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How Can Meal Replacements Help with Weight Loss?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: August 2023

Meal replacements are a popular and convenient option for some people trying to lose weight. These products – also called nutritional drinks – offer a quick and hassle-free way to control calorie intake while providing essential nutrients. And some studies show that, when used appropriately, meal replacements can help people on their weight loss journey.1-3

How do meal replacements work?

Meal replacements are designed to replace 1 or more regular meals, typically breakfast or lunch. They offer a low-calorie, nutrient-dense alternative that controls portion size and calorie intake. By consuming these products, people can get proper nutrition while in a calorie deficit.1-4

Meal replacements come in different calorie ranges to suit specific needs. On average, a meal replacement can provide anywhere from 200 to 400 calories per serving.1,3

Every person’s calorie requirements are different. They vary based on age, gender, activity level, weight loss goals, and existing health conditions. Your healthcare professional or registered dietitian can tell you how many calories you need to consume each day to maintain your weight or lose weight safely. This is vital if you have other health conditions such as diabetes.2-4

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What are the ingredients in meal replacements?

Meal replacements often have a combination of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. Other ingredients may include fiber, probiotics, and antioxidants. These help to promote gut health and provide balanced nutrition.3

They also provide a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (macronutrients). Protein helps you feel full while maintaining muscle mass. Carbohydrates give the body energy. Fats help you feel full and support cell function.3

What are some examples of meal replacements?

Meal replacements come in many forms, including bars, shakes, powders, and drinks. You can buy them in drugstores, grocery stores, and online.3,4

Some popular meal replacement brands include:4

  • Ensure®
  • Optavia® (previously Medifast®)
  • Nutrisystem®
  • Slimfast®

Choosing meal replacements

When choosing meal replacements to lose weight or maintain weight, there are several things to consider.3,4

Nutrition labels

Many meal replacements contain added sugars or artificial sweeteners to enhance taste. Read the nutrition labels carefully. Note the sugar content, especially if you have specific restrictions or concerns about blood sugar control. And if you have any allergies or food sensitivities to things like nuts, soy, dairy, or gluten, make sure to look for allergy warnings on the nutrition labels.3

Nutrient variety

Meal replacements can offer balanced nutrition. But they should not be your sole source of food for an extended period of time. Eating a variety of whole foods is important. This allows you to get a wide range of nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy. All these nutrients may not be present in a single meal replacement product.3,4

Long-term sustainability

Approach weight loss as a long-term lifestyle change rather than a short-term fix. Meal replacements can serve as a useful tool in the early stages of weight loss. But transitioning to whole foods and mindful eating habits is crucial for sustainable results.3,4

Personal preferences

Everyone has different taste preferences. Experiment with different brands and flavors. Just be sure to choose a high-quality meal replacements without a lot of added sugar or other additives.3,4

Other things to know

There are some drawbacks to meal replacements. Some research suggests that people may lose weight with them at first, but they end up putting the weight back on in the long run. Meal replacements also can be expensive – especially high-quality brands.3

Meal replacements that are easier on the wallet often are lower in quality and may have a lot of added sugars and additives. Choose high-quality meal replacements to ensure you are getting a balanced mix of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.3

Meal replacements can be a helpful option for weight loss. But they should be used only as a supplement to a healthy, low-calorie diet for long-term success.3,4

Always consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian before starting any diet plan, including meal replacements, to make sure it is right for you.