In today’s fast-paced society, sometimes we don’t have time to sit down for a full meal. Whether you are bringing the kids to school, rushing to work for that morning meeting, or commuting home after a long day in the office, you may be looking for a convenient energy boost that will fill you up and keep you going until you can finally relax. So, you may be wondering if a meal replacement shake would be a good addition to your daily routine.
What are meal replacement shakes good for? The main purpose of a meal replacement shake is to replicate the amount of nutrition you’d get from a full meal with a lower net calorie intake. It is primarily used for weight loss, but can also be a supplement to add missing vitamins or minerals to your diet.
While the term “meal replacement” sounds romantic (Who wouldn’t want to save time and increase productivity by skipping three full meals plus snacks each day?), there are some myths and facts you should understand before making meal replacement shakes a standard part of your diet.
To help you in your decision, the rest of this article will discuss how you can maintain a balanced diet with and without meal replacement shakes, as well as their pros and cons.
What Are Meal Replacement Shakes?
Meal replacement shakes differ from protein shakes in that they are intended to provide the full range of nutrients you would get from eating a full meal. They can come in both powder form that you mix with milk or water, or liquid form—just pop it open and go!
These shakes are quite popular for those with a busy lifestyle who:
- Are short on time
- Need to eat frequently away from home
- Need increased portion size during meals
- Need extra energy to get through the day
- Are trying to lose weight while on the go
In terms of nutrients, good meal replacement shakes should include the following:
As meal replacement shakes are often used as part of a weight loss plan, they are fairly low in calories. They range from 150-400 calories per serving but should provide nutrition equal to that of a 400-800 calorie meal.
However, individual products vary widely in what types of nutrition they offer. It is best to check the labels and recommended serving size to find out what shake is best for you. The main commonality between all shakes is that they will likely contain higher amounts of protein and fiber to help curb your hunger.
Meal Replacement Shakes vs. Protein Shakes
Meal replacement shakes should not be confused with protein shakes. While many meal replacement shakes contain a good amount of protein, which helps with satiety (or the feeling of “being full”), their main purpose is not to deliver extra protein to your body.
Protein shakes, on the other hand, are used specifically to provide high concentrations of protein in one go. These are used primarily as a post-workout supplement to help rebuild muscle mass. They are not nutritionally well-rounded, so they should not be used regularly as a meal replacement.
Meal replacement shakes can also be used as a post-workout supplement but will not provide as much protein as a specifically designed protein shake. However, a meal replacement shake will deliver many other nutrients to your body as well in a low-calorie package, which could help with post-workout recovery.
Maintaining a Balanced Diet—without Shakes
Before we get into how meal replacements can improve your everyday diet, let’s look at the type of nutrition an average, healthy adult requires.
The USDA recommends maintaining a balanced diet that consists of:
- Fruits and Vegetables
- Low amounts of refined sugar and “bad” fats
Calories are the unit of measurement for the amount of energy stored in food. We all use calories throughout the day just by walking, talking, and breathing. Individuals who are more active and enjoy exercising burn more calories proportionate to the intensity of the activity.
The average adult needs about 2,000 calories per day to maintain their weight. This number varies by age, gender, and activity level. People who exercise regularly need more calories than those that don’t, and men generally consume more than women with the same activity level.
Calories consumed are proportional to the amount of weight lost or gained. Consume too many over your base calorie recommendation, and you are most likely going to gain weight. Consume fewer to lose weight.
We can get calories both from whole foods (such as meat, whole grains, and produce) or empty calories from junk food such as chips, cookies, sodas, and alcohol. It is recommended that you limit your empty calorie intake to less than the amount of your whole-food calories.
Protein is a nutrient that humans of all ages need to help with brain and muscle development. Those who are active will need more protein than someone who is sedentary to rebuild the muscles naturally damaged during activities. This is good, however, because protein builds those muscles up stronger than before!
We primarily get our protein from meats and dairy products, though there is also protein in nuts and beans (including tofu and other meat substitutes that are made from soybeans).
