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The benefits of Huel – and the costs

picture of man drinking huel with caption 'on the huel since 2016'

Huel is a popular meal replacement drink. But if you’re not used to replacing meals, knowing whether to buy Huel can be daunting. Here are the benefits of Huel, and the costs, so you can make a better decision.

Back in 2013, I read this incredible article about Soylent. The claims of complete life transformation were overblown, but the general thesis did appeal to me. I had also considered food a necessary evil a lot of the time – and costly in terms of time and/or money if you wanted a tastier and/or healthier outcome.

The problem was, Soylent wasn’t available in the U.K. Thankfully, there was a community of people β€˜hacking’ their own version. I decided to have a go, with a modified version of this recipe. It looked grim.

My housemates thought I was breaking bad. And it tasted foul. Somehow I managed to not fuck up the ingredients and give myself a serious health condition.

Enter Huel

Fast-forward to 2015, and Huel came along. It tasted sooo much better, and by virtue of being made by people who actually knew what they were doing, was probably better for me too. Since then, I’ve had it for breakfast and lunch most of the time. I usually have 1200 kcal worth, split over three servings, for a total cost of Β£3.90 per day.

I wouldn’t make the same life-changing claims the original Soylent creator made. But I think a lot of the media reporting trashing meal replacements is unfair. Although I’m firmly in the camp of believing Huel has been a positive in my life (admittedly, this is due to some of my prior beliefs about food), this article is my attempt to list the benefits of Huel, as well as the costs so that people can come to their own judgement, after factoring in what’s important to them.

N.B. I would caveat this piece by saying that before having Huel, I was eating a vegan diet on a low budget. My diet probably wasn’t any less healthy than average, but there was room for improvement. That said, I’d have thought the average diet in the UK could also be a lot better.

The benefits of Huel

  • It saves time ⏰. Each serving takes less than two minutes, even if you include cleaning out your container afterwards. You can even buy a pre-mixed version in supermarkets, but that reduces some of the other (environmental and cost) benefits. I’d guess that even for those who eat quite efficient meals, or eat out a lot, that represents a big time saving. Ordering Huel, which you can do via regular subscription, also takes far less time than going to the supermarket.
  • It keeps energy levels more consistent πŸ’ͺ. Since having Huel, I’ve felt less of a mid-afternoon slump when my blood sugar drops after a meal. I’d like to think it’s made me more productive as a result, but can’t say I have the data to back that up. Having consistent energy can help with things like decision fatigue. I’d like to see whether the Israeli judges in the classic study on this topic would deny parole as much if they ate Huel. For me, it also avoids the bloating that comes with some food.
  • You don’t have to have it all in one go 😡. Allied to the above point, you don’t need to chug Huel down in one sitting, as we tend to do with other meals. You just put the top back on and sip a bit later. You could also do this with other cold foods, but I don’t like having a plate of food on my desk at work, whereas I’m fine with having a container of Huel there. This also applies to the hot versions, which you can keep sealed in the pot. Plus, it’s unlikely to go bad over the course of a couple of hours, like some other foods do when exposed to the air.
  • It’s more satisfying ☺️. As well as having less of a post-food slump with Huel, I find it more satisfying than your average meal, because it’s high in protein. Unless I’m having an unusual day, I tend to eat according to my schedule, rather than because I get too hungry.
  • It’s relatively inexpensive πŸ’΅. Sure, there are cheaper ways to eat that are also quick, but they seem to be lacking in other ways. For example, I could have cornflakes for breakfast and make a cheese sandwich for my lunch every day, but that would be less healthy. I would guess that compared to my peers, who tend to have cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch, Huel works out cheaper. And that’s before working out the opportunity cost of the time spent buying those things.
  • It’s better for the planet 🌍. Huel is all 100% vegan, which means it’s lower in greenhouse emissions for a start. Plus, it has less packaging than most food, and is lighter to transport as it doesn’t carry the water that most food contains. There’s less food waste, as it lasts a long time. And if you care about the ethics of eating animals, you’re covered there, too.
  • It’s (probably) quite healthy πŸ’š. There’s more study to be done into the long-term effects of meal replacements, especially on whether they can completely or mostly replace ‘normal’ food. From my reading of the literature, the jury’s still out on whether meal replacements lack things contained in food that are actually important to how we absorb nutrients. Plus, the recipes are based on our current understanding of nutrition science, which might turn out to be wrong. But whether it can be considered healthy or not must take into account what you would otherwise eat. I’m confident that Huel is healthier than a bowl of Weetabix and a Pret sandwich, but those with a well-balanced diet already might not want to switch.
  • It’s measurable πŸ“Š. If you’re aiming for a certain number of calories, amount of protein, or some other metric each day, Huel makes it easy to do that. That can be helpful with losing or gaining weight. Measuring too many things is probably not good for us, but what we eat is important. I’d say it’s thus one of the things it’s not bad to monitor.
  • It can make you appreciate other food more 🍝. OK, this may seem like a dubious benefit, akin to saying you should have less of a good thing so that the good thing remains good. But it’s not as unreasonable in practice as it sounds in theory. A similar example is the stoic practice of living a meagre existence every now and again 1.
  • It’s easy to transport for the consumer 🍼. You can easily take a Huel lunch to work, either by taking it ready made, or having a bag of powder at your workplace. The new shaker is especially good at not leaking. I’ve also found the Huel bars good for short trips away from home where you don’t have a kitchen.
  • It’s got different versions for different diets ⛔️. If you’re gluten intolerant, or trying to reduce your carbohydrate intake, it’s got versions for that. And there are plenty of different flavours and formats to choose from.
  • It’s non-messy 🧼. If you’re drinking Huel before a big meeting, you’re unlikely to get it stuck in your teeth – a particular problem if you’ve got crooked teeth like mine! And whilst it’s not impossible to spill all down your outfit, I’d say it’s more difficult than your average meal.
  • It saves on fridge/freezer/storage space 🧊. All you need to store is your bag of Huel and a shaker. I prefer mine cold, so I do keep the shaker in the fridge after I’ve made it, but don’t mind having it at room temperature if there’s no room.
  • You don’t need equipment or ingredients πŸŽ›. A lot of food requires spices or condiments, or equipment to make it. I used to blend my DIY Soylent, but find that Huel tastes better when it’s shaken.

