Whether you’re looking for a quick meal on the go or trying to shed a few pounds, you’re certainly not alone when looking for a meal replacement shake. Yearly sales of these convenient beverages exceed $3 billion in the U.S.
While the reasons people have for drinking meal replacement shakes vary, the most common reasons given are the need for increased dietary protein intake at 34% followed by the need for a convenient meal replacement at 20%.
So how do you choose a quality meal replacement shake? With so many choices, it’s hard to know which shakes are nutritionally complete and which are just basically dessert in a bottle. Furthermore, flashy marketing can make it difficult to see past the hyped nutrition claims on the front of the package. The whole process can be overwhelming.
What to Look for
There are some basic guidelines to follow when choosing a good meal replacement shake.
Fewer isn’t necessarily better when it comes to counting calories. If you are replacing a meal with your shake, you want it to do just that – replace it with something as similar as possible. In order to do so, it requires a set number of calories.
Wendy Bazilian, author of The Superfoods Rx Diet, recommends that a meal replacement shake contain at least 325 to 400 calories per serving. If this seems high to you — considering it’s just a beverage — remind yourself that it is a meal and not “just a beverage.” Furthermore, a meal replacement shake should keep you satiated until your next meal. It’s of little value to you if you’re ravenous an hour after drinking it.
WebMD has a slightly different take on calorie count. Their recommendation for a meal replacement shake is 220 to 230 calories. For me, that’s not a meal replacement; it’s a snack. A rather large snack, but a snack, nonetheless.
I don’t remember the last time I had a 220 calorie meal. That’s the number of calories in about 6 oz of skinless chicken with nothing on it. If you’re active, it’s simply not enough, in my opinion.
Bazilian recommends that a good meal replacement shake contain 15 to 25 grams of protein. This is a fair amount to keep you full and boost your protein intake if that’s your goal. For me, it’s about a third of my RDA (recommended dietary allowance). You can calculate yours using this online calculator.
On a day-to-day basis, I tend to consume more protein than my RDA. So if my meal replacement shake only had about 20 grams of protein, I’d probably eat some raw, unsalted nuts with it. You can easily supplement your shake with additional foods in order to tweak the nutritional content of your meal and tailor it to your specific needs, but more on that later!
Fiber is an important component of a healthy diet. It’s one of those things that you really don’t fully appreciate until you don’t get enough of it! Bazilian suggests aiming for at least 5 grams of fiber per
Ideally, it should be a combination of soluble and insoluble fiber. They work differently in the body and your digestive system will benefit from a combination of the two. However, if your shake only contains one variety, or the nutritional information doesn’t specify, don’t sweat it. It’s not critically important and hopefully, you’re getting a combination of the two types of fiber from other sources.
Repeat after me: “Fat is my friend.” While recent research has refuted the notion that all fat is evil and to be avoided at all costs, it can still be difficult to mentally get past the fact that your shake is high in fat, especially if you are striving to lose or maintain your weight.
However, fat – healthy fat – is fantastic stuff. Aside from a myriad of health benefits — check out this list of foods high in healthy fats and their benefits — it will help keep you feeling full longer. If your meal replacement shake has 10 to 13 grams of healthy fats, as Bazilian suggests, you’re far more likely to feel satisfied after having your shake. It’ll feel a lot more like a meal than a small appetizer.
I should add that WebMD states that a good meal replacement shake should contain five grams of fat or less. This reflects their overall lower calorie count recommendation. Again, for my own diet, this would be too low. When fat – and protein – content are too low, carbohydrate content often goes up.
Carbs are a necessary part of a balanced diet, but they won’t keep you feeling as full as fat and protein do. Furthermore, while fiber is a carbohydrate, the remaining carbs can end up being in the form of starch and sugar, both of which have little nutritional value, if any.
A meal replacement shake should provide a good portion of your RDA of most vitamins and minerals. I prefer naturally occurring nutrients as some researchers argue that synthetic vitamins and minerals are not as readily absorbed by the body. The jury is still out on this one; you can choose which you prefer.
If you’re not sure whether the nutrients in your shake are naturally occurring or not, check the ingredients list. If they’re not listed, they’re naturally occurring, even if they’re listed in the nutritional profile.
Sugar content is an important consideration when choosing a meal replacement shake. Generally, the lower the better. However, my preference is to steer clear of artificial sweeteners and would rather have a bit of sugar – or better yet, stevia – in my shake. While some naturally occurring sugar is fine, aim to steer clear of shakes that have added sugar.
