Soylent, Blue Apron, and Depression
How I Gimmicked My Way Out of the “Poor Nutrition to Depression to Poor Nutrition” Feedback Loop
When you’re in a depression, it’s hard to take good care of yourself, and when you’re not taking good care of yourself, it’s easy to fall into a depression.
Your desire is flat-lining. Every aspect of your life starts failing to produce joy, or really any emotion of any kind. You know that exercise will help, but you don’t exercise. You know that connecting with other people will help, but you isolate yourself. You know that a healthy diet will help, but you eat junk. Sometimes you just skip meals, because what’s the point, really?
We know all about the links between diet and psychological health. If you eat right, your mental health obviously improves. However, when you’re already in the depths of a depression, there is very little that can convince you that eating right is worth the effort.
When you’ve become so horrendously indifferent to the experience of your own life that you’re already struggling with the concept of getting out of bed in the morning, the very idea that you’d also be capable of making yourself a nice meal barely registers as a remote possibility.
You subsist on your slowly dwindling collection frozen foods, and when you reach the point when you’d normally make your usual grocery run, you fail to understand what could possibly be gained from collecting ingredients and cooking recipes, much less selecting one frozen dinner over another. The uncertainty becomes crippling. The labor of choosing what to eat, going out to get it, coming home and preparing it, these tasks play out in your imagination like a sad farce, a sick joke we subject ourselves to daily without end.
Hunger grows as you wallow deeper into your resentment of these chores, these absurdities, these pointless diversions from the essential emptiness of being. You then judge yourself for being unable to experience any anticipation, enthusiasm, or delight for food beyond this physical craving, and you wallow even deeper. In a moment of desperation, your body sends subtle signals to nudge your memory toward peak experiences from your past that might motivate your shriveled mind towards some kind, any kind of sustenance.
There are deep grooves carved by early childhood memories, the explosions of sugar, salt, and fat that accompanied the ecstasy of grade-school sleepovers overflowing with video games, Dominos pizza, Doritos and 2-liter torpedoes of soda. It was the camaraderie and brief window of synthetic freedom that actually made for the good times, but taste and odor are the most powerful avenues of sense-memory, and chasing that dragon is all you’ve got to work with right now, so you place the order.
The needle of anticipation makes a tiny jump as you wait. The needle of satisfaction makes a tiny jump as you take the first bite. By the time your belly is full from the entire order of breadsticks, the 2 pint glasses of soda, and the one and a half slices of pizza, very little has changed, but at least now you have a few thousand leftover calories for the fridge that will barely maintain the vessel for another day or two through this suffocating black hole of confusion that has sucked the light out of the world.
Your stomach turns, you feel regret. You witness the bait-and-switch you’ve just fallen for. $30 wasted on a phantom, a cartoon disguised as a meal. The lack of satisfaction is so obvious in hindsight, and you can’t believe how deeply you had been craving the hideous pile of hot cheese, bread and sugar that now assaults your innards. You feel worse than before. How typical of you to be so stupid that you’d fall for this again. You deserve it.
This is the essence of the “Poor Nutrition to Depression to Poor Nutrition” Spiral of Darkness. Every day becomes a fresh battle, with your body struggling to keep itself going, and your mind fully convinced that all struggle is futile.
For those that are curious, and especially for those that read this from within their own personal Dark Spiral, I offer these field notes from my haphazard and bumbling attempt to kickstart some plateau of basic health and well-being by enrolling in two subscription-based food services.
Soylent is a drinkable meal meant to act as the “water of food”, a neutral delivery mechanism for everything the body needs. Blue Apron is a combination grocery delivery service and cooking class by mail, offering a weekly selection of expertly curated recipes, along with perfect portions of all the ingredients needed to cook them.
Both of these services are marketed as ways to save time and money. For me, they combined to form an emergency lifeline of dietary intervention that played a huge part in rescuing me from the oceanic depths of a long depression.
I’m going to be honest with you. When I first heard about Soylent, I got excited in exactly that weird, vaguely creepy, nerd-joy way of “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! Food without any of the complications, and by complications I mean everything that most people like about food!”
When you dedicate your life to finding better ways to design things, the temptation of ruthless pragmatic efficiency over the warmth of sentimental complication can sometimes be overwhelming. “Why can’t we just…?!” has often been the exasperated agonizing of someone who goes on to create a completely magical new technology or service that we immediately accuse of being unforgivably dehumanizing and then subsequently take completely for granted as a central pillar of our lives faster than you can tap “Like” on an “edgy” cartoon about how we’re addicted to smartphones.
