Soylent: What Happened When I Stopped Eating For 2 Weeks

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Shane Drinking Soylent

Tim Ferriss Intro

Hundreds of people have asked me about Soylent, a controversial Silicon Valley team trying to replace food with a grayish liquid.

“Does it really deliver all the nutrients the human body needs?”
“Is it safe?”
“Why hasn’t anyone tried this before?” [Hint: they have]
And most often: “What do you think of Soylent?”

Serendipitously, four or so weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Shane Snow, a frequent contributor to Wired and Fast Company:

I’m sure you have seen the buzz about the food-hacking movement, where a couple of Silicon Valley techies have been creating Matrix-style food replacement formulas for “optimum” chemical nutrition. Soylent.me, in particular, has been buzzing like crazy, having raised $800k in a Kickstarter-like campaign.

But nobody (besides the creators) has gotten his or her hands on any yet.

Except me.

Naturally, we had to do an experiment.

This post describes the longest non-employee trial of Soylent to date (two weeks without food), including before-and-after data such as:

– Comprehensive blood panels
– Body weight and bodyfat percentage
– Cognitive performance
– Resting heart rate
– Galvanic skin response
– Sleep

I share my thoughts in the AFTERWORD and occasionally in brackets, but this article focuses on Shane’s experience and data.  Please also note that this is *not* a Soylent take-down piece. I hope they succeed.

That said, there are some issues. I expect the debate on Soylent to be fierce, so please leave your thoughts in the comments. I’ll encourage the Soylent founders to answer as many questions as they can. From all sides, I’m most interested in studies or historical precedent that can be cited, but logical arguments are fine.

Also, a quick clarification: There is a bit of soy lecithin (an emulsifier) in Soylent, but soy is not a main ingredient, which is understandably confusing.

Enjoy the fireworks…

Enter Shane

It’s seven a.m. on a Wednesday, and I am in my kitchen staring at a bag of flour. A crinkly, metallic bag with a blue, Superman-style “S” logo glued to it. With no scissors handy in my one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, I’ve managed to tear the bag open roughly with my teeth, inhaling a blend of oatey sawdust that, when mixed with water, will be my sustenance for the next two weeks.

I stare at it, thinking about all the pizza I won’t be eating, and the donuts Rebecca from the office will surely set out on the table next to my desk. But, I had all those things last night as a parting gift to my taste buds, so I sigh, pour the flour mix into a 2-litre pitcher of cold water, and shake.

Bottoms up.

This is Soylent. Not the cannibalistic “Soylent Green” that Charlton Heston weeps about in the 1970s sci-fi movie, nor the soy and lentil “soylent” steaks in Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, Make Room! Make Room!. This is Soylent, the tasteless, odorless food replacement drink that a kid in California—who raised a million bucks from strangers like me—invented to take food out of our daily equation and, ambitiously, cure world hunger. This is the Soylent that geeks in Silicon Valley have been buzzing about for the better part of a year, and the Soylent that various nutritionists have attacked with dire arguments of Ad Hominem mixed with Appeal to Authority. This is the Soylent whose inventor, Rob Rhinehart claims has made him fitter, more alert, and more productive, after having drank it semi-exclusively for about seven months.

… and it tastes like oatmeal water. Not bad, I admit as I gulp down half a Nalgene bottle’s worth for my first of many non-breakfasts with the stuff. I fill a second Nalgene to drink after work, and leave the Fedex box with a dozen more crinkly bags on the kitchen counter as I lock the apartment door behind me.

On the surface, Rhinehart, a 24-year-old entrepreneur and engineer, seems an unlikely person to invent such a concoction. I had reached out to him months ago after reading his blog, where he moaned about how time consuming cooking and eating food is for him, and documented the development of a meal replacement in the vein of the amino acid goop served on board The Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix. But when we met up a few weeks ago in Brooklyn, Rhinehart became in my mind the most likely person to invent such a drink. Quiet, earnest, with the precise diction of someone smarter than any of your friends (unless you hang out at science poetry slams), Rhinehart strikes you as the kind of obsessive introvert who really doesn’t have the patience for food and just might be willing to cram a decade of biology and chemistry into his head during Winter Break to invent a cure for it.

Basically, he’s a hacker. He’s just taking that hacker’s mindset to the human body.

“People see some credential as this binary thing,” he explained to me about why he’s qualified to do this. “The formal path is really inefficient.” But by devouring textbooks and seeking mentorship from master chemists and nutritionists, and bringing his experience in electronics manufacturing (which turns out to be strangely analogous to mass-producing supplements), he had successfully reverse-engineered—at a molecular level—exactly what the human body needs out of food. He claimed, at least.

And that’s where the nutritionists and whole foodies start to freak out. As Rhinehart published his findings and geared up to take his chemical smoothie to market (the natural thing for a Silicon Valley-ite to do upon inventing anything), the objections started to chunkily pour in like mineral-packed oat-water in a Nalgene bottle. The most common include the following:

  • The body needs whole foods and not atomic nutrients; the synergy between diverse ingredients is what matters in nutritional uptake.
  • We don’t know what we don’t know about nutrition (i.e. Soylent might be unexpectedly harmful).
  • The inventor has zero background in health.
  • Some of its core ingredients are nutritionally empty.
  • If food is too hard, you’re doing it wrong.”
  • It’s “ludicrous” and “dangerously unhealthy.
  • It hasn’t been scientifically tested by anyone but the founder.

I love food as much as the next person. As a New Yorker, I hang out with whole foodies, juicers, raw vegans, and holistic health coaches aplenty. As a vegetarian, I am no stranger to dire warnings about dietary choices, or superstitions many people have about food. But as a technologist, I can relate to Rhinehart’s questioning of the assumptions we perceive as granted. (For example, I’m nervous about antioxidants, as some studies indicate they’re harmful to the point of causing cancer; however, most of us assume “high in antioxidants” is a selling point.)

So, when I look at the above list of objections, I think this:

  • The body needs whole foods, not atomic nutrients; the synergy between diverse ingredients is what matters in nutritional uptake. This sounds nice, but has not been scientifically proven. 
  • We don’t know what we don’t know about nutrition (i.e. Soylent might be unexpectedly harmful). That’s not a good reason to not try to innovate. Why not do some tests?
  • The inventor has zero background in health. If we’re going to dabble in logical fallacies, this one is better: If a man with a bachelor’s degree can invent self-landing rockets, then a kid with the same degree and a blender can invent a meal replacement drink.
  • Some of its core ingredients are nutritionally empty. The Soylent team claims they’re updating the formula to resolve such concerns. But even so, is Soylent on the whole less healthy than the average person’s diet? Are the “filler” ingredients supplemented in a way that delivers balanced nutrition? Those are the questions that need answering.
  • “If food is too hard, you’re doing it wrong.” Given the obesity epidemic in America and the number of malnourished people in the world (including America), it’s not a stretch to say food is indeed hard for a whole lot of people.
  • It’s “ludicrous” and “dangerously unhealthy.” Given the lack up scientific backup for such statements, this is only conjecture at this point.
    (Interesting side note: Rhinehart told me that Soylent meets FDA guidelines; the crowdfunding campaign says the components are FDA approved, and Soylent will be made with “strict regulatory controls.” I’m curious what those controls are, but it sounds to me like he is essentially cooking with FDA approved ingredients but hasn’t gone through the nightmare that is the FDA testing process on the final product yet. Not that FDA approval means something is perfectly safe for all people, per se.)
  • It hasn’t been scientifically tested by anyone but the founder. I want to test it.

As the crowdfunding orders piled up, and it became clear that Soylent’s delivery would be delayed like every Kickstarter project ever funded, I asked Rhinehart if I might get my hands on some supply, so I could do a gruel-based version of Supersize Me and measure the results of what Soylent does to a mildly out of shape 28-year-old.

He shipped me two weeks’ worth.

Then, I asked Tim Ferriss, himself a body hacker whose penchant for lateral thinking is refreshing in the echo chamber of interest-conflicted health bloggers and naysayers, for advice on how to make my two-week study scientific. He had a company called Basis overnight me a health tracking wristband, gave some advice regarding blood tests, and said, “Keep me posted!”

