Whether you’re looking to save on money or time, meal replacements have become a food trend in recent years, touted as the solution for those who are short on time, trying to lose some weight or looking to save a few bucks on meals.

But not all meal replacements are created equally. You have to choose among them carefully. Today, we look more in-depth on what meal replacements are, their possible benefits and side effects and whether or not they can be a good addition to your regular diet.

What’s The Truth About Meal Replacements?

The meal replacement drink or bar was originally targeted to the serious athlete who needed extra nutrition for workouts. These products have since gone mainstream.

The meal replacement is usually made by adding powdered ingredients to water. The ingredients may be calcium caseinate (milk solids) fortified with some vitamins and minerals. The mixture is shaken to make a thick drinkable liquid or suspended in starches or vegetable gums like alginin, guar gum, locust bean gum, xanthan gum, or pectin.

Some are based on a yogurt formulation that contains high proportions of sugars.

Possible Benefits

Medical professionals believe that a “sit-down” meal is the best approach to healthy weight loss. However, a healthy meal replacement can be an acceptable substitute, as long as it isn’t done all the time.

One of the main benefits of meal replacements is that they are fortified with a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, so they can successfully stand in for a meal once in a while and meet your daily requirements. Meal replacements, like shakes, tend to have fewer calories than full meals. Having a shake instead of one meal a day can reduce daily calorie intake enough to bring about steady weight loss. A study conducted in 2003 showed that one meal replacement a day brought about more weight loss than a low-calorie diet over a 40-week trial.

Buyer Beware

As with any food trend, there are possible negative side effects to incorporating meal replacements in your diet. One reason being the USDA classifies dietary shakes as dietary supplements. Supplements are not subject to the same labeling and regulatory standards as foods.

Marketing claims do not have to be backed up by sound research, and it may be difficult to get accurate information about the meal replacement. Some have real benefits, but others have so much sugar that they could be dangerous for your health.

For example, one meal replacement on the market has 20 percent of daily fiber and protein requirements but only 190 calories. Another well-known “nutritional” shake supplies 250 calories, but only 1 gram of fiber and 9 grams of protein. It also packs 18 grams of sugar into each bottle. Before purchasing and ingesting any meal replacement, check the labels for allergens, gluten, or milk if you are intolerant.

What To Look For

When you shop for a meal replacement, check the ingredient label, not the promotional front label. Avoid products with ingredients that read like a chemistry lesson. Nutrients should be primarily complex carbohydrates with small amounts of simple sugars and a bit of fat, along with more than a little protein, that could come from plant sources.

Use the following per-serving guidelines to select the meal replacement:

  • 220-230 calories.
  • Less than 5 grams of fat.
  • 3-5 grams of fiber.
  • 10-15 grams of protein.
  • Fortified with one-third of daily vitamin and mineral minimal requirement.

Do your best to limit your use of nutritional substitutes to only one per day. Supplement your shake or bar with vegetables, a can of vegetable juice, or a piece of fresh fruit. Often “portable fruits,” like apples or bananas can replace meal replacements at a fraction of their cost.

Sources:

http://www.livestrong.com/article/471772-are-meal-replacement-shakes-healthy/

http://www.webmd.com/diet/default.htm

http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/meal-replacements-choose-those-bars-and-drinks-carefully#1