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“Newsflash” (not): most meal replacement shakes aren’t meal replacements

Image description: Three glasses with shakes and two straws in each, from left to right vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, against a plain background with cinnamon sticks, chocolate, and strawberries on the surface besides the shakes.
Image description: Three glasses with shakes and two straws in each, from left to right vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, against a plain background with cinnamon sticks, chocolate, and strawberries on the surface besides the shakes.

Did you see the headline, “Nearly 80% of weight-loss shakes sold in UK make claims that are ‘exaggerated or untrue,’ research finds”? If you did (or even if you didn’t), are you surprised?

When this came across my desk it was an eye-roll moment. Even at the time of my life when I was engaged in an obsessive and chronic relationship with dieting, as if dieting “success” was my path to life-long happiness, I had a skeptical view of weight loss shakes. I remember Oprah’s stint with Optifast, when she lost 67 pounds and wheeled the equivalent volume of fat onto the stage of her show.

And guess what? It was a longterm fail. I don’t mean this as a negative comment on Oprah. In fact, it was enough for me that even Oprah, a wealthy woman with a team of people supporting her (personal trainer, personal chef, deep pockets, success)You just can’t do a liquid diet and expect that when you get back to actual food you’ll keep the weight off. Oprah starting eating “normally” and within a week she was up ten pounds.

The latest research reported in the article linked to above examined labeling on the packaging of 50 meal-replacement shakes and found:

that just 10 of the brands provided enough information to meet all the requirements, with the majority of products failing to meet the basic criteria necessary to be called a “meal replacement for weight control” shake.

In fact, 79 per cent of claims made by these products were found to not be compliant with EU regulations.

They did a further survey of consumers who use the shakes and found that people are totally confused about what they’re getting. Over half had false perceptions of the products. This state of affairs led the researchers to conclude:

“This study highlights the need for better enforcement to ensure products for sale meet the legally required compositional and labelling criteria which will both protect consumers whilst ensuring fair market competition.”

More generally, apart from the poor labelling, the bottom line is that meal replacement shakes just aren’t meals. They don’t deliver the calories or nutrients that a decent meal delivers. Oprah’s experience shows that. When she started back to real meals, the weight crept back on. That’s known in some circles as the famine response, where the body clings to whatever it can get after a period of deprivation.

And remember the follow-up of Biggest Loser contestants from Season Eight demonstrated permanent metabolic damage. And they weren’t even on liquid diets.

And none of this speaks to the rebound effect of binge eating, that is a documented response to the end of a period of food deprivation (shown ages ago in Ancel Keys’ Minnesota Starvation Experiment shortly after WW II in 1944).

Conclusion: meal replacement shakes aren’t a sustainable and healthy way to lose weight. They don’t just fail to replace meals adequately, but they can result in metabolic damage, and the feeling of deprivation they ignite is more likely than not to result in binge eating and food obsession.

Are you surprised by these research findings concerning meal replacement shakes?

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