Do Meal Replacement Shakes Really Work for Weight Loss?

Losing weight is not always easy. Given the hectic pace of modern life, people have turned to diets or dubious weight loss schemes. Meal replacements, along with diet and exercise, offer an alternative, effective solution to weight loss and weight management. The benefits are based on the convenience of meal replacements, their ability to satisfy hunger, and providing nutrients that your body needs every day.

In my last post, we discussed the difference between meal replacements and protein shakes, and how these products cater to specific goals and needs.

Today, I would like to dig deeper into why meal replacements work better than typical calorie-restricted diets, according to science and research.

The Science Behind Meal Replacement Products

There’s nothing magical about meal replacements, and they’re not as bland or boring as food replacements in science fiction may suggest. Today, there are a hundred or more ways to prepare meal replacement shakes that taste great and fill you up for hours.

When we talk about the science of meal replacements, I primarily want to discuss three aspects that relate to their efficacy for weight management:

  1. Protein and Glycemic Index
  2. Nutrient Density
  3. Behavioral Changes

Protein and Glycemic Index

Protein is the most satiating macronutrient – meaning it controls hunger for longer than carbohydrates or fats. Getting the right amount of protein to control hunger at every meal every day is a key to achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight. 

Meal replacement shakes also have a low glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly a food causes blood sugar levels to rise. When you consume foods with a high GI, your blood sugar will spike and then fall sharply, promoting lethargy and hunger.

However, a meal replacement shake, like other foods with a low glycemic index, release sugar into the blood more slowly – providing another way for meal replacements to help control hunger. For comparison, an Herbalife Nutrition Formula 1 meal replacement shake, before mixed with milk, has a low GI, whereas orange juice has a moderate to high GI.

Whenever you consume foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and meal replacements that have a low glycemic index, your body digests them more slowly than simple carbohydrates and sugar in snack foods.

As a result, there is a slower rise in blood sugar. Protein, which helps to lower the glycemic index, has an independent proven effect on controlling hunger. Getting the right amount of protein is key to the effectiveness of meal replacements. Meal replacements that have a low glycemic index can curb appetite despite their lower calories compared to typical meals.

It’s important to note, however, that a low GI doesn’t necessarily mean a food is high in nutrients. This is why the next concept is so important.

Nutrient Density

Nutrient density refers to the ratio of nutrients to calories in a food. A food with low nutrient density provides lots of calories, fat, and sugar with few essential nutrients. Cookies, cakes, pasta, and sugary soft drinks fall in this category. High nutrient density foods provide lots of nutrients per calorie and include fruits, vegetables, lean meats and fish, and meal replacements.

In other words, nutrient density is a measure of how much nutrition you get per serving or per calorie eaten.

For example, an Herbalife Nutrition Formula 1 meal replacement shake is 170 calories when mixed with 8 oz. nonfat milk. It provides high-quality protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. On the other hand, a croissant is around 200-300 calories, but will only provide empty calories from saturated fat and sugar, with no other significant nutrients.

Meal Replacement vs Iced Coffee

Most meal replacement products may deliver vitamins and minerals to make them nutrient dense.

Meal replacements promote a high-quality diet by being nutrient-dense and having a low GI. When combined with resistance exercise, meal replacements can also help promote lean body mass to maintain or build lean muscle and support fat loss.

In fact, a recent trial was conducted to investigate the effect of a high protein partial meal replacement (HPMR) diet on nutrient intake in overweight and obese people. Based on the results, the HPMR diet led to an overall improvement in diet quality over the course of the study. Significant decreases in fat and cholesterol intake and substantial increases in protein and fiber intake were observed at all time points.

Dietary intake of all micronutrients tested, including nutrients of U.S. public health concern (vitamin D, calcium, and potassium) increased significantly at all time points from baseline, and sodium intake significantly decreased.

Considering that those who are overweight or obese are likely struggling to consume a nutrient-balanced diet, the HPMR diet may be an effective strategy to enhance overall nutrition quality of their diet. The HPMR diet could be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle program that includes healthy eating and exercise for those at risk for macronutrient and micronutrient deficiencies.

Behavioral Changes

Aside from the above nutritional considerations, meal replacements simplify weight management by allowing you to focus on controlling foods in one or two meals per day. The behavioral advantages of a Partial Meal Replacement Diet are as key as the nutritional advantages compared to typical or fad diets.

The Medicine Department of the University of Ulm, Germany, carried out a four-year study of obese patients (who were not taking Herbalife Nutrition products). Researchers identified six specific reasons why the meal replacement diets worked so effectively for weight loss.

