A No-Nonsense Guide To Healthy Meal Replacement Shakes

Last Updated 26th September 2019
man holding healthy meal replacement shakes

The must-have slimming product of the glorious 1980s, healthy meal replacement shakes have for a long time invoked mental images of bright leotards, leg-warmers and aerobics classes. However, such shakes are now enjoying a come-back as personal wellbeing and healthy lifestyles hit the headlines and companies find new ways to include more necessary minerals and vitamins in great-tasting blends.

Health businesses now offer a range of flavours and products to help consumers reach their varied goals, as well as meet dietary requirements and choices. But are these shakes really as beneficial and safe as brands claim they are… and could they work for you?In this guide we will investigate the ins and outs of modern healthy meal replacement shakes to help you determine if these cleverly-marketed meal replacement shakes really are that healthy.

Strawberry Healthy Meal Replacement Shake with green leaves

Healthy Meal Replacement Shakes: The Basics

What are Meal Replacement Shakes?

Usually intended as weight loss aids, meal replacement shakes are health food products prepared in a can or bottle or supplied in powdered form to be mixed on demand.

When consumed, meal replacement shakes give the body that same nutrition that it would receive from a small meal – but without the intake of any unnecessary additives or ingredients.

Blood sugar, fibre and protein levels can be normally be maintained to a healthy standard with the consumption of meal replacement shakes instead of meals up to twice a day; all while lowering the body’s usual calorie intake.

Meal replacement shakes should be used as a dietary supplement as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Vibrant strawberry healthy meal replacement shake with green straw

What are the Benefits of Meal Replacement Shakes?

There are numerous benefits to meal replacement shakes, and when understood, it’s easy to see how they have achieved such mainstream appeal.

Portable and convenient, they can be consumed on-the-go without needing to stop and sit down to properly eat and digest a full meal – and there’s little to no preparation required!

Those drinking meal replacement shakes should know exactly what’s in them and are able to plan their dietary intake thoroughly to ensure it fits their needs perfectly, rather than relying on guesstimates of nutrition.

Historically thought of as just dietary supplements for weight loss, meal replacement shakes are now blended for a variety of purposes and to complement a whole host of health goals and objectives.If you want to know more about the benefits of meal replacement shakes in regards to weight loss and exactly how they work to help you lose weight, we have a useful in-depth guide on meal replacement shakes for weight loss.

woman in sports bra cutting organic fruit

Healthy vs Unhealthy Meal Replacement Shakes: Why Does It Matter?

Despite the fact that meal replacement shakes are marketed as health food products, many contain unhealthy and perhaps counterintuitive ingredients.

It’s extremely important to understand exactly what is in the shake you’re consuming, in order to ensure that it complements your diet and lifestyle in a way that will work to help you achieve your goals.

Of course, what makes a meal replacement shake healthy or unhealthy for a consumer depends on the individual’s requirements… and there’s lots to consider!

Someone hoping to lose weight and intending to replace meals regularly will need a shake containing as few calories as possible but with a varied blend of vitamins and minerals; but someone looking to bulk will need plenty of protein and carbohydrates alongside these.

2 smoothie bowls with banana and 2 glass mugs of iced coffee

Many blends of meal replacement shakes contain preservatives (often hydrogenated fats) to give them as long a shelf life as possible, and many of these preservatives are artificially manufactured. Some also contain sodium, which can be harmful to those with high blood pressure. Dependent on the type of shake, you may also find that blends contains lots of sugar (typical with those highly artificially flavoured), and corn syrup. These are usually unnecessary and are added purely for taste purposes, so consider instead adding flavour to your shakes with the addition of fresh fruit.

On top of this, dietary requirements must be considered. Don’t assume that a fruit-flavoured meal replacement shake is vegetarian, or that powdered products must be gluten or sugar-free – this is rarely the case. Most meal replacement shake manufacturers do offer mixtures to fit specific dietary needs, but frequently they cost extra.

Don’t be fooled – there are healthy and unhealthy variations of meal replacement shakes on the market, and it is up to the consumer to identify a product that will work for them.

Woman sitting on bed and typing on a laptop

Healthy Meal Replacement Shake Marketing: Debunked

Ingredients are Super Important in Determining what makes a Healthy Meal Replacement Shake

To identify a meal replacement shake that will fit your dietary and nutritional needs whilst still helping you achieve your health goals, you must first determine which ingredients you want to consume. There’s no one-size-fits-all blend.

Meal replacement shakes don’t usually contain fresh ingredients, because of the short lifespan in which they would ‘go off’. This means that many are made with synthetic vitamins and minerals that aim to recreate the nutrition the body would receive as a result of a properly balanced, well-prepared meal. However, this can have its drawbacks which we shall go into later on.

Healthy breakfast smoothie bowl resting on magazine

3 Healthy Meal Replacement Shake Ingredients to Look Out For

Protein

When reading the ingredients list to find the right healthy meal replacement shake for you, there are some key things to look out for to ensure that what you’re intending on consuming is healthy.

