Albert Einstein has many famous quotes. One of them states: "Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
Perhaps because of this quote, people often assume Einstein was a vegetarian, leading some to speculate that abstaining from meat helped his cognitive function.
But for the vast majority of his life, Einstein was himself an omnivore, only becoming a vegetarian a year or so before his death in 1955. It did appear to agree with him; in 1954, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to physicist Hans Meuhsan and said, “I am living without fats, without meat, without fish, but am feeling quite well this way.”
We’ve long known that diet plays a key role in our overall health. And in recent years the connection between the microbiome — the microorganisms that reside in our gut, the makeup of which is partially dependent on what we eat — and our brain function is becoming increasingly clear. So this all begs the question: Was Einstein’s genius, as some have claimed, aided by his diet? Let’s find out.
What Einstein ate for breakfast — Scientists have long understood that the human body, including the brain, needs food to function optimally. Whether or not breakfast is the most important meal of the day is still up for debate, but it appears Einstein understood the importance of getting some brain fuel before starting the day.
Herta Waldow, Einstein’s live-in housekeeper, did a series of interviews about her experience working for the iconic scientist. In the resulting book, Einstein at Home, Waldow claims, "Herr Professor always ate fried eggs, at least two," almost every morning. According to her, he loved mushrooms as well as honey. "He would probably have eaten mushrooms three times a day," she says.
In his biography of Einstein, Walter Isaacson noted that Einstein’s wife, Elsa, “took great joy in foraging for the food he found comforting. She was resourceful and wealthy enough to commandeer the eggs and butter and bread he liked, even though the war made such staples hard to come by.”
So, toast may have been a part of Einstein’s breakfast as well.
Whether he knew it or not, Einstein’s breakfast was actually pretty nutritionally dense. Eggs are high in protein and minerals like iron, selenium, and phosphorus; mushrooms, a favorite of the physicist, are high in B vitamins and antioxidants. It’s unlikely these foods were the source of Einstein’s genius, but a diet high in proteins, vitamins, and minerals may have helped Einstein’s brain function optimally.
What Einstein ate for lunch — Compared to breakfast, lunch was much less of a regular occurrence in Einstein’s daily life. In 1915, he wrote a letter to his second son, Hans Albert Einstein, in which he says, “I am often so engrossed in my work that I forget to eat lunch.”
Aside from skipping the meal altogether, Inverse couldn’t find any specific diet Einstein typically had for lunch, but his lunch hospitality suggests it leaves something to be desired. In Isaacson’s book, he recounts the story of an eight-year-old girl, Adelaide, in Einstein’s neighborhood who first stopped by his house for help with a math problem and then became a regular visitor, sometimes bringing friends for lively discussions with the scientist.
Isaacson recalls one of these visits from Adelaide and a friend of hers. He writes, “Einstein offered them lunch, and they accepted. ‘So he moved a whole bunch of papers from the table, opened four cans of beans with a can opener, and heated them on a Sterno stove one by one, stuck a spoon in each and that was our lunch,’ she recalled. ‘He didn’t give us anything to drink.’”
While beans are a great source of antioxidants, minerals, and fiber (as well as feed those good bacteria in your gut), again, we can only take the diet brain connection so far: It’s unlikely that his scientific prowess was the direct result of his diet, but the nutrient-dense foods certainly didn’t hurt.
Personally, I choose to believe that being a terrible cook and eating things out of cans is the mark of genius.
What Einstein ate for dinner — Let’s move on to dinner. Even when someone else was doing the cooking, Einstein had a relatively simple, if not terribly healthy diet.
Isaacson writes that some of Einstein’s scientist friends would regularly get together to discuss physics and other academic pursuits. These dinners, Isaacson writes, “were frugal repasts of sausage, Gruyère cheese, fruit, and tea.”
Indeed, even when the food was much fancier, Einstein was more prone to getting wrapped up in conversation paying little attention to what he was eating. Isaacson recalls when his friends, mathematicians Maurice Solovine and Conrad Habicht, brought him caviar for his birthday:
Einstein was engrossed in analyzing Galileo’s principle of inertia, and as he talked he took mouthful after mouthful of his caviar without seeming to notice. Habicht and Solovine exchanged furtive glances. “Do you realize what you’ve been eating?’ Solovine finally asked. “For goodness’ sake,” Einstein exclaimed. “So that was the famous caviar!” He paused for a moment, then added, “Well, if you offer gourmet food to peasants like me, you know they won’t appreciate it.”
So while it's impossible to tell if Einstein’s diet contributed to his tremendous brainpower, the famed physicist was, unfortunately, plagued by chronic gastrointestinal issues throughout his life. These included both stomach ulcers and jaundice.
When Einstein was 38-years-old, one of his friends became so concerned about the scientist’s digestive problems that he sent him to a doctor. The physician diagnosed him with a “chronic stomach malady” and mandated a four-week diet of rice, macaroni, and zwieback bread, which is a dry, crunchy German bread similar to Melba toast.
Despite the bland diet, his stomach problems persisted into his later life and seemed to become more serious with time. Doctors told him first to eat a balanced diet of meat and simple carbohydrates. Then, about a year before he died, a doctor suggested he cut meat, fat, and alcohol out of entirely. His vegetarianism lasted only one year.
In April of 1955, Einstein died from an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Although his diet likely isn’t to blame, his lifestyle habits may have been. According to the Mayo Clinic, tobacco use is the biggest risk factor for developing an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
So is a diet of beans, eggs, and mushrooms the secret to cracking science’s toughest questions? Of course not. But eating those kinds of nutrient-dense foods may give you the energy to try.
On his 143rd birthday, Inverse celebrates the world’s most iconic physicist — and interrogates the myth of his genius. Welcome to Einstein Week.