Steve Jobs died October 5, and the animal rights organization PETA stepped right up to honor him as a vegetarian who was deeply committed to animal welfare and the environment. PETA, of course, has yet to acknowledge the role that Jobs’s near vegan diet may have played in his death, and continues to maintain that their particular brand of “right eating” will virtually guarantee freedom from cancer and other major health problems.
When I blogged about this topic in October, I promised I would follow up once I learned more about Jobs’s dietary habits from Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster, 2011). This column delivers on that promise.
The bullet points below include every reference to diet in the entire book, followed by page numbers. My brief comments are found at the very end.
- Jobs came to appreciate organic fruits and vegetables as a teenager when a neighbor taught him how to be a good organic gardener and to compost. (14)
- Between his sophomore and junior hear of high school, he began smoking marijuana regularly and by his senior year was dabbling in LSD as well as exploring the mind bending effect of sleep deprivation (18-19)
- Toward the end of his senior year in high school, he began his “lifelong experiments with compulsive diets, eating only fruits and vegetables so he was as lean and tight as a whippet” (31)
- He attended the love festivals at the local Hare Krishna temple, and went to the Zen center for free vegetarian meals. (35)
- He was greatly influenced by the book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe. At that point he swore off meat for good and began embracing extreme diets, which included purges, fasts or eating only one or two foods , such as carrots or apples for weeks on end. (36)
- For awhile at college, Jobs lived on Roman Meal cereal. He would buy a box, which would last a week, then flats of dates, almonds and a lot of carrots. He made carrot juice with a Champion juicer, and at one point turned “a sunset-like orange hue.” (36)
- His dietary habits became more obsessive when he read the Mucusless Diet Healing System by Arnold Ehret. Jobs then favored eating nothing but fruits and starchless vegetables, which he said prevented the body from forming harmful mucus, and determined to regularly cleanse his body through prolonged fasts. That meant no more Roman Meal cereal — or any bread, grains, or milk for that matter. At one point, he spent an entire week eating only apples, and then began to try even purer fasts. He started with two day fasts and eventually stretched them out to a week or more, breaking them with large amounts of water and leafy vegetables. “After a week, you start to feel fantastic,” he said. “You get a ton of vitality from not having to digest all this food. I was in great shape I felt I could get up and walk to San Francisco anytime I wanted.” (36)
- As a $5 an hour technician at Atari, he was known as “a hippie with b.o.” and “impossible to deal with.” He clung to the belief that his fruit-heavy vegetarian diet would prevent not just mucus but also body odor. As Isaacson writes “It was a flawed theory.” (43)
- “He was doing a lot of soul-searching about being adopted . . . (with) the primal scream and the mucusless diets, he was trying to cleanse himself and get deeper into his frustration about his birth.” (51)
- He was a fan of the Whole Earth Catalog and particularly taken by the final issue, which came out in 1971 when he was still in high school. On the back cover it said “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” (59)
- The name Apple Computers came to him when he was on one of his fruitarian diets. “I had just come back from the apple farm. It sounded fun, spirited and not intimidating. Apple took the edge off the word ‘computer.’” (63)
- His mother Clara Jobs didn’t mind losing most of her house to piles of computer parts and house guests, but she was frustrated by her son’s increasingly quirky diets. She would roll her eyes at his latest eating obsessions. She just wanted him to be healthy, and he would be making weird pronouncements like, “I’m a fruitarian and I will only eat leaves picked by virgins in the moonlight.” (68)
- He was still convinced against all evidence that his vegan diet meant that he didn’t need to use a deodorant or take regular showers. . . . At meetings people had to look at his dirty feet. Sometimes to relieve stress, he would soak his feet in the toilet. (82)
