Meal replacement shakes have been around for decades and can seem like a good idea, especially if you’re busy and find it really hard to prepare meals. But are they really a good replacement for a meal? Let’s discuss the pros and cons of MRPs…
First of all, let’s define what we mean by a meal replacement shake, or MRP. I’m not talking about a smoothie which you have put together yourself, I’m referring to the powders or liquids that are marketed as a viable replacement for a meal. That is, you swap one or more meals throughout the day for one of these replacements. The market and popularity of MRPs seems to be increasing, sometimes helped along by lucrative marketing strategies where they encourage consumers to become retailers of their products.
In today’s world we all seem to be very busy and a lot of our food choices are governed by convenience. MRPs appeal to this market because they offer an easy solution: you get up, grab a shake, done. Freeing up more time for commuting, getting the kids ready for school etc. But when talking to people who have been on shake diets or used MRPs there’s a recurring theme which ultimately sees them give up the drinks – hunger. Solid meals are normally more satiating than MRPs, meaning a solid meal will leave you feeling fuller. If you’re goal is to lose some weight, this is obviously a problem as increased hunger may lead to you consuming extra calories than you would have if you’d had a solid meal.
Before considering an MRP ask yourself, ‘do you really not have enough time to prepare a solid meal?’ An omelette with spinach and a smoothie can be prepared in 5 minutes. Some meals can be prepared the night before e.g. ‘overnight oats’, again in minimal time – ready for you to grab on your way out of the door. In most cases you can make a viable alternative to an MRP yourself, most simply contain a mixture of oats and a protein source such as dairy, as well as a vitamin complex (just take a multi vitamin) and some fats. All of these benefits can be easily accomplished by making your own smoothie: oats, 1 scoop of whey, some mixed forest fruits and a flaxseed blend. Greens powders also offer another possible ingredient.
Yes there are some situations where a meal replacement might be a useful option. Say, for example, you are competing abroad or you’re travelling. Personally I would much rather recommend and athlete consume an MRP which is sealed and prepared in a factory to certain standards, than risk that athlete becoming ill from food poisoning or bad food practices. Another situation would be if the athlete can’t eat, for example if they are ill and eating solid food is an issue – I see MRPs as a tool to use in certain situations rather than a viable modification to somebody’s diet in the long term.
One thing to note and I think this is one of the marketing hooks companies use – meal replacements aren’t anything magical. Ultimately they change your behaviour so that you consume less calories meaning your now in a calorie deficit and will therefore lose weight. The better quality options will have increased protein, again contributing to the retention of lean mass and maybe promoting weight loss further. I personally would argue that meal replacement type diets are not a long term solution for health or a better diet – obviously unless you are ill and cannot consume food naturally.
In summary, whenever I’m asked about MRPs I always remind people of one of my philosophies – food first. Yes we can argue that these powders or drinks are just powdered blends of food. But in my eyes you can’t beat freshly prepared, wholesome foods. Again, MRPs can be a useful tool in certain situations – in the past I’ve recommended them to athletes who are travelling long-haul to countries who’s food practices aren’t as rigorous as the UK’s. A meal replacement sachet or drink might be a useful product to have in your car etc for those times where food may not be available when you need it, or when you haven’t been able to prepare a meal.