That Sugar Movement


Meal replacements – are they here to help?

160414_TSF_FbPost9You look at the calendar – oh dear. The school reunion/wedding/Bali getaway is ALMOST HERE! We need to blast some fat, pronto.

For many, shedding the kilos by cutting the kilojoules is an obvious place to start.

But being so busy, we have little time to really calculate how many kj is going in – and that is where meal replacements step in. Effective weight loss tools you can just grab and go!

Meal replacements can come in the form of shakes, soups and bars, and generally are designed to be nutritionally complete – replacing all meals; or only partially complete, replacing one or two meals in a day.

However, are these as effective as they seem, and are the companies behind the weight loss products really out to help us?

In-house funding

There are studies and reviews that make claim for the success of meal replacements.3;4;7 Brilliant! It is easy to understand why meal replacements can be recommended for those wanting to lose weight fast.

But many studies supporting this notion are funded by the meal replacement industry.7

For example, a trial within the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) study reported that significant weight loss was achieved with an intensive lifestyle intervention, comprising:

  1. Exercise
  2. Professional guidance and support, and
  3. Dietary adjustments, including reduced energy intake and meal replacements (all provided on the house by Slim-Fast, Optifast, Glucerna and HMR.).8

For those who did not want to use meal replacements, they were given meal plans instead.

And they all lost weight.

The study authors concluded that it is hard to differentiate if any one of these factors, or all three combined, provided the greatest impact on weight loss. But they note the efficacy of meal replacements by referencing a similar set of studies that keep rearing their pretty heads around meal replacements and weight loss – those funded by meal replacement companies such as SlimFast/Slim-Fast (previously owned by Unilever) and Campbells Foodservice Co..5;7;9

And there is no doubt big companies are cashing in on our concern over expanding waistlines.

The nuts and bolts

Physiologically, you can see why a low calorie meal replacement may assist in the weight loss:

  1. Digestive system gets a rest. By eating less, less energy is used for digestion, offering instead more energy to get through a day and theoretically less desire for stimulants such as sugar.
  2. Overall less kilojoules are consumed.
  3. High protein content may leave you feeling full (irrespective of whether the shake is served with milk for not).
  4. You really enjoy your food when you get to eat it! Perhaps, you’re more likely to savour the experience, something most of us forget to do when inhaling massive meals in front of the computer or TV, terrified they are going to escape us!

So, meal replacements may work, at least in the short term. But how will we respond long term to artificial ingredients, sugar content, trans-fats, repetitive flavours, lack of meal time enjoyment, and changing the behaviour around food that may have contributed to weight gain in the first place?

Behaviour shifts

A major concern with using meal replacements is the lack of education on how to shift behaviour around food choice and preparation, and our attachment to food.

It seems portion control may be a powerful behavioral tool to encourage weight loss, accompanied with education on conscious eating and quality.3;6

However, weight loss using meal replacements beyond one year is harder to maintain, as the underlying habits around eating and taste remain. And many meal replacements do not attempt to alter our desire for the sweet stuff.

Shakes, bars, snacks and sometimes soups in the meal replacement world can be laden with sugar (link to Shake it Off article). Understandably. Proprietors want to make a tasty product, and we are a population accustomed to experiencing sweet, syrupy delight. And when you believe you may be ‘depriving’ yourself by consuming less food overall, a ‘treat’ is well earned – so knocking back a sugar laden shake, for example, can feel good.

Studies in post-prandial impact on blood glucose levels following shakes have been undertaken in those with Type 2 diabetes. You guessed it – yes there is impact, so ensure your insulin dose is appropriately adjusted.3

Hang on, what!? How about a diet strategy that attempts to reduce the need for insulin? Excepting for those not 100% dependent, of course.

In light of the impact of high sugar meal replacement’s, diabetic specific formulas have been introduced to the market as well, and have less impact on blood glucose. But the sweetness provided comes from highly processed sweetener alternatives.

Either way, overconsumption or sugar or artificial ingredients, as we know, do not do us any favours long term.

