Can we really replace meals?

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The interest and usage of meal replacements has increased a lot in the last year or so. They claim to be a convenient and well balanced way of eating. But do they actually live up to the claims? Let's dig a bit deeper!

A meal replacement is usually a drink or bar intended as a substitute for a solid food meal. There are lots of different brands of meal replacements, but there is one in particular seems to be taking the world by storm, Huel. On their website it says that it's supported by experts, affordable (£1.61 per meal), zero food waste (so great for the environment), adheres to high manufacturing standards and is sustainably sourced and vegan friendly. Even Registered Dieticians claim that they recommend Huel as a healthier alternative to most supermarket meal replacements. So bearing all this in mind, you can see why Huel has become so popular.

Huel do seem to be different to most in the market in that I really like they way they talk about their product. There is no one size fits all, pushy sales talk or claims of weight loss or promise of a magical cure for healthier eating. Their focus appears to be health and convenience. They rightly state that everyone has different energy needs and they provide a calorie calculator to help you see how much you need based on some basic information. They also say they don't believe 100% Huel across all meals is the use case and state that even the guy who created it doesn't use it to replace all meals (just two out of three).

However, there are some things I feel we need to consider before trying any meal replacement product:

  • If we look to use meal replacements as a way of losing weight then it probably won't work. It’s no different to doing a 'diet' because it creates restriction, which can lead to binging and overeating, which can then lead back to weight gain, as mentioned in my last article. Even if we replaced meals to lose weight for a short period of time, what happens when we stop? The chances are (without proper education or understanding as mentioned later in this article) we go back to what and how we were eating before, because that’s all we know. It then can turn into the vicious loop of the dreaded diet culture.
  • It's also very unlikely that we will be able to sustain having meal replacements for every meal, so it's not a really a long term solution to healthy living, especially to those who enjoy food. There will come a time when we inevitably want to eat the foods we love, especially surrounding social occasions.
  •  The world of nutrition evolves all the time and we’re always learning more, so although the products are “complete” in regards to the nutrients we need, it could be that something is missing that we’re not aware of yet. Food is a very complex combination of many nutrients; they work together in ways that we don’t yet fully understand, so as it stands, trying to replace this entirely is almost impossible.
  • Finally, education surrounding food is a really important when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle. When I say education, I'm not talking biochemistry, but the basics of healthy eating and understanding food, how it works with our bodies and learning how to be the healthiest versions of ourselves. Simply replacing meals doesn’t promote this side of things.  

I like the idea of having a good quality meal replacement for convenience to use from time to time. I haven't tried meal replacement products myself (although I may do in the near future) but for me, nothing will replace food. Not only because I love food but because I don't believe that right now, there is anything that can replace eating a healthy, balanced diet. If you are considering replacing meals please make sure you see a registered dietitian, nutritionist or a health professional first.