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Are meal replacement shakes healthy? The good and the bad …

Edited by: Temi Toba-Oluboka



A current hot topic is meal replacement shakes. In 1977, the first SlimFast meal replacement shake entered the market and quickly became a huge success after receiving many celebrity endorsements (1)… But what exactly are they? Meal replacement shakes are products that are meant to replace the nutritional value of a meal but with lower total calorie intake (2). They’re usually sold by the bottle or in a powder that can be added to water or milk (7). They usually include carbs, fats, protein as well as other nutrients and can be an impressive tool for body weight management (2). However, like most things in life, they have their downsides and it’s important to hear both sides.

Pros :


Convenience

Meal replacement shakes are more convenient than full meals. Typical diets often require time in the kitchen whereas meal replacements are an easy on-the-go option that has minimal and simple prep time (3).They can easily fit into a busy schedule and help with meal regularity; which reduces skipping meals (3). Another advantage is that its convenience reduces the need to indulge in processed foods or fast food which can hinder your weight loss efforts (6).


Weight loss and maintenance

Obesity is a complex and multifactorial condition that has been increasing worldwide (4). Given the prevalence of obesity and its consequences on our health, it’s important to find multiple ways to address it (5). Meal replacement shakes can be a feasible strategy to help control weight and have positive health outcomes (5). Previous research has demonstrated the efficacy and safety of them for weight loss and maintenance among obese and overweight people (5). For instance, one study reported the results of a 12-week randomized controlled intervention in a Chinese population with obesity and overweight (4). The group with the 12-week meal replacement (with mild caloric restriction) showed an important reduction in multiple body composition and metabolic parameters (4).


Can be nutritious

A lot of meal replacement shakes contain a good source of vitamins and minerals like potassium, calcium, iron, vitamin D (7). This can be useful since many people lack those nutrients (7). To add, an optimal meal replacement shakes should contain micronutrients such as magnesium, vitamins A, D,E,K, B vitamins, zinc, iron and calcium that are vital for disease prevention (7).

Cons

Although certain meal replacement shakes can be quite nutritious and other benefits, reaching for the wrong one can minimize your efforts to achieve a healthy lifestyle.


Doesn't fix unhealthy eating habits

When it comes to weight loss and maintenance, diets usually are not beneficial long term (7). Since meal replacement shakes don’t necessarily compel you to change your usual eating habits, it may not be sustainable as a long term option for weight loss (7). In fact, a study published in the ‘’Obesity’’ journal looked at weight loss results from a 12 week program, with follow-ups after 1 and 2 years (8). The study had two groups, one that used meal replacements and the other groupmodified their lifestyles combined with reduced calories (8). Although both groups lost weight, the meal replacement group had regained an important amount of weight whereas, the other group did not (8). The most successful long-term weight maintenance programs tend to have important lifestyle changes such as regular physical activity, good support, great medical care as well as detailed plans (8). Therefore, it’s important to keep sustainability in mind.

Nutrition


When it comes to meal replacement shakes, they don’t always present the same nutritional benefits of whole foods (3). Whole foods often include antioxidants, protective substances and some vitamins and minerals. They can be considered incomplete and in the long term can lead to some nutritional deficiencies if left unmonitored (3). It’s often suggested to follow a nutritionally balanced diet while using meal replacement shakes (10). The combination of proper meals and meal replacement shakes is always preferred instead of using the latter to completely replace the former (10).


Be careful with the quality and the ingredients

Although some meal replacement shakes are made with great wholesome ingredients, that is not always the case (6). Sometimes meal replacement shakes come in a powder form, which can have large amounts of artificial ingredients to help conserve the product and increase the nutrients (9). Some unhealthy ingredients such as corn syrup, artificial flavors, chemical preservatives and added sugars can be found in these products which is why it is important to pay attention to labels (6). Commercial shakes often want to help improve taste and are made to be more palatable which can explain the added sweeteners (10). A suggestion is to look for high-protein shakes with fiber and easy ingredients to pronounce as well as shakes that contain less sugar (6). Finally, the low calorie shakes can often cause a lack of energy and result in fatigue and headaches as well as bingeing because of a lack of satiety (11).

Considerations…


  • Before starting to replace meals with shakes, it’s important to speak to a doctor or a registered dietician to find out if it’s the best decision for you (8).

  • The best meal replacement shakes usually have high protein, high fiber, less sugars, no corn syrups or hydrogenated oils and a good % of the Daily Value for vitamins and minerals (6).

  • For people with dairy allergy or lactose intolerance, look carefully at labels to identify dairy products such as whey protein (9).

  • Great meal replacement shakes can provide an awesome balance of nutrients, calories all while saving you time and leading to good weight management. However, they don’t give you everything that whole foods do and have other drawbacks. Therefore, moderation is key.

