My typical workday morning used to be a rushed affair. My husband leaves before me and I’d get up with him to start the life machine coffee pot. Instead of getting ready like a responsible adult, though, I’d snuggle back in bed as soon as he left. I never meant to fall back asleep. I just wanted to rest and scroll through my social media updates (hey, something important could have happened at 2:00 a.m.!).
I’d inevitably wake up with about 20 minutes to get myself together and make it to work on time (cue the Saved by the Bell theme song).
A nutritious breakfast was the last thing on my mind, and I was lucky if I remembered to grab my freshly brewed coffee on my way out the door, much less a pop tart.
Most mornings I’d stop by my favorite convenience store and grab a protein shake for breakfast, which I thought was the same as a meal replacement shake.
It turns out I wasn’t choosing the healthiest shake option, so I spoke to diet and nutrition experts to get the scoop on meal replacement shakes.
Here’s what you really need to know:
One of these shakes is not like the other.
Meal replacement shakes can be considered protein shakes, but not all protein shakes can take the place of a meal.
Amy Goodson, a registered dietitian in Dallas, Texas, says, “Many times protein shakes are nothing but protein and water and can be under 250 calories, whereas a meal replacement is … closer to a meal, so 350 to 500 calories.”
No wonder I’d have to break out my emergency granola bars an hour into the workday on my protein-shake-for-breakfast diet!
According to Gisela Bouvier, registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of B Nutrition and Wellness, the main difference between protein shakes and meal replacement shakes, such as the popular line of Soylent meal replacement options, is that meal replacement shakes “contain carbohydrates. A protein shake usually contains very limited carbs and is primarily consumed post workout. A meal replacement shake can be consumed at any time.”
So what should be in your meal replacement shake?
Meal replacement shakes can be used for a variety of health goals, lifestyle coach Kate Martino tells HealthyWay. “For example, some are for diabetic blood sugar control, some are for reaching fitness goals, and some are for calories when a person is unable to eat enough to meet their needs.”
Hey, what’s in this shake?
“A meal replacement shake is … meant to serve as a replacement to a traditional whole-food meal,” says Paul Salter, a registered dietitian and weight maintenance expert and the former nutrition editor for Bodybuilding.com, which bills itself as the world’s largest online health and fitness store.
So what does that mean exactly?
Molly Cutler, a holistic nutritionist and certified health coach and owner of Molly Cutler Health, explains:
“A meal replacement shake is a smoothie that incorporates the necessary amounts of macro and micro nutrients … that will keep you satiated for several hours, balance your blood sugar, and give you a strong dose of antioxidants and fiber to aid in digestion and microbiome proliferation.”
“A high quality meal replacement shake should have between 20 and 25 g of clean protein from an organic protein powder, about 10 to 15 g healthy monounsaturated or saturated fat, 6 to 8 g fiber, limited fruit (1/2 cup max), and unlimited vegetables for phytonutrients.”
Nutritionist Charles Passler says that meal replacement shakes “can be just a stone’s throw from absolute junk.”
If you’re not sure your meal replacement shake contains the right kind of nutrients, Passler has some tips on what kind of ingredients to put in your shakes:
- The protein source in your meal replacement shake should provide a complete amino acid profile like whey or egg. If it’s a vegetable protein like rice or peas, then additional branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) should be added to the [meal replacement shake] to create a complete amino acid profile. BCAAs help maintain muscle mass.
- The carbs in the meal replacement shake should be at least 30 percent from fiber. Some examples of fibrous carbs include most green veggies, like broccoli and spinach.
- The fats should be exclusively or at least mostly “monounsaturated,” like the kind found in olive oil and/or “polyunsaturated,” found in foods like many nut butters.
Are meal replacement shakes actually good for you?
Some meal replacement shakes are downright delicious, but are they actually healthy?
“They can be,” says Goodson, “But many meal replacement shakes are not enough calories and leave people feeling hungry soon after, while some may have more calories than an individual needs. The goal with eating is to consume as much whole food as you can, and meal replacements can often have lots of additives and other things to make them taste good, not necessarily more healthy.”
Most nutritionists agree that homemade meal replacement shakes are the best option so you know exactly what is in your shake.
Cutler tells HealthyWay:
“The easiest way to know exactly what’s going in to your meal replacement shake is to prepare it at home. Experiment with delicious fats like coconut butter, peanut butter, nuts, and olive oil. Find an organic animal-based or organic vegetarian or vegan protein you enjoy. Keep chia seeds and flax seeds around for fiber. Stock up on dark leafy greens for green shakes, frozen zucchini and cauliflower for extra creamy shakes, and steamed and then frozen starchy root veggies like sweet potato and squash for more warming shakes in colder months.”
Martino recommends adding in “fruits, greens, an unsweetened/unflavored protein powder, a healthy fat (coconut milk, nuts, nut butter, or avocado), and water or milk. If extra calories are needed, you can add in an extra fat and even oats too.”
Due to my perpetual lateness, ready-made shakes appealed to me, which is why I ended up buying those less-than-healthy gas station protein drinks.
