Super quick and easy to prepare, the best meal replacement shakes can provide you with the nutrients your body needs, without sacrificing taste or draining your wallet.
At a glance, these products tend to resemble the best protein powder – all you need is a bit of water and the best protein shaker to prepare them in a matter of seconds. But that’s where the similarities end. Protein shakes are considered to be dietary supplements, created to help you top up your protein intake, whereas meal replacements are designed to substitute your meals entirely, containing an array of different nutrients and functional ingredients.
Daniel Herman, certified personal trainer and founder of Bio-Synergy (opens in new tab), says: "In an ideal world, it is best to get your nutrition from whole foods. The issue is that many of us, due to our lifestyles, often skip meals or make unhealthy choices, so a good quality meal replacement can be a great way to meet your dietary requirements.”
Since the popularity of meal replacements is at an all-time high, you may be wondering whether they are worth trying out. Indeed, there are many pros and cons to consider before investing in one of these products.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest benefits they can provide is convenience. For many people, finding the time, resources and motivation to maintain a healthy diet can be a real challenge. Without taking care of our nutritional needs, it’s almost impossible to achieve sustainable weight loss, gain muscle or address many chronic conditions. So if you can’t spend long hours in the kitchen, but you don’t want to put your health on the line, switching to one of the best meal replacement shakes could be the answer to your problems.
However, with so many choices available, it can be difficult to decide which product is best suited to your individual needs and preferences. Here, you’ll find a complete guide to the best meal replacement shakes you can buy, as well as advice on what to look for, and when you should use them.
Best meal replacement shakes
Huel Powder v3.0 is a plant-based meal replacement shake that comes in 10 different flavors and provides a hefty dose of calories. A single serving contains nearly 30g of complete protein from a blend of pea, flaxseed and brown rice, as well as a whooping 45g of complex carbohydrates for slow energy release. A portion of Huel Powder v3.0 also provides 27 different vitamins and minerals, probiotics, kombucha, medium chain triglycerides and nearly 8g of prebiotic fiber. It’s also very low in sugar, containing just 1g per single serving. Therefore it’s safe to assume that due to its rich nutritional value, this meal replacement shake may not be the best choice for people who intend to lose weight. However, it would potentially suit active individuals, athletes, and people with demanding lifestyles who want a substantial and filling meal in an easy liquid form.
The downsides? Huel Powder v3.0 lacks digestive enzymes and is sweetened with synthetic sweeteners. It’s also quite expensive, and you need to purchase at least two tubs of the product in a single order.
PhenQ’s meal replacement shake is specifically designed to help with shedding unwanted pounds. A single serving delivers 254 calories, 17g of fat and nearly 16g of whey protein, as well as only 5g of carbohydrates and less than 3g of sugar, making it a suitable choice for people following a low-carb diet.
This meal replacement shake is also enriched with a substance called Innoslim®, a blend of Panax notoginseng and Astragalus membranaceus extracts. Both of these herbal additives have been marketed as weight loss aids. However, it’s worth mentioning that the evidence behind these claims remains inconclusive, as described in a review into dietary supplements published in the Nutrients (opens in new tab) journal.
PhenQ shakes also contain some medium chain triglycerides and two adaptogens (ashwagandha and Reishi mushroom extract), but their contents are slightly lower than the ones found in other brands. The price is definitely a selling point, as it’s one of the cheapest products in this guide.
Still, there are some disadvantages to PhenQ meal replacement shakes. It contains only 13 vitamins and minerals, placing it at the bottom of our list when it comes to micronutrient content. The product is also sweetened with synthetic sweeteners and doesn’t contain any probiotics or digestive enzymes.
When it comes to meal replacement shakes, Exante is one of the most recognizable brands worldwide. Its Exante Meal Replacement Shake is endorsed by the National Health Service in the UK and is commonly prescribed to patients on diabetes and obesity prevention programmes.
Exante is designed to substitute one to two meals a day. It is very low in fats, carbohydrates and sugars, and provides only 120 calories in a single serving. One portion delivers nearly 5g of inulin, a type of fiber with strong prebiotic properties. It also contains a unique ingredient called Slendesta®, which according to the producer’s claims, can block hunger and reduce food cravings for at least three hours following ingestion. However, it’s worth noting that according to the EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (opens in new tab), there is no established connection between ingesting Slendesta® and the reduction of body weight.
Still, Exante shakes are a great choice if you’re on a calorie-restricted diet. However, their meal replacements are not designed exclusively for weight loss purposes. Anyone can benefit from the great variety of flavors, a rich blend of digestive enzymes and nearly 26 different vitamins and minerals.
On the other hand, Exante is relatively low in protein, containing only 12g in a portion. This makes it potentially unsuitable for highly active individuals.
Garden of Life prides itself on using only real, clean ingredients that are mostly certified USDA Organic and non-GMO verified. It’s also a big proponent of healthy, clean eating – and this shows in its Raw Organic Meal range.
