Some people love food for its own sake. I am not one of them. Food, to me, has never been anything more than fuel, and cooking is an annoying chore that I only spend time on because I have to. If I didn’t have to eat to survive, I could happily go the rest of my life without thinking about food again.
Therefore, I am the exact target customer for Soylent, the all-in-one superdrink that’s been making headlines recently in Silicon Valley. Developed by 25 year-old programmer Rob Rhinehart, and backed by tens of millions of dollars of VC funding, Soylent purports to provide all of the human body’s nutritional needs in a simple high-calorie shake, and many, including Rhinehart himself, claim to have spent months in a row consuming nothing but the product with (so far) no adverse health effects.
I’m skeptical. But I’m also intrigued. And I really hate cooking. So I resolved to give it a try.
There’s one problem: Soylent doesn’t ship outside North America, and I live in Spain. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, a bunch of copycat companies have stepped in to fill the gap in the market, so after a very small amount of research I decide to take my chances with Joylent, a shameless imitator that ships from the Netherlands.
I pay sixty euros, and one week later a big cardboard box arrives on my doorstep containing 10 packets of Joylent. According to the printed nutritional info, each packet contains 2119 Calories, 267g of carbohydrates, 134g of protein, 53g of fat, and a long list of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients*, each in amounts that are supposedly 100% or more of my RDA.
I’m still skeptical, but 10 days won’t kill me (I hope). And so it begins…
(DISCLAIMER: In case it’s not extremely obvious, I am not a health professional. Nothing I write here is intended to be taken as nutritional or medical advice, nor am I endorsing Joylent or any of its competitors. Consult a doctor before you… yadda, yadda, blah, you’ve heard it all before, just don’t be an idiot, and don’t sue me if you do.)
I normally fry up some eggs for breakfast, but today I leave the stove switched off. Instead I grab a bag of strawberry Joylent (at the time of writing, the drink is available in strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, and banana flavours, and I’ve ordered a sample of all four) and up-end its contents into my blender. I immediately realise my mistake – the blender is now so full of pink powder that there’s almost no room left at the top to add any water. Not a good start.
The next ten minutes are spent recovering from my error with all the culinary grace of a five year-old making cupcakes out of Play-Doh. I add water, blend, pour some out, add more water, and blend again repeatedly until I finally have a concoction that’s thin enough to be drunk instead of eaten. In the process I predictably spill Joylent all over my kitchen counter in various stages of dilution. I spend another ten minutes cleaning up. So much for time saving.
As for the drink itself, it tastes exactly like strawberry Nesquik, if Nesquik had the texture of cement.
For something so calorie-dense, Joylent is surprisingly not very filling, and because it’s sweet, it’s extremely moreish. I sit down at my desk and start my workday, periodically sipping Joylent and refilling my bottle, until, before I know it, I realise I’ve drunk the entire day’s bag – all 2100 Calories – in less than an hour.
It doesn’t take long for reality to set in: I feel like I’ve swallowed a bowling ball. I take the first of what will be many, many trips to the toilet over the days to come.
I really could have thought this through a little bit better.
In the evening, some friends invite me out for dinner. I’m not very hungry, but I go along anyway. My intention had never been to only eat Joylent for the next ten days, and I’m not going to turn down social invitations just for the sake of some stupid dietary experiment. But I’m still feeling pretty bloated from this morning’s escapades. I barely touch my dinner, and what little I do eat leaves me feeling very full. It’s not a pleasant feeling.
Only nine days to go.
Today, I opt for chocolate flavour.
It was a mistake to use my blender yesterday; I don’t need it. Yesterday’s delivery included a half-litre plastic shaker with the word Joylent printed on the side. All I need to do is pour some powder into said bottle, add water, shake it like a Polaroid picture, and I have a ready-to-drink serving in less time than it took me to write this sentence.
When I’m done, I just rinse out the bottle under the cold tap. Theoretically, if I ate only Joylent, I’d meet my calorific needs with just a couple of minutes of prep and cleanup time per day. I could get used to this.
Unfortunately, any time I’m saving in the kitchen is being more than cancelled out by all the extra time I’m spending in the bathroom. I’ll spare you the details.
