The meal replacement shake movement was popularized in the 1980s and 1990s with the introduction of shakes like SlimFast, which promised to help people lose weight by replacing one or two meals a day with a shake. Meal replacement shakes do offer a convenient, portable way to get your nutrition on the go, and they are a lifesaver for people who aren’t sure how or what to cook in order to create a healthy meal. The best tasting meal replacement shakes for weight loss are nutrient-dense and have ingredients that you can pronounce, but there are many other qualities that you should also be looking for in a meal replacement shake. They even come in yummy flavors like vanilla bean. So, what is a meal replacement shake and what should you look for in a meal replacement shake if you’re hoping to lose weight?
What is a Meal Replacement Shake?
Meal replacement shakes, in theory, are exactly what they sound like – the nutrition of an entire meal served in the form of a shake. Meal replacement shakes are sometimes lumped in with other types of shakes that are meant to be taken as a supplement pre- or post-workout, but the main difference between these shakes is the number of calories. Most meal replacement drinks are high protein, keto-friendly, contain between 200-400 calories, while shakes that are not geared towards weight loss might be much higher in sugar and have more or fewer calories, depending on their intended purpose. Protein shakes are a popular option for meal replacement shakes, but in order for protein shakes to serve as a true replacement, they should be on the upper end of the caloric range. Consider pea protein, milk protein, a protein blend, or whey protein. After all, when was the last time you ate a meal that was just 200 to 300 calories? Meal replacement shakes are designed to meet the nutritional requirements of a full meal and contain enough protein, carbs, and fat, as well as dietary fiber and essential vitamins, minerals, probiotics, micronutrients, and macronutrients. 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 and meet your daily value.
What Qualities Will a Great Meal Replacement Shake Have?
When you start looking for a meal replacement shake, there are three major qualities you should keep in mind as you read the labels. A great meal replacement shake will:
- Keep you feeling full: The worst part of trying to lose weight is constantly feeling hungry, right? If it seems hard to believe that a shake could keep you feeling satiety and feeling satisfied, you’ll be surprised to know that the right meal replacement shake can do both. A great meal replacement shake should contain multiple sources of protein, the nine essential amino acids, and enough whole food superfoods to provide a nutritional boost throughout the day. Staying full means you’ll be less tempted to snack, so this quality is critical.
- Contain no added sugar: One of the biggest problems with the majority of the meal replacement shakes on the market is that they are packed with added sugar to make them taste better. The problem is that added sugar can sabotage your weight loss goals! The average meal replacement shake contains the same amount of added sugar as a candy bar. When choosing a meal replacement weight loss shake for weight loss, look for shakes that only have natural sugar from ingredients like cacao, stevia, or fruit and skip the added sugar entirely like you would in a keto diet.
- Feature low carbs and plenty of protein: While there’s no reason to completely cut our real foods like carbs out of your low calorie diet, we know that protein keeps our bodies feeling full longer than carbohydrates because it takes longer to digest. Protein also helps fuel our muscles for workouts. Therefore, look for protein meal replacement shakes that don’t contain fillers or extra carbohydrates, which will help make them naturally lower carb.
What Meal Replacement Shake Ingredients Should You Avoid?
Remember, not all meal replacement shakes are created equal. You might find a product that claims to be a meal replacement shake but doesn’t contain enough calories, or a shake that has more added sugar than a candy bar and no nutrients. When looking to add a meal replacement shake for weight loss, be sure to read the labels and try to avoid the following unhealthy ingredients:
- Added sugar: If meal replacement shakes have sugar in them, it’s best if it comes from natural sources, like cacao and fruit. As a general rule of thumb, if there is more sugar in the shake than grams of protein, don’t purchase it. Make sure to take note of the total number of grams of sugar, because even if it’s natural, it can still be excessive.
- Corn syrup: Along those same lines, sweeteners like corn syrup are another ingredient to avoid. High fructose corn syrup is even more potent than sugar, so drinking this in your meal replacement shake is more like drinking a dessert than eating a meal.
- Hydrogenated vegetable oils: Un- healthy fats like hydrogenated vegetable oils can contribute to chronic inflammation and put you at an increased risk of cardiac disease. You’re trying to lose weight to be healthier, so don’t throw it away by purchasing a shake that can contribute to heart damage.
