The experiment is over, and my life is really different now.
Since the first week of July I’ve been eating only one solid meal per day, and I’ve never felt better. More than a month ago I began making my own nutritionally-complete liquid food, and subsisting on it for about two-thirds of my daily calories.
It’s based on a ready-made mix called Soylent, which I wrote about in May. I was really excited to try it, and finally did when a helpful reader sent me a day’s worth. However, the producer, Rosa Labs, is comically behind schedule filling their existing orders, and won’t begin shipping to Canada for probably another year.
So, I’ve joined many thousands of others by making a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) version, with ingredients purchased from grocery and health food stores. Essentially, you can make it with anything, as long as the ingredients
1) are edible
2) provide all necessary micro- and macro-nutrients in adequate amounts (there is an online nutrient calculator for doing that), and
3) result in a palatable substance
Usually, DIY recipes are cheaper than the commercial one, and you can tailor the ingredients to your preferences. Mine is made primarily of masa flour, oat flour and ground almonds. (The full recipe is at the bottom of this post.)
In my original Soylent post I used over two thousands words to explain why a healthy liquid food intrigued me. But now that I’ve experienced it, my short answer is this: imagine cutting your food bill in half, adding 2-3 hours of spare time to your day, and having more energy than you know what to do with.
This was the most interesting and successful of my 18 experiments so far. I experienced an immediate (and so far permanent) increase in energy. I don’t get tired until bedtime. I need less sleep and I’m not groggy when I wake up. Combined with the additional free time from reducing my cooking, grocery shopping and dish-washing duties, I have several extra hours a day that I didn’t have before.
But a lot more happened. This new way of eating had major effects on my life and my routine. These effects were overwhelmingly positive but there were a few downsides. Here’s a breakdown of the good, bad, and ugly/weird things I experienced. [NOTE: For convenience I refer to my homemade formula below as “soylent” with a small S, but it is not the same recipe as the commercial product.]
I feel physically “good” almost all the time. Not just neutral, but good. I have a lot more energy and I feel generally more capable and confident. At first this extra energy was almost overwhelming. It kind of made me giddy and I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I became used to it after a few weeks, and so the excitement about it went away, but I still feel good.
I don’t really get tired. There’s no afternoon wall, or even a speed bump. At bedtime, I’m ready to sleep, but I’m never dying to sleep. Even right before sleeping I can still read without the book falling on my face, or the sentences going blurry.
I cut trips to the grocery store in half, and I buy less when I do go. Other than soylent ingredients, my groceries are mostly broccoli, tofu, quinoa and brussels sprouts. My recipe costs about 4 dollars for a 2000-calorie batch, and overall my grocery bill is way down.
Traditional food tastes and smells better than it used to. In fact my senses of smell and taste seem to be keener overall. However, when I eat traditional food now I eat it more slowly, and I’m happier with smaller portions. Solid food also is a lot less tempting than it used to be — I still desire normal food, but I seldom crave it. Desserts and other delicious foods are nice, but they don’t turn me into Homer Simpson any more. It’s difficult to explain, but my default state just feels more “satisfied” now. I feel less needy in general.
No more congestion at night. I used to get a congested nose most of the time when I went to bed (I figured it was an allergic reaction to my pillow or something). I’m still not sure what caused it, but it went away. I also wake up less often during the night, which may be related to this or something else.
I experience much less resistance to anything that requires effort. I can switch tasks without the usual humming and hawing over it, I don’t get locked into internet surfing or Netflix as easily. I just find myself more “game” for anything — taking out the garbage, sitting down to write, heading to the store. I virtually stopped rescheduling runs and workouts.
Fat loss. I haven’t weighed myself but I am definitely leaner, both in my midsection and my face. I’ve been told I have a “healthy glow” and that my skin is clearer. I think this is simply a result from taking in fewer calories overall, rather than some magical fat-burning property of the soylent. I consume fewer calories because I overeat far less frequently and don’t snack much.
It frees up at least 2 hours a day. I sleep a little less (maybe 30-60 minutes less) but I’m not groggy for the first and last hour of the day any more. I can get right to work if I want to, and often I do. I also don’t need to prepare breakfast, or stop to cook lunch and clean up. Combined with the reduction in shopping, this adds up to several hours a day.
I have found it easier not to snack. Not only do salty/sugary/fatty snacks not attract me as much, but when I’ve only consumed soylent so far that day, I often prefer not to bother opening the “real food” floodgates until I have dinner.
Food decisions are way easier to make. If it’s breakfast or lunch I know what I’m having, and dinner is usually half a plate of steamed vegetables with a starch and a protein. I never have to ride that balance between a healthy choice and an entertaining one. I also feel less guilt about eating less-than-perfectly-healthy food when I’m out somewhere.
I sometimes have a 20-minute “crash” after consuming the soylent. I feel sluggish and headachey and kind of off for a bit, then I return to feeling good. This usually only happens when I consume a fair amount (600+ calories) in a short time. I’ve been trying to eliminate this, and it happens less frequently as time goes on, but it still happens seemingly at random. I think it has something to do with blood sugar spikes and I’m going to buy a blood sugar testing kit to see what I can learn.
