Understanding Meal Replacement Plans

Swapping some meals for preportioned, nutritionally sound packaged foods as part of a structured plan could help you lose weight.


Easy Food Choices and Controlled Calories

You may have heard that eating regularly is important for weight and blood glucose control. But eating three meals every day might not be the answer.

Larry Sheppard of Fountain Valley, California, and Carol Zachman of Central Valley, New York, both live with type 2 diabetes and have lost weight using meal replacements. Carol, 45, has kept 100 pounds off for more than two years. Larry, 63, lost 35 pounds in three months. He takes meal replacements to his job: "Off to work I go with my entree and fruit and vegetables for lunch and a couple of shakes," he says.

Larry and Carol have hopped on board with this increasingly popular and scientifically sound way of losing weight. Using meal replacements and a structured eating plan keeps food choices simple and calories controlled. "Shakes, bars, and entrees still tag along, while dinner is lean protein and plenty of greens -- a meal I enjoy with my husband," Carol says. Check out the science, the programs, and some products.

Backed by Research

Losing weight using meal replacements such as shakes, portioned entrees, and/or structured meal plans is effective. When such approaches are combined with behavior-change counseling -- including regular meetings, goal setting, problem solving, and support -- and are stacked up against a prepare-your-own-foods approach, people lose more pounds.

The most significant study for people with diabetes (PWDs) is Look AHEAD (Action in Health with Diabetes), the 13-year ongoing National Institutes of Health study of more than 5,000 people with type 2 diabetes. For weeks 4 to 16, people in the study were encouraged to use two meal replacements and two snack replacements per day, and structured menus for their main meal, says Mara Vitolins, Dr.P.H., RD, a nutrition researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. People in the study experienced maximum weight loss after one year.

"Losing a large amount of weight during the first year was the most powerful determinant of their weight at four years," Vitolins says. "The more meal replacements a person used, the better weight loss they had during the first year."

A Long-Term Option

Most supervised programs start with a weight loss phase with frequent use of meal replacements. As the pounds come off, programs decrease the meal replacements and increase structured meal plans and self-selected foods.

Programs push that weight maintenance is forever; meal replacements can be part of your long-term plan. Carol says meal replacements are just so convenient and taste good, too. "The program reset my taste buds -- I now love yogurt and asparagus," she says.

Both Carol and Larry say using the structured meal replacement approach has helped them shed pounds that previously wouldn't budge. "It's got to be the right time, place, and space in your life, and you've got to believe you have the power to do it," Larry says.

Carol's advice: Keep telling yourself, "This food and plan isn't going to kill me," and "I'm not going to starve to death." As she cruises on her weight loss reward -- a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with "LOWFAT" on her license plate -- she says she tells herself, I feel too good 100 pounds lighter to blow it.