This is not to say that Soylent is for everyone. It’s definitely proven itself as a love-it-or-hate-it phenomenon, with, as usual, the most words being spilled by those who don’t use it, much less have even tried it. Regardless, I’m not here to tell you that it’s the future of food and one day we’ll all have Soylent faucets next to water faucets in our homes.
I’m here to tell you that when you’re so depressed that you can’t even fry up a couple eggs in the morning, you can still make a pitcher of Soylent. When your hunger starts to push you down the familiar road towards the comforting junk, you can drink a glass of Soylent to interrupt the cycle. When you find yourself in a manic streak writing that Medium essay you’d been putting off for months, and you forget to eat and now there’s no time before you have to rush out the door for an appointment, you can drink a glass of Soylent to prevent yourself from spending that $30 on that fancy lunch that the combination of hunger and mania will convince you is entirely justifiable while you’re out and about.
Essentially, Soylent is capable of providing the baseline of balanced nutrition that helps you come out of a depression while still allowing you to operate at the near-zero level of either effort or enthusiasm that your depression has been enforcing. It’s a trap-door out from under depression’s dungeon. The Depression Guards, who are normally experts at repelling and/or sabotaging anything that’s remotely healthy or otherwise good for you, they don’t lash out at Soylent because it speaks in the same language of featureless neutrality that your depression has already applied to every other aspect of your life.
I was definitely in the throes of a depression when I made my first pitcher of Soylent, and the first sip produced a wave of elation through my entire body. Digestion begins in the mouth, and I could feel the relief immediately as my organs scrambled to absorb the miscellaneous obscure nutrients they had been deprived of because those nutrients are not contained in either Chipotle burritos or Coca-Cola.
For a couple of months, I drank almost nothing but Soylent. I would still have nice “regular” restaurant or home cooked meals often, with friends and business partners, but there was a point at which my fridge shelf had almost completely emptied and my pantry shelf had become dominated by Soylent pouches. This became a source of concern for several of my friends, family, and housemates. I received numerous lectures about the hazards of GMOs, the dangers of soy, and I detected many subtle allusions to a more general accusation that I had retreated into some sad state of delusion and self-deprivation, a miniature sci-fi dystopia that I had inflicted upon myself.
I couldn’t really explain it to everyone at the time, but I really didn’t have any patience or interest in their critique and even demonization of the one thing that had measurably helped lift me out of my depression, especially since this artificial nutrient sludge invented by a silicon valley lunatic had succeeded where all of their traditional and wholesome advice had failed.
However, while I knew I’d be perfectly content to continue drinking Soylent as a main staple of my diet, I started to feel awkward when friends would visit and I had nothing to cook for them, and I realized I preferred cooking for visiting friends much more than relying on bringing them to the delightful and reliable vegan cafe down the street.
Unfortunately, Soylent is capable of putting a spell of forgetfulness on your eating habits. It was hard to remember how I even fed myself before Soylent, much less before the long season of depression that led me to enact this desperate nutritional gambit. My mental health had greatly improved thanks to the new “floor” of bodily health that I couldn’t fall below, and I was open to the concept of learning to cook a diversity of adventurous meals, but I didn’t know where to start. I was a culinary blank slate, armed with nothing but a full belly, empty shelves, and my one-trick-pony habit of making a batch of phenomenal pizzas from scratch every once in a while. I was ready to re-learn how to cook, but how to begin?
I’ve always found cookbooks and recipe websites infuriating. It’s the same Netflix tyranny-of-choice problem. When you have access to literally every recipe ever, how do you make a selection? Every option was fogged with uncertainty and doubt, and while my depression wasn’t strong enough to completely debilitate me anymore, it still prevented me from formulating my own self-directed cooking curriculum. It didn’t help that I was also always one glass of Soylent away from making the act of cooking feel that much more like a superfluous gesture. Nevertheless, I needed to take my first steps back into a richer, more intimate relationship with food.
I had fantasies of finding a cookbook that was written like culinary boot camp. The antagonistic, drill-sergeant voice of the author would mock your lackluster food habits in that perfect mix of belligerence and comedy. He’d take you on a tour of your kitchen, and convince you to throw it all away: everything in your fridge and pantry, everything on your spice rack, all your shitty old pots and pans and dull cheap knives. He’d say “Get this one knife.” and “Get this one cast iron pan”. They’d be expensive, but they’d last the rest of your life and they’d be all you ever needed. There’d be opening lessons like “Here’s how to properly season your cast iron, you fucking idiot!”, and then you’d go grocery shopping.