At first I was a bit restless. Having more energy, I felt a need to be more active than was normal for me. This was very prominent in the first two weeks. This unpleasant edginess is gone now, and I think it was simply that I wasn’t psychologically used to sitting on all this energy. My routine became much more active over the last month — lots of walks, runs and bike rides — and I don’t feel hyper any more.
There is lingering taste in my mouth after drinking the soylent. I usually have to brush my teeth or chew gum after consuming soylent, or else my mouth feels gross.
My standards are much higher now for how I expect to feel on a normal day. I’m worried about situations in which I will not be able to eat my soylent for an extended period (say while traveling) and whether I’ll feel “off.” In my mind there’s nothing magical about soylent, but my body and mind are now used to a well-tracked intake of vitamins, minerals and calories. If I go back to the haphazard default way of eating based on what’s available and what’s appealing, nutrient deficiencies may affect me more because I’m used to functioning at a closer-to-optimal level. I’ll learn this soon enough, when I spend a few weeks in Ecuador with probably no soylent.
It revealed other limitations. While I suddenly had extra time available to me every day, that didn’t mean I got hours of extra work done every day. I still had the same finite amount of patience for sitting at a desk. I did become more productive, but it didn’t turn me into an unstoppable work-machine. This is interesting, because I can no longer use “not enough time” as an excuse for not getting things done. There are other factors that inhibit productivity, including patience and focus, and my limitations in those areas became more obvious.
No urge to overeat with soylent. I noticed that whenever I ate traditional food, there was a strong urge to have a second helping, but when I had soylent, I would just finish what I’d poured out and move on with the day. The urge to eat more than I need is nothing new for me — I have always had to battle with urges to overeat, and now I do it only rarely, and I only ever want to when I’m eating traditional food. I never had any urges for second helpings with soylent.
I did not experience much of an improvement to my running. Soylent inventor Rob Rhinehart cited virtually-overnight gains in his running ability. He says he went from running less than a mile to running three miles. I noticed I would recover more quickly when I took a break, but I didn’t find it easy to increase pace or distance.
Regular food doesn’t impact my energy levels. Eating solid food, even really heavy food, doesn’t make me feel sluggish like I expected it to. I seem to be better able to digest solid food without energy crashes, for some reason.
I have experienced a seemingly related increase in confidence, although this is hard to separate out from the secondary effect of just feeling fitter and looking better.
I eat socially more often. Contrary to what some might have predicted, I actually experienced more social eating. I began to go to restaurants (with other people) slightly more often, because I had saved so much money, and because eating solid food is more of an occasion now, and the rest of my diet is so healthy and devoid of excess. This has a lot to do with my living-alone entrepreneur lifestyle, and different people would experience different effects on their social lives.
I learned that it is remarkably difficult to get reliable nutrition information. You can look at two different sources for the same ingredient and find wildly differing opinions of how much of each nutrient is in them. Even the manufacturer’s label can be wrong. There are also wildly differing opinions about how much of each nutrient your body needs, and wildly differing opinions about how easily each is absorbed, and many more layers of fuzziness in an already fuzzy science. Still, I am obviously getting much closer to optimal nutrition than I had been.
Beyond 30 days
As you might have guessed, I’m still doing this and I have no plans of stopping.
Obviously there’s a lot to be gained in separating the entertainment/social side of eating from the nutrition side of it, at least some of the time. Soylent certainly isn’t for everybody, but I think it’s something that would fit quite a few people’s lifestyles. The official stuff still isn’t very available (they’re now saying new orders ship in 4-5 months) but there are hundreds of recipes you can make yourself on the DIY site. If you’re going to try one, go with one with lots of comments and positive reviews, because some are probably pretty gross.
The complete day-by-day log of my experiment is here.
I adapted this from a recipe I found on the DIY exchange. I picked that one because it was well-reviewed and the ingredients are available where I live. I’ve changed it a few times and given it a silly name, as is the DIY tradition.
“Urban Ambrosia 1.7”
Yield: 2000 calories, about 2.3 litres.
2 c. Maseca masa
1/3 c. Oat flour
1/3 c. Almond meal
60g Kaizen vanilla whey protein isolate
2.5 T. Raw honey
2 T. Canola oil
3/4 t. Iodized salt
1 t. “No Salt” salt substitute (Potassium chloride)
2/3 package GNC Mega Men (Performance and Vitality vitamins)
2.5 T. Soy lecithin
1 t. Psyllium husk
1 pill Calcium/Magnesium (350mg/150mg)
1/2 pill Webber Naturals Vitamin K+D
8 c. Tap water
[Obviously you should consult your physician before making any dietary changes. It is a shame I have to say that, but we all have to protect ourselves from the irresponsible and litigious.]
Grind up the Calcium/Magnesium pill, the Vitamin K pill, and the psyllium in a coffee grinder. Then add the lecithin and grind it too.
Add this mixture and everything else to a large (3L or bigger) tupperware-like container, except for the Mega Men vitamin pack (take this separately — it tastes horrible if you grind it up). Take it two out of three days (so as to average 2/3 a package a day.)
Mix thoroughly with an immersion blender. Cover and put in the fridge. The taste improves dramatically when it’s been in the fridge for 8 plus hours so make it the night before. Shake vigorously before serving, and swish it around between sips because some masa will always settle at the bottom.
A nutrient breakdown is available here. You can also copy and edit the recipe to suit your tastes and needs. If you do your own experiment, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.