Nutrition is a huge piece of the strength training puzzle. The more effectively you fuel your workouts, the stronger you’re bound to get. But not everyone savors making meals in the kitchen like they love the process of making muscles in the gym.
It might be that you just don’t have the energy or desire to meal prep. You could hate cooking, or you may be on the go so often that preparing your meals for peak training efficiency and tastiness just isn’t in the cards. Enter meal replacement shakes.
By swapping in a nutritionally-balanced shake for a conventional sit-down-and-eat meal, you can get your body the nutrients it needs while fueling your workouts. But if changing your body composition is one of your goals, can meal replacement shakes help you lose weight safely?
Here’s what you need to know about meal replacement shakes, including when you should (and shouldn’t) use them.
- What Are Meal Replacement Shakes?
- Potential Benefits of Meal Replacement Shakes
- Potential Drawbacks of Meal Replacement Shakes
- Who Should Use Meal Replacement Shakes
- Who Should Not Use Meal Replacement Shakes
- Your Takeaways
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Meal replacement shakes are made of pre-blended formulas designed to provide a specific amount of nutrients and calories. Instead of putting together a plate of different foods that need to be prepared individually and brought together, these shakes are meant as a quick and easy substitute for solid food.
In a typical meal replacement strategy, you might swap one or two of your daily meals with a pre-packaged, nutritionally-balanced formula that you’ll drink as a shake. (1) Many individuals will also use an intuitive approach to adding other snacks and meals throughout the day. (1)
If you want to sustain this meal replacement over a longer period (closer to a year), research suggests limiting the swap to only replacing one meal per day after a two-a-day swap during the first month. (2)
To help you figure out which meals you might want to swap out, it can help to know your caloric intake requirements based on your goals and activity levels. For an estimate of how many calories you might want to aim for, check out BarBend’s calorie calculator.
Weight loss and maintenance is a complex process that involves nuanced relationships between appetite, satiety (feelings of fullness), metabolism, and psychosocial factors like stress. As such, losing weight is not a simple result of calories in and calories out. (3)
Still, having a handle on your caloric needs can help guide how you integrate meal replacement shakes into your diet.
Can Meal Replacement Shakes Help You Lose Weight?
Meal replacements might help with an initial burst of weight loss more than traditional solid food strategies. (4)(5) However, this short-term weight loss may be followed by a subsequent weight gain. (4)
Structured support from healthcare professionals may help make meal replacement shakes a more sustainable strategy. When accompanied by professional support, these shakes may help people lose weight and maintain that loss for closer to a full year. (6)(7)
Some evidence suggests that when meal replacement strategies are used in conjunction with primary health care providers, weight loss can be sustained for three years. (8)
In the initial weight loss phase, swapping out a self-selected dinner with a high-fiber, high-protein meal replacement every night for three months may help individuals lose as much as 4.3 percent of their body weight. (9)
However, research suggests that people using meal replacements for weight loss may be even more likely to gain a lot of weight back after the first few months. (4)
One reason for the initial weight loss phase might be that pre-packaged products may contain less energy than the meals or snacks an individual might self-select. (6) Meal replacements that are higher in protein and fiber may also help you feel fuller for longer. (10)(11)
When you’re looking to lose weight, meal replacement shakes may be helpful in the short term. Here are some potential benefits associated with integrating these shakes into your nutritional plan.
Improve Cardio Metabolic Health
Some people may experience improvements in cardiometabolic risk factors for cardiovascular diseases — such as reduced blood pressure — along with weight loss associated with meal replacements. (9)
Only the cis men in one study of weight loss with meal replacements experienced a significant reduction in blood pressure and visceral fat levels, though — the cis women in the study did not. (9) Regardless of gender, participants who experienced weight loss also experienced a reduction in blood glucose levels. (9)
Additional research suggests that meal replacement strategies may be particularly helpful for people with Type-II diabetes during initial weight loss phases. (1)
The structure that meal replacement shakes can give your lifestyle might be behind some of their appeal and effectiveness. (1) Since they’re readily available in a person’s refrigerator, require no prep time, and already should contain a nutritionally-balanced spread of macro and micronutrients, these shakes can take the guesswork out of nutrition. (1)
If you’ve got a busy lifestyle, despise cooking, or otherwise don’t want to worry about meal prep, you may be attracted to the structure that meal replacement shakes provide. (12) And when a nutritional strategy is convenient, it is generally easier to stick to sustainably over time. (13)
Built-In Portion Control
For people looking to develop a more balanced relationship with food, practicing portion control can be helpful. That is, learning to regulate how much of which foods you’re eating at any given meal.
