Meal Replacement and Body Composition by Dr. Mauro Dipasquale

Meal Replacement Powders (MRPs) have become popular in the last decade. While people tend to lump all MRPs together, it’s important to know that there are substantial differences in various MRPs. It’s also important to know what they are and what they’re good for.

What Exactly is a Meal Replacement Powder? Is it a substitute for having a salad, vegetables, steak and desert, and maybe even a glass of red wine? Don’t be ridiculous.

Do the manufacturers of these products simply put a meal in a blender and then take out the water to make it into a powder. It would be pretty gross if they did.

Do MRP’s Really Replace Carefully Planned Meals? Not really because these powders are not whole foods. In fact if it comes as a powder in a tub, can, pouch, or whatever, it’s not a meal, although under certain circumstances they can replace a meal and/or a snack.

So What Are MRP’s and What Are They Good For? Ideally MRP’s should be a well constructed blend of ingredients that can be used for specific purposes among which are weight gain, weight loss and maximizing body composition.

For the purposes of this article we’re only going to discuss MRPs for weight loss and for maximizing body composition. Actually both of these purposes are almost the same if used in the context that the weight you want to lose is fat and not anything else.

In fact losing muscle can be counter productive for effective fat loss. It certainly is counter productive for bodybuilders and other athletes who are trying to either maximize the amount of muscle they can carry or carry the maximum amount of muscle at a certain bodyweight. In both cases the goal is to minimize body fat while maintaining or building muscle.

But it’s also counter productive for those who are just looking to lean out and stay that way. That’s because muscle helps you lose more weight and eventually keep weight off. If you lose enough muscle it’ll be harder to lose weight and it’ll pile back on a lot easier.

The trick to losing weight is to lose mostly fat so that when you’re down to your target goal you still have most of your muscle. The result is that you’ll be more likely to keep the weight off and you’ll look and feel good.

MRPs should help you decrease body fat without impacting much on your muscle mass or even help you to gain some muscle. To that end they should be sophisticated formulations that include several ingredients that help these processes along.

So MRPs really aren’t meals, they’re structured nutritional supplements that contain not only specific macronutrients but also a number of special ingredients to make the best use of the macronutrients and direct the body on how to most effectively use these macronutrients.

When you look at MRPs in this way you’re actually thinking of pharmacological rather than physiological effects. And for those of us that are looking for serious MRPs this is the way it should be.

However, many meal replacements are simply physiological in nature as all they try to do is to give you a blend of macronutrients along with a mix of vitamins and minerals – essentially trying to duplicate what you would get with a regular meal.

These MRPs work if what you want is an easy to prepare meal substitute that’s not really a meal but will do under certain circumstances. For example if someone isn’t able to eat solid food or doesn’t eat enough food, or can’t prepare meals, then these type of MRPs will do the trick in the short term.

Also, because they’re easy to prepare and tend to add structure to diets, several studies have shown that even these kinds of MRPs are useful for weight loss. But that’s not what you should be looking for. What you really want and need is a much more effective product that targets fat loss and spares muscle.

The caveat, however, is that an MRP that uses the high quality ingredients that will give you these effects to help you to maximize body composition will be prohibitively expensive, unless the manufacturer is willing to make the best product possible and then mark the product up minimally so as to give the consumer a break.

So What’s the Answer? Well in most cases there is no real answer since MRPs on the market today tend to be the food and supplement industry’s idea of a compromise between what they can put into powder form as inexpensively as possible, and what you will accept in powder form instead of real food – banking that with some “education” on their part your expectations will be really low.

What they can put in is the three macronutrients – protein powder (usually milk proteins such as whey and casein), corn syrup/starch, polyunsaturated oils, some vitamins and minerals,and some fiber. And then they sell you this combo in such a way as to make you think you’ve got something that may actually be better than a meal.

As a result MRPs are usually wimpy and manufactured to make them look good to the consumer while at the same time being cheap to make. Most of them just have a protein source with some fancy name, some cheap carbs, usually maltodextrin (from corn starch), some plant oil, and a dash of the usual vitamins and minerals. If they do add some of the good stuff, it’s in minute amounts.

