Are Meal Replacement Shakes and Bars Healthy?

Looking to lose a few pounds? Wow, what a coincidence: us, too! And with the challenge of cutting back on calories always being a difficult one, the idea that a shake or a protein bar can replace a meal (or meals) is certainly enticing. The “juicing” phenomenon is hot right now, but the concept of this kind of meal replacement isn’t exactly new, either. Remember these commercials? The idea hasn’t changed since then, not really. You get to skip meals, cut back on calories, but avoid feeling hungry. And, of course, you’ll lose weight. What’s not to like?

Actually, there are some things not to like – or at least some things to be careful about.

First, though, the upside of bars and drinks as meal replacements:

A 2010 study did indeed show that obese participants who used meal replacements lost more weight over the course of a year than those who reduced calories without using the replacements. A study in 2003 showed similar results. That makes sense. Shakes typically have fewer calories than a full meal while still leaving you feeling full. So if you replace, say, one meal a day with a shake over enough time you’ll build up a calorie deficit big enough to produce gradual and consistent weight loss. So, yes, replacing meals with shakes or bars can indeed be an effective weight loss tool.

Meal replacement, however, doesn’t come without downsides:

Because shakes are classified as dietary supplements, the USDA doesn’t apply the same regulations to them as they do other foods. Meaning, for example, advertisements and marketing claims made do not have to be backed by scientific research. Accurate information can be hard to confirm. Which means it’s all the more important to try! Some meal replacement products do have genuine nutritional benefits, but others contain enough added sugar or fat that they may actually negatively impact your health.

With “juicing” becoming more and more popular, there is also worry about the effect that popularity will have on the mindsets of young people. Meal replacement is not something that should be done for every meal. Of all the meal replacement products available – and there are a lot – none of them are designed to provide total nutrition. Meal replacement shakes and bars simply can’t replace all the things that whole foods provide, things like antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other protective substances.

If you’re going to utilize shakes and/or bars as meal replacements (in moderation), here are some things to consider: Make sure whatever you go with has less than 5 grams of fat per serving, 220-230 calories per serving, 3-5 grams of fiber per serving, 10-15 grams of protein per serving, and is fortified with a third of daily vitamins and minerals. Also, for every meal you do replace with a shake or bar, make sure to supplement it with a few veggies, a piece of fresh fruit, or a can of vegetable juice.

But on the whole (apologies for the pun), whole foods are simply better and healthier for you. Portable fruits like apples and bananas, 100 percent fruit juice, low-fat cheeses, crackers, bagels, nuts, dry cereal… all of them are healthier meal alternatives than getting carried away with replacing meals with shakes or bars. And you can lose weight without meal replacements, we promise!

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