The costs of Huel

  • Not everyone can stomach the taste or texture 😷. Having started on pea protein shakes and DIY Soylent, that wasn’t an issue for me, but there are plenty of others who just don’t like it.
  • It’s not as tasty as real food πŸ˜‹. Even if you quite like the taste, as I do, it’s hard to argue it’s as tasty as decent ‘real’ food. If you were to offer me a gourmet vegan meal that was nutritionally balanced, prepared for me, and cost the same amount, I’d probably go for that instead.
  • Gastro issues πŸ’¨. A lot of the complaints on the Huel forum and elsewhere are about bloating, flatulence, and irritable bowel. Huel suggest that most of these go away if you get used to the levels of fibre, but it comes down to personal physiology too.
  • You don’t get the same social experience of eating 🍱. You could drink Huel while someone else is eating their food. But it’s not the same as sharing a meal, ordering from the same menu, or even buying a sandwich from the same shop.
  • It can be inconvenient for others who don’t also drink Huel 😣. If my partner wants to cook for lunch, but I’d rather have a Huel, that can make things tricky.
  • It’s socially weird 🀷. Food is so ingrained in our culture that if you tell people you have a meal replacement drink rather than ‘real food’, they often think you’re likely to die of malnutrition, that you’re somehow judging them for their own food choices, or that you’re just plain weird.
  • It’s not as enjoyable as cooking πŸ‘©β€πŸ³. Many people get great joy from cooking, both for its own sake, and for the feeling they get when eating something they’ve created. Some also enjoy shopping for the exact right ingredients they know they can combine to make a delicious meal, and you don’t get that with Huel.
  • It doesn’t suit all lifestyles / diets πŸ•΄. Although most people could fit Huel into their meal schedule and diet, it doesn’t work for everyone. For instance, businesspeople who entertain clients over dinner aren’t going to be able to whip out a bag of Huel in a restaurant. If you only eat once or twice a day, it might be hard to consume all the required calories through Huel.

Factors to consider when deciding whether to have Huel

This article is not about whether I think the benefits of Huel are worth it – I do. Instead, it’s about finding out whether the benefits outweigh the costs for you. This will depend on what you value, but the following factors to consider can help you make that decision:

  • How much you value the various costs and benefits βš–οΈ. If you’re a foodie who greatly values variety and enjoys cooking, then Huel likely isn’t for you. But if you’re less bothered about taste, and care more about convenience, then it may be worth trying.
  • Your personal physiology πŸƒ. If you try Huel and it doesn’t agree with you after some adaptation, that’s a big reason to stop.
  • What you’re replacing πŸ₯“. If your diet is already cheap, tasty, healthy, and good for the planet, then you have less incentive to switch. But if some of it – say your morning cereal – is quite boring and unhealthy, you could try replacing that. It’s also worth considering how sustainable each of these options are. If you know you can stick to cereal, even though you’re not 100% happy with it, that might be better than trying to have Huel, but then craving a fry up every other day.
  • Your risk appetite for switching to an approach to food that hasn’t been studied for a long period ⚠️. This article doesn’t go into detail on the health aspects of Huel, or meal replacements in general. I’m not a qualified nutritionist, and the long-run effects aren’t yet known. Your reading of the science, and what happens if you experiment with Huel can guide you. But it’s worth noting that there’s a balance of risk with all sorts of diets – Huel included.
  • How much of your diet you want to replace πŸ”. I replace somewhere between a third and a half in any given week, as this gives me the right level of mitigation for the downsides.
  • Which version to go for πŸ₯˜. The hot versions have more flavour, but they’re also more expensive and need hot water. They also still have some of the social weirdness, even if it’s mitigated.

Huel – key takeaways

  • There are a number of benefits of Huel: saving time and money, being healthier, and keeping your energy levels up
  • But it isn’t necessarily for everyone. If you’re a foodie, or enjoy cooking, you’ll probably find it isn’t for you
  • You can use the factors above to help consider whether the benefits of Huel outweigh the costs for you

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Footnotes

  1. “take part of a week in which you have only the most meagre and cheap food, dress in shabby clothes, and ask yourself if this is really the worst that you feared” β€” Seneca, Moral Letters, 18.5-6