Meal Replacements

 

More and more people are becoming health buffs lately. So, it’s no wonder that meal replacements in the form of bars and shakes are available in different varieties everywhere. There are entire aisles dedicated to them in almost every store where you can buy food. Why should you consider trying out meal replacements? What are the benefits that it could do for your body and your fitness? And of course, more importantly, is it really something that’s healthy and won’t make you sick in the long run?

What are meal replacements?

Meal replacements are drinks or foods that you can eat as an alternative to a full meal or rather, part of it. They have a set amount of calories and nutrients that are conducive for the diet of those looking to keep fit without having to undergo the dizzying process of figuring out how many calories are in their meals. Since there are so many dieting fads lately, meal replacements now comes in gluten-free and lactose-free forms. Some brands even offer products that taste like real meals or with additional probiotics, macronutrients, and micronutrients. The most common types of meal replacements come in the form of bars and shakes, but there are also pre-packaged meals and powders that can be considered as such.

Here are some examples: Huel vs. MyProtein Whole Fuel

When did meal replacements become so popular?

With an industry that’s worth $3 billion annually in the United States alone, it’s blatantly obvious as to why there are just so many companies that are eager to jump into the bandwagon. It all began in 1970s when patients who are unable to consume solid food in hospitals and nursing facilities were provided with “nutrition in a can.”

Ross Laboratories introduced Ensure, a meal replacement drink, in 1973. By 1977, there was an ongoing problem with obesity in the United States, which sparked the production of SlimFast to help with losing weight. This was the beginning of using meal replacements for fitness.

Oprah Winfrey is one of the most famous people who is a firm believer of using meal replacements for weight loss. In 1988, she went live on her TV show with a wagon filled with a 67-pound glob of fat to showcase the amount of weight she lost with her Optifast plan. Since then, more and more brands have been dominating the market, with smaller, home-grown brands offering organic or alternative variants trying their luck with the meal replacement industry.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of meal replacements?

As with everything in this world, there’s a whole bunch of advantages and disadvantages in ingesting meal replacements. You could be doing it to lose weight for vanity purposes, while there are others who are required to take meal replacements for their health. Meal replacements may seem appealing to you because of the following reasons:

Advantages

  • Easy to prepare and consume, for meal replacement shakes and bars
  • No need to decide on what kind to eat, as there’s a myriad of flavors and variants available. Also, meal plans are already pre-packaged prior to being delivered.
  • Portions and calories are already prepared beforehand.
  • You’re compelled to follow healthy eating habits without going overboard with calories and unhealthy foods thanks to a balanced meal.
  • For diabetic patients, their blood glucose can be controlled and help lower the dosage of their medications
  • Great for maintaining a healthy weight
  • Meal replacements are great for those who just came from a major surgery or illness and may still not be able to consume solid or full meals
  • Doctors highly recommend meal replacements for patients who need help with losing weight and controlling their diabetes.
  • Portions are already prepared to hinder you from over-eating.
  • You can get access to forums or support groups dedicated to meal replacement programs of certain companies.

Still, not everyone can maximize the benefits of meal replacements. Sure, celebrities and famous folks may sing praises for a particular meal plan, but not everything will work for everyone. There’s no 100% guarantee that patients will really lose and keep the weight off or maintain an ideal blood glucose level.

Here are some things that you should look out for before trying meal replacements without supervision from a medical or health professional:

Disadvantages

  • Not all meal replacements in the market are 100% healthy and balanced. There are brands that are known to have too much calories or have a ton of sugar or unhealthy levels of fat in them.
  • For some people, meal replacements aren’t as filling as eating a whole, solid meal.
  • There’s still the temptation of “cheat days” despite having pre-packaged meals. It’s especially true if you’re someone who’s on a meal plan but end up on vacation or holiday where your meal replacements aren’t as accessible or as tempting.
  • If you want your plan to work for the long haul, you’re going to need to incorporate a healthy lifestyle, ample physical activity, and regular monitoring aside from taking your meal replacements.
  • Meal replacements can become boring. Some plans can become quite repetitive and the textures can be off-putting. Also, shakes still can’t do much in place of chewing food.
  • Even advanced meal replacements can’t provide the daily nutritional needs that your body requires.
  • Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are still a concern, as meal replacements don’t really offer complete nutritional requirements.
  • While your meals are already pre-planned and decided for you, there’s no blueprint on how to eat healthy that you can follow once you stop with the plan.
  • Meal replacements are expensive per serving, ranging from $4 to $10, depending on the company offering the plan.
  • If you have issues with your kidneys or liver, you may develop gallstones while taking in meal replacements due to quick weight loss.
  • Meal replacements are known to affect certain medications for diabetes because they can cause your blood sugar levels to drop quickly.

