By Jill Levy
In a perfect world, we would all have enough time each day to prepare homemade healthy meals. But given how busy most people are, it’s not surprising that meal replacement shakes, bars and snacks have exponentially grown in popularity.
Time isn’t the only barrier keeping some adults from preparing and enjoying fresh foods; older adults and other people can sometimes lack the appetite necessary to eat enough calories to fuel their bodies.
Additionally, some view meal replacement products as a go-to for healthy weight management with minimal time and effort required.
If you fall into either of these categories, you may be wondering how meal replacements can impact your health. In this article we’ll cover what you need to know about the pros and cons of different meal replacement shakes, plus ingredients to look for and those to avoid.
Of course, you should always consult your healthcare professional prior to embarking on any dietary or lifestyle program, including meal replacements.
What Is A Meal Replacement Shake?
Meal replacement shakes are usually bottled products or powders that you drink in place of a regular meal.
Some people use meal replacement shakes for healthy weight management because they can make it easier to either decrease or increase caloric intake.
Meal replacement shakes are also used to supply a quick and concentrated dose of important micronutrients or to save time in a pinch, for example if someone is traveling.
In general, most meal replacement shakes provide around 200 to 400 calories per serving along with an array of other nutrients, including protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals (depending on the specific kind).
In addition to weight-focused shakes, pre-made snacks like bars and juices can also be useful for keeping you feeling satisfied between meals.
Benefits of health-focused meal replacement shakes (as opposed to those made with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils) can include:
- Providing important nutrients, such as protein and vitamins/minerals
- Supporting a healthy body weight/weight management
- Providing an alternative to less healthy options, such as sugary drinks
- Reducing cravings and mindless snacking
- Helping to support healthy blood sugar levels (already in the normal range)
- Giving you some energy before or after a workout, which can support performance and recovery
1. Provides Important Nutrients
Adding a few meal replacement smoothies into your routine can be a simple way to get the nutrients that you need to help round out an otherwise healthy, well-balanced diet.
This may be especially helpful when cutting calories and reducing your food intake on a weight management diet. The best meal replacement shakes offer a wealth of essential nutrients, including protein, fiber, various vitamins and minerals, and sometimes probiotics that you may be missing.
Some may also be enriched with nutrients that are often lacking in a traditional Western diet, including calcium, vitamin D, iron and potassium.
2. Can Help Support Healthy Weight Management
Swapping out even just one meal per day for a healthy meal replacement smoothie, such as for breakfast, may be able to help support healthy weight management.
Meal replacements are also often high in protein and fiber, both of which are important for controlling your appetite. Protein, for example, can delay the emptying of the stomach to keep you feeling full and reduce levels of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for stimulating hunger.
Fiber, meanwhile, moves slowly through the digestive tract to promote satiety and may even be associated with proper weight management.
On the other hand, meal replacement shakes may also work as a good tool if you’re hoping to maintain a healthy weight as well. For older adults or those with decreased appetite, enjoying a meal replacement shake can be an easy and effective way to bump up caloric intake and support a healthy weight without loading up on high-calorie junk food.
3. An Alternative to Sugary Drinks
When you’re running short on time or low on energy, taking the time to prepare a healthy and nutritious meal may be the last thing on your mind. Instead, most people give into the temptation of swinging through a drive-thru, ordering a pizza or grabbing whatever junk food is sitting in the fridge for a quick food fix on the go.
Having a few high-quality meal replacement protein shakes on hand can be a simple strategy to avoid these unhealthy alternatives and avoid setbacks to stay on track with your health goals.
4. Can Help Keep Hunger and Cravings In Check
Keeping portion sizes and mindless snacking under control is one of the key components of successful and sustainable weight management.
Meal replacements make it easy to monitor your portion sizes, getting just enough of the nutrients that you need to support satiety and keep you feeling full between meals without going overboard.
5. Supports Healthy Blood Sugar Levels (already in the normal range)
Because meal replacement shakes are pre-portioned, they help deliver just the right amount of carbohydrates to help deter spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels. They’re also usually high in protein, which can slow the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream and promote blood sugar balance.
Choosing the right product is critical if you want to benefit from a meal replacement.
While certain types can deliver nutrition quickly and conveniently, other products are pumped full of fillers, added sugars and unwanted ingredients that can end up doing more harm than good.
