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My history with food

19 min read

Nobody can truly try every diet there is, but I feel like I've covered a large spectrum in my life. This is a history of all of my diets, my changing beliefs, my mistakes, and my wins.

One big lesson right from the start: even as someone trying to be informed, your information bubble dictates your life. You can’t easily research what you don’t know exists. This post is a reminder to that.

Age 6-14: Picky Peter

2003 to 2011. A typical day: Nutella with bread and a glass of milk for breakfast. Pasta with butter and cheese for lunch. Rice with veggies or fish for dinner, possibly with tiny bit of salad, sometimes soup with veggies and grains. Some yogurt or fruit as snacks in between. Some occasional nuts.

I grew up in Italy. There are many rumors about the Mediterranean diet. It seems like Italians live a good five years longer than Americans on average (82 vs 77 years, as of 2023), and much of this is attributed to lower obesity, but also magical properties of good olive oil and various other theories. Aside from economic factors, I was rather fortunate to be born in a country where cheese actually tastes like cheese, pigs can still fly, and people seem to live long.

That said, I was a famously picky eater for most of my youth. I ate lots of dairy on white rice or pasta, all kinds of sweets, fish and meat, some fruit. My relatives would joke that I would only like things if they were devoid of color. My breakfast every day consisted of ~180g (6oz) of Nutella and two white slices of bread. Despite all the Nutella, I didn’t eat that much, and was underweight to the point of my parents worrying. My parents sometimes forced me to eat some green stuff before I ate whatever the main meal was (thank you!), and there's a few dishes I liked that contained some spinach. If more than a quarter of the meal was vegetables, I'd pick them out and refuse to eat them.

I was also the most inactive kid you could have imagined. I did not exercise, aside from a few hikes that my family would force me on, and spent most of my time in front of a computer. My reward was a reduced need for calories, and Myopia.

Age 14-16: Exercise and lots of everything

2012 to 2014. A typical day: Nutella with bread and a glass of milk for breakfast. Common pasta variations for lunch (seafood, carbonara, bolognese). Yogurt and cereal, or mozzarella cheese with tomato sauce as a snack. Rice with veggies or fish for dinner, usually with a salad. Some nuts sometimes. Lots of candy bars or similar on the side, some chocolate.

At some point I had a growth spurt and started exercising, and my needs changed. At that point, I was eating everything I could get my hands on, but didn't like cooking, so I'd down everything at the dinner table, vegetables or not, and then some extra bowls of cereal after. I was beyond discrimination. My regular Nutella breakfasts remained unchanged: lots of free calories! At some point, I started to wonder whether eating healthy might make me better at rock climbing (my favorite sport at the time), and I slowly started to favor foods that were commonly perceived as healthy. My taste buds might also have adapted a little to my more varied died, making it easier to stomach the green stuff.

Age 16-18: Overthinking nutrients

2014 to 2016. A typical day: same as above, with some more veggies and vastly more wasted time on tracking nutrients.

One day I went down an internet rabbit hole about childhood development, exercise, nutrition, and similar and was dumbfounded. Your body height is partly determined by the nutrients you get as a child? Your grades too? Your exercise performance? Your sleep? I was suddenly worried that my food habits might have limited my potential in some way. I've been assuming that whatever fills your stomach is fine, green preferred, but what if I've been unconsciously limiting my health, my mental energy, my physical development, by being an uninformed eater? How does anyone know what's really healthy? My mom certainly didn't know the reason behind why salad is healthy. I studied up and (over-)focused on the general vitamins and minerals that people put under the umbrella of “nutrients” at the time, and started tracking everything I eat. I'd then calculate my daily nutrient intake and compared it the government recommended intake values. Once or twice a week, I'd add foods to my usual meals to even out the difference in nutrients from the guidelines.

My nerd self certainly had fun calculating all of this, but I was naive! If only I'd know that my sugar intake amount would have a higher relative impact, and if I'd known that eating one meal rich in a certain mineral doesn't mean I'll actually absorb "enough" of it, or if I'd known that you can simply test for deficiencies and most nutrients that you're not deficient in don’t actually matter (which I only realized six years later).

Age 18-19: College, cooking, and protein consciousness

2016 to 2017. A typical day: Nutella with bread and a glass of milk for breakfast. Lunch at the college cafeteria, usually a sandwich, or mostly-plain pasta, or veggies with potatoes and some sort of meat or fish. Gorgonzola pasta, bolognese, or homemade pizza for early dinner. An unseasoned block of tofu or a can of beans with olive oil.

