How I Escaped From Vegetarianism
I had already been a vegetarian for nine months on the day I was born, but I have few early memories of people preparing and eating food around me. Once, as a toddler, I was scolded by my father for dropping food on the floor, when in fact I was actually just eating like a brontosaurus (which implies not using hands, obviously). For snacks, my parents would provide tofu that had been frozen and thawed to give it an interesting texture, or popcorn with nutritional yeast if we were being fancy and using multiple ingredients.
Our particular dialect of vegetarianism meant eggs and dairy were welcome on our plates, but no flesh from dead animals. Nothing that had touched dead animal flesh could be eaten either. I would get used to explaining this.
By my elementary school days, we had moved east from Portland, Oregon to Berlin, New Hampshire so my father could accept a position at a small law firm. Being Quaker rather than Catholic, west-coast hippie rather than French-Canadian, and white collar nerd rather than paper mill folk, plus the vegetarian thing, we were indelibly marked as outsiders.
Sometimes my mother would take me to the McDonalds drive-thru and order a Happy Meal with just fries and a shake. This was incredibly exciting for me because it meant that I would have another recess-compatible toy and parity with the other kids. Plus, I just loved to carry the little figurines around in my pockets. When McDonalds introduced Changeables, and I came home with a cheeseburger that turned into a robot, my father yelled at us for hours about how sick that was. My mother was triumphant, secretly, and we returned a few weeks later. Unfortunately by that time the manager had decided ordering off-menu (sans meat) was not going to be happening at his particular McDonalds anymore.
Once during lunch period, my teacher decided to take my nutrition into her own hands. She went about this by forcing cheese into my mouth until I vomited, in front of my classmates. I never really felt comfortable in cafeterias after that.
In the summer between sixth and seventh grades, my family moved again to Eastham, Massachusetts, on the outer reaches of Cape Cod. The region was familiar to hippies, so people at least knew of vegetarianism before encountering me. By this age I had begun to embrace and articulate the reasoning behind it:
Factory farms are unclean, unsafe, and unethical places where animals, which are intelligent and worthy of dignity, are murdered.
We can live on plants alone, so making animals eat them first just to kill them later is unnecessary.
Meat production is extremely resource-intensive. If we all ate meat, there wouldn’t be enough food to go around.
These are all great reasons, and I still believe them. I did feel ostracized, but that was not enough to make me want to go against what I had grown up with. My other-ness was well established and comfortable.
For my middle- and high-school years, I would have a bowl of sugary cereal with milk for breakfast. I’d get a dollar or two for lunch, and spend that all on the à la carte options: usually an ice cream sundae and some fries. After school, I would consume a massive lump of reduced-fat peanut butter on wheat bread, or maybe microwave a frozen pizza. From my earliest memories to my mid-twenties, I don’t really remember my parents ever cooking, outside of the occasional fried egg or a few Betty Crocker birthday cakes. We definitely never ate a meal together at home as a family, not even once.
My mother eventually found the courage to kick my dad out. The only thing I hated about this was that she and my brother started eating chicken. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Food that was made of dead animals was still inedible to me. I knew how much those chickens had suffered in their brief, filthy lives. None of it smelled like food to me.
When I stumbled into a career in tech, I resolved to spend my newfound resources on better nutrition, but dining out was complicated. Most restaurants had few items on the menu with any vegetarian protein. A portabella mushroom has only 1g of fat and 5g of protein, less than the hamburger bun it is served on. My friends put up with a lot of pepperoni-less pizzas.
I experimented with cooking but never really enjoyed it. Half of the ingredients I purchased would spoil before I could eat it. Often, I’d construct something with so many carbs that I’d just fall asleep after eating, and wake up feeling terrible. I had managed to grow up without ever learning how to use a kitchen.
The sandwich shops in my neighborhood started listing veggie burger patties on their menus, and these became my workday staples. An improvement, but eating like this always led to a deep tiredness just after lunch.
In my early twenties I read about the hundred-mile diet. Reducing my carbon footprint by restricting my diet even further? Sign me right up. But living on a narrow spit of sandy soil with few farms meant I would be eating from the ocean. The first time I ate animal flesh was sushi. It took a great deal of encouragement and support from a friend to get that first bite down, but after not too long I was very comfortable with small amounts of fish in my diet.
There was finally a kind of restaurant at which I could order with ease, but it was expensive, and the cognitive dissonance involved in eating fish “sustainably” was a burden. Oysters soon became my favorite food, being reasonably sustainable and so dumb they are practically plants, but to my chagrin these are still too expensive to eat regularly.
Vegetarian protein is a lot less dense than meat. It’s a race to eat enough food before your stretching stomach tissue releases leptin into the blood, sending that “fullness” sensation to your brain. If I ate too slowly, I would feel full before I really had enough, and I’d soon need to stop what I was doing to eat again. Eating was decidedly more chore-like than pleasurable, and I regretted the expense and time it used up.
