Meal Replacement Products: Do They Work? (Part 1)

Struggling to lose those last 10 pounds? Need a jump-start to help you get motivated? Unsure what to eat as part of a weight-loss plan? These are some reasons that people often turn to weight-loss drinks, or meal replacements.


Meal replacement products, or MRPs for short, have become more and more popular as part of many weight-loss regimens. Given today’s busy, on-the-go society, these beverages offer convenience, nutrition, and even improved blood glucose control.

The MRP industry boasts sales of over $1 billion per year—not surprising, given that the diet industry as a whole is a $40 billion-plus industry. With more and more people trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, MRPs have been added to the arsenal of tools and products to help you reach your goal.

MRPs include more than just a canned shake. Powdered drinks, bars, puddings, soups, and even frozen meals can all be considered MRPs. Some MRPs are lactose free and gluten free. And many contain nonnutritive sweeteners, which are aimed at people with diabetes.

Most people think of drinks or shakes when they think of MRPs. OPTIFAST and HMR (Health Management Resources) came out with their versions of MRPs back in the 1980s. These plans were very stringent, and involved drinking shakes for all three meals. Who can forget Oprah Winfrey pulling a wagon filled with lard across the stage, representing the amount of weight she lost on OPTIFAST? While the plan worked for her initially, she gained it all back—and then some, most likely because she learned very little about changing her lifestyle and eating behaviors. While the OPTIFAST and HMR programs are still in existence, they typically require medical supervision. Today’s MRP shakes include more familiar brands such as Slim-Fast, Glucerna, MET-Rx, and BOOST Glucose Control and can be purchased in your local drugstore or grocery store.

Why would someone choose to drink a shake for a meal instead of eating “real” food? MRPs appeal to people for several reasons, including:

  • They’re convenient and perfect for an on-the-go meal.
  • They’re less expensive than many commercial diet plans or over-the-counter weight-loss drugs, such as alli.
  • They require very little decision making about what to eat, other than deciding what flavor to choose.
  • They can help people get into the habit of eating (or drinking) regular meals at consistent times each day.
  • They provide a structured, nutritionally balanced plan without calorie counting or weighing and measuring foods.
  • They can help improve blood glucose control as part of a carbohydrate- and calorie-controlled eating plan.

Apart from weight loss purposes, MRPs can actually improve the nutrition of many people, providing carbohydrate, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals (as long as a reputable brand is chosen). For people who have trouble swallowing, have a poor appetite, are recovering from an illness or surgery, or typically skip meals due to time or budget constraints, MRPs can be part of a healthy eating plan for people with and without diabetes.

Next week, we’ll look at the downside of using MRPs and discuss what to look for when choosing an MRP.

Learn more about the health and medical experts who who provide you with the cutting-edge resources, tools, news, and more on Diabetes Self-Management.
About Our Experts >>

  • thurston

    Will this shake,taken twice a day, cause my glucose level from bottoming out?

  • acampbell

    Hi thurston,
    Are you referring to Glucerna? It’s possible that using Glucerna products can help prevent low blood glucose levels. However, if this is an issue for you, you may need to do a little more investigating and think about other steps you can take, such as eating meals at regular times, eating enough carbohydrate at your meals, and, if you take insulin or diabetes pills, talking to your provider about lowering your dose.



  • acampbell

    Hi Angela,

    Meal replacements are generally used in place of one or two meals per day, with the third meal, usually lunch or supper, being a “regular” meal. Snacks may or may not be part of the plan. You might start off by having one meal replacement shake a day to see how you like it; if you do, you could try it twice a day. The meal replacement shakes are generally too high in calories for a snack, so you could try a snack bar (not a meal replacement bar), or something else, such as fruit or low-fat yogurt. Also, the Spiru-Tein whey shake that you mention has only 110 calories and 10 grams of carbohydrate, which really isn’t enough for a meal (aim for 200–250 calories for a shake). You might try, instead, SlimFast, Boost, Glucerna, or Carnation Instant Breakfast. Also, it’s a good idea to let your provider and/or dietitian know that you’re using meal replacements in case your diabetes medicines need adjusting.

  • edwin

    Hi angela i’m a type 2 diabetic wil met-rx protien shake be good for me since i been going to the gym and trying to maintain weight level without losing weight

  • acampbell

    Hi edwin,

    Met-Rx shakes contain about 250 calories and 38 grams of protein per serving. This is a very high protein shake and will likely give you much more protein than you need, especially since you get plenty of protein from eating regular food. Drinking one of these shakes each day should be fine, but I wouldn’t recommend more than one without first checking with your doctor. You should be able to maintain your weight (in a more healthful way) by eating more of a variety of foods, not just protein. You could also try another type of meal replacement, such as Boost or Glucerna, which provides more of a balance of nutrients.

  • Deyanira Abreu

    my Mom is a Diabetic person and the Dr. Told her than if she loose any more weight she is in danger, There is always comment in how to loose waight, but very little concerned in helping people that are in dangerous how to help them to gained weigh, she gets very depressed because she does not like to be so skinni.

    Another concerned I have is that I do not want to be a diabetic, but because the way I heel some Drs have told me that I will be, even thou they did not know diabetic runs in my family. My hands, arm and toes get numbness and I feel crams must of my days, this is very unconfortable, I suffer from a very chronic fabromyalgia, osteoarthritis, and I suffer from my back crazy because I have e hernia disc, narrow bones and some scoliosis and arthritis in my spine and 2 knee surgery and I have crhonsdesease, and even thou I go to work, is very difficult for me to have a normal life, sometimes I get so overwelmed that I think I won’t be able to handle it, medications help me to function a little better, but my pain never goes away I am a positive person and my husband help me a lot in the house do to the fact that most of the time Iam sick, It is so difficult for me all these

  • acampbell

    Hi Deyanira,

    It would be helpful to find out why your mother is losing weight. Is it because of her diabetes? Does she have other health issues? Might she be depressed? I’d suggest you speak with her doctor about her weight and then figure out a plan to help her at least maintain, if not gain, weight. You might take her to see a dietitian who can help her with her meal plan. Also, while you may be at risk for getting diabetes, there are steps that you can take to lower this risk. Losing a little bit of weight (if you’re overweight) can help, as can trying to stay active. I realize that you have your own health issues, but it is possible to be physically active. You might ask your own doctor for a referral to a physical therapist to help you with an exercise routine. It’s good that your husband is helping you. Talk with him about your meals and think about ways to fit in more fruits and vegetables and whole grains into your diet. If you are feeling very stressed or depressed, consider working with a mental health counselor to help you better handle things. Help is available but you need to let others, like your doctor and your husband, know how they can best help you.