At 18, I moved to Berlin for college, but had very little experience cooking. Hence, I learned around four recipes, mostly pasta dishes, that I'd alternate between constantly. From time to time I'd eat whatever seemed healthy: make easy and tasty gorgonzola pasta, and then later in that day gulp down a cup of spinach and half a can of beans. From there, I expanded my cooking repertoire to directly include the ingredients I'd otherwise eat separately. I owe most of my willingness to cook more complex meals and many recipes to my brother's continued efforts in making me a functioning adult (thank you!).

Over time, I've become more obsessed with exercise, specifically getting better at climbing. Nutrition science was as inconclusive then as it is now, but I gathered that more protein is generally better, which informed my diet going forward. Effectively, this just meant I'd eat whatever I was already eating, but also eat additional blocks of raw and unflavored tofu throughout the day. Disgusting in retrospect, but such were my motives at the time. I'd also veer more towards foods and dishes that were high in protein. I couldn't tell you whether it made an actual difference in my exercise progress, however, because I made one of the most fundamental mistakes in science: lack of measurement.

Age 20: Overcoming addiction, joyless Joylent, and fitness

Jan 2017 to Oct 2017. A typical day: Same as above but replace some of the meals with Joylent, or some days with joylent entirely. Some of the breakfasts are now Nutella-free.

I eventually quit my Nutella breakfast habit, replacing it with a similarly textured cream cheese, similarly to how a smoker might quit by using nicotine-free e-cigarettes. On some level, I’m sure this was an addiction, and it wasn’t easy to quit. I’d played with the idea for a long time but always ended up coming back to it. My roommates at the time ate Nutella for breakfast, which made it hard to abstain. When I moved away later this year, the break in location and existing attempts at replacement finally did it for me.

When I was hard into hustle culture and deriving all of my self-worth from the amount of side projects I had running, I learned about Joylent, the then European version of Soylent (now called Jimmy Joy). I tested it out and found it enjoyable enough to substitute some meals completely. Eventually I committed to an experiment: Joylent-only for a month. This was socially compatible with a busy student lifestyle. The choice was less impactful than you might have guessed. I felt healthy and energetic, but not more so than usual. I didn't enjoy my meals, but they were extremely short so I could easily focus on all of the other good experiences in my life instead. I was also, for the first time in my life, actively “bulking”, i.e. eating more than I actually wanted to (the saying goes ”always eat until you’re full, and then some”), which didn’t help with enjoyment.

At some point I decided that yes, the lifestyle works, and I’m happy with my weight right now, but I'd really like to eat some good food again, so I turned 180 degrees and went right back to my previous diet. After some time, I started subbing some of my meals again, either as a time saver for those rare occasions when you oversleep and have a climbing date in 30 minutes but not enough time to fry an egg, or when I was simply too lazy to go buy groceries.

During this time, it was noteworthy that I had consistently higher performance in climbing, and was the most muscular I’ve ever been (as of mid 2023). In retrospect, this could have multiple factors, like a consistent environment and consistent 2-3 climbing sessions a week, low academic stress, general caloric surplus due to the addition of meal replacement shakes to regular meals, etc., so it’s unclear whether Joylent itself had an effect except make food consumption easier.

Age 20-22: Relationships and reversals

Oct 2017 to Oct 2020. A typical day: Bread with jam or cream cheese for breakfast. Rice with canned tuna and mozzarella, or pasta with spinach and ricotta for lunch. Mac and cheese for dinner.

A relationship I’d had for some time entered into the co-living stage, and thus, the co-lifestyle phase. I dropped my occasional use of Joylent because it felt anti-social. My partner was a picky eater, which stopped most my attempts at eating healthy and we ended up cooking whatever tastes good, rotating between a few dozen comfort foods and often ordering takeout. Unsurprisingly, this felt restricting. The relationship eventually ended, and I retained a lot of the cooking habits but made a point of including healthy ingredients where possible. In an odd way, the relationship cancelled out my phobia of cooking, and I ended up in a good place. I made lots of negative progress in fitness, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, more likely due to lack of exercise than diet.

I traveled quite a lot before and after Covid. Sometimes I found myself in places where the cost of eating out is similar or lower to what cooking would be like in Europe, and it resulted in me exclusively eating the local cultural diet and cooking less (e.g. spending half a year in Beijing, eating out three times a day), which worked out fine too, especially if I was intentional about choosing foods that had a lot of vegetable content. I only exercises about one day a week, however, and saw negative progress.

