Your Meal Replacement Shake Probably Sucks
8 min read time
I recently saw an ad for Huel that was marketing their meal replacement shake, and it just rubbed me the wrong way.
The implication in their ads is that you can completely forego solid food and just drink one of their shakes to replace a meal, and that it is healthy (perhaps healthier?) and supports weight loss, an active lifestyle, etc.
Now I could be wrong with their specific claims, but I’m not so concerned with Huel specifically as I am with meal replacement shakes in general.
In short, they kind of suck. I have a hard time imagining many scenarios where a meal replacement shake is your best possible option, and isn’t just masking an issue you need to resolve.
Now it’s not that there isn’t any redeeming quality of these shakes. Brands like Huel seem to work hard to include a variety of essential nutrients in their product, they probably don’t taste too bad, and have some protein which most people could use more of.
It’s just that for the vast majority of scenarios there’s something better, and going out of your way to replace a meal with a shake is probably a bad idea.
Why You Should Probably Just Eat Solid Food
If your goal is weight loss, including more liquid calories into your diet is the exact opposite of what you want to do.
Hunger is one of, if not the top reasons why dieting kind of sucks balls. Our bodies absolutely love homeostasis, so when you diet to try and lose weight, thus leaving homeostasis, it gets a little cranky, and will be sure to let you know you need to eat.
Although what you eat plays a role in how hungry you are. Solid food is more filling than liquid by a large margin. On top of that, certain foods have a higher satiating effect than others, which makes it even easier to diet the more of them you eat!
But you can’t drink broccoli. Well you can, but it’d be gross, and turning a satiating food into some less satiating by liquefying it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if your goal is to stave off hunger. Great idea if you’re struggling to get enough veggies in, just not for that.
To put it simply, the easiest way to diet and lose weight is to go nuts with satiating food. You want to get the absolute most out of every calorie. The more satiating calories you include into your diet, the more room for you have to include a little bit of something for your sweet or fatty/savory fix and make it easier to stay on track for the long term.
You want both. Mostly your boring and filling food, and then a little bit of whatever really hits the spot and satisfies a craving. Anything in the middle isn’t doing you any favors and is just calories that could be better spent.
Meal replacement shakes, by design, are loaded with carbs and fats, in order to provide enough caloric energy to simulate a meal. That surely isn’t an efficient trade off of calories for how filling it is.
So does it fit into what you would consider a treat? I’m more of a savory over sweet guy. I’d rather have steak than ice cream. I can’t imagine most people would choose a meal replacement shake over either one. But hey, I can’t speak for you, maybe you’re weird like that.
If you’re weird, you do you. But it’s safe to assume that most people aren’t craving meal replacement shakes throughout the day.
What if I want to gain weight, not lose weight?
But maybe your goal isn’t to lose weight. Maybe you’re more focused on building muscle and gaining weight currently.
If that’s the case, you definitely have more room for less than satiating calories, and if you’re one of those people who struggles to put on weight, you often should go out of your way to include calories that aren’t filling!
But if you’re loading up the calories, would you really just have a shake and that’s it? If you need the calories that badly, you’d probably have a bit more with it. Maybe have it with a meal and use the shake as your drink. Or a few granola or protein bars at the least.
It’s not so much replacing a meal at that point as it is a meal additive.
Although the important thing to keep in mind is that being in a bulk/weight gain phase isn’t free reign to eat shit food 24/7 just for the sake of stuffing more calories down your gullet.
You still want to be mindful of getting your body all the nutrients it needs to build muscle optimally. That means more than just protein and calories. That means all of your vitamins, minerals, and other essential and semi-essential nutrients – all 90ish of them.
Meal replacement shakes do tend to have way more micronutrients than your typical protein shake, but they’re not going to fully replace a solid diet including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, lean proteins, and fats.
Not to mention, if you’re bulking, you want to be getting the absolute most out of each training session. This depends on the individual, but most people tend to feel they perform best having eaten a full meal leading up to their workout (45 mins – 2 hours prior), not a half-assed “meal” in liquid form.
Just as an empty stomach drains your energy while dieting, a full stomach can help you feel invigorated to crush a workout and set PRs. Many don’t experience that same invigoration from a liquid meal.
So what’s the verdict? If your goal is to gain weight, meal replacement shakes can be a useful source of extra calories and protein that isn’t very filling. Although, this benefit isn’t particularly unique, and by no means do these shakes excel at this.
I’d personally rather have some chocolate milk on top of my usual nutrient-dense diet. Although if you really like the taste, go ahead.
What if you’re crunched for time?
Another common selling point for meal replacement shakes is they work in a pinch. You’re rushing from meeting to meeting, in between classes, etc.
For this reason, I actually think they work great! But it’s just masking a bigger problem.
If you frequently encounter this issue of not having time to eat, you probably suck at prioritizing, managing your time, or meal prepping.
I can say this after working with dozens of people who lead hectic, unplanned, and disorganized lives.
Sure you can just down a shake when you’re crunched for time. Then do the same thing the next day when you failed to set aside time to eat. Do it again when you got too lazy to meal prep and brought no food to work. Then haphazardly do it again the next day in the middle of your shift because you forgot to eat.
Or you can fix your bad habits and take the necessary preparations and planning to ensure you get solid food in you, since it’s going to be better in most cases.
The thing is, these bad habits don’t end there. Not planning, prepping, or prioritizing your day well leads to missed workouts, or shitty ones because you’re going into it drained because you’ve hardly eaten all day. Not to mention plenty of other issues which extend further past fitness.
So sure, you could just down a shake to fix the problem now. But why not deal with the root of the issue?
Don’t make meal prepping hard. Pick a meal that fits your needs and make a batch large enough to last 7 meals. Bring a tupperware to work. Even if you don’t have access to a microwave, plenty of things work well cold.
I’ve spent plenty of time working as a carpenter where my lunch and pre-workout meal at the end of my shift are out of a cooler, eaten in my car. You have plenty of options, you just have to be creative, and remember that your goals are more important than your comfort. Being picky with your food isn’t doing you any favors.
You could probably just have a protein shake.
In so many of these scenarios, you can just use a protein shake instead.
Even if you’re dieting, protein shakes work great! Especially if you get a good brand, they’re basically all protein. Getting enough protein in is hard as is, so a shake or two through the day is a calorie-conscious way of getting closer to your daily intake needs.
You can easily down a shake for your protein, and eat it with a bunch of fruits and veggies to take advantage of the satiation. Boom. High protein, low calorie, filling meal that you can take with you on the go. Something you can’t do with a meal replacement, because they have too many calories.
If your goal is to gain weight, it’s easy to add calories to your low calorie protein shake. Use whole milk instead of water, or even chocolate milk. Make it a smoothie and add in peanut butter and oats or sugar. Maybe even ice cream or greek yogurt.
The options are endless and you can experiment greatly. With a protein shake, you have the option of going either low or high calorie. You can’t cut calories out of a meal replacement shake.
All this said, are meal replacement shakes terrible? No. But they shouldn’t be your first choice by any means.
Don’t be fooled by all the hype and marketing. These sorts of products fall very low on the list of priorities. It’s vastly more important you learn how to organize your diet to take advantage of ideas like satiation, as well as develop better habits which enhance your chances of succeeding.
But if you can spare the calories and enjoy the shakes? Go right ahead.
If you want to learn more about what actually matters for getting in shape, and building the proper habits to make it last, check out my free course linked here. You’ll also be notified whenever I release new blog content, but you can turn that off whenever you want if you so choose.