My tastes were narrowly focused on how I felt after I eating, rather than how I felt while eating. Each meal was measured by how far it would propel me rather than the quality of its texture or flavor. I noticed a strong correlation between a fatty and protein-rich breakfast and my productivity. If I started my day big, fatty breakfast, I could have high output all morning and a big appetite later on. If not, the fasting brain would make me a much less enjoyable person to be around, but I could go all day without a significant meal.
A Taste of Freedom
When I met the woman who is now my wife, she provided a glimpse into what a childhood less antagonized by food could have been like. Simple, healthy, delicious meals prepared in her tiny kitchen were glimpses of a stolen life. I soaked them up. I was becoming aware that my antagonistic relationship with food was more complicated than simple vegetarianism.
One of our mutual friends is a classically trained chef and notoriously gracious host. At a party one evening, he surprised me with a beautiful piece of sesame-crusted tuna on a bed of arugula, and a one inch cube of steak. It was locally sourced, from a butcher he trusts, and prepared with great care in the hope that this would be my first taste of red meat.
That single bite was an education. All the dead-animal smells I’d ever experienced were only part of the equation. In this solid form, they were definitely food. Rich, comforting, wholesome sensations of taste and texture. I finally got it. Unfortunately, whatever microflora inhabit the guts of meat eaters had long been extinct in mine, or perhaps I never even received them from my vegetarian mother in the first place. It instantly made me ill. That would remain my only encounter, my single brief flirtation with beef and with dietary normalcy.
In 2013 I heard a radio interview with Rob Rhinehart. Like me, he was frustrated by food. Unlike me, he had done something about it. Starting from a list of what the body needs, rather than how those resources are produced or what might be interesting to eat, he arrived at a disruptive new idea about how food can work.
Rob had codified a distinction that I had intrinsically understood, that there were two kinds of food: nutrition, and entertainment. My experience with food, because of the restrictions I had been born into, allowed me access only to the nutritional kind, and not much of it. The entertainment kind of food, with emphasis on flavor, experience, was inaccessible to me, as was the full gamut of nutritional options.
Rob’s belief is that quality nutrition should be treated like a utility, just like water and electricity: inexpensive, ubiquitous, and available to all. My vegetarian upbringing left me deficient in my understanding of food and feeling defined by my exclusions. Too much of my time and money was being wasted on food that I now realize was totally inadequate. The utility metaphore precisely described what I was looking for. Better still, I could be part of an experiment that could radically improve nutrition for everyone.
That interview spawned a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign and a huge amount of international interest. The resulting commercial product finally shipped more than a year later under the name Soylent.
Soylent is a beige, silky beverage smelling a little like bread dough. Every sip contains the ideal ratio of protein, carbohydrates, fat, oils, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. What’s even more remarkable is what Soylent lacks:
It is completely free of animal products. An early version of Soylent contained fish oil, but they’ve since found a species of algae which provides the same or better nutrition while improving the texture and flavor.
It is almost gluten free, though they are still working on getting a “Gluten Free” label on it. It contains a oats, which are often contaminated with gluten.
No peanuts. The explosion in peanut allergies is terrifying to me. Peanut butter has been a staple all my life. I can’t imagine what I would have done had this been unavailable to me.
It’s lactose free. For someone who grew up dependent on dairy products for protein, and is now finding milk and cheese hard to stomach, this is a big deal.
Expense. Really. Soylent costs about $9 per day. That’s less than I used to routinely spend on lunch alone. According to the USDA, a male my age could spend about $242.40 per month if they are extremely thrifty (e.g. making everything from scratch). To live on 100% Soylent costs only $255 per month.
A day’s worth of food is 2 liters (about half a gallon), and 1 calorie per milliliter. It’s very filling, and it makes it easy to just turn off hunger. It gives me the freedom to try new foods that might not be enough fuel, and then fill in whatever else I need with something easy, cheap, and nutritious.
Soylent is targeted at a 2,000 calorie diet. Given my height and activity level, I need a little more than 2,300 calories per day, so I still enjoy a some traditional food on the side. Soylent is designed to be so bland that there is really no specific flavor to become bored with. Rather than missing traditional food, most of the time, I prefer Soylent.
Importantly, Soylent is not a weight loss program. Having been somewhat underweight most of my life, I bought a Fitbit Aria bathroom scale before embarking on the Soylent experiment and record my weight daily. I also arranged to have a full blood panel before hand, and again a few months in. I gained the weight I had hoped to gain, and my blood panels have all been excellent.
I have been eating like this since Fall 2014, and I have never felt better. My energy level starts high and stays high all day. I rarely experience hunger. My skin is clearer than it was before, and I have much more stamina when exercising. I am free to choose how much time I want to spend on food, and in so doing, have regained several productive hours per day. When I do choose to eat out, I know that while some foods won’t agree with me, I can focus on eating what is most interesting rather than what is going propel me the furthest.