Personal

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…

Why I work on productivity software

I made a shift in my career four years ago to work on productivity software. The motivating force was a desire to contribute to solving the climate crisis. I’m not a climate scientist, nor a physicist or even an engineer, who could contribute directly to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

However I can design really good software, and it turns out that’s something everyone who is working on the problem needs.

Nick Bostrom, in his article “Three Ways to Advance Science” does a good job summarizing the opportunity:

Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes.

Bostrom is specifically interested in medical interventions…but I think in today’s world the more mundane problems of distraction, confusion, and noncooperation are the bigger opportunities to tackle.

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

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!”

Suffering for joy

I’ve long subscribed to Russell Davies’ assertion that “to be interesting, be interested“. It only follows that to be more than interesting, you need to be more than “interested”; you need to be truly passionate. The most interesting people I know are those who are completely sold out for their beliefs, their work, or their hobbies.

Today I discovered that the root word of “passion” is the Latin passio, which means “suffering”. So it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that following your true passion often involves a fair bit of suffering. The areas in my life I’ve been most passionate about–activities, relationships, work–have all contained huge amounts of effort and “suffering”–though working hard to climb a mountain on my bike, or working late on a project I believe in, rarely feels like a bad thing.

Of course, the other kick I’ve been on recently is mindfulness, which aims to keep you in the moment, not off on cognitive flights of fancy. And the main benefit I’ve found there is avoiding negative thoughts, which lead to suffering (as Master Yoda teaches). The very excitement and responsibility I feel in the activities I’m passionate about could be considered “attachment” that opens me up to disappointment and pain.

So is there a unification between these approaches? Can you be truly passionate, and yet not suffer from the pain of (inevitable) disappointment?

I think so. To me, the practice of mindfulness is about freeing myself from negative thoughts and attachments. There are certainly people who take this far enough to achieve some kind of “nirvana”, but I’m far from that. Simply reducing the pain of worldly attachment is plenty. That frees me up to pursue things that bring me joy.

On the other side, pursuing passions is about enjoying the activities that keep me in a flow state. Again, it’s not a complicated intellectual achievement–I’m merely doing things that come naturally. The “attachment” that can cause suffering with other things I love, doesn’t seem as present when I’m working on things I’m passionate about. As a small example, when I get stopped by a red light in my car I’m often frustrated; when it happens on a bike ride I’m hardly bothered, even though it will take more effort for me to start up again. And the “suffering” required by true passions rarely feels as bad as that caused by external factors.

In both my passions and my mindfulness I find a reduction in conscious thoughts; an increased reliance on my senses and instincts; and feelings of satisfaction, lightness, and freedom. So despite the seemingly large difference between following passions and living mindfully in the moment, I think both practices can coexist nicely, and even reinforce each other.

The sweet spot of innovation

Q: How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Does it really have to be a light bulb?

Designers are (in)famous for always trying to come up with the unexpected; the “next big thing”. Early in my career I even described my goal as delivering “not what was asked for, but something new and better”. It’s a dangerous trait that often puts us at odds with our teammates, who are typically more focused on tangible metrics and engineering milestones.

When I worked on Glass, there was disagreement among team members about whether we were building a research prototype or a mass-market consumer product. A research project would focus on pushing the boundaries and learning as much as possible. A consumer product would need to fit existing use cases and appeal to a wide audience. Unsurprisingly, people on each side of the argument proposed wildly different approaches to product design, engineering, marketing, and sales.

In the end, we built a research prototype and marketed it as a consumer product, which didn’t work out very well. We didn’t achieve success in the market, and because we were distracted by selling, we didn’t learn as much as we should have. Glass was the classic example of a product that was ahead of its time…but of course being too early is the same as being wrong.

This talk by Jon Friedman, a designer who worked on the Kin, the Courier, SPOT watches and other Microsoft hardware misadventures, tells some of the same stories. I admire Jon’s work (and I loved the Kin!), but watching the talk I became increasingly uncomfortable with the repeated similar failures. After all, the point of “failing fast” is not the failing–it’s the learning. Designers of these highly innovative products aren’t learning the lessons of past failures.

