Can someone explain to me what the heck a meal replacement is? Who came up with this nom de cuisine? There’s now an entire class of food items which, as far as I can tell, are simply food that you eat in place of other food. Isn’t that called a choice?
No, I get it, really. It’s a marketing technique for making you feel better about paying three times as much as it’s obviously worth for a canned shake or chewy bar, just because someone tossed a little protein powder and bran in it and told you that you could eat in in place of a presumably higher-calorie meal. I bet if I put a Snickers bar under a heat lamp and melted the chocolate on the top just a bit, I could sprinkle on some bran and have something much better tasting (I don’t really need the protein powder because, hey, it’s already got peanuts in it). I’d probably be happier skipping lunch in favor of something I truly enjoyed.
Chocolate-Covered Sawdust is Still Sawdust
Ever since the introduction of Metrecal in 1959, various companies have been offering pre-packaged solutions to your diet dilemma. They all try to convince you that their product will satisfy you enough to skip breakfast or lunch, and those pounds will just magically fall off as you substitute a 200-or-less calorie bar or shake for a 600 calorie meal. Nice theory. Sadly, reality follows a different script.
In the first place, there’s a volume problem here. If you have been accustomed to having two eggs, toast, and hash browns every morning and a burger, fries, and a shake at lunch, you have trained your stomach to expect a pretty large volume of food. I don’t care what super-secret patented blend of protein and fiber is on offer from your magic bar; it’s going into your stomach, and your stomach is going to say, “Where’s the REST OF IT?” Oh, of course, the directions on the label say “Be sure to drink a full glass of water with this product.” Yeah, that’s going to make all the difference. How about starting out with one egg and no hash browns, and skip the fries at lunch. You might be able to do that.
Secondly, everybody’s metabolism sings its own tune. Eating protein for me is like holding a match to the newspaper of my hunger. In less than two hours, I am going to be ravenous and looking for anything to shove in my mouth. On the other hand, if I have a cookie, or for that matter, nothing, I’ll probably work through lunchtime without even knowing it, feeling not the slightest pang. Experiment for yourself. Next week, try having your coffee or tea in the morning and on Monday, have nothing else. On Tuesday, have an egg; Wednesday, a high-protein cereal, Thursday, whole grain cereal or toast, and on Friday, some really sugary cereal or donut. See when you feel hungry, and what your energy level is like. You’ll probably find that one or two of the choices make your body a lot happier than the others, but nobody can tell you which ones are going to work for you.
Take Time Instead of Calories
Finally, mealtime, especially lunchtime, is more than just calorie intake. If you work in an office and can’t see out a window, lunch may be your only chance to see the sun. You can get away from intercoms and ringing phones. You can window shop, read a book for fun, or talk to people about something other than work. If you approach your lunch as a little vacation and soul-recharge time, you may find you don’t even care if you eat. Want to feel even more virtuous? Take a power walk, or hit the gym– how’s that for a meal replacement?
As I mentioned in If It’s Not Delicious, a fully-grown adult has very modest protein needs, and excess protein will make you fat just like any other nutrient. If you aren’t truly hungry, there’s no reason to ingest a bar or shake because a clock says it’s a time when a lot of people are eating. If you just want a snack, a candy bar is no worse for a healthy person than a protein bar, and fresh fruit is better than either of them. And which would you rather have? And a container of yogurt, even the yummy faux-dessert yogurts out there, is at least a real food, and not some scary franken-shake that probably contains ingredients you can neither identify nor pronounce. Forget the meal replacements and go back to having snacks like you did as a kid. You’ll take in fewer calories in the long run.
I have enough elderly relatives to know that supplement products like Ensure do a great service. If you’re losing weight and becoming vitamin deficient because your appetite isn’t what it used to be, you’re probably not taking in enough calories at the meals you are eating, so replacing a meal is the worst possible idea. But drinking or eating a supplement in addition to those meals is an efficient way to increase your calorie total. So if your goal is to gain weight, a supplement might be a good idea. But if you’re trying to lose weight, stick to real food with ingredients you can see, understand and control. And eat, whether meal or snack, when you’re hungry, not when it’s time. Maybe what you really need to replace is your schedule.