Biology

How I eat (2020 edition)

My food

The way we eat is one of humanity’s most important characteristics. Food connects us with our cultures and our environment. The eating choices we make define our relationships with plants and animals, and the health of our bodies.

The way I eat has changed significantly over the years. I grew up with a Midwestern American diet–lots of meat, milk, and bread. As I started training for cycling, I embraced a low-fat diet with vitamin and protein supplements. In my late twenties I became vegetarian, and in my mid-thirties shifted to a low-carb diet.

The way I eat today connects my physical needs, social beliefs, and ethical priorities. While I continue to experiment, here’s what I’ve learned so far.

My target diet

My target diet today is “vegan mod keto, with intermittent fasting”:

  • Vegan: I try to avoid all food from animals.
  • Mod keto: I try to avoid significant carbohydrates, especially those from grains and starches–but don’t go so far as to enter ketosis regularly.
  • Intermittent fasting: I regularly go 16+ hours without eating.

I call this a target diet because while it forms the basis of my food choices, I still eat outside these boundaries when needed or desired. For regular meals I plan, I’ll follow these criteria. But if a family member makes a special dish with cheese or eggs, I’ll eat it. If a chocolate chip cookie looks amazing, I’ll have one. By allowing a bit of flexibility, I get almost all the benefits of the diet while easing travel, social, and activity issues.

Why vegan?

I grew up eating meat, and didn’t think much about it for over 20 years. Sure, Lisa Simpson turned vegetarian in one amazing episode, and my brother gave me an intense Peter Singer book for my birthday one year, but nothing ever kept me from having a burger. I once vowed to become a vegetarian the day after eating 12 different animals in one day (I kept track at a fancy reception), then found that the unknown tasty ingredient in the next morning’s breakfast was bacon.

Then one day in Google’s cafeteria I saw a sign for “Enchiladas de Puerco”. Ah, I thought, “carnitas”–I loved those! Then I read the description:

Pork butt enchiladas

That stopped me cold. I didn’t want to eat a butt. Pig butt, cow butt, person butt, anybody’s butt! I moved on and chose another dish, but that moment stuck in my head. (It turns out the “butt” is typically used to refer to the shoulder; named after the barrels pork was shipped in 200 years ago. But it’s hard to shake that image).

People who sell meat have done a good job over the years disassociating the idea of animal bodies from the meat they sell. Pig meat is “pork”, “bacon”, or “ham” (a “magical animal”, indeed). Cow meat is “beef”, baby cow meat is “veal”. Deer meat is “venison”, sheep meat “mutton”, even pigeon meat gets called “squab”. Even the word “meat” is abstracted from the muscles, fat, and organs that make it up. Only poor chickens and turkeys are consumed under their own names, perhaps not cute enough to earn a euphemism.

The more I thought about the animal bodies my food came from, the less I wanted to eat it. I stopped eating most meat that day.

As much as I’d love to claim some sort of ethical enlightenment, the truth is I was repulsed by meat. Sure, I believed the arguments in favor of animal rights, and understood the impact meat eating has on the environment. But the defining factor was thinking about animal bodies. I began to call myself an “aesthetic vegetarian”–I just thought meat was gross.

There were still exceptions. The less a food looked like an animal’s body, the easier it was to accept. I ate fish fillets for a long time; even had a couple chicken strips on occasion. But over time, those became less appealing as well.

I kept eating lots of cheese, cow milk, and eggs though. Those didn’t require an animal to die, or me to chew on muscle fibers. And they provided a quantity of protein and vitamins that I didn’t know how to get elsewhere–especially important as I was still cycling intensely.

The tipping point again came with a turn of phrase–“secretions”. I don’t recall exactly where I read it (Twitter, probably), but when I thought about milks squeezed out of animal bodies bodies (usually after forced insemination and child separation), or eating the products of ovulation (eggs), I lost my appetite for them as well.

There are huge, far more important reasons to choose a vegan diet and lifestyle. Billions of sentient animals live painful lives and are brutally killed every year for our pleasure. Over a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels are used to raise those animals. It’s the number one source of water pollution worldwide and responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all the world’s transportation systems combined. (source). And we’re right now living through a global pandemic that started in an animal meat market (like most past pandemics).

But for me, all of a sudden, eating animal body parts and secretions just became gross. And fortunately unnecessary, once you learn a few things (below).

Why mod keto?

While my shift away from eating meat was significant, the change to a low-carb diet might have been even bigger.

As a cyclist, I had always followed the conventional advice to “carbo-load” for maximum performance. Pasta was the cornerstone of my diet, supplemented by lots of cereals and breads. My pre-race meal was a can or two of Spaghettios, with a side of fresh bread. My mom even made me spaghetti sandwiches for lunch–that’s spaghetti (and meatballs) between two slices of bread, frozen, then packed in my lunch bag to keep everything else cold. It would mostly thaw by noon…

Grains and starches were convenient, cheap, packed with energy, and I knew how to cook them. After college my roommate and I would choose groceries based on calories per penny, and pastas, breads, and potatoes always came out on top. What’s not to like?