Dietary fiber is an organic matter that we do not absorb, often known as “roughage.” We get our fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. It is necessary for all ages to decrease the risk of coronary disease and maintain a healthy digestive system.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fresh produce is something that many of us don’t eat enough of in our daily meals. The USDA recommends eating 5-9 servings of fruit and veggies per day. This is contrary to the average American’s consumption, which can be anywhere from 2-5 servings per day.
In addition to being a delicious and refreshing snack, fresh produce is full of vitamins and minerals such as:
- Vitamin C – helps heal the body and protect the gums
- Potassium – helps maintain healthy blood pressure
- Vitamin A – keeps skin healthy and protects against infections
- Folate – especially important for pregnant women to help prevent congenital disabilities
- Magnesium – essential for healthy bones and maintains over 300 enzymes in the body
Also, some fruits, such as avocados or coconuts, are a good source for unsaturated fats and good fatty acids such as Omega-3 and Omega-6.
While fruits do contain more sugar on average than the same amount of vegetables, they are still recommended as a sweet, healthy alternative to other sugary foods like pastries or candy.
Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, are great sources of calcium and vitamin D, as well as other essential nutrients. However, they are also high in fat, and sometimes sugar, so it is always recommended to eat these foods in moderation. You can always opt for low-fat or no-sugar-added options such as skim milk or Greek yogurt.
If dairy products are not your favorite foods (or if you’re vegan), you can still get calcium and Vitamin D from dark leafy greens and hearty vegetables such as sweet potatoes.
Refined Sugar and Grains
It is also recommended that everyone limits their consumption of refined sugars and grains. These products are processed from the whole foods mentioned above but have virtually all nutrition removed from them.
Refined sugars are considered “empty calories” that your body likes to burn first, allowing other energy sources, such as fats, to build up in your system. So, if you get a sweet tooth from time-to-time, pick up an apple or a handful of strawberries rather than going for that pack of Oreos.
Refined grains are things like white bread or white rice. In their “whole” variety (like whole-wheat or brown rice), the grain itself contains the hull, which is the part of the seed that has all the nutrients. Processing these grains down, removes this hull and leaves little-to-none of the original nutrients.
While some fat is necessary for our diets, there are some fats we could do without: Saturated Fat (the Bad) & Trans-Fat (the Ugly).
Trans-fats have no nutritional value and have been proven to be directly harmful to your health. These are mainly found in foods such as fried foods and baked goods. They are particularly prevalent in partially hydrogenated oils that the FDA has deemed “generally not safe to eat.” Trans-fats should be limited or avoided as much as possible.
Saturated fat is considered a dietary fat, and some consumption of this fat is okay. These are tightly packed fats with no double bonds between the fatty acids.
They are generally associated with harming heart health, though the debate is still ongoing. While these fats do raise cholesterol levels and contribute to heart disease risk factors (like inflammation), they have not been linked directly to heart disease itself.
However, the consensus on saturated fats is that we should eat them in moderation and limit them if you are at risk for conditions such as high-cholesterol or diabetes.
How to Choose a Meal Replacement Shake
Now that you know what is essential for a healthy, balanced diet, it’s time to find the right meal replacement shake that reflects that.
When looking for a meal replacement shake that is best for you, it’s important to first think about the result you want to achieve. Whether you are interested in time-saving meals, nutrition supplementation, or weight loss, you may consider different types of shakes.
For example, if you are specifically looking for weight loss and want to have encouragement not to snack during the day, then the number of calories of a shake and its ability to curb hunger and appetite will be the most desirable.*
Additionally, if you have dietary restrictions (such as veganism) or allergies (such as nuts or gluten), you’ll want to make sure to read the ingredients.
Fortunately, there are lots of options out there!
*A Note on Hunger vs. Appetite: While these terms may sometimes be used interchangeably when looking at them in terms of weight loss, they refer to different sensations in the body. You’ve probably had the feeling, during a long day of work, that you want to eat, though you may have had lunch only an hour before. This is your appetite talking, or “the desire to eat without hunger.”
Hunger, on the other hand, is the need to eat, or the feeling you get after waking up in the morning and realizing dinner was over twelve hours before.
