How I Survived A Week Without Food
I consumed nothing but Soylent, a food-replacing beverage, for a week. Here's what happened to me (and my poop).
Click here for a step-by-step guide to making homemade Soylent
My best friend’s graduation ceremony starts in 10 minutes and I’m trying to suppress vomit at a Speedway.
It’s my third day on homemade Soylent—a food-replacing beverage made of nutrients in their raw chemical forms—and this is the second time I’ve made my friend Tom pull over on the way to the ceremony. I’ve been nauseous ever since chugging two glasses this morning, and every time I get out of the car, the fresh air helps just enough that I can’t make anything come up.
As I breathe deeply and wrestle down bile, Tom decides to wax philosophical. “I think every generation has its preferred word for vomit, and I think ours is ‘vom,'” he says. Speaking as someone about to vom, this does not help.
But somehow, I make it. My stomach settles. I see Sarah walk across the stage in her cap and gown and I don’t blow Soylent all over her family’s Sunday best.
Later, at my parents’ house, my dad walks in to the living room where Sarah and I are sitting with our other best friend, Cortney, who was recently accepted to several masters’ programs.
“It looks like you all deserve congratulations,” he says. “Sarah graduated, Cortney, you’re going to graduate school, and Julie, you didn’t vomit up that stuff.”
That stuff is the brainchild of Rob Rhinehart, a Silicon Valley software engineer who got fed up with food and went looking for an alternative. “Food just seems to pop up, like this obnoxious biological need that I need to get rid of,” he says.
When you’re on a liquid diet, everyone wants to know about your poop.
Basically, Rhinehart turned to the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended daily values for all the different nutrients we need—everything from carbohydrates and protein to things we only need a few micrograms of, like Vitamin K and selenium–and combined them into a drink he named Soylent. Rhinehart also includes a few things that aren’t strictly necessary, but which studies have shown to have positive effects, like lycopene and omega-3 fatty acids. Olive oil provides the fat; everything else is in powder form. Soylent is not yet commercially available, but Rhinehart has raised nearly half a million dollars on his crowdfunding campaign and says he is in talks with manufacturers.
Almost everything in Soylent comes in powder form
After living on only Soylent for a month, Rhinehart wrote a blog post called “How I Stopped Eating Food.” In four weeks, he had more energy, he claimed, his skin was clearer, his sleep better, his reflexes improved. And he lost 13 pounds.
The Internet, being the Internet, latched on quickly, and I was one of the many people who found myself intrigued by the little slice of science fiction that Rhinehart presented. It’s hard to be healthy. And no one can quite agree on how. (Paleo? Mediterranean diet? Eat food, not too much, mostly plants?) I want to believe that one drink could be a perfectly balanced diet, that it could help me sleep better, give me more energy, help me lose weight, clear up my skin. Rhinehart cautions me that weight loss is not the goal of Soylent, and, sure, that’s only part of its appeal. (Rhinehart also says Soylent could have implications for world hunger.) But it’s hard not to think of it as a silver bullet for all the problems we have with our bodies, especially when he’s gone and made the tagline for his product “Free Your Body.”
Some nutritionists refute Rhinehart’s claim that Soylent is healthy. One nutritionist told Business Insider that she sees “a red flag for a potential eating disorder.” Another accused Rhinehart of “hubris” on NPR, saying he shouldn’t assume he knows what his body needs.
Nevertheless, a small community of people determined to make their own Soylent sprung up and became active on forums (Rhinehart doesn’t officially recommend the homemade version, for liability reasons). One of those DIYers is my friend Tom, a chemical engineering grad student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the town over from where I grew up. “I have a weird thing to tell you,” he said on Gchat one day, and less than two weeks later I was on a bus to Michigan, determined to try it for myself.
For the month that he’s been on Soylent so far, Tom has been hiding his operation in his bathroom. A blender sits by the toothpaste on the counter, and he fills it with a variety of white powders–salt, fiber, potassium chloride, monosodium phosphate and maltodextrin (carbohydrates) from an enormous tub labeled “Muscle Feast” and adorned with a weirdly muscular dog. A liquid multivitamin, some whey protein (pick your flavor: chocolate, strawberry or plain), olive oil and some water to dilute it, and we end up with a blenderful of fizzing, frothy liquid, a watery beige color like the peeling paint of a high school hallway. Plus 13 pills to take that he didn’t grind up and put in the drink, for the sake of avoiding chunks.
I tilt the glass up to my lips but don’t drink, like leaning over the edge of a cliff. Tom chugs his down in mere seconds. I take a cautious sip, and it’s immediately clear that his approach was better.