Now, I knew that two weeks was probably not enough time to see dramatic changes, but it is enough time, worst-case scenario, to do some damage. (However, total meltdown didn’t seem likely.) What I wanted to do was begin testing the conclusions that Rhinehart and his company had claimed, that compared to the average person’s diet…

  1. Soylent provides all the energy and nutrients the body needs.
  2. The body can absorb all the nutrients Soylent provides.
  3. Soylent makes one more alert.
  4. Soylent can help people cut fat and maintain good body weight.
  5. Soylent saves time and money.
  6. And at the end of the day: Soylent isn’t dangerous.

I consider myself a pretty health-conscious person. No alcohol. No meat. Slow-carbs when possible. Run three miles, three times a week. Pull-ups, push-ups on the days I don’t run. On the weekends, however, my weaknesses come out: I tend to devour pizza and shotgun Vanilla Coke. Despite what is probably an above-average-health routine, I am out of shape compared to five years ago when I lived in Hawaii and surfed/body-boarded every day, and I’m certain that I don’t get all the vitamins and nutrients I need—especially things like Omega-3s that vegetarians have a tough time eeking out of spinach and arugula smoothies.

Here’s what a typical day’s worth of food looks like for me:

Breakfast = Muscle Milk (often I’ll also have mate tea when I first get up)

Lunch = Chipotle vegetarian burrito (or something akin to it) and a Diet Coke

Dinner = Take out, usually something like Thai red curry with tofu

Snack = Typically, a handful or two of peanut M&Ms from the office; almonds if I’m lucky

Nutrition Facts–Grand Total:

Calories: 1862

Total Fat: 74.1g

Saturated Fat: 24.5g

Trans Fat: 0

Cholesterol: 19mg

Sodium: 4,277mg

Potassium: 1,395mg

Carbohydrates: 199.5g

Dietary Fiber: 34g

Sugars: 45g

Protein: 88g

Vitamin A: 96%

Vitamin C: 139%

Calcium: 105%

Iron: 84%

Vitamin D: 35%

Thiamin: 35%

Niacin: 35%

Folate: 35%

Biotin: 35%

Phosphorus: 35%

Magnesium: 35%

Copper: 35%

Vitamin E: 35%

Riboflavin: 35%

Vitamin B6: 35%

Vitamin B12: 35%

Pantothenic Acid: 35%

Iodine: 35%

Zinc: 35%

Chromium: 35%

Want to see the individual nutrition facts for each item? Here they are:

Muscle Milk Diet Coke Chipotle Burrito Thai Red Curry (x2 servings) Rice Peanut M&Ms

 

Total Cost:

$24 / day

 

For two weeks, I traded that in for this:

Shane Holding Soylent

Ingredients:

 (Click to enlarge. Note that my shipment had two weeks’s supply, though this paper says one.)

 

Nutrition Facts:

Soylent isn’t supplying a finalized nutrition facts list until the company launches this Fall, but here’s the breakdown based on information Rhinehart shared with me and has posted online, based on daily nutrition percentages for an adult male and the recommended daily serving size of Soylent. (Download his most recent nutrition facts sheet here.)

Calories: 2404

Total Fat: 65g

Saturated Fat: 95% of daily recommended value

Trans Fat: 0

Cholesterol: 0

Sodium: 2.4g

Potassium: 3.5g

Carbohydrates: 400g

Dietary Fiber: 40g

Sugars: ?

Protein: 80g (Note that early reports declared that Soylent had 50g of protein; Rhinehart recently revised his blog to say 120g of protein now, though he told me it was 80g in the Soylent Version 0.8 that I drank. The formula isn’t final yet.)

Vitamin A: 100%

Vitamin C: 100%

Calcium: 100%

Iron: 100%

Vitamin D: 100%

Thiamin: 100%

Niacin: 100+%

Folate: 100%

Biotin: 100%

Phosphorus: 140%

Magnesium: 112%

Copper: 100%

Vitamin E: 100%

Riboflavin: 100%

Vitamin B6: 100%

Vitamin B12: 100%

Pantothenic Acid: 100%

Iodine: 100%

Zinc: 100%

Chromium: 100%

 

Cost:

$9 / day (at the crowdfunding campaign price)

 

Observations

 

Day 0

The day before Soylent, I went in to my doctor for some fasting blood tests. Tim recommended a comprehensive swath of exams via WellnessFX, a company that collects and visualizes health information in cool, newfangled ways. Unfortunately, the nearest clinic was two states away from me. Most of the tests in WellnessFX’s “Cadillac” suite don’t have to do with dietary changes (according to my doctor), but were just plain cool and important to know about in general. So I did the next best thing and got a few panels—ones that a local nutritionist recommended—at my doctor’s office and had them shipped to a lab that WellnessFX uses. (Also note: if I had gotten the comprehensive suite here in New York, it would have cost over $5,000 to cobble together the individual tests on my own! One day, I will spring for that, but not today.)

[TIM: I disagree with Shane’s doc and would argue that most blood markers can be moved up or down by diet. After all, outside of physical environments/pollutants, what other primary epigenetic inputs have greater global effects?  From liver enzymes to gene expression, you are what you eat.]

Then, I attempted to do 3 different body composition and weight tests: my FitBit home scale, a bioelectrical impedance body composition analyzer (or BIA, for which I used an InBody 230 at a local gym), and a DEXA scan at a local radiology lab. Bad news struck once again, as the DEXA scanner table was broken, “but will be fixed in two weeks.” After calling the only place in NYC that I could find that has a Bod Pod (Brooklyn College) and getting voice mail every day for a week, I decided to bag the third body scan. It was the before/after comparison that mattered anyway, which I would get with the other two just fine.

Finally, I took some tests on Quantified-Mind.com to measure my mental alertness while I was eating my typical diet of burritos and Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi. In this way, I could try to reproduce Rhinehart’s claim that Soylent improves mental acuity.

I normally wear a Jawbone UP bracelet to measure my steps and sleep, but Tim recommended the Basis band, which measures those things plus skin temperature and heart rate, so I started wearing that.

I was determined to eliminate any other variables, including bedtime, stress, and exercise, so I tried to stick to my regular routines before, during, and after the trial, and I did my best to standardize my sleep schedule and the times I weighed and measured myself, for both mind and body tests.

And then I had a mini party for myself, gorged on all the foods I shouldn’t eat, and went to bed with food in my belly for the last time.

 

Days 1-3

(Me. 7am. Looking like some sort of a wild animal.)

My first surprise was that Soylent tasted fine, familiar even. It’s easy to gulp down quickly. In fact, as someone who’s used to drinking disgusting vegan protein shakes made out of peas and hemp, I found it quite pleasant.

On the first day, I was struck with a wave of exhaustion around 3:30, and I had a “tired headache” the rest of the afternoon. This low energy in the afternoon is common for me, but felt particularly bad this day. I blamed it on the Vanilla Coke at 11pm the night before.

Months ago, my doctor had told me I had a mild amount of acid reflux. It hadn’t bothered me lately. But as soon as I started the Soylent, I noticed that the back of my throat started feeling like fire.

On the second day, it was clear to me that I was psyching myself out on the “no food” thing. My nose seemed to pick up the scent of food everywhere. I even wrote this in my journal:

“Last night I had a dream that I ate a brownie, and halfway through the brownie realized that I was only supposed to be eating Soylent for the next two weeks.”

By the end of Day 3 I realized that if I drank more Soylent in the morning and rationed it less, I had great energy levels in the afternoon. On Days 1 and 2, I drank about half of my supply by 8pm when I got home, and on the days that I tried to drink 3/4 of my supply by mid-afternoon, I felt great.

But also by the end of Day 3, I had a monster canker sore on my bottom lip.

 

Days 4-6

(Me. 7am. Still looking haggard.)

