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Can Diet Shakes and Meal Replacements Really Help You Lose Weight?

Nutritionists call diet shakes “meal replacements” because one shake is supposed to be the equivalent of one meal. Meal replacements also come in the form of nutritional bars and pre-packaged entrees. But do they really help you lose weight?

Steven Heymsfield, MD, of Columbia University, conducted a study which seems to prove that they do. Heymsfield and his colleagues looked at the findings of six studies of different types of meal replacements. They discovered that overall weight loss for the 249 individuals on meal replacement diets was greater than the weight loss experienced by the 238 individuals who followed low-calorie diets.

A study of United States Army volunteers showed that soldiers following a meal replacement program experienced greater weight loss over a six month period when the use of the meal replacements was combined with education-based weight management. Only 59% of the volunteers in the study, however, continued with the diet for the entire period.

Another study of 90 obese men and women also found that meal replacements resulted in more weight loss than those on a food-based diet. The participants were randomized to either a meal replacement program consisting of 3-5 meal replacements plus one meal daily or to a 1,000 kcal/daily food diet. After 16 weeks, the study showed that the group of individuals on meal replacements experienced a much greater rate of weight loss (93%) than those who were on the food-based diet (55%). Again, many people participating in the study dropped the diet. Only the people who continued were counted.

Losing Weight

Weight loss seems as if it should be very easy. In order to lose a pound a week, simply eat 500 fewer calories every day. But in the real world, busy schedules and a wide array of food choices makes losing weight very hard.

Meal replacements work on the premise that many of us don’t know how many calories we actually consume in a day. While packaged foods usually list calorie content, most of our meals do not. In many cases, we can eat a 700-800 calorie meal without realizing it. If we eat three 750-calorie meals in a day, we’ve consumed 2,250 calories.

An average woman only needs 1,800-2,200 calories per day, and an average man only needs about 2,000-2,500 calories per day. Add in snacks, sweets, alcohol, and soda, and most of us consume many more calories than we actually need.

If you replace one or two meals per day with something with a known amount of calories, you will likely reduce the number of calories you consume. Instead of eating a 750-calorie meal, you’ll drink a 250-calorie shake – reducing your calorie intake by 500. Do that every day for a week, and you should be able to lose one pound.

David Allison, PhD, obesity researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has studied meal replacements as a means of losing weight.

“I think they are a reasonable approach and can play a valuable role in weight loss,” he said.

Allison evaluated 100 people who were randomly chosen to use either a soy-based meal replacement or a low-calorie diet for three months. He learned that those who were on meal replacements lost more weight and lost more inches around their waists than those who were following a low-calorie diet.

Another study, conducted by Dana Rothacker, PhD, assessed the long-term effectiveness of diet shakes on women who used them for one year. After three months, women who drank diet shakes had lost about the same amount of weight as women who followed low-calorie diets. But after a year, the women on the meal replacement plans were more likely to maintain their weight loss, while those who were on the low-calorie diets had regained much of their weight.

No Magic Bullet

Meal replacements aren’t magic. People who stop using meal replacements regain their weight when they return to a higher-calorie diet. And some critics say meal replacements don’t teach people how to make healthy food choices.

“People [on meal replacements] haven’t learned how to deal with real food,” Allison said. When they stop using the meal replacements, they often return to an unhealthy diet. In order to maintain a normal weight, one must either learn lifelong healthy eating habits or stay on the meal replacement plan indefinitely – and not many people want to do that.

Buyer Beware

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate meal replacements since they are only dietary supplements, so advertisements for them may make claims which aren’t supported by scientific research. There are also no standards for the ingredients of meal replacements. While some diet shakes may be nutritionally sound and even include vitamins and minerals, others may contain very few healthy nutrients and are no more healthy than replacing your meal with a can of soda.

Allison recommends that anyone considering using meal replacements get nutritional advice from a health care provider.

Reliance on a manufactured product may deprive you of the variety that is normal in day-to-day meal planning. Meal replacement products could also provide you with a high intake of foods that you might otherwise rarely eat. For example, scientists are still studying whether heavy consumption of soy may influence the development of some cancers, so you may want to beware of soy-based meal replacements.

Diet shakes or meal replacements will help jumpstart weight loss in many people. Reaching a short-term weight-loss goal can be very satisfying and can provide the encouragement necessary to make permanent changes in the way you eat. Meal replacements can promote weight loss especially if they are used along with the goal of learning lifelong healthy eating choices.

If your goal is long-term weight loss, then you need to find a diet that will help you simply eat less food to shed pounds and then easily maintain your new body weight. Usually, this is a diet plan that allows you to eat your favorite meals and naturally fit to your lifestyle.


American Dietetic Association

National Institutes of Health

Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition

Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology

More Sleep = More Weight Loss

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep.

I’m sure by now you’ve had someone tell you that not getting enough sleep could be slowing down your weight loss efforts.

