Are meal-replacement shakes good or bad?

Meal replace shake

In today’s lifestyle there is no time for grandma’s home cooked meals with potatoes, 2 different vegetables and delicious roasted meat with gravy sauce. There is barely even time to eat and most people eat on the go. The easiest and most convenient is a nutritious shake or a smoothie that can be taken anywhere. They suit the modern life style and come in many delicious flavours.  But are they nutritious enough for you?


It is definitely convenient to have a quick breakfast on the go that is healthy and filling. A smoothie can have almost all your daily fruit and vegetable requirements. Liquid meal replacements can be used as part of a healthy eating plan. But why do you take them? Is it for body building, weight loss or a meal on the go? And is it to your benefit?


Lets look at the negatives and positives of meal-replacement shakes:


  • Real food, which you get in smoothies, help you make better food choices which help with weight loss in the long run.
  • Many meal-replacement shakes are packed with sugar (sucrose) that make up the shakes energy and carbohydrate content. This can exceed your daily calorie intake if you are not aware of the content.
  • The fibre content in most meal-replacement shakes are very low. Fibre is needed for good bowel regulation, blood sugar control and cholesterol control. Better to eat your fruit than to drink it.
  • You have a better balance in nutrients when taking whole foods compared to meal replacements. Whole food also makes you feel fuller.
  • Watch out for shakes that contain too many fillers, preservatives, colourants and other additives. Make sure to read the label.
  • Remember, most shakes are made with added milk, so if you are lactose intolerant make sure your meal-replacement shake is lactose-free. If you simply add water, the shake might not be nutritionally adequate anymore.



  • A meal replacement shake can provide most of what you need in one meal, which will help you if you don’t have time to prepare a meal or to even sit down to have a meal.
  • A nutritious shake can be part of a balanced diet and in some cases preferred to a poor diet or skipping meals completely.
  • Meal replacement shakes can help to relieve the pressure of deciding what to eat for one or two meals each day.


Nutrient dense:

A meal-replacement shake must have balance, variety and moderation. Thus it can be a full meal when it offers a protein, carbohydrate and healthy fats. By taking Omega-3 and fibre in addition to your breakfast shake you can help avoid missing out on some nutrients. Adding fruit and vegetables to your shake will give it a good nutrient boost. A shake with added fruit or vegetables will have higher levels of fibre, carbohydrates, fruit sugars and vitamin C, so one glass is much more nutritionally satisfying than just a plain meal replacement shake.


Flaxseeds, sesame seeds, pumpkins seeds, walnuts and canola oil are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids which are beneficial for heart health.  One table spoon of the seeds or nuts; or one teaspoon of canola oil can be added to your shake to increase the nutrient content. (Seeds can be added to yoghurt and left over night or grinded to break the husk. You gain more nutrients from them by doing this).


Shakes for weight loss:

Obesity is an important risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, disease of the locomotor system and is related to psychological problems. Having healthy eating habits and doing physical exercise can prevent and treat overweight and obesity by:

  • Making sure you are burning adequate energy compared to intake.
  • Increase your muscle mass
  • Increase your metabolism
  • Reduce your body fat
  • Increase your overall feel good mood and energy levels


A study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders state that including one or two meal replacement shakes is a safe and effective way to achieve and maintain significant sustainable weight loss. But make sure the shake is nutrient dense (Balance, Variety, Moderation) and does not exceed your daily calorie need for weight loss when combined with other meals and snacks.  It is still better to have whole foods where you can control your requirements. So add them to your shake or make your own.


Shakes for body building and strength training:

What do high protein shakes do for you?

Proteins help you to feel fuller for longer, so they aid in weight loss because you snack less. Protein also assists with calorie burning because it increases the thermogenesis or heat production in the body. The intake of adequate amounts of protein can support muscle gain and fat loss in the body.  Protein also assists in repairing muscle in the body after training. But the body still needs enough energy for assistance in all these functions. The main energy source we use for that is carbohydrates, so make sure your protein shake also contains enough healthy carbohydrates.


Making the perfect meal replacement shake or smoothie:

Experiment with different things, be creative and make it your own.

Preparing ingredients

Fruit and vegetables need to be peeled. Any pips, cores, seeds and stalks need to be removed before being blended with fruit juice, vegetable juice, milk or yoghurt. If you are lactose intolerant use lactose-free milk or yoghurt. Exceptions are strawberries and raspberries where it is impossible to remove the seeds and the pips; figs and kiwi fruit where the seeds can be left in; and any fruits that are too small to peel like cherries, grapes and blue berries. Ripe fruit and vegetables that still feel firm to the touch, smell fragrant and sweet, normally have the greatest concentration of antioxidants and make the most satisfying smoothie. Keep in mind that nutrient levels in fruit and vegetables diminish with age.


Think of the thickness

Smoothies are thicker than plain juices or meal replacement shakes. A very pulpy smoothie, especially ones with added starch like bulgur wheat and lentils, will thicken-up on standing. Dilute it with water, milk or extra juice if you want. Or add some water rich fruits like watermelon or cucumber. Process again until you have reached the right consistency. It all comes down to personal preference. Do you want to be able to take it through a straw or eat it with a spoon?


Adding sweetness or taking it away

Most of the time the shakes or smoothies will be sweet enough due to the added sugar (in the meal-replacement shake) or natural sugars from vegetables and fruits. But if the taste is not to your liking, sweeten it with small amounts of clear honey or maple syrup (They have more nutritional benefits than normal refined sugar). If the shake or smoothie is too sweet, add some fresh lemon or lime juice. Lemon is a great source of citric acid, potassium, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. It helps prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria that cause infections and diseases. It can help reduce pain and inflammation in joints and knees as it dissolves uric acid. The potassium content in lemons also helps with brain and nerve nutrition. Remember when sweetening or sharpening the flavour of your smoothie, do it just before you are going to drink it. The flavour enhances the longer you let it stand.


And there you have it

Making your own meal-replacement shakes in the form of smoothies where whole foods are used is more nutritionally dense. But if a shake is all you have and it will prevent you from skipping meals then go for it. Make sure the other meals you have for the day will contain the nutrients you might have missed out on. Read the label of the shake to know what you are getting or might not be getting from it. Remember to keep in mind what your calorie needs are so that you do not exceed it when adding extra shakes and smoothies.


Remember we are what we eat!


Tanya Alberts, RD(SA)


About the author:

Tanya has been providing dietary guidance since 2009 as a registered dietician licensed in South Africa. Her goal is to help patients understand the connection between diet and diagnosis for improved nutritional well being.

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