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The Use of Medical Meal Replacements for Weight Loss

written by: AngelicaMD • edited by: lrohner • updated: 12/29/2010

Many diet and exercise programs have been developed, tested and reviewed on their effectiveness and safety in losing weight on a long term basis. Are medical meal replacements meeting these expectations?

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    Obesity, a Medical Problem

    Obesity is now a major worldwide health problem. In fact, it is not only considered a disease, but an on-going epidemic , since it continues to plague more and more people, not just in industrialized countries but in developing countries as well. Medical management of obesity has not been easy, especially when dealing with the complications related to it such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

    The problem with its management lies mainly on the compliance of a patient to the diet and exercise programs suggested by doctors, nurses, trainers and other health workers. Obesity treatment is almost always a long-term endeavor which not only affects the individual but his family as well. Considerations on choosing food from grocery shelves, meal preparation, ordering and taking out food from restaurants all involve planning and decisions that can make the process difficult.

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    What are Meal Replacements?

    These are medically prescribed meal substitutes in the form of shakes, drinks or bars that contain approximately 100-200 calories, with 2-5 grams of fat, 10-15 grams of protein, vitamins and minerals, and fiber. By substituting most meals in a day (except one) including snacks with medically controlled amounts of calories and nutrients in the form of prepackaged food, one is conveniently able to lose weight on a consistent basis. An example is the Medifast Diet plan which has been popular for more than 2 decades now.

    Meal replacements are nutritious and easy to prepare. They can be stored easily in the home, in the bag, or in a desk drawer. As long as individuals use them to substitute most meals of the day, they have been found to help in losing a significantly greater percentage of weight than by conventional diet plans using grocery foods that are self-prepared.

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    Medical Meal Replacements, A Good Solution to Obesity

    Science and medicine have found a possible solution to the problem of obesity. Meal substitutes have been scientifically tested and found to be effective in losing weight because the individuals are able to consume controlled portions and calorie restricted meals consistently. They are also helpful in decreasing the blood sugar levels in diabetics because of their low sugar and high fiber content. Blood cholesterol levels are also controlled because fat and calorie content are decreased.

    In addition, this weight loss strategy has been found to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, two key factors more recently shown to be related most common chronic diseases. Other benefits from meal replacements include decreasing abdominal fat, waist circumference or belly fat, all risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

    In addition to medically prescribed and clinically dispensed preparations some are commercially available over the counter. However, not all of these OTC products are medically recommended or proven to be safe. Recommendations for buying these include carefully reading labels to help select ones that are safe and appropriate, such that they should contain less calories, fats and a moderate amount of protein and more fiber. To be specific they must contain:

    • 220-230 calories per serving
    • less than 5 grams of fat per serving
    • 3-5 grams of fiber per serving
    • 10-15 grams of protein per serving
    • Fortified with a third of daily vitamins and minerals

    Those that contain chemicals or artificial ingredients that can cause changes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar must be avoided.

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    Are There Risks or Disadvantages to Meal Replacements?

    Medically prescribed meal replacements are generally safe, as they are dispensed and supervised by a certified health professional. The main disadvantages one may consider are:

    • The personal taste and preferences of an individual may be a limiting factor for compliance
    • Budget constraints, since these prepackaged meals may cost up to $80 per day
    • Family meal preparations may vary from an individual’s consumption, adding to cost of food expenditure
    • Initial effects of a low calorie, low carbohydrate meal replacement include hunger, weakness, headaches and irritability
    • Initially, activities should be limited to normal to moderate exercises only
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    By being able to overcome the difficulties of fussy planning and making meal-to-meal decisions on what is healthy, obese individuals can now easily comply with a diet program that can be done consistently on a long term basis. Instead of going through the hassles of shopping for healthy foods, preparing them while counting calories and nutritional values, people can now relax and just rely on medically proven meal substitutes or meal replacements to help them lose weight effectively and prevent related complications of obesity.

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    DietDirect, “Using Meal Replacements For Weight Loss” accessed 12/26/10

    WebMD, “Meal Replacements: Choose Those Bars and Drinks Carefully” accessed 12/26/10