Frosted sugar cookies, chocolate brownies, creamy fudge and deep-dish apple pie—these are just four of the mouth-watering treats that announce the arrival of the “season of overindulgence.” November, December and January are full of fat- and calorie-filled temptations that can lead to weight gain. Add to that the fact that holiday parties cramp an already hectic schedule—severely limiting time for exercise—and you can see the potential dangers.

Oh well, you say, these are the holidays! As soon as January 1 rolls around, the New Year’s resolutions will kick in, and your clients will be back on track to a healthier lifestyle. In the meantime they can rely on meal replacement bars and shakes to provide quick nutrition while cutting calories between parties, right?

Whether used over the holidays or year-round, meal replacements may have a role in a healthy diet. But could your clients be relying a bit too heavily on them? Perhaps the temptations and frenzy of the holiday season are not the only reasons their eating patterns are a bit off-kilter. Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of these “real-food” substitutes.

The Benefits of Meal Replacements

Prepackaged, calorie-determined, nutrient-packed meal replacement bars or shakes that effortlessly alleviate hunger have become commonplace in the busy, no-fuss, no-muss world in which we live. The rationale for grabbing one of these bars or shakes instead of sitting down to a meal may be a busy schedule or simply the determination not to gain weight over the holidays. Meal replacements offer convenience, nutrition and possible weight loss benefits.

Convenience. Bars and shakes have become popular replacements for breakfast, lunch, dinner and between-meal snacks—and understandably so. They require no preparation or cleanup; are small and portable; and are even nonperishable, with a shelf life of from 1 to 2 years. Stash them anywhere—in the car, desk drawers, office cabinets, lockers, gym or golf bags—and find them still edible days, weeks or months later.

Nutrition. In addition to being convenient, meal replacements give us the feeling that they are supplying adequate nutrition. An advertisement in the June 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (page 663) encourages this belief. This ad for a yogurt drink reads, “A nourishing new option for your on-the-go patients. The only yogurt smoothie with the nourishment of a meal.” The woman pictured in the ad is driving a car while holding a glass of orange juice in one hand, and a banana and the steering wheel in the other hand. The dashboard holds a plate of fried eggs and bacon, three pieces of toast, a cup of coffee, a glass of milk, a bowl of assorted fruits, and a toaster with two frozen waffles in the slots. The not-so-subtle message is: You’re too busy to eat the foods on the dashboard, but you know nutrition is important, so drink something that’s equally nutritious while also being fast—and safe, since drinking it ties up only one hand while you drive!

Weight Loss. Some research has demonstrated that meal replacements can contribute to weight loss. This is not surprising news, since they are portion- and calorie-controlled. In addition, grabbing a bar or shake when hunger strikes does not require a lot of decision making. According to Rena Wing, PhD, from the University of Pittsburgh, “Reducing the number of decisions required for food choices aids in the reduction of energy intake” (Wing 1997).

The Research on Weight Loss

In a study supported by the Slim Fast Corporation, Marion Flechtner-Mors and colleagues (2000) demonstrated that meal and snack replacements were effective tools in promoting weight loss in 100 overweight and obese subjects. Participants in the
4-year study were randomly divided into two groups: Group A received three meals and two snacks consisting of between 1,200 and 1,500 calories daily. Group B received one meal (600 to 900 calories) and two Slim Fast meal replacement shakes (200 to 220 calories) daily. The dietary composition for the two groups was about the same (protein, 19 to 20 percent; carbohydrate, 48 to 54 percent; and fat, 25 to 34 percent). Subjects followed these diets for the first 3 months; then from month 4 to 48, all subjects were told to replace one regular meal and one snack with one Slim Fast and a calorie-controlled snack. At the end of the third month, Group B (the group that started with two meal replacements) had lost an average of 7.8 kilograms (17.16 pounds), whereas Group A had lost an average of 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds). By the end of the 4-year trial, the individuals in Group B who completed all 4 years of the study had lost an average of 8.4 kilograms (18.48 pounds), compared to an average of 3.2 kilograms (7.04 pounds) for the Group A finishers.

The researchers concluded, “Using prepackaged foods improves compliance to specific dietary regimens and assists clients in sticking to a more structured eating plan.” Weight loss experts suggest that this “structure” may be a key element in promoting behavioral change.

Possible Pitfalls

Although no published research to date indicates that a certain number of engineered meal replacements per week or month equals excess, many nutritionists worry that relying too much on bars or shakes is not an optimal approach to healthy eating. According to sports nutritionist Liz Applegate, PhD, author of Bounce Your Body Beautiful, “Meal replacement bars are loaded with important nutrients, and eating them sure beats snacking on a bag of chips, but they’re not a healthy substitute for whole foods” (Tobias 2003). Many nutritionists are concerned that chronic use of these “real-food” substitutes can lead to low intakes of fiber and the protective phytochemicals found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. As Applegate says, “Although most meal replacement bars and shakes do contain vitamins and minerals similar to those found in whole foods, the difference is that absorption of vitamins and minerals is superior in whole foods.”

Another concern is that eating meal replacements every day diminishes the pleasurable aspects of food—the sight, smell, taste and feel. Two recent books (Petrini 2001; Petrini, McCuaig & Waters 2003) highlight the sensory pleasures only real food can bring. Fueled by the fast-food industry’s sweeping hold on the American taste bud, the “slow-food movement” is gathering supporters who recognize the value of traditional foods and eating patterns, such as the family meal. As a nutritionist, I have to agree that taking time to appreciate the smell and texture of foods is something I look forward to, even though I can’t do it every meal.

Solution: More Fast, Nutritious Whole Foods

Of course, your clients might not be tempted to rely on meal replacements quite as often if they felt that whole foods were just as convenient. But what could be easier than grabbing a quick shake or bar while on the run?

Most fruits and vegetables can be faster to eat than we think—and they are loaded with vitamin C, beta carotene, fiber and numerous cancer-protective plant chemicals. Many fruits and veggies can be rinsed and eaten without much slicing or peeling. Kiwis, for example, can be cut in half and simply scooped out of their shell with a spoon. Oranges and grapefruit can be sliced into eighths, with the peel left on, and tossed in a plastic bag for a refreshing snack. Dried fruit and canned fruit packed in its own juice are nutritious alternatives to fresh fruit.

But what about the high-fat, high-calorie foods typically showcased over the holidays? How about replacing at least some of the usual party fare with a platter of festive red and green peppers? Or red grapes and sliced kiwi? Each of these holiday-colored alternatives would look appetizing while helping clients eat nutritiously and include more whole foods in their diets. When it comes to presenting gifts, instead of baking sugar cookies or whipping up a batch of fudge, clients could make a quick loaf of cranberry bread. (See recipe above.) Like all berries, cranberries are loaded with antioxidants called “phenols,” which have been shown in multiple studies to be protective against cancer and heart disease. What could make a better gift than that?

A Healthy Balance

The research seems to indicate that meal replacements can have their place in a healthy diet, but this does not mean that they should be regular substitutes for whole foods. Rather, the two should go hand in hand. Help clients enjoy the best of both worlds. Encourage them to think of the many whole foods they love the taste of and find quick ways to prepare them as “meal replacements” for when they are in a hurry—over the holidays or throughout the rest of the year.