Meal replacement shakes are a trendy way to lose weight in recent years.
The short story? They work for many people as an alternative to other meals. Meal replacement shakes — like all dietary methods — are not perfect, but they offer great benefits in losing weight.
Whether you’re too “on-the-go” for a real lunch or are looking for a one-stop solution to weight loss, a meal replacement shake is a nice option. Instead of worrying about how to create a balanced meal without overdoing calories, you can just down a shake and be sure it’s going to fuel your body, and help you stay (or get) lean.
Our research team ranked the best meal replacement shakes below:
Idealshake by Idealshape is our top meal replacement shakes because it’s packed with essential ingredients and nutrients, with a 1:1 ratio of protein and carbohydrates.
It’s a good example of a “label-focused” meal replacement shake. This just means that it focuses on hitting all the right macronutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Idealshake is basically a raw multivitamin on steroids packed with protein, a blend of whey protein concentrate and isolate. Whey protein concentrate, while still being a good source of protein, is lower in total protein than whey isolate and higher in carbohydrates and fat. While some may view this as a negative, in meal-replacement products that are meant to replace many meal nutrients and not just protein, this can be a valuable ingredient for balanced nutrition and enhanced glycogen repletion for exercisers.
The added fiber content is moderate, and the sugar content is low, (though it does include the quick-absorbing carbohydrate, maltodextrin, and the non-caloric artificial sweeteners sucralose and acesulfame potassium).
$49.99 for 30 servings
2. Vega One All-In-One
With 100% vegan pea and hemp protein and a blend of green superfood powders, Vega One is the ultimate plant-based, clean-ingredient choice. It provides 20 grams of various plant proteins and 6 grams of fiber, including the prebiotic-rich fiber chicory root inulin. Each 160-calorie serving of Vega One only provides 1 gram of sugar, yet it delivers a subtly sweet taste from the naturally-derived Stevia extract.
These are all exactly what you want to see if you are looking for a weight loss meal replacement shake. It’s got a little probiotic action with 1 billion CFU’s of bacillus coagulans and papain, a digestive enzyme from papaya. It also meets 50% of the recommended intake of many vitamins and minerals from food powders, not from added or synthetic sources. Vega One is a solid choice.
$54.99 for 20 servings (get a lower price with your Amazon Subscribe & Save option)
3. Primo Smoothie by Field Work Nutrition
This smooth blend of clean protein, tart cherry extract and turmeric is super underrated.
Field Work Nutrition has mastered a formula that delivers 20g of grass-fed protein per scoop, whole food nutrition and provides probiotic and digestive enzyme support.
The source of carbs? A mixture of sweet potato, oats, chia, buckwheat and quinoa provides 18g of carbohydrates. The 5g of fiber per serving comes from soluble corn fiber, a low-glycemic prebiotic fiber that has been shown to improve gut bacteria (21).
Tip: Try this with milk or juice.
A solid choice for the athletic-minded who want to eat clean and hit protein targets.
$55.49 (+ shipping) for 18 servings
4. Garden of Life Raw Organic Meal
Garden of Life offers a raw, vegan, certified organic meal replacement shake with its hallmark 44-superfood blends mixed in. Garden of Life is the best choice if you have some deficiencies in the rest of your diet; the high concentration of fruit and vegetable powders present in the Raw Organic Meal can help make up for those nutrition gaps. Each 115-calorie serving is packed with 100% of your B12 needs, making it a perfect choice for vegetarians and vegans.
The protein content is excellent at 20 grams per scoop, and the 7 grams of fiber exceeds most other meal replacement shakes on the market. Add in 1.5 billion probiotics for good measure, and Garden of Life has a winning formula. As for sweeteners, the only one included is the natural sweetener Stevia.
$33.73 for 28 servings
5. Orgain Organic Protein
More on the side of a healthy protein shake, Orgain is a good option if your normal go-to meals are weak in the fiber or protein. With chia seeds, inulin, and rosemary extract, Orgain pumps in some plant power to boost your overall health.
The protein in the shake is derived from peas and hemp and the thick, creamy texture comes from the potentially gut flora-improving emulsifier acacia gum – without any dairy. It tastes sweet but it’s low in sugar–that’s thanks to the Stevia sweetener.