- A colleague who recommended he bathe more often was told that “in exchange” he would have to read fruitarian diet books. “Steve was adamant that he bathed once a week, and that was adequate as long as he was eating a fruitarian diet.” (82-83)
- In 1979 or so he “put aside drugs, eased away from being a strict vegan, and cut back the time he spent on Zen retreats.” (91)
- He decreed that the sodas in the office refrigerator be replaced by Odwalla organic orange and carrot juices.” (118)
- The kitchen was stocked daily with Odwalla juices (142)
- At the launch of the Lisa computer in 1983, he ate a special vegan meal at the Four Seasons restaurant (152)
- He had edged away from his strict vegan diet for the time being and ate vegetarian omelets. (155)
- In 1984 in Italy, Jobs demanded a vegan meal and became extremely angry when the waiter very elaborately proceeded to dish out a sauce filled with sour cream. (185)
- The meal for his 30th birthday celebration included goat cheese and salmon mousse. (189)
- He had a lot of mannerisms. He bit his nails. His hands were “slightly and inexplicably yellow” and in constant motion. (223)
- At a meal with Mitch Kapor, the chairman of Lotus software, Jobs was horrified to see Kapor slathering butter on his bread, and asked, “Have you ever heard of serum cholesterol?” Kapor responded, “I’ll make you a deal. You stay away from commenting on my dietary habits, and I will stay away from the subject of your personality.” (224)
- At a 1988 NeXT product launch, the lunch menu included mineral water, croissants, cream cheese, bean sprouts. (233)
- Jobs was a vegetarian and so was Chrisann, the mother of his daughter Lisa. Lisa was not vegetarian, but Jobs was fine with that. “Eating chicken became her little indulgence as she shuttled between two parents who were vegetarians with a spiritual regard for natural foods.” Jobs’s “dietary fixations came in fanatic waves,” and he was “fastidious” about what he ate. Lisa watched him “spit out a mouthful of soup one day after learning that it contained butter.” (259-260)
- “Even at a young age Lisa began to realize his diet obsessions reflected a life philosophy, one in which asceticism and minimalism could heighten subsequent sensations. He believed that great harvests came from arid sources, pleasure from restraint. He knew the equations that most people didn’t know: Things led to their opposites.” (259-260)
- Once he took Lisa on a business trip to Tokyo and they stayed at the Okura Hotel. At the elegant downstairs sushi bar, Jobs ordered large trays of unagi sushi, a dish he loved so much that he allowed the warm cooked eel to pass muster as vegetarian. Lisa later wrote, “It was the first time, I’d felt with him, so relaxed and content, over those trays of meat; the excess, the permission and warmth after the cold salads, meant a once inaccessible space had opened. He was less rigid with himself, even human under the great ceilings with the little chairs with the meat and me.” (260-261)
- Jobs had hired a hip young couple who had once worked at Chez Panisse as housekeepers ands vegetarian cooks (264)
- At his wedding to Laurene Powell, the cake was in the shape of Yosemite’s Half Dome. It was strictly vegan and more than a few of the guest found it inedible. (274)
- “Since his early teens, he had indulged his weird obsession with extremely restrictive diets and fasts. Even after he married and had children, he retained his dubious eating habits. He would spend weeks eating the same thing — carrot salad with lemon, or just apples — and then suddenly spurn that food and declare that he had stopped eating it. He would go on fasts, just as he did as a teenager and he became sanctimonious as he lectured others at the table on the virtues of whatever eating regimen he was following.” (477)
- Jobs’s wife, Laurene Powell, had been a vegan when they first married, but after her husband’s first cancer operation, the partial Whipple procedure, she began to diversify the family meals with fish and other proteins. Their son, Reed, who had been a vegetarian, became a “hearty omnivore.” They knew it was important for Steve to get diverse sources of protein. (477)
- Early in 2008, Jobs’s eating disorders got worse. On some nights he would stare at the floor and ignore all of the dishes set out on the long kitchen table. He lost 40 pounds during the spring of 2008.
