Is eating meal replacements an effective way to lose weight?

Disclaimer and warning information: The current laws and regulations in my country do not have strict regulations and restrictions on meal replacement products. Please be careful when choosing meal replacement products. The author of this article is not affiliated with, nor does he recommend or endorse, any brand (or its competitors) appearing in this article. There is still insufficient research evidence on the risks and side effects of long-term use of meal replacements, and people with metabolic-related diseases or chronic liver and kidney diseases must seek medical permission before using meal replacement products. Pregnant women, lactating women, infants, children, the elderly and other groups without special needs should not consume meal replacement foods.

According to the “Meal Replacement Foods” group standard issued by the Chinese Nutrition Society, meal replacement foods are defined as “energy control foods specially processed and formulated to meet the nutritional needs of adults during one or two meals during weight control.” Some meal replacement foods can completely replace all normal food in a meal, while others can only replace part of normal food. The latter are generally referred to as “partial meal replacements”.

In order to facilitate understanding and simplify discussion, there will be no special distinction between complete meal replacements and partial meal replacements.

Can meal replacements replace three meals?

Two common meal replacement usage scenarios are “don’t want/can’t/don’t want to cook”, and the other is “fat reduction and/or weight control”. There has been a lot of discussion about the former. Interested readers can move to read some of the following articles.


There is a premise of completely replacing three meals with meal replacements, that is, the products you choose should have reliable ingredients, comprehensive nutrition, and reasonable proportions. Unfortunately, conventional commercial meal replacement products such as Soylent or Ruofan have difficulty meeting this requirement. Soylent’s liquid version (414ml per bottle, providing 400kcal) has a carb, protein and fat energy ratio of 35%-19%-46%, which is similar to that of rice. According to the “Reference Intakes of Dietary Nutrients for Chinese Residents (Published in 2017)”, the daily calorie intake of adults aged 18-60 should not exceed 30% through fat, and the energy supply ratio of carbohydrates should be at least 50% , dietary fiber intake should reach 25-30 grams. It can be seen that if you only eat Soylent or if you eat rice for three meals, the intake of carbohydrates will be low, while the intake of fat will exceed the standard.

In addition, the vitamins and minerals added in commercial meal replacement products, no matter the type or amount, usually cannot fully meet all the needs of the human body. Therefore, such products can only partially replace the normal diet, but cannot completely replace the three meals, and cannot do without the assistance of dietary supplements (such as vitamins, mineral tablets, etc.).

Are there any products that can completely replace the normal diet and meet all the nutritional needs of the human body? Have. That is the “full nutritional formula food” in clinical medicine. According to the definition of the current “Regulations on the Registration of Formulas for Special Medical Purposes”, such foods can be used as a single source of nutrition for the human body. Taking Abbott’s “Quan Ansu” as an example, the energy supply ratio of its three major nutrients is 56%-15%-29%, and dietary fiber, 13 kinds of vitamins and 12 kinds of minerals are added, which is generally close to the “Dietary Guidelines for Chinese Residents”. ” requirements. This type of product is similar in composition and function to the enteral nutrition solution prepared by the regular hospital nutrition department. If you really want to “eat only meal replacements for three meals”, you should at least choose medical full-nutrition formula foods instead of commercial meal replacements.

These meal replacements are not a weight loss artifact

The use of meal replacements to simply replace “eating” is relatively niche. Type “meal replacement” in a search engine or e-commerce website, and the concept linked to it is more about “weight loss”. There are countless e-commerce and micro-businesses selling “diet meal replacements”, and the products on the market are also mixed. The “Meal Replacement Food” group standard is not mandatory. The country’s “Non-nutrient Supplements (2022 Edition)” does include the item “helps to control body fat”, but the vast majority on the market focus on “weight loss” and “fat reduction”. The meal replacements advertised by the word did not actually get the “blue hat” logo of health food.

The absence of a “blue hat” means that the product is nothing more than “normal food”. In addition to “eat”, ordinary food cannot advertise itself as having any “special effects”. That is to say, these meal replacement foods are essentially the same as the potato chips, cola, biscuits, ice cream, etc. that we can buy in convenience stores every day. They are all ordinary prepackaged foods, but only the types of raw materials, nutrient composition ratio and specific processing. The method is different.

