I Tried a Soylent-Only Liquid Diet
I first heard about Soylent a couple of years ago, when I read an article in the New Yorker about the stuff. Conceived by three men working on a tech startup, Soylent-a powder that contains all the calories, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need to live-was supposed to be the answer to the "problem" of certain meals. Instead of finding time to buy, cook, eat, and clean, you can simply mix a scoop of Soylent with a cup of water and get on with your life.
A couple months ago, I met with the co-founder and CMO of Soylent, David Rentein. He introduced me to Soylent 2.0, the newest version of Soylent, a premixed drink that took even more of the work out of fueling up. During our meeting, I took my first sip of Soylent 2.0. I was pleasantly surprised. It tasted, to me, like a thicker, oat-ier almond milk. The company shipped me 12 bottles, which I stuck under my desk and forgot about. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I volunteered to live off the drinks for a few days and write about my experience.
I agreed to spend three days-from Thursday to Saturday-living off Soylent 2.0. I also drank 8 ounces of coffee a day, and throughout the three days I had a Diet Coke (I know, I know-sneaking diet soda can mess with your diet) and a couple mints.
To be clear, three days isn't exactly groundbreaking. In fact, people have lived for much, much longer on Soylent alone. (This guy did it for 30 days!) I knew it was more than possible. I was more interested in what the no-solid-food diet would teach me about my eating habits. I was also secretly hoping it would break me of my sugar addiction. (Spoiler alert: It did not.)
"Living off Soylent is not something we encourage," cautioned Nicole Myers, the director of communications at Soylent, when I called to ask what I should know before my diet. While it's possible, the company really pictures most people using Soylent to replace what they call those "throwaway" meals-the bland salad you mindlessly munch on in front of the computer, or the jaw-numbing protein bar you bolt down because you need to eat right now and don't have time to get anything else. Instead, drink a bottle of nutritionally balanced, filling Soylent.
This also isn't a diet. Yes, you can lose weight on Soylent, but only because it makes it extremely easy to monitor your calorie intake. There's nothing inherently slimming about it. That said, I lost a few pounds-probably because I was taking in fewer calories that I do on a normal day since I wasn't mindlessly munching on snacks. (I've already gained them back.)
On the morning of my first day, I was apprehensive but excited. I figured I'd be able to finish the three days without much of a problem, and I did. I drank at least four 400-calorie bottles Soylent a day, usually sipping each over a couple hours, since chugging it made me a little queasy. While I occasionally felt an "I wish I could eat that" pang, I truly never felt hungry; the drink is surprisingly filling. I ran every day (four miles, three miles, one mile), and ran 9 miles on Sunday, the day I broke the "fast," and felt fine each time. TMI, but I fully did not poop for two out of the three days I drank Soylent. I attribute that to my not drinking enough water though that's speculation on my part. (We have the Top 30 Hydrating Foods.)
Nitty-gritty details aside, what I found most interesting about my Soylent diet was what abstaining from "real" food revealed about my relationship with my diet. Starting with the fact that...
I like thinking about eating.
During my first Soylent-only day, I spent a few hours on reddit.com/r/soylent, reddit's community of Soylent enthusiasts. I came across quite a few users who really seemed to view food and eating as a nuisance or time suck. (Side note: Some users call non-Soylent food "muggle food," which is hilarious.) I do not relate to these people. I heart muggle food.
Weirdly, though, what I missed most wasn't the act of eating or any particular food (barring my pre-bedtime snack of frozen Sour Patch Kids, #realtalk). It was thinking about food. My first instinct when I sat down at my desk was to wonder what I could steal take from Shape's snack table-until I remembered, Oh wait, I'm not doing that today. On Friday, I went out to dinner to celebrate a friend's birthday, and I missed being able to check the menu beforehand and think about what I'd order.
When I was at dinner, though, the only times I really felt like I was missing out were (1) when the (oven-warm) bread was first brought to the table and (2) when my friends' entrees were set down. Both times the smell made me want food-for about five seconds. Then, I got wrapped back up in conversation with my friends and forgot that they were digging into (amazing-looking and smelling) entrees while I sipped a bland liquid.
I knew that I used eating as a way to relieve stress or give myself a mental break from the workday. On Soylent, I learned that just thinking about food serves the same purpose for me. When that was taken away from me, I became more productive-but I also missed the excuse to take a breather and dream about dinner.
I learned how to be more mindful.
Working at Shape, I hear a lot about mindful eating. I understood it as, basically, stop eating when you're not hungry. Easy peasy.
Turns out, I never really-really-tried it. To me, Soylent 2.0 doesn't taste bad at all. But it's not good, or something I crave. There was no reason to drink it mindlessly; I only picked up the bottle when I felt hungry. I was surprised to catch myself wondering, Is this hunger?, like some sort of alien. I didn't know it was so complicated!
After the three days were up, I felt much more in touch with my body's hunger cues. I'm glad that now I can sate those pangs with real food, but I credit the bland diet with teaching me what they are in the first place. (Psst... A Little Hunger Can Be Healthy.)
I missed feeling full.
I did not feel hungry, but I did not feel super-full ever either. I like feeling full. On Reddit.com/r/soylent, users suggest chugging water to get that "full feeling," which is the same advice you always get when you're on a diet. And it worked.
I missed colorful food.
You know that feeling you get after chugging a green juice or smoothie? I feel kind of glowy and energized, like I can feel the antioxidants and nutrients running through my veins. I think that's a placebo effect-but I don't care, I love it. Soylent is off-white. Drinking it did not make me feel glowy. (Are White Foods Nutritionless?)
Eating is emotional.
I know, duh. But I was unprepared for the responses I got when I explained my project to some people. My friends were like, "Whatever weirdo," then apologized a million times for forgetting and offering me the breadbasket. (Love them.) But from my perspective, people I didn't know were not so receptive. I was told several times that the diet wasn't healthy. That there must be too much soy. That the human body is designed to eat "real food." The subtext I heard was, "I would never do that!"
And you know what? I get it. I hate hearing someone talk about how getting off dairy cleared up their skin, because I love ice cream so much that the thought of giving it up makes me want to cry. The idea that I could one day develop a serious gluten allergy strikes literal fear into my heart. We all have hang-ups about food, and that can make it easy to see what other people are eating as an assault on what we're eating. But the feeling I got when someone was lecturing me about the necessity of solid foods was a reminder to zip it when it comes to what's on other people's plates.
Final Notes: Soylent Works
I thought by the end of three days, I'd feel burned out on Soylent and desperate for real food. But I feel just as neutral to it now as I did when I started. My first meal after the Soylent (one piece of peanut butter toast and one piece of avocado toast) was good, but not transcendent.
I have several bottles left, and while I'd definitely consider using them instead of buying lunch on days I forget to brown-bag it, I probably won't be replacing my usual meals with them anytime soon. I get what Soylent means about "throwaway" meals, and without a doubt, if your usual "in a rush" meal is something from a fast food place, Soylent would make an amazing alternative. But I try to stick to a pretty clean diet anyway (save for the Sour Patch Kids and occasional Diet Coke). And when I hold up my usual lunchtime salad of greens, tomatoes, chickpeas, chicken or salmon, and egg to a bottle of Soylent... It's no contest.
Plus, sans the smoothie bowls, green juices, and salads, my Instagram feed was starting to get seriously boring. Back to that #eeeeeats life, please. (Check out these 20 Foodie Instagram Accounts You Should Be Following.)