Meal replacement shakes can be a convenient way to get all the nutrients you need in one go, without the need to cook every day.
Switching some meals with a nutritionally balanced shake can also help save time and money for busy adults. They can also help with weight loss.
What are meal replacement shakes?
Even with our best efforts, it’s not always possible to prepare a fresh, balanced meal three times a day, every day.
However, if you’re trying to lose weight, eating out can also be a challenge. Picking up food on the go can mean negotiating your way around hidden sugars, salts, additives and unhealthy fats. While healthy food is available in some shops, cafes and restaurants – the cost can really mount up.
Further, the modern lifestyle can be a hectic one, and whether you’re travelling, working or caring for others, taking the stress out of a few mealtimes sounds like a tempting concept.
This is where meal replacement shakes come in.
Not to be confused with protein shakes, which just contain protein, meal replacement shakes offer a nutritionally complete ‘meal’ that’s ready in seconds and can be consumed on the go.
The good ones contain a balance of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, just as you’d get from a plate of whole foods.
Meal replacement shakes are sold in either powder form, from which you mix the drink yourself, or as complete ready-made drinks.
Many people use meal replacement shakes for weight loss, and there is plenty of evidence to back up the claim that they work.
The meal replacement products market is an emerging one – a global growth rate of over 8% was reported in 2019 – and more people are trying this way of augmenting their diets with shakes.1
How they work
It’s important to know that the best source of nutrition is always a healthy, balanced diet. A meal including fruit or vegetables, a protein source and whole grains is the gold standard for health and weight maintenance.
However, there are times when it’s simply not possible to prepare a fresh meal. You find yourself caught short and reaching for highly processed or fast food, sabotaging weight loss efforts. A meal replacement shake can stop this from happening.
Meal replacement shakes work by offering you the nutrients you need to feel full, without overloading you with calories.
You don’t have to worry so much about portion sizes and over-eating as with food-based meals. The dose is measured out for you, usually via the scoop size included with the powder. Dosages vary, as different powders come with different concentrations.
All good meal replacement shake powders are nutritionally complete and should include a balance of protein with fibre and vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, vitamin E, B vitamins and calcium. For weight loss, meal replacement shakes should be low in sugar.
In terms of base ingredients, meal replacement shakes can include soy protein, oats, ground chickpeas, maltodextrin (a starchy derivative of wheat, rice or corn) and flaxseed.
Instructions vary, but generally you add the powder to cold water or milk and shake by hand in a shaker bottle. Adding ice cubes thickens the shake without any extra calories – but if you add ice then you’d need to whizz it in a blender until smooth.
Will they help with weight loss?
The answer is yes – if used properly.
Some studies have shown that meal replacement shakes can help with weight loss.2 Not only this, research indicated meal replacements for weight loss might be able to produce better results than food-only weight loss diets.3
Meal replacement shakes are designed to help you get over-eating under control and encourage healthy choices, rather than a way to fix a bad diet. So, instead of seeing them as a magic bullet solution for being overweight, use meal replacement shakes as a way to augment a new healthy eating regime.
How much will I need?
You should only be replacing one or two meals per day with a shake.5
Any more than this and you risk missing out on the fibre you need to maintain a strong digestive system.
You should continue to eat balanced, whole foods for the 1-2 meals you aren’t supplementing with a shake. Ensure you’re eating high-fibre, low-fat, filling foods such as wholegrain rice, vegetables and beans.
You shouldn’t go hungry on meal replacement shakes, as this will lead you to over-eating and could sabotage your weight loss goals.
Shake mixes differ in concentration, so be sure to read the instructions for the correct dose. Taking too much will add extra calories to your diet – not what you want if your goal is weight loss.
How long to use them for
Although meal replacement shakes have generally been considered a short-term solution for weight loss, research shows that they have been successful at helping people lose weight in the longer term.6
A review of available research studies on the topic, published in Obesity Reviews in January 2019, found that people lost more weight when their weight-loss programme incorporated meal replacement shakes, compared to if they were on a weight-loss programme which didn’t include meal replacement shakes.7
How to wean off them
Once you have reached your goal weight, you should begin to rely less on weight loss meal replacement shakes.
Gradually introduce whole foods again for each meal. Try to include lots of protein, as your body will have got used to the satisfying effect of protein from the shakes. You can introduce more whole foods and smaller shake portions gradually, if you find yourself struggling to adjust.
Meal replacement shakes shouldn’t be used by anyone under the age of 18.
Last updated: 9 July 2020