Age 23: Healthy is the new tasty

October 2020 to October 2021. A typtical day: Porridge with nuts or avocado toast for breakfast. Veggi-based lunch, often stews. Snacks included veggies and hummus, or apples with almond butter.

In the short time following my breakup, I began re-training my brain and body to like the kind of foods that I perceive to be healthy: veggies, protein-rich foods, unprocessed foods. Looking back, there was a lot of cognitive dissonance. Once, my then new partner asked about whether I actually prefer the taste of fat-free high-protein yoghurt over natural yoghurt, and I said yes. In retrospect, I was lying to them, and to myself. I definitely preferred high-protein yoghurt, but not because of the taste, but because I associated it with a healthy diet and didn't mind the taste difference much. I also re-started subbing some meals (~20%) with Joylent, for convenience.

I was essentially vegetarian for this period of my life, since, when cooking for myself, I tend to not buy meat or fish. At the time price was a big factor, aside from health concerns.

Half of this year was spent traveling, foods changing often, but I still cooked most of the time, defaulting to foods easily prepared in under-stocked kitchens, like salads, sandwiches, etc. It’s worth noting that despite my protein obsession, I was pretty averse to the idea of consuming protein powder, adhering to a sort of “natural is best” philosophy.

Age 24: Protein is overrated, intermittent fasting, OMAD

October 2021 to March 2022. A typical day: Lunch-only: three slices of dark bread with eggs, lettuce, butter. A small bowl of beans with sauce. A huge lentil salad with bell peppers and lots of olive oil. Some fruit. Yogurt with berries. Chocolate.

I became more willing to read books and papers about food. I eliminated some of my beliefs that had lower impact so I could focus on the ones that mattered. After finding some studies that show relatively little gain from consuming a large amount of protein, I experimented with intentionally reducing protein intake while (very loosely) tracking physical performance and found no difference for me at the time, so I stopped my protein obsession. I never noticed any differences in body composition and was exercising about one or twice a week at the time, so in retrospect, that evaluation might have been flawed too. I still don’t have solid experiential evidence that protein amount matters for my own body, but I made the critical mistake of ignoring the vast majority of research and tunneling on a small part of it. Lesson: always put your study effect sizes and target groups into relation, and look for meta-studies to compare.

After a bout of constipation, I tracked my gastrointestinal health more closely and realized that eating tons of fiber makes my life, and especially my toilet breaks, vastly more enjoyable (duh), so I've made a point of including fibers where I can.

There was a phase of about 3-4 months where I was more serious about exercise, had just picked up gymnastics as a hobby, while continuing climbing, so I tried OMAD, the one-meal-a-day diet. I would eat all of my meals within 2-3 hours over an extended cooking and eating session, usually shortly after noon. For the first time, I consistently tracked my weight, and saw that OMAD (and by extension, intermittent fasting) did not make any differences in weight for me. This was great, since I was worried about losing weight. At the time, I was significantly overworked due to both having a full-time job and ongoing part-time post-graduate education, but I was incredibly fit nonetheless. My diet was on point, my exercise was on point, but only in writing this now do I realize that OMAD might have worked way better for me than I had thought, judging from the good results despite the external stressors. I eventually started traveling again and went back to around three meals a day.

Age 24: Cooking less and not-so-naive nutrients

March 2022 to Aug 2022. A typical day: Bread with eggs and lettuce or bell peppers for breakfast. Yoghurt with berries and dark chocolate as a snack. Lettuce with cheese, beans, or lentils for lunch. Some fruit in between. Bread with smoked salmon and butter for dinner.

I tried to master the art of spending as little effort as possible on cooking, while still "cooking" most meals every day. Towards the end of this phase, there's been a bigger focus on raw foods. My main staple was various versions of toasted whole-grain bread with veggies, eggs, or fish. The dishes I prepared still changed over time, as I invariably grew tired of certain foods and friends introduced me to new ones.

Overall, I probably ate a lot less during this half year than ever before, but ended up peaking physically and reaching V8 in bouldering, which I hadn’t done since my earliest climbing peak at 17 years old. At the time, I went climbing 2-3 times a week, did gymnastics-style exercise 2 times a week, and cycled an average of around 5 hours a week. It’s unclear whether eating little and healthily made me exercise more, or the other way around, or whether all the performance is due to exercise.