$15.10 for 20 servings
6. Nature’s Bounty Complete Protein and Vitamin
The title about says it all with Nature’s Bounty Complete Protein and Vitamin. Just about all you get is proteins and vitamins–this shake is another in the “protein powder plus a multivitamin” genre, meeting 100% of your needs for many vitamins; however, the ingredients don’t go above and beyond just checking boxes on the nutrition label.
There’s a little bit in the way of probiotics, collagen, enzymes and flaxseed, but they seem more like an afterthought than an integral part of the shake’s design due to low concentrations. Unlike many other meal replacement shakes, this product does contain soy protein.
$12.74 for 13 servings (minimum order of 2 bottles)
7. Labrada Lean Body
Labrada is a meal replacement solution that’s targeted for the fitness enthusiast. The company is careful to balance the amino acids and to deliver some of the most effective protein sources (whey protein isolate and concentrate and milk protein isolate). The downside is that this meal replacement will be a non-starter for people who can’t eat dairy and those concerned about artificial sweeteners since it contains both Sucralose and acesulfame potassium. While the calorie intake is higher than other products, 290 calories per 2 scoops, this is still quite a bit lower than if you chose to eat a regular meal.
The fiber content is pretty good, with 7 grams per serving, but it’s a little disappointing to see “corn syrup solids” (read: sugar!) high up in the ingredients list. In addition, the vitamins and minerals are added rather than coming from natural food sources.
$26.77 for 16 servings
8. Fit & Lean
Fit & Lean’s philosophy might be be best-described as the “shotgun approach.” With an ingredients list about a mile long, it certainly isn’t lacking when it comes to breadth of ingredients. There’s everything from superfood powders to weight loss supplements like garcinia cambogia, plus a protein blend from multiple different protein sources in each two scoop, 140 calorie serving. This meal-replacement’s vegetable and fruit powders provide more potassium and fiber than most, but it contains concerning ingredients like carrageenan, Sucralose, and acesulfame potassium.
Such a broad array of ingredients does communicate some lack of an overarching purpose for the supplement, though–it feels like Fit & Lean just threw in everything that might help with weight loss, without much thought as to how the ingredients interact with each other.
$17.00 for 10 servings
9. GNC Total Lean Shake
GNC is yet another “protein plus a vitamin pill” product. The 25 grams of protein come from a blend of dairy-derived proteins, mostly in concentrate rather than isolate form. The fiber content–8 grams per serving–meets 32% of women’s daily fiber needs and 22% of men’s.
A few drawbacks with this product, especially for the carb-conscious–is the intentional addition of maltodextrin and corn syrup solids to up the carbohydrate content of the meal replacement shake. While the shake provides 20% of the daily needs for several vitamins and minerals, it’s artificially sweetened and flavored and contains hydrogenated oil, a source of trans fat. There are better, more holistic meal replacement shakes out there.
$39.99 for 16 servings
10. Slimfast Advanced Nutrition
Can you believe SlimFast is still a top-selling meal replacement shake brand? The Original SlimFast was so bad it didn’t even make the list (number one ingredient? Sugar!) but the “advanced” formula is something of an improvement. Each 180-calorie bottle is still heavy on the marketing and light on the substance.
The protein content is solid (20 grams per bottle), but the fiber is lower than others and the sucralose, caramel color, and artificial flavors make it hard to recommend above your other options.
$20.79 for 12 bottles
Soylent promises not just meal replacement, but food replacement. The shake is the child of a Silicon Valley dream of a scientifically constructed replacement for all your dietary needs in one place.
If you want “natural,” you are barking up the wrong tree.
One thing you can be sure of with this unique meal replacement shake is that it left no micronutrient stone unturned–it was designed so you could live on nothing but Soylent. That said, there are some concerns if used as long-term sustenance. For weight loss, it’s a bit carb- and sugar-heavy with sugar-spiking maltodextrin and others. Soylent is higher in calories than other meal replacements (at 400 calories per bottle), lacks any fruit and vegetable ingredients and is far too light on the fiber content at only 3 grams per serving.
Interesting concept, but not likely to be the ideal meal replacement due to the overall lack of health-promoting ingredients.
$28.90 for 12 bottles
Part Two: 19 truths about meal replacement shakes
Here are the “truths” with meal replacement shakes.
1. Liquid meal replacements are easier to consume than solid meal replacements
There are two different types of food replacements available—solid and liquid, like in the case of pre-packaged meals or bars vs. shakes.