Summary :

What are meal replacement shakes?


  • Meal replacement shakes are products that are meant to replace the nutritional value of a meal but with lower total calorie intake (2).

PROS

  • Convenient

  • Typical diets often require time in the kitchen whereas meal replacements are an easy on-the-go option that has minimal and simple prep time (3).They can easily fit into a busy schedule and help with meal regularity; which reduces skipping meals (3).

  • Weight loss

  • Meal replacement shakes can be a feasible strategy to help control weight and have positive health outcomes (5). Previous research has demonstrated the efficacy and safety of them for weight loss and maintenance among obese and overweight people (5).

  • Nutritious

  • A lot of meal replacement shakes contain a good source of vitamins and minerals like potassium, calcium, iron, vitamin D (7). This can be useful since many people lack those nutrients (7).

CONS

  • Sustainability

  • Since meal replacement shakes don’t necessarily compel you to change your usual eating habits, it may not be sustainable as a long term option for weight loss (7). The most successful long-term weight maintenance programs tend to have important lifestyle changes such as regular physical activity, good support, great medical care as well as detailed plans (8).

  • Nutrition

  • When it comes to meal replacement shakes, they don’t always present the same nutritional benefits of whole foods (3). Whole foods often include antioxidants, protective substances and some vitamins and minerals. It’s best to have a combination of whole foods and meal replacement shakes

  • Quality and ingredients

  • Since a lot of meal replacement shakes come in a powder form, they can have decent amounts of artificial ingredients to help conserve the product and increase the nutrients (9)

  • Low calories can often cause a lack of energy and result in fatigue and headaches as well as bingeing because of lack of satiety

CONCLUSION

  • Before starting to replace meals with shakes, it’s important to speak to a doctor or a registered dietician to find out if it’s the best decision for you (8). Great meal replacement shakes can provide an awesome balance of nutrients, calories all while saving you time and leading to good weight management. However, they don’t give you everything that whole foods do and have other drawbacks. Therefore, moderation is key.



References

1. Kreiss, K. (2020, February 19). How slimfast became a billion-dollar diet craze and faded away into Health Fad Heaven. Ranker. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://www.ranker.com/list/slim-fast-history/kellie-kreiss.

2. Heber, D. (2020, July 31). Meal replacements or protein shakes? choose what's right for you. I Am Herbalife Nutrition – Achieve Inspiring Results. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://iamherbalifenutrition.com/healthy-weight/meal-replacements-protein-shakes/.

3. Steen, J. (2016, July 15). Meal replacement shakes: Are they worth it? HuffPost. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/archive/au/entry/meal-replacement-shakes_n_9579086.

4. Guo, X., Xu, Y., He, H., Cai, H., Zhang, J., Li, Y., Yan, X., Zhang, M., Zhang, N., Maddela, R. L., Nicodemus-Johnson, J., & Ma, G. (2018). Effects of a Meal Replacement on Body Composition and Metabolic Parameters among Subjects with Overweight or Obesity. In Journal of Obesity (Vol. 2018, pp. 1–10). Hindawi Limited. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/2837367

5. Davis, L. M., Coleman, C., Kiel, J., Rampolla, J., Hutchisen, T., Ford, L., Andersen, W. S., & Hanlon-Mitola, A. (2010). Efficacy of a meal replacement diet plan compared to a food-based diet plan after a period of weight loss and weight maintenance: a randomized controlled trial. In Nutrition Journal (Vol. 9, Issue 1). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-9-11

6. Bell, B. (2017, January 11). Can meal replacement shakes help you lose weight? Healthline. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/meal-replacement-shakes.

7. DiGiacinto, J. (2021, July 20). Do meal replacement shakes really help you lose weight? The Truth About Meal Replacement Shakes and Weight Loss | WW USA. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://www.weightwatchers.com/us/blog/weight-loss/meal-replacement-shakes.

8. ​​Schuna, C. (2018, November 27). Drinking protein shakes to replace meals. Healthy Eating | SF Gate. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/drinking-protein-shakes-replace-meals-7282.html.

9. Begum, J. (2021, June 22). Meal replacement shakes: Are they good for your health? WebMD. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-to-know-about-meal-replacement-shakes#2.

10. Sruthi, M. (2021, September 16). Are meal replacement shakes good for weight loss? center by Medicinenet.com. MedicineNet. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from ​​https://www.medicinenet.com/are_meal_replacement_shakes_good_for_weight_loss/article.htm

11. Garone, S. (2021, October 7). Everything you should know before trying a meal replacement diet. Brit + Co. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://www.brit.co/pros-and-cons-of-meal-replacement-diet/.

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