The Problem With Huel

Ted Lavis Coward talks meal replacement drink Huel, the gendered expectation of food preparation and the healing qualities of a home-cooked meal.

WORDS Ted Lavis Coward

A few years back, Huel, a portmanteau of “human fuel”, seemed to be everywhere. Now with people gradually returning to the office after spending quarantine baking banana bread and sourdough, the meal replacement drink is as popular as ever. Advertised all over LinkedIn, the rise of Huel highlights the damaging consequences of a capitalist society obsessed with productivity and that sidelines the cultural importance of food.

Whilst many use Huel to replace every meal in their diet, the company’s website states that the “most popular approach is to replace time-pressured weekday meals”. Targeted at young professionals who are too busy to stop for breakfast and lunch, their advertising campaigns have framed success in the business world as skipping meals and working through your lunch. Whilst working overtime can yield results, Huel profits from a system where people must maximise productivity to progress and ultimately feel as if they are succeeding.

Whilst working overtime can yield results, Huel profits from a system where people must maximise productivity to progress and ultimately feel as if they are succeeding.

Huel is not only marketed towards young professionals, but also those dieting or bulking. Although thoroughly researched and seemingly supported by endless papers from nutritionists, the guidelines for taking Huel only consider height, weight, gender and exercise routine. Their guidelines list recommendations for maintaining weight and instructions on how to lose or gain weight, with no information on how large this difference might be. Whilst the drinks do contain the proteins needed for survival they also fail to consider the huge variants in people’s bodies, particularly the large differences in hormone levels from person to person.

As someone who has battled against a restrictive eating disorder, my personal feelings about Huel are a bit more complicated. Whilst I appreciate a “complete” meal supplement, no matter how inaccurate that might be, can help those struggling in the short term, it encourages the mentality that someone should know the milligrams of micronutrients that go into their body, a problematic frame of mind for those with eating disorders. Huel might assist in recovery but meal replacements should never be the end goal. Recovery is developing a good relationship with food – one that does not fixate on everything that is in it. Whilst there are many blogs dedicated to overcoming eating disorders through meal supplements like Huel and Soylent, we should not be striving to live with an unhealthy relationship with food. The meal replacement brands clearly contribute to the systemic fatphobia that is a key factor in the rise of disordered eating, through their reliance on slim and muscular bodies to depict health in their advertising campaigns. Giving Huel credit for assisting in recovery when they play a role in the prevalence of eating disorders is counter-intuitive. 

1.25m

people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder,
according to charity Beat.

95%

of serotonin comes from the gastrointestinal tract,
meaning the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just
help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.

35%

Harvard University studies have proven that those eating
“traditional” diets such as that of the Mediterranean and Japan
are 35% less likely to suffer from depression than those
consuming a ‘Western’ diet.

Women have cited Huel as a way to win back some time lost to patriarchal structures. Structural gender inequality pressures women to work harder – they must do more in the working world to achieve similar levels of success as men and they are expected to do an unfair share of domestic labour. Food has a huge cultural significance in societies across the planet but food prep so often falls on women across cultures. We should be pushing for a world that values food – preparing and sharing it with loved ones – whilst also tackling gendered expectations and dismantling patriarchal confines.

We should be pushing for a world that values food whilst also tackling gendered expectations and dismantling patriarchal confines.

Food is something to be enjoyed without feeling that it’s a waste of time or worrying too much about calories or nutrition. The time spent cooking and eating is important to us socially. It’s that meal your sister cooks for you when you’ve been dumped, it’s the joy at the roast potatoes no one quite makes like Grandpa, it’s your old friend’s speciality they make each time you visit. We shouldn’t let capitalism distract from the healing qualities of food. It’s great to know the ingredients of what goes into a meal as you cook with pals, but focussing on the tiny scientific details of nutrition can do more harm than good. What goes into our bodies is important, yes, but food as part of our culture is just as valuable. Decades of diet culture, and more broadly, capitalism, threatens the importance of food in not just keeping us alive, but keeping us happy.

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