Towards the end of this time, I came across studies about food contents that seemed beneficial without being “nutrients”, and I came across, which broadened my view on supplements. There are lots of instances when I thought something akin to “wait, ginger is good for you, and it has nothing to do with vitamins or minerals or fiber!?”. How many substances are really relevant? My priority estimate for spices, roots, chocolate, berries, and nuts increased.

Age 24-25: Tons of Travel

Aug 2022 to July 2023. A typical day: Porridge with soy milk and nuts for breakfast. Takeout or delivery for lunch, usually a big bowl of veggies, beans, rice and some fish or tofu. Two scoops protein powder post-workout. Dinner at a food stall or restaurant, very varied, most often including a good amount of veggies and fish or tofu.

Travel time! I spent the first 8 months of this period in Bali. The cost of eating out is relatively low for both, so for one, I only prepared maybe 5% of my meals over this period. I also made drastic changes in exercise routine, switching from climbing twice a week to calisthenics-gymnastics-style workouts five times a week.

Coconuts were cheap and plenty, which is great considering I was working out in a gym without air conditioning and likely needed all the electrolytes I could get. It’s also surprising how much avocado toast and porridge was to be found in an island where neither bread or nor oats are part of the local cuisine. Bali has a strong naturalist culture, and most places have “healthy food” adjusted to foreigners. On the other hand, it’s a developing country and sanitation standards are not completely up there. I had food poisoning twice.

Towards the latter half, I realized that with the amount I’m exercising, protein intake might matter, and started buying pea protein powder, and for the first time, started taking creatine as a supplement.

The last three months of this period were spent in Taiwan. I was eating a lot of takeout and street stall food, in addition to a daily scoop or two of protein powder. My energy plummeted and my exercise progress reversed, likely with a lot of factors at play. I restarted intermittent fasting, eating my first meal at noon, not seeing much effect. The food was very enjoyable and seemed healthy, at least.

Age 25: Bulking is hard, effect size matters, vitamins don’t

July 2023 to date of writing. A typical day: Toasted sourdough with eggs, and some lettuce with feta cheese for breakfast. 600 calories of Huel shake post-workout. Lentils and veggies for lunch. Three scoops of Huel shake (600cal) as a snack. A ball of mozzarella cheese with tomatoes and herbs as dinner. Supplementing with ginger, curcumin, omega-3, Vitamin D, and magnesium.

In July 2023, I returned to San Francisco, bringing about a drastic change in cooking habits. For some weeks, I exclusively cooked. I was trying to gain weight at the time, however, and together with an ongoing relationship, it once again proved difficult to manage, so I tried out Huel (a meal replacement shake similar to Soylent or Jimmy Joy), which I liked. Instead of replacing meals, however, I added it on top of my regular diet, only rarely skipping a prepared meal in favor of a shake.

Reading studies on multivitamin consumption and single-nutrient interventions, I realized that multivitamins don’t do much for you, and don’t even contain the compounds that would do something for you in adequate amounts. I wasn’t taking any, but it hammered home that everything needs to be considered in detail, and in relative importance. I’m not the only one that made this mistake: we see a lot of “salad is good for you”, or “chia seeds are superfoods” etc., but on a world scale, there are hundreds of “superfoods” and you can’t possibly eat them all. Every food has a counterfactual. Most studies are intervention or demographic study, neither of which gives us a full picture. Some foods are great, but usually contaminated in the harvesting process, possibly resulting in a net negative in health. I resolved to pay more attention to dose-response, effect size, and toxicity analysis when looking at supplement or nutrition studies.

What did I learn from all this?

Well, none of this is real data. What I've learned is that, generally, if something has calories it sustains you. It's unclear, in retrospect, how much of my mood, happiness, energy, or decision has been influenced by food. On an intuitive and experiential level, I'd say diet lightly affects mood, lightly affects mental performance, lightly affects physical energy and recovery, strongly affects willingness or mood to exercise, and greatly affects bowel comfort. I can't make any comments about effect on sleep, aside from eating directly before sleep being bad. That said, this is up to including my 25th year on earth, and I've always been physically active, and tried to eat healthily, so I'm sure I would have seen a drastically larger effect if I started out with an actually bad diet, or was twice my age, or largely inactive. I don’t feel more mentally capable than people with horrendous diets. I attribute my fitness to consistency in working out over 10 years. I have a theory that anyone else eating and exercising like me would overtake me in no time, both mentally and physically, or maybe that’s just what I'd like to imagine, staring out the window from my kitchen counter.