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Do meal replacements work for weight loss?

By The Health News Team | July 31, 2023
Chocolate shake with straw

In today's fast-paced world, busy consumers are embracing quick and convenient nourishment. Meal replacement products — available in various form, such as bars, shakes and powders — are quickly gaining popularity.

Meal replacements are also a popular choice in the world of weight loss. They are often used in the quest to achieve or maintain a healthy weight. The convenience that meal replacements offer is appealing. But do they deliver? And are they healthy?

According to Lauren DeWolf, RD, a registered dietitian and wellness education specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy’s Center for Health Management, meal replacements are no magic bullet. However, they can be an effective tool for weight loss when used in conjunction with other healthy behaviors.

What are meal replacements?

The concept of a meal replacement is not new. As long ago as “The Jetsons” in 1962, TV shows and movies have depicted humans swapping meals for nutrition pills or liquids. Modern-day meal replacements come in an array of forms and flavors and are usually low in calories.

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a standard definition, a meal replacement generally refers to a calorie-controlled, prepackaged product intended to be used in place of or as part of a meal. “Meal replacements are formulated to provide a balance of macronutrients, including protein, carbohydrates and fats, as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals,” DeWolf says.

Their role in weight loss

Eating meals made from healthy, whole foods is ideal, but that’s not always practical with a busy schedule.

Meal replacements are often used as part of a weight-loss or weight-management program for three main reasons:

  • Convenience: The perk of meal replacements is that they simplify decisions you need to make about what to eat. Ready-to-go meals mean less time spent shopping, preparing, cooking and cleaning up.

  • Structure: If you often skip meals or have a chaotic eating routine, adopting a structured eating plan can help keep you on track. They also offer built-in portion control, so there’s no guesswork when it comes to how many calories you’re consuming.

  • Nutrients: If you graze on nutrient-poor snacks or rely on fast food, meal replacements could offer better nutrition than your usual choices. High-protein meal replacement bars and shakes help you get plenty of satisfying and muscle-promoting protein.

The science behind meal replacements

In a Diabetes Spectrum study, participants who swapped two meals a day for a meal replacement lost 7.8% of their body weight after three months. The group not using meal replacements lost just 1.5% of their body weight while consuming the same amount of calories.

Meal replacements are high in protein, which can keep you feeling full for longer, DeWolf says. Higher protein intake has been found to boost the production of hormones that play a role in satiety, or the feeling of fullness.

Consuming an adequate amount of protein can also help reduce body fat without losing muscle, which is a common challenge when dieting. “Protein is an essential building block for creating and repairing bodily tissues,” DeWolf says. “Adequate protein intake during weight loss can support the preservation of lean body mass.”

Are meal replacements right for you?

Whether or not meal replacements are a good fit for you depends on your individual health goals and dietary needs. The most important part of a healthy diet is finding what works for you. Not all meal replacements are created equal, so it’s crucial to find a product that offers the complete nutrition of a well-balanced meal.

“If you’re not sure where to start, a structured weight management program can offer guidance and support to maximize success,” DeWolf says. Sharp Rees-Stealy's Center for Health Management offers a wide variety of weight management and health education programs. Sharp’s structured weight loss programs incorporate the use of Robard’s Numetra meal replacement products, which are scientifically formulated for weight loss.

The bottom line

Meal replacements offer a valuable pathway to weight loss when integrated into a healthy lifestyle. Their convenience, calorie control and nutrient density make them an effective tool.

But it’s important to remember that they’re only a small piece of the puzzle. A weight loss approach that includes nutrition, exercise and behavior changes will be more successful than a program that focuses on only one of these elements.

Before starting any weight-loss program, including the use of meal replacements, consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian. Together, you can ensure it aligns with your individual health needs and goals.

To learn more about Sharp’s weight management programs, attend a free Weight-Loss Program Orientation Webinar.

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