You see it all over Facebook and Instagram, people you went to school with, co-workers, long lost family members – everywhere you look you see someone is raving about one of the latest meal replacement programs. It goes back as far as the 70’s with SlimFast, then the big craze of NutriSystem, Jenny Craig, the Special K diet, now it seems to be the shake programs– HerbaLife, Shakeology, Ideal Protein, Medifast, Advocare, the list goes on.
As a health professional it’s great to see so many people taking steps to better their health, yet at the same time I can’t help but cringe a little when I see people getting so enthralled in these programs and companies. There are numerous studies supporting that meal replacement programs are successful for weight loss and that some people are able to maintain their weight after discontinuing the programs. However, there are several things about these programs that I dislike.
As a dietitian a big part of my job is helping people manage their weight, but as a more alternative practitioner I go beyond the weight loss and focus on people developing healthy habits and eating good, wholesome, REAL FOOD. I strive to educate myself as much as possible about food and products on the market so that I can advise people on what is best for them. Knowledge is power, so I hope to educate you on these products, why they work, benefits and drawbacks, but do not intend to offend or bash any of these products or programs.
Why Meal Replacement Programs Work
Weight loss is often defined as a simple equation of calories in = less than calories out [although not always that simple]. When people use shakes or pre-packaged meals they lose weight by virtue of calorie control. If someone usually eats a burger and fries or even a 6” sub for lunch every day, then switches to a 200-300 calorie shake or meal they are going to create a calorie deficit. It makes sense that people have easier time controlling calorie intake when they are limited to a shake or pre-portioned meal vs having to control portions on their own.
People may also have greater success with these programs because of the ease and convenience. Eating a healthy balanced diet takes planning and prepping, a commitment many people looking to lose weight quickly aren’t ready to make.
Shakes and meal replacement programs can be a good kick start to weight loss and/or transition to a healthier lifestyle, but that leads me to the drawbacks of such programs…
Why I don’t Love Meal Replacement Programs
- Short term success with no long term support
These types of programs are not meant for long term use, and most people will eventually get tired of the same foods/shakes every day, the restricted diet, and cost. None of these programs are maintainable the way that healthy lifestyle changes are. It may be challenging at times, but eating a balanced real food diet allows for much more variety and flexibility. These shake programs don’t teach you how to navigate holidays and functions, they don’t teach you how to transition to normal foods again, they don’t demonstrate portion and calorie control beyond their products. Unfortunately, that means that many individuals fall back into their bad eating habits once they give up the shakes.
- Highly processed, artificial ingredients including soy and/or dairy and sweeteners
One thing I often tell my patients is “if you can’t read it, you probably shouldn’t eat it”. The ingredient lists for most shake powders are the length of a short novel. Even with two degrees in nutrition, I have to look some of them up. Many do have some good ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, and even probiotics, but a number of ingredients are not so great.The main ingredient in HerbaLife shakes, for example, is soy protein isolate. The safety, concerns, and benefits of soy have been long debated and are still controversial. Most data suggests that whole soy (i.e. edamame, tofu, tempeh, miso and natto) are safe and have beneficial health qualities. Processed soy, specifically soy protein isolates and concentrates, have been stripped of the beneficial nutrients soy has to offer and are usually made from genetically modified soy. The topic of soy could be a whole other blog topic, so for now I’ll leave you with a link briefly describing some of the concerns of processed soy including heavy metal contamination, pesticide exposure and hormone disruption. Additionally, if you have a pre-existing thyroid disorder and are on medication for it, soy can interfere with that medication, making it less effective. Bottom line, soy may or may not be detrimental to our health, but it is best to avoid large quantities of it so drinking 2 or more soy based shakes a day is not something I would recommend.Shakeology, on the other hand, gets most of its protein from whey. Whey protein supplement use in athletes has been researched widely and shows muscle building and even some weight loss benefits. However, consuming very high doses can cause some GI upset, nausea, headaches and fatigue. Whey is derived from dairy, so anyone with an allergy or sensitivity to dairy may have issues with whey to include inflammation and water retention, comprising of the immune system, worsening seasonal allergies, and more.
