Are meal replacement shakes a healthy option for us?
By Delina Rahmate- Clinical Nutritionist
Often when we struggle with our weight we look for quick fix options on how to lose weight. Meal replacement shakes come at a high price and promise great results so are they worth the price we pay? In today’s article we’ll delve into the ingredients added to meal replacement shakes that may be doing your body more harm than good.
Meal replacement shakes are usually processed products that people drink in place of eating one of their main meals. Dieters, the elderly, busy people on the go with little time to cook or those with digestive complaints are most likely to use meal replacement shakes. In the short term people often get weight loss results by replacing 1, 2 or even 3 meals with a meal replacement shake due to the drastic reduction in daily calories, however over the longer term we may start to see nutrient deficiencies, a lack of fibre, effects on digestion and a drop in metabolic rate.
Some of the cons associated with meal replacement products is that they’re high in sugar, sodium, artificial ingredients and synthetic vitamins/minerals.
The following is a list of some meal replacement ingredients that may be harmful to your health:
- Soy Lecithin: While lecithin is naturally found in foods that we eat, such as eggs, soy lecithin is a highly processed soy product that is added to products to serve as an emulsifier. Soy lecithin is often made from genetically modified soy, and unfermented soy has been connected to several health risks including immune system malfunction, digestive upset, fertility problems, and loss of libido.
- Vitamin and Minerals over the Recommended Amount: Some meal replacement products contain important vitamins and minerals that are needed on a daily basis, although food-sourced vitamins are always more readily-absorbed by the body. However, it should be noted that if some “weight loss” protocols are followed to exactly, consumers will receive an overdose of several vitamins including B12, Vitamin C, selenium, and zinc. Vitamin and mineral overdose, especially when it occurs on a regular basis such as with a meal replacement program, can cause a whole host of symptoms including digestive upset, nerve damage, brain fog, fatigue, and hair loss. Again, check the ingredient list to determine if you are receiving the right amount of vitamins and minerals for your size.
- Synthetic Vitamins: Meal replacement shakes love to brag about how many vitamins and minerals are in their products. What they don’t tell you is the kind of vitamins they contain. The vitamins in meal replacement shakes don’t come from a food source so your body doesn’t recognise them. These lab-created synthetics can cause inflammation, allergies, digestive disturbances, and autoimmune dysfunction.
- Fructose: Processed sugar, such as in the form of fructose, can greatly affect health. Excess fructose can lead to obesity, liver toxicity, insulin resistance, hypertension, and pancreatitis. The standard western diet already contains an excess of sugar, and it seems that when replacing a meal, sugar, in the form of fructose, maltodextrin or any other type of sugar should not be an included ingredient especially when it appears as one of the first ingredients on the list. It is being discovered that more and more health issues are connected with a high sugar diet and that lowering one’s sugar intake can improve gut health and enhance immune system function.
- Canola Oil: Canola oil is an extremely unhealthy choice, yet is often added to “natural” products. Canola oil is used as a cheap cost-cutting alternative oil, it is partially hydrogenated, and sometimes genetically modified product that is reported to cause inflammation, neurological health issues, and kidney problems. It is best to avoid using any partially hydrogenated oils in the diet.
- Maltodextrin (1400): Maltodextrin is an affordable, low-quality sweetener made from corn, rice, or potato starch that often sneaks and creeps its way into processed foods. Maltodextrin is often made from made from genetically-modified corn. Genetically-modified corn contains pesticides that do damage to your digestive, endocrine, neurological, and immune system. This sweetener depletes your body of natural vitamins and minerals while causing side effects such as weight gain, bloating, flatulence, and breathing difficulties. Check ingredient lists carefully – a lot of alternative sweeteners are combined with maltodextrin.
- Tricalcium Phosphate (E341(iii)): One of the synthetic ingredients utilised in many meal replacement products, ingesting tricalcium phosphate on a regular basis, such as in a protein shake, can cause issues. Tricalcium phosphate has been linked to nervous system dysfunction, skin irritation, abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, nausea, constipation, and intestinal obstruction. These are not things to mess around with!
- Natural Flavours: Unfortunately, the label “natural flavours” provides a great deal of wiggle room. The only requirement is that the ingredient must be extracted from natural plant or animal matter. However, this leaves the door wide open. You have no idea the level of processing said plant or animal matter has undergone, or any indication of quality and actual ingredients.
- Aspartame (E951): Aspartame is one of the deadliest sugar lies on the planet. It is often an additive in diet foods and drinks to replace table sugar. Aspartame is a deadly neurotoxin that has been linked to the development of muscle twitches, spasms, cognitive impairment, migraine headaches, irritability, mood swings, and more. This happens because aspartame interferes with the proper function of your hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a region of the forebrain that connects to the pituitary, endocrine system, hippocampus, striatum, and brain stem. Scientific studies have shown that aspartame causes lesions on the hypothalamus, which interferes with proper brain and endocrine function.
