Dear Lifehacker, I have a coworker who swears by meal replacement shakes. I was shocked to see that her brand of choice cost over $150 per container! Is there any reason to believe these shakes are actually helping her? Better yet, are there other options I could convince her to use instead? I'm worried she's drinking the Kool-Aid of a very expensive fad. Thanks, Concerned Co-worker
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
Let's first clarify that meal replacement shakes are not to be confused with protein shakes, though the differences are nit-picky: a meal replacement shake typically has between 200-500 calories and tick off a bunch of nutritional checkmarks with added vitamins, minerals, fibre, and some protein.
Meanwhile, a protein shake might be between 80 to 180 calories, has a narrower spectrum of vitamins, offers more versatility in what you can do with it, and unsurprisingly, contains a lot more protein. Most meal replacement shakes are marketed as weight loss aids, but others, like Soylent, are meant to eliminate the very first-world problem of wasting time to prepare and chew your food.
I agree with you that the Kool-Aid hype is strong in this one. Social proof is one of the most powerful biases to get people to believe something may be good, or at least worth trying. Most have an impressively long list of vitamins and healthy-sounding "superfood" ingredients which sounds great. But let's put on our sceptic's hats on for a moment.
In general, added vitamins tend to have a big, fat health halo. People may believe that just because vitamins have been added to a food, it's now supposedly better for you (case in point: Vitamin Sug-- I mean, Vitamin Water) and it's okay to have more of it. Don't be fooled. In fact, if your diet is varied and balanced, mineral or vitamin supplements have no clear benefit, writes the editors of this article in the Annals of Internal Medicine. More importantly, shakes (whether they're protein or meal replacement ones) aren't regulated as closely as other health supplements so don't expect the product to fulfil its promises on the label.
One thing's for sure, replacement shakes have convenience going for them and they're also expensive. If we do the maths and break down the cost of a single container, it can be as high as $6 per serving. That's a lot of money for a liquid meal, especially if you're partaking daily.
The best and most cost-effective alternative is to simply make smoothie meals at home, using a blender and common ingredients. That way, you can customise everything to your liking. For example, you can use Greek yogurt and milk for your protein; add nut butters for creaminess and extra calories; or throw in frozen fruits and vegetables for more fibre and nutritional value. Check out our guide to making healthier smoothies and this graphical guide on making protein smoothies that are just as effective and tasty as anything you'll buy pre-mixed in a container.
When Meal Replacement Shakes Can Help You
If you're always on-the-go, meal replacement shakes are practical. They get extra brownie points for being portable and convenient. Ideally, they would make an easy meal or snack when the other option is a hanger-induced run to the nearest drive-through, or even worse, just going hungry. Simply add water (or milk) and it will shush any loud, growling stomach. Then there's the added advantage of taking the guesswork out of planning and preparing healthier meals; or in the case of Soylent, being a quick meal when just eating is simply a hassle.
As part of a weight loss regimen, shakes can be helpful, if drinking it means you're not eating junk calories elsewhere. So, if you swap out your typical breakfast of a blueberry muffin chased with a vanilla soy latte (a potential difference of 300-600 calories), then you'll be eating fewer calories overall. Do this enough to be consistently in a calorie deficit, and you're well on your way to weight loss! That's all it is.
There's nothing magical about meal replacement shakes themselves for weight loss, except for the fact that they tend to have a thicker consistency, which helps suppress hunger. In shakes with a higher fat content like Soylent, the fat can help you feel fuller for longer because they leave the stomach more slowly. Overall, it's still all a matter of controlling how many calories you eat though. If you're drinking shakes in addition to staying on your regular eating habits, you can bet the scale will rebel against your wishes.
However, that does mean these are perfect for people with the opposite problem who have trouble gaining weight. For these folks, they typically lack the appetite to eat the required amount of calories for weight gain, so shakes (and any additional source of calories, really) can be a no-fuss way to get more calories without making them feel too uncomfortable and bloated.
Overall, meal replacement shakes like Shakeology have their place and can be useful for lifestyles that constantly call for quick and convenient meals, but they can quite literally come at a high cost. In reality, we could all use a reminder that meal replacement shakes are just like any other supplement: use them if you need the extra boost in calories in your day.
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