Meal Replacement Products: Do They Work? (Part 2)

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Last week, we talked about meal replacements products (MRPs), such as shakes and bars, and how they might fit into a weight-loss plan. We also talked about some of the benefits of MRPs, such as how they can eliminate some of the decision-making when it comes to making food choices and how they can provide a framework for a healthy, calorie-controlled eating plan, not to mention a source of nutrition for folks who tend to skip meals.

Are there any drawbacks to using MRPs? There are a few. First, there’s the nutrition profile to consider. A meal replacement product should do just that—substitute for a meal of “real” food. This means that any MRP that doesn’t contain a balance of carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals is probably not a good choice. Some MRPs may be mostly protein, for example. Below are a few pointers for finding a safe and nutritious MRP.

Choose an MRP that contains:

  • About 200–250 calories
  • 15–35 grams carbohydrate (avoid those with refined sugars [sucrose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup] as the first type of carbohydrate in the ingredients list)
  • 10–15 grams protein (much more than this means you’ll probably take in too much protein for the day)
  • 5–8 grams fat (the main source of fat should be unsaturated; also avoid products that contain trans fat)
  • 3–6 grams fiber
  • 0–20 mg cholesterol
  • 100–300 mg sodium
  • 50% to 100% of the Dietary Reference Intake for vitamins and minerals

It’s also wise to avoid MRPs that contain added herbs or other stimulants, such as caffeine, ginseng, and guarana, for example.

Remember, too, that MRPs are intended to be used for one or two meals each day, not all three. This means that you should eat a portioned-controlled meal that contains fruits and vegetables along with an unrefined carbohydrate source and a lean source of protein. You can expect to lose, on average, between one and two pounds per week using an MRP.

Another possible downside to using MRPs is that they can get monotonous for some people. While some people may welcome a quick and easy shake as a meal on the go, others soon tire of drinking a chocolate-, vanilla-, or strawberry-flavored shake at every breakfast and lunch, for example. Others find that they miss the process of chewing food or that MRPs don’t fill them up. If you can’t stay with a plan for long, chances are it won’t be too successful for you.

Finally, some MRP plans have been criticized by members of the health-care community for not really teaching people about behavior change. They argue that, sure, you can lose weight while you’re on the plan, but what happens when you stop? If you fall right back into your old eating habits, the weight is going to pile right back on. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. Many programs, such as Slim-Fast, offer ongoing education and support via the Internet, e-mail, and even by phone.

Many of my patients used to worry that MRPs weren’t good for people with diabetes. Actually, just the opposite is true. MRPs can definitely be part of a healthy meal plan for diabetes (provided that you follow the guidelines above). Even the American Diabetes Association agrees. A benefit of using an MRP is that you know the serving size, the carb count, and the calories. Several key research studies with people who have diabetes, including the Look AHEAD trial, are using MRPs, too.

As always, talk to your dietitian if you think a MRP might work for you. While not a magic bullet for weight loss, MRPs can be helpful for many.

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