Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Non-Food Food?

photo source: www.vice.com

A few days ago I was looking up statistics on eating disorder prevalence among males, and through a series of web links I stumbled upon a link to a blog called Mostly Harmless by a youngish male engineer named Rob Rhinehart. The blog is fairly new, with just five posts in total. And three of these five posts is about how he's cut food mostly out of his diet. That's right. According to Rhinehart's definition, his diet only includes food on special occasions or when he is really craving a particular food, but for the most part his diet consists of a liquid concoction he calls Soylent (and no, it is not made out of people like in the movie Soylent Greenhe should really consider finding an alternate name) that consists of a carefully calculated combination of vitamins, minerals, macronutrients, probiotics, and other substances (in powder form) mixed with water. He claims that by consuming this drink in place of food, he saves time and money, and looks and feels healthier. Rhinehart is also in the process of trying to recruit others to follow a Soylent diet, apparently in pursuit of the goal of turning his personal body project into a scientific experiment and to find out if other people benefit from the diet in the same way that he feels he has. 

There are a lot of things going on here. Rhinehart is trying to improve his health, and make nourishing himself cheaper and more time efficient. And those are all things that I understand. But since he's an engineer and not a medical professional or registered dietitian, I'm skeptical of his ability to create a purely chemical mixture that can provide him with all of the nutritional benefits of a "regular" balanced diet involving food. And even if he was a medical professional or an RD, it's still possible that that important diet components would be overlooked because there are soooooo many nutrients and other substances to consider, and more information is being discovered about them all the time. So although I think what he's doing is interesting, and it seems like he's working really hard to make Soylent as nutritionally complete as possible, I don't think I'd be willing to do what he's doing because I'd be worried about deficiencies and toxicities. Plus, cooking and eating food is way too enjoyable for me to want to give up.

Which brings me to something (potentially) troubling I was thinking about while I was reading this article: why does Rhinehart make such a point of referring to his diet as food-free and referring to Soylent as a non-food? Because I think I do consider it a food—a powdered chemical-based food, a synthetic food, a not very "natural"-seeming food, but a food nonetheless. So why doesn't Rhinehart think so? And whether or not Soylent is a food or a non-food, and even assuming that he will be able to maintain good health while subsisting on it almost exclusively, why do I feel such an aversion to it?

I think that part of the answer to this question is the eating disorder factor—I read and write about eating disorders all the time because I'm researching anorexia for my thesis, and so I'm kind of always on the lookout for things that apply to that topic, and I always cringe when I hear about the promotion of any sort of practice that seems to me to be eating disordered. And Rhinehart's blog/body project definitely falls into that category. But maybe more than that, I feel like even if a Soylent-only diet proves to be super healthy, delicious, time-efficient, and inexpensive, there's still something wrong with it to me. It seems so disconnected from what I think of as "good" food, and there's something kind of sad to me about chugging a glass of powder dissolved in water in place of every meal. It seems like it's losing touch with food, and by extension your body, culture, cooking practices, and a lot of traditions, social interactions, tastes, and smells. And that sounds kind of depressing. I think that sacrificing all of these things for efficiency and frugality and the power to perfectly control every aspect of my diet down to each microgram sounds like a pretty bad deal.

But on the other hand, Rhinehart does bring up some interesting things to think about, such as in the post "How I Stopped Eating Food" when he argues that "Food is the fossil fuel of human energy. It is an enormous market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geo-political implications. And we're deeply dependent on it. In some countries people are dying of obesity, others starvation." In this way, Rhinehart positions himself (whether fairly or unfairly) as a food activist. It's true, the food system(s) in the U.S. and around the world have some major problems that need to be figured out. But I don't think that the answer to these problems should be to try to distance ourselves from food even more by consuming nothing but synthetic food and then calling it non-food in order to try to absolve ourselves of responsibility for the problems within the food system. It seems to me that (for the sake of the food system and our nation's health) what we actually need to do is work on being more connected with our food in it's unprocessed forms, even if that means opening ourselves up to difficult choices and questions, and even if it isn't always time efficient or perfectly controlled. 

P.S. You can read an interview with Rhinehart about his Soylent experiment at http://www.vice.com/read/rob-rhinehart-no-longer-requires-food

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