The sensory deprivation diet

This entry has nothing to do with numerical methods, mathematics, logic, gaming, or anything else I've written about. Well, there may be a few numbers. Maybe.  

One day in January this year, while spending precious minutes of my life browsing YouTube as people are wont to do on occasion, my clicks led from one thing to another ranging from music videos to Maker projects to magic acts, and then I landed on a 9-minute video called "How Penn Jillette Lost over 100 Lbs and Still Eats Whatever He Wants," featuring Las Vegas magician Penn Jillette talking about his experience with what seemed to be a dangerously unhealthy diet in which he ate nothing but potatoes for two weeks.

It's called a monotrophic diet or simply mono diet. The idea is, you eat just one food ingredient (like potatoes) for a while, and you lose weight due to the calorie deficit. I mean, who wouldn't lose weight if you're hungry and you know that your only option is to eat another potato? You can tolerate a bit of hunger in that situation. Anyway, the subject interested me enough to write a short Wikipedia article about it. My research confirmed what I suspected, that it's unhealthy and dangerous. I finished writing the article and moved on.

But there was something about that video I couldn't get out of my mind.

It wasn't the weight loss that intrigued me. It was the side effect Penn spoke about: that eating nothing but bland potatoes for two weeks reset his palate, so that he now desires only foods that happen to be healthy, because those are the only foods that taste good to him, and the resulting healthy diet keeps his weight and blood pressure under control.

My "sensory deprivation" diet idea

Because I noticed my own eating habits going in the wrong direction, and I was gaining weight, I wondered how to go about resetting my own palate in a safe, healthy way.

So I asked myself, what food, or combination of foods, can I eat every day that is nutritionally complete yet bland and tasteless, to help me reset my palate? I'm not interested in risking my health eating only potatoes. Maybe something like chickpeas and cucumbers? Or lentils?

Then I remembered, way back in 2013, I read a news article about a successful Kickstarter campaign for a product called Soylent. This product was created by a young entrepreneur who became dismayed that his choices of fast and convenient foods, although saving him valuable time in eating, also damaged his health and productivity. As an experiment, he did some research into developing a mix of ingredients that he could live on, and eventually turned it into a successful business. You can now buy Soylent at 7-Eleven convenience stores.

An online acquaintance suggested I look at an alternative product called Huel, developed by a British company and sold in the United States. Both Soylent and Huel looked good, with good ratios of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber. Easy to prepare, just mix well with water and drink it. After looking over both products, I found myself leaning toward Huel, due to my perception of higher quality ingredients, albeit at a somewhat higher price. But still, at less than $2.50 per meal, it was affordable.

I happened to have a checkup for an unrelated reason with my doctor soon afterward. The nurse weighed me at 209 pounds with clothes on. Probably 205 without. Ugh. For the first time in my life, my body mass index had gone above 30, into the "obese" range. I've never been so heavy in my life. And my blood pressure was borderline too high.

This reminded me of my idea of a modified mono diet to reset my palate. I told my doctor about Soylent, and that I was thinking about living for two weeks on a single bland but well-balanced food source for the purpose of resetting my palate. He said "well, it won't kill you, and it may actually do some good. Let me know how it works."

Armed with my doctor's blessing, I ordered enough unflavored Huel for 56 meals, a two-week supply, assuming I'd consume 4 meals per day at 500 calories each, to maintain a healthy intake of up to 2,000 calories per day for a moderately sedentary adult who gets occasional exercise.

The four bags of Huel arrived and then sat un-opened for over a week. There was always some reason to delay, such as too many leftovers to eat from our last picnic with friends, and a party the next weekend. Soo (my wife) convinced me to wait until after the party.

So I did. Then, I began.

Day 1 (29 July) — well, it's palatable

Today I start my regimen, trying to live from Huel exclusively.

Darius, my 9-year-old son, makes me weigh myself. I don't really care about weight at this point. The purpose of this experiment is to reset my palate to see what happens afterward. I check in at 205 pounds. Yeah, that's what I expected based on my visit to my doctor. Eventually I'll need to lose about 50 pounds.

My first impression of Huel: It doesn't taste bad. I recall one reviewer said something like "they misspelled 'hurl' in the product name" because he felt like vomiting. To me, it tastes vaguely like oatmeal. Or more closely like Cheerios cereal that has gotten so soggy it has congealed into a homogeneous mass resembling the batter I make for cooking crêpes. The texture is actually sort of chewy in a way. I am no longer worried that I will miss food I can chew for the next couple of weeks.

