Do Meal Replacement Shakes Actually Work?

information on meal replacement shakesIf you’ve ever wanted to lose weight then you have probably heard of the meal replacement shake (even if you weren’t sure exactly what it was). Companies like Herbalife, Slimfast, and new kid on the block Huel have divided opinion among fitness professionals, dieticians, and the general public. Some swear by them and many have even become sellers themselves, while others have become harsh critics of meal replacement shakes.

But who is correct? And is it possible that both sides may have a point? In this article we will look at the history of meal replacement shakes, some of the biggest companies involved, and we will assess the effectiveness of using a meal replacement strategy.

History of Meal Replacement Shakes

In the 1970s a company called Slimfast created a drink that could be taken instead of a meal, the idea was that instead of eating breakfast or lunch you would drink two 220 calorie shakes. This was the first meal replacement shake and since then there have been many new companies that have risen and fallen.

In the 1980s companies like Herbalife and Almased sprung up, both becoming massive successes that are still popular today. There have since been other companies that have come and gone selling similar shakes but with less success.

During the 80s, 90s, and at the beginning of the 21st century meal replacement shakes became very popular with the general public. Herbalife in particular has built itself up to a billion dollar company after a huge rise in popularity.

In recent times companies such as Huel have sprung up, claiming to offer a more scientifically backed product. This is in the wake of a huge backlash against meal replacement shakes such as Herbalife, and Slimfast (though their success continues) due to their lack of protein, and low nutritional value.

A comparison of the meal replacement shake companies

While there are many companies out there who offer meal replacement services, this article will limit our comparison to the four companies that we have mentioned so far; Slimfast, Herbalife, Almased, and Huel. Why these four? Well Slimfast is the original company, Herbalife is the most successful, Almased is one of the most researched, and Huel is the newest (and the one getting the most attention currently).

Slimfast

Started in 1977 by S. Daniel Abraham, Slimfast has been around for almost 40 years. In that time it has gone through multiple changes starting off as a low-calorie shake (high carb, low fat, low protein), then changing to a low-carb version in 2004, before finally adopting a more balanced shake now (with 15g of protein rather than the 10g that the shake originally had).

Each serving contains 230 calories, 3g of fat, 38g of carbohydrates (4g of fibre), and 15g of protein. The shakes also contain vitamins and minerals particularly calcium (each serving contains 250ml of skimmed milk so this is not really surprising).

The idea is that you have one shake, then there is also a meal replacement bar that you have for lunch (with similar calories and macronutrients), then you have a normal meal in the evening and you can add a couple of low-calorie Slimfast snacks alongside it.

There is nothing particularly special about this diet, it seems like it would end up costing a lot of money to eat like this for a month and the protein content per day is actually pretty low. Calling 15g of protein “high protein” is stretching the truth quite a bit really. What is good about Slimfast is the amount of support and recipes that they offer.

Herbalife

Herbalife was founded by Mark Hughes in 1980, from humble beginnings (Hughes started selling his product out of the trunk of his car) the company now has almost 9,000 employees globally. Herbalife has sponsored a lot of sports clubs and athletes (notably Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) and as a result has a huge following.

The product itself is made from soy protein and comes with a variety of other supplements, including a separate protein powder that can add an extra 5g of protein per serving to your shake. When mixed with milk each serving contains 264 calories, 7g of fat, 32g of carbohydrates (1.2g fibre), and 18g of protein (23g if you add the extra protein powder).

This is a more balanced shake than the Slimfast one with more dietary fat and protein per serving, but there is less fibre. Herbalife do sell a fibre supplement separately plus a whole range of vitamins, minerals, and herbs.

One thing that should be mentioned about Herbalife is their business practices, they don’t sell directly to shops but instead use multi-level-marketing, or MLM. The way this works is that a seller buys some products from the company and then sells it on to their customers (usually friends and family). The seller is then encouraged to get their customers to start selling Herbalife as well. The seller gets a percentage of any sales that their customer makes.

Eventually that customer is encouraged to get their customers to also sell the product with them getting a cut and the original seller also getting a cut. This business model could potentially make the original seller (and Herbalife) a lot of money, but there are less opportunities the further down you go.

For this reason there has been a lot of accusations that Herbalife is in fact a pyramid scheme. Whether this is true or not is a debate for another article, but what is clear is that there is a lot of controversy around the product and it is hard to buy without getting sucked in to the company. This shouldn’t reflect on the product itself, but as a meal replacement shake Herbalife is pretty average anyway.

Almased

Almased was founded almost 30 years ago by Hubertus Trouillé. Like Herbalife it uses soy for its protein but it also contains yoghurt and honey. Each serving contains 180 calories, 1.5g of fat, 16g of carbohydrates, and 25g of protein. As you can see there is a lot more protein in this shake than in the other two shakes.

Almased has been specifically used in a number of studies that have demonstrated following the program has led to weight loss [1], improved insulin regulation [2], and improved quality of life [3]. A lot of these studies were funded by Almased which means that there may be an element of bias in the reporting, but that does not necessarily mean that the results are worthless.

One thing about Almased is that the weight loss program is a little more extreme than any of the other meal replacement shake diets out there. There are four phases: Starting, Reduction, Stability, and life. The starting phase lasts for 2 weeks and consists of you taking three shakes per day with only the addition of a 10 calorie broth as a snack. This works out at less than 600 calories per day!

The next phase consists of 1000 calories per day (2 shakes plus a 600 calorie meal), whilst the third phase has 1380 calories per day (1 shake plus 2 x 600 calorie meals). Considering most people usually consume 2000 calories plus per day this is definitely an extreme diet to follow.

