No matter what kind of nutrition plan you follow, you likely could always use a little more time to whip up a healthy and delicious meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every. single. day. That's a lot! And you're busy! Luckily, being pressed for time and needing to eat on-the-go doesn't have to mean sabotaging your weight-loss goals with fast food meals or unhealthy, processed snacks: Meal replacement shakes are a great option when you're strapped for time or just don't feel like cooking.
However, be warned: not all shakes are created equal. If you do your research and choose wisely, you can ensure you’re still eating healthy on those days when you’re busy. Here, a nutritionist explains everything you need to know about meal replacement shakes and how to pick ones that will help you stay on track with your weight loss.
First of all, are meal replacement shakes even healthy?
While whole foods are generally the best method for getting necessary nutrients, meal replacement shakes can be a convenient meal option on the go and can be nutritionally healthy too, depending on the shake, says Amanda Nicole, RDN, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles.
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When purchasing a meal replacement shake, it’s important to take into consideration the nutritional content of the shakes, says Nicole. Some shakes can be lacking in essential vitamins and minerals you would get from eating solid food.
Store-bought shakes can also be high in added sugar, artificial sugar, or sugar alcohols. “If you consume a shake that is high in sugar, it could make your blood sugar spike and then drop quickly,” explains Nicole. “This will give you a quick release of energy but make you feel tired shortly after.”
Additionally, when you consume a meal that is high in sugar, you’ll likely feel hungry again shortly afterwards. Sugar alcohols in particular may cause gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating, diarrhea and gas as well.
And consuming a lot of artificial sweetener can mess with your taste buds over time, making you crave sweeter and sweeter foods, says Nicole. “When you become used to a high level of sweetness from artificial sweetener, foods that are naturally more tart in flavor, such as berries, will taste more bitter to you,” adds Nicole. Basically, healthy snacks like fruits will be less likely to satisfy your sweets cravings when you're used to the taste of artificial sweeteners.
Rule of thumb: Look for meal replacement shakes that are low in added sugar, sugar alcohols, and artificial sweeteners.
Are meal replacement shakes good for weight loss?
Meal replacement shake can be helpful as part of a weight-loss plan for some people. They can function as a healthy option for when you need something quick, replacing what could have been a less-nutritious pick, like a fast food meal.
They can also help you eat fewer calories during the day by replacing meals that may be higher in calories, while still helping you feel full. However, if a shake doesn’t make you feel satisfied (which is likely if has too much sugar and not enough protein), you may reach for more food soon after drinking it, causing you to consume more calories by the end of the day.
“A big part of satisfaction from eating is chewing your food and feeling the texture in your mouth,” explains Nicole. “When you drink your meal, you may be seeking something to munch on soon after."
So if you’re looking to lose weight with meal replacement shakes, you should opt for a shake that is high in protein, fiber, and healthy fats to keep you satisfied, and low in sugar to prevent hunger pangs from hitting later. “If you consume more sugar than these other nutrients, your body will store it as fat,” says Nicole.
Also, you shouldn’t replace more than meal per day with a shake. Otherwise, you could become deficient in vitamins and minerals from whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and meat, says Nicole.
“A meal replacement shake is just that, a single meal replacement,” she says. So try to only reach for them when you're really in a pinch.
When is the best time of day to have a meal replacement shake?
There isn’t a right or wrong time to have a meal replacement shake; it depends on what works best for you.
“If you don’t have time for breakfast or [you] work through lunch, a shake can be great during those times,” she says. “It can be a great alternative to breakfast, especially if you don’t like to eat first thing in the morning, as breakfast gives your body enough energy to start the day."
If you don’t have time for lunch, a shake could give you the energy to make it through the second part of your day, she adds. “The time that you consume a shake won’t impact your life in any way, and you shouldn’t feel like you should sacrifice a meal with friends or family to have a shake.”
Meal replacement bars are another option if you don’t have time for a meal, she adds. You can easily throw them into your purse, backpack, or briefcase. Real food is, again, always a more nutritious choice, but meal replacement bars can be a good substitution when you need it and you get the added satisfaction of crunch and chew, says Nicole.
“If you’re hungry and wait too long to eat, you could overeat at the next meal you have, so it's better to have a shake or bar than skip a meal,” she says “Just like with shakes, look for a bar that is high in protein, fiber and healthy fats, low in sugar, and also free of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols.”
What are the best meal replacement shakes to buy?
In addition to seeking out shakes and bars that are high in protein, fiber and healthy fats, as well as low in sugar, it’s key to opt for those that also contain vitamins and minerals, particularly from fruits and vegetables.
