Rich Roll has a history of going all in. Sometimes that works in his favor, like when he became a star butterflyer at Stanford University alongside Olympic swimmers Pablo Morales, John Moffet, and Jeff Kostoff. Or when he went to law school at Cornell, and launched into a career as a well heeled entertainment lawyer. But it also led to a drug and alcohol addiction, and to a bad habit of overeating that left him 50 pounds over his college swim weight of 160, and winded when he climbed up stairs. Roll was about to turn 40. That’s when he decided to hit restart.
In typical all-in fashion, he decided to do something drastic: cut meat out of his diet completely, just as he’d given up his addiction to drugs and alcohol ten years before. He went on a cleanse, then he went vegetarian, then he went vegan.
In 2008, barely two years into his plant-based diet and his new fitness regime, he not only became the first vegan to complete the Ultraman World Championship, a three-day, 320-mile triathlon; he finished in the top 10.
Then in 2010, he and disabled ultra athlete Jason Lester became the first two competitors to finish the Epic 5—five triathlons on five different Hawaiian islands in seven days.
Now a full-time wellness advocate, motivational speaker, and podcaster, the author of Finding Ultra has a new book out—a cookbook-cum-nutrition-manifesto called The Plantpower Way he co-authored with his wife, Julie Piatt. Below, Roll shares his thoughts on raising a vegan family, and four of his favorite recipes.
OUTSIDE: You and your family don’t strike me as a very crunch-granola type of vegan crew.
ROLL: We wanted to invert the preconception about what it means to live this lifestyle of hippies in yurts. We’re looking hip and cool and mod and appealing. In an inspirational way. Our book is authentic to how we live. I’m inspired by it.
And everyone seems to eat what’s in there.
There are no separate meals for me apart from everyone else. It’s efficient, simple, nutritious, delicious. Everything in there is stuff I eat and eat regularly. But it all goes back to the family. It’s not about one precious recipe. What we want to do is empower you with these ingredients. Play around with them. Take ownership of them. Expand upon what’s in here for yourself. People need to be in touch with their own bodies.
Even though you’ve only been on this plant-based diet—and running ultramarathons and triathlons—for less than a decade, can you tell if there’ve been any longterm benefits?
I recently spent the weekend at the U.S. Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs with Jack Roach [USA Swimming’s National Junior Team Director]. He’s been plant-based since 1967 and on his birthday he runs his age in miles. And this year he turned 68. He’s proof of the powerful effects of what this lifestyle can do. I’m 48. I’ve been able to hold onto my fitness and I don’t slip back so far and I recover very quickly.
How do people know if it’s working for them—this sort of diet?
Just because you’re superfit and performing as an athlete doesn’t mean you don’t have plaque in your arteries. We’re living in two Americas: people in Outside and the rest of America—diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
What are the other benefits of this diet for Outside readers?
Eating this way you’re eating a very anti-inflammatory diet. It’s nutrient-dense. It expedites your body’s ability to repair itself. You get better during training and in between training sessions. That translates into gigantic gains. And you’re less likely to overtrain or get sick. So you train much more efficiently.
But what about people who don’t want to go the full-plant monty?
It’s less about what you’re removing and more about bringing more plant-based foods into your diet. It’s about making better choices in the moment. Instead of making steak the center dish, make salad the center.
What about the taste of some of these things? You can’t like everything?
My morning smoothie, I absolutely do not care what it tastes like. I just want it to be nutrient full. And you develop an acquired taste for some things. Maka root, for me, has a chalky bitter flavor, so it’s not something I crave. All the smoothies and the dishes in the book, though, they taste fantastic. But if you came to my house, my smoothies might be too bitter for some people.
Aside from how things taste, though, you’re really wanting people to go deeper.
I want people to realize that they can have so much more control over their health and their diet than they think. The implicit message in this book is that we all need to be more educated about our food. Where it comes from. What’s in it. And we just want to encourage people to begin somewhere. The idea of perfection is the enemy of progress. Meet us halfway. Have your own journey with this diet. The power of these foods is to unlock. And we want people to unlock and unleash their most authentic selves possible.
