Content warning: eating disorders and anorexia.
My relationship with food has always been difficult. Growing up, there were only a few things that my parents could guarantee I would eat, so my diet mainly consisted of dry Nesquik chocolate powder, tinned sardines, patties, battered sausages and chocolate Bourbons – but not all together.
Eating was and still is a challenge for me, although I no longer eat powdered chocolate straight out of the bowl and can manage an entire meal in less than three hours. It’s not that I don’t like food or hate the process of cooking, it’s that trying new foods and having to decide what I want to eat is anxiety-inducing to the point that I can go for days without eating, purely because I don’t know what to have. Of course, food is actually really important for the normal functioning of a human body. The horrible side effects of not eating – tiredness and getting sick – are great reminders of this. It was this thinking that led me to order Huel.
If you don’t know any gym-going men who have also taken an unnerving interest in coffee, you may not have heard of Huel. It’s one of the many nutritional powdered foods on the market right now, but its makers prefer you to think of it as a complete food, rather than a milkshake to replace your lunch with. Huel’s website claims that the powder is “nutritionally complete” and can be used in place of any meal you’d usually eat.
When I placed my Huel order, I imagined all my food problems would be solved. What would be better than not having to decide on what to eat? I’d simply drink a shake a couple of times a day to stay alive and make my life a lot easier. I was wrong. Two sacks of Huel arrived on my doorstep, which is supposed to be enough to last me for four weeks. First, I tried mixing it with water. It was horrible. I tried again with chocolate oat milk, but still it tasted like garbage – this would not be a good post-sesh meal. I’d rather eat dry toast every day than ever ‘eat’ Huel again.
Meal-replacement products are usually marketed as being a time-saver, claiming back those precious minutes you’ve been wasting on cooking and eating. Their popularity has coincided with the trend among high achievers in the tech world for supposedly increasing their productivity by replacing food with meal replacement shakes. In a similar vein, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently released his daily routine, which included running on a few hours of sleep and a restricted diet – otherwise known as ‘biohacking’. The promotion of these extreme food habits has been criticised for rebranding and glamorising fasting and eating disorders. Soylent, another meal replacement product made in the US, uses consuming less food as a positive selling point. The product's tag line is: “Let us take a few things off your plate.”
John*, 26, also started using meal replacement shakes to remedy a pattern of disordered eating he’s had since his teens. “I was sporadically bulimic and when I started modelling, I became absolutely obsessed with what I ate,” he tells me. “I found the idea of eliminating food from my life entirely and just eating some weird space age powder really appealing, because food is sometimes a source of anxiety [for me]. But with Huel, I always know what I’m going to eat, it takes no time and it’s no stress. It at least ensures that I’m eating a healthy quantity of food every day and also helped minimise some of the negative emotions around food.”
On myproana, a pro-anorexia website where users can interact on forums, there are numerous threads on which people with bulimia and anorexia discuss how they use meal replacement shakes. “If I’m going to do silly things like dramatically restricting calories, surely it’s better to get all of the nutrition I need, rather than starve on soup and tea and then binge on cookies and bread,” one user writes. While some myproana users write that they no longer binge and purge since introducing shakes to their diets, others are clearly using products like Huel and Soylent to keep their weight low, due to a liquid diet’s ‘low food weight.’ The thinking here is that they can ingest the nutrients contained by these meal replacement products, without weighing in any heavier than they were before.
John uses Huel because it helps him to eat without feeling guilty. He also feels that it allows him to binge, while providing the nutrients his body needs. However he doesn’t think it will help him on his way to developing a relationship with regular food. “It’s done nothing to solve the problem in a wider sense. It’s kind of cemented the problems that were already there,” he says. “I’d say it’s basically a way of capitulating to my own complexes around food.”
While Soylent has no mention of eating disorders on its website, Huel addresses customers with eating disorders in the "Cautions and Allergen Advice" section of its website. The company states that its product “may be consumed by individuals with anorexia or bulimia nervosa as a useful source of complete nutrition.” However, it recommends that “individuals with eating disorders only use Huel Powder after discussing it with their doctor or relevant clinician.”
When I questioned Huel about people with eating disorders misusing its product, a spokesperson responded over email, saying: “Huel is not a weight-loss product, and is there to provide a nutritionally complete meal when time is short. Huel is a complete meal that has an average of 400 kcal and contains the recommended balance of protein, carbohydrates, fibre, fats, and essential vitamins and minerals. Huel is food, and like all food, consumption would depend on the person and their attitude towards food.”
Priya Tew, a dietician specialising in eating disorders, has a clearer view. When I ask if there is any situation in which she would recommend Huel to an ED sufferer, she tells me: “I wouldn’t recommend meal replacement shakes to someone with an eating disorder and at best, only short term. Instead, [I would] encourage them to take small steps to rebuild their relationship with food as well as their confidence.”
Tew also notes that the shakes can’t aid recovery. “It’s still a very disordered way of fuelling the body,” she says.
In theory, Huel is a great idea. It can make consuming food easier and is far better than starving yourself altogether. But nutritional powder is no replacement for a healthy relationship with food and should be approached with caution by anyone with a history of eating disorders.
Also, it tastes like wet cardboard.
*Name has been changed.
If you or someone you know is suffering with an eating disorder, contact Beat, the UK's eating disorder charity on 0808 801 0677 or visit their website.