Using meal replacements for weight and diabetes management

Type 2 Diabetes patients are most likely to be either overweight or obese. One of the strategies that doctors and nutritionists push for is using meal replacements for patients who need to lose weight. They usually recommend shakes or protein bars that come in different formulas and provide nutritional needs that can help in lowering blood sugar levels and control the appetite. There have been studies wherein research showed that using meal replacements is good in kick starting weight loss compared to more traditional forms.

Diabetes patients are always asked by their doctors to lose weight in order to improve and maintain their blood sugar levels at an ideal level. The less that they weigh, the better their glucose levels are. Here’s how meal replacements can be helpful in keeping your weight and your blood sugar levels intact:

  • Some diabetes patients think that skipping breakfast can aid in their road to losing weight. However, it actually messes with the balance of their glucose levels throughout the day. By getting on a meal replacement plan, they can just easily drink a shake or chow down a protein bar to keep them satiated.
  • Thanks to busy schedules everywhere, eating normal lunches and dinners have become a luxury for some people. Meal skipping or irregular meal times will definitely wreak havoc on your system. If you’re on a tight schedule, meal replacements can be your best bet in maintaining a healthy glucose level and keeping your appetite calm.
  • Counting carbs can be a total headache to do. But it’s necessary if you want to maintain a healthy weight and ideal glucose levels. Consider taking meal replacements instead if you’re truly struggling to count your curbs and staying on track.

How should I choose meal replacements?

If you want to try out a meal replacement plan, or rather just to replace a meal or a snack within the day, it’s highly recommended that you approach a doctor or nutrition specialist so they can help you choose a plan that’s suited to your needs and wants. There are meal replacements that may provide too much of a certain nutrient or vitamin, and then be deficient in another. It’s also not unheard of for meal replacements to be loaded with too much calories and sugar, that you should just eat a chocolate bar instead. As a general rule of thumb, you should look for a meal replacement that contains the following per serving:

  • Each meal should have at least 190 to 260 calories, and 90 to 160 calories per snack.
  • 10 to 15g of protein
  • 5 to 10g of healthy and unsaturated fat.
  • 2g or less of saturated fat
  • Absolutely zero trans fat
  • Maximum of 300mg of sodium
  • 3 to 6g of fibre
  • At least 1/3 up to ½ of your daily vitamin and mineral requirements
  • Modified maltodextrin, aka a type of carb that is digested slowly by the body, which can aid in controlling blood glucose levels.

Carbohydrates contained within meal replacements can vary in amounts. That’s why it’s always better if you carefully read the nutrition facts of what you’re going to eat to check your carb intake and if you’re getting the nutrients that you need. Be wary of meal replacements that contain a lot of sugar as they are carbohydrates that won’t be completely digested by your system and can end up making you feel bloated.

If you’re a person who is allergic to either lactose or gluten, or you have strict religious requirements for your diet, carefully read the ingredients list of your meal replacement prior to purchasing.

How do I use meal replacements?

If your target is to lose weight, then meal replacements will be ample enough to be taken in place of one or two full meals daily. Some people tend to eat meal replacements for breakfast and/or lunch and end up eating a “real” meal during dinnertime. They can also eat meal replacement snacks should they feel hungry. Additionally, you may need to add something to your meal if you’re going to eat a meal replacement. For example, your lunch could be a meal replacement shake accompanied by a light salad or a serving of fruit so you can meet your nutritional needs for the day.

There are also some people who take meal replacements in addition to their normal meals to gain weight or to get back on track with eating solid meals after an illness or surgery.

For diabetic patients, it’s always best to consult a dietitian or an endocrinologist before trying out a meal replacement plan. You may need to check your blood glucose levels throughout the day to check your progress with the plan. Luckily, once you begin losing weight, your doctor may prescribe a lower dose of your medication or insulin injections.

What are the difference between meal replacement bars and shakes?

Protein/meal replacement bars are used for:

  • Weight loss by being eaten in place of junk food as snacks. Meal replacement snacks are generally healthier to ingest compared to the cheap snack or candy bars that you can find at the grocery stores.
  • The bars provide additional carbohydrates and protein for those who want to bulk up and build muscle. Meal replacement bars can also help in speedy recovery from working out.

Meal replacement shakes are useful for:

  • Replacing an entire meal within the day. Shakes have less calories compared to a major meal, helping with weight loss.

Both shakes and protein bars can be useful in helping aid in weight loss. Bars are used as snacks, and shakes are used as total replacements. Although some plans incorporate the two together for more effective results. Meal replacements can also come in the form of soups and light snacks, which you have probably seen at a health food store near you. Always remember that you should check the labels before buying a meal replacement without your doctor’s guidance. Not all plans will help you lose weight or cater to your needs.