Different methods of portion control work well for different people. Some prefer to meal prep their food ahead of time and portion out everything into containers for the week ahead. That way, you only think about portions once a week — the rest of the week, you just open the fridge, take out a prepped container, and enjoy.
Other people prefer to eyeball it, estimating their portions based on practices like filling half of each plate with veggies right away before adding anything else. But even this kind of informal guestimation can get tricky if you’re on the go a lot. Enter meal replacement shakes.
These shakes are pre-portioned, coming with a label regarding how many calories, how many macros, and what kinds of micronutrients are included. You’ll know what portions of macros you’re getting, which can eliminate a lot of uncertainty and guesswork with portion control. This might be preferable for people who don’t want to focus on the details of food prep.
While they might be convenient, meal replacement shakes aren’t necessarily the best fit in all circumstances.
Association with Disordered Eating Habits
Disordered eating habits include a preoccupation with calorie counting, which may be reinforced by using products like meal replacement shakes to nail down a specific number of calories. (3) The rise of “diet products” has been associated with a rise in eating disorders in Western cultures or cultures that adapt Western dietary habits. (3)
Liquid meal replacements may be associated with a temporary increase in binge eating behaviors, compared with balanced deficit diets focusing on conventional foods and non-dieting approaches to nutrition. (14)(15)
Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know are struggling with disordered eating habits, the National Eating Disorders Helpline is available at various hours throughout the week online and by texting or dialing (800) 931-2237.
Research suggests that you might indeed lose weight when you first start out using meal replacements. (4) But after an initial weight loss phase, it seems that individuals may be even more likely to gain the weight back than they would be when trying more food-based approaches to losing weight. (4)
This yo-yo effect of fluctuating weight loss and gain can have detrimental effects on people’s overall health, including an increased risk of type-II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. (16) If you’re looking to create more sustainable impacts on your body composition, you might want to closely consult with healthcare professionals in tandem with those shakes. (6)(7)
Lack of Certainty
Many meal replacement products on the market may feature proprietary blends of ingredients, which makes it impossible for consumers to be certain of how much of each ingredient they’re getting. If you’re concerned about making sure you’re getting all your micronutrients in addition to your macros, you might prefer to know exactly what’s in your meals. (17)
Meal replacement shakes are generally commercially distributed, outside the context of support from medical or dietary professionals. (8) These products may be supported by little to no evidence about the weight loss claims that might be on the label. (8) This may leave individuals uncertain as to how to make sure they’re combining their meal replacements with whole foods to ensure a sustainable dietary balance.
Some evidence suggests that meal replacement strategies can be a part of sustainable weight loss (over the course of two to three years) when the blends are created and distributed with the support of primary care physicians. (8)(18) But in most cases, the consumer may be on their own when it comes to selecting and integrating meal replacements.
Lack of Enjoyment
If you’re turning to meal replacements for weight loss, you might reap the most benefit if you swap out more than half of your caloric intake with meal replacements. (19) Research suggests that getting more than 60 percent of your daily energy intake from meal replacements may be more effective than only swapping out one average-sized meal. (19)
But this strategy might quickly become tedious, to say the least. Enjoying your food can lead to more sustainable nutritional practices, even when you’re aiming to lose weight. (20)
Curious if meal replacement shakes would be a good option for you? Here are some types of athletes who might benefit from swapping out some solid food for the liquid variety.
Athletes on the Go
No time to meal prep? Constantly traveling? Meal replacement shakes can come in handy since all you need to do is pack them up and drink. If you need to pack away some calories — whether you’re aiming for an overall deficit or not — this liquid-style meal can help you do just that.
