In a world where we seem to have less time on our hands than ever before, our desire for quick, convenient food options (and even quick fixes to weight loss) is on the rise. The food and diet industry have answered the call by providing an array of meal replacements—“nutritionally balanced meals” in the form of shakes, bars and snack foods. And while it might seem like a good option as you rush out the door with your keys in one hand and your ready-made, drinkable breakfast in the other, it’s at a cost…and I’m not just talking about your wallet. More on both of those issues in a moment, but first, let’s look at what meal replacement shakes are and when they might be of benefit.
Meal replacement shakes are usually whey-based, powdered formulas that you mix with water or your choice of “milk” and are fortified with vitamins and minerals designed to provide you with all the necessary nutrients to replace a regular meal (or two). They tend to be low in calories and high in protein making them an attractive option for those wishing to achieve quick weight loss. And they can help you lose weight…initially. But that isn’t about the shake so much as the calorie restriction. And it certainly isn’t sustainable weight loss, as drinking meal replacements teach you nothing about healthy eating, portion control with real foods or help you understand the other underlying issues behind the weight gain.
Who do they benefit then?
I remember seeing one of the first incarnations of a meal replacement shake in the early 70s, when I was growing up in the U.S. It was designed to be used under medical supervision, ironically, to prevent weight loss in the elderly, infirm or those suffering from conditions where solid foods weren’t tolerated. That same product worked hard to capture the market share among healthy populations in the 90s through unscrupulous and misleading marketing efforts that landed them in hot water (not very different to how it’s done today). But it’s in that population that originally benefited from them, that I still recommend the short-term use of meal replacements. For the rest of us however…we really need to make our peace with real food. In essence, meal replacement shakes still can’t compete with education, healthy food choices or the total nutrition provided by whole foods.
The cost…to your health.
The biggest cost is the effect these products can have on the body. Despite claims of being “nutritionally balanced”, most meal replacements do not provide antioxidants, phytonutrients or a source of dietary fibre, which is needed for gut health, hormone metabolism and healthy detoxification. Dietary fibre also provides fuel for our gut bacteria (our “microbiome”), which are major players in our physical and mental health. Our microbiome can even influence our immune function, our emotions, our food choices and affect healthy weight management.
Another issue is protein overload, something I see more often in women consuming meal replacement drinks. When you eat a protein (animal or plant based), your body, specifically your kidneys, knows how to process that protein properly. Having protein in the form of a shake overloads this processing function and can lead to poor kidney function.
Meal replacement shakes may contain several undesirable ingredients such as thickeners, preservatives, fillers, sugars or artificial sweeteners and even traces of heavy metals. This can result in health effects ranging from bloating and gas to nausea to lethargy and chronic inflammation.
The cost…to your pocketbook.
So back to the cost issue. While some over-the-counter shakes may cost around $50/per week for 7 packets, I’ve seen many people get roped in by the health claims, the convenience and the word of mouth marketing that takes place with some finding themselves spending hundreds of dollars a month for products.
So…what’s the alternative?
Ideally, you make eating real food a priority. Real food provides us with the nourishment our body needs. It provides us the opportunity to connect with others (imagine everyone sitting around for that Sunday lunch with the fam sipping their shakes…doesn’t quite have the same imagery as a beautiful spread on the dining table). Real food also provides a connection to self…an opportunity to really stop and listen to what our bodies need for health.
But if you’re struggling to balance the busyness in your life with a little mindful eating, try making a real food smoothie instead of a processed packet. Here are a few tips on combing nutrition with convenience:
- Make your smoothies veggie based, rather than fruit based. This is a great way to cut down on the over-consumption of sugar. I typically mix greens such as silver beet, cos lettuce, watercress, kale, spinach etc. and use only a small bit of fruit—a handful of berries or a ½ kiwi fruit or ¼ banana for nutrients and sweetness.
- Add a healthy protein. Add a few raw nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds or almond meal for a clean source of protein. If using a protein powder look for plant-based protein such as hemp, pea or brown rice that won’t overload the system. You can always have an egg or two on the side for a whole food-based protein.
- Add a healthy fat. Such as a small amount of coconut milk, almond milk, dairy (if tolerated), yoghurt, avocado or soaked chia seeds.
- Add a fibre source. Add 1-2tbs of whole grain oats or oat bran, rice bran or even psyllium if you’re prone to constipation (just remember to drink water throughout the day).