“Natural” is overrated

or, why Soylent is A Good Thing


Humans evolved mainly to be active during daytime and to rest and sleep when it’s dark — the duration of those “days” and “nights” being fixed in ecuatorial Africa long ago. The natural thing for us, humans of the 21st century, would be to go to bed around sunset, and get up when the sun rises.

CC Joonas kääriäinen

However, not all humans can do that, all the time. Someone has to watch museums, factories and streets at night. A&E needs to be staffed. Someone has to work in the wee hours to bake the bread you eat for breakfast. People live in high latitudes, where nights are very short in the summer and very long in the winter. People travel and have a hard time adapting their sleep cycle to a new time zone.

What do we do? We have night shifts, and pass laws that limit the level of noise in cities so that people can rest at home. We have shutters, blinds, soundproofing, sleep masks, earplugs and sleeping tablets to create an artificial night when we want to rest, or on a plane. We use electricity to light up our houses, roads and offices at times of night when our ancestors would curl into fetal position inside their caves. We consume caffeine to get ready for work when it’s necessary. None of that is quite “natural”, nor instinctive. These changes seemed outrageous in the beginning, then people got used to them.

Wait. Do you mean to say that we should manipulate our circadian cycles at will? That we should ignore the Sun and the Moon?

Not at all. To go with the cycles of the Spheres is a great thing, and I do that as often as I can. Whenever work, social life and the environment permits, we should get as close to this natural ideal as possible. For all the other cases, which are a lot, the fact that we can tweak those natural cycles is an amazing feat, and we should embrace the opportunities that allows us.

I think it is disgusting.

Good for you. Follow the stars. I’m still caffeinated enough to work for another couple of hours, and then there’s that gig I want to go to tonight…

We have shutters, blinds, soundproofing, sleep masks, earplugs and sleeping tablets to create an artificial night

Early humans, like most other primates, survived by staying physically active and alert during their waking hours. Every single one of your ancestors, from the dawn of mankind to this day, male and female, was fast and strong enough to reach adulthood, breed and rear their offspring. They could not afford the luxury not to hunt, not to run, not to kill, not to be vigilant, not to flee. The natural thing for us, humans of the 21st century, would be to keep moving, to burn calories, to never stay still for more than a little while.

CC Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

However, not all humans can do that, all the time. Our work is increasingly intellectual in nature. We sit quiet at school, at our desk, at the counter or behind the wheel for a sizeable chunk of our lives. We don’t have incentives to stay fit because we can buy what we need to survive — instead of running after it, stealing it from others, or building it ourselves. We live much longer. We break our bones, become ill, look after needy babies, keep ourselves busy and, above all, feel tremendously lazy most of the time.

None of that is quite “natural”, nor instinctive — these changes seemed outrageous in the beginning, then people got used to them

What do we do? We have treadmills, stationary bicycles, dumbbells, fitness apps, insurance discounts and physiotherapists. We go to gyms, join sports clubs, swim indoors, enter popular races, encourage our children to be physically active, force rest breaks at work, watch our calorie intake. Entire branches of science and of the industry are devoted to keeping us moving and alive even at very old ages. Some people need fat-removal surgery, or drugs to widen their blood vessels or to survive type 2 diabetes. None of that is quite “natural”, nor instinctive. These changes seemed outrageous in the beginning, then people got used to them.

Wait. Why do you hate exercising naturally, in the open? Aren’t we supposed to simply run a lot, lift stuff, wrestle with each other, swim in the ocean, not be seated? How can you defend using that stupid cross-trainer under halogen light, for thirty minutes, four times a week?

I am not. Running outdoors, building stuff, using your body, playing games— those are great things, which I do as often as I can. Whenever work, social life and the environment permits, we should get as close to this natural ideal as possible. For all the other cases, which are a lot, the fact that we have invented so many other ways to get sweaty and tired quickly, to curb our energy intake, and to alleviate the risks of sedentary life is an amazing feat, and we should embrace the opportunities that allows us.

I think it is disgusting.

Good for you. I have to dash off to the gym now, because there is this conference I want to attend, and I’m meeting someone before that. You go chasing those bisons, never mind me.


Humans evolved eating almost anything they could: any plant their system would digest, and any animal they could kill. Fruits, nuts, roots, seeds, mammals of the African savanna, fish. The natural thing for us, humans of the 21st century, would be to eat paleo, vegetarian, vegan, raw, or a combination of the above (depending on whom you ask). In any case, we should never freeze or add modern preservatives to what we eat. All processed foods and acquired tastes (all alcoholic drinks, strong cheese, spicy food, bitter flavours) are not “natural”. It does not make sense for us to eat plants and animals that are not indigenous to the habitats of early humans. Unless they are cured (by smoking, salting or drying) we should never eat a vegetable that has been dead for more than a few days, nor animals that have been dead for more than a few hours.

