The Best Meal Replacement Shakes: What to Look For and Avoid
Authored by Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC
What's the Best Meal Replacement Shake?
It's not uncommon for people to neglect their health and fitness goals simply because they are too busy to prepare nutritious meals ahead of time. Life is stressful enough as is, so we can empathize. Thankfully, you don't need to carry 10 pieces of Tupperware with you every day just to meet your nutrient needs. A quality meal replacement shake will get the job done without interrupting the flow of your work or class schedule.
Even better, the best meal replacement shakes can be pretty darn satisfying and delicious. Of course, not all meal replacements are created equal. We'll get you up to speed on the ingredients to look for (and avoid) in a meal replacement powder (MRP).
Difference Between Meal Replacements and Protein Shakes
Meal replacements (meal replacement powders) and protein shakes (protein powders) are two widely consumed sources of nutrients but are also commonly mistaken as being the same. Meal replacement shakes are not to be confused with things like "protein shakes," "nutrition shakes," "juicing," or "healthy smoothies."
A "meal replacement shake" is essentially a complete meal that comes in a powder form (or pre-mixed liquid). On the contrary, a "protein shake" more properly refers to a shake made with just protein powder, meaning it has few carbs and fats. Hence, meal replacements pack more of a punch than pure protein shakes.
There is no clear-cut way of categorizing juicing and healthy smoothies; these terms are generally used to refer to homemade concoctions of plant-based ingredients that provide a high amount of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) for "cleansing" purposes. Though the science behind drinking such amalgamations to "detox the body" and lose weight remains tenuous.
Are Meal Replacement Shakes Good for Weight Loss?
When you're focusing on weight loss, meal replacement shakes can help...or hurt. Since meal replacement powders are dietary supplements, each product has its own ingredient profile and formulation. Some of these formulas are high in protein and fiber while being relatively low in calories, making them suitable for those who want to lose weight.
However, there are plenty of not-so-great meal replacement powders on the market with lackluster protein content, minimal fiber, and quite a few calories per serving (e.g., 400 calories and just 15 grams of protein). And if you're not careful, you might wind up drinking a meal replacement shake that's loaded with added sugar, saturated fat, and cheap vegetable oils.
With that in mind, let's take a look at which ingredients and quality features that separate the good meal replacement shakes from the bad.
Why Are (Some) Meal Replacement Shakes Bad?
Just about every meal replacement shake qualifies as a "complete meal," meaning it provides a moderate amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates (the three macronutrients). But the macronutrient content only paints part of the picture. Ingredient quality counts, and this is where the majority of meal replacements take a turn for the worse.
Here are some things to avoid when shopping for meal replacements:
Too Much Added Sugar
Surprisingly, meal replacement shakes often contain upwards of 20 grams of added sugar (equivalent to five teaspoons of sugar), and it's usually in the form of corn syrup. Small amounts of sugar are fine, but when your meal replacement has more added sugar than it does protein and fiber, it's probably not gonna help you meet your fitness goals.
Low Protein Content and Incomplete Protein Sources
Most meal replacements and protein bars use inferior, highly allergenic protein sources such as soy and wheat just to save cost and jack up the protein content on the label. This is a common practice in the supplement industry that consumers frequently overlook.
Poor Fatty Acid Profiles
Another common pitfall of meal replacement shakes is having a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids, which may contribute to chronic oxidative stress and inflammation . The culpable ingredients typically include sunflower creamer, vegetable oil, safflower oil, and peanut butter.
Also, be wary of saturated fat and trans fat from partially hydrogenated oils and palm kernel oil.
Not Enough Fiber
Many meal replacement shakes contain essentially zero grams of fiber. If you're relying on an MRP to get you through the day, then it should provide at least 4 - 5 grams of fiber per serving to help satiate you and support your gut health. As a general guideline, the average adult should aim for 30 grams of fiber per day.
While ingredients like sucralose, aspartame, and acesulfame-K aren't as bad as their reputation suggests, it's sensible to limit your intake of artificial sweeteners. Instead, look for meal replacements with natural non-nutritive sweeteners, such as stevia and monk fruit.
Ingredients to Look for in Meal Replacements
Now that you know what to avoid when shopping for a meal replacement powder, here are the are ingredients to look for:
Complete Protein Sources
Protein is made up of amino acids, the “building blocks” of muscle tissue. But the protein sources in meal replacements can vary significantly, and this directly impacts results. Research shows that whey protein is superior to virtually all other protein sources, especially plant-based protein like soy, for stimulating muscle protein synthesis .
This is precisely why the best meal replacement shakes should provide 25+ grams of protein from high-quality sources like grass-fed whey protein, egg white protein, and pea protein. (If you're vegan, look for a meal replacement shake with primarily brown rice and pea protein.)
The term "healthy fats" is a bit ambiguous, but colloquially it refers to monounsaturated fats, omega-3s, and medium-chain triglycerides (which are a type of saturated fat). The fat sources in meal replacements are usually not the greatest since it's much cheaper to use vegetable oils and creamers than MCT powder, almond butter, and coconut.
Complex Carbohydrates and Prebiotic Fiber
Complex carbohydrates and prebiotic fiber, such as oats/oat fiber, are what keep your energy steady and sustained for hours after finishing a meal. They also nourish your gut by feeding the "friendly" microbes in your gastrointestinal tract. Look for ingredients like pea starch, inulin (chicory root), sweet potato flour, and oat flour when shopping for a quality meal replacement shake.
Natural Flavoring and Sweeteners
As mentioned earlier, natural non-nutritive sweeteners like stevia are preferable to artificial sweeteners. The same goes for flavoring and food coloring.
Meal Prep Just Got Easier with Transparent Labs MRP
When you have a jam-packed work/class schedule, odds are you're not going to find time to sit down and eat multiple whole-food meals. But that's no excuse for skipping meals or resorting to junk food.
Whether you’re trying to pack on lean muscle mass or lose weight, Transparent Labs MRP is designed to keep you properly fueled with quality, nutrient-dense ingredients such as Carb10® Pea Starch, grass-fed protein, and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Each scoop of this meal replacement powder packs 24 grams of protein, 7 grams of fat, 19 grams of carbs (5 grams of fiber), and has just 220 calories. No artificial sweeteners, soy, or blood sugar-spiking dextrose.
Simply toss a scoop or two of TL MRP into a blender bottle and add water when you want a healthy, filling meal replacement.
Here’s a sample meal schedule to accommodate a busy lifestyle:
- 7:30 AM — Wake
- 8:00 AM — Breakfast (1-2 Scoops of TL MRP on the way to work/class)
- 12:00 PM — Lunch
- 4:00 PM — Pre-Workout Meal (1-2 Scoops of TL MRP)
- 5:00 PM — Workout
- 6:30 PM — Dinner
- 10:30 PM - Bedtime Snack
- 11:30 PM - Bedtime
*Drink meal replacement shakes 1-2 times per day to help meet your calorie and macronutrient needs.
When you need a high-protein, convenient, and taste-bud-friendly meal on the go, Transparent Labs MRP has you covered. "De-stress" your busy lifestyle and pick up a bottle today! We firmly believe this is the best meal replacement shake on the market and look forward to hearing your feedback!
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