A meal replacement replacement meal

Our concern with commonly found meal replacements are:

  • They can be purchased without dietary guidance as to how to ensure a diet is still nourishing and healthful;
  • They are often crammed with sugar and are highly processed;
  • They do not encourage change to eating habits.

So how about replacing that meal replacement with whole, delicious, nutrient dense foods? It has been shown that increased intake of a variety of low glycaemic, high fibre fruits and non-starchy vegetables encourages weight loss and maintenance, when replacing energy dense, processed, nutrient poor foods. 1;2

Beyond that, it is suggested that eating more plant-based foods will have not only significant environmental benefits, but possibly huge health benefits for all longer term.10 And these studies are not funded by any mega pro-vegetable corporation.

We receive endless feedback and stories from people, saying that when limiting or removing processed, refined foods (especially sugar and foods with hidden sugar) and replacing with whole vegetables and fruit, they can eat the same amount, if not more, and still lose weight.

So, what do we think here at That Sugar? Whilst overweight and obesity are complex, when it comes to what you put in your mouth, just eat real food. It it nutritionally complex, aching to nourish you, and you should rapidly reap the benefits.



  1. Aljadani, HM, Patterson, A, Sibbritt, D, Hutchesson, MJ, Jensen, ME, & Collins, CE 2013, ‘Diet quality, measured by fruit and vegetable intake, predicts weight change in young women’, Journal Of Obesity, vol. 2013, p. 525161
  2. Bertoia, ML, Mukamal, KJ, Cahill, LE, Hou, T, Ludwig, DS, Mozaffarian, D, Willett, WC, Hu, FB, & Rimm, EB 2015, ‘Changes in Intake of Fruits and Vegetables and Weight Change in United States Men and Women Followed for Up to 24 Years: Analysis from Three Prospective Cohort Studies’, Plos Medicine, vol. 12, no. 9, p. e1001878
  3. Craig, J 2013, ‘Meal replacement shakes and nutrition bars: do they help individuals with diabetes lose weight?’, Diabetes Spectrum, no. 3, p. 179
  4. Davis, LM, Coleman, C, Kiel, J, Rampolla, J, Hutchisen, T, Ford, L, Andersen, WS, & Hanlon-Mitola, A 2010, ‘Efficacy of a meal replacement diet plan compared to a food-based diet plan after a period of weight loss and weight maintenance: a randomized controlled trial’, Nutrition Journal, vol. 9, p. 11.
  5. Ditschuneit, HH, Flechtner-Mors, M, Johnson, TD, & Adler, G 1999, ‘Metabolic and weight-loss effects of a long-term dietary intervention in obese patients’, The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 69, no. 2, pp. 198-204
  6. Dobbs, R Sawers, C Thompson, F Manika, J Woetz, J Child, P McKenna, S & Spathorou 2014, ‘Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis’, McKinsey Global Institute.
  7. Heymsfield, SB, van Mierlo, CJ, van der Knaap, HM, Heo, M, & Frier, HI 2003, ‘Weight management using a meal replacement strategy: meta and pooling analysis from six studies’, International Journal Of Obesity And Related Metabolic Disorders: Journal Of The International Association For The Study Of Obesity, vol. 27, no. 5, pp. 537-549.
  8. Look AHEAD Research Group 2014, ‘Eight-year weight losses with an intensive lifestyle intervention: the look AHEAD study’, Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 5-13.
  9. Metz, JA, Kris-Etherton, PM, Morris, CD, Mustad, VA, Stern, JS, Oparil, S, Chait, A, Haynes, RB, Resnick, LM, Clark, S, Hatton, DC, McMahon, M, Holcomb, S, Snyder, GW, Pi-Sunyer, FX, & McCarron, DA 1997, ‘Dietary compliance and cardiovascular risk reduction with a prepared meal plan compared with a self-selected diet’, The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 66, no. 2, pp. 373-385
  10. Springmann, M, Godfray, HJ, Rayner, M, & Scarborough, P 2016, ‘Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change’, Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America.
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