It’s packed with nutritious ingredients and is free from gluten, soy, dairy products and tree nuts, as well as artificial colorings, flavorings or preservatives. One serving delivers nearly 20g of vegan protein that comes from a high quality blend of 13 different sprouted grains and seeds. At the same time, it provides only 130 calories and less than 1g of sugar, making it a great choice for people who want to watch their waistline.
Garden of Life Raw Organic Meal also contains a rich organic fruit and vegetable blend, as well as a substantial dose of probiotics and digestive enzymes. It’s the only product on our list that was made without heat processing in order to preserve the integrity of delicate proteins and more volatile components.
Nevertheless, there are few drawbacks. Although Raw Organic Meal provides nearly 21 different vitamins and minerals, it’s not a huge number compared with amounts found in some competitors' products. There’s also only 3g of dietary fiber in a single serving.
If you like to support brands that actively champion environmental causes, you may want to check out Ka’chava. The brand is passionate about endangered species and protecting the rainforests – with every pack of their meal replacement shake, you can help to finance their projects.
Owing to the exceptional quality of the ingredients used to make these shakes, these products definitely belong in the premium category. A single serving of Ka’chava provides a whooping 25g of complete vegan protein and 6g of fiber, as well as only 6g of sugars. These meal replacements are packed with more than 70 different foods and nutrients too, including antioxidants, omega-3, medium chain triglycerides, probiotics and almost 26 different vitamins and minerals (with Daily Values being mostly above 40% per portion).
Ka’chava products are also free from artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavorings and fillers. But what makes these shakes truly stand out is their high adaptogen content. According to a review recently published in the Nutrients (opens in new tab) journal, adaptogens are plant extracts that have the ability to enhance the body’s resistance to stress and physical endurance.
However, Ka’chava is a premium product and unfortunately, it comes with a big price tag. There’s also only one size container available, and these meal replacement shakes come in a fairly limited choice of flavors.
GNC is a versatile health and fitness brand. Its flagship meal replacement, Lean Shake 25, is an affordable product created for people whose primary goal is to lose weight. One serving contains 180 calories, 3g of fat and 3g of sugar, while delivering a whooping 25g of whey protein and 8g of dietary fiber. Lean Shake 25 comes in a range of flavor options, including unique gems like girl scout lemon and girl scout thin mints.
On the other hand, GNC shake delivers only 22 different vitamins and minerals, which is below what competitors tend to offer. Its micronutrient content is also on the low side – most vitamins and minerals cover only 20% of your Daily Value in a single portion. Having said this, the company says to drink two shakes daily in conjunction with a healthy weight management program, so you would still be getting micronutrients from solid food.
Overall, it’s a decent weight loss meal replacement shake, but you may need to invest in additional supplements to keep your health and fitness in peak condition throughout the course of using this product.
Orgain says it believes in the power of organic food and clean eating, while actively championing initiatives aimed at reducing plastic pollution, making it one of the most environmentally-friendly brands in our guide.
Its vegan Organic Meal nutrition powder is packed with clean, organic ingredients and provides nearly 20g of high quality pea, brown rice and chia seed protein blend in a single serving. Orgain doesn’t use artificial flavors or preservatives, and it makes sure its meal replacement shake is free from GMOs and gluten. Since it has a low fat and sugar content, Organic Meal may be a good choice for people who want to lose weight too.
On the other hand, one serving of the Organic Meal shake delivers only 2g of fiber and its micronutrient content is quite low in comparison with other brands. It lacks certain vitamins and minerals too, such as vitamin D and several trace elements. It’s also relatively expensive and comes in one container size.
How to choose the best meal replacement shakes
With such a wide variety of products on the market, it may be challenging to choose the best meal replacement shake for your particular needs and circumstances. Food producers place multiple health and wellbeing claims on the front labels of their products, and though they can be used as a rough guide, it’s always best to thoroughly inspect the nutritional information on the back of the package.
Dr Brian Carson, lecturer in physiology at the University of Limerick and head of science and innovation at Whole Supp (opens in new tab), agrees. “It’s really important to review the nutritional value of any meal replacement shake, ensure you keep an eye out for high sugar content, low protein or poor protein quality and any additives. After reviewing the market I would always keep an eye on what natural superfoods are in the formulation,” he says.
So what’s the ideal macronutrient ratio? To start with, the best meal replacement shakes will offer at least 15g of good quality protein per serving. There are many good types of animal-based protein, but the most common is a whey protein isolate, a type of complete protein derived from cow’s milk. If you’re allergic to dairy products or you’re following a vegan diet, there are many products with plant-based protein sources. The best plant-based meal replacement shakes will contain a combination of several different protein sources to ensure a complete amino acid profile.
Secondly, make sure to check how much sugar is in the product. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (opens in new tab), adults should keep their intake of added sugars to less than 10% of their total daily calories, which comes to around 25g-35g a day. Assuming that you eat three meals a day, a single serving of your meal replacement shake should contain less than 10g of this nutrient. Similarly, the USDA advises to consume at least 28g of dietary fiber a day. Most meal replacements tend to not include much of this nutrient, so if in doubt, go for a product that offers a higher fiber content.
