Meal replacements are very popular in the athletic population. The market is growing, we can choose from many different options. Products target different populations and have different ingredients. They combine carbohydrates, protein and fat, and are often enriched with vitamins, minerals and other bioactive substances. Athletes use them for various reasons. After training they grab their protein shake to support recovery. Sometimes, athletes use meal replacements to promote weight gain, others hope for weight loss. Whatever the goal is, it’s important to choose the meal replacement wisely.

In order to lose body weight and improve health status, people can choose from a wide range of energy-restricted dietary interventions. Interestingly, several scientific studies have shown that calorie restriction via total meal replacement results in greater reduction of food cravings compared to a typical calorie-reduced diet. Furthermore, meal replacements seems to reduce the risk of overeating.

But is this of importance for athletes? Many athletes are not meeting there daily energy needs. Recent studies revealed that quite a lot male and female athletes finish their training days with a big calorie deficit. The mismatch of energy intake and energy expenditure has several reasons: busy schedules, underestimated energy needs, wrong food choices. Indeed, the group of athletes that’s underfueling is big. For these athletes meal replacements can be great way to increase their energy intake. When there is no time to cook, there is maybe enough time to grab a liquid meal and drink this instead. And for those athletes who struggle to eat that much food to meet energy needs, a liquid meal replacement can also be a convenient way to increase energy intake and meet energy and nutrient needs. And who doesn’t want to buy a meal replacement product but prepare their own one, there are many recipes that make a good shake. A combination of fruit, vegetables, dairy, healthy fats and some spices, it’s a great nutrient source. It’s easy to pack several hundred calories into a tasteful shake. My athletes love it.

There is only one thing that is important: choose the right recipe. Since the market has grow so big, we have a wide range of products to choose from and when you search the internet, you also find thousands of recipes for smoothies and shakes. However, in order to reach your goal, you need to look for the right composition and content. While some contain protein, others contain all three macronutrients. Especially medical meal replacements are also enriched with vitamins and minerals. For somebody who eats a variety of fruits and vegetables and uses the meal replacement to add some extra calories, it’s important to check for the micronutrient content. When the diet delivers already enough of them, there’s no reason to consume extra amounts of micronutrients. Because they are concentrated sources, this can really lead to excess which may be detrimental for health.

If you are an athlete who wants to lose weight, it’s important you check the protein content. A liquid meal replacement without sufficient protein will most likely promote muscle loss. In times of energy restriction, it’s very important to consume sufficient protein to preserve your muscle mass. It’s easy to lose muscle, but it takes very long to regain it. Also, protein increases satiety and in times of reduced energy intake, it’s important to feel full and consume satiating foods. A weight loss period shouldn’t be a time where you feel hungry all day. Protein is the best choice for better satiety. Despite being important for satiety, your meal replacements need more than protein when you go liquid. Protein alone isn’t enough to meet daily nutrient needs. Your body needs carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. A simple protein shake can’t cover this. Read the label of you product. Make sure it meets your needs and covers most nutrient needs but doesn’t exceed daily requirements.

Recovery after exercise it the time when many athletes choose a shake instead of a meal. While there are many powered and ready-to-drink products on the market, there is also the good old, traditional  chocolate milk that regained popularity. Why? It’s natural, it’s widely available, it’s a good protein and carbohydrate source and it tastes good. Of course, there are athletes who don’t drink cow milk and choose milk alternatives, but especially the high protein quality and a high concentration of certain amino acids (e.g. leucine) makes chocolate milk a great recovery drink option.

Chocolate milk has been in use in the early 20th century. Probably not for the reason we use it now (we didn’t know about protein and carbohydrates fort recovery purposes then), but some nations had it on the table at the Olympic Games back then.

Grabbing a shake in the morning before heading out for training sounds great. But it can also lead to boredom soon. What seems a great way first, may soon become a boring habit. Enjoying a drink on the go is convenient and can prevent underfueling when you’ve a busy agenda and are at risk of missing a meal and important calories. The routine of a liquid meal misses out on one thing. We’re used to sit down enjoy a meal, chew, swallow, chat, spend time at the table. Imagine to meet with a friend for a shake. It’s not the same as meeting for a good pizza or steak.

Another important aspect is the energy and nutrient content. As mentioned already above, it’s important to read the label or choose the recipe really carefully. We all have specific needs and goals and our meal replacement needs to support these. While for some it’s an easy way to increase energy intake, for a few it can be a risk to consume too many calories. As some smoothies are energy dense, people who need to watch their calories can easily consume more than needed. What helps is a look at the ingredients and the label. Good recipes list the nutrition information. With this information it’s easy to choose the right meal replacement or to adjust it to meet individual needs.

See also this post on smoothies.

Further reading:

Thom & Lean (2017) Is There an Optimal Diet for Weight Management and Metabolic Health? Gastroenterology, 152, 7, 1739-1751.

Noronha et al (2019) The Effect of Liquid Meal Replacements on Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Overweight/Obese Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta- analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Diabetes Care, 42, 767-776.