By the fourth day of Soylent, I turned a corner. I started feeling noticeably great. I didn’t get the afternoon doldrums, I wasn’t starving, and had plenty of energy for my regular, 3-mile run along the West Side of Manhattan. On Sunday, I held a marathon writing session, where I didn’t even look up for over 6 hours—a shocking feat for me lately. And my burning reflux throat was completely gone. Though the canker sore was still going strong.

WARNING: Skip to the next section if you don’t like reading about poop.

It was around this time that something I should have anticipated—but hadn’t—finally happened. My poop became Soylent. Typically (and forgive me if this is TMI) I have a bowel movement once a day; it’s rare that I don’t. With Soylent, I started going every two days. And by the time everything from before made it out of my system, said infrequent bowel movements became extremely sticky and, ahem… off-whitish-tan. It was gross, but felt strangely… purifying?

 

Days 7-9

(Me. 7am. Look who took a shower!)

I stopped craving food at this point. I felt fantastic. I sat at a work outing and didn’t care that I wasn’t eating the delicious guacamole that everyone was passing around. I would watch people leave for lunch breaks and chortle to myself while I got an hour of extra work done and sipped my Soylent. My energy levels were higher than I had felt in a while. I didn’t feel that sort of shaky invincible like you do after drinking a Red Bull, but I felt pretty darn close to it.

But on Day 8, something peculiar happened. I got really bad vertigo in the afternoon. Then again the next afternoon.

I soon realized this was because I had been cheating since Day 7.

What happened was my blender broke. I had been shaking and stirring Soylent by hand, which meant I wasn’t able to get all the clumps out. By this time (and either it was my batch settling or me starting to get lazy at stirring), the chunks in my mixtures were getting huge. The white stuff that was mixed into the tan stuff was floating to the top and congealing together. For the last few days, I’d tried swallowing the white chunks down and gagged on them. So I just started just scooping them out.

I’m pretty sure the white chunks were the rice protein, and perhaps something else important. Whatever it was was causing my blood sugar to crash. On the afternoon of Day 9, I bought a Magic Bullet.

 

Days 10-13

(Hey, look at you, Mr. Morning Person!)

The Magic Bullet did the trick. I fully mixed and fully drank my Soylent, and soon felt great. No more vertigo. Energy levels still at an all time high.

At this point, I was becoming hyper productive—both because I felt like it and because I was no longer using food as a procrastination method in my life. One of my coworkers told me I was more wired and chipper than he’d ever seen me.

[TIM:  The “food as procrastination technique” is a non-trivial point. It’s critical to always ask yourself: “What else could explain this effect?”  Personally, I love to delay writing by snacking and drinking when totally unnecessary.  If Soylent removes these delay tactics, is the improvement due to biochemical change or a behavioral change?]

Also by this time, the canker sore was completely gone (I am told it was stress), and there was still no more sign of the reflux (perhaps also stress?).

I was happy. Life was starting to feel simple. I felt… lighter… inside. Which is a hard thing to objectively measure, but that was the case.

And by the final day, to my surprise, I found myself wishing I had two more weeks’ of Soylent left.

 

Aftermath

My first day back to real food was a bit of a doozy. I took all the blood tests and body scans in the morning, fasting, and then went straight to upstate New York for a meeting. In the meeting, we were served pasta salad and melty cheese sandwiches, which I promptly devoured. And then felt like a camel had kicked me in the intestines. Later that day, I ate half of a pizza from Angelo’s in Midtown (great place, btw) and washed down some vitamins with Muscle Milk to ensure some modicum of nutrition.

And the next day I felt gross.

Inspired by my experience with Soylent, and with that junk food binge over and done, I committed to eating healthier on my own. And I have. I cut soda out of my diet entirely—an easy thing to do after two weeks off. After a couple days of mild indulgence on things like bread and chocolate, I’ve now restarted Tim’s Slow-Carb Diet™, this time with what appears to be a little more will power. I even started working out with a trainer. (No more half-hearted pull-ups!)

Though I felt a noticeable difference in energy after the first couple of days, once I started eating healthy on my own, I feel like I’m somewhere between my “normal” and “Soylent” level. Which is not too shabby.

(Oh, and it took two days for poop to not be Soylent anymore; four to completely return to normal. Hooray.)

 

Data

Here’s the raw data from my tests, plus explanations when needed:

Weight / Body Composition:

This is the embarrassing part where everyone gets to see how out of shape I am. (Note to any lazy future news reporters who arrive at this page via Google or some other future search engine: Do not describe me as 160 lbs and made of 20% fat in any future articles. I’ll soon be a changed man, I swear!)

InBody 230 (BIA) Scan, BEFORE:

(enlarge)

InBody 230 Scan, AFTER:

(Enlarge)

The BIA indicates that I lost 7.7 lbs in these two weeks. (Awesome!) Concerningly, I seemed to have lost 3 lbs of fat and 4.7 lbs of lean mass. (Hmm….)

Fortunately, only 1.2 lbs of that lean mass was “dry lean mass” aka muscle. The rest was apparently water weight. So I had a 3:1 fat loss to muscle loss ratio, which is much less concerning.

My home scale tells the same story, just scaled down about 5 lbs:

 

FitBit WiFi Scale, BEFORE:

FitBit WiFi Scale, AFTER:

I’m not quite so heavy on the home scale; that’s undoubtedly because the bio-electrical scanner scans you while you’re still wearing your clothes, and I was wearing pretty heavy jeans the first time I went in. To make sure clothes weren’t a factor, I wore the same jeans when I went back in the second time (both times I wore a V-neck t-shirt of similar weight).

For anyone who’s curious, I do have DEXA scans, which the place with the broken table (Chelsea Diagnostic in Manhattan) took of me on the last day of Soylent. They pretty much corroborate the %s. Here’s a fun picture:

 

Blood Panels:

I had several blood panels tested before and after, with the following results:

 

Bloodwork BEFORE:

(Click either of the below images to enlarge)

Bloodwork AFTER:

(Click either of the below images to enlarge)

You can pore through the data yourselves, but the areas that stick out to me are the following:

  • Fasting Glucose went down
  • Sodium and Potassium and Chloride and Carbon Dioxide and Nitrogen and Calcium stayed relatively the same
  • Creatinine went up 30%
  • Estimated Glomerular Filtration Rate dropped 27%
  • Total Cholesterol went from 127 to 117, dipping just below the normal range. (Says the nurse at my doctor’s office, “The abnormal result was your total cholesterol level which was 117mg/dL. The low limit is 25mg/dL, so it was only slightly out of range. When your levels are high this is a concern, but low cholesterol is not anything to worry about.”)
  • HDL Cholesterol (the good kind) stayed basically the same
  • LDL Cholesterol (the bad kind) went down from 66 to 63
  • “Non HDL” Cholesterol (I assume more of the bad kind) went from 82 to 73
  • Triglycerides, or fat in the blood stream, dropped 46% (apparently lowering my risk of heart disease)
  • Monocytes, Absolute went up 25%
  • Eosinophils, Absolute went down 33%
  • Basophils, Absolute went up 25%

Mental Alertness:

I tested my reaction times via a site called Quantified-Mind early on and toward the end of my Soylent trial (and attempting to get the same amount of sleep before each test, also mitigating other variables such as mood or time of day). The site puts you through a battery of tests, randomized in groups of 7, so the results below are a combination of a couple of trials that I did in order to get matching tests both times.

(Enlarge)

Higher scores mean better reaction times and accuracty. As you can see, I improved across the board. This seems to corroborate the observation that I was feeling more alert and mentally snappy.

 

Vital Signs & Steps:

I wore a Basis band for the duration of the trial (with the exception of Day 5, when the battery ran out, and I left it at home charging). Below are some screenshots of early days on Soylent versus later days on Soylent.

(click either of the below to enlarge)

(Key: Blue line is skin temperature; red line is heart rate; orange bars are steps walked or run. Gaps are when I took the thing off for some reason.)

It’s difficult to pick out many Soylent-related insights from these charts, other than nothing crazy went on with my heart or skin temp throughout the trial. One interesting tidbit is my sleeping heart rate seemed to smooth out the longer I was on Soylent. There was less jumping up from 45 to 53 beats per minute and back.

