The Soylent Experiment

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Soylent_Green_6SHBy Maren Tarro

— Passion and conviction come to the table when we begin discussing what, why, how and when we eat. It’s a subject laden with controversy. Whether we’re talking GMOs, access to food, eating disorders, food safety or any of the other myriad issues tied to what we put in our mouths, the arguments can be heated. Often what rests on the end of our forks is no mere morsel of nutrition and calories but a blend of culture, socioeconomic circumstance, emotion and belief.

Challenging eating ethos exposes these elements. It can be enlightening, but what happens when the challenge is leveled at eating itself?

In a blog post titled “How I Stopped Eating Food,” Rob Rhinehart  posits that “traditional food” isn’t necessary and as long as nutritional and caloric requirements are met, the human body will be no worse for wear. He details his switch from food to a concoction he calls Soylent, a liquid containing the vitamins, minerals, protein, fat and fiber needed for the body to function properly.

He marvels over his results writing, “I feel like the six million dollar man.” He measures his success against before-and-after blood tests along with his sense of well-being. He praises Soylent for freeing him from the shackles of food preparation and lauds its economic benefits. In weighing the social implications of spurning solid food, he concedes he will miss gathering with friends and family to share a meal and suggests he will become a “social eater.”

In the past I’ve experimented with veganism, raw food, calorie restriction, gluten abstinence, fasting, and other eating styles. In each instance I found pros and cons, and made adjustments to my eating habits after returning to some version of my standard diet. That diet has evolved substantially since childhood and has been crafted with much introspection.

What all these experiments taught me is that I have a complicated relationship with food, one that is largely positive, mindful but enjoyable. In trying the Soylent diet, this relationship was challenged on a deep level.

From twirlit.com

From twirlit.com

I attempted to subsist on the liquid diet over two weeks with mixed results. I used a few different formulations, some good, some terrible. And while each meal shake met nutritional and caloric requirements and made me feel physically full, I experienced an emotional emptiness.

My first meal beverage tasted awful, and I choked it down amidst gags and heaves. I attribute this to the liquid vitamins I purchased. The bottle claimed to be orange-vanilla flavored but tasted just like multi-vitamins smell. My husband and children looked on with a combination of amusement and horror while enjoying their “traditional food.” I chased it with a liter of water, but that did little to wash the “flavor” from my mouth or cut through the olive oil slick (fat source) on my tongue and lips. But, as Rhinehart experienced, my hunger disappeared. I even went for a jog.

About three hours later I began to feel hungry. And here’s where I failed the first time. The thought of choking down another glass of that liquid made me angry. I felt imposed upon somehow, as if my asking myself to submit to this diet was the most unreasonable request. My reaction was so strong and sudden my husband offered no criticism of my short-lived attempt and immediately procured the food I was demanding—a one-pound salad that succeeded in returning my mood to a decent-person level.

This reaction surprised me. When experimenting with fasting or calorie restriction, I never snapped at anyone or felt deprived. I could grasp and accept little or no food more readily than reducing food to a bare necessity. While fasting, I wasn’t changing the nature of what I ate. I was taking a short, controlled break from eating, and I knew my next meal would contain all the things I love about food: flavor, texture, history, craft. With the liquid diet each meal would be the same stripped-down glass of joyless pragmatism.

I tried several more times, but was never able to complete a day on Soylent alone. Adjusting the formula helped. Taking the liquid vitamins separately in a glass of orange juice made consuming the volume of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and fiber easier on the palette but failed to address the emotional loss I felt.

5289972947_376e146945_bAt home and by myself I was able to bypass “traditional food” and stick to the diet, but once dinnertime rolled around my willpower evaporated. I felt a desperate need to sit with my family and eat. I wanted to prepare food with them, taste food with them and participate in all the activities associated with our evening meal. And not just the fun stuff. I wanted to remind my son, for the thousandth time, to chew with his mouth closed. I wanted to chide my daughter for rejecting foods before trying them. I wanted my husband to call me out for abandoning my own manners as I ate directly from the salad serving bowl.

So much is traded and shared over meals, from how to behave in social situations to familial and cultural history that teaches us who we are and where we came from. Reinforcing my beliefs about the social importance of eating was a predictable outcome of this experiment. The connection between food, feelings and family is obvious and easy to understand, but I also came to some uncomfortable conclusions.

When I first came across Rhinehart’s blog, I thought his experiment was interesting and merited exploration. But as I was drinking my meal one afternoon I noticed it tasted and was similar in consistency to Ensure and other meal-replacement products on the market. I was able to substitute my own concoction with these store-bought solutions with no noticeable changes.

Photo Credit: francisco_osorio via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: francisco_osorio via Compfight cc

Drinking a can of Ensure led to remembering a story widely reported last year about women having feeding tubes inserted in order to slim down for their weddings. The headlines were filled with disgust and outrage. Jezebel proclaimed “Let’s Get Skinny for Our Weddings With Nose Tubes and Desperation!Forbes offered “The ‘Feeding Tube Diet’ And Our Limitless Weight-Loss Idiocy.” The Huffington Post wrote “Feeding Tube Diet: Shut Up, and Eat.” I, too, was horrified that anyone would go to such an extreme just to fit into a dress.

I felt sad that my sisters and I are subjected to physical expectations that are unreasonable and even dangerous, that the pressure to fit into not only a dress but a body type are so great women are shoving tubes up their noses.

Neither body image nor the barrage of idealized female forms entered into my mind when I read Rhinehart’s account of giving up food. And while some media was mildly critical of the Soylent diet there was no collective outrage. Compare Huffington Post’s headline about Soylent (“Rob Rhinehart’s ‘No Eating’ Diet Probably Isn’t Such A Great Idea”) to the feeding tube “Shut Up” headline. The contrast illustrates the conflicted nature with which we approach food and health.

The same media that gave a resounding “NO!” to losing weight via feeding tube is the same media that circulates the images that play a part in women resorting to feeding tubes. And it’s the same media that while skeptical of Rhinehart’s diet stopped short of saying one shouldn’t even consider it.

The differences between the two diets are few. Both center on a similar solution of nutrients and calories. The method of consumption is different, as is the presentation. One is for optimal health; the other for quick weight loss. One was conceived as a money- and time-saving solution to the problem of humans needing to eat; one was conceived as a quick solution to the problem of women not looking like supermodels.

Both approach food as being the problem; both expose our problems with food.

My experiment was short-lived, but has long-term implications. I won’t be drinking my meals anymore, but I hope I can learn to be empathetic towards those that choose to do so instead of judging them regardless of the impetus. I also hope to be more empathetic to those on the opposite end of the eating spectrum. Food is hard. What we eat carries physical, mental, social, economic, and environmental consequences that shouldn’t be taken lightly—but that also shouldn’t be a source of shame.

We are all impressionable when it comes to eating. Each of us deals with positive and negative influences that feed into our food psyches, and in that sense, whether we eat or not, we all have very full plates.

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