But after I turned 30, a few issues surfaced. My energy levels now fluctuated wildly throughout the day, impacting my work, fitness, and relationships. Often I’d grab two bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch at 3pm just to make it to the end of the workday, then end up with a splitting headache by 7pm. I wasn’t cycling as much as before, and sitting at a desk much more, and I started gathering a few persistent fat rolls around my gut. And inside that gut, more meals were causing indigestion and gas.

One day after work I stepped into a roving fat-scanning van to get my body composition checked. After the giant scanner finished, the attendant reviewed my data. “You’re in good shape,” he said, “but this fat around your waist won’t go away with exercise. Cut out carbs and you’ll drop it quickly.” I was skeptical–but also just a few seconds away from a sub-20-minute Old La Honda climb, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

After a couple months of cutting out carbs, I’d lost 20 pounds, broken 20 minutes, and eliminated the gut. I could bike all day without needing food, as I’d adapted to using stored fat for energy. I also had steady energy levels throughout the day, better focus at work, and…less gas. It turns out that I have a mild reaction to wheat, and cutting it out stopped the gas pains and farts that I thought were “normal”.

All that was enough to stay on the plan, but fully cutting out carbs was challenging and required a diet that lacked enough fresh fruits and vegetables–especially when combined with my vegetarianism at the time. After a few months of strict carb exclusion, I started bringing back foods with moderate levels of carbs, even the occasional grain (still avoiding wheat though). I managed to keep the benefits while adding much-needed nutrients and fiber. This approach also provides carbs I can use for the higher-intensity efforts in my cycling training (even fat-adapted athletes need glucose to power efforts at the very high end; fat isn’t converted fast enough on its own, and if the body doesn’t have carbs it will make glucose from proteins).

It turns out this diet has a name: “mod keto“, short for “modified ketogenic”. Most people on the mod keto diet don’t enter or stay in ketosis regularly (I never could get those urine strips to turn color anyway), but get most of their energy from fats, while allowing the low levels of carbohydrates found in many fruits and vegetables. The best advice is to kickstart the process with a strict ketogenic diet to force fat adaptation, then back off to a more sustainable moderate state. I’d accidentally followed that prescription to the letter.

While the majority of my mod keto change was driven by personal health concerns, there were a couple other interesting things I learned along the way.

One is how deeply ingrained (pun intended) carbohydrate consumption is in our society. Political scientist James C. Scott wrote a fascinating book called Against the Grain showing how the advent of agriculture–specifically, grain-based agriculture–was driven by the needs of early states to control their population. Despite the disadvantages in locking your society to specific plots of land, often causing new animal-sourced diseases, Scott argues that societies embraced and enforced cereal grains because they “can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and ‘rationable.'”

Even today, the packaged food industry pushes narratives that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” (invented by Kellogg), and that you need lots of “whole grains” (you mostly need the fiber). Conveniently, these foods are also the most shelf-stable, easiest to ship, and cheapest to produce in the entire supermarket.

As a result, the “American breakfast” is basically dessert, and most of our other meals are basically fronts for complex and simple sugars as well, from bread-sandwiched lunches to potato and pasta dinners. These foods have made calories cheap, easy to store and transfer, and universally-available, which has saved millions of people from starvation (the “green revolution” was really more beige). But that doesn’t mean they’re the best foods for you.

Why intermittent fasting?

Once I went low-carb, my energy and focus levels stayed constant even when meals were far apart. I’d read about health and mental benefits of fasting for years, so I finally thought I’d try it.

On days I exercise, I usually eat 3 normal meals. On days I don’t exercise, I skip breakfast. This gives me a 16:8 intermittent fast on those days. Typically mid-morning I start getting hungry, and by lunch I’m really craving my kale salad. It’s an interesting mental challenge to staying focused while hungry, and I feel it’s developed my willpower and mindfulness.

About once every 3 months I do a longer 2-3 day fast. These are fascinating. I actually find I’m not hungry after the first 16 hours. Instead, I feel incredibly focused and energetic–as long as I don’t do anything too physically challenging.

Usually entering the third day I get a bit too amped on the adrenaline produced by fasting; when it starts affecting my sleep, I break the fast with a light meal.

What I eat

A vegan mod keto diet doesn’t seem very flexible at first. When you remove breads, cereals, dairy, eggs, and meat, what’s left? Can you still get enough protein? What about vitamins and minerals? How would you have enough energy to exercise? Each of these questions held me back from fully engaging with the diet for a long time.

