The days of food are numbered — or at least that’s what the blogosphere wants you to believe. A group of uber-busy millennials, body hackers, and brave journalists have found a way around the great chewing pastime and are instead gulping down their nutrition one glass at a time. And it’s all thanks to Soylent, a cream-colored meal replacement shake developed by engineer-turned-food-entrepreneur Rob Rhinehart.
I first wrote about Rhinehart’s post-food experiment in March, after he had replaced food with Soylent for over a month. Since then, Soylent has grown from kitchen oddity to full-scale business, with six employees and more than a million dollars of crowd-sourced fundraising through Crowdtilt. After chatting with Rhinehart in August about his company’s monstrously successful rise — and the endless stream of nose-pinching press — I knew it was time to put my Soylent where my mouth is.
The Soylent team sent me a trial supply of the substance, which I lived off of for three days while recording my experiences. The questions at hand: Is Soylent really a viable food substitute? And would I be able to make it through 72 hours as a guinea pig so readers wouldn’t have to?
Day 1 — A Voyage Begins
Before I dove headfirst into the Soylent challenge, it helped to set up some parameters:
- I would eat nothing but Soylent for 72 hours, from 8pm Tuesday to 8pm Friday. (I initially requested a week’s supply of Soylent, but due to a shipping SNAFU, I only received three day’s worth.)
- I would eat only one day’s supply of Soylent (2200 calories for men, 1800 for women) within each 24-hour window. Because my normal diet clocks in at over 3,000 calories a day, my body would be taking in significantly less energy than normal.
- I would maintain a normal sleep, wake, and work schedule for the duration of the experiment. I also planned to keep my usual exercise schedule, though certain complications derailed that goal (more below).
- I would record my hunger, energy levels, and general feelings after every serving of Soylent. While some brave souls have recorded their weight, blood work, and other biometric data over the course of Soylent trials, I only had three days to see what a no-food diet felt like. It’s fair to say my approach was very far from scientific.
The Soylent arrived in a standard brown box, which seemed more suited to shipping a new foam roller than nutrients to support my body for three full days. Inside were three white, re-sealable bags emblazoned with the company’s logo — each containing a day’s supply of the nonperishable powder — along with three small vials of canola oil (the main supply of fat) and three omega-3 capsules. Combining the parts would, theoretically, yield enough off-white smoothie to provide my body with a full nutritional profile. The official Soylent instructions recommend preparing a full day’s supply at once and then separating it into three 1-liter containers.
At first taste, Soylent wasn’t so bad. It was just slightly thicker than a standard protein shake, and the taste reminded me of watery oatmeal. Heck, it was even filling, which immediately reduced my anxiety regarding 72 hours of impending hunger.
But about halfway through, that pleasant fullness turned into heavy sloshing as my stomach struggled to accommodate a full liter of the stuff (surprising, given my history of stomaching everything from grasshoppers to 10 New York hot dogs). The end of the “meal” was a bit of a struggle, as the grittier particles that settled to the bottom made for an unappetizing last gulp.
The next two shakes followed in similar fashion, and by dinnertime, the concoction’s novelty had definitely worn off. After trying to prep the day’s final serving in a protein shaker bottle — which failed miserably at dissolving most of the bigger chunks — I decided to stick with the blender for the rest of the experiment.
Day 2 — The Great White Bloat
I awoke on Day 2 feeling about the same as on any other weekday: A bit tired, slightly groggy, and definitely hungry. The day’s first shake tasted more like sand than oatmeal, though mixing in a pinch of cinnamon helped. The liter of sustenance quickly replaced my hunger with bloat, and by 10am I was sinking as far into my chair as possible in order to avoid sloshing around the contents of my stomach.
Lunch was more of the same, this time with the addition of some vanilla extract to take the edge off. (Soylent recommends experimenting with spices and extracts to improve the taste.)
And then the gas started. Slowly, gradually, it built from the late morning into the early afternoon, the bloat working its way down from my stomach to the recesses of my digestive system. Instead of my planned gym session, I spent over an hour in the afternoon hunched in the bathroom, not sure if I was just gassy or a sudden breath away from digestive disaster.
I’ll spare readers from too many details, but I’m definitely not the only one to experience such symptoms. Ars Technica’s Lee Hutchinson experienced similar bloating, which Soylent creator Rhinehart advised was an occasional early side effect since “some people’s gut bacteria are not accustomed to the soluble fiber” in the formula.
I chugged down my final shake of the day during a company happy hour, gripping my blender bottle of Soylent with both hands in order to resist the temptation of crunchy, salty snacks scattered about the office. The moment I felt a second round of gas coming on, I bolted home to ride out the storm alone.
Day 3 — The Home Stretch
A coughing fit woke me up before my alarm on the final day of Soylent, which helped confirm a sneaking suspicion I’d had since encountering the bigger particulates on day one: I’d been battling throat issues for nearly a year since being hospitalized with strep in 2012, and while I finally got the buildup of irritating scar tissue under control this summer, the grittiness of Soylent re-aggravated my cough. Overall, I was feeling legitimately sick, as the sluggishness, digestive distress, and coughing combined to approximate what felt like a mild case of food poisoning. If it hadn’t been the last day of my experiment, I probably would have ended things then and there.
But I decided to power through. The final day of the Soylent experiment coincided with the start of the Work Revolution Summit, which I was covering for Greatist. I was able to consume the day’s servings before the speeches and during an extended lunch break back home. The episodes of bloating and gas had become somewhat predictable, so I made it to the bathroom in time to avoid any big embarrassments — though I still sat in the back to play it safe.
By the time 8pm rolled around on Day 3 — 72 hours to the second after I last consumed real food — I couldn’t wait to eat something solid. As soon as my phone’s clock put me in the clear, I hightailed it to a local bodega and bought the first frosting-covered pastry I could find.
Soylent may revolutionize nutrition for some, but as my experiences indicate, it’s definitely not for everyone. Yes, there are numerous examples of people who switched to an all-Soylent diet and felt great doing it — including its inventor. But while my three-day trial wasn’t enough to draw conclusions about consuming Soylent long-term, the early side effects have scared me off for now.
That said, the ethos of Soylent goes beyond its existing formula. In August, Rhinehart told me his team was already working on versions that can be more easily customized for individual nutrition needs. The company has also opened up a DIY portal for aspiring nutrition hackers, giving fans and skeptics alike the tools necessary to create and modify custom blends. With the full power of the Internet behind it, it’s likely Soylent will eventually evolve into a form I can actually stomach for more than a few days straight — preferably gas-free.
Have you tried Soylent? Would you? Let us know in the comments below, and tweet the author your thoughts @d_tao.