HR & Management

The often strange eating habits of the world's most successful people

14 min read

29 October 2015

Most successful people follow daily rituals that keep them aligned and consistent, but after some extensive research it turns out that some of their eating habits have been downright strange.

Virginia Woolf once said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” And according to “What the Great Ate: A Curious History of Food and Fame,” this maxim seems all the more true when it comes to historical greats such as Winston Churchill and Warren Buffet.

At the heart of the book lies the strange eating habits of well-known individuals, such as novelist Vladimir Nabokov snacking on butterflies – which he said tasted “vile,” like a combination of “almonds and perhaps green cheese”. Author Mark Jacob also debunked some persistent food myths along the way. For example, although it was alleged that Elvis Presley consumed 65,000 calories a day – on par with the diet of an Asian elephant – a nutritionist told the authors the claim was impossible. 

They did find out, however, that Presley’s diet changed immensely after he found stardom. Apparently he tried to compensate for the poverty of his youth by indulging in ridiculous amounts of junk food, once flying 800 miles to eat a sandwich made of an entire loaf of Italian bread, peanut butter, jelly, and a pound of bacon – it was named “fool’s gold” and has gained legendary status for its ties with Presley.

More culinary facts included George Washington eating his lunch alone after his inauguration, Ronald Reagan going 70 years without eating a tomato and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s wife brown-bagging his lunch every day. And once, while dining with his future wife, Paul Newman took his salad to the bathroom to wash off an “inferior” salad dressing. He then mixed up his own at the table, and ended up creating his Newman’s Own food line.

As such, we dug a little deeper to unveil the intriguing eating habits of some of the world’s most successful people – and came across some unique diets.

It was unveiled in a Fortune interview that billionaire investor Warren Buffet is officially one quarter Coca-Cola.

He said: “If I eat 2,700 calories a day, a quarter of that is Coca-Cola. I drink at least five 12-ounce servings. Typically, I have three Cokes during the day and two at night.” When he’s at his desk at Berkshire Hathaway, he drinks regular Coke; at home, he treats himself to Cherry Coke.

“I’ll have one at breakfast,” he said, and noted that he loved to drink Coke with Utz potato sticks. Fortune claimed that he loved the snack so much that he talked to Utz management about potentially buying the company.

And when it comes to breakfast, he has a bowl of chocolate chip ice cream. When asked to explain the high-sugar, high-salt diet, Buffett replied: “I checked the actuarial tables, and the lowest death rate is among six-year-olds. So I decided to eat like a six-year-old. It’s the safest course I can take.”

But he’s not the only one with a sweet tooth. Author Stephen King became the de facto cook in his household after his wife lost her senses of taste and smell. But despite his kitchen credentials, King still maintained that he would rather go to Waffle House as he was unsure of his own cooking.

In the novel “Man with a Pan”, the same bashfulness appears in King’s quick defence of the microwave: “If you’re sneering, it’s because you think the only things you can do with the microwave is make popcorn and nuke the living sh*t out of Stouffer’s frozen dinners.”

But his favourite food has the reputation for being the ultimate indulgence: a “monster slice of cheesecake.” In an interview with Bon Appetite, King explained that he always ate a slice before he writes. He said: “I have a son who swears by creme brûlée and always eats it before he writes. For me, it’s cheesecake.” He’s pretty adamant that the diet – brain food as he called it – constantly helps him deliver.

Apple founder Steve Jobs, on the other hand, was a longtime vegan, believing that his commitment to vegan diets meant his body was flushed of mucus – and that it meant he was free from body odour, so he didn’t need to wear deodorant or shower on a regular basis. Jobs would also spend weeks at a time eating only one type of food, such as apples or carrots. 

As reported in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, he once ate so many carrots that his skin turned bright orange – it also noted that according to employees, Jobs was very wrong about his lack of odour. In fact, nutrition expert JJ Virgin is of the belief that vegan-style diets might impede the body’s detoxification process, which “could make him smell even more.”

Read more about how Henry Ford ate sandwiches filled with weeds, how Charles Darwin may have made a few species extinct and how former prime minister Margaret Thatcher lived largely off of coffee and grapefruit.