What is the typical breakdown of nutrients in meal replacements?

Most meal replacement products are created with powdered skim milk, with the exception of lactose-free variants that are made with alternative ingredients. They are also more likely to be jam-packed with protein and fiber to keep you satiated for a few hours. However, this isn’t always the case with some meal replacement plans, but that’s just a general breakdown of the healthier products out there.

Do meal replacements have the daily nutritional needs that my body requires?

Meal replacements vary when it comes to nutritional provisions. Some plans may be high in one nutrient and then low in another. You are still at risk of getting deficiencies in your diet if you 100% rely on meal replacements for your daily sustenance. Your doctor should be made aware of your diet if you’re planning on undergoing a full meal replacement plan so they can provide prescriptions for additional supplements that you can take. A majority of meal replacement plans still require additional full meals at least once per day to help combat problems such as constipation and possible dehydration. For example, a plan may have a total meal replacement package prepared for your whole day but instructions would still recommend for you to eat snacks such as fruits and vegetables, and yogurt, plus a set amount of water to keep your body functioning properly.

Never ever go for a total meal replacement plan without supervision and recommendation from your doctor. Once you’ve reached your goal weight, you will eventually have to be re-introduced to eating full solid meals, with dietary advice from a professional.

Are meal replacements safe for my body?

While meal replacements are deemed to be safe and highly effective for up to five years, they’re still not the kind of thing that your body should rely on forever. They’re still what dieticians and doctors would recommend for weight loss, as they’re much more effective compared to other meal-based plans out there.

After your five years of relying on meal replacement meals are up, you would have to gradually transition into eating healthy and well-balanced solid meals, plus a regular exercise regimen to maintain your weight.

How long should I store/keep them? Where can I get meal replacements?

Each meal replacement is manufactured differently, but they usually expire after around three to twelve months. Aside from special orders, you can find some mainstream meal replacement shakes and bars being sold at supermarkets and health food stores.

Who should and shouldn’t be taking meal replacements?

Meal replacements can be really helpful if you’re one of the following:

  • You’re too busy to prepare healthy food for yourself at home.
  • You have issues with binge eating and would like to live a healthier lifestyle
  • Your doctor has instructed you to lose weight for the betterment of your health or prior to a major surgical procedure.

Meal replacement plans are a bad idea if you are:

  • Someone with a body mass index of less than 25
  • Have a prior history with an eating disorder
  • Pregnant or currently breastfeeding
  • A teenager or a child, unless highly recommended and supervised by a medical professional
  • Someone with live or kidney issues
  • A diabetes patient who wants to self-medicate. Your doctor should be the one to recommend and supervise a proper meal replacement plan for you
  • You have intolerance or allergy to things such as lactose or gluten. Not all meal replacement plans are safe for you to ingest.

Are complete meal replacements reliable and openly available?

They can be quite reliable if done properly and under the supervision of a health professional. Complete meal replacement programs are also known as VLCDs (Very Low Calorie Diets.) All meals for the day will be replaced with shakes, bars, or soups. These plans work by limiting your body’s intake of carbohydrates to force your body to burn stored fat to keep your energy going. This is called “ketosis” and is highly effective in curbing your appetite without risking the loss of muscle mass.

VLCDs are only recommended for those who are highly overweight or obese patients. These plans have complete nutritional requirements, provide energy, and result in quick weight loss of around 2 to 3 kilograms each week. However, it is deemed ineffective if it’s not done along with lifestyle and activity changes.

Patients under VLCDs experience side effects during the first few days of the plan. These effects include headaches, nausea, fatigue, diarrhea, irritability, hunger, lack of focus, chills, and halitosis.

This type of complete meal replacement plans need to be closely monitored by your doctor or dietitian. You’ll be asked to undergo regular check-ups, adjustments to your medications, constant blood tests, and if need be, mental health counseling to help you cope with unexpected side effects.

Can I put my child on a meal replacement plan?

Obesity is an ongoing epidemic happening to children everywhere, especially in Western countries. While seeing a chubby kid can be quite heartwarming, realizing that with their heavier weight comes heavier health problems, you’d start to worry. Being overweight can lead a kid to suffer from hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, joint pain, and depression as a result of body image issues or bullying because of their weight. In the long run, they may also suffer from joint pain or worse, cancer.

A couple of decades ago, kids aren’t as overweight or as obese as they are today. Not a lot of junk food was available in markets, kids were encouraged to play outdoors on a daily basis, and they walked more steps as not everyone could afford cars back then. But now, kids are nowhere to be found outside, as they’re most likely busy poring over their gadgets and gaming consoles from the comforts of their own home. Junk food is almost always readily available as well, plus walking isn’t as common as it should be.