CC rick

However, not all humans can do that, all the time. Most people don’t have the ability, the resources nor the time to prepare their own fresh meal every time they feel hunger — let alone to kill cattle, skin it and kindle the fire; or to milk a cow and boil the milk. People have different nutritional needs and restrictions because of allergies and other conditions; or when they lose their teeth, spend time recovering from trauma or from surgery, or remain unconscious or in a coma. People settle or go to work in places where they would starve, were they to feed solely off what’s available around them: arctic or desert regions, climates where most food is rotting in a few days, large urban areas devoid of wild plants or fauna.

Most importantly, we understand that we would lose so much in our lives if we had to devote a few hours every day to nourish ourselves and our families obeying mother nature to the letter. There would be less time to invent, to learn, to work… and to enjoy delicious meals with loved ones. That’s right: it is because some of your meals are pragmatic and quick that you can afford the luxury to entertain guests at home for hours to a delicious dinner, or to make “eating out” an enjoyable pastime and a social experience.

What do we do? We have restaurants, cantinas, cafeterias, school meals. We let others prepare food for us: cooks, parents or relatives. We ship food in containers across the globe. We routinely outsource the selection of ingredients and the cooking, and hope to the best of our knowledge that the result will be reasonably healthy and ethical (did they use olive, or sunflower oil? did they add sugar, salt, flavouring, preservatives, colour additives? is this fruit salad fresh enough? what are the concentrations of lead and mercury in that fish? did they use free-range eggs? how did they kill that pig?). We toast and roast to get that delicious flavour we love… and those carcinogenic benzopyrenes. From time to time, we ignore nutritional advice altogether and eat at a fast food restaurant; stuff ourselves with ice cream, sugary drinks, greasy meat, buttery cheesy tasty garbage; we eat spicy until we can’t feel our mouths; we adore an authentic, bitter espresso; we get tipsy or outright drunk so often. If you sometimes indulge in any of these “sins”, you know what we are talking about.

We stock refrigerators; we freeze food for months or years, then thaw it in an instant with a microwave oven (microwaves! in your food!). Pasteurised milk can be preserved for months (try to convince someone before Pasteur’s time to drink that). Baby food is sterilised. Thanks to freeze-drying, humans go to space and to the highest peaks on Earth. Sometimes we have so little time to spare eating that we order food online, get it delivered to us, and eat it on disposable containers using plastic cutlery. We have instant noodles, sports drinks, energy bars, vitamin supplements. Patients in hospitals can live on enteral nutrition for long periods of time.

It is because some of your meals are pragmatic and quick that you can afford the luxury to entertain guests to a delicious dinner, or to enjoy “eating out”

None of that is quite “natural”, nor instinctive. These changes seemed outrageous in the beginning, then people got used to them.

CC Pixabay

We create “meal replacement” products. (Don’t let the name fool you — they don’t replace meals: they are meals. Unless you are willing to admit that a turkey sandwich, a pasteurised juice and an industrial yogurt is also a replacement for a natural meal.) We use bars, shakes, tablets, powders. We invent Soylent.

Wait. Are you seriously defending that pretentious, pathetic concoction? How can you know what it’s made of?

Yes, I’m defending Soylent and similar products. Unless you grow and raise your own food, or happen to live next to organic producers and spend considerable time and money in buying natural, unprocessed ingredients and cooking them — you too rely on labels, lists of ingredients and the nutritional table that is printed on the can. Most of what you eat, from a slice of salami, to a leaf of lettuce, to a lasagna at the local restaurant, to a chocolate bar — it is processed, coloured, preserved and mixed with unsuspected ingredients. If you swallow pills, take shots, drink bottled water, alcohol or soft drinks, or simply eat at restaurants or buy packaged food, your health is already in the hands of other people.

But these meal replacements —

Are you ready to draw the line and define what is a “meal”, and what a mere substitute for it, based on objective, scientific facts? If not, I wouldn’t quite call anything a “meal replacement”.

Okay. Isn’t all that processing and mixing of ingredients spooky… to say the least?

“Spooky” is not a concept nutritionists care to discuss. Tell me how a protein shake, that comes from whey isolate obtained from milk, is more spooky than mixing cereals and water with microscopic living fungi into a colourless goo and heating it so that it ferments as the microorganisms grow (that’s bread). Kill an animal, slit it open, examine its entrails while they are still warm, and try to convince yourself that chewing and swallowing that, no matter how thoroughly cooked, has to be more pleasant or healthy or harmonious than getting your proteins from a processed soy drink.

Surely you don’t mean to suggest that one could live just on that!

Probably not yet. But we are getting there. Once we can get a blood test done weekly in our own homes, and the formulas used to prepare our meals adapt to it automatically, our nutrition will be, by definition, perfect.

In the very long run, we humans are probably losing our jaws and teeth, anyway.

But what about real food? Are you giving up on mum’s recipes, proper cooking, healthy ingredients and the pleasure of eating?

Not at all. Eating for pleasure as well as for nourishment is a great thing, and I do that as often as I can. Whenever work, social life and the environment permits, we should get as close to this natural ideal as possible. For all the other cases, which are a lot, the fact that we have so many convenient ways to put the appropriate matter inside our bodies so that we don’t die is an amazing feat, and we should embrace the opportunities that allows us.

I think it is disgusting.

Good for you. I’ll join the bandwagon of history.