When I think of a meal replacement, I think of drinking a smoothie, munching on a protein bar, or mixing a powder into some type of liquid. The FDA hasn’t actually defined the term “meal replacement,” and even though there aren’t specific laws regulating meal replacement products in the United States, they’re generally considered in the category of low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods or beverages used to replace a food meal.
Are Meal Replacements an Effective Tool for Weight Loss?
Good news…research has demonstrated using meal replacements for weight loss and weight maintenance among overweight and obese individuals is safe and effective, if implemented correctly. The goal of a meal replacement is to reduce the amount of calories you consume by offering a convenient alternative to a higher calorie meal. For example, if your typical breakfast is 500 calories and you replace it with a protein bar or protein shake containing 250 calories, you’ve cut 250 calories from your diet without much effort or deprivation. If this is done regularly, over the long-term, you will obviously lose weight.
When researchers compared a meal replacement weight loss program to other diets, the meal replacement resulted in greater weight loss, better compliance, higher satisfaction, lower drop-out rates, and was more likely to ensure adequate intake of essential nutrients.
However, I must add, if your weight problem is caused by uncontrolled overeating or emotional eating, losing weight via a meal replacement doesn’t address the core issue. What typically happens is, as soon as you come off the plan that’s working for you, you are likely to re-gain the weight and possibly add a few more pounds.
Meal Replacements and Protein Recommendations
When someone tries to lose weight, the goal is to lose fat and preserve as much muscle as possible. Muscle contributes to your resting metabolic rate and is important for keeping your weight off in the long-term.
Eating enough protein is crucial for preserving your muscle, particularly when a person’s daily calorie intake decreases, such as when using meal replacements. I suggest choosing a meal replacement that contains 20-25 grams of protein. Protein also improves your satiety (the feeling of being full after eating).
Safe and adequate recommendations for protein intake (you do the math):
|grams of protein per pound of body weight||grams of protein per kilogram of body weight|
|Recreational exerciser, adult:||0.5 – 0.7||0.8 – 1.5|
|Endurance athlete, adult:||0.6 – 0.7||1.2 – 1.6|
|Adult building muscle mass:||0.7 – 0.8||1.5 – 1.7|
|Athlete restricting calories:||0.8 – 0.9||1.8 – 2.0|
Shift Your Carbohydrate-Protein Ratio
A meal replacement higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates is important for weight loss. More protein and less carbohydrates means less insulin is released into the bloodstream. Insulin determines whether or not to store calories as fat, so by shifting the balance to protein, your body prefers fat loss. To learn more about this, read my blog called "Get Off the Blood Sugar Rollercoaster."
Meal Replacements and Fiber
Chose a meal replacement with some fiber. People who eat high fiber diets are less likely to gain weight because fiber helps curb your appetite and supports bowel regularity. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, men under 50 need 38 grams of fiber each day and women need 25 grams. Adults over 50 require less fiber (30 grams for guys and 21 grams for ladies) due to decreased calorie consumption.
Key Points to Consider When Choosing a Meal Replacement
1. Aim for a meal replacements between 200 – 400 calories.
2. Choose a meal replacements with 20 – 25 grams of protein per serving.
3. Choose a meal replacement with 3+ grams of fiber.
3. Be aware of meal replacement bars and shakes with a high sugar content.
4. Ingredients I suggest avoiding: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, soy protein, hydrogenated palm kernel oil (or any type of hydrogenated oil), maltodextrin, and acesulfame K.
5. If possible, choose an organic protein powder. If you like whey protein, using an organic brand ensures it doesn’t contain antibiotics, growth hormones, or genetically modified organisms (GMO’s).
Create Your Own Meal Replacement Drink
Before spending too much money on a meal replacement, consider getting out your high powered blender to create your own meal replacement concoction. Here are easy steps to follow to create your own:
!st: choose your base, such as cow’s milk, almond milk, coconut milk, coconut water, filtered water, etc. I like some full-fat coconut milk to add fat.
2nd: choose 1-2 greens, such as spinach, swiss chard, collards, beet greens, dandelion, etc.
3rd: choose a fruit such as any berries, mango, avocado, pear, peach, pineapple, grapes, apple, etc. Aim for 1/2 to 3/4 cups and not much more.
4th: add a scoop of your preferred protein powder!
Last: add anything you like to “supercharge” your drink, such as chia seeds, ground flaxseed, raw cacao powder, cinnamon, maca powder (or any superfood powder), vanilla extract, and nut butter.
If you need a sweetener, consider maple syrup, monk fruit, or honey.
I like to add ice to make the drink cold, and blend away. I suggest blending on high for 3+ minutes to ensures the consistency is very smooth.
How Long Should You Use a Meal Replacement?
If you’re using one meal replacement per day a person can continue indefinitely, as long as he/she monitors intake at other meals to maintain a well-balanced diet. If the plan is to utilize two or more meal replacements per day it is recommended you seek the advice of a clinical weight loss specialist (ie: registered dietitian nutritionist, medical doctor, naturopath, etc.).
My last piece of advice: I encourage you to surround your meal replacement with real food. By real food, I mean fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, meat, fish, eggs -- nutrient dense foods full of vitamins, mineral, fiber, monounsaturated fats, proteins, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and yet to be discovered compounds that likely have a positive impact on our health, wellness and fat loss efforts.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
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