The sheer number of supplements available on the shelves of your specialist retailer or pharmacy can certainly be bewildering, not to mention the breadth of offerings within each category.
The protein supplement category, of which meal replacement shakes form part, is certainly no exception. In terms of choosing the best option for your goals, it is first necessary to determine what you wish to achieve from the shake. As the name implies, a supplement is something that is used ‘in addition to’ your normal diet.
Packing in more protein
In the case of a whey protein product, for instance, you would use it to boost your daily protein intake, in addition to your normal whole food eating plan of 3-6 meals a day. Most gym-goers will use this supplement directly after training as a source of highly bioavailable protein to kick-start the muscle repair process after a hard session in the gym. A whole-food meal would soon follow, though.
In the case of a meal replacement shake, these products have been formulated to replace a meal, usually as part of a commercially available diet plan or transformation programme, or as a convenient and often healthier alternative to a take-away meal or snack from a convenience store or vending machine. They’re generally used by those looking to lose weight or reduce body fat, as they’re convenient and therefore helpful when trying to ‘clean up’ a diet and establish healthier eating habits.
Pick your purpose
Based on their specific purposes, the composition and formulations of the two different products can vary quite substantially. The main constituent of protein powders, for instance, is generally whey, a natural, high-quality protein derived from milk, and a flavouring system. The calorie content would therefore generally be low, as would its fat and carb content (watch out for the sugar content by reading labels!), but with a high protein content.
Meal replacements, on the other hand, will generally contain more calories – equivalent to what you’d normally get from a healthful, balanced meal – with a slightly lower protein content (commonly from whey, but blends are also often used as they digest more slowly), and added carbs and/or fats. Some products may also be fortified with essential nutrients, such as minerals and vitamins, and antioxidants. Accordingly, adding a meal replacement shake to your current diet could throw off your macronutrient ratios and increase your total daily calorie intake.
A whey protein powder could have a similar effect if not considered in your calculations, but the effect wouldn’t be as great. You can, of course, incorporate both, using a low-carbohydrate meal replacement powder to replace one or two daily meals on certain days, especially when life gets too hectic to prepare healthful meals beforehand, or while you’re on the go, with a whey protein shake for use after training. It is, however, best not to become reliant on meal replacements. Your aim should always be to revert to a predominantly whole food diet once you reach your goal or come to the end of any commercially available transformation programme you may be following. There will always be a need for a quality whey product as part of your active lifestyle, though.
This article was adapted from a Fitness magazine feature written by Pedro van Gaalen, Managing Editor for Fitness magazine.
Author: Logan Leigh Rix
Logan blends her passion and profession by working as a digital and social media marketer and content creator in the fitness, health and wellness industry. She’s also a personal trainer, former Face of Fitness finalist and Fitness Magazine featured athlete.