Meal Replacement Shakes for Weight Loss
If you are looking for a meal replacement shake for weight loss, then you most likely want to make this shake one or two meals per day. In these cases, you want to curb the urge to snack throughout the day significantly. You also want to feel full enough that you’re not starving by dinner and then find yourself binge eating.
In these cases, choose a meal replacement shake that is higher in calories and protein. According to Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, and author of The Superfoods Diet, you need to eat around 325-400 calories, 15-25 grams of protein, 5 grams of protein, and 10-13 grams of good, unsaturated fats to feel full.
According to an article on Prevention, their top-rated weight-loss meal replacement shake is the Premier Protein brand of meal replacement shakes. With a 4.6-star rating on Amazon and 9,500 reviews, and delicious flavors like caramel and cookies and cream, it looks like a strong contender!
However, at only 160 calories, you’ll want to pair it with some other healthy snacks like low-sugar Greek yogurt, a banana, or some peanut butter.
Vegan Meal Replacement Shakes
For those of you who are vegan or have a dairy allergy, there are also a lot of options for meal replacement and protein shakes that include only plant-based proteins.
When looking for something of this variety, some of the most popular plant proteins you’ll want to keep an eye out for are:
- Brown Rice
- Pumpkin Seeds
Keep in mind that many shakes contain plant-based proteins, but not all of them are vegan. If this is an important distinction for you, make sure you avoid shakes with whey, milk, or even honey (which is considered off-limits by some vegans as it is still an animal-derived product). Also, if a product boasts that it’s certified vegan, you should be safe.
Many of these meal replacement shakes come in powder form, but you can find already prepared liquids ones as well. If investing in a powdered shake, you’ll want to mix them with the milk of your choice: almost, coconut, rice, etc. The benefit of these is that there is generally less plastic waste, so they are better for the environment!
According to an article on Vegan Liftz, their editor’s pick is the liquid Ample V shake with 13 grams of fat, 10 grams of vegan protein, and 12 grams of carbs. This one also has no artificial flavors or sweeteners!
Another popular Vegan Meal Replacement Shake is Beachbody Shakeology. Again, no artificial flavors or sweeteners and comes in Chocolate, Vanilla, Café Latte, and Tropical Strawberry.
Organic Meal Replacement Shakes
Organic, when referring to the food we eat, is defined as a product that is grown and produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, chemicals, or artificial agents. While there is some debate on the nutritional value vs. cost-effectiveness of organic foods, for some people, this is an important aspect of their daily diet.
Fortunately, it is possible to find meal replacement shakes that are also certified organic. Here are the most popular options:
- Orgain: This product has both chocolate and vanilla flavors, is certified organic, and has kid-friendly options! You can view the full selection on Amazon here.
- Garden of Life: This meal replacement powder has 4.5 stars on Amazon. Its whole-food, raw formula, means the ingredients were never cooked, thus providing as much of the original nutrients as possible. It also contains 15 billion probiotics and enzymes to support digestive health. You can find it online here.
- Plant Fusion: Also a powder-based shake, this shake has a lot going for it. It’s organic, vegan, gluten-free, non-sugar, and non-GMO. Also, with a 4.5-star rating on Amazon and decadent flavors like Creamy Vanilla Bean and Chocolate Caramel, you won’t regret giving this one a try!
Meal Replacement Shakes for Kids
All parents have been there: One week your kid is eating every meal happily, and the next they’ve decided they don’t like something they used to enjoy. Keeping kids interested in food is a challenge many households face. It might even get you to think: Can I give my child a meal replacement shake instead?
The short answer is, no, children do not need meal replacement shakes. At this time in their life, they should be encouraged to try new foods and taught to develop healthy eating habits. However, there are times when a child may require a meal supplement: if they are delayed in growth, suffering from an extended illness, or are on medication that reduces their appetites.
This is where nutritional shakes come in. There are many varieties formulated specifically for the younger generations, so here is what you should look for:
- Appealing flavors
- High calories
- Vitamins to fulfill the child’s specific deficit
- Digestive aids like probiotics and fiber
While we recommend that you consult your doctor before working these into a child’s diet, Beachbody Daily Sunshine is a good option for children.