The most important factor to note is usability. While liquid meal replacement shakes are easier to consume and digest, solid meal replacements provide more satiety and resemble normal eating patterns, which is why they’re included in many weight loss programs (1). The study mentioned above compares same calorie intake but in different forms – bars vs. shakes – and found those who drank their calories ate 13% more food later. The bottom line is that in this highly competitive market place you have many options and should choose the meal replacement option that suits your tastes, schedule, and body the best. Or just opt for protein bars if you need more of a snack, less of a meal.
2. Liquid meal replacements are not terribly satiating
Because of a long-standing belief that liquid and solid food replacements differed in effectiveness, a study set out to determine if this were true (1). The study measured liquid vs solid food replacements regarding hunger in adults, and the results confirmed what had previously been assumed.
Researchers found that liquid food replacements didn’t do as much to curb hunger in older adults, leading them to eat more.
This can, in theory, lead to less success in losing weight, suggesting that solid food replacements (such as Garden of Life High Protein Weight Loss Bars, RxBars or Quest Bars) are a better choice for those who are hoping to put off a few extra pounds.
3. Meal replacements work better than deprivation-style diets
There appear to be more benefits than just losing weight for those who wish to use a meal-replacement dietary approach (2). A recent study measured how at risk participants were for developing metabolic disorders, comparing those who used 2 meal replacements a day with those who used more traditional fat-restricted, low-calorie diets.
And, while we may think of low-calorie, low-fat diets as the standard, the study found that meal replacement helps promote healthier levels of insulin and leptin, as well as reduce other risk factors for metabolic disorders.
In short, meal-replacement diets may provide fat loss, especially in the mid-section, and keep your hormones balanced. Solid win-win.
4. High protein meal replacements seem to burn MORE fat
Another study measured the effects on weight loss from those who had high protein foods in their diet with those who ate a more conventional diet (3).
All subjects in the study used partial meal replacement as a form of weight loss. Though both groups did report a reduction in body weight and belly fat, there was no appreciable difference between the two in this category.
However, high-protein diets did result in the reduction of more total body fat when compared to conventional diet plans, so if you’re looking for a reliable meal replacement, stick with one that has high levels of protein to help keep you full.
5. Meal replacements may benefit more men than women
A recent study found that meal replacements might benefit men more than it does women (4). While the study wasn’t necessarily focused on the effects of meal replacement and gender, when the results were examined, researchers found that men lost a greater amount of weight on average, than did women.
However, it must be noted that this only establishes a correlation between the two and that other important factors may not have been considered. More research is needed to establish any definitive links between meal replacement and gender.
6. Meal replacement shakes can keep you lean and fit in high-stress environments
The same study shows that for workers in high-stress environments (think law enforcement, doctors, firefighters, etc.), 2 liquid meal replacements a day has proven to be an effective way to lose weight.
This is important for those individuals who work jobs that require them to be nimble and good on their feet. And it is also a good way to maintain overall health.
High-stress environments often take a great toll on the human body—and may result in excess fat around your midsection.
This is because of your not so friendly friend, cortisol. Cortisol is known for being released during long-term stress AND correlated with weight gain in the midsection (13). This means that meal replacements have potential weight-related advantages that should not be taken for granted.
Instead, meal replacements should be considered for those individuals who work in environments that cause higher-than-average levels of stress and duress (4).
Basically, if it helps men and women who work around the clock in high pressure environments saving lives, catching criminals, and fighting fires, they may also be valuable for others who feel chronically stressed.
5. Meal replacements can help you stay fit
Additionally, the study found another benefit of using meal-replacement methods: the participants kept most of the their weight off at the 3-month and 8-month follow-up marks (4).
Another study noted that participants who used meal replacements were more likely to weigh less after 5 years of follow up (23) than controls. Maintaining your new weight is essential in your weight loss journey to avoid any rebound weight gain.
It must be noted that several other variables could have led to these outcomes, so this correlation cannot be treated as causation. However, the notion that meal replacement can help maintain a healthy weight is one that deserves further research and attention—especially when meal replacement is an effective and easy means of shedding excess weight in the first place.
6. Meal replacements come packed with (usually) 2 types of protein
Two of the most common products in meal replacement are two different types of protein: soy and whey. The two have a similar effectiveness, but they differ in taste (5). In general, the taste of whey protein is considered more vanilla in flavor, while soy protein has a stronger nutty flavor.