It turns out, though, that with a bit of research it’s very possible to get to a vegan mod keto diet that’s easy to maintain. A combination of some traditional common foods with a few unique new ones provides me with plenty of energy and the building blocks for a healthy body.

Key foods

These foods make up the bulk of my diet. Most of them are easily accessible from delivery services and many are shelf-table–handy in a pandemic. I’ve linked to the ones I buy, which are mostly available via an automated Amazon subscription.

Meals

I have a few cornerstone meals that I eat often, based on these foods.

Gigantic kale chiffonade salad

Every day for lunch I make a huge salad. Most days I start with an entire bunch of lacinato kale, cut into a chiffonade (thin strips). Then I add everything in the kitchen: avocado, nuts, hemp hearts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, cacao nibs, nutritional yeast, thin carrot strips (I use a vegetable peeler), tofu, and usually a few dried cranberries for sweetness. I pour an obscene amount of olive oil on top. Like, several seconds of pouring–probably 1000 calories. This is my main energy source for the day.

Kale chiffonade salad

Power pudding

On days I eat breakfast, chia seed pudding is my mainstay. Combine a cup of chia seeds, a cup of soy milk powder, cacao powder, monkfruit sweetener, and creatine. Shake the dry ingredients, then stir in water. Refrigerate, stirring again after 10 minutes. Top with berries, coconut, flax seeds, pecans, etc. Tons of protein, fiber, and omega-3s; satisfies hunger for hours.

Power pudding

Black bean spaghetti

This one’s simple–boil the dried spaghetti, douse with olive oil and nutritional yeast. Obscene amount of protein and fiber. Even the kids like it.

Black bean spaghetti

Tofu bowls

Stir-fried tofu on top of cauliflower rice, topped with avocado and sliced veggies.

Tofu bowl

Oatmeal

Ok, it’s carbs, but slowly-digested ones, and post-workout sometimes just what I need to recover. Mix with soy milk, top with coconut, flax seeds, and berries. As a bonus I can make the kids oatmeal at the same time in the microwave. Breakfast for 3 in 90 seconds!

Snacks

  • Peanut butter on a spoon – Ah, college memories.
  • Dried seaweed – surprisingly satiating for a low-calorie snack. Good vitamins and minerals.
  • Nuts – Easy to go overboard on these, but ounce for ounce one of the most nutritious things you can eat.
  • Dark chocolate – Like, real dark: 85%+. Usually eat Lindt 90% but starting to explore more options. Use it as a scoop for peanut butter to feel truly decadent.
  • Soy decaf lattes – We got a Nespresso machine just in time for quarantine, and it’s been great. Decaf capsules, soy milk, and monkfruit sweetener.

Supplements

Vegan diets lack a few beneficial nutrients, especially for athletes. Fortunately many of them are added to vegan staples like nutritional yeast (B vitamins) and soy milk (Vitamin D, calcium), so I only need to supplement a few.

  • Omega 3 – A vegan Omega 3 capsule once a day keeps my Omega 3s in balance.
  • Creatine – I include creatine monohydrate powder in my power pudding mix, and sprinkle it on oatmeal. Taking it with breakfast means I replenish it every time I exercise.
  • Zinc/Magnesium – I take ZMA before bed as well as a couple sprays of Zinc throat spray, which also helps a lot with minor cold symptoms (think Airborne tablets).
  • B vitamins – added to most brands of nutritional yeast, but check the label to make sure you’re getting enough.
  • Iodine – just switch to an iodized salt and you’ll get more than enough. I tried an iodine/taurine supplement but it messed with my sleep.
  • Selenium – a single Brazil nut a day covers this.

Summary

If history is any guide, I’ll continue to refine my diet as I learn more about my body, my food, and its impact on the world. “Vegan mod keto” may gather a few additional descriptors before I’m through…

Evolving to eat air

Israeli scientists have figured out how to convert a heterotroph (an organism that must consume other organisms to survive, like humans) into an autotroph (one that can live off inorganic substances like CO2, as plants do). They did it by gradually starving generations of E. coli bacteria of sugar, while keeping CO2 available. Some of the bacteria evolved mutations that enabled them to survive on the CO2 diet.

In all, the evolved bacteria picked up 11 new genetic mutations that allowed them to survive without eating other organisms.

E. coli are also the bacteria most commonly used to create ethanol and many medicines. So a version that eats CO2 and creates valuable products is an amazing development. Kinda like a tree =)

Happiness and satisfaction

What we talk about as “happiness” is actually a set of biochemical reactions that happen inside our brains. About half of those are determined by our genetics, but the other half can be trained and improved.

There are many ways to train your happiness, but I find two especially important:

  • Noticing good things around you
  • Being content without them

Noticing good things

Much of “happiness” comes from noticing (consciously or unconsciously) the good things around you. Practicing happiness means focusing your attention on things you find beautiful, pleasing, delicious, fulfilling. Many people find gratitude journaling a good way to do this. Mindfulness meditation builds the ability to do this throughout your life.

