Some entrepreneurs’ diets may be treading the line of eating disorders. But having lived on Huel for a month, Eric Johansson argues meal replacement drinks shouldn’t be viewed that way if done right
Before starting my month on Huel, the UK meal replacement drink, I already knew modern dieting had become a bit of touchy subject among entrepreneurs, especially the male ones in the tech sector. Only, they don’t call it dieting. That’s apparently something their girlfriends and mothers do.
No, biohacking is their preferred vernacular for talking about counting calories, fasting or only consuming meal replacement drinks. And it’s not about becoming thin but about maximising their output, working harder and increasing profitability. But despite the newspeak, it seems to come down to one thing – tech bros, whether they’re leading a startup or not, are becoming particularly conscious about what they put into their bodies.
Of course, maximising their output is hardly something new. The fetishisation of long working hours and idolisation of business leaders like Tesla’s Elon Musk, AOL’s Tim Armstrong and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who are seemingly working themselves into an early grave, have been around for decades.
However, what’s new is the food element – the idea that these long hours can become even more efficient if business leaders only digest the right stuff. Eat and get stuff done.
Sometimes, as with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, this obsession has gone to extremes. Earlier this year he made the headlines when he revealed that he only eats on a small meal five days a week, usually consisting of a salad, and then fasts over the weekend. This prompted several commentators, like the New Statesman’s Sarah Manavis to draw parallels between male entrepreneurs’ food habits and eating disorders.
And as this trend is growing, founders, entrepreneurs, business leaders and startup workers have become spoilt for choice. Today there are more and more meal replacement companies popping up all the time to meet the demand. In Silicon Valley entrepreneurs seem content with chugging back Soylent. In the UK, Huel has become the meal replacement of choice.
It was with this background in mind that I embarked on a month of eating – or should that be drinking? – Huel. Of course, I recognised that not everyone who guzzles Huel or equivalent products are going to the same extremes as Dorsey. Some, like me, just do it because it seems convenient.
When I recently spoke to Julian Hearn, the founder of Huel, he told me that was indeed the whole idea – to replace bad snacking with a convenient and complete meal you wouldn’t need to waste time prepping. Similarly, you wouldn’t need to spend time hunting for a meal deal or a free seat at a restaurant for lunch.
With this in mind, I found myself with two bags-worth of Huel’s powder shakes and 24 bottles of the company’s ready-to-drink meals. For the following five weeks I replaced at least one meal per day with either the shakes or the drinks. Although, I often found myself swapping two and even three meals per day with Huel.
Let’s start with the taste. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s rather nice. Not too overpowering and very earthy, kind of like drinking a watery oatmeal with some seasoning. The main difference between the powder and the readymade meal was that that the powder was slightly lumpier whilst the bottled ones reminded me of drinkable yoghurt. Comparing it to Soylent’s ready-made drink, I unquestionably preferred Huel. To me, the former had a bit of a taste that reminded me of homemade popcorn.
Dorsey noted that the biggest effect on him from his questionable meal management was that days seemed to stretch out more and become longer. He simply didn’t waste any time eating or preparing meals. As he did, he noticed how much of the day is organised around eating.
I experienced a similar revelation but without the insane eating habits. After mixing a shake, I could just easily sit and sip it whilst working. As a result, I often found myself with a full lunch hour where I didn’t really need to focus on eating but could either get on with work, catch up with colleagues or even do some light life admin.
More importantly, drinking Huel, gave me enough energy to both work and work out. Having swapped one or two meals per day, I was still able to keep training for a Tough Mudder obstacle race. At the end of the month, my bodyweight had gone from 91kg to 88kg.
Whilst I didn’t really feel hungry after a drink, I also didn’t feel fully satisfied. On the other hand, I didn’t feel bloated in the way that some food will leave you. I, for lack of a better word, just was.
At the end of the first week I didn’t miss my own homemade lunch boxes. After all, most of them tended to blend into each other, into a series of forgettable luncheons. Comparatively, the actual meals I had with friends mattered more. Each chew together with friends suddenly turned into its own revelation. But Huel also had the welcome side-effect of me feeling fuller quicker, preventing myself from over-eating.
So what about the price? While a month’s worth of 24 bottles at £60.30 might seem daunting, that price works out to £2.51 per bottle. That’s quite decent for a full meal that actually makes you feel better especially if you compare that to an average £3 meal deal with a bland store sandwich, crisps and fizzy drink. Not to mention, it has fewer calories and won’t make you feel stuffy. And if you buy the powder you get 28 meals for £40.50 in total.
Of the two, I did prefer the powder as it was easier to ration on days that I didn’t feel as hungry. The powder also enabled me to try out different flavours by either adding a cup of coffee to the vanilla powder. Add a few ice cubes, shake and you’ve basically got a healthy frappuccino.
The range of options, the convenience and the overall feeling of wellness were all positives.
One side-effect I hadn’t been prepared for was that Huel seemingly made me very thirsty. As a result I drank more water than usual in the day and, consequently, had to leave my desk more often to pop into the loo.
Yet, overall, I felt Huel was a good solution for people with busy schedules who just need something very convenient so that they can crack on – when they’re not nipping to the bathroom.