I grew up a chubby kid in a house with three women who talked incessantly about their diets, waistlines and weight loss plans. Naturally, food became a source of both comfort and anxiety for me. I turned to food for solace during a bout with depression during college and ballooned to nearly 250 pounds. Whenever a graduation photo pops into my News Feed, I wince at my smiling, bloated face. Immediately after graduation, however, I enacted a strict no-carb, no-dairy diet that — along with a regimented exercise plan — has helped my weight return to 200 pounds as of last week.
Now, I view food solely as a source of fuel. Yes, I enjoy a delicious meal, but taste is secondary to nourishment. All I want from a plate of food is enough sustenance to keep my body properly functioning and no extraneous calories. As you can imagine, I’m not an ideal dinner date, but I am an ideal candidate for Soylent, the meal replacement beverage built specifically for those who value time over taste.
Soylent was created incidentally in 2013 when 24-year-old software developer Rob Rhinehart found that taking the time to feed himself interfered with working on his startup. Rhinehart developed a drink full of protein, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates that satisfied all his nutritional needs and soon realized there was more potential in his liquid food replacement than his other startup idea. He marketed the concoction as Soylent and generated $200,000 from a crowdfunding campaign in a matter of hours. Soylent Corporation has received $22.3 million in venture capital in the three years since.
“It’s been a huge change, not just in terms of sleep and gym performance but cognition,” Rhinehart said of his Soylent-based diet in June 2013. “I can say I feel much more alert, and more patient, and optimistic.” Soylent is now engaged in a multi-channel advertising campaign (including billboards) aimed at people outside the tech echochamber. The company’s tagline: “Everything you need, nothing you don’t.”
Achieve previously inconceivable levels of productivity by adopting a Soylent-only diet.
Not even Soylent is sure whether this is advisable. “While not intended to replace every meal, Soylent can replace any meal,” says the disembodied voice in Soylent’s introductory video. That’s some meticulously crafted corporate doublespeak, even by Silicon Valley standards. Soylent is officially considered food by the Food and Drug Administration, however, and is regulated as such.
Soylent comes in two forms — a powder for mixing with water (or another liquid of choice) or pre-made, in 400-calorie bottles (which start at $34 for 12 bottles). For convenience’s sake, I chose the latter.
Day 1: I hadn’t even begun my Soylent experiment before I began to regret it. I was driving to work in the morning when the unmistakable aroma of bacon and eggs wafted into my nostrils. And it only got worse from there.
My first taste of Soylent came about a half hour later at work, and it was disgusting. Drinking it reminded me of the horrible protein shakes I choked down during my high school football days—not a pleasant memory. Soylent had nodes of sweetness at the front but was mostly chalky and flavorless. One colleague said it reminded her of cake batter, while another said “liquified bread,” both of which were apt. Consistency-wise, Soylent was akin to a watered-down milkshake, not dissimilar to semen.
This stuff is so unappetizing that you lose the desire to eat altogether. No wonder this diet works, I thought to myself. I was able to choke down three bottles of Soylent the first day, nonetheless, and went to bed feeling fine and satiated.
Day 2: Despite consuming just 1,200 calories the night before, I did not wake up hungry. This was probably because I was busy fending off dizzy spells the entire morning. It felt as though my blood had been transfused with turkey gravy — my limbs were heavy and my extremities seemed oddly disconnected from my central nervous system. I drove to work that morning terrified I would pass out behind the wheel and drive into oncoming traffic.
To be completely fair to Soylent, I did not consume nearly enough calories on my first day, and I’ve suffered from vasovagal syncope — a tendency to faint during moments of extreme anxiety — my entire life. But my fainting episodes typically only occur when I receive an injection at the doctor’s office, not when I drink off-white protein water.
The light-headedness abated the moment I chugged a Soylent bottle at work that morning and I pledged to consume a healthy quantity of calories that day. This proved unpleasant, however, as my distaste for Soylent only grew with each bottle. After feeling like shit all day, I decided to exercise, hoping it would normalize my bodily functions. Midway through my workout I felt woozy, and when I looked in the mirror I discovered my eyes were the size of saucers. My pupils haven’t been that dilated since Lollapalooza 2011.
This is how a wolf must feel, I thought to myself. Always hungry, always intensely aware.
Genuinely worried about my health, I decided to stray from my Soylent-only diet. I ordered a salad and wings from Grubhub and felt infinitely better after that first bite of real, solid food.
Day 3: My new plan was to use Soylent during the day and cap it off with a genuine meal for dinner. I felt excellent after doing this the night before, and my third day on Soylent was my best yet. My workout was energetic, my vision was clear and my head was steady.
I drink a bottle of Soylent in my car on night three, which was a perfect example of Soylent’s usefulness — I was late for an after-work commitment and hadn’t had dinner; Soylent provided some quick sustenance on the go.
Day 4: I should note my MEL co-workers advised me to stop the self-experiment, with one colleague calling me a “sick person” for continuing despite how ill it made me feel. She was right: I felt even worse on day four than I had on day two. The dizziness came back even more intensely and concentrating on work was a struggle. I started to have spots in my vision and could barely stand by the end of the work day.
I officially called off my Soylent experiment that evening — one day early — due to health concerns. It had become apparent that Soylent was not compatible with my body chemistry. Plus, I had come to miss my nightly routine of preparing dinner for myself, a process I find calming after a day of work.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Soylent is that it discounts the social role food has in our lives. The woman I’m dating was absolutely appalled by my Soylent diet and threatened to cancel our Saturday night plans unless I stopped. For her, eating food is not a necessary evil that should be rushed through — it’s an opportunity to bond, and Soylent was standing in the way of that shared experience.
It’s the same reason moms can be so maniacal about family dinners — the process of sitting down and enjoying a meal together is a communal activity, and one the few respites we have from the stresses of daily life. It’s not even about the food, ultimately; it’s about the company.
And this is what Soylent proponents don’t understand. When your entire interaction with the world is mediated by a computer screen, food seems like a needless distraction. For the rest of us, though, it’s not just a necessity, but one of life’s most important pleasures.
John McDermott is MEL’s staff writer.