In this case, to judge whether such a “meal replacement” is really helpful for fat loss or weight loss, we only need to understand its ingredient list and nutritional composition list.


Take the products of “Anxin 3021” as an example. The meaning of this “3021” is said to be “21 pounds in 30 days.” One of their “Corn Crisp Breakfast Powder” is priced at RMB 295 per box (7 bags) at their Taobao “main store”. Each bag of breakfast powder (30g) provides 350 kcal of energy, and according to its nutrient composition table, the energy supply ratio of protein is more than 60%. The salesperson of the online store told me that in addition to drinking a bag of this powder for breakfast every day, you can also eat some vegetables and meat with it.

According to Taobao sales, this breakfast powder is a “partial meal replacement”, that is, a meal replacement food that needs to be eaten with other foods. According to the “Group Standards” of the Chinese Nutrition Society, some meal replacement foods should provide less than 200 kcal of calories per serving. According to this standard, the calories of this breakfast powder have reached the level of a complete meal replacement. The “Group Standards” also stated that the energy supply ratio of protein in meal replacement foods should not exceed 50%. This “Corn Crisp Breakfast Powder” seems to be a little deformed in both quantity and quality.

Insert a digression here. I reminded you in the article about protein powder before that you should calculate the cost-effectiveness before purchasing the product. The breakfast powder above contains about 130 grams of protein per box, which is equivalent to 2.27 yuan per gram, which is more expensive than Amway and Tomson By-Health protein powder, which are recognized as low cost-effective – this is still after excluding other ingredients.


Are there any extra expensive, unique or mysterious ingredients in its ingredient list other than soy and whey protein? not at all. But it’s ingredients like milk powder, corn leaflets, fructose, sweeteners, and salt. —You read that right, there is no mystery at all.

The brand also has a “crispy milk bar”, which is essentially a small cookie, and is also priced at 295 yuan per box (7 bags). Each bag of 14g biscuits has a nominal calorie of 57 kcal, which is “only equivalent to an apple”. If you just look at the ingredients list, the biscuit is likely to give you a “healthy” illusion, because it contains white kidney beans, chia seeds and gorgonians – in some contexts, the ingredients of Internet celebrities linked to “weight loss”. However, talking about nutrition without content is always a hooligan. The ingredients in the ingredient list are arranged in descending order of proportion, so the actual proportion of the ingredients in the middle may be very small. What’s more, a bag of biscuits is only 14 grams in total. Even if there are chia seeds, how many grams are there?

The biscuit’s nutritional content contains more than 46% carbohydrates, and the energy density exceeds 4.0 (more than 4 kcal per gram of food). Pure carbohydrate energy density is 4.0. This means that eating biscuits will consume more calories than eating the same amount of sugar. I’m about to lose fat and control my weight, so you will let me eat this thing with more calories than sugar for afternoon tea? And such a small bag sells for 40 yuan (equivalent to about 3 yuan per gram)? Use this money to buy cherries at 50 yuan per catty, isn’t it fragrant?

Let’s take another example. The meal replacement powder of the brand “劄劊迪卡”, which is said to be imported from Japan, is 44 grams per bag, and the protein energy supply ratio is 40% stronger, but the sodium content per 100 grams is as high as 1400 mg or more, which exceeds the human body. Take 70% of the recommended daily intake. Taking another look at the ingredients list, the protein in it comes from soy protein powder. The ingredients with the second highest dosage are resistant dextrin and corn flour (carbohydrate), and the next largest amount is the food flavoring… It is conceivable that even if the latter ingredients are present, they are better than none.

If you only eat this for three meals a day, it is hard to say whether it can reduce body fat, but it can increase blood pressure properly. Even if you follow the advice of the merchant, “no more than two bags (88 grams) per day”, it means that it is best not to eat salt in the last meal. So how much does this meal replacement powder sell for? According to a promotional image I found, each box (15 bags) is priced at 1680 yuan.


In short, after carefully reading the ingredient list and nutrient composition table of such meal replacement products, I can say responsibly that such meal replacements have a high protein-to-energy ratio, but they do not directly help reduce fat or control fat. The mysterious component of weight, other components (such as sodium) may be high, and the price is even more suspected of being inflated. Therefore, the conclusion is obvious: meal replacements (especially online celebrity meal replacement products) are by no means “weight loss artifacts”, but more likely to be “purse assassins”.