Various meal replacements may also contain artificial sweeteners. Recent studies have linked artificial sweeteners to increased body mass and reduced ability to lose weight because they affect the body’s ability to gauge how many calories are being consumed. Some studies show that artificial sweeteners affect the brain by providing a sweet taste without any calories which can cause cravings for more sweet foods and drinks, which can add up to excess calories. This applies to natural zero calorie sweeteners, such as stevia, as well. You can read more about artificial sweeteners here.
Another fun fact – “Consumer Reports” published a review of 15 different protein drinks and shakes in July 2010. Researchers found that every drink in the test was contaminated by arsenic, cadmium, lead or mercury. Those heavy metals when consumed in excess are toxic.
- Pushes out REAL FOODS in our diet
The main reason I got into the nutrition field is for the love of food. I encourage my clients every day to consume as many whole foods as possible. I also put a huge emphasis on things in moderation (in case you couldn’t tell from my blog name). I have a huge sweet tooth, so I feel it is important to teach my clients how to fit in treats here and there…the real thing too, not some fake sugar or protein powder cake. I feel eating should be pleasurable experience. I find that most of these meal/shake programs place so much emphasis on use of their products (and duh, that’s how they make their money) that it pushes a lot of good, healthy foods out of the diet. It’s truly better to get your vitamins and antioxidants from whole fruits and vegetables then from powdered extract in a shake.Additionally, most of the disclaimers for these programs state “Consumers who use “such and such program” twice per day as part of a healthy lifestyle can generally expect to lose around 0.5 to 1 pound per week.” or something to that extent. Guess what — that’s normal healthy weight loss for any calorie reduction program. My average weight loss client sees that with whole food balanced diet and moderate exercise.
Not only is the limit on real food a nutritional drawback, but a social one as well. This lack of education on how to include healthy foods, and make balanced choices impacts a person’s ability to manage social situations involving food. Our culture puts a lot of focus around food for holidays and other gatherings, it is important to learn how to balance this in a healthy way rather than feeling like you can’t partake. I want my clients to enjoy these situations rather than feeling they can’t attend, have to bring their own food, or will feel their progress is completely sabotaged by one meal. These programs do not provide that support.
Meal replacement programs can provide the motivation and success that people want when managing their weight; however, I feel the drawbacks much outweigh the benefits. I believe it is certainly possible to fit in shakes as a healthy meal replacement (I do so myself), but would emphasize making them with whole foods as much as possible.
A good equation for a satisfying healthy shake or smoothie is:
1 cup liquid (almond, coconut, rice milk, water, coconut water) +
1 cup total fruit +
1 serving of fat or protein (1-2TB nut butter, coconut oil, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, ½ an avocado, or a plant or egg based protein powder) +
Optional vegetables/greens (kale, spinach, etc)
Some favorite combinations of mine are:
“Green Monkey” – 1 cup almond milk, ½ frozen banana, 1-2TB peanut butter, 1 cup spinach
“Blueberry Avocado Smoothie” – 1 cup liquid of choice, ½ avocado, ½ frozen banana, ½ cup frozen blueberries, 1 cup kale
“Chocolate Covered Cherry” – 1 cup almond milk, ½-1 serving plant based chocolate protein powder (I’ve been using Trader Joe’s Hemp Protein lately), 1TB almond butter, ½ cup frozen cherries, 1TB cocoa powder, 1 cup kale/spinach
Follow me on Instagram @jacqui_rd for more yummy meal/snack/smoothie ideas
Working with a dietitian can help you weed through the facts and myths about food and diet, figure out exactly what you need in terms of amounts of different types of food, and set you up with habits and strategies to maintain weight and a healthy lifestyle. The great thing is most insurance companies with cover nutrition therapy with a registered dietitian, many cover 100% with no cost to the patient, so seeing an RD with save you money too! Interested? Check us out at http://www.bordeauxnutrition.com or on Facebook.