Finally, overall nutritional value is an important factor to consider when choosing a meal replacement shake. Look at the ingredients list. Many commercial shakes are basically a milkshake with an added multi-vitamin. You wouldn’t have a milkshake for dinner (Or perhaps you would. I don’t judge!) so why buy a meal replacement shake with essentially the same ingredients?
The nutrition information is important, but so is the source of those nutrients. Does the fat come from an unspecified vegetable oil that can cause inflammation, or is the source more nutritionally sound such as flax seeds?
Some Shake Recommendations
No meal replacement shake is perfect, but here are a couple top picks:
Vega One All-in-One Nutritional Shake
I love this shake. So do a lot of other people as it has a four-star rating on this site with over 3700 customer reviews. The ingredients list reads like a list of foods I’d actually eat at a meal. It has no added sugar or artificial sweeteners. I do find it a little on the sweet side but a squeeze of lemon or a little extra water cuts it right down.
Depending on which flavor you go with, half a cup of frozen cranberries also reduces the sweetness and adds a nice tang.
This shake is also a little low in calories. If you’re able to make it to your next meal without feeling ravenous, then great! I can’t. So, I supplement it by eating a handful of raw, unsalted nuts or some roasted chick peas. They provide some added fiber and healthy fats and stay full longer. If I’m having a really active day, I just have two servings (82g) instead of one.
- • Serving Size: 41g
• Calories: 160
• Protein: 20g
• Fat: 5g
• Carbohydrates: 10g (Sugar: 1g; Fiber: 6g)
• 50% daily intake of vitamins and minerals
• 1.5g omega-3s, probiotics, and antioxidants
• Non-GMO project verified, vegan certified, low-glycemic, gluten-free, and made without dairy or soy ingredients
Garden of Life Meal Replacement – Organic Raw Plant Based Protein Powder
This is another fantastic meal replacement shake. It also has a four-star rating on this site. The only drawback, in my opinion, is the low calorie and fat content. You can supplement your meal with a handful of raw nuts and/or some avocado slices if you feel you need to. Again, increasing the serving size is also an option.
- • Serving Size: 35g
• Calories: 115
• Protein: 20g
• Fat: 1.5g
• Carbohydrates: 8g (Sugar: < 1g; Fiber:7g of which 1g is soluble) • Contains 44 superfoods • 1.5 billion CFU probiotics and enzymes for easy digestion • Organic, gluten free, Star-K kosher, vegan, dairy free, soy free, non-GMO whole food protein
Drawbacks of Meal Replacement Shakes
I am a big proponent of mindful eating – sitting comfortably to eat while slowly savoring every bite. It’s been proven to aid in weight loss because you’re more likely to only eat until you begin to feel full. It also helps with nutrient absorption because food is chewed more thoroughly.
Unfortunately, meal replacement shakes don’t really promote mindful eating. Gulping down a quick shake while on the go – as convenient as it may be – might sabotage your weight loss efforts in this respect if it conditions you to inhale your food quickly while on the go.
Many people who use meal replacement shakes to lose weight find that they gain weight back when they stop drinking them. If your plan is to drink them indefinitely, then great! If not, be aware that your weight may begin to creep back if you stop using them.
They’re not real food. Even the best meal replacement shake is no match for some lean chicken, a fresh salad, and some brown rice. Shakes need to be processed in order to extend shelf life and while many shakes aren’t necessarily a nutritional nightmare, they certainly don’t come close to resembling the ingredients in their original forms.
They’re boring. I like variety in my diet. I love using lots of herbs and spices in my cooking and enjoy a wide range of flavors. Even though most shakes come in more than one flavor, I find they get tiresome.
If you’re looking for quick, healthy food on the run, there are some other options. Throwing together a couple foods that contain protein, fat, and fiber can take next to no time. I love combining raw almonds with a pear, or hummus with crudités.
The term “meal replacement shake” is a bit of a misnomer, I think. There really isn’t anything that truly replaces a proper, freshly prepared meal. However, with today’s fast paced life, speed and convenience are often indispensable. Besides, you’re better off having a meal replacement shake than opting for fast food or – worse still – nothing at all.
Health enthusiast, runner, protein nut. Owen likes to write about protein, particularly alternatve supplementation and supplement comparisons.