Imagine this: You’re sitting at your desk between meetings, and you realize you’ve only got 10 minutes for lunch. You didn’t prep anything ahead of time, and 10 minutes isn’t long enough to whip up something healthy or even run out to grab a salad. If you’re trying to stay on track with your weight-loss goal, this can be a stressful situation.
Enter: the meal replacement shake. A quick, convenient solution, these pre-made drinks are usually easy to find in grocery stores — or you can order a whole case online to keep on hand for situations just like this.
But is it actually a good idea to rely on meal replacement shakes regularly, instead of real food? Here, nutrition pros tell us what they really think.
THE SHAKE LANDSCAPE
There are several different types of meal replacement shakes. First, there’s the type that is marketed for weight loss. But there are also newer shakes that aren’t explicitly for the person who’s trying to lose weight. Instead, they’re marketed as a solution for the super busy.
“Meal replacement shakes like Huel and Soylent are designed to be a complete meal rather than the traditional low-calorie, intended-for-weight-loss shakes we’ve seen in the past,” explains Stephanie Coburn, RD. And though they’re not intended for weight loss, many people use them to help maintain or lose weight, Coburn says. “They’re also popular with athletes for a pre- or post-workout meal and anyone pressed for time to prepare healthy, balanced meals.”
As for why meal replacement shakes seem to be making a comeback, there are a couple of big reasons, according to Olivia Ashton Brant, RD, Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. “The first is because they are easy and convenient, especially in the mornings, when most of us prioritize a few extra minutes of sleep over cooking breakfast.” The second is the idea of a shake being associated with weight loss, even if it’s not explicitly marketed that way. “I think, by default, people associate all meal replacement products to be something that will help with weight management,” Brant explains.
ARE MEAL REPLACEMENT SHAKES GOOD FOR WEIGHT LOSS?
Just because people associate these drinks with weight loss doesn’t necessarily mean they’re automatically a good strategy. In fact, dietitians vary in their opinions about these drinks.
On one hand, some nutrition pros think these shakes are great for weight loss, especially if they’re taking the place of highly-processed convenience foods. “Meal replacement shakes can be a great way to get a variety of vitamins and minerals compared to grabbing fast food,” Coburn says. “They can also be a safe bet as far as serving size and portion control, since we can tend to consume more than we need to when we’re hungry.”
But, dietitians agree that eating real food is usually better than a meal replacement shake, when possible. “While meal replacement shakes are preferable to skipping meals and some studies show that they are useful as an adjunct to other behavioral weight-loss programs, they are not a sustainable diet — the key to any weight-loss program,” explains Julie Miller Jones, PhD and a licensed nutritionist. It’s true that many shakes include tons of vitamins and minerals, but they lack the phytochemicals and many other essential components that are found in food, and often don’t include much fiber, Jones points out.
Still, drinking a shake is better than skipping a meal completely, especially for people who want to lose weight. “I’ll typically recommend meal replacement shakes to my clients who are currently skipping meals (usually breakfast) as a way to get them to get some nutrition and prevent overeating later in the day,” Brant explains. “We work together to make sure the meal replacement shake constitutes a balanced meal, or will add products to go with the shake in order to make sure they’re meeting their calorie and macro needs.”
It’s also worth noting that relying too much on shakes — Think: replacing all meals with shakes — is likely to backfire. “If someone is restricting calories too drastically with shakes, it’s unlikely the weight-loss results will last,” Brant notes.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A SHAKE
All three macronutrients: “I recommend looking for a meal replacement shake that includes carbohydrates, protein, and fat,” Brant says. “If you’re not getting a balance of these three, you’re not going to feel satisfied from this ‘meal,’ and will likely compensate by overeating at a later time. This can sabotage your weight loss, if that’s a goal.”
Enough calories: “The best meal replacement drinks would mimic the nutrients you would get in a whole meal,” Coburn explains. Depending on your daily calorie needs, this would be anywhere from 300–400 calories, 15–20 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber and 10–13 grams of fat, preferably unsaturated. “This combination helps to control hunger and manage your appetite,” Coburn says. It’s also a good idea to look for shakes that have less than 5 grams of sugar, according to Linda Nikolakopoulos, RD.
Vitamins and minerals: Shakes should also contain a variety of vitamins and minerals to help you meet the daily recommended amounts. This varies from shake to shake, but a good rule of thumb is the drink should meet 25–50 percent of the recommended daily amount for a variety of vitamins and minerals.
PRACTICAL TIPS AND ALTERNATIVES
Don’t rely on shakes alone. “Meal replacement shakes are not meant to be used for all meals, Nikolakopoulos emphasizes. “While they do contain vitamins and minerals, they do not include enough of all the nutrients necessary for a healthy and balanced diet. Generally speaking, they also tend to be on the lower side of calories, so using them to replace all meals would most likely leave you feeling hungry and low energy.”
Brant agrees, noting that your body knows the difference between getting 300 calories from a meal replacement shake and getting 300 calories from real food. “If you’re going to utilize meal replacement shakes, do so when they’re called for. Don’t rely on them day in and day out to nourish your body.”
Supplement your shake. If you opt for a shake that’s less than 300 calories to replace one of your main meals, you may want to pair it with a snack to keep your hunger at bay, Coburn says. She suggests:
- A banana with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter or a handful of almonds or mixed nuts
- Multi-grain toast with avocado or hummus
- Low-fat and low-sugar yogurt that contains 5-10g of protein with fresh fruit
- Carrots with peanut butter or hummus
Try a meal delivery service. If budget allows, this could be a good option for the time-pressed. “There are currently many different companies offering this and they have become very popular given our fast-paced lives,” Nikolakopoulos. These services offer prepared meals, which can be stored in the refrigerator and warmed up when you’re ready to eat.
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.