Protein is the most important macronutrient when it comes to building muscle mass.
The problem is that many popular meal replacement shakes are heavy on vitamins and minerals, but low on protein content. And thus, you may assume that whey protein is the perfect alternative.
Whey protein is not a meal replacement. Meal replacements are designed to lower your caloric intake, reduce your appetite, and supply you with micronutrients like iron and vitamin C. Whey protein may provide you with 20+ grams of protein for muscle recovery, but it’s low on other key nutrients.
Whey protein and meal replacements are both healthy in their own sense. Yet, these two supplements should not be used interchangeably.
Keep reading to learn about the differences between meal replacements and whey protein and why whey protein is not a meal replacement.
Whey Protein vs. Meal Replacement: What’s the Difference?
A shake is a shake, right? If you compare two different types of meal replacements, then the answer is probably “yes.”
However, whey protein shakes and meal replacement shakes are two entirely different beverages. They vary in terms of their benefits and nutritional content.
So, let’s talk about the key differences between the two.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (the other two are carbohydrates and fats). In humans, protein is needed to repair muscle and other tissues, maintain proper fluid balance, and even create hormones within the body.
Whey protein is one of two types of protein that comes from dairy products (the other is casein). It’s also the most popular type of protein supplement on the market today.
Why People Take Whey Protein
The main purpose of taking whey protein is to supplement your current protein intake.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, about 0.73 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight will keep you from losing muscle mass, even if you’re attempting to lose weight.
Unfortunately, many Americans aren’t getting enough daily protein.
Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Current protein intake in America: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003-2004) found that this is particularly a problem in adolescent girls and women. Up to 8.6% aren’t getting enough protein daily.
That can be concerning when it comes to plenty of body functions, so an easy-to-make whey protein shake can immediately boost protein intake by 20 or more grams at once.
If you weigh 150 pounds, a single scoop of whey protein boasting 20g of protein can account for about 20% of your recommended daily protein intake.
Other benefits of whey protein include:
- Significant protein intake
- Improved muscle mass
- Reduced inflammation within the body
- Lower appetite & reduced hunger
Protein is often most useful immediately after resistance training to boost the muscles’ ability to recover and repair themselves. But your body needs protein, whether you exercise or not.
Want to learn more about whey protein? Take a look at this video that describes 5 of the top benefits of whey protein.
Meal replacements are exactly what they sound like. They’re simply beverages or shakes that are meant to replace meals that you normally eat during the day. They’re known for being low in calories while also being rather high in important vitamins and minerals.
The combination of low calories and adequate nutritional value is designed to improve weight loss and overall health.
Why People Take Meal Replacements
In one study published by the Journal of Obesity (Effects of a Meal Replacement on Body Composition and Metabolic Parameters among Subjects with Overweight or Obesity), meal replacement dietary plans were found to be extremely effective in both weight loss and health improvements. For 12 weeks, participants lost about 4.3% of their body weight, slimmed down around the waist, lowered their cholesterol levels, and saw a reduction in their BMI.
Another study highlighted how meal replacements impact appetite. Current Nutrition and Food Science (Meal Replacement Beverage Twice a Day in Overweight and Obese Adults (MDRC2012-001)) discovered that meal replacement shakes could help people feel full in as little as 15 minutes and hold off hunger for up to 3 hours.
The less hungry you feel, the less you’ll eat. That means lower caloric intake during the day and eventual weight loss.
Meal replacement shakes typically only have about 200 or so calories per serving. By replacing a 700-calorie meal with one of these shakes, you can take in 500 calories less per day. This can help you lose up to a pound per week while also helping to control your appetite.
Craving a little extra information about meal replacement shakes? Take a look at this video that goes over the pros and cons.
Why Whey Protein Isn’t a Meal Replacement
Whey protein and meal replacements are both great for your health on their own, but, rarely, they can both be used for the same purposes. So, let’s take a look at why whey protein is not the same as a meal replacement.
Lack of Micronutrients
Whey protein is great if you’re looking to pack on some muscle mass and recover post-workout.
Most protein products will have at least 20 grams of protein per serving, though some go as high as 50 or more grams. This can account for 20% to 50% of your total recommended intake.
The issue with whey protein is that there aren’t many other nutritional benefits.
Whey protein does have some sodium, calcium, cholesterol, potassium, and sugar in every serving, but nothing in an amount that’ll make an impact on your health.
Instead of getting those much-needed micronutrients like vitamin C, iron, and magnesium from a meal replacement shake, you’re simply just getting protein.
And many meal replacement shakes provide a great amount of each, sometimes more than 50% of your RDI.
Lack of Carbohydrates & Fat
When you’re on a diet or just looking to lose a little weight, you might assume that carbohydrates and fats are what you need to avoid. The problem is that your body desperately needs both carbs and fats to function properly.
The benefits of fat include the proper growth of cells, insulation to keep you warm, and the absorption of vitamins and minerals within the body. And carbs are what your body relies on when it comes to creating energy.
Both fats and carbs are found in meal replacement shakes.
Protein shakes, on the other hand, do not include these two macronutrients in a proper amount.
By denying yourself the carbs and fats that your body needs, you’re also depriving yourself of energy and possibly reducing your performance.
The Perfect Combination
Do you always have to choose between vitamins/minerals and protein? The answer is “no.” There are a few products out there that are somewhat of a middle-ground between meal replacement shakes and protein shakes.
For example, there’s the Beachbody Shakeology shake
Just like a meal replacement shake, this product is a nutrient dense shake to help replace a healthy meal. However, the ingredients goes beyond normal meal replacement shakes by providing as much protein as protein shakes and including the following nutrient groups: Superfruits & Antioxidants, Prebiotics & Probiotics, Adaptogens, Supergreens & Phytonutrients, and Vitamins & Minerals.
Whey protein is not a meal replacement shake. It’s a great supplement to add to your routine if you like to do strength training and want to build muscle mass.
However, it lacks plenty of vitamins and minerals that your body needs to keep you happy and healthy.
The good news is that you don’t always have to choose one or the other. You’ll find a few products out on the market right now that are high in vitamins and minerals, low in calories, and also high in protein. There’s no longer a need for an “either-or” situation.
- Journal of Sports Science & Medicine: Protein – Which is Best?
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Current protein intake in America: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003-2004
- NASM: PROTEIN AND WEIGHT LOSS: HOW MUCH PROTEIN SHOULD YOU EAT TO LOSE WEIGHT?
- Journal of Obesity: Effects of a Meal Replacement on Body Composition and Metabolic Parameters among Subjects with Overweight or Obesity
- American Heart Association: Dietary Fats