Bar and Shake Diets : Opinion

In a recent post I have discussed what amounts to a diet-specific chocolate bar, and mentioned in the same breath that I do not approve of bar and shake (meal replacement) diets as a long-term solution to weight loss.

Allow me to first say, that I neither think that everyone should be size 0 and starved like catwalk models, nor advocate weight loss beyond what is reasonable.  I won’t go into a debate on what is reasonable – for that, if you are unsure yourself, ask your physician.  While those overweight know it, some people who aren’t actually in need of weight loss quite frequently still think they are, and this is a topic for an altogether different discussion.

The reasons for my disapproval of bar-and-shake (meal replacement) diets are several, but first let me point out that I don’t think those bars and shakes are bad or unhealthy.  Most of them aren’t, actually – and do make a good meal on the go, especially the vitamin-enriched ones.  I would also say that if it is a case of short-term weight loss with a close goal (such as losing half a dress size to look better in that bikini for a holiday or in that formal gown at a special event), they would do all right as well.  I may question people’s thinking when they go for programs that result in quick short-term weight loss, as the results of those usually revert quite quickly, sometimes with said people gaining more weight back than was originally lost, but – for what they are, i. e. short-term weight loss, they do work.

What they, in my opinion, do not do, is promote long-term weight loss, the thing that most people going into weight-loss regimes really want – losing the weight and keeping it off.  And that, in itself, is not the bars or shakes’ fault, either.  It is the failures of the human factor that lead to the weight gain originally (some with or without extenuating circumstances), and it is the same failures that cause it to revert after losing it short-term with meal replacements.

Let’s face it – leaving aside the few medical cases where weight gain is caused by medication, thyroid disorders, and the like, most people who are overweight, are overweight, frankly, because of what and how much they put in their mouths (and somewhat less but also affected by their level of physical activity).   Note that I put “what” before “how much” – I will elaborate. This is not a politically correct thing to say, but – using one’s common sense – it is what it is.  I will not go deep into discussion of the food industry, the advertisement industry, the Western food culture’s failings in terms of obesity and related disease epidemic sweeping the Westernised countries – another time about that.  However, the common denominator between all of that is still the people who eat it.  And while I do not pass judgement on why they eat what they eat or how much they eat, it is hopefully clear that the fact that they do is the root of the problem.

Which brings me back to meal-replacement plans and the reason why, despite thinking they aren’t bad for your health, and certainly do work in short-term, I do not want to recommend them to anybody planning to lose weight for good.  You see, we have to allow for the human factor in the equation, that is – people’s poor eating habit and lifestyle: bowl of sugary cereal for breakfast, quick bag of crisps with a can of coke at lunch, candy bar during afternoon slump, dessert (“pudding” as the locals call it) every evening.  If we swap a lot of that for lower-calorie/sugar and likely nutritionally denser weight loss meal replacements, it certainly will improve the food quality intake for a lot of people, which is why weight would be lost in short term.  But… and there is, sadly, more than one “but” here (not to be punny!) – there are several problems with keeping this up.

  • Meal replacements tend to be rather costly compared to normal food, especially raw food ingredients.  As a result, it is difficult (unless you make rather excessive food budgeting even compared to myself – and I do spend a lot of money on food, due to refusal to save money on my health) to afford comfortably in the long run.
  • Meal replacements, for all there is a small variety of flavours available, tend to bore people after a while.  Precisely because there are only so many things you can flavour them with, and most people do like variety.  That, and they never really taste as good as the “real” thing – and this is where the real problem lies.
  • Meal replacement bars and shakes simulate “treats”, things which, unless they are specifically made low-calorie as part of a meal replacement plan, tend to be highly calorific:  sugar-filled cereal bars (I am not a fan of those!), chocolate candy bars, and milkshakes.  Therefore, while effecting some weight loss, these do not actually teach the human factor to eat differently from their bad lifestyle which had contributed to the gain of weight in the first place.

It is the last factor which is obviously the most important one.  Short of (invasive and painful) surgery, true and lasting weight loss and healthy weight maintenance can only be achieved by changing lifestyle and eating habits, which is precisely what this approach does not do.  It does not teach one to not snack between meals.  It does not teach one what to eat (in terms of fresh, real food) in order to not gain weight.  It does not teach one about the amazing variety of really delicious healhty foods available out there, and it does not teach anything about portion control of actual food, either.

And, as a result it allows people to drop dress sizes (at times quickly), but only briefly, as the moment they revert to their previous habits, not having acquired any new healthier ones, so does the weight.   Without proper weight maintenance habits (such as learning that sweets for dessert are not a part of normal daily routine for anyone who does not want to be blimpy), and awareness of one’s body and the importance of what you put into it, neither weight management, nor health improvement is achievable.

To quote a line off a fresh salad carton I once saw, “Crisps and sweets are not treats.  Eat them at your own peril.

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