Unreliable meal replacement meal plan

Meal replacement lovers and sellers may not be satisfied with the above conclusions.

A common claim among them is that such meal replacement products do not “work alone”, but rather in conjunction with a proper diet plan. For example, a “nutritionist” of such a brand will provide customers with a meal plan, in which the essential food ingredients are of course the brand’s meal replacement powder, supplemented by fresh vegetables, fresh meat and other foods. According to the nutritionist, some clients did noticeably lose weight. So here is the first question: Can the goal of weight control be achieved by replacing the high-priced meal replacement powder in the plan with low-priced ordinary protein powder and grain powder and other ingredients?

A meta-analysis published in 2021 summarizing 24 studies of the effects of meal replacements as an intervention for overweight or obesity suggested that a diet regimen based primarily on meal replacements for weight loss/weight loss may be superior to a diet based on regular foods, where meal replacements Dietary intervention programs whose meals provided at least 60% of total daily caloric intake were more effective 1 . But we can’t believe that “meal replacement = successful weight loss” or “more meal replacement = easier weight loss”. All 24 studies above restricted the total caloric intake of participants, 22 of which used a low-calorie diet (LED, 1000-1500 kcal/day) and 2 studies used a very low-calorie diet ( VLED, daily caloric intake 600-800 kcal). In this case, we can’t tell whether “meal replacement products” or “low calorie” caused weight loss.

Regardless of physical activity, “controlling total calories” and “controlling calorie intake per meal” and “controlling specific food groups” may be the common factors that all fat loss/weight control programs can work. To put it simply, ensure that the daily calorie intake does not exceed the consumption, do not overeat in a single meal, and eat less or no food components closely related to obesity (such as added sugar, trans fat and alcohol), and the human body can adapt to it. Lose weight and body fat over time. Any food that meets the above requirements can be used as a means, and will work to varying degrees. We don’t need to eat (or refuse to eat) meal replacements specifically for this. The main reason why meal replacement products can play a role in weight loss recipes may be that they have clear ingredients, controllable weights, easy calorie calculation, and are more convenient than using conventional ingredients to prepare meals.

But most meal replacements—including Soylent, Ruofan, various protein bars, and “meal replacements”—are smaller in size and portion size and higher in calories, making them energy-dense foods. An unavoidable consequence of using such foods as the main food source is poor satiety. In the case of constant caloric intake, the total food volume and volume of meal replacement-based diets must be smaller, so users are more likely to experience hunger physically (and psychologically).

The more mainstream solution is to not restrict or less restrict caloric intake, but only adjust the energy supply ratio and food choices. For example, neither the ketogenic diet nor its approximation, the Atkins diet, restricts overall energy intake, only carbohydrate intake while increasing fat intake. The Atkins diet requires no more than 50 grams of carbohydrates per day (or even lower than 20 grams per day in the beginning), while increasing the fat-to-energy ratio to 60-70%. The principle of this type of diet is to force the body to use fat metabolites – ketone bodies – instead of glucose as the main energy source.

1 Note that it is specifically mentioned here that the Atkins diet does not limit total calories, that is, the calorie deficit after reducing carbohydrates is mainly made up by fat.

According to a randomized controlled study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2007, the Atkins diet helped subjects lose an average of 4.7 kg over a 12-month period, which was better than the zone diet (Zone Diet, a relatively balanced ratio of the three energy-supplying substances), the Ornish diet (emphasis on low-fat and vegetarian food), and the LEARN method (a weight loss method that combines diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes). 2

However, when this method spreads to the “wild weight loss master” who sells Internet celebrity meal replacements, the taste will change drastically. The “nutritionist” of an Internet celebrity brand introduced me to the supporting plan of its products. The core logic is as follows: strictly limit the intake of carbohydrates, and at the same time limit the intake of fat, mainly rely on vegetables to provide satiety, and use high protein at the same time. Meal replacement powder and high-protein meat, etc. to maintain “no muscle loss”. Its selling points are “not exercising” and “lying thin”.

Don’t give carbohydrates, don’t give enough fat, only provide a part of protein, the total energy intake must be very low. According to the value provided by the nutritionist, it is undoubtedly a very low-calorie diet (VLED).

