Gallo boxing. Lansing, 2014.

Diet, Health, and Fitness For Photographers

Gallo boxing. Lansing, 2014.
Gallo boxing. Lansing, 2014.

A topic nobody has really talked about: the connection between diet, fitness, lifestyle, health, photography, art, and creativity.

Ignore me.

Almonds after doing deadlifts. Emeryville, 2016
Almonds after doing deadlifts. Emeryville, 2016

This is an essay based on my personal experiences and philosophy on diet and nutrition.

You can safely ignore all the advice here. It probably won’t work for you.

Just experiment for hourself, and take the bits and pieces which interest you, and ignore the rest.

My life story

Topless bathroom selfie. Hanoi, 2017.
Topless bathroom selfie. Hanoi, 2017.

I’ve been a health, diet, exercise, fitness fanatic ever since I was a (fat) 12-year old kid. I remember because my parents were always working, my sister and I would only eat Hot Pockets twice a day (Pizza flavor was my favorite) — and I had no idea why I was getting so fat. I have memories of me in Bayside Queens, New York… when I had to put baby oil under my double-chin to fall asleep, because of the humidity and the stickiness of my extra fat prevented me from falling asleep.

Anyways, I was commited at age 12 to lose weight. I asked my mom to buy me dumbbell weights. I started to run with rocks in my backpack. I did sit-ups, push-ups, and dumbbell curls and presses. I started to lose fat, and gain muscle. It was awesome— I felt control of my fate.

It never stopped. I kept increasing the weight and resistance in my weights. In college, I got into bodybuilding, weightlifting, and powerlifting. I got really into bench press, squats, deadlift, and other heavy lifting. I tore rotator cuffs often. I learned about mobility from my mentor Thomas Rodriguez at UCLA Undergraduate Admissions (he was a former power lifter, bodybuilder, who was one of the Early kettlebell users). I soon nursed myself back to health.

Fast forward, my maximum lifts have been 415 for deadlift (one rep max), 326 for squat, and 90 lbs for dumbbell press. I can do one hand pushups, pistols (one leg squats), and a lot of chin-ups. I’m the strongest I have ever been at age 29, with the least amount of body fat, with lots of energy, focus, and determination.

But the best thing of it all… I feel the most fearless, and the most productive with my art. Productive with making pictures, with writing, and stronger mentally, physically, and artistically.

This is what works for me

Selfie. Hanoi, 2016
Selfie. Hanoi, 2016

It makes sense to me that a strong body equals a strong mind, and vice-versa. Also, it makes sense that a physically fit person should also have a superior advantage as an artist.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned for myself, which has helped me:

Not eating breakfast and lunch

We have been brainwashed by modern diet “experts” (many of them being fat) who encourage us to eat “three square meals a day”. But logically, that makes no sense. We are not gasoline cars. We don’t need to “feed” ourselves breakfast before starting the day. In fact, my theory is that eating breakfast (or eating any food) is HARMFUL to us before engaging in any physical activity.

Our hunger is a STIMULUS for us to move. If we never felt hunger, why would we have an incentive to move, seek, or hunt food? A lion doesn’t eat a granola bar and then hunt a gazelle. No, a lion first feels HUNGER, and then is “motivated” to go hunting. After the lion kills a gazelle, she will take a (long) nap.

I know for myself, after I eat… I feel sleepy and tired. Why? The biological signaling mechanism for the mind says:

Okay good job Eric, you just obtained and ate some food. Good job! You’re not going to starve to death. Reward yourself with a nice, long nap, to conserve your energy.

We are not engines

The mistake is that we still have this silly gasoline engine analogy. We think the human body (an organic, and complex system) is the same as a car engine (mechanic, simple system).

A car doesn’t run without gasoline. If the tank is empty, you cannot start-up or run the car. You must have gasoline in the car in order for it to run.

We therefore make this incorrect analogy for the human body. We think if we don’t eat something for breakfast at the start of the day, we cannot get our “engine going.” But that’s incorrect. The human body will still run on our bodily fat reserves, a process that biologists (currently) call “ketosis.” And thank god our body runs like this. This is what allows us to NOT DIE when sleeping (we don’t eat while we sleep, yet our body keeps running). And ketosis is also what allows us to not die if we go a few weeks without food (as long as we have water, we are okay).

Motivation to create as an artist

Anyways, in order to be motivated or inspired to create as an artist, we need some sort of stimulus.

For me, my motivation is hunger.

Before I make pictures, I gotta be hungry. Why? I’m still an animal. If I’m hungry, I want to hunt. Therefore, when I’m on the streets making pictures, I’m “hunting” for visual images to satisfy my hunger. Once I’ve had a big meal, I lose all motivation to take pictures. I want to just take a nap.

I notice this in my workshops. In the morning, students are pumped up and excited. They shoot a lot. After lunch, they get tired and lose motivation to shoot… unless we have strong coffees to stimulate us again.

What motivates you to make pictures?

Three men. Shot on an escalator, during my lunch break. Santa Monica, 2011
Three men. Shot on an escalator, during my lunch break. Santa Monica, 2011

We need some sort of stimulus, trigger, or some sort of motivation to make art and pictures.

Another idea: having a shitty day job, when you’re stuck inside a soulless, fluorescent office cubicle prison is a good way to be motivated to make pictures and art. Why? Because you are excited to leave the office, to ESCAPE, and then to finally roam the streets freely to make pictures.

I remember when I had an office job, I was most productive as a photographer in short bursts and intervals, even from a 15 minute walk around the office. It was a good way for me to blow off steam, and the built-up, pent-up creative energy inside me.

Stronger body, stronger creative mind.

