Are you looking for a meal replacement to help you lose weight? With so many “miracle” weight loss products out there, will a meal replacement really help you shed those extra pounds? The answer is yes!
A high-quality meal replacement is one of your greatest weight loss allies. That’s because multiple studies have found that meal replacements help dieters lose more weight.
Even over a short period of time, a meal-replacement diet is more effective in reducing metabolic risk factors, insulin and hunger hormones (leptin), and in improving body measures than a fat-restricted low-calorie diet.
Studies suggest that even partial meal replacement plans (replacement of just one meal a day with a meal replacement) can safely and effectively produce significant sustainable weight loss.
Don’t want to regain the weight that you’ve worked so hard to lose? Meal replacements can help to keep the weight off. In a 2005 study, women who had difficulty keeping weight off, once it was lost, had greater success doing so with the aid of liquid meal replacements.
Best Meal Replacement for Weight Loss
While meal replacements are an effective weight loss tool, not all brands are created equal. Unfortunately, some very popular meal replacement brands are no better than eating a candy bar!
The best meal replacement for weight loss should provide a combination of high-quality protein and complex carbohydrates along with a small amount of simple sugars and unsaturated fat. The meal replacement should also be fortified with a quarter to one-third of the recommended dietary intake of essential vitamins and minerals.
The good news is that you can quickly identify better quality meal replacement brands by paying close attention to the nutrient content and ingredients listed on the product’s Nutrition Facts panel. Let’s take a look at Calories, Fat, Saturated Fat, Carbohydrates, Fiber, Sugars, Artificial Sweeteners and Protein of some popular brands.†
Low Calorie – Under 230 Calories
If you’re looking to lose weight, the best meal replacements will contain fewer than 230 calories per serving. Keep in mind, that the calorie content listed on a powdered drink mix label is based on mixing with water. So, if you’re adding 1% low-fat milk, you’ll need to tack on another 100 calories. Soy adds another 90 calories and almond milk adds about 60 calories.
Quality Fat – Less than 3 Grams
The most commonly used fat in meal replacement drinks is a polyunsaturated source such as corn, sunflower or canola oil. However, some meal replacements contain saturated fat due to their use of creamer, milk and other animal protein sources.
Ideally, you’ll want no more than 15-20% of total calories from fat (e.g., a 200 calorie drink would have 30 calories from fat) or no more than 3 grams of Total Fat per serving. In general, ready-to-drink (versus powdered) meal replacements tend to have more Total Fat (5 to 11 grams per serving) including Ensure, Atkins, Glucerna, SlimFast and SpecialK.
You’ll want to keep the saturated fat content below 1.5 grams per serving as this type of fat promotes inflammation and is associated with cardiovascular disease. At 3 grams per serving, Atkins Advantage has one of the highest saturated fat content of any meal replacement brand. Brands like Skinny Gut do not have saturated fat as their protein is from a vegetable source.
Quality Carbohydrates – High in Dietary Fiber, Low in Sugars
Total Carbohydrates range from a low of 6 grams to a high of over 30 grams per serving. The type of carbohydrate is listed just below Total Carbohydrates and includes Fiber, Sugars and Sugar Alcohols.
It is the type of carbohydrate that determines if a meal replacement will support your weight loss efforts.
Fiber. The best meal replacements for weight loss use fiber as the primary carbohydrate source. Why? Numerous studies have demonstrated the power of fiber in aiding weight loss due to its satiating effects. Fiber fills you up, expands in your stomach and keeps you feeling full longer. This in turn helps you to control your appetite later in the day.
LeanMeal RS, GNC Total Lean, Isagenix IsaLean and Skinny Gut have at least 8 grams of fiber per serving. On the other end of the spectrum Ensure, Boost, Atkins, EAS Advantage Carb Control, SlimFast High Protein and NutriSystem have less than 1 gram of fiber per serving.
The type of fiber in a meal replacement drink will also determine how much the drink will aid in weight loss. Less expensive brands use cheaper ingredients like dextrin, modified food starch, and polydextrose. Better fiber sources include oat bran, pectin, vegetable fiber, rice fiber, flax seed, hemp seed, guar gum and psyllium.
The best fiber for weight loss is from a prebiotic fiber source. Prebiotic fiber is not digested in the small intestine (resists digestion). Instead, the fiber passes to the large intestine where it feeds the trillions of organisms that reside in your gut.
