Why Meal Replacements Still aren’t the Answer You’re Looking For
As the obesity epidemic tightens it’s hold on the NHS and the nation’s health, we are seeing more research into finding a workable solution to our weight loss struggles. One new study reported on the BBC website today links the need to switch to a meal replacement diet as one possible solution.
As a nutrition coach, I recognise that for certain individuals, the fact they are obese is of far greater risk to their long-term health than going on a very low-calorie diet, and therefore, a more direct or dramatic approach can be justifiable. These individuals are already obese (BMI of 30 or higher) and have an increased risk of developing cancer, type two diabetes and heart disease to name but a few of the conditions heavily linked with obesity and poor lifestyle choices.
It has been suggested that meal replacements should be offered on the NHS as a solution to these individuals weight loss struggles, and in turn lower the burden of treatment costs long-term to the NHS.
This study was very small, only 278 people and most importantly they worked with a counsellor alongside the meal replacement diet. The diet consisted of shakes and soups totaling less than a thousand calories per day and below the current NHS minimum calorie intake guidelines for the general public. After a year the average sustained weight loss was just over a stone and a half, which while very positive is by no means record-breaking or likely to change the tide in the battle against obesity.
Importantly, this study strongly advised people not to follow this type of diet without the correct guidance and counseling alongside it.
So, this leaves us in an interesting position, on the face of it low-calorie meal replacements could aid weight loss. This is no real surprise as any low-calorie diet will work if you can stick to it. Calories are strictly controlled through shakes and soups making adherence simpler as you don’t personally have to do any calorie counting.
The big problem comes when you can’t stick to the plan. This approach seems easy, but in reality, it’s hard work (all weight loss undeniably is). I have had clients in the past who simply cannot stick to this meal replacements as it’s so restrictive and often means avoiding family meals, eating alone and an increased tendency to binge or have big blowouts.
This study also points to the fact that all participants still need to learn the skills to eat healthily in the future. This includes understanding how to balance your diet, how to manage portion control, developing eating on the go skills, learning to cook more healthily and vitally integrating these skills into your lifestyle.
My big worry with the growing popularisation of this dietary approach comes not from its ability to work, as for some it is still much better than the alternative long-term ill health. The problem is that certain fundamental diet and life skills are unavoidable. The normalisation or legitimisation of this approach in the mainstream opens the doors to countless meal replacement products which are not tightly controlled in a medical environment like this study provided. People will be increasingly tempted to try it because they think it’s the right way to go and they will have none of the additional support or education, provided by a nutrition specialist like myself, or a dietary counselor like Brainreframe.
Your long-term health and diet requires learning these skills and importantly the reasons why you struggle with your diet in the first place.
Do you struggle with your diet because you don’t know what to eat and how to balance your lifestyle, or is it because you have an emotional connection with food which is holding you back? Without answering these questions fully meal replacement products become just that, a temporary replacement, a sticking plaster and another way to kick the can down the road for another day.
I also worry about the motivations behind this type of advice. It is a clear demonstration of how fast-paced our lives are and that it is now easier to consider a dramatic unnatural way to lose weight and gain your nutrients than it is to help people slow down and look after themselves properly. It’s a reflection of an NHS in crisis, that it is now being asked to consider something which I am sure they would really, rather not. It is also a fair question to ask who will be making money out of selling these products to the NHS, and where the money behind the future research is coming from to ensure transparency.
Do meal replacements work, yes in most cases based on the maths alone. Are meal replacements the right solution, yes, for some people they offer a way to minimise the damage already done due to obesity and poor lifestyle. Are meal replacements the solution to our weight loss as a society, absolutely, not. This is not a magic bullet and this study also points to the need for further research being needed.
Regardless of the approach, you chose to use to lose weight and regain your health it has to be sustainable or you will be back to square one. Learning to cook, getting your 5-7 fruits and veg each day, eating plenty of fish, choosing lean sources of protein and cutting back alcohol, sugary snacks, and takeaways/ meals out are undeniably at the center of the long-term solution. For some, the initial weight loss from meal replacement will be what they need to spur on future change, for the majority, however, I am far from being convinced that this will be the case.
If you are feeling motivated to get stuck into your weight loss journey then I wish you every success in the future. As a nutrition coach who has helped countless people do the same thing my advice to you is not to focus just on the easy wins like meal replacements, but how you can tackle the bigger changes to your lifestyle that will make you successful for the long term. Tackle these gradually and remember, you might not hit your goal weight overnight but you don’t have to be at your goal weight before you start feeling better.
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