Meal Replacement Shakes: Are They Right for You?

You've probably seen meal replacement shakes advertised on television or touted as the next big weight loss miracle, but here's the real deal.

meal replacement shakes

Meal replacement shakes can be a valuable part of a weight loss program, but they are not a magic bullet.

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What are meal replacement shakes? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a shake that is intended to replace an entire meal. Instead of eating a regular meal, you drink a shake. These shakes can be either premade or mixed up at home with ingredients of your choice. Shakes are convenient in that they can be taken with you on the go and are easy to drink, which has made them popular for people who are extremely busy and can’t take a sit-down lunch break and those who have health conditions that decrease appetite (packing a lot of nutrients into one shake is easier to consume than eating all of the separate foods that would provide the same nutrition).

Meal replacement shakes often are marketed to the elderly and others with nutritional deficiencies that can result in such conditions as age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia). People trying to lose weight also are targeted by makers of meal replacement shakes (see “Weight Loss Is a Lifestyle” sidebar).

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Premade Meal Replacement Shakes

As with any other processed food, a premade meal replacement shake has to be able to stay good long enough to get through the packaging process, shipped to a store, and then purchased and transferred to your kitchen. This of course requires preservatives. “Preservatives” has become a red-flag word, but they also do a lot of good: preservatives reduce the risk of food-borne illness, and reduce food waste by allowing us to store and use food longer. Some preservatives have been found to be dangerous or unhealthy. Click here to see the complete FDA list of food additives, which includes the banned and illegal preservatives (and always support organizations like the FDA, because they are incredibly important for keeping our foods safe!).

Fiber content is important to watch in a meal replacement shake, especially if using them as part of a weight loss program. Fiber in the diet makes you feel full, so consuming something with fiber will make you feel more satisfied than the same amount of calories with a lower amount of fiber. Many premade meal replacement shakes do not have a high fiber content, so you will feel hungry sooner after drinking one.

WEIGHT LOSS IS A LIFESTYLE

Meal replacement shakes can be a valuable part of a weight loss program, but they are not a magic bullet. The shake’s purpose is to give you a defined portion to consume with known caloric and nutrient values so that you can restrict your calories easily. Drinking a shake in conjunction with a meal does not negate the calories in that meal.

Have small frequent meals instead of large ones so that you don’t get to the point of feeling really hungry (which will cause you to overeat), and make sure you get regular exercise. Exercise can be as simple as walking your dog or as involved as a full workout at the gym – do what you can, and stick to your plan. Pass on or limit overly rich, sweet foods like desserts and candy, and focus on healthier foods, whether you are eating them as-is or putting them into a meal replacement shake.

It also must be noted that the phrase “meal replacement” is not defined by the FDA, so there are no set guidelines controlling or guaranteeing what is in a meal replacement shake, or the number of calories and various nutrients. Some products will be higher in calories and various nutrients than others, and it is up to you to do the research and figure out which shake has the right balance of nutrients and calories to fit your needs.

Homemade Shakes

Making a shake at home allows you to control what goes into the shake, whether you are going for a meal replacement shake or just trying to condense your daily servings of fruits and veggies.

For protein, you can add protein powders or go more natural with peanut butter, bone broth, Greek yogurt, or milk. For fiber, rock those veggies!

If you don’t have the pantry space for a bunch of fresh fruits and vegetables or are afraid you won’t go through them fast enough before they go bad, frozen fruits and veggies are another option. Fresh-frozen produce has been found to have just as many nutrients as fresh produce, and sometimes even more if that “fresh” produce has been on the shelf a while.

This is an example of a recipe for a homemade shake.

Watch the Sugar

One big concern with meal replacement shakes is excess sugar. Most humans come with a sweet tooth pre-programmed, so we love anything that tastes sweet. Adding sugar into a premade meal replacement shake will make it taste better, which increases the odds that buyers will like it and buy it again. So check the label to be sure that your “healthy” shake isn’t too sugar-heavy. This warning also goes for homemade shakes—adding sugar, honey, or agave will make it taste sweeter, but is increasing your sugar consumption. Add a little for taste if you want to, but don’t go overboard.

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