And it shows in the production costs. Most usually cost between 25 to 50 cents a serving to manufacture. Given that most MRPs have 20 packets or servings, that runs to a maximum of $10, and often as low as $5, for the ingredients in the whole box. They then list the box for around the $50 to $80 mark. What you usually get for your money in these cases is not a meal replacement but a cheap supplement with protein powder, some corn starch/syrup, a minimal amount of vitamins and minerals, and fiber.

What Should MRP’s Be? MRPs shouldn’t be classified strictly as meal replacements as they’re not, at least in the context you and I would use them. They should be classified as body composition nutritional supplements to be used mainly between meals, when you can’t get a proper meal in, and for special times such as after training.

At these times, MRPs can be extremely effective in increasing metabolic rate, decreasing muscle breakdown, and increasing the use of fat, including body fat, as a primary fuel.

For example using properly formulated MRPs between meals has anabolic, anti-catabolic and fat burning effects. The anti-catabolic effects is due to two factors. First of all it supplies the body with dietary macronutrients. This is important since the body requires a constant supply of energy and if it doesn’t get the energy it needs using food then it uses up energy stores in the body, including amino acids from the breakdown of skeletal muscle. And secondly it’s due to other ingredients that increase the levels and functioning of the anabolic hormones including growth hormone, IGF-I and insulin.

The fat burning effects are only seen in some of the MRP’s and is due to an increase in Metabolic rate secondary to the protein in the MRP and some other ingredients that should be in the MRPs that increase body fat breakdown and oxidation. It uses up energy stores in the body, including the amino acids in your skeletal muscle, when all the food in the gut has been absorbed, usually three to four hours after you eat.

MRP’s, again if they’re formulated properly are also extremely useful after training. Again the formulation has to use the best macronutrient mix, and ingredients to maximize post training nutrition.

Unfortunately most MRPs on the market are short on both the ingredients and effects.

Value for Your Money – Most of the MRPs on the market are made on the cheap, regardless of what they have in their nutrition panels. That’s because in order to make a substantial MRP, and stay in business, they’d have to charge more than anyone would be willing to pay. So they compromise on the ingredients and try to make it up with their marketing. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for!


1. Kovacs EM, Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Saris WH, Goossens I, Geurten P, Brouns F. The effect of addition of modified guar gum to a low-energy semisolid meal on appetite and body weight loss. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 Mar;25(3):307-15.

2. Ashley JM, St Jeor ST, Schrage JP, Perumean-Chaney SE, Gilbertson MC, McCall NL, Bovee V. Weight control in the physician’s office. Arch Intern Med. 2001 Jul 9;161(13):1599-604.

3. Winick C, Rothacker DQ, Norman RL. Four worksite weight loss programs with high-stress occupations using a meal replacement product. Occup Med (Lond). 2002 Feb;52(1):25-30.

4. Clifton PM, Noakes M, Keogh J, Foster P. How effective are meal replacements for treating obesity? Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2003;12 Suppl:S51.

5. Heymsfield SB, van Mierlo CA, van der Knaap HC, Heo M, Frier HI. Weight management using a meal replacement strategy: meta and pooling analysis from six studies. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 May;27(5):537-49.

6. Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Lejeune MP, Nijs I, van Ooijen M, Kovacs EM. High protein intake sustains weight maintenance after body weight loss in humans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2004 Jan;28(1):57-64.

7. Noakes M, Foster PR, Keogh JB, Clifton PM. Meal replacements are as effective as structured weight-loss diets for treating obesity in adults with features of metabolic syndrome. J Nutr. 2004 Aug;134(8):1894-9.

8. Anderson JW, Hoie LH. Weight loss and lipid changes with low-energy diets: comparator study of milk-based versus soy-based liquid meal replacement interventions. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Jun;24(3):210-6.

9. LeCheminant JD, Jacobsen DJ, Hall MA, Donnelly JE. A comparison of meal replacements and medication in weight maintenance after weight loss. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Oct;24(5):347-53.

Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale :: Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale :: is one of the most influential voices on diet, performance and athletic training in the world. His innovative work in finding safe nutritional alternatives to anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs has won him praise from athletes, trainers and fitness experts around the globe. Dr. Di Pasquale was a world-class athlete for over 15 years, winning the World Championships in powerlifting in 1976 and world games in 1981.

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