Trying to lose weight? Gain weight? Build muscle? Boost energy? And you have no time to eat a proper meal? If you believe the ads, liquid “meal replacers” or “complete nutritional drinks” like Boost and Ensure are the all-in-one answer.
Some were originally designed for people too sick or weak to manage with solid food, as well as for very obese people in doctor-supervised weight-loss programs. Other drinks were originally targeted at athletes who want “high-energy” supplements.
Now these liquid meals are marketed to the general public, young and old. While many of these drinks would be healthier snacks than a candy bar or bag of chips, most Americans don’t need them.There’s nothing magical about the drinks. They usually contain just milk protein, water, sugars, vegetable oil, thickeners, and flavoring agents, plus added vitamins and minerals. Let’s shake up some of the claims:
“Energy drink”: Energy simply means calories—usually 250 to 375 calories per bottle (or can). Not enough calories for a true meal, but a lot for a snack. One-quarter to one-half of the calories in most drinks come from various sugars (not lactose), though some brands have reduced their sugar content somewhat.
“High-protein”: The bottles contain 10 to 20 grams of protein (compared to 8 grams in a cup of milk, 10 grams in a cup of plain yogurt, or 7 grams in an extra-large egg). But most Americans get more than enough protein. And protein by itself won’t build muscle.
“Complete nutrition”: A bottle typically supplies 15 to 50 percent of most vitamins and minerals, but contains few if any of the other potentially beneficial substances in foods, such as the carotenoids in fruits and vegetables. In addition, most brands contain no fiber.
“Easy and convenient”: Perhaps, but what could be easier than grabbing a cup of low-fat yogurt and a banana?
“Delicious”: Some people may be able to find a brand or flavor they like, but many will find these drinks overly sweet and oily and sometimes medicinal tasting.
“Doctor-recommended”: Doctors may advise these drinks for people who are undergoing chemotherapy, have serious illnesses, or simply can’t eat enough solid food, but rarely for others. The American Geriatrics Society recently warned against their overuse: “Unintentional weight loss is a common problem for medically ill or frail elderly. Although high-calorie supplements increase weight in older people, there is no evidence that they affect other important clinical outcomes, such as quality of life, mood, functional status or survival.”
Bottom line: People with certain medical conditions may benefit from these drinks, but they should consult their health care provider about which product is best for them. If you’re healthy and frequently depend on nutrition drinks instead of meals, however, that’s a bad trade-off. There’s no substitute for whole foods.