One guy vs all those meal replacement shakes

In the last few weeks, I seem to be frequently coming across ‘meal replacement’ shake mixes. Whether it’s at the gym, around friends, or with clients – these drink mixes are popping up everywhere. Once you know their dark secret though, you’ll probably look at them a little differently next time you see one.

I will declare exactly where I stand on this right here – I think some of these drinks should be taken off the shelves, and there should be education and prepackaged slow carb meals in their place, and if that were to happen, we would have a lot more healthier and happier people around the world.

Let’s have a quick look at a common example – I won’t name the brand, but nutritionally speaking, the numbers are all around the same:

‘Drink A’ – Premixed drink

Calories – 190
Fat – 5g
Protein – 10g
Carbohydrates – 26g
-Sugars – 13g
-Fiber – 5g

‘Drink B’ – Dry powder

Calories – 200
Fat – 2g
Protein – 15g
Carbohydrates – 31g
-Sugars – 23g
-Fiber – 6g

Just for Fun – Choc Banana Milkshake

Calories – 279
Fat – 5.4g
Protein – 9.7g
Carbohydrates – 50.6g
-Sugars – 35.2
-Fiber –  3.6g

Slow carb meal

Calories – 350-450
Fat – 3g
Protein – 28g
Carbohydrates – 24g
-Sugars – 2g
-Fiber – 10g


I expect you’ve already noticed a difference. For a start, there’s a lot less calories in both ‘meal replacement’ shakes. Don’t buy into the idea that the less calories the better – you need a certain amount of energy to keep you going through the day, otherwise you’ll start fading, and craving other high sugar, high fat snacks to quickly get more energy.

So, both the shakes lose when it comes to how much energy you get from them. But that’s not all bad.

If they had as many calories as the slow carb meal, these would be digested so much more quickly than the meal that your blood sugar would spike incredibly. Blood sugar spikes lead to fat gain, not fat loss (the goal, supposedly of these drinks). The shakes I have included are the mid-range – I have seen some powdered drink mixes with up to 31g of pure sugar! You might as well eat a candy bar (literally a Mars Bar has 31g of sugar).

So back to the 3 options. Both of the shakes have some carbohydrate – but mostly in the form of sugar. A quick glance at the slow carb meal sees sugar as being very low – this is a key difference. With this difference also comes a substantial difference in fiber content. Fiber helps slow down digestion, so if there isn’t much, then you absorb energy fast, use it fast and require more, more quickly.

Both the shakes will be abosrbed quickly, compared to the meal.

The likelihood that either drink will leave you hungry after just a couple of hours is very high, and likewise the chances that you’ll be craving something sweet will be very likely.

The problem with these drinks is that both examples I have taken are being sold as ‘diet’ drinks – things to replace meals with, for people wanting to lose weight. They’re especially expensive too, considering how little food value there is.

My real concern, and objection to these drinks is that they will keep thousands of people stuck in the ‘trying to lose weight’ cycle.

I have my suspicions that this is for a good reason – this target market, which might include you – is very profitable for food and supplement producers, and for diet-creators alike. Providing items for sale that work with the ‘lifestyle phase’ of trying to lose weight generates a lot more repeat business than helping people leave that phase altogether, and especially than helping people do that with whole foods that can be bought cheaply at the grocery store.

The bottom line

The bottom line is simple – whole meals beat shakes hands-down. If you are absolutely stuck for time, or your life is so configured at the moment that you just can’t eat in the morning, or at a certain time, then these shakes should still be the last thing on your list – they shouldn’t even be near the list!

First think about pre-packing cold salads with slow carb goodies, and if that can’t happen, then at last resort consider cottage cheese or protein shakes. Under no circumstances are these ‘meal replacement’ shakes anything like what they are sold as. If you are resorting to a protein shake, I recommend using an unflavored whey isolate powder, with a dash of cinnamon, mixed into water. Add to this some no sugar fiber supplement and you have a better start to the day than eating nothing. You still don’t have any carbohydrates though, like you would get from the beans. If you suffer from very low energy in the mornings, or if you’re craving bread, candies or baked goods at lunchtime, then you absolutely need to make time for breakfast with whole food. If you’re someone who can get by OK til lunch, then go with the whey drink routine, and check your results after 4 weeks.

