Are you looking at a popular meal replacement diet and wondering if it is a good fit for you? Maybe you’re looking for less work in the kitchen, feeling overwhelmed with grocery shopping or are looking to lose a few pounds before a vacation?
There are many reasons why meal replacement diets are popular, but I’d like to offer some additional information as a Registered Dietitian that can help you make a decision that can support can support both your mental and physical health.
What Is A Meal Replacement Diet & How Does It Work?
Most often, meal replacement diets are used to support weight loss. The big idea with meal replacement diets is to have a controlled, calorie restricted diet without having to think about it too much. Drink the shake – slurp – and the meal is over.
Occasionally, they’re used to gain weight, such as Ensure shakes or Ample. For this article, I’ll be focusing on meal replacements as intended for weight loss.
Examples of meal replacement diets are in abundance, but here are a few examples you might have heard of or even tried:
- Premier Protein Meal Replacement Shakes
- Keto Function Keto+ Shake
- Garden of Life
- Orgain Organic Meal Replacement Shakes
And the list goes on and on and on. Ugh! The 80s called: they want their shakes back.
As a dietitian with an Intuitive Eating approach, I don’t recommend using meal replacement diets nor focusing on intentional weight loss. Let’s dive into the details, together.
What’s wrong with meal replacement shakes?
One of the things that I love about being an intuitive eating registered dietitian is that there are a lot of “right” ways to nourish your body and have a positive relationship with food and eating.
The crappy thing is that diet culture is so intimately woven into our society that it can feel almost rebellious to reject it. I say: let’s do it anyway.
(Psst: if you’ve ever wondered what normal even means for eating and food, you’re not alone. Check out my blog post about food obsession.)
One of the reasons I don’t recommend just drinking a meal replacement shake is that most often, they’re being used as a short-term diet to lose weight. And then, as soon as you’re done with the shakes, your body will likely gain that weight back. And even more.
I explain why this happens in my blog post on the set point weight theory and also in this one which lists 12 reasons NOT to diet (because they don’t work!)
And while those results might seem “worth it” to be at a certain weight for a special occasion or vacation, the impact on your metabolism is long-term. (Check out my blog post on metabolic damage here!)
What Are The Disadvantages Of A Meal Replacement Diet?
Let’s start with my biggest beef with the meal replacement shakes: they’re far too little fuel for you. Most meal replacement shakes are only a few hundred calories: far less than a grown adult needs for a meal.
While I don’t advocate for calorie counting (not a good fit for Intuitive Eating), it might be helpful to compare recommendations a bit. A moderately active adult woman might easily need at least 1,800 or 2,200 calories a day (not a cap- could be more!) so it’s not unrealistic to need 525 - 700 calories per meal. When you compare that to 100 or 200 calories per meal replacement shake, it is no wonder that you’re hungry just a short time after drinking one of them.
Plus: they’re decently expensive! Eating real food that nourishes your body, provides you with energy and enjoyment costs far less. Trust me. While prices vary based on where you live, you can estimate that each bottle SlimFast costs about $1.25, each bottle of Soylent costs about $4 and each Premier Protein Meal Replacement Shake is about $2.
Rather than purchase meal replacement shakes, consider some easy meal preps that save you time and money and reduce the need to make so many decisions around food and eating. Workweek Lunch has a few inexpensive meal planning options and I share a few more resources later in this post.
And while it can seem simpler to just slurp a shake and call it a day, our meals are not only for energy. They’re for enough energy as well as an opportunity to take a break from work, relax and experience pleasure. I don’t know who needs to hear this today, but it is a great thing to enjoy eating!
Another interesting thing (hooray for science) is that our body doesn’t quite register drinking a shake the same as having solid foods, even if they’re the exact same number of calories.
Liquid vs. Solids: how do they register?
Our brains and bodies use a lot of different aspects of foods and drinks to assess our satisfaction after a meal or snack. And liquids might not register the same way to our brains, even if they have the exact same amount of calories.
Most people drink and eat soft food much more quickly than they do solid foods. Think about how long it takes to eat a large crunchy dinner salad, chewing bite after bite, vs. drinking a milkshake or a bowl of mac and cheese; the salad takes longer!
This means that with soft and liquid foods, our signals of fullness might not register as quickly when compared to solid and crunchy foods.
One short-term study looked at rats in comparison to if they had liquid sucrose, a kind of sugar, or solid sucrose. The researchers found that the liquid sucrose intake was associated with increased energy consumption and greater body fat gain than the solid sucrose.
Intuitive Eating offers a more sustainable and happier way to eat than most meal replacement diets. This is because sensory signals from foods have a large impact on energy intake, and designs of optimal foods lead to higher satiating efficiency per kcal while still being desirable.
What Is Intuitive Eating?
I mentioned earlier that I am a registered dietitian with an intuitive eating approach. Wondering what that is?
Intuitive Eating is the opposite of following a meal replacement diet. Intuitive Eating is a dietary approach that focuses on listening to your body’s needs, cravings and hunger and fullness cues combined with gentle nutrition knowledge in order to determine what, when, where, how much and why of the foods you eat. My blog post on What is Intuitive Eating is a great place to start learning the basics. There is a lot more to it and I'd highly recommend snagging a copy of the Intuitive Eating book if the blog post speaks to you. You can find the Intuitive Eating book here on Amazon!
