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Soylent adventure, part 2: Clashing Food Philosophies

September 8, 2014

Weight LossFat PoliticsFat HealthFat ScienceMy Boring-Ass LifeFat NewsDiet Talk

Trigger warning: Discussion of sparse eating, both as a lifestyle and as the obsessive calorie-counting version.

So I read this New Yorker article about Rob Rhinehart, who created a total-nutrition meal-replacement product he calls Soylent, which he’s been living on for a year, and before I was even done reading I knew I’d be trying a few new food experiments. I didn’t know what yet, but definitely something.

Eegah

Eat like Eegah.

I’m always looking for ways to spend less time and money dealing with food, but without giving up my assorted food fetishes, most of which have to do with a kind of minimalism: don’t take stuff out of stuff (like the germ out of wheat) and don’t add stuff to stuff whether you cooked it up in the lab (like preservatives, artificial flavors and artificial colors) or extracted it  from other edible stuff (like sugar or oil). Just leave stuff alone, you know? Let me extract my own sugars and fats as I’m digesting stuff, the way every other animal does in nature and the way human animals did for all but the last few thousand years.

I sound kind of paleo, huh? There’s something about the paleo philosophy that appeals to me. After all, if we’re seeking to determine optimal human nutrition patterns, wouldn’t the environment in which we evolved have something to do with that? Shouldn’t major departures from the ancestral patterns be regarded with some skepticism?

So, like a paleo enthusiast, I have it in my head that the ways of ancient hunter-gatherers should probably be emulated in at least some respects, or at least studied. But most paleo eaters avoid grains, and I don’t, because — another minimalist fetish — I’d kind of like to participate as little as possible with the US system of meat and dairy production. So my protein’s gotta come from somewhere, and seeing as I never cared that much about meat anyway, not even enough to bother cooking it, let alone seeking out grass-fed beef or venison burgers or whatever, legumes and grains are my staples.

Anyway, why do paleo proponents feel so sure that grains weren’t a big part of a hunter-gatherer diet? How can we know that? Yes, maybe the development of agriculture made some big changes to the average human dietary intake, but farming can’t have been invented all at once and from scratch. There must have been some in-between stages, where gatherers realized they could kind of help nature along here and there, watering and weeding, moving seeds around. Gradually, maybe over the course of many generations, the interventions got more drastic, and yeah, by the time you have true farms and a village plans its whole working life around the harvest, it’s a whole different ball game. But still, the very first crops that were chosen to cultivate would have had to be foodstuffs that were already regarded as important, wouldn’t they? I think we can be reasonably sure a lightbulb didn’t go off all at once one day in some hunter-gatherer Tesla’s head, like: “Hey I have an idea for a new invention. See this plant that currently provides only a miniscule contribution to our sustenance? Wouldn’t it be cool if we seeded it in rows of several thousand and spend many of our waking hours keeping it alive and increasing its yield? Let’s try that!”

Well, I’m skeptical about other people’s reasoning about food, but I’m also skeptical about my own. That’s why I speak of fetishes rather than convictions. The idea of grains as the staff of life has been in my head a long time, though, planted there in 1975 by my grandmother. She’s also the source of my deep-rooted feeling, handed down through my mother, that nutrition matters a lot, and ought to be the foremost consideration of anyone responsible for feeding children. Even though at the very same time I also believe what it said on the Health at Every Size® (HAES) blog last Thursday: “Lifestyle doesn’t have nearly as much impact on anyone’s health as the anti-obesity brigade would have us believe.”

I believe both that health is mostly a matter of genetic and socioeconomic luck and also that it may be possible to nudge the odds a little. Or at least to avoid worsening them. From the standpoint of promoting ideal physiological functioning, there may really be objectively better and worse ways of eating, even though it obviously isn’t true that everybody always gets exactly the health they have earned. Nor that everybody’s body is an easy-to-read record of their lifestyle habits to date.

A lot of people sure have a lot invested in those latter two notions, though, don’t they? Those beliefs are a great way of justifying thin privilege if you happen to have it and they protect the income stream of all those folks in the diet-industrial complex.

Still and all, how to eat? As I’ve written previously, I wish I could just opt out of all social eating and food talk, and even food. Two decades of adult life as a fat woman with rather abstemious eating habits left me with kind of a chip on my shoulder. On the one hand I still want to preserve my own foodways for my own reasons. On the other hand I hate to give my HAES and Fat Acceptance (FA) friends the wrong impression that I moralize and like to feel superior about food and health. And on a third hand yet, or maybe just the first one again, I’m still angry that people took my fat body as evidence that I must be eating badly. Some FA advocates, in defiance, celebrate their right to eat whatever delicious food they want, just like anyone else. I’m more likely to react in the opposite direction: Fuck you, then, size bigots: I won’t eat anything even remotely luxurious!

Well, what could be less luxurious than science-fictional nutrient broth? Now, the truth is, the idea behind Soylent is a little bit out of sync with my customary whole-foodish inclinations. If I eat the commercial Soylent, that will mean getting all my nutrients from highly-processed sources, and even if I make my own DIY recipe (using the tools at diy.soylent.me), sticking as close to my usual staples as possible (oats as the base, let’s say), for sure the protein and lots of the vitamins will have to come from the factory.

I don’t care. I want it anyway. I want it so bad that I’m willing, at least provisionally, speculatively, to loosen my mental grip on a couple of long-held attitudes. Most of the people in the soylent forums scoff at whole-foodiness, which they regard as sheer superstition. Nutrients are always only chemicals anyway, they say. Once we’ve established exactly what components you need to put into your alimentary canal in what proportion, what’s the difference whether you originally pulled stuff out of the ground and washed the dirt off it or whether a bunch of powders came from the lab and you weighed and mixed them?