I Google “Joylent constipation” and discover a Reddit thread on the subject, which includes this charming excerpt:
(Warning! Not for the squeamish!)
i was three days into my joylent diet. i pretty much jumped into it head first. no slow integration of the liquid food, just straight up replaced my breakfast, lunch and dinner. everything was going well.. i did notice that my poo’s were starting to get a little rough to pass.
another day went by and now it started to feel like someone cut open a handful of hot peppers and rubbed them all over the raw skin of my butthole. excruciating to say the least. that burning sensation that feels like it’s never going to end eventually made it’s way up inside and was amplified by a very sharp, stabbing pain in my anus.
i was immobilized for about three days. i could barely walk nor stand up and move around for 8 hours so i missed work and laid in bed all day and was absolutely miserable. every trip to the bathroom was worse than the last one. the hot knives i passed as bowels took bits and pieces of my soul i’ll never get back. over those three days i did get my girlfriend to pick up some metamucil (psyllium husk) and after two servings a day for about two days i could finally have a somewhat normal shit.
Yikes. So far I haven’t experienced anything nearly as bad as the above, but is this what’s in store for me? Maybe solid foods aren’t so bad after all. I suspect that this is why humans have teeth.
I hedge my bets by drinking a ton of water (with the predictable result that I start pissing every ten minutes) going out for a hearty solid-food lunch with a friend, and spacing out my Joylent servings slowly throughout the evening. I still manage to get through the entire day’s bag.
My gut is rumbling so often and loudly that it could probably be detected on a seismograph. And at the other end of the digestive tract, my breath stinks - you know it’s bad when you can taste it yourself – and no amount of brushing will fix it.
I would not want to go on a date with me tonight.
Despite the rough start, I’m actually quite enjoying Joylent. The taste is nothing special, but it’s okay, and I love the convenience and time-saving aspect. The only downside is the intestinal symptoms, but by about day 4, they’ve got substantially better. Could my body be adjusting? I’m still not feeling 100%, but at least I’m not farting so much that I’d be embarrassed to leave the house.
Unlike Soylent, which gets most of its protein from rice (and thus is vegan-friendly), Joylent’s primary ingredient is whey protein. I wonder if this could be the cause of my digestive problems? I do feel bloated and, ahem, flatulent when I drink a lot of milk. And for the last several days I’ve been getting 95% of my calories from what is effectively just “powdered milk plus vitamins”. Hmmmmmm… of all the Soylent alternatives on the European market, maybe Joylent wasn’t the best choice for me.
I definitely could have thought this through a little bit better.
I’m actually no stranger to a liquid diet. When I was 20, I had orthognathic surgery (it’s a long story), and for about a month afterwards my face was swollen up like the Grinch, and I subsisted on a diet of what can only be described as “hospital gloop”. It wasn’t the most enjoyable period of my life.
Joylent tastes almost exactly like said hospital gloop, but hey, it still beats cooking. I’m actually not looking forward to returning to my old ways when my Joylent supply runs out next week. Maybe I should order some more.
I haven’t done any dishes, been grocery shopping, or even turned on my stove in over a week. I can’t say I miss any of these things.
As well as saving me money directly (a supply of Joylent costs roughly €5 a day, which is definitely less than I normally spend on food), Joylent saves me money indirectly by reducing my use of water and electricity. Not to mention that the extra time I save by not cooking can be put to all kinds of productive uses which earn or save me even more money. It pays for itself!
I wonder what other annoying chores I can eliminate from my life with technology? Laundry? Restringing my guitars? Trying to get dates on Tinder? The possibilities are endless.
That being said, I’m not convinced that my overall environmental impact is being reduced just because my utility bills are lower. Can it really be more eco-friendly to have my food manufactured on an assembly line (its constituent parts no doubt transported thousands of miles to get there) and shipped to me from the Netherlands, rather than growing it on a farm somewhere a bit closer to home?
I don’t know if Joylent has reduced my carbon footprint, but it’s definitely increased my methane output.
In the last few days of my Joylent experiment, something strange happens – I start getting hungry. I usually finish the day’s supply of food-powder by 4 or 5pm, but by 7 or 8pm I’m feeling like I could eat another meal – and on some evenings, I do.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – a regular pack of Joylent contains about 2100kcal, and the standard advice is that men require about 2500kcal a day. I’m an average-sized guy, and I get an average amount of physical activity, so if that 2500 figure is to be believed it probably applies reasonably well to me. Am I running a caloric deficit if I only eat one bag of Joylent per day? Well, I’m consistently getting hungry, so it would seem quite obvious that the answer is “yes”.
