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

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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.

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