In just a few years, meal substitutes have made a big impact on the slimming market. What are they? Who are they for? How do you use them? Do they work? Here's everything you need to know.
What are meal substitutes?
Meal substitutes come in drinks, powders you dilute, biscuits, bars and soups. They're neither nutrients or medication; they're diet products with special formulae.
Meal substitutes are used to replace one or more meals a day and aid weight loss. They're low in calories (they contain 200-400 kcal), contain lots of protein for muscle mass, sufficient complex carbs to give you long-lasting energy, a little fat for essential fatty acids, and fibre to fill you up. To avoid deficiencies that are common with many diets, meal substitutes provide at least 30% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals.
Meal substitutes are there to help people who want to lose weight keep to a balanced low-calorie diet by providing the essential nutrients the body needs. They can also be used as and when you feel like it to make up for a blip in healthy eating.
Even when you're looking to lose weight, you shouldn't replace a meal with a diet substitute more than once or twice a day, and you should make sure your other meals are balanced and healthy. Have them with a drink to hydrate your system, along with some dairy produce and veg so that you have a bit more 'on your plate' and stay full for longer.
- You can lose a lot of weight with them almost immediately, so they're good for kick-starting diets. Fast weight loss is also fab for motivation.
- You can resort to them occasionally to make up for blips or have them as a quick fix rather than miss a meal.
- Depending on the brand, meal substitutes can be cheaper than takeaways, snack food, eating out and even eating in.
- They're quick and easy.
- They can lead to diet frustration. Aside from the texture and taste, which aren't always great, you don't feel like you've eaten and enjoyed a proper meal. This can depress you and make you want to snack.
- They don't fill you up for long. Powder mixes, drinks, soups and purées don't satisfy you, because you don't need to chew them to get them down and they take up little space in your stomach.
- Dieting with substitutes can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Some meal substitutes are high in nutrients, but others have very little nutritional value. If you're only using them in the short term, you don't need to worry about vitamin deficiencies; however, if you're using them for a sustained period of time, you may need supplements.
- They don't promote healthy eating habits. Substitutes don't teach you to lose weight (or maintain your weight) through the usual means, ie by eating 'real' food, and they won't help you eat a balanced, healthy diet.
- They make you yo-yo. If, when you stop using them, you don't change your diet, the pounds will automatically creep back on again - especially after a period of diet frustration.
Substitutes can aid weight loss. They can help you lose weight rapidly without depriving your body of the nutrients it needs, and can be a useful tool for anyone watching their figure.
Meal substitutes should be used as part of a strict low-calorie diet and are not recommended for people who suffer from low energy or who struggle for motivation. They soon get boring and repetitive, so if you're not serious about losing weight or you're prone to snacking, they're not for you.
You can buy meal substitutes from pharmacies, supermarkets, health and specialist shops. Always read the (obligatory) list of ingredients, and the labels and instructions for use.
Ideally, meal substitutes should be high in protein (15-20g per meal), contain enough low-GI carbs to keep you going (20-30g per meal), and very ittle fat (around 6g per meal), plus lots of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
A meal substitute diet should not be undertaken for more than three weeks without medical guidance.