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Meal Replacements – The Bigger Picture

Updated July 12, 2019

Jeff Novick, MS, RDN


“I read your response on meal replacements but am still looking for an answer. I checked out many energy bars and they do not look healthy.  I then looked at some meal replacement shakes and they were not any better. I was really hoping there might be something more healthful that is super convenient, requiring absolutely no preparation, heating, etc., especially for morning time.”

The issue here is really one of perspective and not time, so let’s step back and look at the bigger picture for a minute.

We live in amazing times. Modern technology has allowed us to experience a lifestyle that was once only imagined or seen in science fiction movies. These technological advances are seen everywhere in our daily lives—our automobiles, communication devices, household appliances and modes of travel, etc. However, the flip side of this is its impact on our health and what has come to be called, “the double-edged sword of modern conveniences” and/or “the reversal of fortune.” The reason is that many of these modern technologies have made life so much easier physically that we are less active and do not expend as much energy and burn as many calories. As a result, this is now seen as a major contributor to the current obesity epidemic and its related health consequences, which include heart disease, diabetes, stroke and increased rates of many common cancers.

So, we have saved time on one hand by making life’s tasks easier but at the same time, we have created the need to find additional time to compensate for the lost activity. To compensate for this reduction in activity levels, we have to either find the time and means to increase our daily activities again (walking, choosing stairs over elevators and escalators, etc.) or engage in formal exercise (aerobics, jogging, running, cycling, weight training, etc.), all of which take time and effort.

But, true to human nature, instead of planning, preparing and taking the time to be active and exercise, we all want an easy, fast, effortless solution to the problem. Marketers are right there waiting for us with promises of “exercise in a bottle,” diets that they say require no physical activity or exercise, and exercise machines that promise a total workout in only 4 minutes. However, as we all know, none of these promises are true nor will these marketing claims even ever be possible. There is no escaping our need for daily activity and/or exercise and no pill can ever give us these benefits, nor can these benefits be achieved in only 4 minutes per day.

The same holds true in the area of food and nutrition. While there are many time-saving conveniences in the kitchen, our overall lifestyles have taken us out of the kitchen and into the arena of fast foods and highly processed and refined convenience foods. Unfortunately, most of these foods are severely lacking in nutrition and contain excesses of calories, saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. These fast-foods and highly processed and refined foods are also known contributors to our current health challenges. As with activity and exercise, when it comes to nutrition, there will never be a substitute or a “replacement” for the real thing.

The only true solution is to plan our lives in such a way that we can have healthful food regularly available, just as we also plan our lives to make the time to be active and/or exercise. By planning ahead and being prepared, we can easily overcome these challenges in a healthy way. Following is the approach I recommend and, as a health professional, I feel that for me to recommend anything less would be a disservice to you and others.

The “Fast Food” Solution:

The cooking method I created called “Fast Food” addresses our fast-paced lifestyles and takes advantage of some healthful convenience foods (frozen & canned veggies, tomatoes and beans) to prepare nutritious meals in under 15 minutes. By cooking large batches and keeping the extra in the refrigerator and the freezer, we can have healthful food available at all times for lunch and/or dinner.  I presented this cooking demo at the McDougall ASW and you can download the handout here.

The same holds true for breakfast. By taking advantage of some convenience foods (rolled oats and frozen berries), we can have a healthy breakfast that can be prepared and ready to eat in less than 10 minutes.

Here is an example of a simple oatmeal recipe:

Quick & Easy Oatmeal

  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 sliced banana
  • 1/2 to 1 cup frozen berries
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp. raisins (optional)

Place the oats, water, raisins, banana and frozen berries in a small pot. Bring to a boil, turn down heat to low and simmer for 2-3 minutes until done. Top with cinnamon. Total time is less than 10 minutes. (Can also be prepared in a microwave.)

Time Saving Tip 1: Cook a week’s worth of the oatmeal ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator. Then portion it out as needed each morning and reheat in a microwave. The other ingredients can be added each morning. This cuts the total preparation time each day in half.

Time Saving Tip 2 (and alternate prep. method): Combine all ingredients the evening before in a bowl and keep them covered in the refrigerator. During the night, the oatmeal will soften and the flavors will blend. Then, in the morning, it can be heated and/or microwaved in just a few minutes.

As you can see, by planning ahead and using a few healthful convenience foods, we can make simple meals that are not only quick and easy but also good and good for us.

In Health,