In addition, whey protein was found to be smoother and more of a cohesive product than soy, which was deemed more grainy.
7. Whey protein is the people’s choice
It may come as no surprise, then, that this same study found that whey protein was more favorable among consumers (5). Because whey protein offers a smoother and sweeter choice, it appeals to a wider range of tastes.
The taste of soy can be seen as nutty or gritty, all while having a dense and tough texture that may make it off-putting to the taste buds and mouth-feel. This makes whey protein a popular meal replacement choice in both solid and liquid forms—in addition to being widely used as a workout supplement.
8. Meal replacements are often more nutritious than a conventional diet
Another study compared meal replacement to conventional diet means and came to a surprising conclusion (6). Though we’ve seen several studies that assert meal replacement as a more-effective means of weight loss, this study found that it was comparable to traditional means of weight loss and didn’t show significant reduction in weight for most participants.
However, this study did conclude that meal replacement participants were more well-nourished than traditional diet participants due to their lack of meal and diet balance while reducing calories.
This adds extra benefits to those who are seeking to lose weight, as meal replacements can provide a healthier dietary option that allows for greater personal health.
9. Meal replacements can save you money
One study notes another important part of a meal-replacement plan: its cost (7). When dieting, it can be difficult to find the right foods, as healthier foods usually come at a heftier price tag.
In fact, it’s so easy nowadays to purchase unhealthy fast food and junk food, that buying food that is not only more expensive but takes more time and effort to cook encourages many people to forsake their own health for convenience ( and we wonder why our obesity rates are greater than 30%).
This makes meal replacements great alternatives because they provide all the health benefits that you could want from a lower-calorie diet plan while cutting unnecessary costs and extra effort associated with healthy eating.
10. Meal replacements support healthy blood sugar levels
Because solid and liquid food replacements have been shown to differ in some regards, another study was conducted to measure how they may differ in affecting blood glucose (sugar) levels (8).
While the study did reach the same conclusion that liquid food replacement diets were not as beneficial to older adults who are trying to lose weight, it did offer other important information: between the two alternatives, neither offers a clear benefit in terms of maintaining healthy glucose levels. That’s not to say that these meal replacements are not good for glucose levels—it’s quite the opposite.
Instead, both liquid and solid meal replacement options provide an effective means of positively influencing glucose levels. Keeping blood sugar levels healthy means you have a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and will have less weight gain with time, it’s a win-win.
11. Casein may reduce body fat and cancer risk
Recent studies have shown that casein replacement shakes result in slightly more weight loss and an additional 2% decrease in body fat compared with soy (10).
There’s also evidence that casein has anti-cancer effects – suppressing breast tumor growth and metastasis of cancer cells (14). More research is needed to confirm this benefit outside of the laboratory.
Casein is a more slowly digested protein, which may be beneficial for weight losers desiring longer satiety, but possibly problematic in older individuals that have slowed or impaired gastrointestinal function. It is for this reason that whey, a combination of proteins, and/or hydrolyzed casein (a more quickly absorbed form of casein) may be better protein choices for some (24).
12. Soy Meal Replacement Better than Milk Meal Replacement
Studies have shown soy meal replacements are better than milk meal replacements in some regards (11). This is because soy naturally contains a wide variety of nutrients that are beneficial to the human body, like isoflavones, a family of anti-cancer compounds (25).
While milk and milk-based proteins are loved by many, it lacks many of the valuable vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that make soy a valuable food and protein supplement for your health. Dairy-based foods and supplements also have to be excluded by those with milk allergies, and dairy or lactose intolerance. In those that can tolerate dairy, a blend of both whey and soy proteins, verses whey or soy alone, yielded a slightly longer amino acid availability after exercise for muscle recovery (26).
Though you might be a little unfamiliar with the taste at first, you will find that it has many positive benefits to your overall health. Furthermore, most who make the switch from milk to soy meal replacements find that they actually grow to love the taste of soy more after they grow accustomed to its unique flavor.
13. Soy meal replacements reduce triglycerides (fat)
One of the greatest benefits of soy meal replacements is that they reduce triglycerides more than milk-based meal replacements (11). Though other forms of meal replacement are also beneficial to your overall health, only soy has been proven to greatly improve triglyceride count and improve metabolic health.