Why a meal replacement diet isn't a match for Intuitive Eating
A meal replacement diet and intuitive eating do not have the same goals...at all.
Meal replacement diets can be a way for people to lose weight quickly in the short-term, but they come with the risk of hijacking your metabolism and regaining that weight back. They’re a short-term program with long-lasting negative effects. And I’d like to protect you from that.
The trouble is, we are not robots and our bodies need and crave different things from one day to the next. A meal replacement stops our ability to tune into what our bodies need from one day to the next.
The dirty little secret of the diet industry is that no diet really “works.”
Spoiler alert: all diets really don't work
Dieting is the most common approach to losing weight for the majority of individuals. Restricting intake leads to weight loss in the short term, but by itself dieting has a relatively poor success rate for long-term weight reduction. Most obese people eventually regain the weight they have worked so hard to lose.
Long story short: your body is really smart and trying very hard to keep you healthy and well. Your body doesn’t know that you are the reason that you’re in a calorie deficit. She simply knows that you don’t have as much energy (aka calories) and so she compensates by slowing your metabolism the heck down.
The truth is, your body knows the best weight for you. And trying to hijack that number based on BS societal ideals about beauty might not be a good match for your mental or physical health.
If you’re still wanting to pursue active weight loss but are intrigued as if you can do it with an intuitive eating approach then be sure to check out my blog post on weight loss and intuitive eating.
Best weight for your body?
So what is the best weight for your body? There is something called a set point weight, which is the weight that your body tends to hover around. For more info about that, please check out my post on set weight - there is some pretty cool science to back this theory up.
And the good news about your personal set point weight? Intuitive Eating can help you to find it. By getting in tune with what your body needs, what eating habits facilitate you feeling good both mentally and physically, you get to enjoy freedom from diet culture.
And let me tell you: diet culture is suffocating. Meal replacement diets are just one of a zillion options that the diet industry is peddling to make a buck (or rather, 72 billion bucks) at the expense of you living your best, healthiest, most enjoyable life. Let’s kick ‘em to the curb.
Is there any room for compromise?
Maybe! I always want eating to feel doable and not overwhelming. And sometimes a convenient option can really help to get through busy days.
Basically, meal replacements are a tool. And when the purpose of that tool is rapid weight loss, I’m not on board. But, if you are working on intuitive eating and find that having the convenience of a quick option to add to a meal (not replace a meal), works for you, then I can be on board. That is a different purpose, even though it is using the same tool.
Keep in mind that just because a company says that their little shake is intended to be a meal replacement does not mean that's all you’re allowed to have. You are the boss of your body. Many meal replacement bars and shakes are just 100 or 200 calories – definitely not a full meal.
But, pairing a “meal replacement” shake or bar with something else that feels fast but also enjoyable might help you to eat nourishing foods without being too much of a drain on your time and mental energy.
Perhaps you could pack a lunch for work with a high-protein meal replacement shake, your favorite fresh fruit, some pretzels, a bag of trail mix with nuts and seeds and my favorite: baby carrots with a single-serve hummus cup for ease of transport.
Lunch will still be incredibly fast to pack. But with intuitive eating in mind, you will have the opportunity to eat a few different foods and you can decide what sounds good at lunchtime, and can decide to skip anything that doesn’t seem right at that meal time. Basically, you tune into your own hunger vs. a company telling you when you’ve had enough (and this takes practice when you’ve not been tuning in).
New to meal planning? I’ve got you covered! Check out these two posts with exactly how to get started with meal planning.
- Meal Planning For Beginners [5 Easy Tips]
- Shift Work Intuitive Eating Tips (Day And Night Shift Food Tips)
For more info about eating realistically, and intuitively, in your real life, check out my blog post about Practical Hunger.
Short term gains vs. long-term effects
I get it. We all wish we could see results and changes in our lives quickly. Patience is not one of my top personality traits, either!
But when you look at the difference between a band-aid approach to eating and quickly losing weight...and then probably gaining that weight back once you stop using those shakes or bars, there is the potential to damage your relationship with food and your metabolism.
What do you recommend instead?
This may not be the answer that you’re looking for at the moment and I totally understand. But the truth is, intuitive eating is a better long-term lifestyle than using a meal replacement diet.
I recommend Intuitive Eating, which includes mastering how to cook foods that you enjoy, learning to enjoy foods without rules and enjoying your body at her natural set point.
This is a journey. And friends, it is a winding one. I’ve guided thousands of women through their journey in The SociEATy intuitive eating membership community! You can take this quick (and free!) quiz to identify what’s holding you back from intuitive eating and get a customized workbook to help you overcome it!
Meal Replacement Diets: Quick Facts
With all of the mixed messages out there about dieting, it can be hard to know what’s best for you. You may have heard that meal replacement shakes are a great way to lose weight in the short term but these products come with their own risks and long-term consequences. In my Registered Dietitian opinion, intuitive eating is the way to go.
What are your thoughts on meal replacement diet shakes? Comment below!
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