Nutrition Seminar and a Logical Argument Against "Soylent"

To start things off, I wanted to announce that I'll be giving a nutrition lecture on June 7th, where I work at The Training Room in Somerville.  While I abhor shameless plugs of self-promotion (and yes, I've fully realized the irony....as a blog is essentially its own form of self-promotion), the topic will be "Navigating the Paleo, Vegan, and Low Fat Matrix."

As you could probably guess from the title, I'll be discussing the Paleo, Vegan, and Low Fat diets by themselves - the pluses and the minuses.  But, the discussion will also be through the lens of what we've learned about nutrition over the past few years: all calories are not created equal; the need to focus on foods and not nutrients; and most importantly, will any diet make Taylor Swift look less like a Praying Mantis?

 Thank you, Google.

Thank you, Google.

Just kidding about that last one.

(Maybe.)

Anyway, you can sign up here and the cost is $50.  Besides the 90 minutes of quality time you'll be spending with yours truly, you'll receive my lecture notes and we're also working on possibly having some food prepared by a local service to even sweeten the deal. I encourage you to come because I plan on dropping a bunch of knowledge bombs, which will go exactly like this:

Next, to stay on the nutrition bandwagon, I wanted to give my two cents on "Soylent."  What IS Soylent?  Well, I'm glad you asked....because here's an article just for you:

The End of Food

To give you a quick recap (or, if you're too lazy/crunched for time to read that article....it's ok, it IS long), "Soylent" is a food replacement drink that is essentially a protein shake stacked with artificial vitamins and minerals.  It's billed as carrying all the nutrition one really needs, and is a "more efficient" delivery system than food itself.  The inventor, Rob Rhinehart, has been living on it and claims he feels better than when he was eating his normal (terrible) diet.

While it'd be easy to dismiss the Soylent trend from the start, I've actually received questions from a handful of clients where I work, so this trend actually has some legs to it.

 The ingredient list of Soylent - I think I need a nap after reading it.

The ingredient list of Soylent - I think I need a nap after reading it.

So, wow.  Where to even start? Other than the article from The New Yorker being an incredibly arrogant yet depressing narrative of one man's battle with an eating disorder, I think the best way to tear down his argument is with a bulleted list. So, here goes:

  • We really don't know that much about nutrition.  

I keep thinking back to one of John Wooden's famous quotes, "It's what you learn after you know it all that really counts."  Why? Because it perfectly summarizes the state of nutrition science.

We *think* we know a lot about nutrition, but in the grand scheme of things, we really don't. As a society and a science, we know about the macronutrients (fat, carbs, protein), vitamins (A, B complex, C, D, E, K), and minerals (iron, magnesium, potassium, etc), but there's surprisingly little research on how they all interact within our body.  We do know a few things, such as taking vitamin C with iron can help increase iron absorption (but taking vitamin C with zinc will hurt zinc absorption), but there's a whole realm we simply don't know.  Other elements like phytochemicals and antinutrients are really just starting to be explored, as well as scientific evidence on what actually may be causing obesity (hint: it's not just a matter of willpower).

Bringing it back to Soylent, I ventured over to Rhinehart's initial piece promoting Soylent on his blog.  In it, he openly claims that he's "consuming no toxins or carcinogens and I get all the nutrition and energy I need from about 1/3 the calories the average American consumes..." To say he's taking a leap of faith is a stretch.

Perhaps the best quote of The New Yorker's article is from Walter Willet, head of the nutrition department at a quaint, up and coming school named "Harvard."  Sarcasm aside, Willet says:

It's a little bit presumptuous to think that we actually know everything that goes into an optimally healthy diet...you may not live maximally [without plants], and you may not have optimal function. We're concerned about much more than just surviving.

 If "Food Porn" actually exists, then this must be it.

If "Food Porn" actually exists, then this must be it.

It's almost as if we were to write a scholarly article about what makes Boston drivers just so angry - we THINK we know, and we may have several theories....but we may never know for sure.

  • Vitamins and minerals are more effective when eaten from whole foods.

It's been generally accepted for quite some time that if you're given a plate of kale, or a cocktail of supplements consisting if vitamins A, C, and K, you should choose the kale.

Every. Damn. Time.

Supplements and artificial vitamins can be useful when you're in a pinch, but there are two main points we know: vitamins not as effective in pill form as when they're consumed in natural foods; they may actually carry a higher risk of a whole list of diseases.

Yes, you read that last part correctly. There's been a wealth of evidence of the harm that supplements can have on the human body as they're unregulated, and taking vitamins in large amounts have actually lead to negative health effects (there's some evidence here, here and here.)  However, I do want to note that those studies were observational, and therefore had a fair amount of flaws.  

So, we know that taking synthetic vitamins, like those in Soylent, simply aren't as effective as eating whole foods.  And, at best, they may be marginally effective at preventing disease....at worst, we know they could actually be harmful.

  • It may be better than crap, but it's still probably crap.

One of the biggest claims that Rhinehart makes in his promotion of Soylent is the improvement he's felt in his overall health.  Granted, this is a good thing, but it all depends on someone's starting point.

Numerous times, Rhinehart mentions eating Ramen and in his own blog post he describes how he used to eat: "Typically I would cook eggs for breakfast, eat out for lunch, and cook a quesadilla, pasta, or a burger for dinner."  I think he's left a lot to be desired, especially fruits and vegetables!

I'm a big fan of the saying "if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there," and it applies 100% to Rhinehart.  While he's feeling better on Soylent, it's probably nowhere near as great as he'd feel if he ate real food.

  • Is it really that safe?

Perhaps this can be tacked on to my second bullet point, but we actually don't know if Soylent is "safe."  While their website claims that all ingredients are "generally recognized as safe," we simply don't know how all the elements in Soylent will interact in our bodies.  Plus, high doses of synthetic, fat soluble vitamins can be extremely toxic.

You know what is completely safe and a better option?  A bowl of organic fruits and vegetables.  Sorry, but it's the truth.