This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

Meal Replacement Shakes: What's The Deal With This Popular Weight Loss Tool?

Portrait of happy young woman drinking smoothie in kitchen
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Portrait of happy young woman drinking smoothie in kitchen

As the name suggests, meal replacement shakes are used to replace meals. The first thing you may be thinking is: how can a liquid possibly replace a meal? But for those wanting to lose weight, these shakes may be a helpful tool -- they are not, however, a permanent fix.

“Meal replacements are portion-controlled, nutritionally-balanced ‘meals’ that help reduce your kilojoule intake, ultimately helping you lose weight,” Charlene Grosse, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, told The Huffington Post Australia.

“Meal replacement shakes provide, in general, 800-900 kilojoules per serve.”

The common ingredients of these shakes include skim and whole milk powder, soy protein, inulin, sucrose (sugar), vitamins and minerals, and flavours such as cocoa and vanilla. The shakes usually come in the form of a powder which you then add milk or water to.

“Meal replacements are high in protein and fibre, which help you to feel full and satisfied,” Grosse said.

Aside from shakes, meal replacements come in other forms -- and some are better than others.

“They come in a variety of formulations -- including powders, shakes, bars and soups,” Grosse said.

“Total meal replacements are nutritionally complete and are designed to replace all three meals.

“Partial meal replacements are not generally nutritionally complete -- they don’t provide all of the nutrients your body needs to function properly, leaving you at risk of developing vitamin or mineral deficiencies. They are designed to replace one or two of your daily meals.”

People trying to lose weight may benefit from meal replacement shakes. However, it’s important to note that these shakes are not a quick, easy fix.

“While they are definitely not a replacement for healthy eating and regular exercise, they can be a useful weight loss tool,” Grosse told HuffPost Australia.

“Weight management is more complex than energy in and energy out. If it were that simple we would not have the epidemic we have at present in western society.”

What using meal replacement shakes doesn’t achieve is the behavioural changes needed for long-term weight loss and maintenance.

“Results with weight loss will be short term as meal replacements do not teach behaviour change and cannot be sustained in the longer term -- it's not a natural way of eating,” Grosse said. “You will need to learn how to prepare healthy, balanced meals and include daily exercise to sustain weight loss.”

Meal replacement shakes also imply that everyone’s weight loss journey is the same, which is far from the truth.

“Learning to be the healthiest you can be requires an individual approach -- learning to understand what causes you to eat when you are not hungry, being non-judgmental of yourself in relation to food, and eating based on your needs at the time are all pieces of the puzzle that will help you be the healthiest you can be,” Grosse told HuffPost Australia.

If you’re wondering where healthy eating starts, Grosse recommends focusing on five core food groups.

“The Dietitians Association of Australia recommends a diet mainly consisting of foods from the five core foods groups, including vegetables, fruit, low fat dairy, whole grains, and lean meat, poultry and fish,” Grosse said.

Aim for your plate to be around half vegetables, a quarter lean protein and a quarter whole grain carbohydrates.

The Benefits

“Meal replacements are portion-controlled and are high protein which helps us feel full," Grosse said.

“They are also quick and convenient (so they fit into a busy schedule), and help with meal regularity (a simple way to stop skipping meals).”

The Drawbacks

“Meal replacements don’t offer the nutritional benefits of whole foods -- they can be ‘incomplete’, which in the long term can lead to vitamin or mineral deficiencies if unmonitored,” Grosse said.

“They don’t teach you how to create and follow a healthy diet or manage your eating habits once you stop using them."

For those with medical conditions such as kidney and liver disease, meal replacements may be unsafe to use, according to Grosse.

“There are risks involved with meal replacements and they are not suitable for everyone, so before starting a meal replacement diet visit your GP and make an appointment to see a dietitian to ensure they are a good option for you,” Grosse said.

“Meal replacements also lack variety which can lead to boredom, making you more likely to abandon the program. Flavour fatigue is common, and people often miss chewing or the social aspect of mealtimes.”

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