Day 2 (30 July) — learn to fart like a horse

Can I keep this up?

It isn't this bad in the beginning but feels like it.

The product brochure included in my shipment says this: "If switching to Huel represents a dramatic change in your diet, then it's only natural that your gut will have an opinion (and in some instances, will make itself heard)."

No kidding.

I had read this brochure before I started, and prepared myself by buying a digestive enzyme supplement to take with meals. It helps only a little.

I'll add only that I constantly feel the urge to evacuate my bowels even though there isn't any solid mass to dispose of. The less said about this, the better.

Day 3 (31 July) — not quite according to plan

The volume I'm eating has been small so far, three meals instead of the four I planned, due to job activities preventing me from having a mid-afternoon meal. Due to my son's evening swimming class (which thankfully ends in a couple of days), I don't get home to eat until about 8:00 pm. That's a long time to go without eating since lunch time. I'm hungry all afternoon, until dinner.

Instead of eating Huel for dinner, I break the regimen and eat some leftovers from the previous weekend's party. Interestingly, even after just three days on this diet, I find I have little appetite for the oily samosas and Indian vegetable pastries. I find myself wishing I had gone with the Huel for dinner. I must be acclimating to it!

Day 5 (2 August) — well, I had no choice...

Mmmmmm...

Two days later, I fall off the wagon again. You see, it's a special day that calls for celebration. My son Darius has finally mastered the butterfly stroke enough to manage 25 meters of it in the public pool, which is the final skill he needed to pass his level 5 swimming class after taking the same class three times since last year. I'm proud of him. I can still swim a long distance, but I doubt I could even manage 25 meters of butterfly stroke anymore, it's so difficult and strenuous. This is a significant achievement; athletic skills don't come easily to him. So the family goes out for his favorite dinner: sushi.

Normally I can put away a lot of sushi. Tonight, however, I find myself satiated after just a small amount. My portion control had gradually gotten out of control over the past few years. Now, as a result of being less than a week on this Huel regimen, my stomach must have shrunk to the point where I don't need to eat as much to feel full.

Day 8 (5 August) — losing too much weight while choking on the fumes

Although I intended to consume four meals a day, I'm finding myself satisfied with three. Especially this weekend, during which I can actually eat when I'm hungry, instead of when my weekday work schedule allows.

At lunch, I offer some of my Huel drink to Soo. She gives it an experimental taste and deems it nauseating. She definitely won't be trying this diet herself.

Today I've used up the first of my four bags of Huel. One bag is at work, about 2/3 full. I had ordered four bags, intending to go through two per week. But eating only three meals a day, it'll take longer to finish this.

For a product advertised as vegetarian, Huel behaves differently than expected. You see, 30 years ago I moved into a vegetarian house for a few months. It was a big house, there were five of us roommates, three men and two women, and we each took turns cooking dinner for the others on weekdays. I wasn't vegetarian before I arrived, and I had misgivings, but I must say, I hadn't expected to eat so well. Great meals! And I learned to cook. I noticed, after two weeks, that my sweat lost its odor to the point where I could wear the same shirt for three days. And I could honestly use the expression "my shit don't stink!" Seriously, it didn't; the unexpectedly-faint odor smelled like plants.

Not so with Huel! It's vegetarian, yet my rear end continues to emit odors most foul. I'm no longer as gassy as when I started (likely due to a probiotic supplement I took today), but when something does come out (solid or gas), it's bad. Really bad. I keep it away from my family as well as I can.

Darius says he wants to track my weight on some paper. I seize the opportunity to teach him the wonders of Google Sheets. We make a spreadsheet together, to track my weight, his weight as he grows, and Soo's weight if she's willing. He sets the background of all the cells to different colors because it's fun and pretty. And we all weigh ourselves.

Oh, my gosh. I'm glad we've started tracking this.

Since I started at 205 pounds, I'm now down to 197. Eight pounds in eight days?

My intention was to see if I could lose weight after I finished this regimen and started eating as much healthy food as I want, like Penn Jillette.

