I need a meal replacement - what should I check before buying?


In a world where we are rushing from meeting to meeting, running errands, driving kids around and exercising, preparing a healthy, nutritious meal for lunch or dinner is not always the highest on our priority list.

To lose weight, we might also consider meal replacements as they're quick and easy. However, the number of products on the market makes it difficult to decide which one to choose.

What is a meal replacement (MR)?

Meal replacements are pre-packaged bars or powders that can be mixed and consumed as a shake to replace a meal. Some of the replacements are energy (kilojoule) controlled and are successfully used for weight loss and management.

A protein-enriched and energy-controlled MR can assist with preserving lean muscle mass, as well as reducing visceral fat (the dangerous fat that sits around our organs).

Do meal replacements have benefits?

In terms of weight loss, both the types and quantity of foods we consume are important, and many of us find it difficult to control portion sizes. In addition, we easily consume foods high in energy with a low nutrient content, such as fast foods and refined starches (white rice, pasta etc.).

We should, however, consume nutrient-dense foods that provide a high level of nutrients with relatively low caloric value. The benefit of MRs is that they are portion-controlled with a limited number of kilojoules, added essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals and fibre) and are therefore considered to be a nutrient-dense food. They are also an easy and convenient way of preparing a meal, which limits the possibility of making an unhealthy food choice.

What should I be checking when shopping?

Be sure to check the label and ingredients list thoroughly. Make sure the MR has a balanced combination of the three macronutrients and not only protein but carbohydrates and fats as well. It should provide a wide variety of vitamins and minerals and fibre.

1. Energy

The value should vary between 800 and 1200kJ per serving. When calculating meals for a weight loss diet from foods, the values are generally around 1 000 to 1 400kJ per meal.

Therefore, you want the MR to have a similar energy value as it is a "meal replacement".

2. Carbohydrates

The source of carbohydrate should have a low glycaemic value. This means that the release of sugar (glucose) into the bloodstream should be slow, to avoid a rapid spike and drop in blood sugar levels. Rather avoid MRs that contain "added sugar" (e.g. sucrose, glucose, fructose, dextrose and corn syrup) as these have a less desirable effect on blood sugar levels.

A guideline for carbohydrate content would be around 15 to 30g per serving (which would again be the equivalent of a real meal carbohydrate serving).

3. Dietary fibre

When recommending fibre in real food items, we consider 6g per 100g as adequate. Therefore, when selecting an MR, the value should be around 4 to 6g per serving as well.

Fibre assists with lowering the blood glucose response after the meal and keeps you fuller for longer (vital when drinking a meal). Fibre is essential for maintaining regular bowel movements and can even, depending on the type of fibre, assist with lowering blood cholesterol levels.

4. Protein

Protein assists with the feeling of satiety, reducing hunger and ensuring that muscle mass is maintained. Aim for 15 to 21g per serving (which would be the equivalent of a protein serving for lunch or dinner). The meal replacement should be at least 15g of protein per serving. It is important to note that protein powder products are not considered an MR.

5. Fat

Your fats of choice should be monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Check that the saturated, trans and hydrogenated fats are minimal. The quantity of fats should be 5g to 10g fat per serving. Not all MRs contain essential fatty acids (such as Omega-3). If they do, it is a bonus, as these have huge health benefits.

6. Micronutrients

Choose an MR that contains a wide variety of nutrients added, such as your vitamins and minerals. The quantity of these nutrients should meet at least 25% of the daily reference value. The bigger the variety, the better.

So, should I be buying a meal replacement?

Taking an MR is an easy practice to maintain good nutrition or to lose weight should your lifestyle not allow for preparing and packing three nutritionally balanced meals a day. It is also convenient when travelling when the availability of healthy meals is compromised.

On the other hand, the same objectives can be met selecting, preparing and packing real food such as a variety of wholegrain carbohydrates, lean proteins and healthy fats. Getting your nutrients from a food source is also more "bioavailable" (how well your body can absorb the nutrients from the food) to the body.

Should you decide to choose an MR to lose weight, it is recommended to do this with the assistance and guidance of a registered dietitian. They can assist you with strategies to keep the weight off once you have decided to include real food back in your diet. You can contact Nutritional Solutions if you wish to schedule a consultation.

READ | 5 tips for eating healthier during lockdown

READ | Lost your motivation to eat healthy and exercise during the pandemic? You are not alone

READ | Coronavirus lockdown: Stay fit at home with these tips 

Image credit: VisionPic from Pexels

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
27% - 9951 votes
73% - 26299 votes