“Now we’re going to go on a big trip to the supermarket, and you’re going to get everything on this list, and you’re not going to ask why,” the book would say. You’d come home with a massive pile of groceries, which constituted a well-stocked pantry and the first week of meals. Then the book would say “Here’s what we’re cooking for dinner tonight” and then you’d cook that and then the next morning, you’d continue reading to find out what you're making for breakfast on “Day 2”. The book would continue like this, leaving you no choices whatsoever, until you had finished 30 days of amazing meals involving every essential cooking technique, using recipes from around the world both traditional and modern.
I couldn’t find this book anywhere, so I asked on reddit if there were any kind of online tool designed to automatically produce a schedule of great meals and a corresponding shopping list with as little choice involved as possible, and someone recommended Blue Apron.
The basic meal plan for Blue Apron is 3 meals per week, each meal consisting of two servings. You get a refrigerated box with recipe cards and all the portioned ingredients for each meal, with enough individual plastic containers to make your inner hippie want to faint. Luckily, everything is recyclable, and they even have the option of sending all the packaging back to them so that some of it can get reused.
My first meal was Thai Chicken Burgers with Hoisin Mayo and Roasted Potato Wedges. The burgers were phenomenal, and the recipe was one I would probably never pick for myself in a million years of flipping through endless options. I had gone from zero to chef in a single evening. It was honestly kind of magical.
Everyone has their own convoluted history to their relationship with cooking food, much of which is dictated by how their parents cooked (or didn’t cook) and whatever feats of daring adventures we might make into cookbooks or cooking classes or learning new recipes from friends as we grow older. With Blue Apron, it feels like they’re deliberately featuring techniques that are designed to get you to think differently about how cooking gets done.
I’ve certainly had my moments in the past, and I had a decent repertoire of general cooking skills, despite my choice-fatigue with recipes. However, Blue Apron immediately pushes you beyond your comfort zone of ingredients and techniques, but the whole thing is packaged into such a well-calibrated user experience that it’s basically tricking your brain into realizing that cooking diverse, challenging meals is not nearly as daunting as it may seem. Making the meal isn’t the hard part. Everything leading up to the making of the meal is the hard part.
This was almost exactly what I was looking for, although Blue Apron employs the now-ubiquitous Non-Threatening Hipster Aesthetic, as opposed to that of my vaguely masochistic boot camp fantasy. They even have an online store for reccommended knives and other tools!
So far, I’ve made two weeks of meals with my Blue Apron subscription and I’m tremendously pleased. I’m drinking Soylent for most breakfasts and lunches, and for dinners, I’m making things like Curried Catfish & Coconut Rice with Green Beans & Golden Raisin Chutney, and all kinds of other stuff that I would have never considered making despite having the infinite virtual recipe book of the Internet at my fingertips at all times. Unsettling as the conclusion may be, it might be true that we are sometimes happier when our options are limited.
The biggest downside to Blue Apron is definitely the cost, although an interesting quality of a grocery budget that consists entirely of a Soylent subscription (56 meals in 14 bags of powder for $108 per month) and a Blue Apron subscription (3 two-serving meals for $60 per week) is that it creates an unvarying fixed cost of $348 per month. This seems like a lot, but apparently in the U.S., the average 19–50-year-old man spends an average of $294.80 per month on groceries.
Even if you go by the “thrifty” side of the average, $162.40 per month, I wonder how much that difference of $185.60 could be accounted for by the time and gas spend grocery shopping, along with the added value of Soylent’s nutrition optimization and Blue Apron’s skillful curation and likeness to taking a cooking class. These all add up to a significant quality-of-life investment and overall therapeutic potential for those of us who might otherwise be wandering in the Dark Spiral.
There are certainly many other ways to eat healthily and happily than a combination of Soylent and Blue Apron, and many of those other ways are going to be more affordable, or more moral in the eyes of assorted traditional wisdoms. However, to me these services represent so much more than “cost of food” or even things like “saving time and effort”. They represent a radical lifestyle choice that worked when almost nothing else did. I don’t plan to maintain this diet indefinitely, and will likely end my Blue Apron subscription once I feel confident as a chef, and I’ll be drinking a bottle of Soylent or two every couple days when I’m on the go.
