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Reviewed by Pete Nastasi, Certified Sports Nutrition Coach and Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner
Make sure to talk to a healthcare professional about your individual needs and appropriate dosages before adding a supplement to your routine.
Meal replacement shakes have come a long way in the past few years, with a greater variety of options than ever before. Thanks to advances in exercise science, wellness and the medical community, the list of promising products from start-ups and lesser-known manufacturers continues to grow, and established products keep getting better. If you’ve never tried meal replacement shakes before, the sheer number of options can be intimidating. So we’re here to help by explaining everything you need to know before choosing the best options for your lifestyle.
Meal replacement shakes consist of macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats that are coupled with micronutrients such as essential vitamins, minerals and various plant compounds. Together, these elements make up a complete, on-the-go meal. Meal replacement shakes can be a good option for those with busy lifestyles; whether you are dealing with a demanding work schedule, shuffling kids to and from sports practice, or traveling, it can be hard to find time for a sit-down meal. Still, that doesn’t mean you need to neglect your health to fuel up. If you’re looking to avoid the fast-food line but still want to consume something easy and quick, consider adding a meal replacement shake to your routine.
Because meal replacement shakes supply a full meal, it’s important to understand your health goals and needs, then select an option best suited to helping you achieve them. In addition, it is always advised that you work with a trained medical professional when implementing new dietary choices and supplements.
For those looking to bulk up or maintain weight during periods of heavy exercise, meal replacement shakes offer complete macro and micronutrients. Some people use meal replacement shakes as sustenance between meals or as a pre-or post-workout, to satisfy the body’s need for additional energy. That being said, it’s important to differentiate between meal replacement shakes and protein shakes or powders as they are not the same thing.
Protein powders tend to be heavier on protein and lighter on carbs, fats, fiber and some vitamins and minerals. They are designed to aid in muscle repair and muscle gain during pre-and post-workout sessions or to act as a high-protein source for those consuming a low- or no- animal protein diet (such as vegetarians and vegans). Meal replacement shakes and powders, by contrast, supply nutrients to help you attain adequate daily values of both macros and micros.
Not all meal replacement shakes are created equal and it can be difficult to find one that checks all the boxes. Here are the best meal replacement shakes, broken down by specific categories to make it easier to find exactly which is best for you.
Our Top Picks for Meal Replacement Shakes
Best Meal Replacement Shake for Building Muscle: Transparent Labs Meal Replacement Powder
Transparent Labs has gone the extra mile to create a complete lineup of powders and supplements to support every aspect of your health and wellness goals — from muscle building to mental clarity to joint support. As the name suggests, Transparent Labs publishes a detailed lab breakdown, called a certificate of analysis, for every product, and certificates of composition for most products on its website. The Meal Replacement powder contains 24 grams of protein from whey protein isolate and concentrate, grass-fed beef bone broth, egg white protein and pea protein. This powder contains 7 grams of fat, mostly from MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil. The 19 grams of carbohydrates are derived from natural cane sugar and quality sources like pea starch and oat bran fiber, which also provide 5 grams of natural fiber.
This balance of slow and fast-burning macros from quality sources makes Transparent Labs a great choice to keep your body moving through a busy schedule or a tough workout. If there’s one drawback, it’s that Transparent Labs lacks a substantial array of vitamins and minerals from whole-food sources. A dose of vegetable or other plant-based powders would go a long way to make this meal replacement shake truly complete.
For those already eating a well-rounded diet full of vitamins, minerals and other plant-based compounds, Transparent Labs is a well-made meal replacement powder designed to increase muscle repair and building and provide lasting energy for an active lifestyle.
Best Meal Replacement Shake for an Active Lifestyle: Kaged Clean Meal
Kaged Clean meal replacement powder is packed full of dense nutrients from various whole food sources. But what makes this powder unique is the brand’s trademarked ioWhey protein isolate. According to Kaged, ioWhey technology increases the surface area of the protein molecules for up to 123% better bioavailability than traditional whey powders. This powder delivers 28 grams of bioavailable protein from both the ioWhey and organic quinoa, containing all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa is also a good source of natural antioxidants, carbohydrates, fiber and minerals.
Complemented with 18 grams of slow-burning carbohydrates mostly derived from oat flour, this powder is designed to keep you fueled through a tough workout or a busy day. With the addition of MCT coconut oil powder, which provides 4.5 grams of healthy fats, Kaged is a well-rounded macronutrient powder. Kaged Clean Meal goes a step further by adding a blend of vegetable and plant powders to supply ample whole food-sourced vitamins and minerals.
This blend contains a few common veggies, like broccoli and spinach powders and a handful of less-common superfoods such as kelp and maitake mushroom powders. This shake is a bit low on fiber (only 2 grams) and does contain sucralose.
