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Meal Replacements: A long-term weight management solution?

Originally written by Hope Kleine, former SDSU Extension Health Education Field Specialist.

About Meal Replacements

Quick, effortless, and convenient are a few ways meal replacements have been described. Meal replacements have been utilized since 1994 and have become a popular choice for weight loss strategies. They are portion-controlled, vitamin and mineral fortified, and prepackaged, usually in the form of a bar or shake. The convenience meal replacements offer is appealing, but do they work for long-term weight management?

Long-Term Shortcomings

When compared to a traditional, reduced-calorie diet, meal replacements provide greater weight loss, averaging two times more weight lost over a three month period.1 While this may be enough evidence for you to incorporate meal replacements into your meal plan, take a look at long-term results. One year following meal replacement use, participants experienced weight regain as high as 40-50%.2-4 A key barrier that leads to weight regain has been identified as one’s inability to develop long-term, healthy behaviors such as incorporating healthy, whole foods into one’s diet, regular exercise, or weight monitoring. Slow, steady weight loss is more likely to last versus significant weight changes. If you lose weight too quickly, you can lose muscle, bone and water. Aim for a loss of no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week. You will be more likely to keep the pounds off and be successful maintaining your weight long-term. Remember, small changes can make a big impact in the long run.

Long-Term Weight Management Tips

If you are looking for a healthy way to manage your weight, meal replacements may not be the most sustainable option. Instead, develop long-term, healthy behaviors that will support your weight management journey. Having trouble taking the first step? Consider these tips:

Choose a behavior (or two!) to focus on. For example, incorporating physical activity breaks into your work day.

Step 1: Identify your barriers.

  • The first step is self-awareness. What is it that you don’t enjoy about this behavior? What has been holding you back from adopting it in the past?
  • Example: Maybe you have not taken physical activity breaks during your work day previously as it takes you away from work, or you are unsure what exercises you can do while at work.

Step 2: Actively seek solutions to your barriers.

  • What small steps you can take to lead you toward the behavior needed to reach your goals?
  • Example: Discuss the opportunity of walking breaks with coworkers whom you meet with regularly, and/or look up resources for exercises you can easily do with minimal equipment.

Step 3: Be mindful and celebrate successes.

  • Remember, it will take time to get where you want to be. Not all healthy bahaviors have an instant reward, so remember to keep moving forward, and celebrate the small successes!
  • Example: In the beginning, you may not feel the benefits of physical activity breaks, but acknowledge that you did something good for your health and celebrate! The benefits of being active are not immediate, but, with consistency, you will notice you are more productive, alert, and taking action for a healthier you!

In Summary

If you choose to use meal replacements as part of your weight management journey, remember to also be mindful of your weight management behaviors for long-term, sustainable weight management. You don’t have to experience your weight management journey alone. Individuals who utilize support have more success managing their weight than those who don’t. Reach out to support groups, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, a fitness expert, certified health coach, or your health care provider to make the most of your journey towards a healthier you. For more information on health eating, visit Choose My Plate or Eat Right.


  1. Heymsfield SB, van Mierlo CAJ, van der Knaap HCM, Heo M, Frier HI. Weight management using a meal replacement strategy: meta and pooling analysis from six studies. International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders. 2003;27(5):537.
  2. Heber D, Ashley JM, Wang HJ, Elashoff RM. Clinical evaluation of a minimal intervention meal replacement regimen for weight reduction. J Am Coll Nutr. 1994;13(6):608-614.
  3. Annunziato RA TC, Crerand CE. A Randomized Trial Examining Differential Meal Replacement Adherence in a Weight Loss Maintenance Program After One-Year Follow-Up. Eat Behav. 2009;10(3):176-183.
  4. Anderson JW KE, Frederich RC, Wood CD. Long-Term Weight-Loss Maintenance: A Meta-Analysis of US Studies. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2001;74(5):579-584.