In an ideal world, we’d all have the time to dedicate to preparing homemade healthy meals, in addition to sitting down to eat them mindfully. But given how busy many people are today, it’s not surprising that meal replacement shakes, bars and snacks have grown in popularity exponentially over the past several decades.
Time isn’t the only barrier keeping some adults from preparing and enjoying fresh food; the elderly and those with digestive issues (like gastritis, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease) can sometimes lack the appetite necessary to eat enough calories in order to fuel their bodies. Additionally, some view meal replacement products as a quick-fix means to fast weight loss. If you fall into any one of these categories — you’re too short on time to cook fresh meals, you physically can’t manage to eat meals that contain enough of the nutrients you need or you’re the type to turn to fad-dieting — you might be wondering if meal replacement shakes are the answer.
Although there’s no doubt they offer convenience, the vast majority of meal replacement shakes (or bars, frozen meals, etc.) also have some serious drawbacks. Just because a product is advertised to look healthy and claims to provide “essential vitamins and minerals” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good choice. Case in point: Some popular meal replacement shakes have dozens of different ingredients, many of which are ultra-processed foods and difficult to break down, plus over 20 grams of added sugar per small bottle. Experts from Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Boston have been quoted saying, “Whole foods provide a much better balance of nutrients than meal replacements can… Plus, using real foods forces you to make choices that help you maintain weight loss in the long run.” (1)
What are some better meal replacement alternatives that help ensure you stay satisfied and get enough fuel throughout the day? If you prefer a liquid meal, I recommend homemade smoothies — made with things like plant-based protein powders and filling healthy fats, especially coconut oil. In addition, you can easily add more superfoods to your diet like grass-fed yogurt, pureed veggies, fresh greens, nuts and seeds by preparing recipes like homemade green juice, soups or stews made with bone broth. And keep in mind that if weight loss is your primary goal, it’s always best to avoid “shortcuts” and focus on developing lifelong habits like exercising, reducing stress, sleeping well and sticking with a healthy diet.
What Is a Meal Replacement Shake?
Meal replacement shakes are usually processed, bottled products that you drink in place of eating one of your main meals (breakfast, lunch or dinner). These shakes are often used to increase or reduce calorie intake, get enough vitamins and minerals in a convenient way, speed up the process of eating when you’re on the go and therefore don’t have time to cook or sit down, or for those who lack the appetite to eat enough.
In some instances, convenient premade snacks (such as bars or juices) can be useful for helping keep you satisfied between meals, keeping your blood sugar from dropping and preventing overeating at the next meal. But because these products need to remain on store shelves for long periods of time, and therefore cannot be very perishable or fresh, for the most part the ingredients used are processed and not ideal.
Ensure Ingredients: Are They Actually Healthy?
The company Ensure® produces some of the most popular meal replacement shakes on the market. Ensure® claims to offer a number of different product options, depending on if you’re a “dieter” who’s watching your calorie intake, an older adult who might lack certain vitamins or minerals, or simply someone who needs to consume more calories to gain weight in a convenient manner. What are companies like Ensure® much less likely to advertise? The types of inflammatory, chemical ingredients they use.
Below are the ingredients found in one Ensure Plus® Milk Chocolate meal replacement shake:
- Water, Corn Maltodextrin, Sugar, Blend of Vegetable Oils (Canola, Corn), Milk Protein Concentrate, Soy Protein Isolate, Cocoa Powder (Processed with Alkali)
- Less than 0.5% of: Nonfat Milk, Magnesium Phosphate, Sodium Citrate, Soy Lecithin, Natural & Artificial Flavor, Calcium Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Cellulose Gum, Potassium Citrate, Choline Chloride, Ascorbic Acid, Cellulose Gel, Carrageenan, Salt, Ferric Phosphate, dl-Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate, Zinc Sulfate, Niacinamide, Manganese Sulfate, Calcium Pantothenate, Copper Sulfate, Thiamine Chloride Hydrochloride, Vitamin A Palmitate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Biotin, Chromium Chloride, Sodium Molybdate, Sodium Selenate, Potassium Iodide, Vitamin B12, Phylloquinone, and Vitamin D3
One small bottle of Ensure® Plus has approximately:
- 350 calories
- 11 grams of fat
- 22 grams of sugar
- 13 grams protein
- less than one gram of dietary fiber
- each bottle contains around 25 percent to 30 percent of most essential vitamins and minerals (B vitamins, iron, etc.) although these are added/synthetic.
