"It's the squares," said my coworker, ominously. "It has to be."
I was on day five of my seven-day challenge to eat nothing but meal replacement bars called MealSquares, and I had just managed to troubleshoot my third technical issue of the day. I won't say the squares were responsible, but something was definitely different.
By now, you’ve probably heard of Soylent, the drink that boasts complete nutrition and claims to save you from having to ever think about food again. Much like Soylent, MealSquares were founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: Romeo Stevens, a computer science student at San Jose State University, and John Maxwell, a Bay Area software developer. Obsessed with using nutrition to increase our longevity, Stevens had spent years experimenting with the things that eventually became MealSquares. Obsessed with maximising (even nutritional) efficiency, Maxwell asked Stevens to share his creations.
"I just wanted something to eat in the morning before going to work that didn’t take that much time to prepare," says Maxwell.
So, as someone who works too much, tries to eat healthy but isn't always successful, and is, yes, a woman, I gave the squares a shot.
For a full week, I ate only MealSquares, drank only water and a cup of black coffee per day, and snuck only one desperate weekend can of Diet Coke. The squares come in a box of 30 for £65.23, so about two pounds per square. They'll last for about two months when refrigerated and a few weeks at room temperatures, so their durability is definitely a plus. Because each one contains 400 calories, I was aiming to eat five a day. It was a little rough.
Opening their vacuum-sealed bag let out a whiff of something like wet cardboard, and the initial taste was not much better. My first bite was a little ambitious: Way too big and I needed a big gulp of coffee to wash down the chewy, mealy chunk. At this point, seven days looked like an eternity. However, I did manage to trick my boss into having a bite. Unsolicited job advice: Don't do this.
Gluten-free, artificial preservative-free, and nearly lactose-free, MealSquares aim to be a healthy, whole-food meal replacement product. Stevens says he had started by trying to make a nutritionally complete shake using whole foods, but realised the only thing missing was eggs. Once they were added, the mixture turned into batter and a solid, baked version logically followed.
Currently in a beta testing phase, Maxwell stresses that the formula may change and that an individually wrapped version is on the way. For now, the squares have protein coming from whey powder and eggs, fibre from gluten-free oats and rice bran, and saturated fats from milk, eggs, and sunflower seeds. They're also supplemented with a generous dose of vitamins and minerals.
Although there are certainly differing opinions on specific dietary recommendations, Maxwell and Stevens have done their best to reconcile them. "I just love that they use whole foods to meet those recommendations," says Kelly Scanlon, RD, the company's advisory dietician. And, she adds, their ingredients haven't gone through any nutrient-stripping processes like those endured by many of our cereals and grains. It's possible to survive on just MealSquares, but Scanlon and the company don't recommend it.
While the squares' clean-yet-complete nutrition aim is admirable, David Asprey, author of The Bulletproof Diet, is a little skeptical of how successful they currently are. Sans vitamins — which could just as easily be taken in pill form — the squares don't offer much, he says. There isn't a lot of variation in those protein sources, sugar from the orange juice adds up quickly (there are 13 grams of sugar in each square), and the cooked eggs just offer oxidised cholesterol, says Asprey. But, they're still a step up from Pop Tarts.
We've obviously had meal replacement products for decades, albeit in different forms. From protein shakes to Jenny Craig bars and every TV dinner in between, we've spent a lot of time, science, and money trying to make food easy — with varying degrees of success. Although the term "meal replacement" isn't specifically regulated by the FDA, it generally refers to a prepackaged thing with a specific amount of calories bolstered by a variety of vitamins. So, nutritionally-speaking, there's a pretty wide net.
Conceptually, though, these products have always aimed to replace much more than the meals — they are marketed as ways to save us from everything that goes into eating, so we can spend our bandwidth on things we've been trained to think matter more. For men, this often means maximising work time. But, for women, this usually translates to losing weight. I've certainly found them useful in the past: In high school and college, I would eat a Cliff Bar here or a Power Bar there when I didn't have the time or effort to spare on cooking and didn't have the money to eat out. But, is that really a pattern anyone should be getting into?