I asked Bharat Vasan, one of the founders of Basis, to take a look at the limited data set I collected and help me unpack what happened. He dumped my data into a spreadsheet (which you can view in its entirety here), and commented on the following highlights:

  • RHR:  Your Resting Heart Rate had declined over the last 3 days of data from 50bpm to 46bpm which could be a sign of improved fitness. There are also other factors that could have contributed to it from your diet or sleep patterns. It may be interesting to chart your weight against resting heart rate. 
  • Sleep: You slept a little over 8 hours a night (both average and median) which is the great since that’s what’s recommended. Sleep times seem to have been pretty consistent with a couple of late nights (judging from the patterns chart below).

(Side note: one of the cool things the Basis tracks is perspiration vs heart rate. Notice with this chart how my perspiration spiked even at times when my heart rate was normal. “Potentially due to an emotional reaction or temperature changes,” Bharat tells me. Does that have to do with diet? I’m not sure. But it’s interesting.)

Cost:

Regular diet (not including meals out with friends on weekends, which almost always includes dinner Friday night and brunch Saturday): $24/day

Soylent diet: $9/day

Savings: $15/day or $105/week ($5,460/year)

(If you include $80/weekend I typically spend on eating out here in New York, then that’s another $4,160/year, for a total of $9,620.)

 

Potential weaknesses in the data:

Although I attempted to eliminate variables that could affect any of my before/after measurements (such as wearing the same clothes for the bioelectrical impedance scan and taking photos and tests at about the same times of day), the following things could have affected the final data:

1) I took my second BIA approximately 3 hours earlier in the day than the first one. Though I drank tons of water during Soylent, according to the instructions, those missing 4 lbs of water weight indicate I may have been less hydrated when I came in the second time. And studies of BIA measurement (on obese subjects, at least) indicate that hydration potentially alters the accuracy of BIA muscle and fat measurement.

2) On that note: I drank more water during my 2 weeks of Soylent than I normally do. How much of my results could be attributed to that change versus the actual Soylent ingredients, I’m not sure. But it could be a factor.

3) An alternative explanation to my improved scores on Quantified Mind could be that I simply got better at the tests because I had taken them before.

4) This experiment only looks at the effects of addition (I added Soylent). The gaping hole is that I couldn’t properly test the effects of subtraction of elements of my regular diet. What if the elimination of diet caffeinated soda is what really caused the fat loss? What if Muscle Milk was making me sluggish, rather than Soylent making me alert? (I think these explanations are probably unlikely, but I’d rather be certain than hunch-driven.)

5) Perhaps most importantly with a one-man experiment like this, I’m not immune to the possibility of a placebo effect. Would I have had similar results if someone told me that a pizza-only diet would make me skinnier and snappier? (P.S. If that diet ever becomes a thing, count me in.)

 

What I would do differently next time:

I believe a 30- or 60-day Soylent trial would produce more conclusive (and perhaps dramatic) results than the two weeks. Before embarking on such a trial, I would test (or study) the elimination of various elements of my diet, one by one, to account for the effects of subtraction on all of the measurements I took.

Second, I would like to test Soylent with a number of subjects, and give half of them placebos. The difficulty here, of course, is in the details, and in the possibility of really screwing the placebo people over. (Do you give them a drink that truly is nutritionally empty and then watch them nearly starve to death? What do you split test: high carbs and low carbs, high vitamins and low vitamins, individual ingredients? Do you blend up a day’s worth of Chipotle and Muscle Milk and dye it tan as a control?)

I would certainly do a DEXA scan or Bod Pod before and after, not just BIA and a home scale. (Couldn’t help it this time with the broken table at one location and summer break at the other. Also, how does the entire city of Manhattan only have one of each of these?!)

To better measure muscle gain or loss, I would physically measure the inches of my waist, arms, chest, legs, and neck before and after.

Finally, to really make things interesting, I would love to split test subjects living off of various other meal replacements (they’re out there). The Ultimate Meal, GNC’s Lean Shake, Slim Fast,  Naturade—shoot, even Muscle Milk (if I drank 4 of my 34g shakes a day, I’d get 100% of nearly all my vitamins and tons of protein).

While we’re at it, we might as well put the test subjects all in a house together and let MTV film. ;)

 

Conclusions

After looking over the data and my daily observational journals, it appears that a Soylent diet contains more nutrition than my typical diet, and that I was able to absorb said nutrition sufficiently well. Even though I’m not in the habit of putting many bad substances in my body (except for caffeinated soda, which I have now cut off), I was definitely getting more balance and less junk via Soylent than I do with my normal routine. My blood tests show that I remained healthy under a Soylent regimen. I had no weird heart rate or sleep issues (and in fact seem to have slept better than normal), and I was indeed more alert.

However, the composition of my weight loss (3 lbs of fat and 1.2 lbs of muscle shed) indicates that I wasn’t getting enough protein to maintain lean muscle, given my height/weight and the 3-mile runs and pullups/pushups I do 3x a week. This speaks to the challenges of creating a one-size-fits-all formula in a food replacement. When I try Soylent again in the Fall, once the company ships orders, I plan to supplement with extra protein. Of course, Rhinehart and team are still tweaking the formula. They say they will soon release different flavors, and Rhinehart indicated to me that they could adjust the mixture for athletes. So more optimal protein/carb mixtures are likely in the cards at some point.

Going along with some of the skeptics I mentioned earlier, I do question the high amount of carbs and the use of oat flour and maltodextrin in the Soylent 0.8 formula; why not something healthier to deliver energy, like quinoa? Perhaps it’s a cost issue?

One thing to note is that these guys aren’t marketing Soylent as a fat-shredding regimen. It’s meant to be a health simplification diet. And that it absolutely was. Shockingly, so, I might add, because I expected to be miserable the whole time and was in fact quite happy. Beyond the time savings (and not having to think about food much), I was struck by how much easier it was to stick to a diet as simple as Soylent versus any other diet I’ve tried. As they say, it’s easier to be 100% obedient to a diet than 99%. Soylent left no room for debate, and therefore turned out to be quite easy.

(Though sticking to the diet was surprisingly easy, I did have one gripe: Nalgene bottles are a rather bad user experience with anything but water. The mouth of the bottle is huge, making it easy to spill. And spilled Soylent dries like paper mache.)

By far, the most interesting result to me was the cost and time savings of living on Soylent. I saved $200 during my trial. This is good news for the company’s greater mission of combating world hunger—especially since I imagine they’ll be able to manufacture and ship the stuff to impoverished areas at much cheaper than the kickstarter price. (One side note: the use of Soylent requires access to clean water, so there will be additional logistical challenges to making a “cure-all” for the world’s starving.)

My two weeks of Soylent is just a data point among a flood of results that will come out as the powder hits the market this fall. Long-term, clinical trials are certainly going to go a long way to proving the stuff’s effectiveness and safety to a degree that will not leave nutritionists nervous. But in my limited data set, signs point in a positive direction for the Soylent crew.

On the other hand, food is delicious. Much more delicious than Soylent, even though Soylent isn’t awful.

“We’re definitely not trying to compete with the experience of your mom’s cooking,” Rhinehart tells me. “Our goal is to make food more like water.”

I found a new appreciation for good food after living on Soylent for two weeks. That first bite of Angelo’s Pizza on my first day off was a truly aesthetic experience.

But all the freedom to eat heavenly, post-experiment food didn’t prevent me from saving half a bottle of Soylent after the last day of my diet, just in case I needed a quick meal sometime.

It wasn’t long before I did.

Shane Snow is a technology journalist in New York City. He contributes regularly to Wired Magazine, Fast Company, Advertising Age, and more. Follow him on Twitter @shanesnow or on his LinkedIn Influencer blog at http://www.linkedin.com/influencer/7374576. And if you’re especially adventurous, subscribe to his private mailing list at http://eepurl.com/yJaEP

 

Open Questions:

I came away from my Soylent experiment with a few unanswered questions. I’d love any insights or opinions from Tim’s readers on the following:

1) How much of a problem are the so-called “nutritionally empty” ingredients like Maltodextrin? Are carbs from that source (or oat flour) just as good as other carbs, so long as one gets all the other vitamins and minerals from other sources?

