Reader question: What is your opinion on “healthy” meal replacement drinks such as Huel? It’s vegan, high in fibre and has a good balance of macro and micro nutrients. But it’s also a processed food. Can it play a role in a healthy diet?

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What is your opinion on “healthy” meal replacement drinks such as Huel? It’s vegan, high in fibre and has a good balance of macro and micro nutrients. But it’s also a processed food. Can it play a role in a healthy diet?

-Curious in Coulsdon

 

I wouldn’t get too caught up in whether something is ‘processed’ or not.

(See previous reader question: Is processed vs. unprocessed really the right distinction?)

 

To answer your question, I think we need to start with a different one:

Why would you eat a meal replacement instead of ‘normal’ food?

There is a good reason, which we’ll get to below, but first let’s discuss the bad reason:

Because you think it is somehow better than healthy ‘normal’ food because it is made according to some magic formula.

Irrespective of which meal replacement you’re talking about, this is highly unlikely. There is certainly no robust science to support such a claim.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. But we evolved in an environment with high dietary uncertainty. That uncertainty would have encouraged the development of generalist metabolic systems that respond well to a variety of foods.

Broadly speaking, it’s unlikely that a system that responds well to a wide range of inputs somehow responds particularly well to one of those inputs. It’s not impossible, but it would be surprising. So in the absence of robust science, it’s probably best to be skeptical.

 

But there is a good reason to eat a meal replacement:

Because it decreases your overconsumption of unhealthy foods overall.

What is the replacement replacing?

If you use it when you are pressed for time and you would otherwise end up at McDonald’s, then the meal replacement is probably a good choice.

But if you would just be replacing an otherwise healthy meal, then there is probably little value in it.

And you have to consider the knock-on effects of the meal replacement: if eating the replacement for lunch makes it more likely that you will end up overeating unhealthy food for dinner, that’s obviously not good.

But it’s hard to know what will happen until you try. If I were making such a change, I would keep track of what I eat the rest of the day, and even the next day, to make sure that I wasn’t making things worse overall.