6 Reasons Why Commercial Meal Replacements Usually Aren’t Good for You (or Your Older Relatives!)
1. The “Vitamins and Minerals” Are Synthetic
As you can tell from glancing above at the ingredients found in Ensure’s meal replacement shakes, any nutrients that might be included do not come from real, whole foods. Although some meal replacement shakes advertise that they supply 20 or more “essential vitamins and minerals,” they’re synthetically made and not derived from food, making them tough to properly absorb.
A better option? Get essential nutrients from unprocessed foods — like a mix of veggies and fruit, quality proteins (for a range of amino acids), and healthy fats (especially those with anti-inflammatory omega-3s or medium-chained fatty acids).
2. Too Much Added Sugar
You’ll notice that meal replacement products usually come in a range of tempting, dessert-sounding flavors like “dark chocolate” or “butter pecan.” This might make them sound extra appealing, especially if they’re “low calorie,” but it doesn’t come without a price. These shakes often contain lots of added sugar (sugar is the third listed ingredient in Ensure’s shakes), artificial sweeteners or a combination of both. Regardless of whether you’re trying to lose weight or gain weight, added sugar is still a source of empty calories. Consuming too much added sugar can lead to moodiness, dips in energy levels, stomach queasiness and worsened overall health due to inflammation. (2)
3. Contain Multiple Artificial Ingredients
Several highly processed ingredients found in bottled meal replacement shakes include:
- Refined vegetable oils, such as canola or corn oil, which promote inflammation. These types of oils tend to become rancid easily over time but are often used in processed products because they’re very cheap to produce.
- Shelf stabilizers, such as cellulose gel or carrageenan. Studies have found conflicting results, but some show that carrageenan might cause digestive upset or even symptoms of toxicity, especially when consumed frequently. (3)
- Thickeners and preservatives, like maltodextrin, which has a very high glycemic index and causes blood sugar spikes.
- Color and flavor enhancers, often including artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose, which have been linked to problems like weight gain and headaches.
4. Most Are Low in Protein and Fiber
Quality protein, as well as enough dietary fiber, are key components in any healthy, well-rounded diet. Both help to make you feel satisfied, improve gut health/digestion, support cognitive health, and are important for overall hormonal balance and immunity. Because most commercial shakes don’t contain any real high-fiber foods (like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds or other sources of fiber), they might not make you feel very full for long, even when they do provide lots of calories. And the protein they do provide usually comes from conventional dairy milk or processed protein powders like soy isolate. A better option? Eat real food with a mix of the macronutrients you need for satiety and well-being.
5. Can Make Inflammation and Indigestion Even Worse
If you turn to meal replacements because you have a hard time eating fibrous, bulky foods — whether due to older age, dental problems or a digestive disorder — relying on these products might cause your condition to become even worse. Sugar is linked to increased inflammation, dental decay, and fluctuations in hormones that govern energy and mood. For anyone with a sensitive digestive system, it’s also usually hard to properly absorb synthetic vitamins or digest foods with lots of preservatives and chemicals.
Furthermore, a lack of fiber, probiotics and antioxidants can increase free radical damage and accelerate the effects of aging. None of these synthetic products are beneficial for gut health and can lead to a cascade of inflammatory symptoms that affect the whole body.
6. Likely Won’t Help with Weight Loss (If That’s Your Goal)
If you’re hoping to make the pounds come off, it might sound tempting to skip real food and sip on a portion-controlled, low-calorie shake instead. But this strategy is very unlikely to work long term and actually may backfire. Meal replacement programs for weight loss, such as the SlimFast diet, are neither healthy nor likely to work as a means of lasting weight loss/maintenance because they quickly leave you feeling deprived, restricted, low in energy, socially isolated and full of cravings for the foods you actually enjoy.