2) What powder-izable ingredients might one swap in for any of the Soylent ingredients to further optimize the formula?

3) What other variables ought to be controlled for in future experiments with Soylent?

4) What’s the probable explanation for the acid reflux and canker sores in the first few days? Is it possible that they were related to Soylent, or more likely related to other factors in my life?

5) Also, can we suggest some more marketable names than Soylent? (Or is the fact that it’s a hoax-sounding name good for marketing?)

Afterword from Tim

I commend the Soylent team for attempting to simplify food. The problems of nutrition and world hunger are worth tackling.

That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight a few points, voice a few concerns, and pose a few questions. Soylent has done an incredible job of building an international PR platform, sparked from single well-done blog post written before it was a business.

And with great audience comes great responsibility.

Food isn’t a game, and people can die. I propose that — if Soylent doesn’t modify it’s claims — people will die. For their customers and investors to remain intact, allow me to highlight a few things:

Meal-replacement powders aren’t new. The only reason SF-based investors think it’s new it because of a novel target market: time-starved techies. Met-Rx pioneered meal-replacement powders (MRP’s) in the 1990’s, and there have been dozens of copycats since. From the Wikipedia entry:

Created by Dr. A Scott Connelly, an anesthesiologist, the original MET-Rx product was intended to help prevent critically ill patients from losing muscle mass. Connelly’s product was marketed in cooperation with Bill Phillips and the two began marketing to the bodybuilding and athletic communities, launching sales from the low hundreds of thousands to over $100 million annually. Connelly sold all interest in the company to Rexall Sundown for $108 million in 2000. MET-Rx is currently owned by NBTY.

Be careful with any terminology like “FDA-approved” or indirect implications of medical-like claims. Get a good regulatory affairs law firm familiar with both compliance and litigation. Consumables at scale involve lawsuits.

It’s premature to believe we can itemize a finite list of what the human body needs. To quote N.N. Taleb, this is “epistemic arrogance.” Sailors only need protein and potatoes? Oops, didn’t know about scurvy and vitamin C. We need fat-soluble vitamins? Oops, consumers get vitamin A or D poisoning, as it’s stored in body fat.

But let’s put aside a complex system like the human body–what about an isolated minimally-viable cell? Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome, was recently interviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek on his team’s attempts to build one:

We’re trying to design a basic life form–the minimal criteria for life. It’s very hard to do it because roughly 10 percent of the genes are of completely unknown function. All we know is if we take them out of the cell, the cell dies. So we’re dealing with the limitations of biology.

Upshot: The human body isn’t well understood at all.

This doesn’t mean you can’t attempt to create good nutritional products; it does mean you need to mind your claims.

Nutrition and people are not one-size-fits-all. Among the Soylent claims Shane outlined, there are the below. I’ve added my comments:

Soylent provides all the energy and nutrients the body needs.
[TIM: I’m not convinced Soylent can prove this.]

The body can absorb all the nutrients Soylent provides.
[TIM: I’m not convinced Soylent can prove this for healthy, normal subjects, let alone — for instance — people with celiac disease who cannot handle grains.]

Soylent makes one more alert.
[TIM: If measured, this could potentially be demonstrated.]

Soylent can help people cut fat and maintain good body weight.
[TIM: Be wary of any structure or function claims. Reword.]

Soylent saves time and money.
[TIM: Provable compared to another defined group (e.g. eating at Chipotle), but not across the board.]

And at the end of the day: Soylent isn’t dangerous.
[TIM: I’m not convinced Soylent can prove this. Where are the data? Safe for how long?]

I think claiming to know all the nutrients human’s require is dangerous. Claiming something is “safe” as opposed to a more objective/provable “all ingredients are on the GRAS list” is also playing with fire.

Given your early adopters, there’s a good chance you’ll have at least a handful of Type-I and Type-II diabetics (among other medical conditions) who are engineers prone to enjoying extremes. How do manage that with your user directions and messaging? What if they’re 100 pounds instead of 180? Or 350 pounds instead of 180? Don’t expect “Don’t use Soylent if you have a pre-existing medical condition” to stop them from using it exclusively as food, if that’s your positioning.

Tread carefully. Moderate claims are nothing to be ashamed of and can be monetized incredibly well. Don’t roll the dice with your customers’ long-term health.

Best of luck. I really hope you guys figure it out.

###

And dear readers, what do you think of Soylent’s approach and the above experiment?

Please join the conversation in the comments below. There several MDs, nurses, and nutritionists kindly offering their professional opinions (and answering questions).

Posted on: August 20, 2013.

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596 comments on “Soylent: What Happened When I Stopped Eating For 2 Weeks

  1. It’s no surprise that the typical American diet doesn’t contain adequate nutrients for our body. Regardless of how “healthy” you think you are, it is extremely beneficial to supplement with a quality nutritional supplement. The can of diet coke made me cringe, but I try to avoid pop all together, diet or otherwise.
    Certainly a neat experiment, but my advice to people trying to live a healthy lifestyle is eat whole foods, fortify nutritional intake with quality natural supplements (acetyl glutathione, coq10, vitamin d3 and others) and lead at least a moderately active lifestyle (even a 20 minute walk everyday). This story is sure to stir up some opinions and hopefully warrants further study into complete nutritional alternatives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s unfortunate the capitalist system we live with doesn’t foster a healthy environment for people to live in, making sure people have access to quality food. I’m optimistic things will change though.

      Like

      • Capitalism doesn’t offer people access to quality food? Try living in Soviet Russia, North Korea or Feudal Europe and tell me capitalism is bad. Look at the levels of food produced in capitalist and non capitalist societies and tell me that capitalism is somehow denying people access to quality food.

        Like

      • Politics aside, the soil simple doesn’t contain the nutrients it did even 30 years ago. Paired with highly processed diets it is no wonder nutrient deficiency is so widespread, even among “healthy” individuals.

        Like

      • Hahaha, you compared American Capitalism to Soviet Russia, North Korea and MIDDLE AGE EUROPE… Damn, your statement clearly shows where this American Predatory Capitalism (Unfortunate Status Quo) belongs. Among the worst systems in the history of humanity. If you look at Asia and Europe, South America and so forth as an average, they offer much much healthier food than corporate America, that is for sure. America haven’t been a true capitalist country in decades, I hope you wake up.

        Like

      • I do agree with Matt Myers on this one. Maybe worded a bit differently. It’s not so much that capitalism denies access to healthy food, but unfortunately like water running down hill, just follow the flow of money. Whether it’s the government subsidizing corn farmers and making Dorito’s a home run financially, or making it much more profitable for corporations to sell high sodium high shelf life foods than healthier foods, the water flows to higher profit not so healthy foods. Combine that with a general lack of education regarding nutrition, and you have a perfect storm. Unfortunate. Maybe not a direct correlation to capitalism, and I’m not suggeting that communism or something in between would be better, but the problem is real and seems to be getting worse….

        Like

    • Jeff- I couldn’t have said it better! It’s scary to think we have to start coming up with alternative nutritional choices because of the quality of our food (or lack of food). I agree this needs further testing and experimentation!

      Like

      • Agreed it needs more testing than 1 person’s story but what a fantastically well document experiment!

        Fair few people find excellent results by cutting out food (like 5:2 diet attached) but having all nutrients you need makes more sense to me instead of just IF.

        In future I would imagine your Soylent could be tailored to your exact body’s requirement, how awesome would that be!

        Like

    • Jeff – agreed. I do see this product having great potential for 3rd-world countries that have limited food and resources, but for the typical American or 1st-world person, I don’t see the appeal over whole foods other than ease of preparation.

      For people with money and access to real food, why choose “Frankenfoods” over some hearty steak, greens, and fruits? (And lets not get started on “red meat causing heart attacks” – http://www.brainbodybelly.com/2013/02/05/red-meat-and-heart-attacks/ – <— This states my thoughts exactly.)

