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:

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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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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