- Thickeners and preservatives: Many meal replacement shakes use artificial thickeners and preservatives to make the formula more palatable and extend the shelf life of the product. In addition to being artificial, thickeners like maltodextrin also have a high glycemic index and can cause blood sugar spikes and crashes. Ironically, maltodextrin has also been linked to weight gain, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid by using a meal replacement shake, right? Steer clear.
- Color and artificial flavor enhancers: A sugar free meal replacement shake might sound like a healthier alternative, but if it’s packed with artificial sugar substitutes like aspartame and sucralose, put it back on the shelf. These artificial sweeteners are used to enhance flavor such as a fake peanut butter flavor, but they’re highly inflammatory and can be damaging to your gut health. If you can’t pronounce all of the shake’s ingredients, don’t buy it.
Speak with your dietitian or health care provider about this type of weight loss program with good tasting meal replacement milkshakes or smoothies and if it is a good fit for your health.
WHEN TO TAKE MEAL REPLACEMENT SHAKES
When it comes to weight loss and leading a healthy lifestyle, timing is everything. You work hard to maintain a strict routine centered around diet, exercise, work, and sleep, and it all hangs in the balance when you’re first figuring things out.
That’s why you need to be cautious about when you take your meal replacement shakes since they will affect your body differently depending on the time of day.
Breakfast, for example, is considered the most important meal of the day, but it is the right time to take a meal replacement shake? For many people, those first few hours of the day are extremely hectic, and a quick shake can be the perfect solution to getting nutrients in a fast and efficient manner.
When it comes time for lunch, we tend to reach for the most convenient and calorie-packed option available, whether it’s a deli sandwich or carb-heavy plate from the local food truck.
A shake may not be the most delicious mid-day meal, but it’s going to keep you satisfied throughout the afternoon without weighing you down or impacting your performance.
You can always pack a bag of crunchy veggies or nuts to add some volume to your lunchtime shake, and enjoy your meal without running the risk of a major energy crash or calorie bomb.
The next best time to take a meal replacement shake is prior to a workout, when you may need an extra boost of energy to get you through that tough training session.
A few hundred calories of balanced macronutrients are all you need to fuel your workout, whether it’s a weight-training routine, dance class, or hot yoga session.
We all know the low-energy feeling of trying to work out on an empty stomach, and it’s just as bad when you’re overloaded with a full meal. A small shake is the perfect compromise of healthy protein, fats, and carbs to promote peak performance.
Once your workout is over, you’re going to feel drained of energy and ready to replenish your fuel tank. A post-workout shake is one of the most common habits in the fitness world, and scientists suggest it has real health benefits, as well.
At the end of a workout, your muscles are depleted and need to be repaired quickly. By drinking a shake soon after, you’ll ensure a speedy recovery and combat soreness so you can get back in the gym the next day.
MEAL REPLACEMENT SHAKES VS. REAL FOOD
There’s no denying the convenience and simplicity of a meal replacement shake, but you can’t expect to lead a healthy lifestyle without real, whole foods as the key component of your diet.
Even the top researchers in the weight loss community say that you should only take two shakes per day if you’re trying to slim down, and consume the rest of your calories from meals that you prepare in the kitchen.
The main reason for this recommendation is the fact that real food tends to be more satiating and satisfying to eat. The dense textures of meat, complex carbs, and healthy fats are going to keep you full for a long time and reduce the likelihood that you’ll want to snack.
Additionally, the nutrient quality found in real food is often more concentrated and sustainable, even when compared to the best meal replacement shakes on the market.
Provided you stay away from the sugar, grease, and salt at dinnertime, your evening meal will give you most of the nutritional value for your entire day. Meal replacement shakes will simply help you navigate the rest of your diet without added complexity or uncertainty.
The key takeaway is to recognize the value of meal replacement shakes and use them when necessary, but remember to make healthy food the main staple of your diet.
If you’re ever in a pinch and need a quick caloric boost on the fly, a meal replacement shake can be your savior, but don’t make these shakes the primary focus.
Like all aspects of health and fitness, the way you use meal replacement shakes will depend on your specific goals, your schedule, and the way your body metabolizes nutrients for energy.
Some folks find that a shake serves them best first thing in the morning, while others prefer to skip breakfast entirely and take their shake in the afternoon after an extended fast.
With a bit of safe experimentation and the support of a knowledgeable trainer, you can find the ideal regimen that accelerates your weight loss results.