Roll’s Plantpower Way staples:
A simple post-workout refuel go-to. A staple in my routine, this option allows for variations on a theme but generally contains a legume, a grain, a green, and a sauce. The yam kicks it up into high gear.
Ingredients and Preparation
Pick your favorite ingredients from the options below—at least one from each category—throw in a bowl, enjoy.
- All colors of quinoa
- Short grain brown rice
- Exotic black or red rice
- Kelp noodles (grain substitution)
Get Your Greens (steam, sauté or eat raw)
- Dinosaur kale
- Curly kale
- Swiss Chard
Add in More Whole Foods
Pick Your Sauces & Toppings
- Nut cheeses
- Tahini green sauce
- Gluten-free tamari
- Fresh lemon juice
- Apple cider vinegar
- Celtic large grain sea salt
- Sesame seeds
- Fresh grated ginger
- Fresh grated turmeric
The Ultra Queen K Performance Blend
A trifecta of chia, flax and hemp seeds work together to provide protein, omega-3 fats and fiber to keep your motor fortified and supercharged for hours. Sweet pineapple and dates make this blend bursting with energy.
- 1 cup pineapple, skin removed
- 4 large leaves dinosaur kale
- 2 teaspoon maca powder
- 2 tablespoon chia seeds
- 2 teaspoon ground flax seeds
- 2 tablespoon hemp seeds
- 1⁄2 cup raw coconut
- 2 tablespoon coconut oil
- 3 dates, pitted
- 1 teaspoon blue green algae
- 3 cups filtered water
In a Vitamix or high-powered blender, add all the ingredients, blend on high for a minute. Drink!
Ultra Energy Bars
Ditch your processed, store-bought bars and stick one of these in your back pocket to boost your next long ride. Power packed with healthy ingredients like nuts, seeds, coconut and dried berries that boast a plentitude of protein, healthy fats and fiber, these energy boosters will keep your engine revving all day long.
- 1 cup raw almonds or walnuts, soaked overnight in filtered water
- 1/4 cup cacao nibs
- 1/4 cup hemp seeds
- 1/4 cup dried goji berries
- 2 tablespoons cacao powder
- 1/4 cup shredded coconut
- Pinch large-grain Celtic sea salt
- 7-8 dates, soaked in filtered water for 30 minutes and pitted
- In a food processor, pulse nuts until mealy in texture.
- Now add the cacao nibs, hemp seeds, goji berries, cacao powder, shredded coconut and sea salt to the processor. Pulse again until ingredients are well-incorporated.
- With the motor running, add one date at a time. After seven dates, you will see the mixture ball-up on one side of the bowl. You may need to redistribute the mixture and process it again to make sure the dates are mixed in.
- On a piece of parchment paper, press the cookies in an even layer about 1/4” thick.
- With a knife, score out a grid of rectangular shaped pieces approximately 2” x 3”. If desired, press additional hemp seeds or shredded coconut on the surface.
- Wrap in parchment paper or parchment bags. Take them out on a trail run, hike or bike ride to sustain you throughout your training session! Keep in a glass cookies jar on your kitchen counter or in the fridge for up to a week—if they last.
Cacao Chia Seed Pudding
Packed with fiber, omega-3s, antioxidants, protein, and calcium, chia seeds are great before a long trail run or mountain biking adventure. Try this pudding for breakfast. Bonus: This recipe is a great way to get kids interested in plant-based diets.
- ½ cup chia seeds
- Filtered water
- ¼ cup raw honey or maple syrup, or 4 dates, soaked and pitted
- 1 small avocado
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 2 tablespoon raw cacao powder
- In a small bowl, soak the chia seeds in 2 cups filtered water; stir until they expand and become gelatinous, about 3 minutes.
- In a separate bowl, soak the dates (if using) in filtered water for about 30 minutes.
- To a food processor or Vitamix, add the avocado coconut oil, honey or dates, and cacao powder. Pour in the chia seeds and their soaking water. Process or blend on high. Adjust the sweetness to taste.
- Place in serving bowls and chill for 2 hours or devour immediately.