If you’ve ever struggled to balance a busy lifestyle with the desire to lose weight and eat a more healthy, balanced diet, you probably understand the appeal of meal replacement shakes and protein bars. These convenient options are portable, nutritious, and easy to consume on the go, but not all shakes and bars are created equal as protein sources. Much confusion surrounds meal replacement shakes and what constitutes a nutritious option, and things get even more confusing when you start considering protein shakes. Many people find themselves wondering if protein shakes and meal replacement shakes are the same thing and begin to look to shakes and smoothies as an easy option for protein meal replacement. Let’s break down the differences between a protein shake and a meal replacement shake.
What Is a Protein Shake?
If the first thing you think of when you think of a protein shake is guys at the gym with bulging biceps chugging them post-workout, you’re not alone. Protein drinks are often associated with bodybuilding culture and the fitness industry, but they have many other more mainstream uses. Protein shakes can help people lose weight, recover from injury, and of course, gain muscle, but what are they exactly? Protein shakes are considered a dietary supplement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the FDA, dietary supplements are products that are designed to deliver a specific dietary ingredient, such as amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and herbs. Protein shakes supply amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Keeping the FDA’s definition of a dietary supplement in mind, it’s important to recognize that protein shakes are designed specifically for the delivery of amino acids/protein intake and not other ingredients or nutrients. This is what differentiates them from meal replacement shakes. However, that doesn’t mean that meal replacement shakes can’t be high in protein – in fact, the best ones usually are. However, not all protein shakes are created equal.
What Is a Meal Replacement Shake?
Unlike protein shakes, which are dietary supplements that specifically deliver amino acids and protein to the body, meal replacement shakes are designed to provide the complete nutritional daily value of a full meal, including carbohydrates, protein, fat, and vitamins and minerals. However, one thing that meal replacement shakes and protein shakes have in common is that they are traditionally high protein because protein serves as the building block of the muscles and helps keep you fuller longer. High protein meal replacement shakes typically contain between 200 and 400 calories, and some are keto-friendly, gluten-free, lactose-free, vegan, and include probiotics. In order for a high protein shake to serve as a true meal replacement drink, it should be on the upper end of the caloric range and provide the vitamins and minerals a normal meal would include. To meet the nutritional requirements of a full meal, a meal replacement shake should contain a healthy amount of protein, carbs, and fat, as well as fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. While protein shakes can be meal replacement shakes, it’s important to look at the ingredients and nutritional information to ensure that you are getting what you need before you get ready to drink. As a good rule of thumb, a true meal replacement shake should include between 20 and 30 grams of protein powder and at least 10 grams of fiber, which helps you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer which can go a long way for weight management.
What Ingredients Should I Avoid?
In order to find a protein shake that can serve as a true meal replacement, you will have to do your research. Protein shakes are very popular, which means that companies are coming out of the woodwork to jump on the trend. It’s possible to find a protein shake that can serve as a meal replacement, but you can also end up with shakes overloaded with sugar and other unhealthy ingredients that dietitians don’t like to see. When looking for a low-fat protein shake to use as a meal replacement shake, try to avoid the following unhealthy ingredients:
- Corn syrup: If your shake contains high fructose corn syrup, steer clear. This sweetener quickly turns your protein shake from a meal replacement into a milkshake, which will not help you achieve your goals.
- Excess added sugar: Lots of companies try to add extra sugar to their products in order to make them taste better. As a good rule of thumb, only buy shakes that have less sugar in them than protein. Make sure you take note of the total grams of sugar
- Thickeners and preservatives: Thickeners and preservatives, including commonly used ingredients like maltodextrin, have a high glycemic index that can cause major spikes and crashes in your blood sugar. Maltodextrin has even been linked to weight gain and autoimmune issues, which we’re pretty sure you want to avoid.
- Hydrogenated vegetable oils: Hydrogenated vegetable oils are a type of unhealthy fat that is linked to inflammation and can have damaging effects on your heart
- Color and artificial flavor enhancers: If your shake is using artificial sugar substitutes like aspartame and sucralose to enhance flavor, steer clear. These ingredients might make your shake taste good, but they’re highly inflammatory and are damaging to your gut health.
What Ingredients Should I Look for?
When you’re not sure what you should be looking for in terms of ingredients, try to stick with the best meal replacement shakes with ingredient lists that you can actually understand and pronounce. If a low-calorie shake’s ingredient list is full of a bunch of chemicals you’ve never heard of, it’s best to put the shake back on the shelf since it’s basically just as good as eating fast food. Your goal should be to shoot for a high-quality protein diet shake with natural ingredients in the following four categories, including:
- Healthy fats: Fat is an important macronutrient that helps keep you feeling full and satisfied. Choose shakes that get their fat from unsaturated fats, including coconut oil and sunflower oil, rather than trans fats or saturated fats.
- Digestible protein: Most protein shakes use either whey protein powder or soy protein. Regardless of which kind you choose, look for shakes that contain between 10 and 20 grams of digestible protein.
- Natural carbohydrates: Carbs get a bad rap sometimes, but they’re an important source of fuel for your body. Look for shakes that include whole-grain sources of natural carbohydrates, including brown rice, quinoa, and tapioca.