      Like

      • if soylent is costing USD 3.10 (190 rupees) per meal then its very expensive for 3rd world countries to afford. in India one can get a decent meal for 20 rupees but soylent would cost almost 10 times. its an expensive substitute at current rate.

        Liked by 1 person

    • @ jeff look at what a typical college student eats – mostly junk food. it’s amazing that the human body is able to consume such crap and still function. I think soylent is a excellent idea – however it’s just a new positioning in marketing and not really something totally new as meal replacements have been around for a long time. The novel idea is consuming only a meal replacement and no whole foods. That is the controversially.

      Like

      • This is the root of the problem in a sense, most people eat junk regularly. They know better, they understand it is unhealthy, but they choose to do it anyway. It is not enough to simply know what is healthy and what isn’t, most of the time it takes a severe health condition to open their eyes and prompt dietary changes. I run into this problem daily through my health blog, I promote a total immune health supplement that is simply outstanding, an ingredient list that is bar none. But regardless of how remarkable this product is, and highlighting just what it can do for your health, people have a hard time coming to terms with spending the money on their health. Now bring that full circle to making wise dietary choices and the same problem arises, people don’t want to make the effort or spend the money on their health. If you simply focus on prevention and make healthy choices before your health is compromised you can not only prevent these health conditions from arising in the first place, but you can dramatically improve your well-being and quality of life.

        Like

  2. Fascinating post, Tim and Shane. Tim, after reading your argument against plant-based diets in 4HB (“we don’t know what we don’t know” about the body and nutrition), I’d be up in arms if you didn’t say the same thing here. Glad you did.

    I can’t see how this can possibly be good for long-term health, but then again, I’m a whole-foodist. But for helping provide bare-minimum nutrition in situations where it’s inconvenient or impossible (or unaffordable)? I think that’s where Soylent could prove extremely useful.

    Like

  3. First!

    Is it primarily derived from soy? I am not a big fan of soy products and think it should be avoided most of the time. I used to be a big fan of making homemade protein drinks as they can be easily digested, but for me having carbohydrates such as berries, bananas causes me to feel very bloated.

    From personal experience and also research I think that people need different amounts of micro and macro-nutrients depending on a number of factors which are hard if not impossible to calculate or find out. I know that personally since I deal with a number of uncommon health issues which are primarily genetic that I need extra amounts of b vitamins than other people. Also many vitamins/minerals have several different forms which people respond to differently and some are better absorbed than others.

    For example vitamins/minerals which are oxides are not easily absorbed and are the worst form to supplement with. Also supplements with with sulfate or sulfur compounds in them (thiols) can cause problems with a number of people. Other examples such as taking folic acid (the synthetic form of the b vitamin) are not recommended and people should supplement with the methyfolate form or other forms of folate.

    Liked by 1 person

      • The body can tolerate it but it has no advantages over other foods. Soy should be avoided mostly due to the polyunsaturated fat, the fact that its likely GMO, and the anti-nutrients/phytoestrogens it contains.

        Like

      • Just read the ingredients; soy lecithin is the twelveth ingredient, third from last. It seems rice is the source of protein (third ingredient) and it is more an oat-rice based drink than soy so the name is missleading. I would try it since it’s not all or mostly soy and the amount since so little.

        Like

      • GMO does not equal bad. GMOs are fighting malnutrition and deforestation. Can we please stop blending agricultural monopolies with GMO production.

        Like

      • @Matt

        GMOs may be causing a different kind of malnutrition since the body does not know always how to process it, and deforestation can be solve many other ways (urban sprawl restrictions, more stringent rainforest protection, less eating of meat since it takes 7 pounds of corn in to create one pound of beef out, etc).

        My perception is that Richard’s comment is valid to consider.

        Like

      • And what if soy products make up a substantial part of a persons diet, not just a small serving here and there?

        I understand that journalistic sensationalism has exaggerated the entire ‘dangerous soy’ notion.

        But, lots of products nowadays contain soy and therefore many people aren’t even aware sometimes when they ingest it. I mean it was a shocker to me once I realized how many Whey products contain soy, not to forget protein bars and other bodybuilding products.

        Also isn’t this a contradiction?

        “If you even reach a level where soy is causing you problems, the problem is your overall diet, not soy.”

        If soy is causing you problems how is it for sure be your overall diet that is messed up, isn’t that individual? What if a person eats only healthy whole foods, like veggies, fish & eggs, except he or she also consumes a large serving of soy protein powder every day, are you saying this couldn’t possible be a problem, and IF the person has problems it must be the overall diet that causes problems?

        Sorry if I misunderstood you, but your wording was very confusing to me.

        Like

      • You are again confusing the little amounts in day to day food as if they add up as “toxins” that will get you sick.

        That’s not how it works.

        Plus, soy is heavily treated. The “phytoestrogens” that everyone freaks about is irrelevant.

        The link I put in already covers it, but here are the specifics: http://examine.com/faq/is-soy-good-or-bad-for-me.html#summary6

        This isn’t even a matter of focusing on the tree in a forest, it’s more like focusing on a sapling in a forest.

        Like

      • Ummm.. the phytoestrogens can be quite harmful..as they can create make hormones unbalanced esp for women. Plus, can’t digest soy. Soy was never ever meant to consumed in large

        Like

      • Now, that really depends which study you read isn’t it?
        There’s also plenty of evidence that increased soy consumption in Eastern countries is a contributor in lower cancer rates.
        There is really a lot of nonsense going on about nutrition and for nutritionists and researchers, it’s frustrating because sometimes results aren’t published or made public just because it’s not “breaking news” or what the public cares about. So it’s still far too early to say soy goes one way or another. Like another comment mentioned, we still don’t know enough about the human body so nothing is really for sure. All we can do is eat as healthy as we can, enjoy the food (or lack of) and not argue over little details. If you’re not a big fan of soy, then don’t eat it. If you hate blueberries, then don’t eat it. It’s really as simple as that. Is forcing yourself to eat something you don’t like really worth the small risk reduction in cancer some time down the road? Especially if our biggest risk for cancer is already hard coded into us?
        Here’s a great paper (if you’re into the science) that summarizes a lot of what we know on soy.
        Non-isoflavone phytochemicals in soy and their health effects
        Authors: J Kang; TM Badger; MJ Ronis; X Wu
        Published in: Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 2010 Jul 28; 58(14): 8119-33
        (Sorry I can’t link to it, I found it on an academic database. But probably available wherever you can find this journal)

        Like

    • If you read the entire article you would know that it is NOT made with soy or people. But seriously, I think the way this product will be used is not as a complete meal replacement where whole food is not consumed at all but as a meal supplement. The majority of people will not give up eating food entirely but instead use soylent as a meal supplement in addition to solid food. I’ve been using muscle milk as a meal supplement for a long time. It’s very convenient.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m all for food alternatives… But there’s a problem with Soylent – and it’s in the name. It’s primarily made with soy. Soy by some is touted is a miracle food – yet others say Soy intake leads to increase estrogen levels in men and also tends to lower your testosterone levels. The lack of estrogen and the testosterone are two key ingredients to make men men… Increased estrogen and decreased testosterone make it more difficult to add muscle mass and worse super simple to lose it – as demonstrated in your documents. As a guy in his 40’s when test levels start to drop naturally this is a really bad thing. As a guy in his 20’s doing this wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea. Of course, being smaller is better because there’s less stress on the body and the organs but less muscle could lead to all sorts of issues down the road… Less testosterone will also have a long term cost. Just things to consider. Now substitute soy with some other ingredient, change the name and you could have a winner. ;) (It’ll be a winner anyway I imagine, but I won’t be partaking…)

    Like

      • Just read the ingredients; soy lecithin is the twelveth ingredient, third from last. It seems rice is the source of protein (third ingredient) and it is more an oat-rice based drink than soy based so the name is missleading. I would try it since it’s not all or mostly soy and the amount since so little.

        Like

      • soy lecithin is in pretty much every other processed food. Dont freak out because you read the word soy somewhere luddites!