If you have an overweight child in your midst, try to encourage them to become more active by taking them out, removing unhealthy junk food at home, and showing them a proper healthy lifestyle to hinder them from continuing with being unhealthy. It’s still up in the air if meal replacements plans are really effective in children, honestly.

If you’re opting for a meal replacement plan that you can easily buy at a supermarket, remember that these plans are designed for adults and are nor suitable for your kid’s system. It could be unhealthy for them as the nutritional needs of an adult are different from a child’s.

If you’re really keen on using shakes to help your kid lose weight and if you have the time, then by all means, go ahead and make it yourself. It’s much safer compared to blindly buying something from the supermarket. You’re 100% sure of what’s in your kid’s shake and you have full control of the portion sizes. Also, kids love smoothies, so it’s also a way of making them chug fruits and vegetables without them getting grossed out.

On the other hand, you can always approach a nutrition specialist to recommend a proper meal replacement plan that you can follow for your child. They are professionals and they know what’s best to help in aiding the weight loss of a kid. As much as possible, avoid using body shaming and scare tactics to “force” your child to lose weight, as it could lead to psychological issues in the future.

Once you have your kid on a proper meal replacement plan, you should also do your job as a parent and encourage them everyday. Teach them to make wise choices when it comes to the food that they’re eating and the activities that they’re doing. Any kind of diet plan won’t help if you don’t encourage and motivate your child.

Are there other things that I should know about before starting a meal replacement plan?

Meal replacement plans are your best bet if you really need to lose weight quickly for medical purposes

Meal replacement plans are a healthier option compared to crash dieting. It’s not unheard of for doctors to give deadlines to patients to lose weight prior to a major surgical procedure. Some surgeries such as hip replacements require patients to lose a certain amount of target weight before if can be done. That’s why some people get motivated to follow these meal replacement plans in order to improve their lives.

You get to plan your meals and become compelled to follow and eat healthier

Meal replacement plans don’t necessarily require you to replace every meal, everyday. You can lose weight by simply ingesting a shake for lunch or breakfast instead of a full meal. You can plan accordingly by choosing which meal to replace and then writing up a plan on what you should east for the rest of the day. You should always do this in advance so you can go to the grocery to purchase all the ingredients that you need and you won’t get tempted to segue from your original schedule.

You are kept in check by supportive people on the same plan as you

And yes, they will hold you accountable for your actions. This is especially true if you’re on a mainstream meal replacement plan. Companies will give you access to their social media group or put you in touch with a local team if you purchase their program. If you’re lucky, you can even get a personal coach just by getting on a meal replacement plan. This is very helpful in maintaining your weight loss and promoting a sense of camaraderie amongst likeminded folks.

Meal replacement products are not regulated by the FDA

Now, don’t be alarmed. The main reason why they aren’t regulated is because what they have on the label isn’t exactly the same things that the product actually has. That’s why if you’re on medication, it’s best to consult your doctor first before going on a meal replacement plan. You can contact your doctor to find out the programs that are safe and recognized by proper health organizations to be on the safe side.

Don’t rely on meal replacement plans to be something that you can live off of forever

The recommended duration of being on meal replacement is a maximum of five years. And yes, things could get pretty expensive and difficult to maintain. Additionally, these diets aren’t always nutritionally appropriate for your body because as you age, your nutritional needs will also change.

Use meal replacements intermittently

Don’t use these products for every single meal unless your doctor put you on a VLCD plan. Only choose to replace one meal per day, and ensuring that your other meals through the day are healthy and balanced. It’ll be easier to wean yourself off of meal replacement plans properly if you do it with a balanced diet and by making healthier choices.

Incorporate working out with your meal replacements

Your weight loss journey won’t succeed if you don’t make exercise a part of it. You have the freedom to choose what fitness regime to do, just make sure that you have more or less three hours of fitness activity per week. No need to do high intensity interval training. Just pick something that you enjoy—swimming, running, weightlifting, etc. The sky’s the limit! You’ll realize that you’ll be losing weight much faster if you’re active while on your meal replacement plan.

Think about the future

As stated above, meal replacement plans shouldn’t be your forever regimen. You need to have a plan that you can follow once you’re done with your program. Some people end up bouncing back to their old weight because they have no idea what to do right after. It’s better to consult your doctor once you’re finished so they can help you wean and continue with doing healthy lifestyle choices, therefore maintaining everything that you’ve worked hard for.

Conclusion

Meal replacement plans are safe and effective in helping your lose weight. However, it is still highly recommended for you to start a discussion with your doctor prior to beginning a program so you can find out what’s best for you and your condition. You will always get the best results when you consult a professional before doing anything. It’s a “too good to be true” kind of diet, but it’s been proven to be helpful and one of the easiest options out there.