Meal Replacements: Choose Those Bars and Drinks Carefully

Or how to successfully eat on the run

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

There is no doubt that a sit-down meal is the best approach to healthy weight loss. But in this fast-paced world of ours, even with the best intentions, there are times when sitting down for a meal is simply impossible. How do you stick to your eating plan when forced to eat on the run?

Choosing a healthy meal replacement is a perfectly acceptable substitution, as long as it's only once in a while. The meal substitute you choose should be one that is nutritious, fills an empty stomach, and will not sabotage your weight-loss efforts. The trick is planning ahead and selecting the right kind of meal replacements that are chock full of vitamins, minerals, and healthy nutrients.

The Evolution of 'Everybar'

Nutrition bars and meal replacement drinks were initially targeted to the serious athlete who needed extra fuel for workouts. Today, these products have gone mainstream, targeted to anyone needing a nutritional boost. Shelf-stable bars and cans are easily stashed in a desk drawer, pocket, purse, or briefcase for quick meals. The array of choices is dizzying. These hot commodities fill huge amounts of shelf space in the gym, grocery, and health food stores, and there are literally hundreds of bars and meal-replacement drinks to choose from.

Buyers, beware. Not all bars or drinks are created equally.

Hey, wait a minute. Surely all of these replacements must be better choices than the fast food junk in the hall vending machine, right? Not always -- some are nothing more than glorified candy bars or high-calorie, sugar-based drinks. Savvy marketing adds to the confusion as consumers try to sort through all the heavily hyped super-nutrition health claims on the front of the package.

So what's a dieter to do? The only way to make an informed choice is to read the list of ingredients, nutrition label, (ignore the front label) and compare products. Ideally, the meal replacement will contain ingredients that don't sound like foreign chemicals found in a chemistry lab! Nutrients should be primarily complex carbohydrates, with small amounts of simple sugars and a bit of fat, along with a moderate amount of protein. Look for products that fit the following guidelines:

  • 220-230 calories per serving
  • Less than 5 grams of fat per serving
  • 3-5 grams of fiber per serving
  • 10-15 grams of protein per serving
  • Fortified with a third of daily vitamins and minerals

Do your best to limit reliance on these products to a maximum of once a day, preferably only once or twice a week. To boost the fiber, you can always supplement your bar or drink with a few veggies, a can of vegetable juice, or a piece of fresh fruit.

So why not try real food options?

Those nutrition bars and replacement drinks can quickly empty the pocketbook. Other meal alternatives that are just as easy include portable fruit (apples, bananas), 100% fruit juice, low-fat cheese, crackers, bagels, yogurts, peanut butter, nuts, dry cereal, graham crackers, cereal, or granola bars. These foods not only provide quick energy, they are less expensive substitutes for the prepackaged meal replacements. Remember: There is yet to be developed a supplement that will take the place of a nutritious meal. As a rule, it is always better to grab a quick and healthy meal such as soup, salad or sandwich. Use the well-chosen meal replacement only when you have to truly "eat on the run."

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