Despite these downfalls, if you’re someone with a very active lifestyle that demands a higher macronutrient intake, this is an excellent choice.
Best Ready-to-Drink Meal Replacement Shake: Iconic Protein Drinks
Iconic’s line is ready to drink and packs a substantial amount of goodness into a relatively small 11.5-ounce bottle. These drinks are free from gluten, soy, GMOs, lactose, hormones, pesticides, corn, and carrageenan. They even come in a BPA-free bottle. Iconic uses a grass-fed milk protein isolate that provides 17 total amino acids, including nine essentials, for a healthy dose of 20 grams of protein per bottle.
The brand uses natural flavors, including real cacao powder and Colombian coffee, to produce flavors that taste clean and authentic. Their products are sweetened only with monk fruit and stevia, making these a zero sugar beverage. The “Cacao + Greens” option includes a full daily serving of veggies from kale, broccoli and spinach powders.
Garden of Life’s ingredient list reads more like a grocery list, with the majority of the nutrients derived from whole foods. Additionally, these ingredients are sprouted—the seeds and legumes are soaked in water for 24 hours and then allowed to start growing, which removes the phytic acid, a compound found on all seeds and legumes that interferes with calcium, iron and zinc absorption. And since the ingredients are processed at low temperatures to maintain the “raw” designation, the 28 grams of proteins per serving remain intact. The brand claims that this makes them fully absorbable for maximum muscle building.
This meal replacement shake also serves up 8 grams of naturally-occurring plant fiber per serving and no added sugars for a total of 10g of carbs (2 grams net carbs). In addition to the basic macros and micros, Garden of Life has added some unique superfoods that it claims can boost overall health, such as cinnamon, which it says helps to stabilize blood sugar, and ashwagandha, which it says can help reduce the effects of stress.
In addition to the superfoods, this product also contains a raw probiotic and enzyme blend that contains two Lactobacillus strains and 13 enzymes that may aid overall digestion.
Best Superfood Meal Replacement Shake: Field Work Nutrition Primo Smoothie
Field Work Nutrition is new to the game, but it came ready to play. Co-founded by a premier endurance coach, it utilizes a substantial variety of whole foods and superfoods to make this meal replacement shake a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals. Two such thoughtfully added ingredients are curcumin and tart cherry, which the brand says can control and reduce inflammation in the body.
Field Work has also added a robust fruit and vegetable blend to supply micronutrients. These naturally occurring vitamins and the added natural sea salt supply a healthy dose of the minerals essential for electrolyte balance (sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium). A pre-and probiotic blend has also been added to support gut health and a digestive enzyme complex to support digestion and absorption of the nutrients in the smoothie.
To make this a complete meal replacement product, Field Work has included 20 grams of protein from grass-fed whey and milk protein concentrate as well as 5 grams of fat from coconut oil powder and 18 grams of carbohydrates. The majority of the carbohydrates come from high-quality sources like sweet potato, oats, amaranth, chia and quinoa, making them slow-burning for sustained energy.
This meal replacement shake is excellent for anyone who has difficulty consuming enough plant foods regularly or anyone looking for a superfood boost from a meal replacement shake.
Best Allergen-Friendly Meal Replacement Shake: Orgain Organic Meal Powder
Orgain is the brainchild of cancer-survivor turned-integrative-medicine-specialist, Doctor Andrew Abraham.
This shake uses USDA organic ingredients and is free from artificial sweeteners, flavors, preservatives, soy, gluten, GMOs and carrageenan. It’s also free from dairy and lactose, and is vegan-friendly. Instead of the grass-fed milk protein found in most of Orgain’s other products, the 20 grams of proteins in this powder come from organic peas, brown rice and chia seed. It also contains complex carbohydrates from a sprouted blend that includes various seeds and beans like amaranth, quinoa, garbanzo, flaxseed and pumpkin seed.
Orgain also included a greens blend and a fruit and vegetable blend, which it says ensures this meal replacement shake supplies adequate micronutrients and beneficial plant compounds. In total, these all add up to 25 grams of carbohydrates. Orgain makes a great product suitable for anyone with common food sensitivities or allergies.
Best Vegan Meal Replacement Shake: Ample V
Ample traded out the whey protein in its Original Meal Shake for pea protein to make this vegan-friendly meal replacement shake. And, perhaps knowing how difficult it can be for vegans to consume enough complete proteins and good fats due to dietary choices, Ample loaded this meal replacement shake with macros to support health and body functions.
