Welcome to Bad Ideas, a column in which we examine the practical limits of technology by considering the things you could do and then investigating exactly why you shouldn’t. Because you can still learn from mistakes you’ll never make.
Inearly 2013, software engineer Rob Rhinehart wrote a blog post about how he had stopped eating food. Instead, he was consuming a meal replacement powder of his own design. He called it soylent.
Within a few months, Rhinehart launched a very successful crowdfunding campaign and, over the course of four years, took on over $75 million in venture capitalist (VC) funding to turn lowercase “s” soylent into uppercase “S” Soylent, marketing it to the masses. The drink was made of a mix of oat flour, maltodextrin, brown rice protein, canola oil, fish oil, soluble fiber, and 27 vitamins and minerals, and it was hyped as the tech industry’s attempt to disrupt food. After it failed to change the world — mostly because of the limited appeal of bland, nutrient-rich oat water and partially because it made people sick — Soylent pivoted to conventional food. The future of eating became a thing of the past.
But maybe, amid a pandemic that now has 3 in 4 of all Americans in lockdown, it might be worth revisiting Soylent. Restaurants are closed. Delivery services are overburdened. Regular grocery shopping is now a nerve-wracking hourslong process in which we all try to balance getting the food we need while trying to limit the potential harm to others.
“The DIY scene was started by the idea of Soylent and kind of spurred by the lack of availability of Soylent.”
While some out here are leaning hard into home cooking, it might actually be a good time to perfect self-sustenance. Instead of turning to official Soylent, though, I decided to take a more DIY approach and see whether I could survive five days on nothing but a meal replacement I made myself. After all, in these times, it might be better to rely on what you have in your own cupboard rather than venturing outside for branded bottles of mush. Arguably, buying an extra tub of protein powder or hitting up the vitamins section of your local pharmacy might put less strain on the system than clearing out the canned goods section of your local grocery store.
The approach is not without precedent. After all, the DIY soylent scene is as old, if not older, than Soylent itself.
“The DIY scene was started by the idea of Soylent and kind of spurred by the lack of availability of Soylent,” says Alex Cho Snyder, the founder of his own soylent company, Super Body Fuel, and the creator of a popular DIY soylent recipe, which I would be using.
While Soylent may claim to be a single universal solution to replacing food, Snyder and thousands of other amateur nutritionists have been hard at work perfecting meal replacement powders that work for a broad spectrum of tastes and dietary needs. So although uppercase “S” Soylent is not quite as high profile as it once was, there are still plenty of people drinking lowercase “s” soylent these days. And now I would join their ranks.
Carefully following a DIY soylent recipe I found online, I mixed a bowl of brown powder in my kitchen.
Inside a blend of oat flour, protein powder, soluble fiber, and an assortment of vitamins and minerals. Empirically, this bowl contained all the food I would need for the next five days.
I felt at peace looking into the bowl, or maybe I was feeling a little hysterical. Outside my house raged a pandemic that could potentially kill hundreds of thousands of people and has already left three million American workers unemployed. It was nice to look at that bowl of brown powder and know that, no matter what might happen, in order to sustain myself all I would have to do is scoop some brown powder into a bottle, add some water and olive oil, shake it up, and drink it.
As an amateur bike racer, I’m already accustomed to sucking down energy gels, chugging protein shakes after workouts, and consuming other various sorts of performance-minded foods that look weird, taste off, and almost always come in a foil wrapper. In other words, I’m used to not always thinking about eating “food” to “nourish” myself but rather staying on top of my “nutrition” to “fuel” my body. Making and drinking my own soylent was, in a way, just a logical extension of that.
Unlike the premade Soylent, I could change my soylent to suit my own needs. I swapped the plain protein powder for my favorite brand of chocolate protein powder. I decided to use almond milk instead of water. I settled on a blend of oat flour, chocolate whey protein powder, psyllium husk powder, chia seeds, vitamin and mineral powders, salt, almond milk, and olive oil. The goal here wasn’t to suffer through it but to make a meal replacement powder that would taste nice and also give me all the calories, fat, protein, and nutrients I needed. It didn’t have to be awful.
On paper, it looked like a high-tech nutrient slush. But when I mixed everything up into a shaker bottle, it was obvious that what I was about to eat was nothing more than a bottle of overnight oats blended with a protein shake and some vitamin powder. My first “meal” confirmed that, yes, I’d brewed a more drinkable kind of overnight oats. It tasted fine, like a muted, chocolate smoothie — smooth, sweet, vaguely oaty — although the olive oil was a little weird. Most importantly, after downing a 28-ounce serving, I felt full.