Some studies actually suggest that you might be able to drop some weight initially when drastically cutting meals or calories, but other evidence shows that it’s likely to return. (4) Consuming prepackaged meals or bars doesn’t teach you any useful long-term strategies related to healthy meal preparation, watching portions, managing cravings or listening to your body’s hunger/fullness signals through mindful eating. It’s not uncommon for dieters to skip meals during the day, only to become very hungry at night, causing them to go overboard and eat even more.
Studies investigating effectiveness of meal replacement programs have also found a very high “dropout rate” (almost half of people can’t stick with a program for 16 weeks or more), plus fatigue, hunger and cravings have also been found to be common concerns. Any evidence that these programs do work is also questionable, since it’s impossible to perform blinded studies comparing meal replacements to other programs. In studies like this, patients can’t not know they’re skipping meals. (5)
5 Best Meal Replacement Shakes and Meal Replacement Alternatives
If you’re going to consume meal replacement products from time to time, try to find those that don’t contain a very long list of man-made chemical ingredients. Products like these might be helpful every now and then when you’re in a bind, very short on time or traveling, but it’s not very healthy to make them a habit. Instead I recommend trying some of the meal replacement alternatives below, which you can prepare ahead of time or even in bulk in many instances:
- Homemade Green Smoothies: A very convenient way to get more antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies into your diet within minutes.
- Pureed Healthy Soups: A savory way to fill up on more fiber, broth, veggies and herbs. Soup is usually easy on digestion, filling and can be frozen for future use.
- Protein from Bone Broth: New protein from bone broth powder products make it easier than ever to consume a beneficial mix of anti-aging collagen, amino acids, antioxidants, electrolytes and other healing compounds. Bone broth can now be used in shakes, smoothies, soups, stews and even baked products.
- Other Plant-Based Protein Powders: I often start my days with a filling homemade protein shake, however the kind I make myself is free of synthetic ingredients or fillers. I prefer to use easy-to-absorb protein powders, such as grass-fed whey or newer plant-based proteins like pea protein or hemp protein powder.
- Higher-Calorie Shakes to Help Build Muscle: If you’re looking to add more calories to your diet in order to reach a healthy weight or put on muscle when increasing training, consuming a daily homemade shake made with real ingredients is not a terrible idea. In order to feel your best, I recommend adding ingredients such as coconut oil, sprouted nuts or seeds, grass-fed yogurt, a quality protein powder, fruit, and possibly some raw honey for extra sweetness.
If a digestive problem is the reason you choose to consume meal replacements, here are other tips for improving the way you digest your meals:
- Instead of eating fewer meals per day, with larger quantities of food at each meal, try eating smaller amounts more frequently. Eating about every three to four hours can help normalize blood sugar and your appetite.
- To help you stay satisfied and energized between meals, focus on including a mix of complex carbohydrates, only small amounts of simple sugars, a bit of healthy fat and a moderate amount of protein.
- Regularly make an effort to eat beneficial foods that reduce inflammation and help with nutrient absorption, like omega-3 foods and probiotic foods.
- Try to consume only moderate fat with each day. Aim for about the equivalent of one to two teaspoons of oil at a time to help with absorption, especially if you have liver or gallbladder problems.
- Drink enough water throughout the day, which helps fiber do its job.
- Consider trying an elimination diet. This can help you identify problematic foods or allergies, such as FODMAPs or a gluten intolerance.
- Chew your food well.
- Consider using digestive enzymes if necessary in order to better absorb the nutrients you eat.
- If you do decide to try a meal replacement program for weight loss, findings suggest that you will more likely keep the weight off if you transition to a healthier way of eating (such as a high-fiber, reduced-calorie diet) after two to three weeks. (6)
Final Thoughts on Meal Replacement Shakes
- Meal replacement shakes are usually processed, bottled products that people drink in place of eating one of their main meals. Dieters, the elderly, people too short on time to cook or those with digestive complaints are most likely to use meal replacement shakes.
- Some of the cons associated with meal replacement products is that they’re high in sugar, sodium, artificial ingredients and synthetic vitamins/minerals.
- Better alternatives to meal replacement shakes are making homemade smoothies, consuming bone broth protein or other plant-based protein powders, drinking fresh green juice, or preparing easy recipes like soup in bulk.
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