This means that soy meal replacement can play a crucial role in the prevention of diabetes, weight gain and heart disease. Because of this, soy meal replacement should be strongly considered by those individuals who wish to improve their metabolic health.
14. Snacking does not make you gain extra weight
One aspect of meal replacement is that it will allow you to still snack, eat and drink, even while you are on the diet for weight loss or health-improvement. Though it may sound too-good-to-be-true, numerous scientific studies have proven that planned snacking does not play a significant role in weight gain while on a meal replacement diet (12).
This means that you won’t have to limit yourself to eating only a few meals a day, which is good news for those who to love to snack. Contrary to what some might think, meal replacements provide some food freedom – less pressure and stress of having to figure out a healthy meal or snack which may ultimately result in poor food choices in those who haven’t planned meals, or those who are stressed or busy. Overly restrictive dietary standards may make you question whether your diet is worth it at all which may not be the best sustainable approach for health improvement.
15. Never ever believe everything you see on the label
Meal replacement products are supplements. In the United States they are “regulated” by the FDA. Unfortunately, this regulation is not as thorough as you’d think. Often, the FDA does not routinely test meal replacement bars for quality before sale (15). In the cases of meal replacements, when products are third-party tested, nutrient claims may not match the actual ingredients (27).
If you want to do some quick math beforehand on your packaged foods, you can add up the calories from fat, carbohydrates, and proteins to see if it matches the total calories as marked on the nutrition panel. That said, the FDA allows a 20% margin of error on calories and nutrients.
16. Watch out for dangerous herbal additions in meal replacements
Certain meal replacements, especially ones with claims of energy or with a list of herbal ingredients may be dangerous.
While there are some top-notch brands, others contain herbal supplements that can interfere with medications or interact with other foods you commonly eat. For example, bitter orange peel can increase the stimulating effects of caffeine, leading to higher blood pressure and cardiovascular events due to a greater strain on your cardiovascular system (16).
Some meal replacements jump over into dangerous territory to sacrifice your health in order to shed a few pounds. Always be sure to know what you’re putting in your body to make sure you stay safe.
17. Meal replacement nutrition labels can be misleading
Some meal replacement shakes and bars actually contain multiple servings. If you check the label, your massive 20 gram protein bar might be ideal for a romantic post workout treat for two instead of just for you.
Aside from accidentally overeating double or triple the calories, you might be overeating the rest of the day too.
Researchers examine how portion size affects appetite in older adults and discovered that smaller portion sizes (as well as liquid vs. solid meals) lead to greater hunger and lower satiety (17).
That all translates into you being hungrier and likely to eat more later in the day if you stick with energy-dense foods or liquids that have small portion sizes.
18. A meal replacement bar goes with a glass of water
Meal replacements, even if they work for your body and health, are frankenfoods.
Frakenfoods are natural foods that are processed and stripped of some of their water, vitamins, and fiber to create a bar for you to carry around and enjoy. A solid trade off, however, if you’re munching on a meal replacement bar you need to also down at least 8 ounces of water. You’ll see this right on the label of the bar because the water helps dilute your concentrated bar into a sea of nutrition you can digest and absorb more easily.
Otherwise, you don’t efficiently breakdown and digest your bar which may lead to digestive symptoms – aches, bad gas, and bloating (obviously not ideal for a post workout date).
Do yourself a favor and stay hydrated when you replace your meals.
19. Meal replacement shakes for body composition changes
Protein shakes and bars, regularly used as meal replacements, are often consumed in the hope of building up lean body mass and/or reducing body fat. Without a smart exercise routine in place, your muscles will have no reason to use up the extra protein you’ve eaten and turn it into hard muscle, so muscle gain is unlikely (31). Some studies reveal that protein supplementation is less important than total dietary protein and the quality of strength-training (29, 30). That said, protein-enriched meal replacements can help retain muscle mass in some even with a lack of exercise (28).
With weight-lifting or body-weight exercises on board, meal replacements can be excellent aids in reducing your body fat as you build more lean muscle mass, as long as the meal replacements provide at least moderate protein intake (19). In addition, for the weight-lifter, several studies reveal whey is superior to soy for lean muscle gains (20).
Scientific literature supports the use of meal replacement as an effective and healthy means of dieting and overall health improvement. Choose your products wisely, and enjoy it in moderation with balanced, healthy meals to maximize long-term benefits.