Traditionally meal replacements have featured predominantly in gyms, sports fields, hospitals and social development projects with the purpose of providing nutrient dense foods to meet increased requirements and/or poor intake. However, with the fast-paced lives many of us now lead, meal replacements are quickly becoming a viable option for healthy meals on-the-go.

Often, the healthy food everyone aspires to eat is simply out of reach for the time-strapped mom, meeting-bound dad or the active teen, who often simply settle for the combo-meal at their closest drive-thru.

Healthy eating needn’t be difficult, but it often is because many people just don’t know what a balanced meal looks like, and for those that need to lose weight, most probably even more so. Here we take a look at what meal replacements are and how they might work for weight loss.


A meal replacement is a food, often in bar, bottle or powder format (to be mixed with fluid into a porridge or shake consistency), aimed at meeting the nutritional requirements of a balanced meal in a convenient manner, thus containing all macronutrients namely carbohydrates, protein and fats, as well as vitamins, minerals and fibre. Due to this requirement it is nutrient dense and offers recommended portioning. For those using a meal replacement for weight loss specifically, the energy is controlled, the portions are stated or pre-packaged, and may provide other functional ingredient benefits such as a low GI formulation and a high fibre content.

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) the food that is the subject of the health claim: is a “meal replacement for weight control”, is defined in Directive 96/8/EC5 on foods intended for use in energy-restricted diets for weight reduction. Briefly, the energy provided by a meal replacement shall not be less than 840 kJ (200 kcal) and shall not exceed 1 680 kJ (400 kcal) per meal. Meal replacements for weight loss shall provide not less than 25 % and not more than 50 % of the total energy of the product as protein, not more than 30 % of the total available energy as fat, not less than 1 g of linoleic acid (in the form of glycerides), at least 30 % of the dietary reference values for adults of vitamins and minerals, and at least 500 mg of potassium per meal.” 

Take note that ‘meal replacements’ should not be confused or used interchangeably with ‘supplements’. A supplement is used as an addition to your daily meals and is often not ‘balanced’ in the sense that it will provide more of a certain nutrient to facilitate a specific function e.g. Whey powder is frequently used in shakes post-exercise to assist in muscle repair and recovery, but wouldn’t alone meet the requirements of a full meal.


Meal replacements increase one’s awareness of the kilojoules you’re taking in and therefore provide you with more control. They are also ‘ready-made’ or ‘almost ready-made’ and require no added ingredients (provided you mix it with water) ensuring you’re taking in exactly what’s on the label, and no additional hidden kilojoules.

They’re also super convenient, which often means when you may typically skip a meal, you’re now fitting it in. Research shows that small frequent meals help reduce hunger cravings and overeating, while ensuring sustained blood sugar and energy levels, increasing your metabolism and ultimately assisting in weight management. Studies show eating breakfast assists in long-term weight control as those that eat breakfast consume less overall kilojoules in a day, even more so if their breakfast includes a protein. On top of that it takes the anxiety out of weight loss, making sure you don’t need to worry or calorie count your every meal.

In the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that meal replacements or ‘diet shakes’, were just as effective for weight loss when compared to structured, conventional diets. It was also found that these study participants were more positive about their dieting in general, where they highly rated their eating plan for its convenience when compared to those on the ‘regular food’ diet plan. Convenience alone is often a huge motivating factor for those wanting to lose weight.

According to EFSA, in order for a food to make a claim that it is a “meal replacement for weight control” with the aim of reduction in body weight, as per the above mentioned criteria, “substituting two daily meals of an energy restricted diet with meal replacements contributes to weight loss”. Furthermore, in order for a food to make a claim that it is a “meal replacement for weight control” with the aim of maintenance of body weight after weight loss, “substituting one daily meal of an energy restricted diet with a meal replacement contributes to the maintenance of weight after weight loss”. These claims are backed through much research and many agree: In the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, a published study in 2001 saw that women who lost weight on a lower-calorie plan with the inclusion of meal replacement beverages maintained their weight losses after a year by consuming at least one meal replacement/shake a day in place of a regular meal. The other counterparts in the study, who had lost weight on the conventional low-fat diet that had not used meal replacement beverages, landed up regaining most of their former weight.

Take note that with any drastic change in your lifestyle it is advisable to consult a health professional to monitor your progress. Weight loss also doesn’t come from 1 or 2 meals in a day but instead a combination of healthy eating habits and exercise.


So you now know all the potential weight loss benefits of a meal replacement, here’s a guide to choosing the right one and getting the most from it:

  • Read the labels. Not all meal replacements do what their name suggests. Choose one that isn’t on a supplement shelf and is made by a reputable manufacturer, steer away from a meal replacement with a stimulant such as caffeine (this is more likely a supplement) and make sure it contains primarily complex carbohydrates, with small amounts of simple sugars and fat, along with a moderate amount of protein, as well as a third of your daily vitamin and mineral NRV’s (nutrient reference values) per serving. It should contain fibre and preferably be low GI. When comparing products make sure you look at per 100g/ml as well as the recommended portion size. Look at endorsements, this shows it’s gone through some sort of regulation.
  • Limit your use. While meal replacements provide great nutrition, they are not designed to replace one’s entire diet. Typically you would need to supplement your daily fibre intake with fruit or nuts and wholegrains in your other meals. Taste fatigue may also become an issue and therefore it is advisable to enjoy for select meals to ensure sustainability.
  • Be careful of what you add to it. You have this great energy-controlled meal replacement in front of you but you decide to mix it with full-cream milk, peanut butter and 2 fruits; in an instead blend the energy in that meal has more than doubled and your weight loss dreams are just that…dreams! Start off enjoying your meal with just water, as you feel you would like to add more to it remember to decrease the amount of powder added, and enjoy the additions with caution.
  • Make it taste good. If it tastes delicious to you, chances are you are more likely to stick to it, which will make the road to weight loss much easier. Simple low kilojoule additions such as coffee powder, vanilla essence and cinnamon can make a world of difference on your palate, with none of the energy. Try changing consistencies of your meal; if possible enjoy it as porridge for one meal and as a smoothie for another.
  • Plan accordingly. Make sure you have a plan: what meals will this be covering? When will you be exercising and how should this fit around it? What about your other 1-2 meals in the day? And what small snacks should I cater for in between? Ie. Buy nuts, lean biltong, fruits and low-fat yoghurt.
  • Ask questions. If you’re not sure about a product, chat to them on their website or info line, see what health professionals they consult with and ask around on social media.


BOTTOM LINE: Meal replacement can be a helpful part of your weight-loss plan but some discretion and care is needed.

This content was provided by FUTURELIFE®