But losing one pound per day? That can't be right. Anyone's weight fluctuates throughout the day. Drinking 16 ounces of water will make you a pound heavier. Emptying your bladder makes you lighter. Losing a pound a day is scary, and yet I'm feeling OK with three 500-calorie meals of Huel. But that means I'm running a 500-calorie deficit every day.

Well, it's only two data points. Maybe the initial weight was wrong. We'll see in a few more days if this weight drop is a fluke.

Day 10 (7 August) — now craving regular food

Yesterday I was holding steady at 197 pounds two days in a row. This morning I weighed in at 195. Clearly I'm on a downward trend but there are noise fluctuations.

Today marks the first day of this regimen in which I actually miss real food. The aromas in my company cafeteria (they have a creative chef) smell delectable. Soo prepares a delicious dinner for herself, while Darius microwaves some mini chicken tacos for himself, filling the kitchen and living room with a mouth-watering bouquet. I smell these things every day but today is the first time it really gets to me. I tell myself that I am fortunate that I have food whenever I want, unlike many others, and it's my own choice whether or not to be hungry. Some people don't have a choice. So I steel myself for yet another dinner of bland Huel.

And you know, I'm not sick of it. It's food. It's fuel. In fact I kind of like the flavor now, bland as it is, and it satisfies my hunger for 3 or 4 hours. Today, however, I really want to eat regular food. I am disciplined. I stick to the regimen.

Day 11 (8 August) — doubtfully hopeful

Today I get a late start. I wake up late, eat breakfast late, get to work late, and eat lunch late. So, I don't feel hungry all afternoon at work for a change, because today there's a shorter gap between lunch and dinner.

Last night while falling asleep, I planned to raise my intake to four meals a day because I'm worried about the rate of weight loss. But today I haven't felt hungry. I don't believe I could eat four times today. Maybe tomorrow.

Still holding at just under 195 pounds! I show Darius how to create a graph in the spreadsheet with a best-fit line.

Even excluding the first day at 205 pounds, the last four-day trend still looks like like almost 1 pound per day loss. I need to eat more to stabilize or at least slow it down.

And I'm having doubts about my goal to reset my palate.

It's been impossible to accomplish flavor deprivation as I intended. I brush my teeth, and the toothpaste has a flavor. So does mouthwash. The probiotic I took for the flatulence is a chewable kid's variety that we happened to have in a cupboard, and it has a sweet fruity flavor. I prepare some meals for the family, and inadvertently taste other things; for example, while I made a fresh blueberry/strawberry/protein smoothie for Soo's breakfast, I popped a blueberry into my mouth without thinking.

Day 12 (9 August) — rapid initial weight loss is normal

Who wants to feel bloated?

I don't want to force myself to eat four times a day if I don't feel like eating. But I am concerned about this rapid weight loss. Looking around online for information, I learned that:

  • I just assumed my regular diet was 2,000 calories. I eat fairly healthy foods and although I have a problem with portion control, I do try, and I do get exercise a few times per week. But it's possible I was eating more, maybe 2,500 or 3,000 calories. So starting on a 1,500-calories/day diet may have created a larger calorie deficit than I thought.
  • If you have a good diet and reasonable exercise and can't help losing weight fast, that's far better than losing it by starving or inducing vomiting. Although I have endured afternoons of hunger on weekdays due to my son's swimming class, that's over. But it wasn't starvation.
  • Rapid weight loss may occur by switching to a low-carb diet. This happens because decreased carbohydrate intake causes a drop in stored glycogen and water weight, resulting in a large drop on the scale. I had been trying to balance my carb intake before I went on this regimen. I wouldn't say Huel is "low carb" but it's quite possible that its 37% carb content represented a dramatic reduction in carbs for me.
  • Many overweight people experience a rapid loss for the first couple of weeks and then settle into a pound or two per week. I started out as borderline obese.
  • Dramatically cutting back on salt may contribute to weight loss too. This stuff I'm eating has no salt (although it does contain some sodium). It just occurred to me that the aromas of real food that attract me tend to be the saltier ones. Perhaps my palate is being affected after all.

Today I weighed myself at 194 pounds. It looks like I may be leveling off.

All right. I'm not going to worry about it yet. I won't force myself to eat more than I want to. I'm eating healthy food, I'm maintaining 1,500 calories per day, and I feel mostly satiated most of the time. It's good to know that I can eat more if I want to, and I intend to eat when I'm hungry now that I expect my afternoon schedule will allow it.