For starters, there are 26 grams of fat—derived mostly from coconut oil (with some from macadamia nut oil). The high fat content means you will likely feel more satiated with your liquid meal, allowing you to go a longer period of time between meals. It also means that your body is getting a healthy dose of the saturated fats essential for cellular health and hormone production that can be hard to consume in adequate amounts with a plant-based diet.
The remainder of the ingredients in this product are non-GMO and from whole-food sources. The 20 grams of protein in Ample V come mostly from organic peas. And this protein is a high-quality source of essential amino acids and one of the better choices for a vegan-safe protein, as it is a complete protein. The carbohydrates in Ample V come mostly from whole grain oat powder. This, coupled with the acacia fiber and vegetable powders, makes for a fiber-rich shake at 11 grams per serving.
Ample has also added a healthy dose of probiotics for gut health and a few vegetable powders to supply vitamins and minerals. Though, it could probably do with adding a few more plant powders to boost the overall nutritional content, but still this shake makes an excellent choice for vegans or anyone preferring plant protein.
Best Keto Meal Replacement Shake: HLTH Code Complete Meal
For those who follow the high fat, low carb ketogenic diet, HLTH Code makes an excellent option.
HLTH provides 27 grams of protein from whey protein concentrate, grass-fed collagen and egg whites. The addition of collagen is particularly great because collagen is essential for maintaining the health of connective tissues (tendons and ligaments), joints and skin. An active lifestyle can stress connective tissues and joints, so a collagen boost is especially welcomed. HLTH also provides 27 grams of fat from coconut oil powder, olive oil powder, MCT powder, flaxseed, cocoa butter and grass-fed ghee — far and away the most diverse and superior fat sources on our list of meal replacement shakes. HLTH has 13 grams of carbohydrates with 9 grams from soluble vegetable fibers, for only 4 grams net carbs to keep you within your daily carb limit.
HLTH also includes a significant amount of real, mineral-rich sea salt. This is valuable because people on the keto diet often have lower sodium levels—they’re generally not able to eat high-sodium packaged foods that are common in many people’s diets, and clearing ketones also causes the body to lose sodium. Despite containing none of the vegetable powders that we see in most meal replacement shakes, HLTH has still managed to create a powder that’s rich in 25 vitamins and minerals due to the nutrient-dense ingredient list. This meal replacement shake is thoughtfully made and an excellent choice for those following the keto diet — or anyone looking to lower carbohydrate intake and increase fat intake.
What to Consider When Choosing a Meal Replacement Shake
High quality, complete proteins
Your meal replacement shake should contain high-quality, complete protein from sources like grass-fed whey, egg whites, beans and seeds. Whey protein is one of the most popular protein sources in meal replacement shakes because it is highly absorbable and contains all nine essential amino acids. Pea protein, derived from yellow split peas, has become one of the leading sources of high-quality plant-based proteins commonly used in meal replacement shakes. Both whey and pea proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, making them complete proteins and highly effective for muscle repair and growth. The amount of protein you aim for will vary based on your overall diet and goals. A good starting point for many people is around 20-25 grams of protein per shake, which has been shown to stimulate muscle building.
You should avoid meal replacement shakes with protein from wheat. These are low-quality sources of protein that lack essential amino acids, rendering them mostly ineffective for muscle repair and growth.
Healthy fats, usually polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, are found in certain vegetable oils, nuts and seeds among others, and can provide some benefits for the body such as decreasing your risk for disease. It’s wise to avoid hydrogenated oils—they contain trans fats, which can increase your risk of developing heart disease and other health problems.
Complex carbohydrates with fiber
Carbohydrates are great for supplying the body with energy. However, if they come from simple sources like corn, that energy is likely to burn out quickly, leaving you feeling like a car without gas. Complex carbohydrates such as oat powder, sweet potato flour and various bean or seed powders are digested more slowly by the body for a more sustained energy supply. These carbohydrates also contain fiber, which aids in digestion and helps you feel fuller for longer.
Low sugar content and natural sweeteners
While it’s important that your meal replacement shake tastes delicious, it’s far more important that you don’t compromise your health by settling for a powder loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners. Traditional sugar may appear on the label in different names like dextrose, fructose or corn syrup solids. Beware that all of these sugars will cause your blood sugar to spike.
It’s equally important to read the label for artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose. These ingredients have been linked to cancer and other chronic diseases, supported by the Journal of Pharmacology & Pharmacotherapeutics. Instead, look for a meal replacement shake with low sugar content (4g maximum) from healthy sources, such as maple or coconut sugar or a version that uses a natural plant-based sweetener such as monk fruit to boost the taste.
