Choose Meal Replacements Wisely

(March,2011)Perhaps you've noticed a section of your supermarket devoted to meal-replacement products such as drinks, powders, shakes, and energy bars. These products appeal to people for a variety of reasons. Some shoppers use these products because they're trying to shed a few pounds. Others don't always have time to eat traditional meals. Athletic individuals may rely on meal replacements when they need a source of fast, convenient fuel to keep them going on a run, bike ride, or hike. Others use these products to replenish their energy stores after a vigorous workout when a full, cooked meal doesn't appeal. They also make a great precompetition option, when athletes may be too anxious to eat normally. While meal-replacement products can be nutritious and convenient, it's important that they play a complementary role to a healthy diet, one based primarily on whole, fresh foods that provide plenty of fiber. It makes sense to limit these products to once a day. For Athletes If your activity level is such that you need more nutrients and calories than three meals a day can provide, meal-replacement bars and shakes can help supply the nutrients depleted during exercise. The extra protein available in some of these products may also be useful in building muscle mass and increasing the efficiency of your metabolism. Nutrient-dense, high-protein drinks that are low in sugar, fats, and carbohydrates can be a convenient way to supplement the diet of bodybuilders who don't have time to prepare a well-balanced meal every three or four hours, a shake can be interspersed between home-cooked fare. There's a difference between energy bars and meal-replacement bars. Energy bars are intended to provide quick, post-workout fuel. They tend to contain more carbs and fewer calories than their meal-replacement counterparts. Meal-replacement bars typically deliver more protein, as well as some fiber, fat, and carbs, along with vitamins and minerals. The protein-to-carb ratio in meal-replacement bars helps the body recover more quickly after a workout. It's important for people with diabetes to be wary of bars and beverages with high sugar content. These food items may cause prolonged, elevated blood glucose. Look for products specifically intended for people with diabetes. These often incorporate fiber and protein to prevent blood sugar from rising too rapidly after consumption. Be sure to check your blood glucose one to two hours after eating meal-replacement items to see if you are within your normal range. Discuss and review your eating plan with a medical professional. Love Those Labels When trying to choose among the many available meal-replacement products, an analysis of food labels will help you avoid glorified candy bars or sugar-based drinks. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind. First, beware of bars loaded with sugars and carbohydrates. Bars with a lot of fruit or fruit filling may be tasty, but they will be higher in sugar. A sensible calorie range to look for is from 200 to 400 per serving. This is a modest amount of calories as far as meals go, so if you're not using the product to lose weight, you might want to supplement with another item such as vegetable or fruit juice or a serving of fresh or dried fruit. Look for bars that provide, per serving, fewer than 5 grams of fat, 3 to 5 grams of fiber, and 10 to 15 grams of protein. Those that are fortified with a third of daily required vitamins and minerals may also appeal. For Dieters Some scientific research shows that using meal-replacement products helps people lose weight and, perhaps most importantly, keep it off. A key reason is that these products provide calorie and portion control while offering good nutrition. A study conducted by the Center for Human Nutrition in Baltimore, Maryland, found that portion-controlled meal replacements may help obese patients with Type 2 diabetes stick with a weight-control program. Researchers discovered that a diet using meal replacements yielded significantly greater initial weight loss and less regain after one year than a standard, self-selected, food-based diet. Another study showed that dieters who used meal-replacement drinks and bars to replace one or two meals or snacks per day were able to maintain their weight loss over a decade, while those who didn't gained 26 pounds in the same period. In another study, researchers at the University of Kentucky followed a group of extremely obese men and women who were able to lose and then maintain weight loss through a program that included meal replacements. It should be noted, however, that the program also included regular exercise, low-fat intake, high consumption of fruits and vegetables, and ongoing coaching. While there is no substitute for real, nutritious food, preferably enjoyed when sitting down, using healthy meal replacements in a pinch or in the pursuit of certain fitness goals can make sense in this busy world.