Meal replacement shakes are not a new idea, but they've picked up steam over the last several years, both as a weight-loss option and as a food alternative for busy tech entrepreneurs. Whether you're looking into the classic range of SlimFast products or the latest range of Soylent, Huel, or the like, you're going to have some questions.
One of the most common questions we've seen asked is simple: when is the best time to drink or eat a meal replacement shake?
A Simple Answer
The simplest possible answer to the simplest version of this question is this.
Q: When should you eat a meal replacement shake?
A: Whenever you would be eating a meal!
Meal replacement shakes can be made as breakfast replacements, as mid-day lunch energy boosts, or as a full-nutrient dinner option when you just don't have the time to cook, don't want to eat out, or just don't care all that much about food.
There's just one problem with this answer: it's not really an answer, now is it?
When you're asking when you should eat a meal replacement shake, you're not asking if there's some Gremlins-like rule about eating one after midnight. What you're really asking is something like "Which meal is best to replace with a shake?"
The truth is, there's a lot of variances depending on the kind of shake you're eating, your goals with your shakes, and how your body reacts to those shakes.
Types of Meal Replacement Shakes
First up, let's look at the different kinds of meal replacement shakes you might find or make.
There's the classic SlimFast. These shakes are marketed as a way to lose weight, by providing your body with the nutrients it needs and enough fiber to be satiated, without all of the excess sugar and calories that lead to weight gain. By cutting calories in this manner, you're able to maintain a caloric deficit and lose weight.
SlimFast is a flexible option; you can use it to replace any meal you like throughout the day. Using it to replace breakfast can help you stay fuller for longer, minimizing your temptation to snack throughout the day and further cutting calories. Using it in place of dinner helps you cut down on the overall calories you eat since most people place dinner as the largest meal of their day. It's up to you.
SlimFast is not meant to replace all of your meals, however. You are well-advised to eat at least one regular meal or several healthy snacks throughout the day. In particular, while SlimFast has a lot of protein and fiber, it is not nutritionally complete; you will need additional supplements or meals of your own to give your body everything it needs, particularly fats.
The modern alternative is something like Soylent or Huel. These are nutritionally complete meal shakes, containing all of the macronutrients and micronutrients you need to keep your body running throughout the day. They are primarily marketed as a way to eat your meals fast while working, so you don't have to take time out of your busy day to prepare or order food and can keep an overall healthy nutritional profile rather than surviving off of greasy pizza and fast food loaded with sodium.
These shakes are also flexible in that you can use them to replace any meal you like, and it all depends on your schedule and habits. Some people simply don't enjoy eating food and will be perfectly happy replacing all of their meals with a meal replacement like Soylent. Some people are busy enough they don't want to interrupt their day to take a lunch break, or they want to go from waking up to working faster than breakfast allows, so they replace individual meals as per their desires.
Soylent and the other nutritionally complete meal replacements are designed so that you can replace all of your meals with them if you wish, though it may or may not go so well. There are plenty of people out there who replace one or two meals a day with a replacement shake, but few who replace all three.
In fact, there's some controversy as to whether or not it's safe to replace all of your meals with a meal replacement shake like Huel. It's a one-size-fits-all powder formula, and while that might sound good at first glance, never forget that the human body is fantastically complex. Men and women need different arrays of nutrients, for example, and it's entirely possible to have too much of an essential mineral and end up with toxicity.
We don't recommend replacing every meal with a meal replacement shake; but we do recommend replacing a meal with one, to see how you like it. You might not. You might love it.
The third kind of meal replacement shake is the kind you make yourself. By calculating your own macro- and micro-nutrient needs, you can determine what ingredients (usually fruits and vegetables), along with protein powder, can be mixed up into a shake to give you what your body needs.
The benefit of this kind of shake is control and flexibility. Every shake is unique and includes exactly what you want it to include. On the other hand, you have to monitor your diet, including trace minerals and vitamins, and balance it out to avoid giving yourself a deficiency.
These kinds of shakes are good to replace a breakfast or a lunch, but dinners are usually much more complex and robust, and cannot be easily condensed into a shake.
Other than the type of shake, you need to determine your goals with a meal replacement shake. In general, there are two main goals:
- Losing weight by replacing meals with healthier alternatives.
- Saving time by replacing cooking with faster alternatives.