“All these components give you a balanced meal and keep you feeling full and satisfied for longer,” says Nicole. “A well-balanced meal shake or bar will include 300 to 400 calories, 15 to 30 grams of protein, 3 or more grams of fiber, and 10 to 15 grams of unsaturated fat.”
Good sources of protein are whey, soy, hemp, brown rice and pea protein. Look for natural sugars, such as cane sugar, brown rice syrup or coconut palm sugar, and check the ingredients for good quality, plant-based fat from nuts, seeds, or plant-based oils, suggests Nicole.
One thing to note is that most meal replacement shakes and bars range from 150 to 250 calories. This is more like a snack, so if you're replacing a full meal with one of these lower-calorie options and still feel super hungry, make sure to have additional whole food snacks around this time as well.
Here are 12 meal replacement shakes and bars that Nicole recommends:
This shake is perfect on the go because it doesn’t have to be refrigerated until opening. It provides 20 grams of pea protein and is high in fiber, vegan, dairy-free, soy-free, and gluten-free.
“This product is excellent if you’re following a vegan diet, are celiac, or lactose intolerant,” says Nicole. “To make it a complete meal and add in some heart-healthy fats, add a handful or ¼ cup of almonds.”
This shake provides 20 grams of plant-based protein from hemp, pumpkin seed, and pea protein and is blended with spinach, kale, carrots, and organic spirulina.
“The shake is a great option for a meal replacement because it has 25 percent of the daily value for 11 vitamins and minerals, and it’s vegan, soy-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free,” says Nicole. “Complete this meal by having a half of banana or one slice of whole-wheat bread with a tablespoon of peanut butter.”
This shake offers 20 grams of grass-fed milk protein and is vegetarian, gluten-free, soy-free, kosher, and high in calcium.
“Complete this meal with an apple and a tablespoon of almond butter to give you enough fiber, carbohydrates, and healthy fats to make it a balanced meal,” says Nicole.
This shake provides 20 grams of grass-fed whey and casein milk protein and is low in sugar and high in fiber. It’s also lactose-free, free of hormones and antibiotics, gluten-free, soy-free, kosher, and contains no artificial sweeteners or artificial ingredients.
This shake provides 20 grams of protein from peas, pumpkin, and flax seeds and is an excellent choice if you have allergies, says Nicole. OWYN shakes are free of some of the top allergens, including dairy, soy, gluten, egg, peanuts and tree nuts. It also contains a blend of greens from broccoli, spinach, and kale. Complete this meal, like some of the others, by having a banana or one slice of whole-wheat bread with a tablespoon of peanut butter.
This vegan shake gives you 20 grams of pea protein and contains 30 percent of daily recommended values for iron, calcium, phosphorus and potassium, says Nicole. It’s also dairy, nut, soy, and lactose-free. Enjoy with a cup of carrots and a serving of hummus.
This shake is a great on-the-go option that doesn’t have to be refrigerated. It also has 20 grams of protein from milk and Greek yogurt. Complete this meal with an apple and a tablespoon almond butter to give you enough energy and keep you full, says Nicole.
These bars have great flavor and are perfect for an on-the-go meal replacement. The bar is free of artificial sweeter or sugar alcohols and is high-fiber, gluten-free, kosher, soy-free, and dairy-free.
Enjoy with a serving of turkey jerky, a couple of slices of deli turkey, or a half serving of unsweetened Greek yogurt for extra satiety power.
In addition to containing 20 grams of protein from whey, they only have three ingredients that you can easily recognize, including almonds, honey, and whey protein isolate, plus no fillers, artificial sweeteners, or sugar alcohols. Complete this meal with a serving of vegetables such as carrots, bell pepper slices, and cucumber slices.
Nicole also likes this bar, which is from the same brand but includes a vegan protein source. These bars only have four ingredients including cashew, coconut nectar, pea protein, and lemon extract, and there are no fillers, artificial sweeteners, or sugar alcohols. Complete this meal with a serving of carrots to add more fiber to keep you full and digestive system regular.
This bar has definitely earned perfect in the name because it’s a complete meal that hits all the food groups, says Nicole. This refrigerated bar provides an adequate amount of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and fiber and is made with whole foods from fruits, vegetables, seeds, and oil, offering essential vitamins and minerals.
“Since the bar has enough calories, there is no need to add any other food to make this work as a complete meal,” says Nicole.
This bar only has five ingredients, including real peanut butter, peanut flour, grass-fed whey protein, brown rice syrup, and grape juice extract. It’s also gluten-free, with no artificial sweeteners, no sugar alcohols, and no soy. “Make this more filling by adding a hard-boiled egg,” says Nicole.