6 Reasons to Avoid Meal Replacement Shakes

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In an ideal world, we’d all have the time to dedicate to preparing homemade healthy meals, in addition to sitting down to eat them mindfully. But given how busy many people are today, it’s not surprising that meal replacement shakes, bars and snacks have grown in popularity exponentially over the past several decades.

Time isn’t the only barrier keeping some adults from preparing and enjoying fresh food; the elderly and those with digestive issues (like gastritis, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease) can sometimes lack the appetite necessary to eat enough calories in order to fuel their bodies. Additionally, some view meal replacement products as a quick-fix means to fast weight loss. If you fall into any one of these categories — you’re too short on time to cook fresh meals, you physically can’t manage to eat meals that contain enough of the nutrients you need or you’re the type to turn to fad-dieting — you might be wondering if meal replacement shakes are the answer.

Although there’s no doubt they offer convenience, the vast majority of meal replacement shakes (or bars, frozen meals, etc.) also have some serious drawbacks. Just because a product is advertised to look healthy and claims to provide “essential vitamins and minerals” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good choice. Case in point: Some popular meal replacement shakes have dozens of different ingredients, many of which are ultra-processed foods and difficult to break down, plus over 20 grams of added sugar per small bottle. Experts from Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Boston have been quoted saying, “Whole foods provide a much better balance of nutrients than meal replacements can… Plus, using real foods forces you to make choices that help you maintain weight loss in the long run.” (1)

What are some better meal replacement alternatives that help ensure you stay satisfied and get enough fuel throughout the day? If you prefer a liquid meal, I recommend homemade smoothies — made with things like plant-based protein powders and filling healthy fats, especially coconut oil. In addition, you can easily add more superfoods to your diet like grass-fed yogurt, pureed veggies, fresh greens, nuts and seeds by preparing recipes like homemade green juice, soups or stews made with bone broth. And keep in mind that if weight loss is your primary goal, it’s always best to avoid “shortcuts” and focus on developing lifelong habits like exercising, reducing stress, sleeping well and sticking with a healthy diet.


What Is a Meal Replacement Shake?

Meal replacement shakes are usually processed, bottled products that you drink in place of eating one of your main meals (breakfast, lunch or dinner). These shakes are often used to increase or reduce calorie intake, get enough vitamins and minerals in a convenient way, speed up the process of eating when you’re on the go and therefore don’t have time to cook or sit down, or for those who lack the appetite to eat enough.

In some instances, convenient premade snacks (such as bars or juices) can be useful for helping keep you satisfied between meals, keeping your blood sugar from dropping and preventing overeating at the next meal. But because these products need to remain on store shelves for long periods of time, and therefore cannot be very perishable or fresh, for the most part the ingredients used are processed and not ideal.


Ensure Ingredients: Are They Actually Healthy?

The company Ensure® produces some of the most popular meal replacement shakes on the market. Ensure® claims to offer a number of different product options, depending on if you’re a “dieter” who’s watching your calorie intake, an older adult who might lack certain vitamins or minerals, or simply someone who needs to consume more calories to gain weight in a convenient manner. What are companies like Ensure® much less likely to advertise? The types of inflammatory, chemical ingredients they use.

Below are the ingredients found in one Ensure Plus® Milk Chocolate meal replacement shake:

  • Water, Corn Maltodextrin, Sugar, Blend of Vegetable Oils (Canola, Corn), Milk Protein Concentrate, Soy Protein Isolate, Cocoa Powder (Processed with Alkali)
  • Less than 0.5% of: Nonfat Milk, Magnesium Phosphate, Sodium Citrate, Soy Lecithin, Natural & Artificial Flavor, Calcium Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Cellulose Gum, Potassium Citrate, Choline Chloride, Ascorbic Acid, Cellulose Gel, Carrageenan, Salt, Ferric Phosphate, dl-Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate, Zinc Sulfate, Niacinamide, Manganese Sulfate, Calcium Pantothenate, Copper Sulfate, Thiamine Chloride Hydrochloride, Vitamin A Palmitate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Biotin, Chromium Chloride, Sodium Molybdate, Sodium Selenate, Potassium Iodide, Vitamin B12, Phylloquinone, and Vitamin D3

 

Six reasons to avoid meal replacement shakes - Dr. Axe

 

One small bottle of Ensure® Plus has approximately:

  • 350 calories
  • 11 grams of fat
  • 22 grams of sugar
  • 13 grams protein
  • less than one gram of dietary fiber
  • each bottle contains around 25 percent to 30 percent of most essential vitamins and minerals (B vitamins, iron, etc.) although these are added/synthetic.

6 Reasons Why Commercial Meal Replacements Usually Aren’t Good for You (or Your Older Relatives!)

1. The “Vitamins and Minerals” Are Synthetic

As you can tell from glancing above at the ingredients found in Ensure’s meal replacement shakes, any nutrients that might be included do not come from real, whole foods. Although some meal replacement shakes advertise that they supply 20 or more “essential vitamins and minerals,” they’re synthetically made and not derived from food, making them tough to properly absorb.

A better option? Get essential nutrients from unprocessed foods — like a mix of veggies and fruit, quality proteins (for a range of amino acids), and healthy fats (especially those with anti-inflammatory omega-3s or medium-chained fatty acids).

2. Too Much Added Sugar

You’ll notice that meal replacement products usually come in a range of tempting, dessert-sounding flavors like “dark chocolate” or “butter pecan.” This might make them sound extra appealing, especially if they’re “low calorie,” but it doesn’t come without a price. These shakes often contain lots of added sugar (sugar is the third listed ingredient in Ensure’s shakes), artificial sweeteners or a combination of both. Regardless of whether you’re trying to lose weight or gain weight, added sugar is still a source of empty calories. Consuming too much added sugar can lead to moodiness, dips in energy levels, stomach queasiness and worsened overall health due to inflammation. (2)

 

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