Meal Replacement Shakes: What Ingredients to Look For

There are plenty of reasons why someone might be looking to replace a meal with a nutritious shake. After all, they’re portable, convenient, easy to consume in a hurry, and in theory, they’re nutritious, too. That last one is a big if, though. For people seeking to lose weight through meal replacement shakes or those who simply don’t have time to prepare and eat one of their meals during the day, meal replacement shakes can be a great option if you take the time to check the ingredients list and make sure you’re getting a high-quality, nutritious formula.

What is a meal replacement shake?

Generally speaking, a meal replacement shake is billed as providing the nutrition of a full meal in the form of a shake. The best meal replacement shake is going to be a great protein shake, which serve as a supplement and are often used post-workout to help build muscle, a meal replacement shake is exactly what it sounds like – something you can have instead of a meal. Most meal replacement shakes are high protein, keto-friendly, contain between 200-400 calories, and if you’re lucky you’ll find one that includes a probiotic. However, nutritionists and dietitians note that in order for protein shakes to serve as a true replacement, they should be on the upper end of the caloric range. After all, most people are not eating meals that are just 200 to 300 calories, even when they’re trying to lose weight. 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. In general, a true meal replacement shake should include between 20 and 30 grams of protein powder and at least 10 grams of fiber to help keep you feeling satisfied. 

How can a meal replacement shake help me lose weight?

It’s no secret that meal replacement shakes are better for you than fast food and can aid in weight loss. Meal replacement shakes can help you lose weight when used properly. Assuming you’re choosing a meal replacement shake with quality ingredients (which we’ll talk about in a minute), meal replacement shakes offer an excellent alternative to highly processed frozen meals for people with busy lifestyles who don’t have time to prepare the healthy meals they need to in order to lose weight. There’s no need to weigh and measure your food with a meal replacement shake or try to estimate your portions at a restaurant, which helps take the guesswork out of trying to count calories. The convenience may be one of the major reasons why meal replacement shakes can be such a valuable weight loss tool. Several studies have shown that people following a diet plan that included a meal replacement element lose more weight than those following a food-based reduced-calorie diet, and this may be because the plan is easier to stick to when you don’t have to prepare as many meals. 

What ingredients should I avoid?

You don’t want to go buying the first meal replacement shake you find on amazon. While there are lots of great meal replacement shakes out there, there are many that are basically sugar bombs masquerading as a healthy alternative. When looking to add a meal replacement shake to your weight loss plan, try to avoid the following unhealthy ingredients:

  • Excess added sugar: If there is more sugar in the shake than protein, put it back on the shelf. Make sure you take note of the total grams of sugar
  • Corn syrup: High fructose corn syrup gets a bad rap for a reason – it’s even worse than sugar. Shakes containing corn syrup are more like a milkshake than a meal.
  • Hydrogenated vegetable oils: These unhealthy fats are linked to inflammation and can have damaging effects on your heart
  • Thickeners and preservatives: Thickeners and preservatives like maltodextrin are not only artificial, they also have a high glycemic index and can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes. Maltodextrin has also been linked to weight gain and autoimmune issues – scary!
  • Color and artificial flavor enhancers: Artificial sugar substitutes like aspartame and sucralose are used to enhance flavor such as a fake peanut butter flavor, but they’re highly inflammatory and are damaging to your gut health.

What ingredients should I look for?

The first rule to follow when trying to decide which meal replacement shake to buy is to choose products with ingredients that you can actually pronounce. If a shake sounds like it’s made up of a bunch of chemicals, put it back on the shelf. Your goal should be to shoot for natural ingredients in the following four categories, including:

  • Natural carbohydrates: To make sure you have the energy to get through your day, including your workout, look for shakes that include whole-grain sources of natural carbohydrates, including brown rice, tapioca, and quinoa.
  • Healthy fats: Fat will help keep you feeling satisfied, but you’ll want to make sure it’s the right kind. Avoid trans fats and saturated fats and choose shakes that get their fat content from unsaturated fats, like sunflower oil and coconut oil.
  • Digestible protein: In order to keep you feeling full and give your muscles the fuel they need, look for shakes that contain between 10 and 20 grams of digestible protein. You can choose to use whey protein, which is dairy-based, or soy protein, which is a vegan alternative. 
  • Vitamins and Minerals: If you’re not getting your vitamins and minerals from food, they have to come from somewhere, right? Choose shakes that offer at least 33 percent of your daily value for calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamin D, at a minimum.

Non-GMO and gluten-free ingredients are a plus especially when it’s also low calorie and packed with amino acids.

What should I know before using meal replacement shakes?

If you are considering using meal replacement shakes, you should know that they’re not a substitute for eating whole foods. It’s recommended that meal replacement shakes be used no more than once or twice per week. When you do use a shake, consider adding a few veggies or a piece of fruit to help balance out your meal. Your body is best able to absorb nutrients when they come from real food, so don’t become reliant on meal replacement shakes. Meal replacement shakes also don’t teach you how to eat better or solve issues with unhealthy eating, so you’ll still need to learn how to prepare a balanced, healthy meal if you’re trying to lose weight. With that said, they’re still a great option if you need something healthy to eat on the go every once in a while.