The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics designates March of every year as National Nutrition Month. Since the Academy recommends meal replacements as “part of a comprehensive weight management program,” this is a good opportunity to review the nutritional benefits of a Very Low Calorie Diet (VLCD) and meal replacements.
Today’s medically prescribed meal replacements are developed based on evidence-based scientific research and use high quality, nutritionally complete ingredients. For example, New Direction meal replacement beverages and bars provide 100% of RDI for protein, vitamins and minerals, exceeding the recommendations established by the National Academy of Sciences National Research, and can be used to support a range of medical issues, including obesity. The additional macro- and micronutrients are specifically selected to allow absorption at different rates to maintain optimal protein levels.
Research provides additional support for meal replacement effectiveness. Studies consistently find significant health benefits including lower cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose; cardiovascular improvements; and the reduction or elimination of the need for diabetes medication. And, because they are convenient, portable and require minimal preparation, compliance is often higher. Post-intervention surveys confirm that meal replacement users find this weight loss strategy easier to follow and offer significantly higher scoring for their understanding of and compliance with food amounts — all components to weight loss success.
Yet despite the health benefits associated with meal replacements, there remains a gap in awareness, even among the medical community who treat obesity. A recent study shows that health care professionals with limited knowledge of meal replacement products prescribe them at much lower levels than those who have had formal training in the use of meal replacement products. Similarly, potential users can be poorly informed. A study of meal replacement users found confusion in their understanding about nutrition, balanced meals and eating styles. Among the misperceptions were the belief that meal replacements can compensate for overeating and that exercise was unnecessary when using them.
This lack of education and misunderstanding can have a negative impact on treatment by omitting meal replacements as viable weight loss options for patients who can benefit significantly from their use. This takes on added importance because meal replacements are most effective when they are they are part of a structured program with regular weight and health checks, professional medical advice and recommendations on dietary guidelines. This supports the need not only for baseline training of staff, but also ongoing education to stay abreast of current research and best practices.
Obesity is an epidemic that is being treated more as an afterthought than a disease and this band-aid approach will only continue to contribute to this misguided approach. This is exacerbated by a lack of understanding of the research on meal replacement which acknowledges and recommends them as a relevant option for people with obesity. It is imperative that the medical community be open to effective, scientific alternatives that can offer hope and improved health to patients in dire need.