I also would never say that all it takes to cure depression is subscribing to Soylent and Blue Apron. Plenty of depressed people aren’t affected by the Nutrition Dark Spiral as much as I am, and some go on being catastrophically depressed despite having delicious and nutritious meals provided for them through absolutely no effort of their own. Depression can be as unique as people are, and everyone needs to be empowered and supported through their own weird personal journey through it. Consistent, good exercise and face-to-face connection are equally as important as nutrition when dealing with depression, and there are countless forms of therapy that are curative miracles for some and complete disasters for others.
As I get older, I suspect more and more that life is designed to support a diversity of paths that all eventually lead to the same place, forever returning and departing in an unfolding loop. This is an important contrast against the idea that life consists of a small handful of “correct” paths to good ending points, and a huge plethora of dead-ends. The best we can do is help each person along their own path, rather than curse their path and insist that they switch to what we have determined by dubious methods to be the better way.
For many cultures, food is the essential structure of community. The idea that each “individual person” is responsible for acquiring and preparing their own meals is preposterous, abhorrent, against the basic parameters of reality. The temple is always serving meals to all visitors. The potluck doesn’t require a Facebook event to coordinate. The home kitchens are always a flurry of activity, and it’s not even questioned that most of the neighborhood, or all of the village will be floating through at some point, each to make their customary gesture of polite refusal before accepting the plate on the insistence of the rose-cheeked cooks, each visitor lingering a while to play their own little measure in the never-ending symphony of chit-chat, gossip, debate, storytelling, bullshit artistry, and card games that flows like a river through every home.
Even as we may strive to maintain or rebuild these ways while under the brutal alienation of Empire Culture, we can be swayed by the cleverness of the trap. Those cultures are oppressing their women by assuming they’ll be in the kitchen all day, aren’t they? We are more free when we don’t have to rely on our neighbors for food or any the things that make life good, aren’t we? We are not shackled by the surveillance and judgment of the whisper-down-the-lane gossip grapevine every time we step out of antiquated and problematic local norms, right?
We are free to be individuals at the edge of cultural innovation, each one of us a master of our own destiny and each of us a sovereign lord over a singular person-scale or nuclear-family-scale household, or perhaps a sovereignty we wield by labeling our groceries to keep them separate from those of our roommates. Was there ever a better or more pure food culture that we need to get back to? Are our relationships to our food and to each other destined to completely transform, so as to become unrecognizable by our ancestors?
There are no final answers to the larger historical trends of culture and economics that push and pull us toward and away from various styles of food-making and food-sharing. At least for those in Urban America, we are surrounded by the cloud of individualism that compels us to take agency over our own food gathering and preparing, as mediated by whatever commerce and distribution we can access. We might strike some healthy balance of cooking meals often for friends, or inviting each other to occasional potlucks via email, or visiting the Hare Krishna temple for a meal every Sunday, but for the most part, we agree that we are each on our own.
We must each feed ourselves (or ourselves and our immediate families) with nothing but our own wits and our own modest means, somewhere along the spectrum of grocery stores, restaurants, fast-food, farmers markets, food banks and CSA’s. At the end of the day, it’s you, whatever you’ve managed to pull together, the kitchen, and the tyranny of choice.
We cannot ignore the ways that depression and anxiety are symptoms of the culture and economics that we live in. It’s not just the food you eat, it’s the web of connections that the food moves along. Until very recently, we could rely on the collective garden of prosperity that is the village, a place where gardening, cooking and eating are practiced in service to a universal harmony. Only in the very recent past was it decided we shall each be sovereign lords of our lives, that we must each earn an income not through giving our true gifts, but by whatever busywork and hustling that keeps the market growing.
Single young professionals, are most susceptible to falling through the cracks of our fractured and uncertain societal relationship to that which makes us live. It is a Dark Spiral of poor nutrition into depression into lack of connection into cultural alienation into economic servitude into poor nutrition into depression.
Perhaps someday our politics, economics, and cultures will lead us towards a future where we can find a balance between the wisdom of the village that provides free food for all of us and the progress of the city that provides free expression for each of us. We have what we need to build a way of life that affirms both our individual expressive independence and our collective, embodied interdependence.
This is a singular point in history through which we are redefining our relationship to everything we’ve ever considered sacred. The very definition of what it means to be human is at stake, and on the other side of whatever it is we’re doing right now collectively as a species, our most basic understandings will be questioned: Food, Money, Love, Sex, Power, Art, Justice. All are being unfolded in unprecedented new patterns.
What’s important is that we take care of each other through this process, wether its cooking a meal for a friend or packing a box of individually wrapped ingredients for shipment to a stranger. Either way, we’re in this together, and together we’ll find out how to make sure everyone gets fed, and fed well.