This, in my opinion, is a major (and extremely solvable) flaw in the way Joylent is served. It just doesn’t make sense to offer a “one-size-fits-all” daily bag for people of all shapes and sizes. Other products (including the original Soylent) do it differently, and come in smaller bags/bottles of, say, 400 Calories, meaning that rather than the simplistic “one bag a day” approach, you can just take as many servings per day as meets your needs.
(Yeah, I know you don’t have to eat exactly one bag of Joylent per day, but if you’re going to deviate from the norm then the “small bag” approach is much more convenient.)
Also, the shape and size of Joylent bags means that they’re hard to pour without spillage, even when you’re pouring into the special Joylent-branded bottle. Most days, my kitchen counter is left looking like I’ve been using it to snort vanilla-tinted cocaine.
They really could have thought this through a little bit better.
It’s not all bad. Other than the minor hunger I feel some evenings (easily remedied), for the most part I feel in tip-top shape. The nasty side-effects I was having in the first few days have almost completely disappeared. I’ve also gained a small amount of weight (muscle, not fat), and I’m happy about that. I’ve always struggled to make gains in the gym, and a big part of the problem is that I just don’t eat enough. (Have I mentioned how much I hate cooking?) Joylent seems to solve this problem; when eating is this easy, I do more of it.
Of course, I know that not everybody sees “gaining weight” as a good thing, but then most people I’ve talked to say they like cooking, love food, can’t imagine giving up mealtimes, and don’t understand why anyone would want to replace dinner with a protein shake. I don’t think I’m the normal one here.
I open my fridge for the first time in 11 days. It’s empty, and so is my belly.
In the supermarket, I wander around like a lost little boy from the countryside who’s experiencing the big city for the first time. Urgh, I think, I so can’t be arsed with this.
I miss Joylent already, not for what it is, but what it’s not. Now that I’ve experienced life without one of my least favourite chores, it’s painful to go back – so I barely do. In the next few days I eat out for almost every meal. And I don’t always pick the healthy option – the pizza joint down the road is making a lot of money from me right now. Any cash I saved in my Joylent days has probably been cancelled out already by all the extra money I’m now spending on takeaways.
Maybe I should order some more Joylent?
I’m glad I tried this experiment – not least because it’s kicked off some interesting discussions with friends. (I’m far from the first person I know to try Soylent or one of its competitors, but that probably says more about the kind of people I hang out with than it does about the popularity of meal-replacement drinks.) It seems that very few people have a “middle of the road” opinion on this topic. They’re either in love with mealtime, and see it as one of life’s great pleasures that they couldn’t possibly give up, or they’re like me in that they couldn’t care less.
I don’t deny the social value of food. Sharing meals is one of the most fundamental, primal ways in which humans bond, and in that respect I do enjoy mealtime very much, which is why I didn’t stop eating out with friends in the evenings even when eating Joylent in the daytime. But not every calorie needs to be accompanied by conversation. I can’t see the appeal of a 100% Soylent/Joylent/whatever approach, but then even the most diehard aficionado doesn’t advocate Soylent over socialising.
As for the health effects… well, I can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from a 10-day experiment conducted in an extremely unscientific manner with a sample size of one.** But at the very least, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Joylent won’t kill you. It’s also probably healthier, or at least less unhealthy, than the way most people eat, but then that’s not saying very much.
Some proponents of Joylent and its (m)ilk argue that these super-drinks have the potential to end world hunger, but to quote someone smarter than me, you should be wary of taking advice on gold prospecting from people who are in the business of selling picks and shovels. I’m not sure what to believe, but let’s not forget that a mere €5 per day is still prohibitively expensive for most of the world’s starving. (After all, if they had €5 a day, they wouldn’t be starving.)
Anyway, I just ordered another shipment of Joylent (this time the variant “Joylent Sport”, which has more calories per daily serving and a higher concentration of protein), as well as a few bags of an another alternative called Nano to try it out. When that runs out, I expect I’ll sample a few more alternatives like Biolent or Jake. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
To all my friends: let’s go out for dinner some time this week; I’m sure I’ll appreciate it more than ever. Just don’t expect me to cook you anything the next time you’re round my house.
* It occurs to me that I need to spend less time writing computer code, because when I read the word “Selenium” I think of the web testing framework before I think of the mineral.
** If you want to read about a more rigorous one-man Soylent trial, check out this guest post from Shane Snow on Tim Ferriss’s blog – the “Afterword from Tim” section is especially worth reading.