These reasons include:

Convenience

Lack of time to prepare healthy meals is one of the biggest barriers to losing weight. Meal replacements make it easier to plan meals.

Increased compliance

Meal replacements reduce barriers to dietary adherence, such as the temptation to indulge in unhealthy foods.

Regular eating pattern

Repetition and routine are key in a weight loss or weight maintenance journey. Eating at regular times throughout the day and avoiding long periods of time between each meal positively affect your energy level and hunger feeling.

Accuracy of calorie estimation

Dietitians typically advise consuming a certain number of calories throughout the day, depending on your health goals. Meal replacements – when prepared as suggested – are an easy, precise way to keep track of how many calories you are consuming.

Quality of food consumed

Cutting back on calories can make it difficult to obtain the required nutrients. Meal replacements are often fortified vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber, which help avoid a nutrient gap.

Positively affects self-monitoring

Recording dietary intake helps people become aware of their current food-related behaviors. Tracking meal replacements is easy, making self-awareness of target behaviors and outcomes easier.

Evidence Why Meal Replacements Are Effective

In 2018, researchers from the University of Oxford published a systematic review and meta-analysis of meal replacements for weight management. They reviewed 14 studies that compared the effect of weight loss interventions that incorporated meal replacements to those of alternative interventions.

They concluded that meal replacements are superior to usual diet and calorie restriction.

New Findings from the Meta-Analysis

According to the study, participants assigned to a meal replacement diet lost an additional 1.44 kg (3.17 pounds) at one year, compared to a diet-only approach.

The researchers also observed that participants in the meal replacement group who joined behavioral weight loss programs to enhance their effect had a 6.13 kg greater weight loss within the group. *

This finding underlines the value of social support, as these types of programs make it easier for people to adhere to a reduced energy diet. The structure and external control associated with these programs may also promote adherence.

According to our recent survey of dietitians, adherence was the biggest obstacle in their patient’s weight loss journey. Someone simply purchasing meal replacements from a grocery store can easily grow tired of the same flavor and give up; whereas a behavioral program or supportive community will lead to greater adherence.

Meal Replacements for Clinical Use

In many countries today, the clinical recommendations for the treatment of obesity advise that individuals attempting weight loss should aim for an energy deficit of 500-1000 kcal. Unfortunately, these recommendations do not encourage meal replacements as tools to help patients achieve this deficit.

The meta-analysis provides new evidence to inform clinical guidelines, especially when it comes to obesity. The use of meal replacements should be promoted as an effective dietary strategy for weight loss since meal replacements are proven to be effective and easily available without a prescription. However, it’s important to note that, as with any changes in your diet and physical activity levels, individuals should always consult their physician before engaging in any weight-loss journey.

Meal replacements for weight control have also been reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).  The Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies was commissioned to provide a scientific opinion regarding the weight loss claims related to meal replacements.

In their paper, they recognized the following:

Meal Replacement facts

Case in Point: A Review of Herbalife Nutrition Meal Replacements

Not all meal replacements are built alike. Quality is a key differentiating factor, especially when it comes to products that are commercially available.

In 2020, independent researchers investigated the efficacy and safety of Herbalife Nutrition products used as high-protein meal replacements for weight management. While the study was funded by the company, we had no control over study execution or manuscript preparation, including data analysis, data interpretation, or manuscript drafting.

In their meta-analysis, they reviewed randomized controlled trials of the company’s high-protein (HP) products used as meal replacement (MR), published through July 2019 in peer-reviewed journals. The researchers consolidated data from nine studies, which included 934 participants: 463 in treatment groups and 471 in control groups.

Ultimately, they found that participants who consumed Herbalife Nutrition HP products experienced significantly larger decreases in body weight, body mass index, and fat mass – compared to the individuals consuming control diets.

Conclusion: High-Protein Meal Replacements Can Be Effective for Weight Loss

In summary, these studies show that meal replacement shakes work better than self-directed weight loss attempts. While popular diets might work for short-term weight loss, in the long run, adherence will be an issue.

If you’re looking to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight over the long term with a Partial Meal Replacement Diet, it’s important to pair it with balanced nutrition and a healthy active lifestyle. Social support also goes a long way, and it can be helpful to find a motivating community to help with your program.

David Heber, M.D., PhD, FACP, FASN – Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute

David HeberM.D., PhD, FACP, FASN – Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute

Dr. David Heber is the Chairman of the Herbalife Nutrition Institute (HNI), which promotes excellence in nutrition education for the public and scientific community and sponsors scientific symposia. The HNI Editorial Board is made up of key scientific opinion leaders from around the world in the fields of nutrition, exercise physiology, behavioral medicine and public health.