You see them on the shelves at the grocery stores, in magazine ads, and on TV - meal replacement bars and drinks that promise to keep you full and satisfied for hours. Some diet plans are even built completely around them, encouraging you to eat only one regular meal, and fill the rest of your menu with their products. Kristi Spence, Sports Dietician with The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital, says plans like that are interested in only one result - selling more product.
When we thinking of diets we tend to think of going on a diet and then going off a diet,” says Spence. “So what happens is someone does this diet, and they might lose a little bit of weight because they are not eating that many calories, but how long are they going to want to do that?”
Meal replacement bars and drinks typically contain 200 to 300 calories per serving. The companies who make them suggest that they are a suitable replacement for your breakfast or lunch. Spence disagrees.
“I don't think meal replacements are good replacements for lunch. I mean it says replacement, but really, you're not getting all the vitamins and minerals, you're not getting the fiber, you're not getting the volume of food that you would get form eating a real meal,” she says. “Part of feeling satisfied is actually feeling that your stomach is distended and you think ‘yeah, that was a satisfying meal, I actually ate a volume of food that felt good and felt comfortable.’ This just isn't a lot of food.”
While noshing a bar may keep your mouth busy and convince you that you are eating something substantial, a beverage can actually become a diet problem, Spence says, because we drink them quickly. They don’t register the same way, because there's not a lot of bulk filling up the stomach. Plus, a lot of calories can be packed into a liquid drink.
If you prefer a liquid lunch, Spence suggests soup, which is more likely to contain the fiber and whole foods that your body needs for good health.
“Our body does a lot better if it eats real whole food. I always suggest that people bring their own lunch because it feels better, you feel more satisfied.”
But the main problem with using these products for weight control or weight reduction, Spence says, is they don't support healthy eating habits.
“I don't feel it's sustainable. And, what I mean by sustainable is coming up with a plan that makes changes in the amount of calories you are consuming, but within the confines of what's going to work with your lifestyle. I think having a shake or a bar 3 times a day gets very expensive and it's not sustainable for a lot of people.”
Spence reminds us that most of those products are made for athletes who may need a small amount of food packed with a lot of calories following a rigorous workout. But if the average person uses them as a snack, they are getting 200 to 300 unnecessary calories.