When shopping for shakes, take a look at the ingredients label and read carefully. The best protein shakes should:
- Be free of high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil and added sugars
- Contain a good amount of protein and fiber — with around 15-20 grams of protein and 3-5 grams of fiber per serving — plus at least 33 percent of the daily value for most vitamins and minerals
- Not contain over 10 grams of sugar or a long list of chemicals and synthetic additives listed on the label
- Be made with whole food ingredients such as nuts, seeds, veggies and herbs
In addition, you can also try making your own homemade shakes at home. There are plenty of shakes recipes out there, making it easy to find one that works for you. Experiment with using ingredients like whey protein, protein powder made from bone broth, Greek yogurt, fruit, leafy greens, collagen, almond milk.
There are now even keto protein powders that are higher in performance fats, as well as contain protein, and help offer a boost or snack for those following the keto diet. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you can use newer plant-based proteins like seed protein, pea protein or hemp protein powder.
For most people following a balanced diet, Ancient Nutrition’s Bone Broth Protein Max is our top pick for a tasty, satisfying shake or snack.
- Providing 20 grams of protein from non-GMO, cage-free and cruelty-free sources raised without hormones, this filling protein powder can be enjoyed in multiple ways.
- Try it in your morning smoothie, added to your oatmeal, baked into cookies or pancakes, or used in many other recipes.
- It makes a great pre- or post-workout shake, plus it supports healthy joints and skin thanks to collagen type II, glucosamine, chondroitin, hyaluronic acid and 19 amino acids.
If you’re looking for a travel-friendly, satisfying bar, try Ancient Nutrition’s Bone Broth Protein Bar, a superfood bar containing balanced macronutrients to keep you satisfied. It’s made with bone broth protein concentrate and electrolyte minerals, along with nut butters to provide quality fats and protein to help fill you up.
If you’re following a low-carb diet, Ancient Nutrition’s Keto PROTEIN Chocolate supports the low-carb/keto diet and lifestyle in several ways, including:
- Featuring a macronutrient profile with an ideal ratio of fat-to-protein-to-carbs.
- Providing moderate amounts of caffeine from organic coffee fruit to support healthy energy levels.
- Featuring organic adaptogens for energy and performance while supporting a healthy response to stress.
Certain meal replacement shakes can actually be harmful to your health. In fact, many popular brands are highly processed and loaded with unwanted ingredients.
When checking the ingredients label of your meal replacement shake/bar, look out for these ingredients which you’ll want to avoid:
- Corn syrup
- Vegetable oils (canola oil, corn oil, etc.)
- Artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, etc.)
- Synthetic food dyes
- Added sugar (sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, etc.)
- Artificial flavors and colors
- Thickeners and preservatives. One of the most popular offenders, maltodextrin, is a favorite addition to many meal replacement shakes. Not only does it have a very high glycemic index and can cause blood sugar spikes.
- Additionally, skip any products that don’t offer at least 3 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein per serving. Ideally, meal replacement shakes should also provide at least 33 percent of the daily recommended value for important vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron and potassium.
Finally, keep in mind that meal replacements can be included in moderation as part of a healthy diet, but they should always be paired with plenty of whole foods to help ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs.
They may also not be a long-term solution and should be used alongside other behavioral modifications and lifestyle changes to optimize health in the long-run.
- Meal replacement shakes are typically nutrient-packed bottled products, powders or bars that are occasionally consumed in place of your main meals.Again, you should always consult with your healthcare professional prior to any dietary or lifestyle change.
- The best meal replacement shakes for healthy weight management and overall health should contain a good amount of fiber and protein as well as an assortment of important vitamins and minerals.
- When used correctly, meal replacement shakes could help supply important nutrients, aid in healthy weight management, promote healthy portion sizes and keep blood sugar stable. They can also help you avoid other unwanted alternatives such as sugary drinks.
- Steer clear of shakes and products with added sugars or artificial ingredients and opt for shakes made from nutritious whole foods instead.
- Keep in mind that meal replacement shakes should not be used as a replacement for real food, but instead should be viewed as a way to bolster your diet with important nutrients.
Jill Levy has been with the Dr. Axe and Ancient Nutrition team for five years. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology from Fairfield University, followed by a certification as a Holistic Health Coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Jill takes a “non-diet” approach to health and really enjoys teaching others about mindful eating, intuitive eating and the benefits of eating real foods.