Glass and the failed Microsoft products share at least one trait: they all tried to change entire systems, all at once. Glass innovated on form factor, hardware technology, interface design, software architecture, marketing, sales, and support. The Microsoft Kin had new industrial design, stored your phone in the cloud, and changed the way you pay for the phone.

One of the most interesting lessons I learned from working for Tony Fadell (who took over the Glass project) was the idea that a new product should be 90% familiar and 10% wildly innovative. A product that’s too far out, that doesn’t feel connected to anything people recognize, will be too uncomfortable to succeed. But of course if you’re not innovative enough, no one will need what you’ve built. So now I set up an “innovation budget” to track how much change my designs are forcing on people, and I’m careful to keep that amount in check. The goal is to find the “sweet spot” of innovation where a design is both desirable and acceptable.

Friedman goes on to describe his own career shift from working on early-stage speculative new products to making smaller improvements to the Exchange platform, a mature system with lots of customers. He found that it was not only an interesting design challenge, but also fulfulling to make an immediate difference at scale.

He also describes a strategy of combining “something new and something old”–taking new technology into existing markets, or existing technology into new markets. In either case, you only have to invent half of the solution, as the other half has already been figured out.

Paul Rand said “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” Innovation is plentiful in design today…it’s important to stay focused on making the “basics” great as well. To evolve my younger self’s goal: the sweet spot of innovation is the place where you fulfill what was asked for, and provide something better.

Investment and love

Dan Ariely on why we love our kids so much (and more than others):

Kids really come with no instructions. Very tough to deal with, difficult, complex, but incredibly involving and time consuming and I think the love that comes out of it is an example of the effect of a tremendous investment.

Big man power

Conor Dunne, patron saint of tall cyclists, shows what it would take for me to ride in the WorldTour:

“The average rider would do well to be able to hold 390w for five minutes,” he adds. “For Conor to be able to sustain that for over four and a half hours in this bike race shows you how much you have to have in the tank to compete at this level.”

Micro-activities

Since becoming a father I’ve had trouble fitting in all the things I’d like to do, so I’m always on the lookout for ways to combine two activities together, or to squeeze one in between two others. A few examples of these “micro-activities” that have worked out well:

  • Meditate while falling asleep
  • Pushups as I roll out of bed
  • Bodyweight exercise on playground equipment while the kids play
  • Mindful breathing while waiting for them to finish things (brushing teeth, putting away toys, etc)
  • Squat stretch while brushing teeth
  • Naps during lunch break (and related, lunch during meetings)
  • Squats and stretches while riding the elevator (alone =)

The way these work best is when the activities are in two separate cognitive or physical categories. I haven’t been able, for instance, to listen to a podcast while working (which both require cognitive attention), or to intersperse pushups with cooking (both require your hands). But a physical activity while doing a mental one can work (e.g. pullups while watching the kids).

Mindfulness in particular is well suited for this. Besides the fact that a single 20-minute session is hard to stay focused for anyway, spreading bits of meditation throughout the day has a nice regulating effect on my mood and attention. Chade Meng Tan encourages people to practice just a single breath at a time, finding that produces a large benefit; I agree.

Notes from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

This book surprised me by actually living up to its title. I expected a collection of “life hacks” and instead found a crisp new philosophy of focus and priority.

The Big Idea

The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.

Decide which things in your life bring you true joy, and get rid of the rest. If something used to bring you joy, or you think it could bring you joy in the future, thats not good enough. Joyless items not only fail in their core duty of improving your life, but also block and distract from the things that do bring you joy.

This of course applies to physical items, but can be extended to relationships, jobs, and activities. Ruthlessly discard joyless things!

5 Favorite Quotes

  • When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.

  • When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.

  • The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.

  • The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.

  • Human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time.

Next Steps

I’m going to “tidy up” next week!