Meal Replacement Shakes: Can They Help Weight Loss?

Written by
Lisa @ 8fit
Written by
Lisa @ 8fit
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We know that you’ve probably read somewhere that meal replacement shakes help you lose weight, but what if we told you that you don’t need them? A meal replacement is anything intended to be a substitute for a traditional meal, such as drinks, shakes, protein bars, soup, and so on.

In the United States, the term “meal replacement” is not defined by the FDA, leaving the definition loose and up to interpretation. Meal replacement shakes generally refer to a calorie-controlled product that replaces a meal. They range from about 200-400 calories with fortified vitamins and minerals (meaning the food manufacturers add these in a food lab).

Meal replacement shakes do boast a few benefits such as being portable and convenient, making it a good option if you just can’t find the time to cook or meal prep. In this way, they may help you resist the urge to succumb to cravings or indulge in fast foods or sweets.

Some meal replacement shakes are targeted at weight loss or weight gain, while some are medically prescribed. Shake brands often market to these audiences and promote their products as taking the worry out of food and alleviating the consumer from the burden of grocery shopping.

Does this sound like a real food utopia or more like another clever marketing ploy?

History and uses for meal replacement shakes

Picture this: you’re in outer space, it’s been 46.5 days since you’ve had a home cooked meal, and you’re living off of meal replacement shakes. Replacement meals promoted by astronauts aboard the International Space Station or featured in science fiction shows 2001 a Space Odyssey highlight that they can be useful when we don’t have access to fresh produce. But it should be considered a tool when we don’t have access to fresh food. 

Those who may benefit from meal replacement shakes:

  • Astronauts

  • Those without or with limited access to food (low income or natural disaster survivors)

  • Recovering from illness or surgery

  • Trouble retaining weight (the elderly or people struggling with an eating disorder)

Lee Causey, nutritionist and visionary in his field in the 1980s, created one of the very first meal replacement shakes. He intended to encourage health and wellness through nutrition and exercise rather than surgery and medication. Since then, hundreds of other similar products have flooded the market, unfortunately, influenced by making a buck rather than the well-being of the consumer.

Meal replacement shakes are designed to provide all the nutrients you would normally get from a complete meal, but that theory doesn’t translate into practice for the following reasons:

  • Lack of bioavailability and complementary nutrients: This translates as nutrients being better absorbed in the form of food, and less to no absorption in the form of a shake.

  • They’re repetitive: Eating the same foods or meal replacement shakes every day will not only get mundane but means you are ingesting a limited amount of critical vitamins and minerals.

  • They’re short-term solutions: Drinking shakes can set you up for an all or nothing mindset, where you lose sight of how to establish long-lasting healthy food behavior.

  • Liquid diets aren’t satisfying: Drinking calories can trigger hunger pangs and cravings

  • Questionable health claims: Typically shakes contain sugar and artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, colors, stabilizers, and hydrogenated oils.

  • Social isolation: Eating with friends and family or enjoying food while traveling is a pleasure and social ritual that bonds people. Eliminating that aspect of your life can lead to feeling excluded from those around you.

Meal replacement shakes for weight loss

The healthiest way to lose weight is focusing on a balanced lifestyle, quality food, daily activity, balanced hormones, and a healthy calorie deficit. In an ideal world, you’d get all the protein and nutrients you need from a balanced diet, but if you find meal replacement and protein shakes helpful in reaching your goals, consider it a temporary tool. When shopping for meal replacement shakes, focus on protein, fiber, and a complete nutrient profile. Higher protein tends to cause fewer cravings and reduced late night snacking.

Homemade meal replacement shakes (minus the bad stuff)

You can still enjoy all the nutrients found in store-bought meal replacement shakes when you make your own homemade versions. There are endless combinations of natural ingredients and flavor profiles you can experiment with. We’re happy to share some of our favorite in-app picks (download 8fit for more!) — give these homemade meal replacement shakes a try.

Mango & almond smoothie

This fruit-filled antioxidant smoothie has mango and berries, both of which provide your body with more than enough vitamin C, arming your immunity, slowing down aging, and keeping skin looking gorgeous.

Mango & almond smoothie

5 min300 kcal
  • ½ cup milk (whole 3.5%) (~4 oz)
  • 2 Tbsp protein powder (~⅔ oz)
  • 2 tsp almond butter (plain, without added sugar) (~⅓ oz)
  • ½ cup mango (diced) (~3 oz)
  • ½ cup berries, any kind (frozen or fresh) (~2 ¼ oz)
  • 2 Tbsp water
  • 2 ice cubes (~⅓ oz)
  1. Peel and cut the mango into small pieces.
  2. Add all the ingredients into a blender and blitz until smooth.
  3. Add 1-3 tablespoons of water to get to desired consistency.
  4. Serve and enjoy.

Spiced oatmeal smoothie

Spicy oatmeal? Sounds like we’re spreading the hygge vibe here. This smoothie also contains buttermilk, a fermented dairy product, supporting healthy bacteria that’ll keep your gut happy.

Spiced oatmeal smoothie

10 min300 kcal
  • 2 tsp almond butter (plain, without added sugar) (~⅓ oz)
  • 1 tsp honey or agave syrup (~¼ oz)
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ apple (~2 ¾ oz)
  • 3 Tbsp Greek yogurt, plain (low-fat) (~2 oz)
  • ½ cup buttermilk (or skim milk) (~4 oz)
  • 3 Tbsp rolled oats (uncooked) (~¾ oz)
  • 1 ice cube (~⅛ oz)
  • a tiny bit of cinnamon
  • a tiny bit of raw cocoa powder (~⅛ oz)
  1. Wash the apple, remove the core and chop it coarsely.
  2. Put the chopped apple into a blender and blend so that there are only small pieces (you can also use a knife).
  3. Add the other ingredients (oats, buttermilk, yogurt, cinnamon, cocoa powder, vanilla, honey, almond butter, and ice cubes).
  4. Blitz on a high power until smooth.
  5. Pour into a glass or jar.
  6. Finish with a light dusting of cinnamon on top and enjoy!

Almond mocha protein smoothie

Coffee and mint? Now we’re talking about some solid energy boosting, refreshing flavors to wake you up in the morning or keep you going during the day. We don’t recommend having this one at night just because the caffeine may keep you up at night.

Almond mocha protein smoothie

5 min300 kcal
  • 1 banana (~4 oz)
  • ½ cup almond milk (~4 oz)
  • 1 Tbsp almond butter (plain, without added sugar) (~½ oz)
  • 1 ½ Tbsp protein powder (~⅔ oz)
  • 2 tsp fresh mint (chopped)
  • 1 tsp instant coffee powder (~⅛ oz)
  • ½ cup water
  1. Peel the banana.
  2. Add all ingredients (mint, banana, almond milk, coffee powder, water, almond butter, protein powder) into a blender and blend until smooth.
  3. Drink immediately or take with you.
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