I’ve heard this a couple times myself, in the news, on the radio, and most recently, while eaves dropping on a conversation while sitting on a patio at Starbucks (I know its rude, but I can’t help it. The minute someone starts talking about nutrition or weight loss, my ears go into super human radar mode…)

The idea that sleep can affect fat loss sounds pretty far fetched, but there is research to support this theory.
A 2005 survey by the National Sleep Foundation reports that, on average, Americans sleep 6.9 hours per night. This data is almost a decade old, so I’m willing to bet this number is even lower for many of us. Possibly approaching the 5 or 6-hour per night mark.

This is a far cry from the 8-10 hours that is typically recommended.

Of course, with this little tidbit of information researchers have gone into overdrive examining intricate relationships between sleep and hormones like Leptin and Grehlin, hoping to find some complicated metabolic process to explain the connection between sleep and weight.

While I am sure they will find a link, I have a much simpler explanation.

While we are awake we spend almost every hour in the fed state. Most of us are constantly eating little meals from the minute we wake up until we finally go to sleep. Because of this, the simple math suggests that the longer we are awake, the more time we spend eating.

Staying up a little later means eating your last meal a little later, and getting up a little earlier means eating breakfast just a little bit earlier.

If you are having a snack and then going to bed at midnight, only to get up at 5:30 to grab a bite before starting to get ready for work, you may be spending a full 22 hours in the fed state and only 2 hours in the fasted state, depending on the size of your last meal.

Sleep experts recommend the following: Go to bed when you are tired, and allow your body to wake you in the morning (no alarm clock allowed).

Now, I’m not going to suggest this approach for two reasons. Firstly, it would make me a giant hypocrite (I’m writing you this email at 11:30 at night) and secondly, I’m pretty sure that following these recommendations would get some people fired from their job pretty quickly.

So here’s my take:

It is a common nutrition ritual to avoid eating after a certain time at night. Many people don’t eat after 7 or 8 pm at night as a way to cut back on their calorie intake. Whenever I find myself in the kitchen late at night (anytime later than 10 pm), I don’t ask myself ‘should I be eating?’ I ask myself ‘Should I be awake?’.

In other words, more often than not, ‘going to bed’ is the best cure for late night snacking .

You can also add the ritual of not eating BEFORE a certain time in the morning.

So instead of eating as soon as you wake up, why not push it back, even just a little. Start your day with a big glass of water, and take some time to figure out IF you are hungry, and what you are hungry for.

Combine the practice of not eating after a certain hour at night, with not eating before a certain hour in the morning and you can slowly start restoring your body’s balance between periods of being fed and being fasted.

In my opinion this one little ritual may help prevent the weight gain that is associated with lack of sleep.

What to do if you’re not losing weight

I am a firm believer in the role of food in weight loss.

Eat More food then you need = weight gain, Eat less = weight loss.

However, I’m also not blind. I know that different people see different rates of weight loss.

I know that in a research study when a group of people lose 10, plus or minus 3 pounds it means that not everyone lost 10 pounds, some lost more, some lost less.

I am completely aware of the variability of weight loss.

So what do you do if you’re not losing weight as fast as you think you should be?

First, check your diet – often times it’s the little things that have snuck into our routine… unnoticed little extras, miscalculations, and routine lapses in judgement. Or, hunger based rationalizations like:

“Well that was a really tough workout, perhaps I DO need this post-workout snickers bar to replenish my energy levels” – I do this one often 😉

So check to make sure a ‘slow creep back to average’ hasn’t happened with your diet.

Second, check your workouts. Make sure the effort is still there. If you’ve lost interest or motivation then switch it up and try something new. While I do not think your workouts DRIVE your weight loss, they do contribute. Keep the effort and motivation high.

Third – check your sleep. It’s important. Get sleep, do you best to keep it from being broken or restless.  Treat sleep like an important part of your life, not just the period of time where you ‘crashed’. Embrace a night time routine, respect your sleep time.

Lastly check your gut. After I completed my research for a book I was helping to write about gut bacteria (Flat Belly Forever) I began adding Kefir into my daily routine. I believe it has helped. Your gut bacteria play an important role in your ability to lose wight. Again, not a DRIVING force but it does contribute, to some people this can make a BIG difference.

If you’re not losing the way you think you should, consider adding more fermented foods into your diet (you can learn some more tricks here –> Flat Belly Forever).

Four little steps to getting your weight loss back to where you think it should be.

How to make bodyweight exercises work

I just made the decision to install some Stahl bars in my home gym.

They’re hard to describe (googling them is best) but if I had to describe them, I’d say they look like a giant floor to ceiling magazine rack.

The reason for this addition is because I’m relying on body weight exercises more and more in my workouts, and Stahl bars are a cool way to add in some extra variety.

Truth be told, the older I get, the more I love body weight training.

The best part about body weight exercises is that you don’t really need any equipment (the stahl bars are really just a treat for me), and you can do them anywhere.

Now, I’m not talking about just jumping jacks, pushups and squats – these are a great starting point, but I think that body weight exercises eventually have to become body MOVEMENT exercises… They should become more complex as you get stronger.

In fact, the big issue I have with Body Weight Exercises is if the movements don’t progress, then you end up doing a super high amount of reps in order to properly challenge yourself, and if you’re not careful this can lead to overuse injuries.

