore and lacked motivation and energy to hit the gym. After changing my diet, although I was still sore and drained, I felt like I could muster the energy to do a bit of active recovery, at least walk around or go for a swim. Further, the day after my recovery day, I was ready for a big session, both mentally and physically.
Are there others in your community/circle of friends/family that have also switched to a plant-based diet? And are they experiencing benefits?
There are not many people I know that have switched to a fully plant-based diet. There is definitely a trend for some of my more active friends to eat less red meat and animal protein as the benefits of eating more whole foods are becoming apparent through advertisements and word of mouth. Although the stigma behind eating this way has reduced, the biggest barrier I think is the perceived ‘effort’ of making plant-based food taste good and using ingredients that are hard to come by and/or expensive. I live in the eastern suburbs [of Sydney] so there is a growing community switching to this way of eating, but it is still perceived as more expensive and a daunting experience to enter into a new ‘sub culture’.
How have your colleagues and friends reacted to your change in diet?
My colleagues in university are pretty supportive and inquisitive as we trade recipes and short-cuts to our favourite foods that have been ‘plantformed’ in to something new and delicious. My friends, who are mostly tradesman with little time to cook for themselves, are usually surprised how easy it is to make plant-based foods ahead of time and in large quantities, so you always have pre-prepared food that can be cooked quickly. For example I made my friend vegan mac n cheese and he was surprised how good it was and how quickly it took. You can make the ‘cheese’ powder in large batches, and then simply add that to pasta and its done.
Do you find it challenging or simple to eat plant-based in Sydney?
At the start it was challenging to find the unique ingredients that all the online recipes have. Further, as most recipes and blogs are from the states, it is challenging to find the Australian equivalent. After a while though, the same few ingredients keep popping up so you gather a base of those. If the Australian equivalent is not available, someone online has had the same problem before and there is usually a solution of mixing ingredients. A lot of the cafes and stores have vegan options now, but they are usually very expensive for a small portion, so I tend to buy large quantities of basics in the supermarket and make my lunch/dinners for the week ahead of time.
What does health and wellness mean to you?
I think to be truly healthy is not just physically but mentally as well. To me it means exercising every day in whatever way possible, just to get the blood pumping and endorphins going. Eating the right foods gives you the energy to move and the energy to help other people. When you’re helping others, your using both your physical and mental strength which releases the feel good feeling both in your body and in your brain. It’s a good way to start the day and gives you that whole body healthy feeling.
What motivates you and can you provide any strategies for young busy people, like yourself, to assist them in reaching their own health, wellness and fitness goals?
My biggest motivation is to stay fit and healthy for as long as possible, so I can do the things I love, for as long as possible. If eating this way means I can surf until I’m 100 years old then I’ll keep doing it. Motivating other people to eat healthier and keep fit so they can continue to do the things they love is also a big factor for me, as I love to help people make a change for the better. A lot of people helped me make a change for the better after high-school, so I guess I am forever trying to repay the favour.
I think the best strategy is to just start. If you want to start exercising more but don’t know what to do, just start walking. You will meet people in similar situations to you and they may be able to offer help. Join groups and clubs as they offer motivation and camaraderie to keep you going.
Further, if you think you are too busy to cook healthy but know you need to change, then change. You need to priortise some time to getting healthy, otherwise it will come round to bite you later down the track. If that means boiling 4kgs of potatoes at 1am for lunch and the dinner for the week then you ‘gotta do what you gotta do’. It will become easier over time the more you practice and learn.
Can you provide any advice for people around sticking to their nutrition goals while busy studying, while eating out and eating while traveling?
I think one of the most important things is to never go to hungry. When you’re starving you are more likely to make bad choices, so always have little snacks around.
Eating out is harder because of the social pressure, so if it means cheating a little bit then that’s ok… as long as the next day you keep with your goals and accept that your allowed some time off and no ones perfect. But that doesn’t mean you can be careless, watch for deep-fried and oily foods, and beware of the sauces and dips.
When travelling, try to keep nuts and seeds in your bag for snacks. If you know you might not get a chance to eat healthy for a while, have a large meal and then continually snack on good food so you don’t slip up and get Macdonalds.
What are your best tips for including more fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet?
I think juicing is a great way to up your vegetable count. You can throw in a combination of greens that you usually would never eat but you know are good for you, combined with some fruit to sweeten it up and it becomes a perfect afternoon snack. Depending on your activity levels, a piece of fruit is the best energy-booster you can eat. When you lower your artificial sugar consumption, fruit becomes super sweet and tasty. When eaten as it was grown and not refined in any way, the fibre helps to slowly release the sugar and keeps you bursting with energy.
Are there any books, films, or organisations that have forever changed the way you look at health, wellness or nutrition?
The film Forks Over Knives and various films similar to this such as ‘fat sick and nearly dead’, ‘food matters’ ‘fed up’ ‘food inc’ and ‘hungry for change’. The ‘rich roll podcast’ is great for as he interviews inspiring people who have gone on similar journeys and they are great for motivation and little tips and secrets.
What are your “go to” resources for recipes and food inspiration?
Social media is such a large platform for information, so I find a lot of recipes and pictures on instagram and facebook. Following forks over knives on instagram is great because they feature different dishes from different people every day, so if something looks nice you can find the recipe and tweak it to your liking. Further, they usually have an interesting story or motivation behind the recipe, so the more you read and follow other peoples profiles, the more you discover like-minded people and gain further insight and inspiration.
What is next for Max Smith-Ferguson? Can you see plant-based nutrition being part of your future professional practice?
My dream job is to work with professional surfers competing on tour (World Surf League) as a strength coach. I think if I could get a job training surfers physically, then I could incorporate plant-based nutrition into their programs. Surfers, and all people, will be surprised about how much energy you can really get from food and how quickly you can recover and bounce back to full-competition form just by making dietary changes.
Max’s World Famous Granola recipe