Shakes, Bars, Pills and Potions: My Take on Meal Replacement Products

Muscle Milk, AdvoCare, Isagenix, Shakeology, Body By Vi, MetRX, MetaboLife, HerbaLife, Slim Fast, EAS…every fitness professional seems to either have their own line of meal replacement products, or be part of a supplement and meal replacement Multi-Level Marketing company. Type the term ‘weight loss’ into google and you’ll be served hundreds of websites hawking all kinds of shakes and potions promising quick weight loss, faster muscle building, improved health and even income opportunities. It’s obviously a HUGE industry, and people are buying it up to the tune of billions of dollars a year in the US alone.

The first thing everyone needs to understand about meal replacement products and other supplements is that they are the big moneymakers in the fitness/weight loss industry. That’s why everyone is selling them. They’re inexpensive to make, require very little time and energy investment by the seller, and appeal to human nature’s desire for immediate gratification. In other words, they’re an easy sell, especially to a demographic that is desperate for a magic pill.

There’s very little difference from brand to brand. Some make claims of using higher quality or ‘natural’ ingredients (the term ‘natural’ is totally unregulated and can mean pretty much anything the marketer decides they want it to mean), others cite studies that show their product outperformed similar products (generally funded by the manufacturer of the product), there are minor differences in macro and micronutrient profiles from brand to brand. Overall however, most meal replacement products are more alike than they are different.

So what’s my opinion? It’s no secret that I believe we should be getting our nutrition from mostly real, whole foods. However, meal replacement products DO offer a measure of convenience that can’t be denied. Running around all day and don’t have the time to sit down to a full meal? A meal replacement shake or bar can come in handy here, to give you the calories and macronutrients of a full meal in a convenient and portable package. Maybe you’re having trouble getting enough protein through food alone. A protein shake can help you meet your protein requirements while you’re working on getting your diet dialed in. So meal replacement products can be useful tools to take advantage of when you can’t get what you need from food for one reason or another.

HOWEVER. Meal replacement products are not superior to real food. There is not a single nutrient in any meal replacement product that can’t be better utilized by your body when it comes in the form of a whole food. These products, by their very nature, are refined and processed, and usually shipped long distances and stored for months or years before being consumed. A rich and varied diet of mostly real whole foods, especially ones sourced locally so as to be at their peak of freshness, is better for your body. Most of these products are marketed as the ‘foundation of a healthy lifestyle’ which implies that you will be using them for the rest of your life. In my opinion, the foundation of a healthy lifestyle isn’t any specific product, or nutrient, or diet. It is the ability to think critically about where you food is coming from and how it affects your body, and the ability to create balanced meals that meet your goals and nutrition requirements, using foods that are relatively easy and cost effective for you to acquire. Meal replacement products do not support either of those goals, rather, when used as the manufacturers WANT you to use them, they create dependence and inflexibility.

I am not against the use of meal replacement products. In fact, I use them myself. The key, though, is to view them as a tool, a useful backup, NOT as the foundation of your lifestyle. If you would like to include a meal replacement product in your ‘toolbox’, here are my tips for choosing one.

1. Read the ingredients! Don’t take the front of the package, or even the person selling the product, at face value.
2. Find an organic one, if possible. Buying an organic product will help ensure that you’re not getting your nutrients from GMOs (if you’re concerned about those). If the product contains animal foods, it will help ensure that you’re not getting artificial hormones, antibiotics, and other less optimal substances that are ubiquitous in our food supply.
3. Look for one that is either unsweetened, or sweetened with stevia if you don’t want to add extra calories (although calories are not a bad thing!). Artificial sweeteners bring their own set of issues, so be aware if you’re concerned about these.
4. Look at it’s fat sources and fat profile. Does it contain refined seed oils like soybean, corn or safflower? Emergent research is beginning to suggest they may be harmful. Better fat sources: hemp, chia, flax, and coconut.
5. Look at the protein source. Is it derived from something you’d eat ‘in real life’? Whey is the most common protein source. Some brands use organic whey, which is great. A few select brands even use whey from pastured, grass fed cows. That’s even better! If the product uses soy, is it organic? If not it’s probably GMO, which is a concern for some. There are plenty of other non-soy plant based proteins, look for organic if you want to to avoid GMO, and sprouted to increase digestibility.

Finally, and most importantly, just think critically about the claims the product, and/or the person selling it is making. Humans thrived for millions of years before supplements and meal replacement products were invented. If they were necessary for muscle development, increased strength, weight loss, or optimal health we would have died out a million years ago. These products are convenient and practical, but not necessary or optimal.