When it comes to a meal lacking in meat, then Henry Ford‘s diet takes top spot – he ate weeds from his own garden. According to Sidney Olson’s biography, Ford began to think of his own body as a car which needed the right fuel in order to work properly. And as far as he was concerned, that fuel was all around him.

Following that logic, his diet largely consisted of “roadside greens,” or weeds in his garden, that were harvested and used in salads or sandwiches. But he was not alone! Ford was a good friend of botanist and inventor George Carver, who would often join him for a weed-stuffed sandwich seasoned with mustard.

And although he doesn’t eat weeds by the hand-full, Novak Djokovic may have taken up the mantel when it comes to this odd and incredibly bizarre diet. He has his own limits though – he only grazes from the Wimbledon court.

Djokovic has a tendency of kneeling down, grabbing a few blades of grass and tasting them to “savour” a win.

Of course, we weren’t the only ones to notice this. When the BBC asked him about his curious tradition after his defeat over Roger Federer, he said: “It tastes very, very good this year. I don’t know what the groundskeepers have done, but they’ve done a great job. It’s a little tradition obviously. As a kid I was dreaming of winning Wimbledon, so, like every child, you dream of doing something crazy when you actually achieve it, and that was one of the things.”

This pales in comparison to the foodie tales of Charles Darwin. Over the course of his career as a scientist, he discovered countless species of animals – including iguanas, tortoises, and owls. What most people don’t know is that Darwin was a part of a Cambridge University organisation called the Gourmet Club, whose members thrived on cooking and eating such rare and new species.

Let’s just say that Darwin may have been too passionate about his work – he wanted to know everything he could about the animals he studied, and oddly enough, that manifested in a desire to eat them

Nothing quite sums up Darwin’s attempted extinction of South American animals by way of his digestive system like his search for the lesser Rhea, an animal known to exist but that had not been studied by science. After weeks of chasing the bird, he gave up and settled down to a nice meal of greater Rhea. He was half way through it when he realised he was actually eating a lesser Rhea, gathered up what he hadn’t eaten and sent it to the UK for study.

However, Darwin didn’t always manage to stop eating the animals he was supposed to study. Of the 48 giant tortoises brought back on the Beagle by Darwin, not a single one made it off the ship.

In much the same sense, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once limited himself to only eating meat that he killed.

Zuckerberg told Fortune magazine in 2011 that his yearly personal challenge would involve being thankful for the food he had to eat. “I think many people forget that a living being has to die for you to eat meat, so my goal revolves around not letting myself forget that and being thankful for what I have,” he said. 

He claimed that it had been a good experience given that he learned a lot about sustainable farming and the raising of animals. However, the next year he announced that he was no longer sticking to his eat-what-I-kill dining rules.

In comparison, Winston Churchill didn’t care how his meat was killed as long as he got some.

According to The Telegraph, Churchill always made sure to eat a good meal, even in the trenches. He preferred his breakfast to be brought on two trays. On the first tray, Churchill wanted a poached egg, toast, jam, butter, coffee, milk, and cold chicken or other meats. On the second tray, he liked his grapefruit, sugar bowl, glass of orange squash and a whisky soda.

After eating, he would wash his hands and smoke a morning cigar. He was said to have prioritised meals, even in periods of high stress or chaos.

Fellow former prime minister Margaret Thatcher had the exact opposite approach when it came to her daily meals. Her infamous diet consisted of boiled eggs, black coffee, tomatoes, salad, grapefruit and meat, intending to induce rapid weight loss. It was also well-known that she didn’t employ a chef and cooked for herself, her husband and even cabinet members.

In a 1979 interview with reporter Katherine Hadley at The Sun, Thatcher said she tried to “eat little.” When she did eat, she preferred coffee and half a grapefruit.

“I don’t have a big breakfast to give me energy for the rest of the day,” Thatcher said.

The only conclusion that can be offered here is that every corporate star, athlete, celebrity and politician, has a unique routine – and all of them seem to have helped – so stick out your feelers and find a diet that makes you feel better and more productive rather than copying the likes of big bosses. After all, Buffett, Jobs, King, Zuckerberg and Ford surely crafted their own meal plans – arguably no nutritionist would recommend the above diets. 

That being said, maybe it’s worth staying away from the weeds. Definitely never do what UFC fighter Lyoto Machida does every morning: drink his own urine.