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Lessons from a guy who stopped eating (sort of)

Down with food, up with Soylent

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I've always wished I could be an extremist. Or maybe not an extremist, but a fanatic. No, neither of those sound very good. Here: I wish I had enough willpower to get deeply into something. And stick with it.

Two. That's the number of visits to the gym my most recent (now canceled) membership yielded before I realized, yet again, that I'm not good at going to the gym. It's not that I dislike physical activity once I'm there, it's that I hate the going part of going to the gym. The getting dressed and the getting there. The most recent gym I joined is about four blocks from our apartment — a seven-minute walk at most. Basically, it could only be more convenient if it was in my own living room. Which maybe isn't a bad idea at this point.

My incapability to stick with or even establish an exercise regimen certainly indicates a lack of willpower. A dearth of self-discipline.

Or maybe not. Maybe I just don't have enough energy. Or maybe I'm wasting too much time and effort preparing and eating food — what a cruel irony that would be!

Last week, Vice ran an interview with a 24-year-old guy from Atlanta named Rob Rhinehart who thinks he's figured out a way to stop eating food. The computer programmer and amateur nutritionist created a shake-looking drink he calls "Soylent." It's made not of people, but of pure nutrients — mostly in powder form — measured out and blended to mimic a balanced diet. He says his way is better because the body isn't wasting so much energy digesting food, and growing older and more tired by the minute as a result. He insists the concoction tastes good — "mostly sweet," he says — and that he craves it.

Unfortunately, it looks remarkably like cat bile. And meal-replacement shakes already exist. His is apparently different, more complete.

Rhinehart says that for the past two months, 92 percent of his meals have consisted of only Soylent. Inspired by a "family friend" who was "losing strength in one of his arms," he told Vice, "I started wondering why something as simple and important as food was still so inefficient, given how streamlined and optimized other modern things are. I also had an incentive to live as cheaply as possible, and I yearned for the productivity benefit of being healthy."

I've read the interview in its entirety a handful of times, first with interest, then with suspicion. It sounds more and more contrived every time I read it. Asked by the interviewer if he thinks he'll ever tire of drinking an odorless, nearly tasteless beige concoction several times a day, he replied, "I'm quite happy with my bachelor chow. I don't miss the rotary telephone, and I don't miss food." Of course you don't miss rotary phones. You're 24. Also, rotary phones aren't delicious.

Tenuous and anachronistic analogies aside, it sounds too good to be true. Except for the whole "not eating" thing. Everyone wants to achieve exactly what Rhinehart says he's achieved. We all want to save money, have more time, energy, and focus to do the things we want to do, and most of us would sure like to lose body fat.

Most of us also want to help people, and he seems to think his mixture could have societal implications far beyond the improvements it's supposedly made to his life: He plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to "allow him to scale up production, improve control," and, no shit, "use technology to alleviate global hunger." When I was 24 I was mostly ... well, I have no idea what I was doing when I was 24, but it had nothing to do with the greater good.

I wonder what other implications Soylent could have. Like, if it caught on. (As I said, I'm dubious — plus, he's only been replacing meals for two months and could literally drop dead tomorrow.)

What happens to foodie culture, the restaurant industry, and farming? What happens if fresh foods — Rhinehart insists we don't need fresh fruits or vegetables in our diets — become more of a luxury item for certain demographics than they already are? Supply would eventually decrease along with demand, and eventually it would be, "Here, poor people. Just drink this."

Of course, none of this matters because Soylent will never catch on. Reversing the evolutionary impulses of a species is a tall order, even for a precocious, whip-smart 24-year-old who doesn't have the time to buy and prepare meals, but has found the time to try and revolutionize the human diet. Like I said, I'm dubious.

I want to believe in Rhinehart, though. He's kind of a fanatic. A radical, like the one I wish I had the willpower to be. If he can wake up in the morning and decide he's just not going to eat food anymore, something he's been doing every day since he was a baby, then maybe I can quit smoking. Or start going to the gym. At least jog around the block once or twice a week.

I think I'll probably keep eating food, though.

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