The ratio of protein to carbohydrates should be about 2:1. Protein is vital to a healthy and toned physique, and whilst you do need carbs too, you need the right type of them. Having double the amount of protein to carbohydrates in your shake mixture means that you won’t absorb too many excess carbs, which the body can’t break down and instead turns to sugar. This allows you to take in healthy fats, but not brown ones.

It’s always important to remember that not all ingredients are created equal, including protein. Some sources of protein are more nutritious and healthy than others. You can read more about the different protein sources in our guide to selecting the best meal replacement shakes for you.

Furthermore, carbs are an equally complicated topic. Some carbs are more beneficial than others. For example, oats are 66% carb. These carbs are a combination of starch and fibre. Fibre is a very key nutrient (we will talk about that super nutrient in a moment!) in a balanced diet and meal replacement shake. The starch within oats is unique as 25% of the starch is resistant starch (works in a similar way to fibre) and 22% is slowly-digested carb and thus gives you more energy throughout the day. Finally, only 7% of the carb content in oats is fast-digested carbs and the body turns into sugar.

Simply put, the 2:1 protein to carb ratio is good to follow but there are exceptions to this rule. Keep a look out for oats on a product’s ingredient list as these are good carbs!

A product that contains this recommended ratio of 2:1 is Nutribuddy’s High-Protein Sculpting Shake. This shake uses a combination of rice and pea protein to give you a balanced amino acid profile whilst ensuring the shake is still vegan and allergen-free, making it easy to digest and suitable for those with sensitive stomachs.

Nutribuddy High-Protein Sculpting Shake pouch and black shaker bottle

Fibre

Fibre keeps you feeling fuller for longer, negating the need to snack excessively or fail to maintain a healthy diet by eating more than you would usually anyway. It’s also key to a healthy, well-functioning digestive system and reduces bloating; so it’s a good all-rounder!

Ideally a healthy meal replacement shake should contain at least 3g of fibre per serving – so do the maths and work out if there’s enough provided in the shake, or if you need to top up your fibre intake when you’re eating at another time of the day.

Nutribuddy’s Shake Complete contains 3.6g of fibre per serving, making it a high-fibre meal replacement shake. The protein content is also good. Although carb content is higher than protein, the carbs come from oats (you know, that glowing ingredient we discussed earlier) meaning that Nutribuddy Shake Complete has a very well-rounded nutritional profile.

woman in grey joggers holding Nutribuddy's complete meal replacement shake
Nutribuddy Shake Complete by Laura Kate Lucas

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Whilst the word ‘fat’ may make you feel like running a mile when you’re thinking about healthy eating and nutrition, the body actually needs some good fats to function at its best. Omega-3 fatty acids are one of these ‘good fats’; but your body can’t produce them naturally, so you need to eat or drink them. These help lower levels of cholesterol, and the risks of heart disease, depression, arthritis and dementia, so there’s lots of good work to be done! Don’t be automatically scared by the word ‘fat’ on ingredients lists for meal replacement shakes – there’s plenty of goodness in there, too.

Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in many foods, most notably in fish. However, there are also several vegan ingredients that include high quantities of omega-3 fatty acids including flaxseeds and chia seeds. Both flaxseeds and chia seeds are found in Nutribuddy Shake Complete.

Wooden spoons holding chia seeds, sunflower seeds and nuts

3 Meal Replacement Shake Ingredients to Avoid

There are, unfortunately, some ingredients commonly found in meal replacement shakes that should be avoided; depending of course on your end nutrition goal.

Sugar

Sugar is often used in meal replacement shakes in order to sweeten it, so it’s almost impossible to avoid it entirely, but you should limit your consumption. Ideally, each serving of your meal replacement shake should contain less than 10g of sugar. Any more than this, and your liver won’t be able to efficiently process it. If overloaded with sugar, the liver turns it into fat, so if you’re aiming to lose weight or tone up, this is the opposite effect than desired! Don’t be put off though: there are plenty of low sugar shakes around (and some with no sugar at all) and it’s not uncommon to find that excess sugar is just used to disguise unpleasant tastes.

Jar of white powder next to small wooden spoon

Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil

In order to extend the shelf life of meal replacement shakes for as long as possible, preservatives are often included.

A common preservative is hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is a trans-fat. It’s literally the vegetable oil you use in cooking but with hydrogen added, to make it more spreadable, and therefore more easily blended into other ingredients.

Hydrogenated vegetable oil raises the level of ‘bad’ cholesterol and lowers the level of ‘good’ cholesterol in your system, as well as being linked to heart attacks. Consuming just 2g of hydrogenated vegetable oil has been found to increase your risk of cardiac arrest by 23% – so if you can, avoid it.

Pink gloved hands injecting tomato fruit

High-Calorie Shakes

The final thing to keep an eye out for is not an ingredient as such, but rather the culmination of them… calories, of course!

If meal replacement shakes are intended as a healthy dietary supplement, then they should add up to less calories than the meal you’re replacing.

If you’re looking to lose weight, that doesn’t mean you should undercut them just slightly though; aim for 400 calories or less to ensure you’re maintaining a calorie deficit that’s not too big or too small.

Glass jar of sugar-packed sweets

Are Organic Meal Replacement Shakes Healthy?

