With summer just around the corner, it’s likely many of us will be tempted to stray from our usual sensible diet plan and instead try something a little more extreme to quickly shift those pounds.
But while ‘miracle’ pills, patches and potions abound, the number one choice for many of us are meal replacement diets. Yes, in desperate times – we’re talking two weeks until we have to bare all on the beach – many of us are prepared to survive on just one meal each evening and fill up on strawberry shakes, tomato soup and chocolate bars during the day.
What’s the theory?
As most Weight Loss Resources members know, to lose weight we need to take in fewer calories than our body needs. When this happens, we draw on our fat stores to provide us with the extra energy we require to function properly. In the long term, this means we lose fat – and as a result, the pounds drop off.
Quite simply, meal replacement products offer a way to help us control our calorie intake, without having to worry about counting them for two meals a day. Ultimately, most plans provide around 1, 200-1, 400 calories each day.
How do I follow it?
It couldn’t be easier! Simply pick a meal replacement brand – the most popular one is Slim Fast – and follow the instructions.
In general, you replace two meals – usually breakfast and lunch – with a meal replacement shake, soup or bar and then have a 600-calorie healthy meal in the evening. Slim Fast even includes ready meals if you can’t be bothered to cook yourself a meal from scratch in the evening.
Most plans also allow two to three 100-calorie snacks a day and recommend drinking six to eight glasses of water or low-calorie drinks. Some plans, such as Slim Fast, also provide written information on healthy living, including guidelines for healthy weight loss, changing eating habits and becoming more active.
How much weight can I expect to lose?
As with any reduced-calorie diet, the amount of weight you’ll lose will depend on the number of calories you consume. In general, an intake of 1, 200 to 1, 400 calories a day, will result in a weight loss of around 1-2lb each week.
Are meal replacement products healthy?
By law, meal replacement products must provide the recommended amount of nutrients needed for good health and their composition must conform to certain standards defined by a European Directive. According to this Directive – the guidelines for which are based on research looking at the nutritional needs of dieters – meal replacement products must contain between 200 and 400 calories, at least 25 percent protein and 23 vitamins and minerals.
With regard to fibre, most products contain around 5-6g. Healthy eating guidelines recommend adults have 18g fibre daily and so two meal replacement products make a contribution to this. Most plans also recommend including fruit and veg as snacks and as part of your main meal.
Ultimately, meal replacement products are not designed to be the only source of nutrition and contrary to popular belief, they are not the same as ‘very low calorie diets’, which generally provide less than 800 calories daily and are unsuitable for most of us.
What are the pros?
Several studies have found that meal replacements are as effective as traditional calorie-counted diets in terms of helping people to lose weight in the short term. Better still, the commonly held belief that meal replacements only help people to lose weight temporarily doesn’t seem to be supported by current research. In fact, long term follow up studies suggest that meal replacements may actually help people to keep their new lower weight.
Many people also like meal replacement products because they are convenient, they take away the need to think about food during the day and they mean the calorie counting has already been done for them.
What about the cons?
One of the main problems with the research to date is that no large long-term trials have been carried out in the UK – the majority of research has been based in the USA and Germany. Meanwhile, few trials have taken place using meal replacements in ‘real-life’ situations.
Firstly, most studies have provided meal replacement products free of charge – it’s unknown whether people would be as likely to stick to the diet if they had to buy the products themselves. Secondly, most studies have used meal replacements as part of a comprehensive programme, which includes support and dietary advice from health professionals – little is known about the weight loss achieved and maintained by people who buy and use meal replacement products on their own. Finally, most studies have involved people who are overweight or obese – few have studied normal weight people with a Body Mass Index of 20-24.9, who simply want to lose a small amount of weight.
One of the other main problems with meal replacement diets is that on their own, they do little to educate people about their eating habits. While replacing high-calorie breakfasts and lunches with a shake, soup or bar will almost certainly result in weight loss, returning to poor eating habits once you stop taking the products means you will almost certainly pile the weight back on again. Most nutrition experts recognise that if meal replacement products are to be effective at keeping the weight off in the long term, it’s essential to provide education and support on healthy eating when meal replacement products are no longer used – and this isn’t always a priority for people who want a quick weight-loss ‘fix’.
Who do meal replacements suit?
According to the British Dietetic Association, meal replacement plans are considered to be a good option for people who like a simple approach to weight loss and don’t want to have to think about planning or preparing individual meals. They’re also a potentially good option for people who prefer to eat foods that are already calorie and portion controlled for them. Meanwhile, Dietitians in Obesity Management UK say they may be useful for people who have difficulty finding time to prepare meals or struggle to control or understand portion sizes.
And who won’t meal replacements suit?
Generally speaking, if you enjoy variety in your diet and like to cook, you won’t enjoy surviving on meal replacements. Many people find them boring after a while, especially as the flavours are generally limited. If you hate strawberry, chocolate and vanilla milkshakes, meal replacement diets won’t suit you!
It’s also an expensive diet to follow – most meal replacement products are quite pricey. If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll get more for your money if you buy fresh fruit and veg. Finally, if you suffer with lactose intolerance, most products won’t be suitable as they are based on skimmed milk.