The biggest hurdle I had to overcome wasn’t the taste but rather just how boring it was to eat now. Preparing and cooking food is so well-integrated into my life that grabbing a bottle of my DIY soylent out of the fridge was so unceremonious. It felt silly to just sit at my kitchen table and drink my meal. But I also didn’t like how easy it was for me to just sip it while I was doing something else — unintentionally making my life too efficient.
Dinner times were the most difficult. As someone who works from home for a living, cooking dinner serves as kind of a hard stop to my working day. Now that “cooking” dinner only required me getting a bottle out of the fridge, it was hard to make that transition.
More serious difficulties emerged. At the end of my first day, I weighed myself and was surprised to see that I had already dropped three pounds — the most rapid weight loss I’d seen in months. It was concerning, but I chalked it up to the possibility that I was just consuming a more nutrient-dense food. But when I woke up the next morning and weighed myself again, I had dropped another two pounds. I went from concerned to alarmed.
For one, losing five pounds over the course of 24 hours is extremely unhealthy. But also, I wasn’t sure how exactly I was losing weight. There’s no way my body could drop five pounds of fat in that short amount of time, so where else could it be coming from? Nutrient-wise, my concoction had everything I needed. Or so I thought.
On a ride with my girlfriend that day, she pointed out the obvious: Maybe I just wasn’t consuming enough calories? Until then, I had always assumed that 2,000 calories was the USDA-recommended daily requirement and sort of loosely based my own eating habits around that. My DIY soylent was designed with the same target in mind. When we got back from my ride, I double-checked the USDA guidelines and found that or my age and activity level, I needed to be consuming 3,000 calories a day, not 2,000. Combine that with the possibility that I was also consuming less salt, and thus retaining less water, and it started to make sense why my weight had inadvertently dipped.
Preparing and cooking food is so well-integrated into my life that grabbing a bottle of my DIY soylent out of the fridge was so unceremonious.
It was just a stupid error on my part, accidentally starving myself, but it was also instructive. That night, I swapped out the olive oil for a heaping spoon of peanut butter, doubled my serving, and planned on adding in a fourth shake to my daily diet. The following evening, my weight returned back to normal. Problem solved, I guess.
As it turns out, fine-tuning your DIY soylent recipe is all part of the process. “I still had been nowhere near successful in creating something that worked well for me after two months,” says Snyder. “It’s kind of embarrassing how little I knew in the beginning. But it was a very educational process, and after a while, you feel relatively qualified.”
This was the initial appeal of DIY soylent — to craft a replacement that meets your specific needs. And through that experimentation, we learn a little more about ourselves. In that way, making your own batch of soylent isn’t that far removed from the thing it’s supposedly trying to substitute for: cooking.
Snyder’s and my experiences line up with what researchers found in a 2017 study of the DIY soylent community. After interviewing dozens of soylent enthusiasts over the course of a year, the study’s authors found that getting into soylent increased their nutritional literacy. Thinking about nutrition in terms of numbers (calories, protein, and fat to consume) as opposed to things (a salad, a sandwich, a dinner) forces you to figure out what your body needs.
After my five-day experiment, I could see how something like making your own soylent could be a salve for a traumatic and uncertain time. It’s easy enough to whip up in the event that a global catastrophe has you too racked with stress to think about cooking. Eventually, I landed on a recipe that was right for me, and I got used to drinking every meal. My weight went back to normal. I felt full and fueled for my bike rides. It tastes fine, and you can get a week’s worth of ingredients at your local pharmacy for $75.
Even after I stopped eating my DIY soylent full-time, I still occasionally mixed up a bottle for some quick pre-bike ride breakfast, or a quick post-ride meal. It felt nice to just have this brown powder that I could just add water and feed myself in a pinch.
I’ve come to realize something that soylent enthusiasts have been saying all this time: You don’t need to make a binary choice between conventional food and soylent. Most of Snyder’s clients usually only eat it for breakfast or lunch. With all the time you now have in your kitchen, who’s to say you can’t go wild with your sourdough starters, your slowly braising meats, and your custom-formulated soylent.
There’s certainly a lot worse you could get up to while being cooped up for the next few months. And for what it’s worth, meal replacement powder doesn’t go bad.