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13 Responses to One guy vs all those meal replacement shakes

  • Dodie Jacobi says:

    Thanks for this post – reading while I drink a protein shake:) I’ve been enjoying Vega brand which is vegan, high non-dairy protein, and has 100% of the daily recommended vitamins, omegas, minerals, etc. It’s enough protein to kick off the day easily within 30 min a la 4hb. I usually have a real breakfast after walking the dog and it’s working well to keep me on track. Sometimes it’s a “snack” on the run, lesser of many other evils. That said, I appreciate the cautions about burning up faster, and will be alert.

    • Luke says:

      Hey Dodie,

      The Vega brand is one standout example of a shake that has a great nutritional profile. But you pay for it! $5 a serve last time I checked. You’re right that if you are on the run, it makes sense to have something like this, if the alternative is nothing – because nothing can lead to snacks and compromises during the day that will have a negative impact on your progress. Wherever possible of course I’d recommend a slow carb meal, at a cost of perhaps $0.50c – $1.50, but this is one of the better alternatives.

      All the best!

    • Deb Chaney says:

      Yes, I ‘ve been having the vega nutrition shake in the morning too… But i think i’m just going to have that on out-of-the-house work days and switch to egg whites and spinach with salsa the work at home days. It seems more economical to eat real food and there is a whole paige in the 4HB dedicated to how much eating egg whites helps to burn fat loss! Tx for the conversation and posts!

      • Luke Starbuck says:

        All the best with is Deb! Whole foods will often result in better fat loss than packaged drink mixes and bars.

  • Jody Gok says:

    I have a tough time with breakfast too, been on the 4hr body lifestyle change for 4 months and have found the Jay Robb™ EGG WHITE PROTEIN-Vanilla (24gm protein) to work for me, i have it plus 1 egg, plus 3 Tbs lentils as my breakfast, sometime i add liquid egg white mix to the shake to round up to 30gms, instead of frying an egg. i lose about 1-2 lbs a weeks so far. and am happy with these results. it seemed closest to what tim suggested as a breakfast (for his dad). its not a meal replacement drink, but a protein drink.

    • Luke says:

      Hey Jody,

      Nice progress! And well done in including a protein shake, but keeping lentils in the mix. Switching eggs for a pure protein drink is a much better alternative, rather than trying to swap the whole meal for a shake.

      All the best!

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  • Attila says:

    Meal replacement drinks are obviously BS. But what about whey isolates from bodybuilder stores? I usually drink a ~40g serving (30g is the measuring thing, but I top it up to make sure there’s more than 30g of protein in total) with ice water once in the morning and once in the evening. If the label doesn’t lie, this should be around a total of ~300kCal daily. I’ve found that it keeps me sane if I don’t manage to eat a proper full breakfast in the morning, I do this and let’s say 6-10 pieces of cashew nuts. If there’s time I add a full slow carb breakfast instead of the nuts, two eggs and some lentils/beans.

    Serving: 40g
    Calories (kcal): 145,2
    PROTEIN (g): 32
    CARB (g): 2
    FAT(g): 1,04

    • Luke says:

      Hey thanks for your comment.

      The whey isolates come with two warnings – 1/ any of them with any kind of sweeteners (ie any flavored kind, vs a natural whey isolate) have the possibility of prompting an insulin response. 2/ Whey protein itself may prompt an insulin response in some people. So it’s not so much about the nutrition, but the fact that these shakes may result in more insulin being released than a slow carb meal would. If it’s working for you though, that’s the main thing! Your modification to the slow carb diet (whey shakes with cashews) is still well inside the ‘grey area’ of closer-to-slow-carb-than-not foods.

      Cheers and all the best,

  • Baldev says:

    Just wondering if the vega one product can be used as an alternative to athletic greens noted in the book? If not, does anyone know of a supplier for AG in Canada?


    • Luke says:

      Hey Baldev,

      I’m not that familiar with this Vega product, though I respect their brand and what they produce.
      Athletic Greens may ship to Canada, or you could use a shipping service if you want to stick with that brand.

      All the best,

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