Mounting evidence shows that your gut microbiome – the beneficial organisms the line your digestive tract – play a role in your weight, appetite, metabolism and cravings. Prebiotic fiber not only keeps you satisfied longer but promotes the development of “lean” bacteria that support a healthy weight. Prebiotic fiber keeps you and your resident microbes slim!
LeanMeal RS is formulated exclusively with Fibersol-2®, a prebiotic fiber that has been well-researched for its role in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, delaying post-meal hunger and increasing satiety hormones (these hormones are released from the gut and help tell your brain that you are full) and promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria by increasing Bifidobacterium populations.
Sugars. Many popular meal replacement brands like Boost, SlimFast, SpecialK and Ensure provide little if any dietary fiber yet contain 13-25 grams of sugar per serving! Isn’t it a disconnect to offer a meal replacement that has more sugar than a Snickers bar? The problem is that added sugars not only add empty calories but feed the “obese” bacteria in your digestive tract. From the Firmicutes family, these bacteria are very efficient at extracting and storing calories. Not something you want to encourage while losing weight! Simple sugars such as corn syrup, sugar and fructose, should be no more than 2-3 grams per serving. Brands like LeanMeal RS, 310Nutrition and Atkins have fewer than 2 grams of sugars per serving.
Sugar Alcohols. A misnomer, sugar alcohols are neither a sugar nor an alcohol. By adding hydrogen molecules to sugars, the sugars are not readily absorbed by the digestive tract. The sugar alcohol erythritol is 60 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar but has far fewer calories than other sugar alcohols – one teaspoon has less than 1 calorie – and mostly excreted through the urine. Brands like LeanBiotics LeanMeal RS use Zerose™ which contributes no calories and unlike other sugar alcohols, is well-tolerated and doesn’t cause digestive upset.
Artificial Sweeteners. To keep the calories low, many meal replacements for weight loss use a combination of the artificial sweeteners Acesulfame-Potassium (Equal) and Sucralose (Sucralose, Splenda). These synthetic compounds are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Ironically, some studies have suggested an association between their use and weight gain and increased type 2 diabetes risk. And, a recent study shows that artificial sweeteners raise blood sugar levels and promote metabolic syndrome by modifying gut bacteria. Artificial sweeteners are pervasive in diet products and found in GNC Total Lean, MediFast, SlimFast and Atkins. Very few brands, including LeanMeal RS and Skinny Gut do not contain any artificial sweeteners.
Natural Sweeteners. Natural brands use monk fruit extract (Nectresse) and stevia leaf extract (Pure Via, SweetLeaf and Truvia) to sweeten their meal replacement drinks. Because stevia can have a bitter aftertaste, a combination of the two is often used. Given that these natural sweeteners are more expensive than artificial ones, they are typically found in higher-quality meal replacement drinks. LeanMeal RS is formulated with a combination of stevia and monk fruit extract.
Hunger Satisfying Protein
According to the scientific literature, eating a higher protein diet can help you better control your appetite which keeps you feeling full longer between meals. Higher protein diets also increase total weight loss and increase the percentage of fat loss. So, if you want to lose weight, choose a meal replacement that contains at least 18 – 25 grams of protein per serving.
Protein can come from a vegetable source (pea, soy, brown rice, chia, flax, quinoa, amaranth, hemp) or animal source (egg, whey, casein). In general, animal proteins are better for building muscle tissue because they are considered a complete protein — meaning they contain all essential amino acids necessary to make new proteins. Vegetable proteins may be lacking some of the essential amino acids. That means you may need to consume more vegetable protein to achieve that total protein.
Opt for Whey Protein. If you’re serious about weight loss then choose whey as your protein source. A 2008 study showed that a whey-protein supplement increased fat loss and spared lean muscle in obese subjects. Planning on exercise to boost your weight loss? A 2011 study found whey protein can help the body recover more quickly after resistance exercise than other types of protein.
Here’s one more reason why you should look for whey protein. Compared with other proteins, whey protein has a high biological (BV) value. The higher a biological value, the greater the proportion of available protein that can be synthesized by the body’s cells. Depending on the source, plants proteins have one third to less than half the BV of whey protein.
Natural brands like Skinny Gut use vegetable protein sources only. Other brands use a combination of animal and vegetable sources including milk protein concentrate, non-fat dry milk, creamer, soy protein isolate and whey protein concentrate. Due to its beneficial effects on weight loss, high-quality brands like LeanMeal RS use 100% whey protein concentrate in their meal replacement formula.
