09/28/2016 07:46 EDT | Updated 09/28/2016 07:46 EDT

Are Meal Replacement Shakes Good For You?

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Woman drinking a meal replacement shakes. Horizontal shot.

I'm sure you've seen the television ads: an attractive older couple walks briskly on the beach or pedals a pair of bikes along a country road when suddenly they stop, breaking for a sip of a meal replacement shake, such as Boost™ or Ensure™.


Originally developed for hospitalized patients, meal replacement shakes, also known as nutritional supplement drinks, are now pitched to active older adults as convenient sources of "complete nutrition," liquid fuel to power a healthy lifestyle.

How Do These Formulas Stack Up Nutritionally?

Not well, unfortunately. A typical nutritional supplement drink offers about 10 grams of protein per serving, which is the same amount of protein you'd get from a serving of plain milk or soymilk. They're also fortified with a list of "essential" vitamins and minerals. Though, arguably, if you take a multivitamin every day your bases are covered already.

Look closely and you'll see that a lot of nutritional supplement drinks are made with corn syrup and vegetable oil; some have powdered milk and soy for added protein. As a nutritionist, I think you can do a lot better.

Rather than supplementing your diet with syrups and oils, you can get a quick nutritional boost from foods that are just as convenient and much more wholesome.

Choose Milk and Yogurt Instead

An 8-ounce carton of plain milk, for example, contains the same amount of protein, calcium and potassium as a regular Ensure, without the added sugars and other additives. A 12-ounce latte does the trick too. Plus, some studies suggest that coffee drinking may be associated with a decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's.

Drinkable yogurts are another convenient option for on-the-go nutrition, with the added bonus of probiotic bacteria that benefit the digestive system.

Consider What Your Body Needs

Despite the fact that nutritional supplement drinks are formulated in a laboratory, it's hard for manufacturers to come up with a single recipe that suits everyone's needs. That's why the drinks come in so many varieties: reduced-calorie, higher-calorie, high-protein and sugar free. Plus each is available in a wide range of flavors. Without question, you can get just as much variety from whole or minimally processed foods.

Here are a few options that are just as easy to grab and go as Boost or Ensure:

For Extra Protein

Look for protein-fortified milk in the dairy aisle. These are made by adding dried milk to fresh milk. In addition to being high in protein, they also have a creamy texture.

For More Calories

Choose whole milk rather than reduced fat milk. Whole milk is a calorie-dense option without a lot of added sugar.

For Fewer Calories

Although not a significant source of protein, tomato juice or V8 is very low in calories and a great source of vitamin A and other antioxidants. You'll usually find single-serve vegetable juices next to fruit juice in the beverage cooler. Try a low-sodium option.

If You're Lactose Intolerant

Soy milk has the same amount of protein as cow's milk but without lactose or saturated fat. Soy milk also contains a small amount of fiber. To avoid added sugars, look for the unsweetened variety.

For Something Sweet

Smoothie bowls have been in the news a lot these days and here's why: they're healthy, delicious and easy to make at home. The list of ingredients have endless variations, but smoothie bowls essentially consist of blended fruit/ice/yogurt and are topped with fruit, granola, seeds, nuts, dried fruits or flaked coconut. Packed with nutrients, and high in vitamins, fiber and protein, they keep you fuller for longer.

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified, licensed nutritionist and professionally trained chef. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, CBS News and Morning Edition, as well as leading newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of six books, including Nutrition Diva's Secrets for a Healthy Diet, and creator of the Nutrition Diva podcast (one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts).

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