Could they be right? Rob Rhinehart has even publicly dissed vegetables as “mostly water” and not worth the bother and expense since you can just consume the vitamins directly instead, adding fiber as needed. This attitude is seriously alien to me and, I think, most people in roughly my socioeconomic group. We valorize vegetables. Vegetables connote virtue in the same way that sugary or fatty foods connote sin. Even I, non-food-moralizer that I am, feel slightly scandalized at the idea that you could just Stop. Eating. Vegetables. And lightning wouldn’t strike you? My grandmother would roll in her grave.

I ask myself: what about phytochemicals? There’s no reason to think that nutritional science has already made every significant discovery. Decades ago, when I was a teenager, I read a book by Roger J. Williams (the guy who discovered pantothenic acid and named folic acid). Williams described an experiment in which every known vitamin was carefully extracted from whole wheat, and then the slurry that was left over was given as a dietary supplement to one of two groups of lab rats. The supplemented group had demonstrably better health than the control group. Something in the leftover sludge was good for them even though it hadn’t yet been identified as an essential nutrient.

I still want Soylent. I’m still going to try it. Rob Rhinehart is flourishing, and I’m going to see whether I can too. I tell myself it’s okay not to have a firm conviction, there’s room in my head for uncertainties. Maybe the soylenters are falling prey to scientistic and presentist hubris (as a whole-fooder might put it), but maybe not. I can at least entertain the possibility that now, in 2014, the essential nutrients are known, at least well enough. I point out to myself that many babies have been raised on formula. Breast feeding may be better, but nothing so very terrible has happened to the formula babies, has it? And if it turns out I’m not feeling as good as before, I can always abort the experiment.

This is an unusual direction for an HAES person to take, I know. And judging from what I’ve seen so far on the soylenter forums, I’m going to be a pretty unusual soylenter too. Most of them are true believers in caloric calculations and body-size manipulation. That’s very unenlightened, from an HAES perspective. But still there may be something worth pursuing there and definitely something to learn. People can be right about some things and wrong about others. I’m going on this adventure; I’ll report back soon.

Jean Braithwaite

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Twistie permalink
    September 8, 2014 10:02 am

    Since the whole point of both FA and HAES is that you get to make your own decisions about how to live in your body based on your beliefs and abilities, why not?

    No, this is not an experiment I would choose to follow… but not for health reasons. Frankly, I enjoy food too damn much to consider living off of a form of slurry. I like my veggies organic because I think they taste better. At the same time, I’m a big fan of refined sugar since I’m a hell of a baker. Pies are a speciality. Also, I find it negatively impacts my emotional and cognitive health to go without meat for more than a couple days in a row. I couldn’t give it up if I wanted to.

    But you get to choose according to your priorities just as much as I get to choose according to mine.

    And no matter how this turns out for you, I must admit I’m curious to hear about your experiences.

    I guess my ultimate attitude is one of ‘better you than me’ with a heaping side helping of abject curiosity.

    (settles in to await further enlightenment)

  2. September 8, 2014 2:03 pm

    I’ll second what Twistie said. I enjoy food too much to do the experiment, but I am curious to see how it goes for you. I also agree that part of FA and HAES is that YOU get to make the decisions about your body. It comes back to everybody’s bodies are different and it’s up to each of us to decide what we want to do with our bodies. I’ll be awaiting future updates, and enjoying my burgers from the side of beef we bought last autumn. 🙂

  3. Len permalink
    September 8, 2014 5:04 pm

    Wow this is fascinating. I totally respect your decision to eat the way you want to and I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences.

    I just started an elimination diet to try and identify things that are negatively impacting my health. It has really made me start thinking about food and nutrients, and because this time I have been able to divorce it from weight issues, I’m enjoying it in a geeky way.

    I’m one of those people who takes a lot of pleasure out of consuming food, and I see no reason for that not to continue, but I think I’m ready to accept that food isn’t moral. As you point out, we valorise vegetables and I’ve certainly done so. It intrigues me to start rethinking food in other terms, including environmental.

    Good luck!

  4. Jennifer Hansen permalink
    September 8, 2014 11:14 pm

    If it helps, consuming minimally processed, simply prepared food also seems to have been a lifestyle choice for many hunter-gatherer societies, rather than an ur-diet. But even when there were only a million or so of us on the planet, that’s something like a thousand different groups with their own ideas of how things ought to be done.

    The hunter-gatherer cultures with which I am most familiar combine a variety of cooking and/or preservation methods in their traditional cuisines, including some that strike us as downright nasty. Google “stink heads recipe” to learn more. (Spoiler: it’s literally rotten fish. Yes, it’s prepared according to a particular method, but it is a decomposed king salmon head!) They use traditional locally produced seasonings and follow ancient recipes that may require multiple ingredients or extensive processing of both plant and animal foods. On the other hand, there are ancient cultures in which fresh raw food of all kinds is or was the norm, and still others in which different members of a kinship group eat or ate different parts of an animal or different genders ate different plants.

    • Jennifer Hansen permalink
      September 8, 2014 11:24 pm

      Forgot: The line between hunter-gatherer and farmer is indeed blurrier than conventional wisdom allows. For example take the acorn farmers of California, who Western explorers described as gathering and eating acorns without realizing that they were also planting them. Native groups in the wetter parts of Australia customarily planted patches of edible roots near their camps; when they came back that way, they would have a crop. These aren’t what we think of as farming, because daily attention isn’t involved, but people were adjusting things in order to improve the yield of plant foods.

      • September 9, 2014 2:19 pm

        Hi, Jennifer,
        Your point that there are and probably always were a wide variety of different hunter-gatherer lifestyles based on location and even culture is well taken. As for the occasional or halfway farmers: yeah! I knew it didn’t have to be all or nothing.

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