Aside from having a great nutritional profile, the best meal replacement for weight loss will taste great, mix easily, be available in single serve and multi-serve packaging, come with dietary recommendations, and fit your budget.
It goes without saying that first and foremost a meal replacement has to taste great! Of course, you’ll need to try a few brands to determine which meal replacement drink mix appeals to your taste buds.
Virtually every brand offers a vanilla and chocolate flavor. But some brands offer more traditional flavors ranging from banana, strawberry and orange to more contemporary flavors like coffee mocha, green berry and butter pecan. To create these flavors, most brands use a combination of natural and artificial flavorings.
If you’re accustomed to using artificial sweeteners you may prefer GNC Total Lean, SlimFast or Atkins Advantage. Got a sweet tooth? You may like SpecialK, Ensure or Boost. If you like more flavor and a less overpowering sugar aftertaste, then LeanMeal RS may just be right for you.
Mixes Easily – No Clumping!
If you’re opting for a powdered meal replacement drink mix, you’ll need a drink mixer bottle to create your shake. While some mixers are better than others (LeanBiotics uses the Blender Bottle® with wire whisk which blends any drink mix in seconds!) the choice of powder can affect how smooth the drink mix turns out. In general, soy powders don’t mix quite as well as whey protein powders. The proof is in the pudding (or in the meal replacement) so you’ll have to experiment. Note, some brands like LeanMeal RS offer a free drink mix bottle with your purchase of a meal replacement drink mix.
Packaging to Suit Your Lifestyle
Meal replacements are available in powdered or ready-to-drink (RTD) packaging. Powdered mixes come in convenient single-serve packets or larger, plastic jugs (18-20 servings). RTD meal replacements are sold as single bottle and in 4-packs or 6-packs. The type of packaging that works best for you will depend on your lifestyle and dietary preferences.
Not surprisingly, brands that use cheap ingredients (e.g., sugar, corn syrup, modified food starch, creamer) cost less, $0.70 – $1.50 per serving. Brands that use higher quality ingredients (whey protein concentrate, stevia, monk fruit extract, Fibersol-2, Zerose), are more expensive, $2.00 – $4.35 per serving. But, as the old expression goes, “you get what you pay for”. When you consider that the average price for getting takeout for breakfast ($5.00 – $7.00) or lunch ($5.00 – $15.00), the price of a higher cost meal replacement is still reasonable.
Diet & Exercise Support
As you know, the support that comes with a weight loss program can sometimes be more important than the actual product. The best meal replacement for weight loss is one that comes with dietary recommendations and tips, community support, and great customer service.
Companies like MediFast and NutriSystem have built a loyal brand following based on the dietary advice and community support they provide with their product line. As a physician formulated brand, LeanMeal RS comes with the LeanBiotics Diet & Exercise Program to help dieters be more successful in their weight loss efforts.
In sum, the best meal replacement for weight loss is one that is low in calories, low in total fat and saturated fat, low in sugars and doesn’t contain any artificial sweeteners. At the same time, the best meal replacement for weight loss is one that is high in prebiotic fiber, high in whey protein and fortified with at least 25% of daily values for vitamins and minerals. The meal replacement should taste great, mix well, meet your lifestyle requirements and come with dietary and lifestyle tips to help you reach your weight loss goal.
What do you think is the best meal replacement for weight loss? What are your criteria? Share your thoughts and insights!
†For our analysis, we examined the vanilla flavor for the following powdered meal replacement brands:
310 Shake Vanilla, Ensure Original Nutrition Powder, Advocare Meal Replacement Shake, Bariatric Fusion Meal Replacement, Designs for Health Paleo Meal, BeWell Sustain, EAS Myoplex Lite, GNC Total Lean Shake, GNC Total Lean Shake 25, HerbalLife Formula 1, Isagenix IsaLean Shake, Juvo Raw Meal, Medifast, Metagenics Ultra Meal, Nutrisystem, Pure Encapsulations Pure Lean, Renew Life Skinny Gut Shake, Shakeology, Shaklee 180 Energizing Smoothie, SlimFast, Natural Factors Slim Styles, Usana Nutrimeal, Vega One Nutritional Shake.
†For our analysis, we examined the vanilla flavor for the following ready-to-drink meal replacement brands:
Ensure Original, Ensure Plus, Amway BodyKey by Nutrilite, Atkins Shakes, Boost Original, EAS Advantage Carb Control, Glucerna Shakes, Glucerna Hunger Smart Shake, Glucerna Advance Shakes, SlimFast, SpecialK
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.