Recently I’ve had a few people ask me about the merit of using meal replacement shakes for weight loss. Most often the goals of the “shake and take” diet sit somewhere between kickstarting weight loss, undergoing a cleanse and convenience. Being able to save time is definitely a winner in our high speed environment.
Those who have been around the block a few times have seen many meal replacement shakes come and go. They are not a new initiative. Maybe you have tried replacing meals with shakes, maybe you are doing it at the moment. Regardless, I’m sure you have encountered both positive and negative viewpoints.
My stance on meal replacement shakes is; they are indeed a possible tool you can employ in your diet. Here is my list of pro’s and con’s of doing so.
Meal replacement shake pro’s
They are portion controlled: Shakes are precisely measured making it easier to consume portion controlled meals and adhere to macronutrient targets. Macronutrient levels, the amount of protein, fats and carbs, in the shake can vary to meet your health goals.
Simple to follow: Just mix the powder with some water on your way out the door and viola… Breakfast is served. Having uncomplicated instructions leads to greater adherence, a win when it comes to dietary behaviour change.
Reduces total energy intake: Consuming meal replacement shakes will often lead to a reduction in total energy consumption. A common short term side effect of reducing energy intake? Weight loss. However, I do emphasise short term as studies show many people undertaking weight loss programs are able to lose weight initially through dietary restriction. Very few, however, are able to sustain weight loss 6 months post diet.
- Convenience: We are constantly looking for ways to do things faster and more efficiently in many areas of life. Nuff said.
Now for the negative side of my own debate.
Meal replacement shake con’s
Manufactured shakes are only a small part of the food picture: If you want to make dietary change, you still need discipline, organisation and planning to make it sustainable. You need to be clear on why you are doing it and will eventually need to make sure you are getting real whole food sources of many vitamins and minerals to avoid nutrient deficiencies.
Reliance on “fake food:” Meal replacement shakes contain many synthetic substitutes of vitamins. I personally don’t believe this is close to resembling natures chemical combinations you’ll find in real food. There are thousands of nutrients interacting in real food, which is currently impossible to replicate in a powder.
Unhealthy additives: Yes there is some good “clean” brands available but the fact remains that many producers inevitably turn to ingredients that are easy to source and well known. This helps helps keep product costs in check, ensure stable production and it ultimately sells as consumers buy what they know. Therefore you are likely to consume added sugar, salt, stabilisers, unnatural emulsifiers, vegetable oils etc on a shake diet.
Faster absorption of nutrients: Initially this may sound like a good thing. “You mean I can get all the vitamins and nutrients into my body faster?” Yes you can. However, our bodies don’t really need food for instant energy or the instant influx of vitamins. With an effective metabolism we efficiently produce energy inside all our cells regardless of whether we have just eaten. (Click here for more on metabolism). With a healthy diet we also have adequate vitamin stores to draw on as needed. Faster absorption of processed food will often lead to blood sugar spikes, increased hunger and possibly cravings.
Reduced satiety: Observational studies have indicated people who consume a shake in place of a meal feel hungrier sooner than those who eat food. If you swapped the shake for a meal replacement bar with a similar number of calories you can expect to feel fuller for longer and have reduced hunger. Whole foods are even better.
In conclusion, meal replacement shakes are certainly a viable option for short term weight loss or to kick start a health behaviour change. They are easy, require little preparation and can signify the start of a new you. Sometimes the pro’s provide enough of an advantage that we can look past the con’s.
Perhaps an even simpler alternative would be the use of alternate day fasting, which I believe would results in more favourable outcomes long term – but that’s a post for another day!