Soy-Lent

“In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance.” -Wikipedia

I do not really fit into any faith bucket (or political bucket, or…any bucket) but am nonetheless cashing in on a religion to make a clever title.

Disclaimer: I have no association with Soylent, I do not represent them, and thus I am free to make jokes about the product and/or the general population of Silicon Valley. Also, I am not a scientist, and I am not going to back up any of my theories. Do your own damn research!

I had been trying to lose weight, unsuccessfully, for quite a while. Why? Because I was clinically overweight by about 25 pounds and other health factors had scared me into action.

Why am I even writing this? I hope that someone else will find it useful. I have tried everything as far as diet and exercise, and I wasted a great deal of time and energy doing so. I have conclusions for both that I will talk about here. The additional disclaimer is that everyone is different, there is no “ultimate method,” and do not try anything that is unsafe for you. There are many factors to your health, but for the purposes of this article I am mostly sticking to the concept of losing excess weight.

About one month ago I said something like:

I did not drink one bottle per day. I drank 24 bottles total (about 0.8 bottles per day). And I cheated quite a bit, with about 800 additional calories per day on average. There were days when I did just consume one bottle, and nothing else.

I also did not exercise every day, but in total I did average over one mile per day (32.6 miles total according to my phone).

The main point, these numbers aside, was that I felt comfortable. I never felt like I was hungry (in fact, I often felt like I had eaten too much). But you want to know the results:

Here is my weight over the past 6 months or so. As you can see, I failed to record it most of that time (the red dots represent recorded weights). Nonetheless, I recall that my normal weight was about 206 pounds, and without so much water weight (i.e. after exercise) it was about 201 pounds, and the few recorded weights before August match up with this. Thus I went from my peak of 206 pounds to 191 pounds, with about 5 pounds of water weight, so I lost almost exactly 10 pounds of real weight. Most of this happened over the ~1 month where I changed my diet.

The entire six months, I was exercising (with the exception of about six weeks where I tore my calf muscle), and I was not dieting although I was eating healthier than in the past. It was not until slightly before August that started choking down Soylent / crying myself to sleep.

The naive analysis is that diet trumps exercise, at least when it comes to weight loss. You would have to run about 10 miles to burn off 1000 calories. Most people will agree that it is easier simply to cut those extra 1000 calories out of your diet. The many other benefits of exercise should not be discounted, and ideally you have enough time and energy to regulate both your diet and exercise. But if you do not, I would recommend just dieting, as far as weight loss goes.

Why was Soylent the catalyst here? There is nothing special about it really, and you could achieve this with similar products, but here are the reasons:

  1. It is not fun to drink (it does not taste bad in my opinion, but not good enough that you want to consume it for pleasure).
  2. Portion control. I know exactly how many calories I am taking in. I simply write on each bottle with a marker to know how many I have consumed, because it may be more or less than one per day. Being able to calculate your calorie intake accurately is more important than anything else, in my opinion. Yes, not all calories are equal, but having a number at least gives you a reasonable baseline. Moreover, budgeting your calories forces you to think about food differently. With a 200 calorie budget, you can eat: 1.25 ounces of chocolate, or one slice of bread with one slice of cheese, or 13 slices of turkey, or 3 peaches, or 5 kiwis, or 50 strawberries (!), or 33 celery sticks (ok, nobody hates themselves that much).
  3. It is at least somewhat sustainable. You do not feel like you are poisoning your body. There was some controversy over cadmium and lead in the product, but these amounts are actually very small. The same amounts of cadmium and lead can be found in any type of rice you buy, due to the tendency of water to absorb these elements from soil. That aside, I have somewhat given up on the notion of my food in general being free of harmful chemicals, hat tip to the FDA.

If anybody wants to try this, the first two or three days are critical. Try to consume only one or two bottles per day and nothing else on these days. This will feel like you are starving but after you have “trained” your body, it feels normal (and indeed, I would argue that 2500 calories per day is not what nature intended us to consume).

Diet aside, exercise could have been a major factor here. My exercise was relatively inefficient (running on mostly flat land). For anybody reading this and trying to lose weight, I do not recommend running on flat land, or even on hills. I recommend running on stairs (which I would have done, if there were any around where I live now). Doing so in the past has greatly accelerated my weight loss.

The reason I recommend running, and particularly running on stairs, is that anyone can do it; you are not constrained by a gym, a team, a trainer, or a time of day. As someone who has run many hills, and many stairs, I can say that running stairs is much more mentally rewarding. I do not know the exact psychology of it. An ideal set of stairs is parallel all the way up and about 5 or 6 flights high. The San Diego Convention Center, where Comic-Con is held, is one such place (I used to run here frequently). A set of stairs this high will wind even experienced runners, but is manageable for those who are not.

Stairs will tax the biggest muscles in your body: your quadriceps. Try running on flat land, and then try running several flights of stairs (at least 10 to 20). You will notice the difference immediately: your quadriceps will feel numb on the stairs, whereas you will feel little to nothing from flat land. If you skip stairs (jump every other step) you will engage even more muscles in your body. By association, exercising these large muscles will your push your VO2 max (your maximum rate of oxygen consumption) like nothing else. Notice how you are out of breath even just walking up stairs? Unlike running a long path, stairs are logically broken up into intense intervals, you have a clear start and finish point and it is such a short distance you will not mind pushing yourself to the limit. As a final added benefit, stairs counter-intuitively seem to have less impact on your legs and joints, at least in my experience.

It turns out there is a simple explanation for the difference in physics. And yes, this is a very rough abstraction but it gets the point across. Imagine you are pushing a 100 kg weight up some (frictionless?) ramps. Both ramps are 5 meters high, but they differ in length — one is 5 meters long and the other 500. Which ramp requires less work (in physics terms)? Remember that work = force multiplied by distance.

It turns out that they require exactly the same amount of work, regardless of the length of the ramp (the deciding factors are the height of the ramp, the weight being pushed, and the amount of force exerted by gravity). In reality, there are many other forces acting on you, but again this is a rough abstraction. Friction is actually a force that helps you run though, except for the friction imposed by air.

TL;DR:

All of this can be boiled down to two takeaways:

  1. Portion control / effective calorie counting
  2. Intense short workouts over long workouts
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