The first person to cross Antarctica alone and unaided doesn’t eat meat. He just rowed from Antarctica to South America on a vegan diet.

Colin O'Brady and his wife Jenna Besaw are headed to Mount Everest this spring.

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Colin O’Brady and his wife Jenna Besaw are headed to Mount Everest this spring.
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Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • Colin O’Brady has trekked at both the north and south poles, summited the highest mountains on every continent, raced across Antarctica, and scaled the highest peaks in every US state in record time.
  • He eats a meat-free, pescatarian diet at home, and said he was “completely vegan” when he recently rowed across the Drake Passage, from the tip of South America to Antarctica.
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Colin O’Brady is a person who enjoys pushing the outer limits of what he thinks is possible.

He just finished paddling his way across what’s known as the “Everest” of sailing – rowing with five other men across the unpredictable Drake Passage, from South America to Antarctica. Before that, he became the first person to traverse the southern continent alone and unaided in December 2018. This year, he’s headed to Mount Everest for his second summit of the world’s highest peak – and his wife’s first – trekking from the less-trafficked Tibetan side of the mountain.

“I have actually trained my body and my mind to endure hard things, to be pushing super hard, to be uncomfortable, to be wet, to be cold,” O’Brady told Insider.

He said people often assume that he must be running on animal protein, but that’s not the case.

“I was completely vegan during the Drake row, completely,” he said. “No fish or anything.”

Back on dry land with his wife Jenna Besaw (where a wider variety of groceries is readily available) O’Brady adheres to a pescatarian diet.

“We eat fish and seafood, but no red meat or chicken or pork,” she said. “Healthy grains and salads and greens and juices is kind of what our standard protocol is.”

Meat-free diets are consistently linked to better health outcomes

salmon

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Dima Sikorsky/Shutterstock

Scientific evidence suggests the couple’s approach may be one of the best for longevity. In study after study around the world, red meat is linked to more early deaths, more cancer cases, and a higher risk of heart disease. People living in the world’s five “Blue Zones,” where elders routinely live to age 100 in good health, also subsist on very little meat, prioritizing beans, nuts, and whole grains instead.

But eating fresh, healthy foods when you’re trekking to a snowy mountaintop or across an icy continent isn’t always practical.

O’Brady’s Colin Bars were made specifically for his body – they included cranberries, but excluded peanuts

To fuel some of his toughest treks, O’Brady has partnered with Wisconsin-based supplement company Standard Process. Before his 2018 Antarctica trek, the company conducted an array of lab work geared toward better understanding his body’s nutritional needs for the journey, including blood draws, body density measurements, and food sensitivity tests.

The company then created a 1,180-calorie plant-based “Colin Bar.” The bars included dried cranberries, coconut oil, and pumpkin seeds, but left out other common ingredients that O’Brady didn’t react as well to in the lab, including peanuts and flax seeds.

This slice of nutrition bar is about 60-80 calories worth.

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This slice of nutrition bar is about 60-80 calories worth.
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Hollis Johnson / Insider

Despite consuming a diet of roughly 8,000 calories a day on the bars, O’Brady lost a ton of weight on his Antarctic trip. By the end of it, his watch was sliding around on a newly skinny wrist. Nevertheless, his trek ended with an ultramarathon dash to the finish line – a world first which O’Brady completed two days ahead of British explorer Louis Rudd.

“That final, 32 hour, 77-mile push, in the end, I think was attributed certainly to the mindset, where I was able tap into the flow, but also of the testing and the creation of the bars,” O’Brady said, adding that the sprint impressed Rudd. “He said to me, just with total humility afterwards, ‘I gotta say, man, what you guys did there, that was the edge, that’s impressive. And, I’m curious, on my next expeditions to look at some more customized nutrition solutions.'”

Standard Process has now run numerous tests on Besaw in the runup to the couple’s planned Everest climb this spring. They’re similar to the fitness and nutrition tests O’Brady went through before his Antarctic slog, and they help determine which foods might promote inflammation in Besaw’s body, which could hamper her recovery during training. (One surprising find: Besaw doesn’t react well to peaches).

“I think custom health and nutrition is just where we’re headed,” Besaw said. “Right now it’s a bit expensive, but all of our bodies are different, right?”

Besaw and O’Brady said they might create another nutrition bar to fuel them up the mountain together this spring.

“We’re experimenting, and we’re learning on the edges of human potential,” O’Brady said.