Day 13 (10 August) — he did this for 30 days

I come across this blog article by a fellow named Josh Helton, who wrote about his experiences trying to live off Soylent for 30 days, just like I'm living off Huel for 2-3 weeks.

He and I couldn't be more different. He's a young athletic guy in great condition without an ounce of fat on him, who gets a ridiculous amount of exercise running 70 miles a week. I'm a mid-50s moderately sedentary guy in fair health for being borderline obese, who exercises a few times a week (even during this regimen).

In spite of our differences, our experiences on this regimen have been remarkably similar. We both found our food (Soylent or Huel) comparable to pancake batter. We both found that it took a while to get used to the food. We both experienced odiferous flatulence that got better over time. We both felt moments of gratitude that in spite of feeling hungry we had a choice about it. We both had a period where we keenly missed regular food. We were both alarmed at our weight loss; although he compensated by eating more (he can't afford to lose any weight, just look at him!), while I didn't change my intake after I learned that initial rapid weight loss is normal for heavier folks like me.

He kept way more detailed records than me too, sharing a Google spreadsheet at the end of the article showing not only his weight, but the miles he ran, his resting heart rate, calorie intake and expenditure, happiness, energy, alertness, cravings, and so on. I wasn't planning to maintain any tabular records at all, just this blog entry about my experiences, but my son started me on tracking my weight (and his).

I'm glad he actually tried to make pancakes by pouring some Soylent into a frying pan. I had considered trying that, but now I don't have to, knowing that it won't turn out well.

Day 15 (12 August) — two-week anniversary

It's Sunday. It has been two weeks since I started this regimen. I had bought enough Huel to last two weeks at four meals a day but I've been eating three meals a day, so I'm now starting, hopefully, my last week on this regimen.

This morning is hard. I make my specialty waffles for my wife and son. They are delicious, and different every time, because I make no measurements, I just throw together ingredients that look right. I make a lot of food that way, actually. I've been making these waffles for more than half my life. This time I put in 3 eggs, some gluten-free flour, some flax meal pre-soaked in water, a scoop of Huel (I couldn't resist using it in a batter) handful of almond slices crushed in my hand, some almond milk, water, avocado oil, and lastly a couple teaspoons of baking powder. I threw in scoop of Huel. They turn out well. I really want to eat some. Steadfast, I drink my Huel instead, enviously baking waffles and serving my family.

A good salad starts like this. Add healthy ingredients as needed.
CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson / Alpha Stock Images

Day 17 (14 August) — I want a salad? What's up with that?

Looking forward to the day when my Huel runs out, I think of foods that I want to eat. My waffles, of course, maybe only lightly coated with jam. Deep-fried battered foods hold no appeal anymore. I find myself really wanting... a salad. That's different from previous desires.

I never actually wanted a salad before. Salad is something one eats just to avoid feeling guilty about not eating salad! But now I anticipate a nice salad with lettuce, cucumbers, chickpeas, olives, sunflower seeds, with a splash of olive oil and lemon juice. I never liked dressing, or vinegar, but I do like a bit of olive oil.

At work, I've been eating lunch later to space my meals more evenly throughout the day. It eliminates the long period of hunger I experienced during afternoons.

Day 19 (16 August) — the math doesn't add up

This is a mathematics blog, so finally here's some math.

Huel's order form says 4 bags of Huel is equivalent to 56 meals, each of which is 500 calories. Going by my original plan of consuming 2,000 calories/day, that's four meals per day. 56 meals divided by 4 meals per day equals 14 days.

So here I am, finishing up dinner on day 19. I've been doing 3 meals per day, except for two days the first week in which I cheated and ate something else for dinner. Still, that adds up to 55 meals so far. I should be nearly done, but I have about half a bag left, probably enough for more than 20 meals, combining the the bag still at work and the bag at home.

Maybe Huel was generous in filling the bags. Or maybe I should have packed the scoop a bit (I just kind of tap it until it settles to level and then dump it into the water). Financially, this was a good deal, to feed myself for at least 3 weeks for $125. Assuming that this would last more than 25 days, I've been eating fairly healthy meals for less than $5 per day.

In any case, at the 3-week anniversary, I'm going back to regular food. I'll keep the remaining Huel in reserve. Or use it in some cooking experiments.

To be continued...

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