According to a recent Pew study, maybe not: Even if we are are more productive, we'll still work the same long hours. "With anything that saves time, that extra time does not usually get used for one’s own health," says Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management From The Inside Out. "Instead, it is almost always poured back into work." To avoid that, she suggests we formulate a plan beforehand about exactly where we want that time to go — preferably into an enriching activity, such as going for a walk or checking out a gallery, rather than answering emails.
There's also the simple fact that I enjoy eating. Like, a lot. And, eating only MealSquares meant giving up both the innate pleasure in consuming food I like and the tiny (but important) bit of control I get to exert in choosing my meals. Morgenstern says that taking breaks from work to do something we enjoy that also engages other senses (say, grazing on a greek salad) actually improves our efficiency. And, she continues, feeling like we have control — even over something as small as our lunch order — can fight off anxiety in a job where we don't get to make choices about much else.
It was about the middle of the third experiment day when I got the news that my grandmother had died. I eyed the stack of squares in the corner of my kitchen and sighed. I just wanted a fucking burger.
"Normal eating does include occasional eating for emotional reasons," says Christy Harrison, MPH, RD. Although taking that idea to the extreme could signal an unhealthy relationship with food, we can't and shouldn't deny the emotional connections we as a species have to what we eat. Harrison says that not having that emotional outlet anymore could cause depressive symptoms,"like something's missing."
She also says that, at this point, I was probably feeling the effects of starvation. As much as I wanted to be eating the calories I knew I needed, I could only muster about three and a half squares per day. It definitely left me feeling more tired than usual. At least by day five my palate has adjusted enough that I could actually taste the mild sweetness of the coconut oil.
My experience certainly doesn't reflect everyone's, though. Many have found Soylent to be the quick, easy answer to their particular nutritional quandary and the MealSquares site is full of rave reviews. Both Soylent and the squares have made it possible to track calories and avoid allergens while getting the nutrition their respective calculations deem necessary at a somewhat affordable price. For some, this is a recipe for productivity and success.
And, by day six of the experiment I was a little more on board — I didn’t even think about food anymore. I didn't have to worry about bringing yogurt with me to work in the mornings, my credit card thanked me for the break from Seamless, and I simply didn’t have to make food-related decisions. I honestly didn't realise how much mental energy I spent on food until I didn't have to do it anymore. But, as Morgenstern warned me, that energy is just going right back into work. In one sense this is easier, but in every other sense that matters to me, it just isn't worth it.
"If your life is so hectic that you don't have time to sit down and eat or cook for yourself once in a while, that's probably worth looking at," says Harrison. For me, it seems the issue isn't my meals — it's my mindset. "No meal replacement, no external thing will address the real issue," says Morgenstern. "We have this combination of being very ambitious and achievement oriented and that has been baked into our society and culture for a long time."
However, it's becoming increasingly clear that due to the effects of climate change, population increase, and our own basic stubbornness, we're going to have to figure out the real future of food soon. Globally, our meat, egg, and milk production comes with staggering costs — both monetary and environmental. Soylent's creator, Rob Rhinehart, told Vice that "agriculture has a huge impact on the environment, and this diet vastly reduces one's use of it."
And, sure, products like Soylent or the squares may indeed feature in our edible future. But, there are other options to consider. For instance, products containing insects pack a fair amount of protein with a smaller footprint and, yes, actual flavour.
The first day after the squares, I ate a bagel for breakfast and was blown away by the texture more than anything else. However, I had some celebratory Chipotle for lunch and it nearly put me straight to sleep. After a weeklong break, my system just couldn't handle it. As with most things, it seems moderation is the key. Although I plan to keep the leftover squares under my desk, I'll save them for the truly exceptionally crazy days. In that way, MealSquares have succeeded. But, the changes I want to make in my work life can't start with what I'm eating.