- Acesulfame Potassium (E950): As if aspartame wasn’t bad enough, drink manufacturers have been slowly replaced with a new and more dangerous sweetener, Acesulfame Potassium or “Ace K”. This calorie-free sweetener is not only neurotoxic, it also “turns off” the part of your brain that tells you when you’ve had enough to eat. This means each time you drink a meal replacement shake or eat anything that contains this sweetener, you’re drinking something that encourages you to eat more!
- Concentrated Milk Product: Concentrated milk product may seem harmless enough but it can cause problems with your health. This is because the concentrated milk product contained in meal replacement shakes contain hormones, steroids, antibiotics, and pesticides that interfere with proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients. These growth hormones and pesticides fuel the development of cancer.
- Cellulose Gel (E460i): This thickening agent is used to keep synthetic sugar from crystallizing and “freezing” in the can. It has been linked to digestive distress and allergic reaction.
- Soy Fibre: It is estimated that 90% of soy is genetically-modified. Any genetically-modified food or product contains pesticides. When you ingest pesticides, you interfere with the proper functioning of your nervous, digestive, and immune system.
- Xanthan Gum (451): Xanthan gum is a thickening agent made from bacteria and has been linked to gas, bloating, and allergic reaction.
- Carrageenan (E407): Carrageenan is often listed as a natural ingredient in meal replacement shakes and some yogurts. This sneaky little additive has been quietly causing chronic health problems for forty years. It has been linked to colon cancer, chronic inflammation, and digestive disorders.
- Sodium Phosphate (E339): Sodium phosphate is a popular diet food additive because it acts as a laxative. If you’re going more often than usual or are suffering from diarrhoea, this is your culprit. Too much of this additive could cause permanent damage to the lower intestine, leading to uncontrollable bowel movements.
Healthy alternatives to meal replacement shakes are making homemade smoothies, natural protein powders with no added nasties and preparing healthy meals in advance.
If you are busy and on the run or just love a delicious smoothie for breakfast here are some ingredients you can consider to create a nutritious and well balanced smoothie.
- A healthy protein: you can obtain this from raw nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, almonds, almond meal or a protein powder – my key tip when choosing a protein powder is to make sure it is a clean as possible with limited added ingredients such as a 100% protein powder (you can then add natural flavouring as you wish)
- A healthy fat: Such as coconut milk, almond milk, dairy (if tolerated), yoghurt, avocado, coconut oil, chia seeds, hemps seeds, flaxseeds or the nuts and seeds mentioned above
- A healthy carbohydrate: this will generally come from the fruit you add which can include banana, berries of any kind, pineapple, mango (whatever combinations you like really). Don’t overdo the fruit limit it to one healthy serve for example ½ frozen banana with ½ cup of frozen berries.
Once these have been chosen it’s always great to add a little extra nutritional punch:
- A handful of leafy greens such as baby spinach or kale (kale is best pre-blanched), you can start small and as you become accustomed to the flavour you can increase
- A sprinkle of cinnamon – great anti-inflammatory and also supports blood sugar balance
- A spoon of mineral rich cacao for that chocolatey flavour – if you like chocolate.
- You can also use greens powders or other “super foods” if you have them.
The 2 recipes I’m giving you today are real crowd pleasers – they are super tasty and nutritious!
1- The Coco Berry Smoothie (by Natural Vitality Nutrition)
- 1 frozen banana
- 1 tablespoon blueberries frozen or fresh
- 3 large or 4 small strawberries frozen or fresh
- 1 large tablespoon of coconut or natural dairy yoghurt
- 1 handful of baby spinach
- 1 tbsp raw cashews
- 1 tbsp pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
- ½ cup coconut milk
- ½ cup coconut water
Instructions: Simply add all ingredients to the blender and blend on high until all fully blended, serve and best of all ENJOY!!
2- Green Smoothie (great for thyroid hormones as well as other autoimmune conditions) Serves 2
- 1 cup leafy greens of choice
- 2 large carrots
- 1 ripe avocado
- 1 stick of celery
- 1 cucumber
- 1 bunch of basil leaves
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1-2 scoops Vegan Protein (30g per person)
- Sea salt
- Extra water or ice (to taste)
- Optional: you can add other things to give you a boost such as Camu powder -vitamin -C; Maca powder – increase body temp and stabilises hormones; Turmeric- anti-inflammatory: Green powders – omega 3’s, energy, blood oxygenation
Directions: Blend together in a blender and enjoy as low glycaemic breakfast, lunch or snack.