These can often go hand in hand, as well. Cooking a healthy meal, shopping for healthy ingredients, paying attention to your diet; these are all a significant time investment, so even if you're simply trying to eat healthier, a meal replacement can save you time, and if you're trying to save time, a meal replacement can be a health boost as well. If you're looking for a great mix of both weight loss and time-saving, be sure to check out our Slim Shakes and their various flavors!
If your goal is to lose weight, we have a few tips.
First, figure out when you're getting most of your extraneous nutrients. You should know how many calories you need in a given day in order to survive, based on your activity level and current weight. This is called your maintenance level, and you can use a calculator like this one to figure it out.
From there, spend a few weeks monitoring what you eat and when. Are you eating huge meals? Are you snacking a lot? Identify when you're eating your calories.
Then, determine when a meal replacement shake can be most effective. Typically, it will be one of three scenarios:
- A meal replacement shake at breakfast will help keep you full for longer than a typical breakfast will, discouraging snacking between breakfast and lunch.
- A meal replacement shake at lunch will help keep you full for longer than a typical quick lunch or snack will, discouraging snacking between lunch and dinner.
- For people who eat micro-meals four or more times per day rather than a centralized breakfast/lunch/dinner arrangement, replacing 2-3 of those meals with a larger meal replacement shake (or one shake divided into two portions) can prove beneficial.
Customizing this to your needs is a huge part of successfully losing weight with a meal replacement shake. The one thing we can say is that it's rarely a good idea to replace dinner, for several reasons. First, dinner is where you're more likely to get more exotic nutrients and variety in your food, which can help keep you interested in your diet plan and keep you on track. Second, dinner is often family time, and a bonding experience between couples and parents/children, which you don't want to taint by sitting off to the side drinking a shake instead of eating food with the rest of them.
If your goal is to save time, on the other hand, choosing when to drink your meal replacement shake is pretty simple: drink it when you think you don't have time to eat food normally. In this case, we typically recommend eating a normal breakfast, a shake for lunch, and a normal dinner. The same reasons not to skip dinner apply, though of course if you're an entrepreneur without a family, it might not be as big of an impact.
Above all else, you have to monitor your body and your health as you replace meals with meal replacement shakes.
If your goal is weight loss, you want to actually see weight loss. We've seen a lot of people start to use shakes for weight loss, only to find that they don't actually lose weight when they're consuming their shakes. When you look deeper, you then realize you've ramped up snacking or made other meals larger to compensate, and that defeats the purpose.
There are other reasons why you might not be losing weight when using meal replacement shakes. We covered the topic in much greater detail in our article on the subject, so we recommend you check that out if that's your issue.
Another issue you might encounter is a dietary imbalance. Nutritionally-complete shakes like Huel can be fine to consume long-term, but other shakes might leave you lacking certain vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients. There's a risk, however, that your body might not like a primarily-liquid diet. Some people put less water into their powder to make a thicker shake, and others might mix in a binding agent and turn it into bars, but it's still the same basic powder at the core.
The trouble is, your body likes to have things to do. Your teeth might have issues if you're not chewing, your stomach might have issues if you're drinking only liquids, and your intestines can experience problems while they adapt to liquid foods.
We discuss some of these issues in another post about how long you can take meal replacement shakes if you care to read it.
Overall, though, you simply need to listen to the feedback your body is giving you. Are you fatigued? Do you lack energy? Are you craving something, like salt or fat? Your body can send you signals for what it needs, it can just be tricky to interpret those signals.
Another Simple Answer
At the end of the day, another simple answer rears its head: you need to do what is best for you. If that means taking a meal replacement shake in the morning in place of an otherwise unhealthy McGriddle or whatever else you'd be buying on the way to work, then do it. If it means replacing an unhealthy lunch with cafeteria food or take-out, then go for it. If it means replacing some or all of your dinner in place of that day-old Chinese food, then so be it.
There's no wrong answer here. You can take meal replacement shakes any time you want. Just be aware of the side effects. You'll probably have to pee, you might accelerate your digestion of previous meals, and you might end up with cravings at an inopportune time depending on the timing. It all depends on your own timing, your own situation, and your own preferences.
In fact, given how personalized this issue is, we'd love to hear from you. What do you have to say? What are your experiences? Let us know:
- What kind of meal replacement shakes you've tried or are currently using.
- Which meal or meals you're replacing with shakes each day.
- How often you're replacing meals (once a day every day? Twice a day every other day? Whenever the mood strikes?)
- What your goal is with using these shakes, like time savings or weight loss.
- How you're proceeding towards your goals.
Feel free to leave us a comment and tell your story, not just because we asked, but because you can help others along the way.