Question: If you had to choose between knowing jiu-jitsu and following the Gracie Diet, what would it be? Rorion Gracie’s answer is simple: “the diet, no doubt about it.”
By now, everyone in the martial arts world knows about Helio Gracie’s generational reboot of full-contact competition. His eldest son Rorion dreamed up the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and his sixth child Royce blew minds with his underdog victories in the early shows. The progression of events followed the standard pattern: Man displays unfamiliar skills with style and confidence; his competition adapts to those skills; the man’s art is absorbed by the public; the art ceases to be a secret.
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Unbeknownst to much of the martial arts community is that Gracie jiu-jitsu is only part of the equation. The other part—which, they claim, is just as crucial to their success—is not how they train or how they think. It’s how they eat.
Called simply the Gracie Diet, it’s the result of Carlos Gracie’s six and a half decades of research into the intricacies of health and nutrition. His nephew Rorion, now the family’s patriarch, proudly carries the torch for both family traditions: grappling and a very specific system of food combining.
The Source of the Gracie Diet
When I arrive at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Torrance, California, Rorion Gracie is giving a tour of the on-site family museum. A crew of filmmakers lounges on leather sofas, recharging batteries between shoots. As he will casually inform me, they’re making a documentary on the life of his father, Helio. Rorion Gracie and I settle in his office and begin talking about food and what it means to his family’s way of life.
At 58, Rorion Gracie cuts a lively, lanky figure. He speaks with the cadence of a natural pitchman, yet he offers no pressure to believe what he describes, just a desire to transfer his enthusiasm. I ask him flat out why there’s even such a thing as the Gracie Diet.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that my Uncle Carlos was the spiritual leader of the Gracie family,” he says. “He studied nutrition as the main aspect of health. He read extensively, listened to accounts and compared research from different nutritionists at the time. His studies became increasingly esoteric, and the more he got into it, the more he realized the importance of eating healthy. As a result, he spent 65 years dedicated to the betterment of health through proper food combining, what we now call the Gracie Diet.
“We have to keep in mind one thing: Nothing consumes more energy than digesting a meal. Whatever you’re eating, that piece of food has to go through complex processes to be absorbed, transformed into energy and otherwise distributed as vital nutrients. We take this function for granted—we [grab] a granola bar, stick it in our mouth and think, I’m done.”
What we don’t spend much time contemplating is digestion, he says. “People don’t think that deeply. They say, ‘Give me something that tastes good—let me stuff my face with it.’ No wonder people are so sick in America.”
That leads him to the first precept of the Gracie Diet: You are what you eat. “Combine your foods properly, and your body will be healthy,” he says. “By doing this, you facilitate the digestive process, making it easier for the foods to be absorbed by the body and producing everything with maximum efficiency.”
Following the Gracie Diet
I ask the jiu-jitsu master what the diet’s most basic concepts are and how someone could ease into it without getting discouraged, and he recommends a three-step plan.
One: Space Out Your Meals
Leave at least four and a half hours between meals. Just do that during your first week. Eat whatever you want but don’t snack. The only thing you’re allowed between meals is water—no coffee, tea or anything else.
If you’ve been told that you must eat every two or three hours to keep your metabolism active, forget it. “When you eat something at a certain time and then eat again two and a half or three hours later, that food will impact the chemical reaction of the previous meal, and that’s not good for you,” Rorion Gracie says. “There needs to be time to completely digest before you start a new meal.”
Two: Dump the Dessert and the Soda
Rorion Gracie winces when he talks about the amount of sugar people consume, especially in the United States: “You go to a restaurant and eat the extra-large portion of your meal. After you finish, the waiter comes by and suggests some dessert. That kind of sugar is no good for you. It’s completely unnecessary. You’re no longer hungry.”
Add this to step No. 1 in your second week. Doing it gradually is the trick. “It’s like jiu-jitsu,” he says. “You teach one move per day, the next day another, and little by little, it starts to make sense. You start thinking, I’m [doing it] and I’m not dying!”
Three: Eat Only One Starch Per Meal
If you go to a hamburger shop and order your favorite dish, you’ll probably get a burger on a bun with French fries on the side. Don’t fall for it, Rorion Gracie says, because eating a potato product and bread at the same time is a no-no. Choose one or the other.
He offers another example: “Rice and beans is the No. 1 dish in Brazil, but I’ve never had it,” he says. “People tell me it tastes so good, but I never had a cavity. I don’t regret not eating rice and beans.”
For week three, add this recommendation to the first two and see if you notice a difference in how you feel or how much energy you have. Then ask yourself if you want to keep going, Rorion Gracie suggests.
Applying the Gracie Diet Rules
Once you’re past the toddler stage, your age shouldn’t affect how you apply the main concepts or any of the finer details, Rorion Gracie says. “I’m eating now what I ate 40 years ago. It doesn’t matter. Everybody should have vegetables and fruits, right? Young and old.”
The challenging part is sticking with it. “Ultimately, you can do whatever you want, and that’s what makes talking about diet so tricky,” he says. “That’s why we don’t impose this on our students. If I were to say in order to join the Gracie Academy, you have to do the Gracie Diet, I wouldn’t have any students.”
Even so, he never misses an opportunity to talk up its virtues. “People experience major transformations from it,” he says. “They realize how much better they’re feeling. It’s touched thousands of people in Brazil over the years because we’ve been there for a long time. It’s kind of a novelty in America.
“Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding: The guy who devised it lived until his mid-90s, and so did my father. Not only did he live a long life, but he was active. Last time I saw my father, six months before he passed away, he gave me a hug and a kiss and said: ‘Rorion, let’s go on the mat. I want to show you a new choke that I’m working on.’ That’s what I want to do at 94. That’s what everybody wants.”