Meal Replacements: More Than Candy Bars
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | August 2004

People today are on the move, and convenience foods are more than a novelty--they’re a necessity for consumers. More than just convenience, consumers want high-quality replacements for meals. Chips and snack foods are available and may be convenient to eat on the run but often contain too much fat and sugar, plus far too many calories. Drive-thru restaurants offer convenience but also too many calories. While salads and other healthier foods are available, they’re not easy to eat while traveling in cars--and we do love to eat on the run.

Meal replacement food bars and shakes fill the niche for convenience foods with better quality nutrition. Used by athletes for decades, they’ve evolved to provide better taste along with a better composition of nutrients. Today meal replacements occupy entire sections of grocery and health food stores. They can be used as part of a weight loss program as well (1) because of the 4 Cs of meal replacements: calories, composition, convenience, and cost.

For the purpose of this article, meal replacement bars and shakes refer to the delivery of nutrients in food bars and shakes rather than to a specific composition of nutrients. The types of bars vary, with some called meal replacements while others are protein bars. There is currently no legal definition of what constitutes a meal replacement bar or shake in the United States (2).

Meal replacements have one distinct advantage over real foods: they’re manufactured to contain a specific number of calories per serving size. Every bar or shake will contain the same number of calories as every other bar or shake of the same brand and flavor. There’s no guesswork for the consumer, and when it comes to weight loss, that’s a real benefit.

Some people graze their way to an extra 500 calories per day. They finish their child’s cereal in the morning--just a spoonful or two. Then they finish half a donut in the office, eat a few fries from a friend’s lunch, grab a handful of popcorn in the afternoon, and sample everything they prepare for dinner. By itself, each taste isn’t that much--but put together, they add up over the course of a day. Using a meal replacement for a meal or a snack restricts caloric intake to the calories in the bar or shake.

While bars and shakes vary in caloric content, a reasonable meal replacement should contain 200-300 calories. When used as a snack, cut the replacement (and its caloric content) in half.

High carb. Low carb. High protein. Low fat. One thing is sure: we love fads, and that includes our diet. As this is written, the low-carb phenomenon is still sweeping the nation, and people are obsessed with restricting carbohydrate intake in the quest to lose weight. The problem is that most products increase other nutrients that don’t affect blood sugar but still contain calories. (For a complete discussion of this topic, please refer to the article titled “When is a Carbohydrate Not a Carbohydrate?”)

We’ll stick to the two major categories of products in the market: meal replacement bars and shakes, and protein bars and shakes.

Meal Replacement Bars and Shakes
Meal replacements generally have a nutritional composition that’s balanced, which means the proportion of carbohydrate to protein may range from 1:1 all the way up to 5:1. This type of bar includes many energy bars used by athletes who exercise strenuously and need to replace the carbohydrates used during exercise.

Look for bars that don’t completely depend on sugars as the source of carbohydrates, although the sugar content may be higher proportionally than other foods you eat. Remember--the number of calories is controlled. Even if all the carbohydrate calories were from sucrose or fructose, it would be balanced with protein and therefore would not affect blood sugar the same way as cookies or candy or other foods high in sugar and low in protein.

Some meal replacements add vitamins and minerals, others do not. As stated earlier, there are no governmental guidelines that regulate additional nutrients. If you’re using bars and shakes as part of a reasonable weight loss program, you’re probably going to take a multivitamin-multimineral anyway. On the other hand, if you were eating real food, you’d be getting additional vitamins and minerals, so there’s good justification for looking for bars that contain at least 25% of the Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamins and minerals. Read the labels and make your decision based on your total dietary intake of vitamins and minerals.

One more thing to consider is the fiber content. If you were to eat a real meal, there would be fiber in the bread or other grains, the vegetables, or the fruit. If you’re replacing a meal, you want some fiber (2-6 g) in the meal replacement, whether bar or shake, to get the equivalent in the real foods.

Protein Bars and Shakes
Protein bars and shakes are characterized by having a higher proportion of calories from protein than from carbohydrates or fats; they may or may not have additional vitamins and minerals. While typically used by athletes who want additional protein to increase muscle mass, they’ve become popular for people using a low-carbohydrate approach to losing weight.

Most have a blend of protein sources using both dairy (whey and casein) and soy protein. The advantage is that if you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to soy, you can find bars and shakes with no dairy or soy--just be sure to read the list of ingredients to be sure no form of soy or dairy is in the bar or shake.

If there’s one advantage to meal replacement bars and shakes, it’s that they’re convenient. You can pack them away in your briefcase, purse, or even in your pocket. You don’t need to carry containers that need to be heated or microwaved--you simply open the package or pop the top and you have a meal. Add a piece of fruit or some crunchy vegetables with it and you’re done. No fuss, no muss.

Shakes that you have to mix before use can be a little more challenging: you need a container and water to mix them in. Not a problem--either make them up in advance, or take a container of water with you and stir in the shake mix. If you prepare them in advance, you can blend in your favorite fruit and eliminate the need for carrying around fruit as well. Here’s a little tip: mix your shakes the night before, pour them in a container, and freeze them. Take them with you in the morning and by noon, you’ll have a refreshing and slushy meal.

Meal replacements are a bargain when you consider they replace an entire meal. The cost varies from $.99 to $3.50 depending on whether you buy them on sale or pay full retail in a convenience store. When you consider the nutrition you get for the money spent, the $.99 deals at fast-food restaurants that are full of fat and calories finish a far second. Compared to a lunch entrée in a typical restaurant, you can get adequate nutrition, lose weight, and save money. What a deal!

Meal replacement bars and shakes can be an important component of your weight loss efforts--they’re a cost-effective and convenient way to limit calories and get a good distribution of nutrients. If you haven’t tried them, check out the 30 Day Plan. This program shows you how to use meal replacements as part of the process of changing your lifestyle to reach and sustain a healthy body weight.

  1. Fabricatore, A. The Role of Structured Meal Plans and Meal Replacements in Weight Management. Medscape Diabetes & Endocrinology 6(1), 2004.
  2. Food and Drug Administration. Personal correspondence. 2004.
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