Health Benefits of Meal Replacement Shakes
While we have already touched on the fact that meal replacement shakes should contain enough nutrients, fiber, and protein for a full meal, some of you may be wondering: How healthy are they, really?
Are Meal Replacement Shakes Healthy?
First, there are a few rules you want to keep in mind. The biggest of these is that you’re always going to get better nutrition from a meal made up of unprocessed whole foods. So, while meal replacement shakes are good for quick nutrition, you should still build your balanced diet around real meals.
Additionally, the reason why you are reaching for a shake instead of a full meal is also an important factor. For people who have a history of eating disorders, or unhealthy relationships with food, you’ll want to consult a doctor before making a drastic change like this.
If you consider a meal replacement shake as more like a multivitamin in shake form, you will start to understand the health benefits of these dietary items. They deliver a shot of good fats, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients to your body, but this is really the most beneficial if you are deficient in some type of nutrient. To learn more about your specific dietary needs, we recommend consulting a doctor or dietician.
Are Meal Replacement Shakes Safe?
In general, most meal replacement shakes do not meet the recommended calorie intake for a full meal that we discussed above. Most range from the 100-300 calorie range. This means that you will most likely need to supplement with extra food or use the meal replacement shake itself as a supplement to a regular meal.
While most of the ingredients in these shakes are pretty good for you, many of them are also high in sugar. Some even contain highly processed ingredients or soy that are not healthy for some people in large quantities. In addition, a higher amount of fiber could cause digestive issues if you drink more than one shake per day.
Ultimately, it is not recommended to replace eating full meals with meal replacement shakes entirely. Zach Watson, a staff writer for Greatist, did this experiment for one week. While he admitted that he did, for the most part, continue to feel full, he also reported some discomfort:
- Digestive instability
- Difficulty transition back to solid foods
- Repetitiveness of flavors
Other Meal Replacement Options – Bars
Maybe drinking your meals is not your cup of tea, but you still are looking for quick nutrition to aid in weight loss or for convenience. Fortunately, there is another way to give yourself a temporarily satisfying snack to keep you energized: meal replacement bars.
While meal replacement bars could have their own article, here is some quick information to get you started in your search. Again, like shakes, these bars should not be used to replace every meal of the day, but do provide good on-the-go energy.
What Are Meal Replacement Bars?
Meal replacement bars are usually dense and filling snack bars that are intended to replace a full meal. Like shakes, they should contain enough calories and nutrients to sustain you until your next meal.
They can be:
- Light-weight trail food for those all-day hikes
- High-calorie performance fuel to help get you that extra-intense workout
- An easy, quick meal when your work tasks are overwhelming
- A weight-loss tool when mixed with a balanced diet of whole-foods
Nutrition-wise, they should be about 300 calories and 3 ounces of physical food to maintain satiety. If you participate in an active lifestyle, this number should be even higher. You also want to look for low-sugar varieties to avoid that post-consumption crash.
Many of them are sweet: containing chocolate, coconut, peanut butter, or fruit. However, they’re also sweet and salty varieties that contain a combination of nuts, salted caramel, fruit, etc. Some are chewy, and some are crunchy, and others are even completely grain-free.
So, if you are more interested in chewing your food, you are sure to find a meal replacement bar that is for you!
Meal Replacement Bars vs. Other Types of Bars
A full step above nutrition or energy bars, meal replacement bars contain more nutrients and protein to be closer to full. Thus, if you are choosing one based on this criteria, then you should hold your choice to a higher standard.
This article from Greenbelly Meals lists their top six whole-meal bars. While the flavors may be limited, these bars should give you the most satisfied belly.
On the other hand, if taste and variety are your top priorities, there are a lot of choices out there. To get you started, check out this article on the Best Tasting Meal Replacement Shakes.
Maintaining a healthy diet is important whether you live an active lifestyle, are following a weight-loss plan, or simply want to keep up your daily energy. While meal replacement shakes and bars can help you with this, nothing can fully take the place of a good, wholesome meal.
However, working these items into your daily routine could give you that little boost of extra nutrition or curb unhealthy snack-attacks. Exploring the options presented in this article will give you a good chance to find something that really works for you!