        Like

    • Except that there’s no soy in Soylent. The name is a play off the famous Charles Heston quote “Soylent Green is people!” and that it was “everything the body needs”.

      Like

    • you realize that there’s actually no soy in there right? But I guess it might be a good idea for them to rebrand simply because there will be people who wont bother to find out and assume that it contains soy. Because reading is so last century!

      Like

    • “Soy intake leads to increase estrogen levels in men and also tends to lower your testosterone levels. The lack of estrogen and the testosterone are two key ingredients to make men men”

      Yawn. This is simply not supported by evidence.

      Like

    • John, John, John, Did you read the article? Soylent contains very little soy. Soylent is named after the Charlton Heston cult film Soylent Green. Soylent Green was made up of human beings, yum!

      Like

  5. Good cautionary statements. I want to point out that a lot of people are mistaking a sudden burst of energy as proof that soylent works – if anything, it likely means you were missing some critical mineral/vitamin and soylent was able to fulfill *that* deficiency. I would not be surprised if Shane had originally been deficient in a combination of Mg, D, and/or Zinc (Mg is a common deficiency). On the flip side, it may be creating deficiencies that will not rear their head well down the road.

    I also think the amount of protein is still a bit too low – that Shane thought he was getting “tons of protein” shows how much confusion there still is on the importance of protein.

    Lastly, I’d point out that the vitamin RDAs are based on staving off diseased states (D = rickets, K = hemorrhaging, etc). If soylent is indeed going for optimal, it should be dosing D (and other minerals/vitamins) at a higher level.

    Like

  6. Agree with your analysis and think they should think hard about your questions.

    To me, the whole premise of Soylent seems flawed – trying to reverse-engineer a magic pill from our current (limited) understanding of nutrition. Very reductive and coming at things from entirely the wrong angle.

    As you say, history is littered with examples of magic pills that were magic up until someone realised they weren’t. (and were in fact poison.)

    Until nutrition is an exact a science as physics or chemistry, we need a different approach: look at healthy people, see what they’re eating, start from there, and iterate as necessary.

    A wholistic paleo-ish philosophy makes infinitely more sense than Soylent: look at the populations that were highly physically functional, fertile and disease free, see what they ate, and see what happens when we eat like that.

    Test and tweak as necessary, informed by biochemistry but guided primarily by the diets and lifestyles of cultures that were healthy.

    Like

    • I think your requests here for reverse engineering “populations that were highly physical functional, fertile and disease free” are borderline impossible – to the best of my knowledge, we don’t have especially good information on the history of nutrition, especially when it comes down to precise quantities of nutrients.

      Personally, I think the additive model (as per Soylent’s approach) is much better than the subtractive model – start with the absolute minimum that we know is required by the human body, test, measure, then add things as deficiencies become apparent. Yes, this is a little risky because it means people will risk nutritional deficiencies (though so many people already have these – how many people are actually getting blood tests to measure their basics? I’m sure as hell not!), and needs to be carefully monitored and controlled, however I think it will lead the best overall results in the least time. I think this is in concurrence with your notion that nutrition should become a more precise science.

      Like

      • We have plenty of data on healthy and comparatively disease-free (heart disease, cancer, obesity, etc) societies. Kitivans, Aboriginals, Inuits, American Indians. And there were big variations in their diets, which is great – it shows there are many ways to support a healthy body. So let’s start with one of those diets, then test, tweak and iterate. This is the Paleo approach and it works amazingly well.

        Reductively trying to piece together the right balance of nutrients is folly because we don’t know anywhere near the whole picture of what nutrients are important.

        The whole approach is wrong. How about eating what we’ve evolved to eat, rather than reverse-engineering the magic pill then finding out too late that it misses a huge chunk of critical nutrients that we didn’t even know were important. Or that digestion of solid food is important. Or that certain nutrients compete for absorption and need to be consumed at different times. etc etc etc.

        The Soylent approach is vulnerable to all sorts of black swans. Eating in the way that ancient healthy societies ate, however (or approximating as best we can with modern foods) is much more robust.

        “It’s not the beta-carotene… it’s the carrot”.

        Like

      • if it isnt the beta-carotene it isnt the carrot. it’s something else inside the carrot. after all theres alot in the carrot we dont need and cant digest. what you need to do is find out whats in the carrot pull that out and feed it to people. thise whole food thing is bunk, nutrients in food ARE atomic theres nothing magic about the molecules plants make.

        Like

    • Rich I agree with you and I think Tim you would too. Rich referred to study healthy people and copy what they are doing to get healthy and ‘tweak’ for individual needs.

      Just like Tony Robbins studied successful people and modeled their behavior and created success, to hack the food issue we need, for example, to model communities of healthy people like people who live on certain Islands off Japan and hack their behavior by coping their diet of sweet potatoes etc.

      I believe Tim has shown food preparation can be a joy and not a burden when you are well organized. Meal preparation can be a celebration not a chore (and it helps free the mind from the constant focus on work activities)

      Shane,

      We all know a small sample size is not science but I give you Shane credit for your willingness to share and be criticized by the community, this takes courage.

      However, I think Shane you know drinking out of plastic water bottles, milk as breakfast and fast food for any meal is not an ideal base diet. Tests of effectiveness need to be based on subjects that like Tim already know the core habits of healthy diet and practice them.

      Worth noting: I see Shane you have a Culligan filter on your tap, good idea. I recommend you switch from plastic water bottles to choose stainless steel. Get a stainless steel water bottle for children you know as well.

      Tim, thanks for the post I had not heard of Soylent.

      Have a great day,
      David

      Like

  7. We need to first think about his diet prior to the Soylent experiment… vegetarian. This is not a healthy or balanced diet, no matter how you look at it. This is analogous to saying that someone with a standard American diet is going to benefit by going to vegan/vegetarian diets. Of course. Does that mean “optimal” for the human body? Never. Could you survive on Soylent? It appears so. The question to be asked and tested is can you THRIVE on Soylent.

    Like

    • “We need to first think about his diet prior to the Soylent experiment… This is not a healthy or balanced diet, no matter how you look at it.”

      Because it’s missing meat? lol

      Like

      • Yes. I believe it is extremely difficult to have a well balanced diet without addition of animal products.
        Not to mention he regards himself as being “health conscious” yet is binge eating awful foods on the weekend as well as eating refined and processed foods on a daily basis.

        Like

  8. All you’ve done is avoid anti-nutrients, which is why you’re feeling much better (and consequently felt like trash after you started on food again). This will not end well in the long term as you’re missing a lot of minute cofactors. We could tweak the formula to adjust for them though ;)

    Like

    • Other problems you’ll run into are different ingredients in your current formula will inhibit the absorption of others. Zinc inhibits the absorption of copper, for example, and this is not something you’ll notice a deficiency in over a period of two weeks.
      I agree you don’t need a nutritional background to formulate something like this, however, you do need to ask more questions of the formulation.
      No Vitamin K2? Hmmm… I wonder what effect a deficiency in that will have? Better hit Google, because I guarantee you will want to add it into your formula!
      Which then poses the question “is it water soluble?”

      I’m a product development Chemist. If you want a hand in actually formulating a superior product, let me know :)

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      • Hi Aaron,

        Agreed that there are definite limitations with both water solubility and — as a consumed liquid — flavor profile that consumers will tolerate. Neither factor necessarily optimizes for nutritional content, and both can force sacrifices.

        It’s a tough problem, and kudos to the Soylent team for at least attempting to deconstruct it.

        Tim

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      • It can be tackled, Tim. They just need to think outside the box regarding product delivery. Do you think you could put me in contact with them to help the product? As you’d know, there are specific emulsifiers that double as nutritional bonuses, like phospholipids that could help with the fat solubility.

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      • Tim,

        Interesting read. Just a note: the Inbody 230 uses DSM-BIA technology (very different from BIA). I would link the research, but a quick google study will afford you the same knowledge. Best….