1 The second one is very reasonable, the others are just for a laugh after reading it.

As mentioned above, “lying thin without exercising” is not necessarily equal to VLED or LED. It can also be achieved without restricting calories, but the speed will be slower. For example, in a 1-year controlled experimental study, obese or overweight women who participated in the experiment lost an average of 6% of their body weight3 . One of the most common medical and sports consensus on weight loss is that 0.5-1.0 kg per week is a reasonable rate. This speed and magnitude are too slow compared to propaganda slogans like “3021”. How can this process be artificially accelerated? Going hungry is the easiest way.

The “nutritionist” above claims that this method is called a “modified ketogenic diet” and believes that in the first three days of the diet plan, the body will switch from “sugar-burning” mode to “fat-burning” mode model. “You may be hungry or dizzy or weak, you can eat cucumbers and drink light salt water to relieve it”, or you can eat “milk stick cookies”.

As mentioned earlier, the calorie density of this biscuit is even higher than that of glucose. If we add “Corn Breakfast Meal” and “Milk Bars” to this meal plan, and eat one bag each day, the total carbohydrate intake is already more than 15 grams. If two bags of “Plant Fiber Powder” are included in the plan, the carbohydrate intake will exceed 35 grams. What’s more, aside from these meal replacement powders and a small amount of low-fat meat, the food you can eat throughout the day is basically only non-starchy vegetables.

So it’s not a ketogenic diet, it’s not an Atkins diet, it’s just a VLED diet.

1 Wild “weight loss trainers” often like to demonize carbohydrates, making the coach silent and the doctor crying after watching v

VLEDs can be used clinically to treat pathological severe obesity and rapidly reduce the body weight of patients in a short period of time. But what if a person is not severely obese and should not lose weight quickly in a short period of time? Research on the “female athlete’s triad” (insufficient energy-bone loss-menstrual disorders) has revealed the possible consequences of blind and rapid weight loss for the average person. In a state of very low calorie intake, the human body breaks down muscle for energy and stops some non-critical physiological activities, such as menstruation in women. The above-mentioned “wild weight loss program” suppresses the intake of carbohydrates and fats, and at the same time increases the energy supply ratio of protein, which will cause protein to become the main energy source. If an individual already has chronic kidney disease or renal insufficiency, weight management with this dietary approach is at risk of exacerbating kidney damage.

1 Experts at the Mayo Clinic agree that a high-protein-to-energy diet is harmless in the short-term, but long-term use can be risky and requires extra caution.

The laws of human operation are not changed by a specific subjective will. Without enough calories, the body will not only consume the stored fat, but will also tear down the proteins that make up muscles, bones and internal organs, and break them down for energy. If the total calorie deficit is large enough, eating a high-protein meal replacement powder will not be effective in preventing muscle breakdown. With weight control in this way, you may lose up to half of the weight you lose in non-fat components.

The picture below is the transcript of a student of the “Wild Project”. Let’s take this as an example to see how such a “weight loss diet plan” may harm the human body. This woman has a BMI of less than 20 and a body fat rate of less than 24% before the program, which is normal and relatively thin, and does not need (and should not) implement any weight loss or weight control diet plan. After taking the meal replacement for a month (a month of being hungry), her BMI dropped to an unhealthy level of 18, and she lost 4.95kg, about 43% of which was not fat. And her body water has risen by 2.5%. This 2.2 kg body tissue is neither fat nor water, so what is it? Is it skeletal muscle, viscera, or bone (mineral)? …

1 It is a matter of opinion whether a starving white young and thin is “beautiful”, but “unhealthy” is beyond doubt.

Stepping back 10,000 steps, even if we seriously want to produce ketones, we at least need to implement a diet plan under the guidance of a doctor, and always monitor the content of ketone bodies in the body to keep it within a reasonable range, which is called “nutritional living”. ketone” (about 1.5-3.0 mmol/L). If the blood ketone concentration is too high, the human body is at risk of ketone poisoning, which can be life-threatening in severe cases. This requires equipment such as blood ketone meters and test strips. But this “nutritionist” does not seem to have any medical qualifications or training background, and has never even heard of a blood ketone meter.