If you do have to buy prepared meal replacement shakes, Martino says to watch out for unhealthy ingredients.
“The unhealthy parts of meal replacement shakes are the low quality ingredients, such as sugar and artificial sweeteners, heavily processed proteins, flavorings, preservatives, and thickeners.”
Salter agrees. “If selecting a store-bought [meal replacement shake], make sure that there is at least 20 g of protein. Protein helps to slow digestion, thus positively impacting your appetite and helping to steady energy levels for the hours to come. Also, make sure the one you choose isn’t a calorie bomb—it shouldn’t be pushing over 1,000 calories.”
In addition, Salter says to check the nutrition label for store-bought shakes that contain trans fats and saturated fats. Coupled with a high sugar content, a meal replacement shake could easily turn into a calorie-laden milkshake instead.
Before you stock up on shakes, read this.
If you’re too busy to stop for a nutritious meal, a meal replacement shake can be a good option.
“A meal replacement shake is valuable because it presents a convenient form of nutrition that is easily consumed hassle-free,” says Salter. “This is advantageous versus no meal at all because the longer you go without food, the harsher the impact on focus, energy levels, and your appetite. Often, going long periods without food leads to binge-like eating behaviors. A meal replacement shake can help [avoid] that issue and keep you full and energized between your main meals.”
In addition, meal replacement shakes might help people struggling to lose a few extra vanity pounds.
Goodson tells HealthyWay, “For many people, meal replacement shakes help with portion and calorie control. Controlling calories can help people with weight loss and/or weight maintenance goals.”
However, there can be some downsides to meal replacement shakes, especially if they’re premade.
Registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator Vandana Sheth, who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells HealthyWay, “While [meal replacement shakes] can be part of a healthy weight loss/maintenance program, they don’t necessarily provide you the lessons to follow when confronted with food decisions.”
It can be all too easy to grab a handy store-bought shake from the fridge—and even easier to follow that shake up with a hobbit-style second breakfast a couple of hours later. If you don’t pair meal replacement shakes with healthy nutrition guidelines, you could see numbers on the scale tick up instead of down.
Sheth says that if you’re using meal replacement shakes as a weight-loss tool, then “it is important to also understand how to eat right so that when you transition off the meal replacement shake you continue to be successful.”
Additionally, ready-made meal replacement shakes can contain a lot of synthetic ingredients, which aren’t necessarily bad for you—but aren’t good either. David Friedman, who is a naturopathic physician and author of the book Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, says “I personally prefer meal replacement shakes that are formulated with natural, whole foods vs. synthetic nutrients like artificial vitamins, colors, additives, and chemicals. Whole food ingredients provide a much better balance of nutrients.”
How can you tell if your shake is all natural?
“If you see chemicals or words listed that you can’t pronounce, this usually means they aren’t natural,” says Friedman. “Instead, look for products that contain fruits, veggies, legumes, or grains, which means you are consuming ‘real food’ and not ingredients created by chemists in a lab.”
What’s the bottom line?
Most of the nutritionists I spoke with recommended that meal replacement shakes not take the place of whole foods on a daily basis.
“I actually prefer the term ‘meal enhancement’ shakes instead of ‘meal replacement’ shakes,” says Friedman.
It’s not healthy to replace more than one meal per day with shakes. Although shakes can be good for you, they’re no match for a nutritious meal.
Instead, Salter recommends that meal replacement shakes should be “used on an as-needed basis, not as the foundation of your day.”
If you have the time, Salter says, “You’re better off combining multiple healthy, travel-friendly snacks to meet your protein, carbohydrate, and fat goals for meals on the run. Convenient, easy-to-travel with snacks include: whey/casein protein, Quest protein bars, Quest protein chips, beef jerky, lean deli meat, low-fat Greek yogurt, oats, fruit, nuts, seeds, nut butters.”
Goodson agrees. “As a registered dietitian, I recommend people eat whole, nutrient-rich foods when they can and save items like meal replacement shakes and protein bars for more on-the-go situations. If one meal a day seems more rushed, then a meal replacement shake can be a fine option.
It’s okay to also purchase ready-made meal replacement shakes like Soylent for those days you just can’t seem to get it together, but just don’t make them part of your daily routine.
If you do want to incorporate meal replacement shakes in your daily routine, homemade is the healthier option.
But chopping, measuring, and blending in the morning?
Please. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, try preparing ahead for hurried mornings.
“The possibilities for meal shakes and smoothies are endless,” says Bouvier. “All non-frozen ingredients can be prepped in containers with frozen ingredients (if any) can be added the morning of and then blended very quickly prior to drinking. You don’t want to blend ahead of time, as ingredients can separate.”
Martino agrees and shares her secret hack for prepping shakes ahead of time: “Fill single-serve lunch baggies with fruit and greens for each smoothie and keep in the fridge. Each morning, empty the baggie into the blender and add liquid, protein, source of fat, or other ingredients and blend. Then pour into a to-go container. It takes maybe a minute or two this way and will be peak freshness and nutrient dense.”
Feel like incorporating a meal replacement shake into your weekday routine?
Try these healthy recipes at home for a nutritious meal on the go!