Athletes Working With Healthcare Professionals to Lose Weight
While meal replacement shakes seem to help shed some weight in the initial months of using them, the risk of gaining the weight back may be greater than with solid food diets. (4)
If you’re aiming to lose weight, studies suggest that meal replacement shakes might be more effective in the long term when formulated or used with the supervision of healthcare professionals. (8)(18)(6)(7)
Along with potential weight loss, meal replacement shakes also may positively affect blood pressure and glucose levels. (9) This can help reduce cardiometabolic risk factors for cardiovascular and other diseases. (9)
Athletes Trying to Pack Extra Calories
Eating can be quite a laborious activity when you’re trying to pack in extra calories during bulking season. If you’re struggling to meet your daily intake requirements to fuel new muscle growth and extra intense workouts, meal replacement shakes might not replace a meal so much as add a new one.
This way, you can drink down those extra calories, which can be easier than the form of force-feeding that requires you to cook and chew.
Athletes Who Like Structure
Strength athletes often thrive on consistency and structure. It makes sense — your training program has a specific logic to it. Why shouldn’t your nutrition? Whether you don’t like to cook or you simply like to know what macros and calories are going into your body at all times, meal replacement shakes might be a good bet for you.
While they may work for some, meal replacement shakes aren’t necessarily for everyone. Whether you like to cook or are on the lookout for yo-yo-ing weight loss and gain, you might want to stick to solids.
Athletes Who Need to Eat Intuitively
For athletes prone to or with histories of disordered eating habits, restricting food in any way can be a dangerous endeavor. Meal replacement shakes for weight loss are generally meant to help restrict calories and literally take a meal off the table.
As such, these shakes may not be suitable for athletes who prefer or need to take a more intuitive approach to eating. Intuitive eating involves learning to listen to your body’s hunger signals, eating when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full.
Meal replacement shakes may certainly play a role in this for some — those that are high in protein may increase feelings of fullness. But since many of these shakes are marketed as weight loss aids, athletes with histories of disordered eating habits or body image struggles may want to decline.
Athletes Who Prefer Nutritional Variety
You might love cooking or you might just have a texture thing where you don’t like drinking your food. Athletes may also want to keep closer track of their micronutrients and take in a wide variety of different foods. Whatever the case may be, if you’re an athlete that prefers variety in your nutritional plan, you might want to skip the meal replacement shakes.
Athletes Who Want to Avoid Rapid Weight Cycling
Meal replacement shakes certainly can aid in weight loss. But to set yourself up for long-term success in achieving your physique-related goals, you’ll want to choose a sustainable nutritional plan. For many athletes, meal replacement shakes may simply not be something they want to stick to over a long period.
While it may work well to phase shakes in and out according to your training season needs and goals, strength athletes might want to avoid rapid weight cycling. If you anticipate getting bored with your shakes or are prone to binge eating, you’ll likely want to skip the meal replacement shakes in favor of solid meals.
Should you be swapping out a meal or two with shakes or keeping it solid? Here are your quick takeaways.
- Meal replacement shakes can help you lose weight, possibly because of the controlled calorie intake combined with the high protein content of many of these shakes. Along with weight loss can potentially come reduced blood pressure and other cardiometabolic risk factors.
- Weight loss that accompanies meal replacement shakes may be temporary, as people may be more likely to gain the weight back after a few months than with conventional eating habits.
- If you want to use meal replacement shakes for weight loss, swap out one or two meals a day for a few weeks to a few months. If you want to continue using these shakes, scale it back to only replacing one meal a day over the long term. You can snack and have your other meals as desired and needed.
- Using meal replacement shakes in collaboration with healthcare professionals might help make weight loss more sustainable.
- If you think you might be susceptible to binge eating, you may want to avoid meal replacement shakes. They’ve been associated with potential increases in binge eating.
To Swap or Not?
When you’re crafting a sustainable nutrition plan to match your goals, meal replacement shakes might pop up as an option. At the end of the day, can meal replacement shakes help you lose weight? Yes — and also, that weight loss might not be sustainable over the long term (especially without support from healthcare professionals).
With or without meal replacement shakes, make sure you’re getting plenty of variety in your diet. That way, you’ll make sure to get everything you need throughout your day. Your workouts will thank you for the fuel.
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