The medical profession does use the ketogenic diet in the treatment of simple obesity, but the doctor will not recommend that you “avoid strenuous exercise” or “only practice yoga or walking”, but will recommend “3 times a week, every 30-60 minutes of resistance training” “The movements should be as standard as possible, and the intensity should be gradually increased.”


It doesn’t matter if you eat meal replacements or not. At the same time you spend high prices on meal replacements, you still insist on the wrong way of life and make a mess of your body. What are we going to do?


From the above, it can be seen that meal replacements are just a type of ultra-processed food produced by industrialization. The ingredients are simple and common, not mysterious, and have no magical effects. Sometimes they are expensive.

If you have no special needs, can eat normally, and pay more attention to cost-effectiveness, there is no need to use meal replacement products. In particular, you should not consider high-priced Internet celebrity meal replacements that focus on “weight loss”, and meal replacement products based on lack of scientific basis. The “wild” diet plan.

If you have fully understood the ingredients and nutritional content of the meal replacement, and you think the price/performance ratio of the product is acceptable, you can temporarily replace one or two meals with it, or replace a meal regularly over a period of time. For example, if you wake up late in the morning, have a long commute, or are reluctant to order takeout at noon/evening, consider using Soylent, Ruofan, or a full-nutrient formula from a regular brand. For the rest of the main meals and snacks (such as afternoon tea), it is best to eat normal food and adjust it according to the daily calorie and nutritional needs.

When conditions permit, we can also “self-made meal replacements”. For example, referring to the open-source recipe provided by the official website of “Ruofan”, purchasing raw materials such as protein powder, adding fresh vegetables, fruits, flax seeds, spirulina, sweeteners and other ingredients by yourself, and using a food processor to make a milkshake, “Ton. ton ton” took a few sips and took a deep-sea fish oil capsule at the same time. The material cost of such a meal replacement may not be higher than the direct purchase of commercial meal replacements, but it is undoubtedly more nutritious.

In short, what this article hopes to tell you is that meal replacements can be eaten, but you must choose reliable products carefully. Meal replacements are not directly related to weight loss or weight control. Meal replacement products can be an integral part of weight loss diets because of their convenience, but they are not the deciding factor. Excessive reliance on meal replacements and unlimited calorie deduction may be unhelpful and harmful.

1 Maybe a good reason to buy a Vitamix?

Finally, a few digressions. As a trained professional, out of professional prudence and aesthetic considerations, I do not recommend that you completely forgo normal foods and eat only meal replacements. In the words of Dr. Fan Min, executive vice chairman of the Nutritional Physician Professional Committee of the Chinese Medical Doctor Association, “Humans have a digestive tract that is more than six meters long, and it cannot be maintained only by powders and tablets.” Commercial products such as Soylent and Ruofan exist to supply energy. Compared with the problem of unreasonable and incomplete nutrients, eating only such meal replacements for a long time will almost inevitably lead to chronic malnutrition. Although medical nutritionally complete formula foods are relatively comprehensive, they are mainly designed for people with food restriction, digestive and absorption disorders, metabolic disorders or specific disease states. A normal person only eats whole nutritional formula powder, which means skipping the chewing of the mouth and the mechanical digestion of the stomach, and relying solely on the small intestinal epithelium to absorb nutrients, or, in other words, it is similar to giving themselves “enteral nutrition”.

In the hospital, what kind of patients need enteral nutrition?

1 The scientific name of this event is “nasal feeding”, and the word “feeding” usually does not take “people” as the object. (

When the patient’s ingestion, digestion, and absorption functions are all or partially damaged due to disease, injury, etc., or they are unable or unwilling to orally ingest food due to the needs of treatment and diagnosis, or the food intake is not enough to meet the physiological needs, And when the absorption function of the small intestine is still tolerable, enteral nutrition can be used to artificially feed patients.

In short, it means that you are not too sick, you are too lazy to be seriously ill, or you do not want to live subjectively…

As ordinary people, we may not need to treat ourselves as a serious patient all the time.

Other references:

Measures for the Administration of the Registration of Formulas for Special Medical Purposes

Dietary Nutrient Reference Intakes of Chinese Residents

“Meal Replacement Food” (T/CNSS 002-2018) group standard

Mark Heyman, The Blood Sugar Solution

Clinical pathway of ketogenic therapy for simple obesity, Journal of Practical Clinical Medicine, 2019, Vol.23, Issue 2

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