The Truth About Meal Replacement

Looking for a simple diet plan that fits into your busy schedule? Meal replacements may be the answer you're looking for! They really can be part of a healthy weight loss program. Get the facts and find the plan that's best for you.

Meal Replacement Diets vs. Traditional Diets

The March 2001 issue of The Journal of the American Dietetic Association includes a yearlong study of 64 overweight women ages 18-55 who wanted to lose 20 to 40 pounds and maintain the weight loss. The women claimed they couldn't change their eating habits no matter how hard they tried. Half the women were given a standard 1,200-calorie meal plan that you've probably all memorized by now. The other group was told to replace all three daily meals with a liquid shake containing 220 calories, supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables to total 1,200 calories per day.

What happened? After the first three months, both groups of women lost 3 to 6 pounds of body fat without losing lean muscle mass. But after one year on the program, the women on the meal replacements maintained their weight loss, while the other group regained the lost weight (sound familiar?).

Another study of 100 overweight people (21 males and 79 females, ages 35-55) published in the August 2000 issue of Obesity Research also sheds a favorable light on meal replacements. For the first three months, half the participants followed a 1,200- 1,500-calorie diet, while the other half had two meal replacements per day, plus one balanced meal. At the end of the three months, the traditional dieters had lost 1.7 pounds and the group using meal replacements lost 7 pounds. At this point, both groups were asked to use one meal replacement and one snack replacement each day for the next four years. At the end of the study, the traditional dieters lost an average of 3 pounds, while the meal replacement group lost an average of 8 pounds. It appears that initially losing more weight helped the second group maintain their weight loss for a longer period of time -- 8 pounds may not sound like much, but any amount of weight that we can lose and keep off typically translates into improved health. Both groups saw a decrease in blood sugar levels, but only the meal replacement group had lower triglyceride and blood pressure levels.

If you have trouble estimating portion sizes, find yourself eating too often or typically choose foods high in fat and calories, meal replacements may work for you. We all know that losing weight is one thing, but keeping that weight off for one, two or even three years or longer is a completely different story. For people who really have trouble changing their eating habits permanently, using one meal replacement per day may be just the ticket to keep weight from coming back. As an added bonus, reducing body fat typically results in decreased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and heart disease.

But just like other diet plans, meal replacements aren't for everybody. If you need the taste of real food and prefer to chew rather than drink your meals, you're probably better off sticking to healthy foods, not meal replacement shakes and bars. A meal of six baby carrots and a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with mustard and dark green lettuce is just as healthy as a 220-calorie meal replacement shake.

Six Ways to Maximize Your Results with Meal Replacements

Use these helpful tips to make meal replacements a successful part of your weight loss and weight maintenance plan:

1. Use a meal replacement for no more than two meals, or one meal and one snack, per day, unless you're closely supervised by your doctor.

2. Choose meal replacements that contain at least 200 calories. They should also have a balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats to provide adequate nutrition and decrease between-meal munchies.

3. Use meal replacements at the meals that cause you the most trouble. If breakfast is always a donut on the run, drink a Kashi shake instead. If you routinely skip lunch, or succumb to the fast-food advertisements, grab a Slim-Fast lunch bar. If you can't find the time to make a healthy dinner, have a Snapple-a-Day.

4. Mix and match so you don't get bored. You can use two meal replacements on some days and just one on others when you have more time to make healthy meals. Also, try lots of different meal replacement products to keep your taste buds happy. For example, you could have a Slim-Fast shake for breakfast and a bowl of Special K for lunch.

5. Choose fresh fruit for snacks twice a day for added nutrition and fiber. If you're drinking lots of shakes, you'll be happy to have something you can chew!

6. Maximize your weight loss by making your traditional meal well balanced. To do so, make your plate look like this: Fill half with vegetables (raw or cooked, your choice), one-quarter with protein (chicken, fish, tofu, legumes, red meat) and the remaining quarter with the starch (pasta, potato, rice, bread).

Meal replacement Portion Cal Carb Pro Fat Fiber
Slim Fast
French Vanilla Shake 1 can
(325 mL)
220 36 10 2.5 5
Orange-Strawberry-Banana Shake 1 can
(340 mL)
220 46 7 1 5
Milk Chocolate Peanut Meal on the Go Bar 1 bar
(56 gm)
220 36 8 5 5
Dutch Chocolate Lunch and Breakfast Bar** 1 bar 140 20 5 5 2
Good Friends cereal 3/4 cup 90 24 3 1 8
GoLEAN Chocolate Peanut Butter Bar 1 bar
(78 gm)
290 47 13 6 6
GoLEAN Chocolate Shake 1 can
(325 mL)
230 38 15 3 7
Special K
Special K cereal 1 cup 115 22 6 0 1
Special K cereal with milk and fruit*** 1 bowl 275 45 11 0 3
Herb Roasted Chicken 8 oz 200 24 17 3.5 3
Chicken Primavera 8 oz 180 28 11 2.5 1
Strawberry Banana Snapple-a-Day 11.5 oz 210 43 7 0 5

*All measurements are in grams except for portion size and calories, unless noted otherwise.

**Drink 8 ounces skim milk when using these bars for an additional 80 calories, 12 gm carbs, 8 gm protein

*** Use 2/3 cup skim milk plus one piece medium-size fresh fruit (or 1/2 cup cut-up fruit or berries) with each cereal meal for an additional 150 calories, 5 gm protein, and 23 gm carbohydrate

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