Expert Nutrition

Do Meal Replacements Help You to Lose Weight?

Meal replacements have been around for many years, however it is only in recent times they have started to become popular and more widely accepted clinically as an effective tool to assist weight loss. In modern times people are quick to replace some of their main meals with a shake or bar in an attempt to achieve quick weight loss. So what does the research say about meal replacements, are they effective and are there any detrimental side effects to be wary of? expert-nutrition.com reviews.

Theory Supporting Meal Replacements

A meal replacement (or meal substitute) can be defined as a single food or pre-packaged selection of foods that is sold as a replacement for one or more daily meals. An important point to consider is that meal replacements are generally intended to be used in conjunction with a healthy diet and not as a complete dietary replacement as the name suggests. Like most good diet plans the concept behind meal replacements is in reducing the total energy input, which refers to the total amount of calories consumed throughout the day.

Meal replacements are designed to be a nutritionally balanced alternative to a sit down meal that will help to satisfy your hunger, whilst also reducing the amount of calories that would normally be consumed. Meal replacements essentially help to reduce portion size and consequently total energy intake. For those readers who have been following our free chapter to lose weight, you would be familiar with the energy equation and the concept that to lose body fat you must burn more calories than you consume. The theory behind these meal substitute formula’s is that they essentially contribute to low caloric diet (LCD) which helps to balance the energy equation such that calorie intake is less than that of energy expenditure and therefore in theory you should lose weight.

How Effective are Meal Replacements

Recent studies have shown that by combining a diet and lifestyle educational program to include meal replacements you can realistically achieve about 10% of total body weight lost over a period of 6 – 12 months. These studies have also shown that when you combine partial meal substitutes with an educational diet program they are more effective in achieving weight loss than traditional education only diet programs.

It is important at this point to clarify that while replacements by themselves can help people to lose weight, the best results come when they are used in conjunction with a lifestyle education and modification program. They should not to be considered a “quick fix” as the lifestyle modification is arguable the most important factor to long term success.

Positives to Using Meal Substitutes

There are many positives to using meal substitutes particularly when used in conjunction with an educational weight loss program. One of the main benefits that has been widely publicised is that they can produce quick weight loss and without any significant clinical side effects. Although quick weight loss was originally condemned by health professionals and was thought to be dangerous, there is a new wave of opinion among health experts suggesting that achieving quick weight loss is an excellent motivator that can help to elicit greater long term results. Additionally it is believed (although not clinically proven) that the health benefits associated with overall weight loss for obese people would exceed the potential dangers of losing it quickly. Having said this, it is recommended that you always consult your doctor regarding your weight loss intentions.

As mentioned above, meal substitutes have proven to be more effective than traditionally diet programs both in the short (6 months) and long term (1-5years). In fact our understanding of the research suggests that meal replacements when used as part of a very low calorie diet and in conjunction with an educational and lifestyle modification program are the 2nd most effective way to successfully lose weight after surgery.

Advances in food technology, a competitive market and the nutrition standards set by governing authorities has lead to the improvement of meal replacement formulas. By law meal replacements are now required to meet nutritional standards set by governing bodies to include important nutrients and although there is some variation seen in the standards set around the world there is a general consensus that they must include important nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals. An example of the Australian and New Zealand Standards are list below.

Compositional Requirements for Formulated Meal Replacements
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand1

Each serving must contain no less than -

  • 12 g protein; and
  • 850 kJ; and
  • 25 % of the RDI for 16 prescribed vitamins and minerals

Another advantage to using meal replacements is that they are both cheap and convenient. The cost associated with purchasing replacements allows you to lose weight and save money at the same time with the pre-packaged formulas usually cost only a fraction of what you would expect to pay for a typical meal. Additionally because the meal substitutes are easily prepared (ie just add water) they are very convenient. This convenience factor along with good results and minimal cost has made meal replacements a very marketable product. In fact meal replacements aren’t just becoming popular in the weight loss community, but society in general, as they provide a quick and convenient way to get good nutrition.

Negatives to Using Meal Substitutes

Traditionally there were concerns that if used independently meal replacements would lead to quick weight regain when they were no longer used, particularly if they came with no lifestyle education. Additionally when meal substitutes first entered the marketplace some commercially available formulas had very little nutritional value and could potentially lead to nutrient deficiencies. The good news is that advances in food technology and better meal replacement formulas, as well as the incorporation of meal replacements as part of a total weight loss program, which includes lifestyle and dietary education has helped to overcome these initial concerns.

Currently we have not found any clinical evidence to suggest there are any significant side effects associated with taking partial meal replacements when used as part of an overall healthy diet plan. Additionally such plans have been shown to be safe with people who have obesity related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, however people with food intolerances (lactose, soy, whey etc) may need to be cautious.

One factor that should be considered is that there is evidence to suggest that when people lose weight quickly there can be a detrimental rise in homocysteine bloods levels, which is known to increase the risk associated with vascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke. Multivitamin supplementation has been proven as an effective way of lowering homocysteine levels and therefore a multivitamin is recommended for those intending to lose weight quickly. In particular a quality supplement containing folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 should be considered. This could help to explain why some more research based meal supplement manufacturers are also suggesting the use of a quality multivitamin to compliment their meal replacement programs.

Other negatives to consider are those of individual taste and compliance. Although most meal substitutes offer a variety of flavours, the novelty of replacing a satisfying meal with shake can lose its appeal making long term compliance a potential problem. This again supports the notion that meal replacement should be used adjunct to an educational weight loss program and not as a standalone intervention.

Meal Replacement Summary

In summary the evidence currently suggests that meal replacements when used in conjunction with an overall diet and lifestyle modification program appears to be a safe and very effective method to lose weight both in the short and the long term. Having said this, it is our recommendation that people with specific pathologies are encourage to seek medical approval and supervision prior to using meal replacements. Additionally if your intention is to lose weight quickly then you should also consider taking a quality multivitamin as a precaution against rising homocystiene levels and again consult your doctor for additionally advice and to monitor your progress.

What to look for in a good meal replacement program (coming soon). In the mean time if you are looking for a program that is suitable for your weight loss needs, please contact us and we’ll do our best to find a program that suits your needs.

Educational program to support the use of meal replacements (Return to the start of this free How to Lose Weight chapter)


References:
1. Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Australia New Zealand food standards code. Available at: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au (accessed July 2007).
2. Anderson JW, Luan J, Hoie LH. Structured weight-loss programs: meta-analysis of weight loss at 24 weeks and assessment of effects of intervention intensity. Adv Ther 2004; 21: 61-75.
3. Heymsfield SB, van Mierlo CA, van der Knaap HC, et al. Weight management using a meal replacement strategy: meta and pooling analysis from six studies. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2003; 27: 537-549.
4. Li Z, Hong K, Saltsman P, et al. Long-term efficacy of soy-based meal replacements vs an individualized diet plan in obese type II DM patients: relative effects on weight loss, metabolic parameters, and C-reactive protein. Eur J Clin Nutr 2005; 59: 411-418.
5. Ditschuneit HH, Flechtner-Mors M. Value of structured meals for weight management: risk factors and long-term weight maintenance. Obes Res 2001; 9 Suppl 4: S284 S-S289.
6. Hensrud DD. Dietary treatment and long-term weight loss and maintenancein type 2 diabetes. Obes Res 2001; 9 Suppl 4: S348-S353.
7. Dixon JB, Dixon ME, O'Brien PE Elevated homocysteine levels with weight loss after Lap-Band surgery: higher folate and vitamin B12 levels required to maintain homocysteine level. International Journal of Obesity (2001) 25, 219-227


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