This is very similar to what happens with runners, only now it’s your shoulders, elbows or wrists. This is why you need a TON of variety in your exercise repertoire – You can’t just do push-ups, squats and chins.

But if you have enough of the RIGHT exercises – then your body is actually the BEST piece of home gym “workout equipment” in the world for helping you GAIN muscle and BURN fat without spending tons of money.

…and for a little extra money there is basically nothing you can’t do with your own body weight (my Stall bars are going to cost 1/10th of what I paid for my squat rack, and you can pick up a chin-up bar for dollars).

Here’s a quick example – the next time you do pushups, squeeze your butt and flex your thighs for the entire time you are doing your push ups. You can also try spreading your shoulder blades at the top of your pushup to make them even more complex, and you can play with your hand positioning.

People like to neglect bodyweight training, but when done properly you can get an impressive workout completed in around 20 minutes.

When it comes to making body weight exercises ‘work’ it’s all about execution – it’s how you do them that matters (actually, this is probably true for ALL exercises)

If you are interested in body weight training and / or body weight exercises you can check out BODYWEIGHT BURN (YES, it is a video infomercial… and an amusing one at that, however the product is excellent).


The WORST 8-week diet ever…

If I were to ask the average person to “Give me 3 reasons why people struggle to lose weight?” They would probably answer:

1. Food company marketing
2. Simple Sugars
3. Lack of Exercise

And this would be a good answer… but I have a different big three. The big 3 reasons why I think so many people struggle with weight loss year after year…

1. Halloween
2. Thanksgiving
3. Christmas

The reason this Big three is so devastating is that they all happen within an 8 week period.

An average person can get into AMAZING, picture-ready shape in 8 weeks following a good diet and workout program. So what do you think can happen in an 8 week period that starts with 5-6 days of eating way too much chocolate, followed by 5-7 days of turkey and leftover turkey and then capped off with 5-6 days of turkey AND chocolate and 1 special bonus night of way too much champagne (New Years Eve)?

That’s right – a great body can turn average, and an OK body can get really bad, really quickly.

No WONDER most people’s New Years Resolutions are about weight loss… they’ve just finished an 8 week food and drink bender!

Make no mistake, for most people the next 8 weeks are the hardest of the entire year. However, if you WIN these next 8 weeks, then you are setting yourself up for massive success in 2014.

So start now.  Promise yourself that by Sunday at midnight there will be NO Halloween candy in your house.

Next week, re-read Eat Stop Eat… get a ‘feel’ for fasting again as you head into this high-stress 8 week period…

Stick to your workouts,  because this is the time of year when people start to say “I just can’t find the time”. This cannot be you, you must find the time.

Enjoy your food, but be mindful of when it’s time to stop.

Look, there are no magic tricks. I wish I could tell you if you do a couple pushups before each meal then you’ll be fine and won’t gain any weight, but it doesn’t work that way.

Stay strong, these next 8 weeks are the hardest weeks out of the entire year for most people. If you win these weeks, you win the year.

The art of ‘Detach and Relax’

In past years I’ve had some trouble putting my exact thoughts on health and nutrition into words.

There was always something I just didn’t like about where health and nutrition was going, and I wanted to rally against it… Revolt if you will.

Eat Stop Eat was the result of this feeling. In a sense it represented my own personal health and fitness revolution.

But it was more than just fasting, it was the mind set.

I had grown tired of people promoting suffering as dedication, exhaustion as a virtue, and obsession as health.

It’s not that I don’t want people to workout, or make conscious decisions about what they eat, it’s actually the opposite.

I want you to work hard in the gym. Very hard. And I want you to be aware of your food choices. I do NOT want you to eat passively.

I also want you to learn to be patient and take breaks from eating. You don’t have to eat all the time, but you certainly don’t need to fast all the time either.

I needed a way to convey ‘dedicated but balanced’, instead of ‘obsessed and inflexible’.

Today, I think I figured it out.

It’s the art of ‘Detach and relax’

I want you to workout and workout hard, but when you are done your workout I want you to Detach and Relax. Don’t take it home with you, don’t obsess about it.

I want you to be aware of what and when you are eating, but once you are done making a food decision, I want you to Detach and Relax. Don’t obsess about your food choices, don’t let food control you.

Detach and Relax.

You simply can not be all health and fitness all the time.

Eat less, move more, don’t be afraid to break a sweat every once in a while, and remember to be balanced.

As much as some people may hate to hear it, there’s more to life than 0% body fat, blood and puke in the gym, and macronutrients on your plate.

How to lose even more weight this week

It’s ironic that looking for weight loss information on-line involves sitting in front of a computer, and sitting in front of computer involves expending very little energy and (more often than not) it also involves some amount of passive eating.

Going outside and going for a hike does not involve finding any new, fun, weight loss information to read, it also does typically does not involve eating, and involves the actual act of burning extra calories.

Even more interesting is that going to the gym involves burning calories, building muscle and not eating… UNLESS you’ve gone on-line and found some weight loss information suggesting you should eat something during your workouts

Funny how these things work.

One of the easiest things you can do to improve your weight loss is to find activities that you can do that do not involve eating.

Eat less, move more and don’t be afraid to break a sweat occasionally.

Sounds simple, but it works.