It’s undeniable that meal replacement shakes are convenient and don’t require any thought. But, before you start drinking them it’s important to know more about what you’re consuming. Not all meal replacement shakes are the same and some people should stay away from them altogether.
When you look at the reasons most people give for struggling to reach their weight, fitness, and health goals, you can see why meal replacement shakes are so popular:
- “I’m very busy.”
- “I’m not a great cook.”
- “I don’t know who to believe about nutrition.”
- “I struggle with consistency.”
- “I don’t want to obsess over my eating choices.”
It certainly seems like meal replacement shakes solve a lot of those issues, right? It’s hard to beat a delicious, pre-made product that also doubles as an entire meal.
But are meal replacement shakes healthy? Will they help you reach your weight loss goals? Are there any potential consequences of drinking them?
That’s exactly what we need to take a closer look at.
What is a meal replacement shake?
For the purposes of this article, a meal replacement shake will be any type of liquid that has a significant amount of calories and is used primarily as an alternative to eating a regular meal.
A meal replacement shake can be pre-packaged as well as homemade. Here are some of the popular choices…
Popular pre-packaged meal replacement shakes
- Soylent Drink
- Ideal Protein
Popular homemade meal replacement shakes
- Custom protein shakes
- Custom smoothies
- Bulletproof Coffee
Meal replacement is a 12 billion dollar market and still growing as manufacturers promise more nutrition, better taste, and more convenience than ever before. The lists above represent a small fraction of the options as new products are popping up every single year.
Are meal replacement shakes healthy?
What you need to know before consuming meal replacement shakes is whether it’s safe to replace regular meals with them.
In other words:
- Do meal replacement shakes provide an adequate amount of calories?
- Do meal replacement shakes provide adequate micro nutrition?
- Do meal replacement shakes contain harmful ingredients that toxify the body? Are they safe?
These are tough questions to answer because there are so many different options to choose from. Once you understand some basic principles, though, you’ll be empowered to make your own assessments.
Do meal replacement shakes provide an adequate amount of calories?
The human body needs a sustained, adequate calorie intake in order to be healthy. This is why so many people run into health issues when following diets that promote severe calorie restriction.
Meal replacement shakes are often designed for calorie restriction because most people aren’t buying meal replacement shakes for health benefits, they’re buying them for weight loss.
The conventional dieting model says, “if you want to lose weight, you just need to eat less calories.” Thus, meal replacement shakes tend to toe that line.
Weight loss is a much more complicated topic than just “calories in, calories out,” of course. Make sure you understand that before making a decision on whether or not to include meal replacement shakes.
To answer the question about adequate calories, I selected three popular meal replacement shakes at random.
Soylent’s meal replacement shake has 400 calories per serving (14oz) or 28.5 calories per ounce…
Herbalife’s meal replacement shake clocks in at 190 calories in 8.5 ounces (22.35 cal/ounce) when using the recommended 8.5 ounces of non-fat milk (not recommended by us, of course)…
Isagenix’s IsaLean meal replacement shake has 240 calories per packet. Assuming you’re mixing that with 8 ounces of water, that’s 30 calories per ounce…
As meal replacement shakes, these are definitely not providing a ton of calories. That’s fine as long as you’re meeting your calorie needs at your other meals.
We certainly wouldn’t recommend replacing all three meals with shakes like this. Even if you replace two meals with these shakes and eat 1000 calories at your third meal, you’ll only be taking in 1276 calories on average. That’s far too low for most people and certainly unsustainable.
Keep in mind that the number of calories you consume at any given meal is irrelevant. What matters is consumption over time and the context of that consumption. For example, intermittent fasting can be quite beneficial, yet results in zero calorie consumption.
These shakes do not provide adequate calories if you replace two or more meals per day and eat a standard-size third meal.
Do meal replacement shakes provide adequate micro-nutrition?
Using the same three random shake samples as examples, we can also look at the micro-nutrition these shakes are providing.
Vitamins and minerals are examples of micronutrients. These are nutrients that your body needs at the cellular level for proper functioning and long-term health.
Right off the bat we know that heavily processed foods like meal replacement shakes get their nutrition from synthetic vitamins. Without the addition of these synthetic vitamins, the shakes would have very little nutrition or be devoid of nutrition altogether.
The jury is still out when it comes to the safety and efficacy of synthetic vitamins. Recent research is claiming that isolated synthetic vitamins, such as Vitamin B, are linked to adverse health outcomes like lung cancer.
So, the nutrition you’re getting from these shakes is not natural and could have potential consequences. With that said, let’s do a quick comparison of the micronutrient content of the Soylent Drink versus 100 calories less of kale (percentages are IU – percent of daily value)…
Obviously, the kale blows the meal replacement shake out of the water in terms of nutrition per calorie.
Maybe kale isn’t your thing? That’s okay, there is a laundry list of real foods that beat out these meal replacement shakes without much effort.
Are meal replacement shakes safe?
Consuming lots of preservatives, additives, and nasty ingredients isn’t a good idea over the long haul. In order to answer the “is it safe” question, we have to dig into the ingredients part of the nutrition facts panel.
I can’t possibly do this for every single meal replacement shake so I’m going to stick with the Soylent Drink as our example…
A quick look reveals some problematic ingredients: Maltodextrin, soy protein, canola oil, soy lecithin, gellan gum, and sucralose.
While none of these things will harm you every so often, including them in your diet to the extent of meal replacement is a huge issue.
Keep in mind that Soylent isn’t the worst offender by far. And for fairness, there are certainly options that are much better.
Are meal replacement shakes good for weight loss?
We have arrived at the million dollar question: are meal replacement shakes good for weight loss?
Here is the best – and what I believe the most responsible – answer I can give you…
While I always recommend whole foods, a homemade meal replacement shake can be responsibly included in your eating practice for the purpose of sustainable weight loss.
Not only will this help reduce caloric intake at one meal each day, but you can make sure it provides adequate nutrition as well.
Another reason it’s a good option is the consistency factor. Because it’s fast and easy to make, you’re more likely to stick with it.
I do not recommend using processed, pre-made meal replacement shakes, nor do I recommend replacing more than one meal each day with any meal replacement shake.
I also don’t recommend using meal replacement shakes in the context of a crash diet for rapid weight loss.
Of course, looking great and feeling great for the rest of your life is dependent on many factors. You should make sure that your diet and lifestyle are on point by ditching dieting and following a sustainable, practical program like Total Body Reboot.
Founder of Rebooted Body and host of The Rebooted Body Podcast. Kevin helps men and women finally get a body and life they love with his unique blend of real food, functional movement, and psychology. To work with him personally, choose a program.