The final phase is supposed to last for the rest of your life and consists of three regular meals per day plus a 180 calorie shake. As a diet this is probably going to be quite effective at weight loss provided you can stick to it – though it is by no means the most effective diet out there. The shake itself is definitely better than the Slimlife and Herbalife shakes, mainly due to its high protein content – but it really could do with some more carbohydrates in it.

Huel

Huel was founded in 2014 by Julian Hearn and James Collier, it is made from seven ingredients all of them vegan (pea protein, oats, rice protein, flaxseed, sunflower, and coconut MCTs). The idea is that you have four servings of Huel per day for a 2,000 calorie diet, but as everyone is different you can alter your serving amount or add calories from outside sources to get the calorie target that suits you.

The first thing you will probably notice is the amount of calories in each serving compared to the other supplements out there. While Almased contains just 180 calories per serving Huel contains 500. There is 16.25g of fat, 50g carbohydrates (9g of fibre), and 37.45g of protein.

Multiply this by four and you end up with 65g of fat, 200g of carbohydrates, and 150g of protein per day. This is probably the only meal replacement shake company out there that actually hits a decent level of protein for the day, and also has a good amount of fats and carbs. Whilst you can add calories from other meals, it is possible to get all of your calories from the meal replacement shakes.

Do meal replacement shakes work?

If you talked to most personal trainers, or people who believe they know about nutrition they would say to stay away from meal replacement shakes. They would mention the difficulty in sticking to this type of diet, and they would say that your metabolism would be so low that you would actually gain weight.

But is this actually true? A look at countless studies shows that meal replacement shakes seem to be more effective at both short and long-term fat loss than any other type of diet. Kӧnig et al (2008) found that a meal replacement diet led to more fat loss in the early stages of the diet, and less fat regained after a year than traditional dieting [4].

A study in 2006 by Ditschuneit found that meal replacement shakes were almost twice as effective as individualised diet plans at reducing weight in obese patients with Type II diabetes [5]. Another study in 2004 by Noakes et al concluded that meal replacements are as effective as conventional diets for losing weight and were viewed as easier to follow [6].

A 12 week study on 75 obese participants by Lee et al (2009) found that high-protein meal replacements were more effective than nutritionally balanced meals in reducing body fat [7]. Another study in 2010 found meal replacement shakes were effective at both weight loss and weight maintenance [8].

In all honesty, we could look at another 20-30 studies that have all supported the effectiveness of meal replacement shakes. Now meal replacement shakes are not for everyone, and there is definitely some truth in the fact that eating real food in a calorie controlled diet is always going to be more effective and more enjoyable.

But after seeing study after study show that obese people lose more weight, and maintain that lost weight better with meal replacement shakes over traditional dieting maybe it’s time to accept the fact that there is a time and place where products like Almased, Huel, or even Herbalife/Slimfast might be an effective strategy.

Remember you’re not replacing the perfect healthy diet here, you are replacing a diet that has led to the person becoming obese. Meal replacement diets are effective because they are simple, most of the shakes/bars/snacks taste great, and they are lower calorie.

Many of the extremely overweight or obese have tried many diets in their lives, and failed. In fact many non-obese people have also failed because eating a healthy diet is difficult, it can be complicated, and can take a lot of time.

If you are obese or overweight and you have tried everything, then a meal replacement shake diet may be the solution to your problems. You can view our take on the best meal replacement shakes here.

 

References

[1] Kempf, K., Schloot, N., Gärtner, B., Keil, R., Schadewaldt, P., Martin, S. 2013. Meal replacement reduces insulin requirement, HbA1c and weight long-term in type 2 diabetes patients with >100 U insulin per day. Journal of Human Nutrition & Dietetics 27(s2): 21-27

[2] Deibert, P., Kønig, D., Vitolins, M., Landmann, U., Frey, I., Zahradnik, H-P., Berg, A. 2007. Effect of a weight loss intervention on anthropometric measures and metabolic risk factors in pre- versus postmenopausal women. Nutrition Journal 6: 31

[3] Koohkan, S., Schaffner, D., Milliron, B., Frey, I., Kӧnig, D., Deibert, P., Vitolins, M., Berg, A. 2014. The impact of a weight reduction program with and without meal-replacement on health related quality of life in middle-aged obese females. BMC Women’s Health 14: 45

[4] Kӧnig, D., Deibert, P., Frey, I., Landmann, U., Berg, A. 2008. Effect of Meal Replacement on Metabolic Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Subjects. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism 52(1): 74-78

[5] Ditschuneit, H. 2006. Do meal replacement drinks have a role in diabetes management? Nestle Nutritional Workshop Series. Clinical & Performance Programme 11: 171-9

[6] Noakes, M., Foster, P., Keogh, J., Clifton, P. 2004. Meal replacements are as effective as structured weight-loss diets for treating obesity in adults with features of metabolic syndrome. The Journal of Nutrition 134(8): 1894-9

[7] Lee, K., Lee, J., Bae, W., Choi, J., Kim, H., Cho, B. 2009. Efficacy of low-calorie, partial meal replacement diet plans on weight and abdominal fat in obese subjects with metabolic syndrome: a double-blind, randomised controlled trial on two diet plans – one high in protein and on nutritionally balanced. International Journal of Clinical Practice 63(2): 195-201

[8] Davis, L., Coleman, C., Kiel, J., Rampolla, J., Hutchinson, T., Ford, L., Anderson, W. 2010. Efficacy of a meal replacement diet plan compared to a food-based diet plan after a period of weight loss and weight maintenance: a randomized controlled trial. Nutrition Journal 9:11

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