Are Meal Replacement Shakes Healthy?

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Written by Lexi Kassler
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Dr. Jennifer Hughes, MD
Medical Reviewer

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If you live an active lifestyle and work a full-time job, are a full-time student, or take care of your family (or a combination of all of the above), it can be difficult to find time to keep up with a healthy diet on top of it all.

When this happens, just the idea of cooking a meal at the end of a long day or carving out hours of your precious weekend to meal prep can be exhausting.

But what if there was a one-stop shop for all of your nutrition and caloric needs that takes less than a minute to prepare? 

This is where meal replacement shakes come in––these powders are packed with protein, essential micronutrients, fiber, amino acids, and more that can keep you fueled throughout the day and satisfy all of your nutrient needs.

But are meal replacement shakes healthy? Well…yes and no. 

To help you decide if these shakes make sense for your lifestyle and dietary requirements, we’re going to cover their potential uses, the pros and cons of meal replacement shakes, and how to incorporate them into your diet in a healthy way.

What Are Meal Replacement Shakes?

First of all, if you’ve never heard of meal replacement shakes, it might be helpful to explain what exactly they are.

As you might have guessed from the name, meal replacement shakes are meant to be complete meal replacements for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

They are typically lower in calories than a regular meal but are packed with fiber, protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need on a daily basis.

Meal replacement shakes are usually made with either a base of whey protein or a combination of plant-based proteins (soy, pea, hemp, etc.) along with full servings of fruits and vegetables and other ingredients that are part of a healthy diet.

How Do Meal Replacement Shakes Work?

Meal replacement shakes come very close to being as nutritionally complete as a regular meal.

Though they are lower in calories per serving, they are nutritionally dense and particularly high in protein, keeping you fuller for longer than a meal that’s less nutritious and lower in protein.

The best meal replacement shakes won’t contain artificial sweeteners and ingredients but rather minimally processed whole foods that are found in a balanced diet.

This makes them a fantastic alternative if you’re looking to lose weight and maintain muscle mass or supplement your diet if you’re concerned you don’t have well-rounded nutrition.

4 Benefits Of Meal Replacement Shakes

There are multiple benefits of replacement shakes for both your health and alleviating some of the burdens that come with living a very busy lifestyle.

4 Benefits Of Meal Replacement Shakes

Can Help With Weight Loss

Using meal replacement shakes while on a weight loss journey can lead to better weight loss outcomes.

This is because meal replacement shakes are low in calories but still nutritionally dense, particularly in protein, which keeps you fuller longer.

This is important because anyone with a weight loss goal needs to follow the CICO method (calories in, calories out) and be in a calorie deficit to lose weight.

In other words, you need to eat fewer calories than you expend each day. 

To figure out how many calories you need per day, use a calorie calculator.

Once you figure out how many calories you need per day, you can break up your daily calories into three or four meals with room for snacks, with one of those meals being a meal replacement shake.

Sticking to a lower-calorie diet can be difficult, but when you eat highly satiating foods (such as meal replacement shakes), you’ll find it easier to achieve your goals since you won’t be hungry as often.

Packed With Nutrients

Per serving, meal replacement shakes are packed with more essential macronutrients and micronutrients than many typical meals.

High-quality shakes will contain full daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, vitamins, and minerals.

They should also be high in protein and contain healthy fats and complex carbohydrates that will break down more slowly in our digestive systems so we don’t experience big spikes in blood sugar.

Good meal replacement shakes also tend to be high in dietary fiber, which is helpful for digestion and feeds the microbiome hanging out in our gut.

This makes shakes a particularly great option for those who feel their diet could use a little nutritional boost.

Convenient Meal For Busy Individuals

Fitting in three nutritious meals per day when you’ve already got a lot on your plate (pun intended) can be so difficult.

While you could meal prep, that still requires a lot of time you may not have, or you may be the kind of person who can’t stand repeat meals or leftovers from more than three days ago.

We feel you!

So, rather than eating unhealthy fast food or shelling out money every day to eat out, a meal replacement shake is a great alternative.

These shakes can definitely be part of a healthy diet and help maintain balanced nutrition for those who are constantly on the go.

Helps Build Lean Muscle

In combination with physical activity (such as resistance training like lifting weights), eating a high-protein diet that is above your daily calorie intake is one of the quickest and healthiest ways to gain weight in the form of lean muscle mass.

By drinking meal replacement shakes you can get in the extra calories and nutrition you need without the fat and carbs found in regular meals. 

The higher levels of protein in the shakes also aid in muscle gain and improved muscle recovery after resistance training, as well as help maintain lower body fat, leading to better overall body composition as you gain weight.

Drawbacks of Meal Replacement Shakes

While meal replacement shakes do contain essential vitamins and nutrients, they cannot be used as a true meal replacement for every single meal.

Incomplete Nutrition

Natural, unprocessed, solid foods have more complete nutrition than any meal replacement shake currently available.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t have a meal replacement shake once a day, but you should always use it as a supplementary source of nutrition, not as your main source of nutrition.

Low Calorie

Meal replacement shakes are very low in calories. 

While you do need to eat fewer calories for weight loss, going in the extreme opposite direction and only drinking meal replacement shakes can be dangerous to your health.

We need more calories than meal replacement shakes can provide in order for our bodies to function properly.

Low Quality

Some meal replacement shakes are, unfortunately, too low quality to consume on a regular basis.

Some contain fillers, artificial sweeteners, and low-quality ingredients that really should be consumed in moderation, if at all.

You also need to make sure that the meal replacement shake you choose has a good balance of the macro and micronutrients you need.

How to Use Meal Replacement Shakes

You can use meal replacement shakes similarly to how you use protein powder

Meal replacement shakes can be used for weight loss or weight gain, as a protein supplement after a workout, and––of course––as a replacement for a meal or alongside a smaller meal.

The primary thing to note with meal replacement shakes is that these should not be used as a substitute for a full day of eating or to replace multiple meals in a day.

Without adding additional ingredients to it—by, let’s say, making a smoothie—a meal replacement shake by itself is not nearly enough calories, and micronutrients are more bioavailable when eaten as whole foods.
There is also some evidence that chewing your food has additional benefits, such as increasing diet-induced thermogenesis––essentially, chewing can burn more calories than drinking liquids––and reducing the activity of hunger hormones, thereby promoting weight loss.

Meal Replacement Shakes FAQs

Is it healthy to have a meal replacement shake every day?

It is fine to have a meal replacement shake every day. However, only use it for one or two meals as long as you are also eating other regular meals throughout the day and week. A well-rounded meal of whole foods has other health benefits that cannot be obtained from meal replacement shakes alone, including certain micronutrients and biomechanical benefits such as chewing.

What are the cons of meal replacement shakes?

While meal replacement shakes are a convenient way to increase the intake of protein and other nutrients alongside a busy, active lifestyle, they cannot fully replace every single meal since they do not have enough calories to fuel our bodies and may not have all of the nutrients we need to function properly. Some meal replacement shakes may be low quality and use fillers and artificial ingredients that should only be consumed in moderation.

Is a meal replacement shake a good way to lose weight?

Yes, meal replacement shakes can help you achieve weight loss goals. They are typically very high in protein and packed with nutrients that can help us feel fuller longer but are still low in calories.

What’s the difference between meal replacement shakes and protein shakes?

If you drink protein shakes, you might be wondering what the difference is between protein shakes and meal replacement shakes. Protein shakes are very high in protein but typically lack other nutrients we need to eat on a daily basis. Meal replacement shakes, on the other hand, are packed with tons of other nutrients the human body needs and can be used to replace an entire meal.



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