Noticing good things can be easier when circumstances are good; however Victor Frankl highlights in Man’s Search for Meaning a moment when joy came from noticing a beautiful sunset even while headed to a prison camp:

If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor–or maybe because of it–we were carried away from nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

Even those moments of noticing required a brief respite from pain, so a precursor to noticing good things is managing painful emotions. Fortunately the same practices of mindfulness and gratitude can help with processing and dealing with pain.

Being content

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room – Blaise Pascal

In the modern world, we’re surrounded by physical and mental stimuli at all times. When those are removed, the emotional reaction can be so intense that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than experience the boredom of silence.

This dependence on external stimuli means our happiness is subject to our circumstances. If we can learn to be without those influences, our happiness will be more resilient. Taken to an extreme, if we were able to fully entertain ourselves with just the act of breathing, we wouldn’t need anything external to be perfectly happy.

Again, mindfulness meditation can train this ability, as can fasting–from food, entertainment or social media–and practices like keeping the Sabbath. Intentionally restricting what we consume builds our ability to be content without those things.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. – Paul, Philippians 4:11-13

Teaching corn to save the world

Agriculture is one of the major causes of our climate crisis (livestock emissions, clearcutting of forests), but a group of biologists at the Salk Institute are trying to breed crops that gobble up carbon from the air, while simultaneously strengthening their root systems.

The secret is in teaching them to build more suberin (aka cork) in their roots:

By understanding and improving just a few genetic pathways in plants, Salk’s plant biologists believe they can help plants grow bigger, more robust root systems that absorb larger amounts of carbon, burying it in the ground in the form of suberin…

Once the Salk team has developed ways to increase suberin in model plants, they will transfer these genetic traits to six prevalent crops: corn, soybean, rice, wheat, cotton/cottonseed and rapeseed/canola.

In addition to mitigating climate change, the enhanced root systems will help protect plants from stresses caused by climate changes and the additional carbon in the soil will make the soil richer, promoting better crop yields and more food for a growing global population.

This kind of piggy-backing on existing societal practices feels very promising…not quite turning a vice into a virtue, but hopefully making it less harmful.

Play and parent brains

A new study wired up parents and kids to watch their brains while they played together. Perhaps not surprisingly, things went better when the parents payed attention:

Parents are neurally responsive to their infants during social play, and that, when the parent is more neurally responsive, the infant is more attentive.
Or as it’s known in our house, “Dad, put down your phone!”

Cows vs. geeks

“Unlike the cow, we get better at making meat every single day” – Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown

Launched at a tech conference, naturally.

Humanity and hegemony

I’ve always been shocked by humanity’s outsized impact on the earth. After all, we’re recent arrivals on the scene and there are far fewer of us than most animals and insects. We shouldn’t have affected big things like ecosystems yet, right?

Yet a new study found that humans have destroyed 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants since civilization began. And today, 70% of all birds are farmed poultry, and 60% of mammals are livestock. As the article says, we are “simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth”.

One of the study’s authors wrote:

When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino. But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken. – Professor Ron Milo

Another way to look at it:

How Fungi Saved the World

For all that we humans worry about saving the world, it was mushrooms that rescued an Earth that had drowned in wood for 40 million years, and even gave us the coal to jumpstart modern civilization:

Here is the crux of our problem: lignin made the lycopod trees a little too successful. Because their leaves were lofted above many herbivores and their trunks were made inedible by lignin, lycopods were virtually impervious to harm. They grew and died in vast quantities, and their trunks piled up in swamps, eventually becoming submerged and locking huge quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for good in the form of coal. Without any decomposition to recycle this carbon, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels crashed, leading to global cooling and making it much harder for plants to grow. Atmospheric oxygen concentration, in turn, soared to an estimated 35%, much higher than the 20% of modern times.

Consciousness as story

Our consciousness may be primarily the continuous story we tell ourselves, from moment to moment, about what we did and why we did it. It is a thin, often inaccurate veneer rationalizing a mountain of unconscious processing…

On the one hand, our consciousness may be an evolutionary fluke, telling an unreliable story in a far-fetched interpretation of a pattern of tiny salty squirts. On the other, our consciousness is the only reason for thinking we exist (or for thinking we think). Without it there are no beliefs, no sensations, no experience of being, no universe. – Hans Moravec

Ways to stop climate change, ranked

A fascinating list of ways to reduce global warming, ranked by effectiveness and cost, with some surprising findings.

Refrigerant management–basically what happens when you discard an air conditioner–is the top opportunity, above anything energy-related. After that comes onshore wind farms, then two food-related items: reducing waste and eating more plants.

Pragmatic and encouraging! The authors have edited a book around all of the opportunities, Drawdown.