“This is the moment when you realize you’ve resigned yourself to drinking this for a week,” he says.
It is not good.
The chocolate, strawberry and plain-flavored whey makes the Soylent taste like a chocolate malt, a strawberry wafer cookie and a vanilla milkshake, respectively, except not quite. It’s as though an alien race tried to recreate the taste of those things out of chemicals they had available to them and they came very, very close, but couldn’t quite make it. There’s a chemical aftertaste that lingers, rising in your throat like a vapor. After that first day, I stick to the “plug and chug” system—plug your nose and chug it.
The author, demonstrating the “plug and chug” system
The thing I notice most about living on Soylent is how I don’t feel particularly different. In fact, most of the time, I feel no extremes at all. I’m not hungry, I’m not full, I’m not tired, I’m not particularly energetic. The nausea on the way to Sarah’s graduation seems to be a fluke associated with the plain whey; neither strawberry nor chocolate make me sick. Drinking Soylent doesn’t make me feel full in the classical sense; there’s no heaviness in my stomach, no food baby. I just stop being hungry. Which is not to say I don’t want food. The first night, Tom and I go out with friends and drink beers, watching while they chow down on burgers and macaroni and cheese.
“You took me to a place that has pulled pork nachos?” I accuse, looking at the menu.
On day two, my dad makes barbecue and my family eats it in front of me, unconvincingly calling it “gross,” for my sake. On night four I have a dream that I can’t take it anymore and I eat a meatball sandwich, only to make myself throw it up so I don’t ruin the integrity of this article. On day six I tell a friend that never having a food baby is overrated, that if I had one now I would cherish it and care for it. I would put headphones on my stomach and play it Baby Mozart if only I could eat a hamburger.
I tell people I’ve ‘transcended food.’
But these are isolated incidents, and for the most part, I find the ease alluring. I never have to think about what I’m going to eat, or decide between packing a lunch and being on time to work. Though I have cravings, I’m never actually hungry. I tell people I’ve “transcended food.” In seven days, I lose three and a half pounds, and two and a half inches off my waist. And my skin is clearer.
I get used to living on Soylent. I usually take my pills and drink two glasses in the morning, one around lunchtime and one for dinner. I think of it much in the same way I do exercise–you just have to make yourself miserable for a finite period of time, to reap the benefits later. When I stop to think, on the second to last day, that I haven’t chewed and swallowed something in six days–such a seemingly basic process–it feels incredibly strange.
To combat the weirdness of being on a liquid diet, I chew a lot of gum. But I’m careful not to swallow it. Tom made that mistake in his early days of Soylent, which of course meant the only solid thing in his stomach was the gum. “When push came to shove,” as he puts it, he spent a good amount of time in the bathroom. Apparently it felt a lot like blowing a bubble.
When you’re on a liquid diet, everyone wants to know about your poop. Rhinehart says reporters (myself included) ask him about it all the time. I bring some Soylent home to Chicago to finish out my week, and it’s the first thing my co-workers ask me.
“You want your poop to be soft, like a snake,” one of them advises.
Rhinehart says he still poops on Soylent, just much less. I’m a little loath to go into too much detail on my experience in case I ever have a date with an overzealous Googler, but I will say I spend more time in the bathroom than Rhinehart led me to expect, and on that fateful plain whey day I climb higher on the Bristol Stool Scale than I ever care to again. The other days aren’t so bad, though.
My last day of Soylent is bittersweet. “Soylent, my old friend,” I say aloud in my kitchen to no one. “We’ve had some times together, have we not?” I go to the grocery store, because there is no food in my house, and think of it as “shopping for my new life,” which is…weird. I get overwhelmed by all of the different flavors available to me. I almost don’t remember the taste of anything else.
Almost everyone has expressed disbelief that I’ve made it this long. “You didn’t cheat once?” my boss asks. “You didn’t sneak a bite of anything?”
Even Tom, who was supposed to be my partner in this journey, let me down. He only made it three days in a row.
“You are weak and I hate you,” I tell him.
I think of my Soylent journey as my own personal “There and Back Again” (both “there” and “back” often being “to the bathroom”). Perhaps the lasting value of this experiment will be proof of my fortitude. If I can force myself to live on only Soylent in the face of mac and cheese, my dad’s barbecue and pulled pork nachos, surely I can make myself eat healthy things that I don’t have to plug my nose while ingesting once in a while. On my first day back on food, though, I purchase and consume an entire pizza. So I guess we’ll see.