Probiotics and prebiotics
Probiotics, often in the form of cultures similar to what you see in yogurts or other fermented products, are necessary to keep your gut microbiome healthy. Prebiotics are indigestible plant fibers that act as food and nutrients for your gut microbiome. Sources in meal replacement shakes often come from inulin (usually from chicory root fiber). A healthy gut is important for overall health and good digestion. When your gut is not functioning properly, it inhibits the absorption of both macro and micronutrients, rendering your food (and your meal replacement shake) virtually ineffective.
High-quality vitamins and minerals from whole-food sources
Vitamins and minerals are used as coenzymes and cofactors for many of the metabolic reactions in the body—meaning, your body needs them to complete the processes that transform food into energy. This is why it is important to eat a wide variety of foods to ensure you are getting these micronutrients into your body through your diet. If necessary, a meal replacement powder with some added micronutrients can help you fill in some of the gaps where you might be deficient. A good rule of thumb is to check the ingredient list for vegetables, fruit, mushroom and other plant powders if you are looking to round out your meal replacement shake.
Dietary considerations: lactose, gluten and other allergens
While some people have been diagnosed with food sensitivities or allergies, many people are unaware that they have any issues. If you commonly feel bloated, have gas or have other digestive issues, you may be sensitive to common allergens. If this is the case or if you have been diagnosed, you may want to steer clear of products containing lactose, gluten, wheat or soy. Keep in mind that most whey proteins contain lactose (some may contain trace amounts of gluten if they are not 100% pure). If you have true sensitivities or allergies, read the label closely for certified claims about being allergen-free. Look to see if the product was made in a facility that processes nuts, soy, or other allergens, and check for NSF Certified Gluten Free, Non-GMO Project Verified, and USDA Organic badges, depending on your sensitivities.
Free from thickeners, fillers and other additives
If you recognize most, if not all, of the ingredients, that’s a good sign you have a quality product. Poorly made products contain food chemicals to improve the texture and stability of the shake. Some shakes contain synthetic vitamins as a cheap alternative to whole or real foods. Others contain fillers. These are products with little-to-no nutritional value but they act as “bulk” to add weight to the bottle. Thickeners are used in some meal replacement shakes to help create a more consistent texture once the liquid is added. Carrageenan is a very common thickener that, while derived from natural seaweed, has been linked to gastrointestinal damages, including “mucosal erosions and ulceration,” according to Environmental Health Perspectives.
Overall macronutrient content vs. your personal health goals
It’s imperative that you have a clear vision of the health goals you are aiming to achieve, so you can select a product to help you hit the mark. Are you someone who is using a meal replacement shake to bulk up? If so, you’ll want much higher macronutrients than someone trying to slim down or maintain weight.
Suppose you are using a meal replacement shake because you don’t always have time or the ability to eat a meal. In that case, you’ll want to choose a balance of macros and a healthy dose of micronutrients to act as a sound substitute for a meal. Know your goals and choose a powder accordingly. If you are uncertain about your goals, reach out to a health professional to learn more.
How and When to Use Meal Replacement Shakes
Unless you choose a ready-to-drink meal replacement shake, you’ll want to invest in either a blender or a shaker bottle. Simply stirring your meal replacement powder into liquid will only leave you with a lumpy, inedible (or undrinkable) drink. Blenders are great for when you’re at home and have an extra minute to mix your drink. You can always throw in some fresh greens or fruit and ice to make your meal replacement shake into a smoothie for added nutrition and flavor. But if you’re on the go, a shaker bottle is an easy way to keep your drink blended and smooth.
The time you drink your meal replacement shake can vary based on what works best for your schedule. Most people replace just one meal per day with one of these shakes—generally whatever meal is most convenient for you. However, If you are considering replacing multiple meals with a meal replacement shake then we strongly urge you to discuss it with your qualified health care provider.
You can drink a meal replacement shake between meals or before or after workouts to increase caloric and nutrient consumption (for those trying to increase muscle mass and body weight). If you just need something to fill in occasionally, you can keep a stash of meal replacement powder in your desk drawer or your gym bag and just add water when you find yourself in a bind and unable to eat a meal. Just keep in mind that the powder for these shakes could be affected by temperature and climate fluctuations such as humidity which can cause the powder to clump up.
While whole food meals are usually our best option, busy schedules don’t always allow for this luxury. Whether you are trying to bulk up, lean out or just get through your busy day, you can consider a meal replacement shake to aid your health and fitness journey.
Well-made meal replacement shakes are more nutrient-dense and contain much more of the healthy ingredients your body needs than a lot of the alternative on-the-go options such as fast food or candy bars. Once you know what fuels your body and what meal replacement shake is best suited to meet your dietary needs, you can confidently choose the right product to help you reach your goals and keep you on the move.
Prices are accurate and items in stock at time of publishing.