When trying to lose weight, people often experience headaches and migraines but don’t understand where it’s coming from or why. People using meal replacement shakes might conclude that the shakes cause their headaches, but is this the case? Can meal replacement shakes cause headaches, or are headaches the result of something else?
Meal replacement shakes can sometimes cause headaches due to a loss of minerals. They can also cause headaches if they contain artificial sweeteners or MSG. In migraine sufferers, pea protein used in some meal replacement shakes can trigger migraines.
In this article, you will learn why weight-loss diets can cause headaches, what to do to limit the headaches, and what shakes to use and what to avoid.
Why Do People Use Meal Replacement Shakes?
Meal replacement shakes are designed to provide enough nutrients in one serving that an actual meal provides. People use these to either lose weight or gain muscle or because they have digestive issues. Meal replacement shakes are also used when people don’t have time for a full meal or don’t have the appetite to eat a meal.
Let’s look at some of the main reasons people use meal replacement shakes in detail.
To Lose Weight
The popular weight loss program that started in the early 1980s built their empire on showing people how to replace two meals with shakes, then having a “sensible dinner” at the end of the day. They claim that thousands of people have lost weight with this plan.
So people follow this plan and use meal replacement shakes to lose weight. Technically, it is a form of calorie restriction, and any time you restrict calories and carbs, you lose weight.
However, more often than not, when you stop restricting calories, you will put the weight back on because you never learn to eat healthy.
Eating and Digestive Issues
People with Crohn’s Disease or other digestive issues find that meal replacement shakes are more palatable than eating whole food and will use the shakes more often. Older adults also lack the appetites for eating, or they have dental issues, which prevents them from eating a full meal.
To get enough calories for energy, many older adults will have a shake between meals or as a meal.
To Bulk Up
When bodybuilders want to bulk up, they usually choose protein powder rather than meal replacement shakes. However, they still will use meal replacement shakes occasionally to bulk up their muscles and cut the fat. They will use them in addition to balanced meals and after a strenuous workout to rebuild muscle.
It might seem counterintuitive that some people use meal replacement shakes to lose weight while others use them to bulk up. However, it all comes down to how and when people use the shakes and how much other food people eat in addition to the shakes.
Weight Loss Diets Can Sometimes Cause Headaches
When on a weight loss diet, some people get migraines or other types of headaches, which might be due to the type of diet. If you are eliminating sugar and highly processed carbs from your diet, your body might be going through a withdrawal period from the sugar.
When devoid of sugar, meal replacement shakes can cause headaches when used to replace meals full of carbs.
Weight loss can also trigger headaches for the following reasons:
- Fast calorie restriction will trigger headaches because it causes a dip in your blood sugar levels.
- You might become dehydrated quicker when on a carb-restricted diet due to how carb restriction releases water weight.
- Soda restriction can cause withdrawal headaches, especially if you were a heavy soda drinker.
- Many diet foods will have artificial sweeteners that replace the sugar, but these sweeteners have been known to cause headaches.
To eliminate or reduce the occurrence of headaches while on a weight loss diet, try to gradually restrict calories and carbs.
Slowly reduce how much soda you drink, so your body gets used to less sugar and caffeine.
And remember to drink more water until you hit a routine with your diet, as you might not know when you are dehydrated.
Some Meal Replacement Shakes Contain Artificial Sweeteners That Cause Headaches
Meal replacement shakes often contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose, or even added sugars. Aspartame and sucralose have been found to trigger headaches in a small population. However, as the study states, you would need to consume large quantities over time to have any effect in causing headaches.
If you have one or two meal replacement shakes per day that contain artificial sweeteners, it might be enough to create sensitivity towards headaches over time. For example, a woman tried losing weight with the Quest protein powders, of which the only sweetener in those shakes was sucralose.
After about two months, she started having daily migraines, and she couldn’t figure out why. She stopped having the protein shakes, and her headaches diminished drastically. But anytime she has anything with sucralose in it now, her migraines return.
Look for meal replacement shakes that don’t contain artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame or sucralose, if you want to avoid headaches from your shakes.
Protein Powders Can Sometimes Trigger Migraine Attacks
When people speak of “clean protein powders,” they are talking about those that don’t contain MSG, fillers like inulin, or other contaminants that create problems when consumed.
However, for migraine sufferers, clean protein powders could also mean that they don’t contain pea or soy protein–trigger foods for migraines.
Let’s take a look in detail at why these ingredients might trigger migraine attacks.
MSG Often Is the Cause
Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG, is a flavor enhancer used in various processed foods and drink mixes. It brings out the flavor of the other ingredients and activates the taste sensors in the brain. However, it also causes problems in people who are sensitive to glutamates in foods.
A study was done that outlined the link between glutamates and the trigeminal nerves. Migraine sufferers were shown to have positive glutamate receptors compared with non-migraine sufferers. According to the researchers, further study is needed, but it outlines a new treatment line.
In the meantime, you’ll want to avoid any of the following that might be in the meal replacement shakes:
- Whey protein isolate
- Hydrolyzed protein
- Soy protein isolate
Pea Protein Could Trigger Migraines
If you are on an elimination diet to find the cause of your migraines, peas may or may not be on your list of acceptable foods. The reason for this is that peas are higher in glutamates than other protein forms.
Shelled peas might be okay, but you may want to avoid pea protein in meal replacement shakes until you know what causes your migraines.
Soy Protein Is Another Allergen in Migraine Sufferers
Soy protein is one of several common allergens, including milk, wheat, honey, or corn. People with soy allergies display a wide range of symptoms, including severe rashes, headaches, or digestive issues.
Soy protein isolate is found in many vegan meal replacement shakes and is higher in glutamates than other protein sources.
Meal replacement shakes are helpful for when you are busy and don’t have time for a meal, but they can have some ingredients that can trigger headaches or migraines when consumed often enough.
An alternative to meal replacement shakes might include:
- Pre-cut vegetables with hummus
- Deli meat and cheese
- Salads to go from the grocery store deli
- Slow-cooked meals that you set up the night before
If you plan your meals, you might not need as many meal replacement shakes–at least if you don’t want them all the time.
- Foodzie: 12 Foods That Trigger Migraines: How to Identify the Cause Of Your Attacks and How to Best Treat Them
- Reader’s Digest: 6 Easy Fixes For Weight Loss Headaches
- Well-Being Secrets: Meal Replacement Shake Dangers, Side Effects, and Alternatives
- The Dizzy Cook: Protein Powder and Migraine: Which One Is Best?
- PubMed: The Link Between Glutamate and Migraine
- Slim Fast: 40 Years of Success Stories
- UC Health: Sweeteners, Headaches, and the Unpredictability of Triggers