Can a Protein Shake Substitute for a Meal?

Substitute drinks and protein shakes are a popular alternative for people who don’t have time for a more traditional meal. But just how beneficial is a substitute drink or a protein shake compared to eating real food? We asked one of our Best Food Facts experts, Registered Dietitian Anne Elizabeth Cundiff, some questions to help clarify.

Are substitute shakes good at providing substitute nutrition?

Cundiff: “Protein shakes and drinks should not be a substitute for real food. Depending on an individual’s health status, there is the risk of consuming an excess of protein at one time, food allergies, GI distress and possible increased vitamin/mineral intake causing interactions with medications.

“I’m always an advocate for food first, but if an individual finds themselves not getting adequate balance with their nutrition due to a variety of health needs, this could be used to help balance out nutrition intake. “

What are your thoughts on substituting meals with shakes (protein or others)? And why might someone choose a liquid substitute over a more traditional meal?

Cundiff: “Food first always, but with life being as busy as it is, I think protein shakes or higher protein smoothie type drinks are a good way to quickly consume protein. The first reason is convenience. Protein drinks are easy to put together or are available in ready-to-drink forms in a variety of settings from grocery stores, convenience stores and gyms. Other reasons would be as a post-workout recovery drink to aid in muscle recovery, use in in a weight loss program or used for weight gain.”

What are the health benefits and risks of substituting?

Cundiff: “Many protein drinks provide a quality, highly absorbable protein when protein-dense foods are not easily accessible. Along with protein, there are other added vitamins and minerals, which can contribute to our daily nutrient needs. Other health benefits would be for individuals who are trying to maintain or gain weight secondary to an illness or medical treatment. There is always the risk of consuming ‘too much of a good thing.’”

What are some things to look for or avoid when choosing a substitute drink or protein shake? Any specific ingredients?

Cundiff: “First, I recommend looking for a drink with a complete branched-chain amino acid profile. This means the protein in the drink is a complete protein providing all the essential amino acids. For example, whey protein is a complete protein. There are also many plant-based protein beverages available too.

“Second, I recommend looking for a drink that has around 20 to 30 grams of protein per serving. This would the right amount of protein to be considered a meal. If you are looking to use it as a snack, aim for around 10 to 15 grams. Finally, always pay attention to sugar content and try to limit excess added sugars, less than 10 grams of sugar per serving is my recommendation. Look for ingredients representing food you recognize and be cautious of extremely high protein content (greater than 30 grams) and a plethora of added sugar ingredients.”

Is there a “proper way” to consume substitute drinks or protein shakes?

Cundiff: “As a nutrition expert, I call these my ‘in-case-of-emergency’ foods. If you are traveling or you need something quick, protein drinks are a choice I recommend over high fat/calorie snack foods or fast-food dining options. I do not recommend protein drinks for kids under 18. As far as not using it properly, I do not recommend consuming more than one a day (meaning it should not replace actual food for meals).”

Are substitute drinks and protein shakes a good way to lose weight or help someone transition to a plant-based diet?

Cundiff: “It could be an aid in starting off a weight loss program but it is not ideal for sustainable weight loss. And again, I recommend food first, but if someone is transitioning over to a more plant-based diet and is not meeting their protein needs, this could be a short-term way to meet those needs.”

Is there anything else you think people should know about substitute drinks and protein shakes?

Cundiff: “I always recommend individuals contemplating using protein drinks to seek out a registered dietitian to discuss their current nutrition needs. An RD will be able to review their daily intake and determine if they would benefit from a higher protein drink.”

Substitute drinks and protein shakes can be a great quick substitute, but real food is usually a better option for your meal.