As far as single supplements, I usually tell people they are only necessary if your food log or a blood test indicates a deficiency. If you are wondering if you need to supplement, or if a supplement might improve your performance or health, my friend Sol from examine.com has put together an exhaustive review of the science supporting (or in most cases, not supporting) various supplement products. Don’t go to the supplement counter without it!

22 thoughts on “Shakes, Bars, Pills and Potions: My Take on Meal Replacement Products

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  4. Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was
    super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any suggestions for newbie blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  5. Thanks for the write up. I definitely agree with what you are saying.
    I have been talking about this subject a lot recently with my brother so hopefully this will get him to see my perspective.
    Fingers crossed!

  6. My husband’s family sells a brand of meal replacement that promotes “optimal health”. It’s very annoying to read the constant sales pitches on Facebook and then to hear how they’re only selling “health” not weight loss. It does work and I’m sure for some morbidly obese people it is their saving grace. However, when they start promoting it for children and young women who want to lose the “last 15 pounds” it makes me want to scream.

  7. Awesome post! I like Garden of Life Raw Protein powder to add to smoothies in the summer, but I don’t do any pre-made bars or shakes unless traveling or catch myself in a situation where there isn’t a real food alternative available. Thankfully, that just doesn’t happen often!

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  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! You are right…there are so many “quick fix” products out there, and sadly people fall into that trap. I also use the Juice Plus complete shake after my long runs, but know that it is GMO-free, vegetable protein and sweetened with stevia.

  10. I use Juice Plus Complete on the rare occassion I feel I need one. It has organic dehydrated fruit and veggie juice as well as probiotcs. Thanks for another great article!!!!

  11. Thank you for this post. I have several friends who have tried to get me to do the Body By Vi. When my husband and decided to eat better we made the decision to not use meal replacement shakes. I make fruit smoothies in the morning, or used to before the gestational diabetes set in. It was fresh fruit, greek yogurt, chia seeds, oatmeal, and some orange juice. I failed to see how a shake that has been so processed is better for me or my unborn child than a fresh made smoothie. Once Peanut is born I will get back into the gym and increase my activity. I’ve been limited on what I can do. Right now my goal is to feed myself and my family good, fresh, healthy food. Shakes don’t fall into that category.

  12. Thank you for this info. I have been looking for something Paleo on these shakes. I have a WHOLE case I cannot use.$300. worth hydrolyzed oats make up some sort of energy formula in them. Splenda is also on the list. I have been trying to figure out what to eat to replace this…

  13. Personally, I would rather not eat than eat a meal replacement shake. All of the added sugar and processed ingredients really do not seem like they would be something for optimal nutrition. Don’t get me wrong, I have had my share of slim-fasts back in the day, but with the exception of the vitamins they add, I don’t see it being a good alternative for real food!

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  15. Thank you for this intelligent, well written post. I wish I had it in my arsenal of education when I went head to head with a “pusher” who had been brainwashed by a MLM. He preyed on a group of women and men whose goals were to become more healthy and fit at the beginning of the year. Over the course of time, it became my mission to warn them not drink the kool-aid as he incessantly pushed his quick fix protein shakes and bars on us. He kept vehemently spouting, “I don’t know how it works, but it does. Look at this testimony. How can hundreds of thousands of people be wrong?” My favorite arrogant statement was, “Our protein shake builds lean muscle,” then he stated on his FB page after his challenge, “I’m so proud for losing 15lbs. After I gain back the 5-6 lbs of the lean muscle mass I lost, then I’m going to do another challenge.” :face palm:

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  17. For someone looking to put on muscle mass and is wt lifting, how often should pro powder (like sun warrior, nutribiotic, vega, etc) be used? Is it ok to use a couple times a day, or just a max of once?

    Whens the best time to use pro powder (the first meal, to get amino acids into the body after not eating for 12hrs while sleeping), before a workout, after….or does it not matter, as long as u get enough pro during the day?

    What much pro should a person get (which calculation do u use and feel is best? The calculations vary so widely)

    Thanks!

    • In my opinion, protein timing isn’t really that important (and I’ve seen science to back this opinion up, although I don’t have it handy). What’s important is getting enough each day, and I usually recommend 1 gram per pound of bodyweight if you are actively working on body recomposition or losing weight.

      Work toward getting more of your protein from food. It can be a challenge learning what foods and combinations provide the best protein sources, so use a powder to supplement as needed.

  18. Yes! I couldn’t agree more, and it’s nice to read an intelligent perspective on the topic (shouldn’t be hard to find…but sometimes it is). I usually stay away from that stuff, but I have to admit that luna bars are my guilty pleasure (the chocolate peppermint stick ones…so good).

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