Rob Rhinehart stopped eating and started a multimillion-dollar empire.
In a 2013 blog post entitled, “How I Stopped Eating Food,” the then-24-year-old explained how he’d overhauled his diet by eliminating all solid foods from his life. For the past 30 days, Rhinehart said, he had only consumed a milkshake-like concoction he made of every essential nutrient. He called the mixture Soylent.
Three years later, Soylent is being trumpeted as the “future of food,” with tens of millions in sales and investments pouring in from its meal replacement drinks. But for all the company’s Silicon Valley-style talk of disruption, Soylent’s original sales pitch—eliminate solid foods—is a familiar one.
For people who live with eating disorders, it’s the language of dieting.
Consider a recent Soylent video ad campaign on Facebook. The video stars attractive athletes and generalized scientific claims about the beverage, but the teaser image sends a different message. Featuring a slim woman drinking Soylent, along with the drink’s calorie count and a promise to cut hunger, the post looks like an ad for SlimFast, or Special K shakes, or any in a litany of interchangeable weight-loss drinks marketed at women.
Then there is the caption: “Each 400 calorie bottle of Soylent 2.0 provides 20 percent of your daily nutritional requirements. Put simply, Soylent satisfies your hunger.”
Soylent does not appreciate comparisons to SlimFast. When journalist Nellie Bowles tweeted a picture of SlimFast at Soylent this month, the company sent a curt reply: “We are not a weight loss product.”
But elsewhere on the internet, it’s a different story.
Rhinehart’s 2013 essay “How I Stopped Eating Food” has found a new audience in so-called “pro-anorexia” circles: forums in which eating disorders are glamorized and dieting tips like subsisting on liquid diets are traded. In dozens of threads across multiple pro-anorexia forums, users discuss Soylent as a method of restricting food intake.
Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, says she isn’t surprised. For many people with anorexia, bulimia, and the like, the idea of closely controlling one’s diet is linked to feelings of personal responsibility and purity, she says.
“Generally, we’re at a point in our culture where the conversation around health—quote unquote ‘health’—is really problematic,” Mysko told The Daily Beast. She said NEDA has received a growing number of calls from people who worry that their supposedly healthy choices, like so-called clean eating or meal replacement, are becoming an obsession. “All these conversations that are couched in language around health, are actually for a number of people really a mask for either disordered eating or full-blown eating disorders.”
And the Soylent vision—the world’s most closely controlled diet—is rife with the language of elimination.
“I think just looking at the way Soylent is marketed,” Mysko said, “just looking at the language around it about ‘efficiency’ and personal responsibility and ‘easy, nutritious, food of the future’ kind of marketing, I think that’s connected to this idea of clean eating, and purity. It can be very triggering for people who have traits that might make them more vulnerable to eating disorders.”
Soylent says that’s not the point of its marketing campaign.
“Soylent does not market itself as a diet product company, nor as a dietary supplement,” Nicole Myers, director of communications for Soylent, told The Daily Beast in a statement. “Our convenient, complete foods are based on the dietary recommendations of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and World Health Organization (WHO). We strive to provide an affordable means to achieve a healthy lifestyle and seek to use science, technology, and enterprise as tools to improve the quality and accessibility of nutritionally complete foods.”
While Soylent said it focuses on millennials, the company did not respond to questions about which Facebook users were targeted with the ad showing a female model and Soylent’s calorie count. (Anecdotally, a number of my Facebook friends and I saw the ad; we’re all women under 30.)
Soylent does not have to be a dieting tool; Rhinehart wasn’t trying to lose weight with his initial 30-day experiment in 2013. In fact, Soylent’s unadorned, customizable nature is one of its selling points. You can use it as a meal replacement to maintain your current weight, add peanut butter or protein powder for muscle gain, even fuel a climb up Mount Everest as two Soylent-sponsored climbers did in May.
But Lisa Sasson, a clinical associate professor in New York University’s Nutrition and Food Studies Department, says the company might be playing too loose with its new ads, some of which look too much like dieting products, she says.
“It’s blossoming out now to say, ‘Hey, we can tap other markets,’ maybe tap the diet industry,” Sasson told The Daily Beast. “Sort of like with these SlimFast shakes: ‘Here’s a shake, it’s only 400 calories, it’s controlled with all the nutrients you need,’ and you can just drink it without thinking about what to eat or dealing with food or calories.”
Many people with eating disorders simply abstain from food, or eat a few specific foods, rather than replace a meal with a product like SlimFast, said Sasson, who works with patients with severe eating disorders.
“I don’t see them looking at Soylent, because then they’re owning it,” Sasson told The Daily Beast. “A lot of time, people with eating disorders are in denial. They’ll say ‘Oh, I ate, I had oatmeal for breakfast, I’m totally in control.’”
But she says she could see meal-replacement drinks acting as a gateway drug for people who already have a difficult relationship with food; people who already obsess over calories, or might become hooked on an initial weight loss experienced while drinking Soylent.
“When you focus on just the calories, you only see part of the picture,” she said of advertising that focuses on calorie counts. “You become obsessed and consumed with a number, which is very unhealthy.”
Mysko shares the concern. Dietary disruptions—like ditching solid foods—can lead to disordered eating patterns and eating disorders, she said.
“There was one writer who mentioned that while his co-workers went out to lunch, he stayed in his cubicle drinking Soylent,” Mysko said. “That’s kind of the classic example of what we would consider a major warning sign, if it’s altering your interactions, your ability to engage in life and have relationships. It provides fuel for disordered eating and disordered eating habits.”
The lonely office desk lunch fits well within Soylent’s missions of efficiency and productivity. (“I think the original was for the busy people who don’t want leave their desks,” Sasson said. “Wall Street people who can just drink this and get back to work.”)
Even Soylent disciples have asked about the drink’s significance for people with eating disorders—although these conversations posit the drink as a solution for anorexia, not a possible trigger.
In a Soylent forum thread entitled “Why couldn’t Soylent be a serious medical breakthrough,” a user suggests administering the drink via feeding tube.
“Why couldn’t Soylent be the fluid that they hook into some invalid’s mouth through a tube to keep his/her body strong through a coma? Why isn’t this a form of treatment for anorexia?”
Another Soylent user shot back.
“As someone who suffered from anorexia from her teens through her late 20s, I can tell you that Soylent wouldn’t be a [solution]—the problem isn’t food. The problem is trauma and poor coping mechanisms,” the user wrote.
Soylent wants to disrupt the culinary world. But before it does, Mysko and Sasson said the company should consider the people it might disrupt with its message.
“That kind of specificity about calories can be highly triggering for those who are at risk, or those who are already very much entrenched in that counting of calories and other markers related to eating disorders,” Sasson said. “To have that in an advertisement, and to expose that to people who have potential to be negatively affected by seeing that, is very concerning.”
Too many people have a broken relationship with food. On that, both Rhinehart and dietitians can agree. But Sasson says the solution isn’t drinking milkshakes in isolation. It’s not Soylent’s premixed powders, even if they truly have all the nutrients the human body needs (which Sasson doubts).
“Food is one of the greatest joys in life,” Sasson said. “We should be encouraging people to eat, to cook, to eat plant-based foods. Food is linked to our culture, our past, it’s a way we celebrate. To me, there’s something really wrong when you eliminate what food is.”