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Can Meal Replacements Save You From Bad Decision Making?

The Facts You Need to Read Before Starting a Meal Replacement Plan

By: , SparkPeople Health & Fitness Writer

In a 2007 study, Dr. Brian Wansink, professor and Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, discovered that making healthy food decisions isn't just a one-and-done deal. In fact, according to his report, the average person makes more than 200 food decisions every single day.

For anyone who has ever worked to stick to an eating plan, this should come as no surprise. You start the day strong, but with every twist and turn you're faced with a calorie-packed landscape. Grabbing a coffee at the gas station brings you face-to-face with the candy aisle; the vending machine calls your name at lunch; the doughnuts that appear every morning in the breakroom. Your brain quickly tires and your healthy eating plan goes south.

The daily decisions can derail even the most dedicated among us, which is why many people find turning themselves turning to meal replacements to combat the convenient and tempting foods all around. With the right understanding and some smart choices, meal replacements can be a smart option for people looking to gain more control of their food environment.

What Is a Meal Replacement?

A meal replacement is a portion-controlled, calorie-controlled food item that is used in place of a regular meal. Popular meal replacement choices include shakes, shelf-stable entrees, frozen meals, cereals and soups. Meal replacements offer a blend of protein, carbohydrates and fat, and are also fortified with vitamins and minerals. The nutritional make-up of meal replacements is similar to what would be found in a well-balanced meal. An important distinction to keep in mind is that while a meal replacement shake contains a blend of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals, protein shakes are composed of one main nutrient—protein. Thus, protein shakes should not be used as a substitute for an entire meal, but rather only by those who have an increased need for protein or are having difficulty meeting protein needs through food intake exclusively.

Current scientific research evidence indicates that meal replacements can be a beneficial tool for those looking to lose weight. Research has shown positive results in both medically managed programs that use only meal replacements and home weight-loss plans that use one or two meals replacements daily, along with other well-balanced nutritious meals and snacks. These eating plans result in weight loss by eliminating some of those hundreds of food decisions that need to be made each day, and because the meal replacements offer more structure, portion control and calorie control.

How to Choose a Meal Replacement

Planning and selection is important when using meal replacements. Use these guidelines:

  • Calories: 120 to 350. When selecting a meal replacement, look for one that contains the approximate calories that you have designated for that meal. If the meal replacement is low in calories, try doubling the portion of the meal replacement, adding fruits and vegetables to the shake or entrťe, or rounding out the meal by adding a serving of fruit or a side salad. Remember, fruits and veggies contain not only valuable nutrients, but also higher water content and extra fiber that can help you to stay more satisfied.

  • Protein: 12 to 20 grams. Be sure that the meal replacement contains about 12 to 20 grams of protein in a serving to ensure that you meet your protein needs for the day. Adequate protein intake helps to maintain muscle mass during weight loss and wards off hunger.

  • Sodium: 600 milligrams or fewer. Beware of high sodium meal replacements.

  • Vitamins and Minerals: 25 to 30 percent of daily intake.

How to Use Meal Replacements

By using the meal replacement selection criteria listed above, you can be assured that youíll be meeting your nutritional needs when you use one to two meal replacements daily along with well-planned traditional meals and snacks. If you find this plan to be a helpful weight-loss or weight-maintenance tool, it is possible to safely use a healthy eating plan with the aid of meal replacements daily for the rest of your life.

Programs and clinics that use only meal replacements do exist for individuals who have a greater amount of weight to lose, as well. The programs use medically formulated products that are specially designed to provide all the recommended nutrients with no additional outside snacks or meals.

As always, it is best to discuss the use of meal replacements with your primary care physician or registered dietitian before starting. When used correctly, meal replacements have been used safely with people who have Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and other medical conditions. For those needing a more restrictive diet due to conditions such as kidney disease, fatty liver disease, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis or and Crohnís disease, check first with your doctor.

There are many weight-loss tools that can be used to bring about a safe and effective weight loss. Meal replacements arenít the magic bullet in the battle of the bulge, but they can be a great tool to keep in your arsenal to help maintain control of your calorie intake.

HMR Weight Management is a meal replacement program thatís been offered in hospitals and medical centers for 34 years. Once available exclusively through these medical setting, HMRís meal replacements are also now available for home use. (For a limited time, get free shipping on your first order of an HMR food. Use code SPARKFREE at checkout.)


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*Average weight loss for the Healthy Solutions at Home plan with phone coaching is 23 lbs. at 12 weeks, 28 lbs. at 26 weeks.

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