Are Meal Replacement Shakes a Waste of Money?

Some days, it would be much easier to drink all your calories instead of having to stop and eat a “real” meal. Bonus points if you lose weight in the process. For some people, this is more reality than fantasy.

Meal replacement shakes are designed to help desperate dieters lose weight. Even the busiest individuals can take the time to drink a vanilla or chocolate-flavored shake and call it a meal. Whether or not these weight loss workarounds actually provide the weight loss results they promise has been a topic of research for a long time. And the results may surprise you.

Are meal replacement shakes worth the cost? Can they really help you lose weight — and keep it off? Here’s what science has to say.

The ‘science’ of weight loss shakes

Milkshake

Milkshake | Mizina/iStock/Getty Images

To lose weight, you generally have to eat fewer calories. It’s slightly more complicated than that, especially if you have a health condition or face other barriers that make weight loss more difficult. But most people can lose weight successfully reducing their calorie intake.

Meal replacement shakes can, in many ways, make this easier. They typically contain fewer calories than the average American meal. And they’re often healthier, at least in terms of nutritional content, than the average person’s fast food or takeout meal of choice.

Logically, it makes sense. Replace a meal with a shake, and you’ll be less tempted to consume more calories than there are in that bottle. Then you don’t have to take the time to make an actual meal or worry about grabbing seconds. Or dessert. Or both.

How are these shakes different from actual food? They’re more similar than you might think.

What’s actually in a meal replacement shake?

Calories — obviously. But that’s not all.

A meal replacement shake is not the same thing as a protein shake. Protein shakes are meant to supplement a person’s daily protein intake. As their name implies, meal replacement shakes are designed to “replace” an entire meal’s nutrients.

The majority of these shakes range from 200 to 400 calories. They’re filled with vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients such as fiber, protein, fat, and carbs.

The specific ingredients in a meal replacement shake, such as the amount of sugar or the presence of artificial colors or flavors, depends on the brand of meal replacement shake you’re looking at.

On paper, this all sounds great — you can get a healthy meal’s worth of nutrients without having to cook or even sit down to eat anything. But will this actually help you lose weight effortlessly?

Meal replacement shakes for weight loss: Do they work?

Protein shake

Protein shake | iStock.com/Moussa81

Many studies suggest that replacing one or even two meals per day with a liquid shake can boost weight loss efforts. This is likely because shakes are more convenient for some people than buying ingredients for and preparing full meals.

But there are also downsides. Not all meal replacement shakes are created equal: Some are high in added sugars, despite claiming they can help you lose weight. Others contain artificial preservatives and flavorings you personally might not want to consume in large amounts.

And they might also fail to provide a long-term solution for those wanting to keep off the weight they lose.

  • Whole foods contain enzymes, antioxidants, and other ingredients you can’t put into a shake.
  • Meal replacement shakes don’t work if you continue to eat unhealthy food while drinking them.
  • Some shakes contain fiber, but not as much as “real” food.
  • They don’t teach you how to eat healthy. There’s no guarantee that once you stop using shakes to lose weight, you won’t immediately start eating too many of the worst foods for weight loss.

So: Are meal replacement shakes a cost-effective way to lose weight? They can be expensive, especially when you compare the cost per calorie amount with buying whole food.

Long-term weight loss might require a bit more effort

In the short-term, meal replacement shakes might be a convenient way to sustain your calorie intake if you’re too busy to eat a real breakfast or lunch.

But meal replacements can’t fully replace a nutritious whole food diet. And you should never replace all your meals with a shake.

If you have a hard time controlling your calorie intake, you might benefit from replacing a meal with a shake while you develop strategies to successfully live a healthier lifestyle. But don’t expect calories in a bottle to fix your relationship with food. That’s something you have to actively work on in your daily life, meal by meal.

Ultimately, the choice is up to you. If you want to rely on meal replacement shakes for the convenience despite the cost, you have every right to do that. If you believe they’ll help you lose weight and you find out they’re an effective strategy for you, then keep buying more.

Just remember that there’s no magic powder, drink, or pill that can help you lose 10 pounds in a week and stay at that weight. Sustainable, long-term weight loss takes time, effort, and dedication. Choose your food, and your shakes, wisely.