- Dr James Eason “would even stop at the convenience store to get the energy drinks Jobs liked.” (485)
- He remained a finicky eater, which was more of a problem than ever. He would eat only fruit smoothies and he would demand that seven or eight of them be lined up so he could find an option that might satisfy him. He would touch the spoon to his mouth for a tiny taste and pronounce ‘That’s no good. That one’s no good either.’” His doctor lectured him: “You know this isn’t a matter of taste. Stop thinking of this as food. Start thinking of it as medicine.” (486)
- Early in 2010, Jobs went to dinner and ordered a mango smoothie and plain vegan pasta. (505)
- At the launch of the iPad2, Isaacson reported “For a change he was eating, though still with some pickiness. He ordered fresh squeezed juice, which he sent back three times, declaring that each new offering was from a bottle, and a pasta primavera which he shoved away as inedible after one taste. But then he ate half of my crab Louise salad and ordered a full one for himself followed by a bowl of ice cream.” (527)
- “Jobs’s eating problems were exacerbated over the years by his psychological attitude toward food. When he was young, he learned that he could induce euphoria and ecstasy by fasting. So even though he knew that he should eat — his doctors were begging him to consume high-quality protein –lingering in the back of his subconscious, he admitted was his instinct for fasting and for diets like Arnold Ehret’s fruit regimen that he had embraced as a teenager. Powell kept telling him it was crazy. ‘I wanted him to force himself to eat,’ she said ‘and it was incredibly tense at home.’” (548-549)
- Bryar Brown, their part-time cook, would prepare an array of healthy dishes, but Jobs would touch his tongue to one or two dishes and then dismiss them all as inedible. One evening he announced, “I could probably eat a little pumpkin pie,” and the even-tempered Brown created a beautiful pie from scratch in an hour. Jobs ate only one bite, but Brown was thrilled.” (549)
- During the final years of his life, Powell talked to eating disorder specialists and psychiatrists to try to get help, but her husband shunned them. (549)
That’s it. Not a lot to work with, but more than enough to show a longstanding pattern of eating disorders.
On the plus side, Jobs’s diet seems to have been consistently organic and high quality. He employed chefs who’d worked at Chef Panisse, and his wife Laurene Powell founded Terravera, a company that produces ready-to-eat organic meals for stores in northern California. Jobs does not appear to have ever been a junk-food vegan who indulged in all-American junk foods such as soda, chocolate, cookies and crackers.
Soy is not mentioned at all in Isaacson’s biography. Although the Apple culture was soy friendly with soy milk readily available in vending machines and at coffee stations, Jobs himself may well have rejected it. Jobs had a longstanding fascination with the book The Mucusless Diet Healing System by Arnold Ehret (1866-1922), who claimed the human body is an “air-gas engine” that runs well only on fruits, starchless vegetables and edible green leaves. Soy and other legumes, according to Ehret’s way of thinking, were to be disdained as mucus-producing forbidden foods. Ehret not only condemned protein and fat as “unnatural” but said they could not be used by the body. Inspired by such theories, Jobs appears to have eaten a diet low in both fat and protein for most of his life. And what did he eat instead? Carbs high in fructose.
Whether or not Jobs was in one of his fanatic fruitarian phases, he favored a lot of fruit and fruit juice. These are not only high on the glycemic index, but loaded with fructose. Fruits and fruit juices greatly stress the liver and pancreas, contribute to diabetes and many other blood sugar disorders, and have been linked to pancreatic cancer. Jobs suffered from a type of pancreatic cancer known as islet cell carcinoma, which originates in the insulin-secreting beta cells.
Research published in the November 2007 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded there was “evidence for a greater pancreatic cancer risk with a high intake of fruit and juices but not with a high intake of sodas.” More recently, in the August 2010 issue of Cancer Research, Dr. Anthony Healy of UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center proposed that aberrant fructose metabolism — and not just aberrant glucose metabolism — might be involved in the pathogenesis of pancreatic cancer. Seems fructose provides the raw material cancer cells prefer to use to make the DNA they need to divide and proliferate. Although the UCLA findings are preliminary and more research needs to be done, the Reuters headline “Cancer Cells Slurp Up Fructose” is fair warning to all of us addicted to fruit and fruit juices, organic or otherwise.
Clearly Jobs broke away from strict veganism from time to time to indulge in a few eggs, salmon and unagi sushi. The words of his daughter Lisa (quoted above) provide a moving testimony to how well Jobs’s body and mind responded to eating eel, a fish rich in protein and fat. That said, vegans who would like to think Jobs became sick because he failed to be “perfect vegan” now have evidence to support that belief.