Nutritional fact or fiction? Everything meal replacement companies hope you’ll take their word for

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Nutritional shakes

Convenient and affordable, hunger-curbing and nutritious, meal replacement shakes offer the body everything it needs from a full meal — at least that’s what their advertising would have consumers believe.

IdealShape, Huel, Shakeology, and Nutrisystem, are just a few of the many brands today who stand at the forefront of the popular diet method of replacing meals with drinkable substitutes.

Though these brands aim to differentiate themselves from one another through their target audiences and marketing techniques, they all share a similar baseline advertisement: their products help with weight loss, provide substantial health benefits, and are time-efficient without nutritional sacrifice.

In spite of what many companies advertise, their claims of nutritional benefits are limited, as explained by Anne Lund, senior lecturer in epidemiology and the director of the graduate coordinated program in dietetics at the UW.

“We don’t really know why, but ultra-processed food, like shakes and powders, seem to be less healthy than less processed food even when the diets are matched for calories, energy density, macronutrients, sugar, sodium, and fiber,” Lund said.

Contrary to what nutritionists understand about the products, companies such as Flat Tummy continue to advertise their shakes as being the solution to losing weight quickly while obtaining enough nutrients. 

Flat Tummy advertises that its four-week, once-daily program of drinking meal replacement shakes provides protein, vitamins, minerals, fruits, and vegetables at just 140 calories per drink. The company also states the program is three times more effective in weight loss than diet and exercise individually.

The promise of weight loss, as exemplified by Flat Tummy, is a major draw for consumers and is also a large aspect of the culture surrounding meal substitute products. The question is, to what degree can consumers rely on this promise companies make?

Studies, including research from the Nutrition Journal, have demonstrated that meal replacements have indeed caused subjects to lose weight, but this weight loss tends to persist only in the short term before being gained back when consumers moved away from the products.

If consumers are turning toward meal substitutes to lose weight and maintain weight loss, then the diet of using meal replacements may become a fixed one that restricts the consumption of sufficient nutrients over time.

“I do not think shakes or powders should be used as a meal replacement,” Lund said. “I can’t imagine any of our nutrition faculty would support consuming them on a regular basis. Nutrition is a relatively young field and there is a lot that we do not know, but most research supports eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”

While the time-efficiency, affordability, and nutritional advertising of meal substitute shakes may be compelling, it is important to remember that the health benefits companies claim are not backed by nutrition as a field.

So, rather than ordering a tub of meal replacement powder, the healthier alternative is to aim at structuring balanced meals that will actually provide quality nutrition. The “Eating Well” section of The Whole U is one helpful source to start balanced and nutritious meals.

Reach contributing writer Jax Morgan at wellness@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @jaxbmorgan

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