The pros and cons of liquid meal replacers

Relying on liquid meal replacers promising they are a “complete meal” or “meal replacer” may be convenient and is better than skipping a meal altogether, but if you find yourself drinking away you fair share of nutrients, just beware there is nothing magical about these beverages.

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Many people resort to choosing these quick, reliable and presumably healthy meal beverages justifying their decision based on “if I didn’t have this I wouldn’t time to eat anything at a meal.” These liquid meal replacers were originally designed for people too sick or weak to manage solid food or for morbidly obese people in doctor-supervised weight loss programs.  Athletes have been another target the liquid meal replacers have focused on to meet their demands of wanting a ‘high-energy’ liquid supplement.

Today, there is a cluster of liquid meals marketed to the general public claiming to be the next best and greatest beverage to meet all your nutritional needs. If you have to make a choice between having a lunch composed of a candy bar or chips and soda, go with the liquid meal replacer.  But realize, most of us don’t really need them and they contain no better nutritional powers than what whole food has to offer. 

These liquid beverages usually contain a high dose of milk protein, water, sugars, vegetable oils, thickeners, and flavoring agents, plus added vitamins and minerals.  As an example, read the ingredient list on one of these beverages and most likely the very first ingredient will be milk often followed by sugar – ingredients on all foods are listed in order of predominance by weight. 

Another factor to consider is that our bodies don’t register the calories that we drink the same way as the calories we eat from food.  For example, if you drink a meal replacer that has 250 calories, you will likely not feel as satisfied as if you had eaten something like a sandwich that had 250 calories.  This can lead to taking in more calories and feelings of hunger even when you have had enough calories. When we eat real food, it involves the aroma of the food and the act of chewing and swallowing which all play a part in how satisfied we feel after a meal.  A liquid meal replacer offers none of these benefits. 

To shake out the facts, here are some claims often seen on the labels of liquid meal replacers:

·      “Replenishes tired muscles or energy drink” – The word energy means calories with most of these beverages containing anywhere from 100 up to 400 calories per bottle.  Anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of the calories come from sugar.

·      “High protein” – This is often the main selling phrase used to entice people to try out their product.  The protein content can range from 10 up to 26 grams of protein which is fine but few Americans are deficient in protein. As long as people realize just drinking these beverages by themselves without exercise, will not build muscles.

·      “Convenient” – Yes there is no denying just unscrewing the cap is about as convenient as can be but what about simply choosing to eat low-fat yogurt mixed with walnuts? That’s really convenient also. 

·      “Great-tasting” – This is a matter of opinion but either the drinks tend to be overly sweet, oily, chalky or they leave an aftertaste from an artificial sweetener if they contain one.

·      “Doctor recommended” – This statement is found on liquid drinks intended for people who have lost weight from chemotherapy or have another serious illness or for those who can’t eat solid food.  Usually these liquid supplements were originally never meant to be for otherwise healthy individuals.  These high-calorie supplements can increase weight but are only meant to be used temporarily until a person can return to eating whole foods.  There is no evidence these beverages improve quality of life or health status.

In conclusion

There will always be a market for liquid meal replacers and they can be enjoyed and used on occasion to replace eating whole foods.  But if you are a healthy person who is capable of chewing, swallowing, and digesting whole foods, you will gain far ahead of what your body really wants you to feed it as there is no substitute for a nutritious, healthy meal of actual food.