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  9. Many comments that I would add, I’ll stick with this one: I believe there’s something inherently good with the process of food preparation; from growing, to harvesting and cooking into marvelous pieces of art. There’s a philosophical aspect to food, and a spiritual one. It makes our culture, culture makes food.

    As a replacement for a couple of meals a week, this is an excellent idea, if done correctly. I can’t buy into the idea of humans drinking food out of a bottle for the next centuries though.

    Like you Tim, I wish them the best of lucks in trying to figure it out.

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  10. I agree with the above comment, for the most part. I think the inventor of this drink took an overly simplistic look at what the human body ‘needs’. I would speculate that even a biochemist does not know the exact nutrients, both macro and micro, for the human body. I would not have as much as a problem with this persons experiment if he’d atleast admit his own ignorance in creating such a product. This is not to be taken as harmful criticism, even a nutritionist/biochemist would not admit to understanding all the mechanisms of the human body.

    The problem is at the end of the article his data shows that he lost more muscle mass than fat! That should not happen under most circumstances. If it did humans would not have been able to survive some 10,000 years ago.

    In addition, some of the numbers are a little ambiguous, and I doubt he even understands what they represent; this is not to say that I understand all the data either. For example, the data showed that his white blood cell count (basophils and monocytes) went up, as if that was a positive outcome from his experiment. However, you could argue the very opposite and claim that his body was under stress from a unfamiliar diet which caused his white blood cell count to rise, which is actual a more reasonable claim.

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  11. My takeaway is that this isn’t a zero sum game. While these types of “all Soylent all the time” tests are interesting, I assume the average consumer isn’t looking to replace all their food with Soylent, but instead use it as the odd meal replacement. I.e. I don’t have time to go out and get breakfast, so I’ll just have a Soylent. Just doing that I’m sure will be much healthier than the current “I’ll just skip breakfast” or snacking on junk food.

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    • Hi Adarsh,

      Totally agreed. However, they need to ensure the product is safe if they’re positioning it as a potential full-time meal replacement. I know plenty of people who will take that literally and pay whatever price (known or unknown) as a result.

      Cheers,

      Tim

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  12. I am just so skeptical of this. And I also don’t know how it’s going to fix world hunger when you need access to water, refrigeration, and a blender. I do like the idea overall, and Shane’s results are promising.

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    • I could be missing something, but I don’t think it requires refrigeration, which makes it perfect for shipping and storing in poor countries. The access to clean water thing (and it was mentioned in the post) is valid: we need to be developing that too. Blending things is easy enough without electricity, so that’s taken care of.

      Solving water would be fantastic in itself, but having a cheap nutrition to add would probably save a lot of suffering.

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      • I believe that the reason it is pictured in a fridge afterwards is because after being made up (by adding water) it should be refrigerated… Or possibly it just tastes/feels better when cold, not luke warm! Again, the blender is helpful, but you can shake it and mix it properly, he was just being lazy!! They addressed these issues on the Soylent creators’ blog page.

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  13. My greatest concern is around the lack of understanding of everything the body needs. Beyond even Vitamins and Minerals which have been discovered, there are thousands of phytochemicals (and very likely tens of thousands of phytochemicals) which our body needs.

    We have absolutely not discovered all of the phytochemicals and other compounds which we need in our diet. The only way to get all of these now is to eat fresh foods – fruits and vegetables mostly.

    As a supplement to a regular diet, I see little issue with Soylent, but as a total meal replacement, I agree with you Tim – this is potentially very dangerous. Thanks for bringing to the attention of the public.

    Regarding a number of the results, I’d say you get the same results from intermittent fasting, including the increased mental clarity. It’s a great write up on Soylent, I’m glad we all get to share in it!

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    • I think you make a good point on the intermittent fasting. It seems to me as though during the test he may have expelled some yeast (white matter) half way into the trial. This could explain the rise in mental clarity.

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  14. It seems probable that soylent is better than much of the manufactured food on the market. It also seems unlikely that soylent is better than quality whole food.

    I take a Talebian approach. We don’t know what we don’t know about food. I’d like to address two of Shane’s points:

    The body needs whole foods, not atomic nutrients; the synergy between diverse ingredients is what matters in nutritional uptake.
    –> This sounds nice, but has not been scientifically proven. (Shane links to the naturalistic fallacy)

    It’s true that nature doesn’t prove something is good. We can nonetheless have a strong presumption that the body does best on whole foods.

    We have thousands of years of history of humans doing well on whole foods, and zero evidence that the human body can do as well on artificial foods.

    Nassim Taleb would tell us there is a presumption in favour of natural system that has stood the test of time. Human biology is very, very complex. If whole foods serve it well, they may do so for reasons we can fathom.

    One problem for Soylent is that it would have to prove itself safe on the timescale of a human lifetime. That’s very, very hard to do.

    Shane’s second point

    We don’t know what we don’t know about nutrition (i.e. Soylent might be unexpectedly harmful).
    —> That’s not a good reason to not try to innovate. Why not do some tests?

    See my point above. How can you test that Soylent is better than whole foods? There is a massive potential for false positives.

    With natural foods, if something seems effective, it probably is. We would have discovered poisonous or second order effects long ago.

    With an artificial food like soylent, it could appear effective for, say, ten years, while introducing a variety of malignant effects.

    Or maybe it is totally healthy. I have no idea. How can we know? You can’t prove a good is safe without using it for a long, long time.

    That said, I would expect soylent to be better than a diet of pure artificial junk food, as many americans eat. They’re also engineered foods, but in that case we can positively identify the harm.

    One additional problem of soylent: the designers assume we need a steady inejection of the same macronutrients every time we eat.

    We know positively that this is false. Bodybuilders have long known that carbohydrates are more effective after a workout. As with increased protein after a workout.

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    • Solid comment, Graeme. Thank you. I should also say that — in my opinion — the burden of proof should fall on the party making the claim.

      Thus, Soylent cannot prove their product is safe by countering with “No one has proven Soylent unsafe.”

      Tim

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      • That’s not an opinion, Tim. The burden of proof is always on the claimaint, whether the claim is positive (i.e. Soylent is safe as a meal replacement) or negative (i.e. Soylent is not a sufficient meal replacement). Curiosity implies skepticism of the negative claim, and concern over lack of evidence implies skepticism of the positive claim, and at the moment both are warranted.

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    • That is the key point when talking about safety.
      Safe compared to what? The average american diet? I think they really have to screw things up to come up short in that comparison.
      I believe the majority of americans would be better of going all in on soylent compared to the “safe” processed sugary fatty food they over indulge in causing them all sorts of health issues.
      Put the average american diet as a comparison as opposed the ideal diet that no (or very few) people actually eat. A comparison to the perfect diet isnt very interesting in my view.

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    • I have to disagree with Graeme on his thinking here. To paraphrase, “Nothing that hasn’t been tested for (what, centuries?) can conclusively be called safe, and must therefore be avoided at all costs.” If that’s your heartfelt belief, you best get off the internet right away. It’s only been tested for about 30 years, and shows every sign of causing numerous health issues. New things must be tried an tested, or nothing can ever change. Even foods that we have been comfortable with for ages can have detrimental effects – peanuts seem to be trying to kill more and more people every year, despite over 7000 years of tests.
      Some injuries may result from the testing and fine-tuning of this new product, as they do from every new product. As long as it is not overtly dangerous, and changes are made to address issues as they are found, I can’t imagine any reason to abandon this idea just to cling to the status quo. Personally, I hope to be included as part of the test group to use this item as an attempt to replace whole foods. That’s been a hope and goal of mine for years, and I doubt I’m alone in that.

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    • i dont understahnd what this thing about whole foods being special is about. molecules are molecules the molcules plants make arent any different from those same molecules made in a lab. if you get the right molecules in the right ratios into a person by whatever means they should do just as well as they would on actually grown food.

      that being said there is an arguement to be made that while not every chemical a plant makes is used by the body we may not know every chemical made by any plant that is actually used. nor may we yet know what role they play and which ones may be essential.

      and i say chemical because thats what they are. a vitamin is a chemical a protein is a chemical heck water is a chemical and chemicals are not by default bad or poisonous

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