When considering the use of meal replacement shakes as part of a wider drive to better nutrition and a healthier lifestyle, investing in organic meal replacement shakes is ideal.

For such shakes to be marketed (legally) as organic, they must be free of any artificial chemicals. Organic ingredients are produced without the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers. These are chemicals that studies claim can have a negative impact on human health as well as the health of the planet.

Whilst this does mean that the shelf life may be shorter than non-organic meal replacement shakes and they may taste less sweet than their synthetic counterparts, you’ll only be consuming ingredients that are entirely natural and overall healthier.

Without the involvement of artificial blends, it is more difficult to balance a shake nutritionally; so it’s not uncommon for shakes to offer a larger variety of vitamins and minerals than organic products. However, it’s important to note that these vitamins and minerals are artificial sources and therefore are not as nutritious as you may think. Research has shown that it’s far better to get nutrients from wholefoods rather than synthetic sources. Furthermore, nutrients from wholefoods are easier for the body to digest.

Whilst most meal replacement shakes on the market contain synthetic vitamin blends, there are some which do use wholefoods. All of Nutribuddy’s products are made using natural wholefood ingredients.

organic produce for organic meal replacement shakes

Are Natural Meal Replacement Shakes Healthy?

The labelling of ‘natural’ meal replacement shakes varies and the definition behind the descriptor can vary. In the UK, the term ‘natural’ in food or drink products means that the ingredients within it are naturally-occurring and whilst they may be processed (after all, they’re not dumped in whole – particularly in the case of powdered meal replacement shakes), only minimally so.

For those who like to know exactly what it is they’re consuming, natural meal replacement shakes are ideal. However, it’s worth remaining mindful that not everything ‘natural’ is positive. There are many unhealthy ingredients that occur and are grown without human intervention, and too much of almost anything can be bad news. These include laxatives, sugar and caffeine. You can read more about the difference between healthy unhealthy natural ingredients here.

Natural meal replacement shakes can be extremely healthy and offer an authenticity that those packed with synthetic ingredients can’t, but that’s not to say that all shakes that are marketed as ‘natural’ are actually healthy.

Hands holding strawberries

Are Vegan Meal Replacement Shakes Healthy?

A vegan diet has long been stereotyped as being deficient in the crucial vitamins and minerals that the body usually receives from the intake of meat and dairy products; particularly protein.

Vegan meal replacement shakes are expertly balanced nutritionally to include the likes of protein, iron and the vitamins found in meat products. This gives those following a vegan diet the ideal opportunity to maintain a healthy lifestyle even in circumstances where producing a well-balanced nutritious meal may be difficult to do, or where the consumer is struggling to maintain variety in their diet alongside the right balance of vitamins and minerals.

In some circumstances, vegan meal replacement shakes can be healthier than eating some vegan meals – as they’re convenient, easy to make, never reliant on fresh or seasonal produce, and equally balanced with what the body needs.

woman holding vegan berry meal replacement shake

Are Sugar-Free Meal Replacement Shakes Healthy?

There are many reasons why an individual may consume a sugar-free or low-sugar diet. Many meal replacement shakes will claim to have ‘no added sugar’ in their ingredients list, but this simply means that it hasn’t been used as a final ingredient to sweeten the taste, so don’t be fooled – it’s probably in there under another guise!

Sugar-free meal replacement shakes are available, but have yet to break into the mainstream market widely, so flavours and varieties can be a little limited.

When choosing a sugar-free meal replacement shake, be sure to examine the ingredients list extra carefully to ensure that despite natural sugar not occurring, that it has not been replaced with something more harmful. This may include, but is by no means limited to, corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavourings and aspartame. The latter can be hazardous to health for some people and result in an allergic reaction, so be vigilant.

woman in forest holding drink in recyclable mug

Healthy Meal Replacement Shakes: Our Final Thoughts

Why It’s Mega Important to Read the Label

We all know that everybody is different, but somehow when it comes to following health food trends and diet fads, a one-size-fits-all approach is often adopted. Your individual health, any pre-existing conditions, dietary requirements and health and wellbeing goals all determine the ideal make-up of any meal replacement shakes you should consume. With the market ever-growing and companies finding more and more creative ways to create and market new products, it’s important to remain aware of your nutrition intake.

Don’t be fooled by flashy buzzwords or ambiguous health claims – instead read up on what you can expect to consume and ensure it works for you: in terms of maintaining a well-rounded diet and lifestyle, meeting your dietary needs and providing a meal replacement shake that tastes great!

Here at Nutribuddy, making healthy shakes is super important to us! All our shakes are made with natural (and healthy) ingredients which provide a range of important nutrients and vitamins. So why not take a look at our range today?


Stock image credit: UnsplashPexels & Pixabay

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Nutribuddy Ltd.

Author Bio!

Post by Lex

I’m a full-time Marketing Manager and Copywriter but also a qualified yoga teacher and keen runner; so I know a thing or two about maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a good dose of fitness! My previous roles include marketing and social media for the likes of the household names including the Cabinet Office and Aviva. Outside of work, I’m a Mum, passionate social rights campaigner and bookworm.