A meal replacement for weight loss is a nutritional product that dieters eat in place of a snack or a meal. Meal replacements are easy to prepare, come in several different forms, and can provide balanced nutrition. They serve a valuable purpose in providing convenient nourishment when you do not enough time to prepare and eat a real meal. Another advantage of meal replacements for weight loss is that the calories are already counted, saving you the trouble of adding up the calories in your meals.
The United State Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines meal replacement specifically. According to the FDA, an over-the-counter meal replacement needs to be nutritious enough to replace a healthy meal. With that in mind, it should:
- Have approximately 200 calories per serving;
- Provide 25 percent of the daily value for protein; and
- Be fortified with 20 to 35 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for 23 vitamins and minerals.
Research shows that meal replacements can be safe and effective for long term weight loss if used to replace just one or two meals a day. Many dieters report that replacing one or two daily meals or snacks with meal replacements does in fact them lose weight. Meal replacements often help people kick-start their diets–with the satisfaction and encouragement that come from fairly quick weight loss. As always, maintaining weight loss for the long term requires ongoing attention to diet and exercise—not just meal replacements.
What Do Meal Replacements for Weight Loss Look Like?
A number of different types of meal replacements are readily available in food stores and pharmacies. Popular meal replacements come in the form of powders, ready-to-drink shakes, bars, and nutritional and prepackaged entrees.
- Meal replacement powders (MRPs) typically have from 200 to 600 calories per serving. Consumed instead of a meal, MRPs usually have a high protein content, a low fat content, and a moderate-to-high carbohydrate content. They commonly have vitamins and minerals to enhance and balance their nutritional value. Users mix MRPs with milk, juice, or water.
- Ready-to-drink (RTD) shakes are basically MRPs that come already mixed in individual, single-serving cans, bottles, or cartons.
- Bars are very popular meal or snack replacements. Bars are so popular, in fact, that many people do not realize they are considered meal replacements or dietary supplements. Because there are so many nutritional bars on the market consumers should read the labels carefully before selecting one kind. Choose bars that have 200-400 calories, 15-30 grams of protein, and 25-40 grams of carbohydrates, as well as vitamins and minerals. Look carefully at the amount of fat; you want a low fat content and no saturated fat.
- Nutritional and prepackaged entrees could be considered meals or meal replacements. Like MRPs and bars, if you plan to eat them for meals make sure they have balanced nutrition, low fat, high protein, and moderate carb content. Compare calories among the different products; calories vary considerably, and some entrees are better suited to weight loss diets than others.
In addition to coming in different forms, there are different formulas of meal replacements for different needs. For example:
- Low-carb meal replacements are designed specifically for people who want to lose weight and want a meal replacement with balanced nutrition. Because these are usually lower in calories than other meal replacement products, they are particularly suitable for women, who generally require fewer calories than men.
- Other meal replacements are intended for putting on weight or building muscle mass. Some are designed for athletes.
What are the Concerns about Meal Replacements?
Keep in mind what a meal replacement for weight loss is and what it is not. Meal replacements can be helpful aids for weight loss by providing balanced nutrition in place of one or two meals a day. They are not intended as substitutes for all your meals, and they should not be the only component of your weight loss diet. For lasting weight loss you need to eat whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and lean protein.
Using meal replacements does not teach people about healthy eating for weight loss. That is another reason meal replacements should be part of a comprehensive weight loss strategy that includes education and support.
Meal replacements are not for everyone. People who like variety quickly get bored with the limited flavors and textures. If you like to cook and have the time, you don’t need meal replacements. Plus, meal replacements tend to be costly, more expensive than preparing a simple meal.
Meal replacements are considered dietary supplements, and –unlike medications–the FDA does not have to make sure dietary supplements are safe and effective before the manufacturer can put them on the market. By looking carefully at the labels, you can learn about and compare meal replacement products, keeping in mind the FDA requirements noted earlier in this article. If you want more information about the product than is on the label you can contact the manufacturer, whose name and address should be on the label.
It is a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before using meal replacements for weight loss, especially if:
- You are pregnant or nursing;
- You have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease; or
- You want to give the meal replacements to a child.
Your healthcare provider may have other suggestions to help you lose weight and keep it off. A nutritionist or dietician can also give you nutritional information and help you make a safe and effective weight loss plan that can work for you.