Gallo boxing. Lansing, 2014.
Gallo boxing. Lansing, 2014.

Getting back to diet and fitness… I also think having a physically strong and fit body is conducive to being a better photographer.

Consider, if you have strong legs, little body fat— you can walk longer, with less fatigue, and end up making more pictures. You can crouch down, run for pictures, and even lie down on the ground when necessary. After a full day of shooting, or when traveling, my body is pretty sore.

Therefore, having more muscles in your legs is good as a photographer and artist. The longer you can walk and stay on your feet, the better. Even the philosopher Nietzsche said that in order for us to have any good ideas, we should walk outdoors in the wide open, as much as possible. You cannot think of any truly great ideas when sedentary or sitting. My best ideas occur when I’m standing, when I am walking, or exercising.

Practical suggestions to become a stronger photographer

Gallo boxing. Lansing, Michigan 2014
Gallo boxing. Lansing, Michigan 2014

To be a better photographer, walk more. Build the strength in your legs. Avoid taking elevator and escalator. Take the stairs.

If you like the gym, do squats and deadlifts. If you don’t have access to a gym, do yoga at home, body weight squats, lunges, or pistols (one leg squats).

Also random tip: spend a lot of money on your shoes. It will be the best investment for your photography. I recommend Nike Free Flyknit shoes (light, stylish, and has more of a “barefoot” feel). If you’re more extreme check out the Vibram Fivefingers shoes— I spent two weeks in Istanbul with a pair, and felt more connected with the environment (I still remember feeling the cobblestones beneath my feet).

What to drink during the day

I don’t eat breakfast or lunch, unless offered. And I cannot say no to “free” buffet breakfast at hotels.

Therefore, I avoid eating anything until the evening. I drink a lot of liquid instead.

In terms of fluids, I drink black coffee (I prefer single shots of espresso, or I make a “Clever dropper” coffee when traveling in my apartment or hotel), green tea (Matcha), water, or 100% hot cocoa (new life hack, no sugar, no milk).

The best advice for you: Don’t drink any fluids or liquids with sugar during the day. This involves “healthy” fruit drinks. Don’t drink orange juice for breakfast, probably the worst thing you can do to spike your insulin and glucose in the morning.

The benefit of caffeinated beverages: you get that energy (caffeine is a poison) and you feel less hunger (adrenaline response from the poison caffeine suppresses our hunger instinct).

Then, you can be more active, sharp, and creative, and productive during the day.

What if I get really hungry during the day?

If you can’t fast until dinner, I just recommend having fat and protein. Have an avocado with salt and paprika. Have some almonds. Have some eggs (including yolk). Get some prosciutto meat at the grocery store. Or a piece of 100% dark chocolate.

What not to eat during the day

My suggestion: Avoid carbohydrates during the day. This includes anything starchy (potatoes and tubers). Avoid rice (brown and white), quinoa, legumes (beans), bread, pasta, wheat, etc.

Why? When you have anything high in carbohydrates during the day (before dinner), you get sleepy. Why? Because many of these “high-glycemic” foods cause our insulin levels to spike. Which causes us to get the infamous “food coma”— which makes us tired, sleepy, and useless for a few hours, until our blood sugar stabilizes again.

Am I going to die?

Gallo boxing. Lansing, Michigan 2014
Gallo boxing. Lansing, Michigan 2014

No, by not having breakfast or lunch you’re not gonna die. You are gonna feel pain, and unpleasant hunger during the day. But that’s okay. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

Also, trust me, if you’re a real “foodie” and like the taste of food— NOT EATING during the day makes your dinner taste 100x better. When I used to eat 3-5 meals a day, I couldn’t taste my food, or the subtle textures of my food. Now when I eat dinner, I get 100x more pleasure. I can smell and taste all the delicate flavors in my food.

What to eat for dinner?

For dinner, go crazy. Eat as much as you want, until you’re thoroughly satisfied. You deserve it. Consider your dinner your reward for the day.

For myself, I generally eat fatty meats, eggs, green vegetables for dinner. I like pork and beef belly, eggs, all green veggies, and pickled veggies. I don’t eat rice, bread, or anything wheat or gluten for dinner. I also am Asian and cannot eat dairy, so I abstain. I also am Asian and cannot tolerate alcohol, so I don’t drink.

But for you, just experiment for dinner. Listen to your body. When you eat certain foods, do you feel better and stronger, or worst and shittier?

Modify your own dinner. See what works for you.

Experiment for yourself

Gallo boxing. Lansing, Michigan 2014
Gallo boxing. Lansing, Michigan 2014

Anyways, this essay is random, I know. But I am very convinced:

To be a more productive artist, be very careful what you eat, or what you don’t eat.

Also, consider how your physical fitness and health affects your mental, and creative health.

I don’t got the answers. I’m just experimenting for myself, and figuring out what works for me.

My body isn’t the same as yours.

So friend, always be skeptical of all this health and exercise advice… from me, and anyone else out there trying to sell you a gym membership, diet or nutrition plan, or trying to get you to become a vegan, vegetarian, paleo, ketogenic diet, etc.

Gallo boxing. Lansing, Michigan 2014
Gallo boxing. Lansing, Michigan 2014

Recommended reading on diet and nutrition

But some books I recommend you to read include:

  1. Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
  2. Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (his section on deadlifts and nutrition)
  3. The New Evolution Diet by Art de Vany (I like his ideas on lifestyle. Don’t agree with his breakfast, supplements, etc).
  4. The Warrior Diet (essentially what I follow, which is “intermittent fasting”.

But once again friend, ALWAYS BE SKEPTICAL, and experiment for yourself.