Another important aspect is their micronutrient ratio. Vitamins and minerals are essential for maintaining good health and wellbeing. Variety is key – the more micronutrients, the better. If your meal replacement shake provides low amounts of your Daily Values for vitamins and minerals in a single serving, you’ll need to pack in a lot more nutrients in the meals you consume around this.
What about other ingredients? The best meal replacement shakes are made out of multiple high quality foods, without the use of artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colorings and flavorings. Avoid products that use corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and peculiar-sounding elements – you should be able to recognize most of the items on the ingredient list. The best meal replacement shakes also contain many functional ingredients that may ease your digestion and bring additional health benefits, such as probiotics, prebiotics and digestive enzymes.
Once you’ve inspected the label, it’s time for a taste and mixability test. If you’re using the meal replacement shake every day, a nice flavor is a big selling point. Most brands offer sample packs, so before committing to a single shake, try out as many different options as possible. After drinking it for the first time, check for how long it keeps you full and whether it produces any unpleasant side effects, such as bloating or stomach cramps. You may also want to test the mixability of your meal replacement shake. Does it produce a smooth consistency? Can you blend additional foods into it? And how difficult is it to clean the shaker bottle afterwards? These details can make or break your experience.
Lastly, consider your price options. The best meal replacement shakes do not have to cost the earth, but usually the more expensive they are, the better quality ingredients they tend to provide. Cheaper products may contain fewer nutrients so you may need to consider additional supplementation to cover your dietary requirements.
The benefits of using meal replacement shakes
Fast-paced, modern lifestyles place extreme demands on our schedules, often limiting our ability to cook from scratch and enjoy a meal in the comfort of our home. Although following a healthy, balanced diet is always the best way to get all your necessary nutrients, it’s not always feasible or convenient to do so. That’s where the meal replacement shakes step in.
Alex Glover, senior nutritionist at Holland & Barrett, told Live Science: “Meal replacements help to solve common diet-sabotaging dilemmas like giving in to a takeaway after a busy day. If you often turn to unhealthy food on the go because you haven’t made breakfast or prepared lunch, you may benefit from the convenience of nutritionally complete food.”
Meal replacement shakes are also more portable and compact than regular meals. If you spend entire days driving around or attending important meetings, you’ll find that carrying around a shaker bottle is far easier than hauling several food containers. What’s more, meal replacement shakes are a great option for when you don’t have any immediate access to kitchen appliances, for example, if you’re camping or hiking.
Our bodies need an extensive range of nutrients to maintain peak health and fitness. It’s relatively easy to develop deficiencies, particularly if you’re restricting your calorie intake to try and lose weight. Other times, you may need to cut down on certain foods or calorie values due to medical, financial or other important reasons. If you don’t want to pop numerous supplements, you need a carefully crafted meal plan that provides a sufficient amount of macronutrients, vitamins, minerals and various phytonutrients.
Weight loss aid
The best meal replacement shakes are often marketed as weight loss aids, and there are many good reasons why. They tend to be relatively low in calories, and maintaining a consistent calorie deficit is often necessary to see tangible weight loss results. However, many people struggle to stick to their calorie limit. For these people, meal replacement shakes can be a perfect solution.
What’s more, many products contain significant amounts of protein and dietary fiber, nutrients that play an important role in appetite regulation. Snacking can be a huge obstacle to a leaner, healthier body, whereas eating enough protein and fiber can help you reduce the intensity of food cravings and keep you fuller for longer.
Some brands even enrich their meal replacement shakes with ingredients that may have been shown to promote fat burning, such as green tea extract. But do they actually work? Indeed, there's growing evidence that meal replacement shakes can be great weight loss tools. According to a meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders (opens in new tab), overweight and obese adults on a low calorie diet may lose more weight if they use meal replacement shakes. Study subjects who did not use these products were reported to achieve less successful outcomes, at both the 3-month and 1-year evaluation time points.
Another study, which was published in the prestigious Appetite journal, investigated the effect of using meal replacements vs following a low-calorie diet on the incidence and intensity of food cravings. Based on the brain MRI food-cue reactivity and body composition measurements, meal replacements produced fewer cravings and promoted better weight loss outcomes than a regular diet.
When should you use a meal replacement shake?
The best meal replacement shakes can offer many benefits, but it’s worth remembering that using them may come with certain limitations and safety concerns.
Many people wonder whether it’s actually safe to ditch a regular diet and focus exclusively on meal replacement shakes instead. As enticing as it may sound, the answer is most likely ‘no’. Inevitably, all meal replacement shakes will lack or be short of certain nutrients or biologically active compounds.
“It is not recommended to live purely on meal replacement shakes as liquid diets can negatively affect our digestive systems and we miss out on some things like antioxidants and phytochemicals,” says Glover. That’s why most products will clearly state on the label that they’re not intended to entirely substitute a healthy diet, and instead, are designed to substitute one to two meals a day. The rest of the time, you should be eating solid meals, including a wide variety of food groups.
Some evidence also indicates that meal replacement shakes may not be suitable for older adults. According to a study published in the Hormone and Metabolic Research journal, liquid meal replacements may have a negative effect on appetite responses and insulin metabolism in the elderly. Similar findings were described in another study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to offer medical advice.