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Healthy Weight

Meal Replacement Shakes vs. Protein Supplements: When to Use One Over the Other?

Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training October 12, 2022

As a vital component of our diets, protein offers numerous benefits, whether for muscle growth, better health or weight control. You’ve probably seen someone drink a protein shake after a workout or heard of someone replacing a meal with a shake. Many people consume these products because they are convenient and can help consumers meet their daily nutritional needs. But are they interchangeable? If not, then when do you use one versus the other?

In this guide, we’ll help you understand the differences so you can make the optimal choice to reach your goals.


What Is a Meal Replacement Shake?

Meal replacement shakes are nutritionally complete protein shakes used to substitute a meal. They supply the body with adequate macronutrients – protein, carbohydrate and fat – and they are generally fortified with vitamins and minerals. The addition of fiber also helps with satiety, and the combination of fiber and protein helps consumers feel full longer despite the reduced calories.

In the United States, there is no formal definition of a meal replacement, but it is understood to deliver enough calories to sustain energy levels while assisting with portion control. By design, they can be effective when used in calorie-restricted diets and weight-loss plans.

Meal replacement shakes (in powder mixes or premade bottled drinks) are the most common format of meal replacements, but some companies also sell meal replacement products in the form of soups and bars.


What to Look for in a Meal Replacement Shake?

Meal replacement shakes can vary widely, from the ingredients used to the nutritional value they provide. It’s important to read the nutritional labels to ensure the product qualifies as a meal replacement and not simply a snack.

A good meal replacement shake should contain at least:


  • 170 calories
  • 17 grams of protein
  • 25 percent of your daily value of vitamins and minerals (as consumed)
  • 3 grams of fiber


What Is a Protein Supplement Shake?

A protein supplement shake, by definition, helps boost your protein intake. Unlike a meal replacement, the minimum calories in protein supplements can vary depending on the manufacturer, and these products are often not fortified with vitamins, minerals or fiber.

Protein supplement shakes also serve a different purpose as they are often consumed as a snack or post-workout drink – not necessarily to replace a meal. When active people use them, the protein they contain helps the body recover and rebuild muscles. Similarly, someone looking to lose weight might also want a protein-rich snack shake to provide satiety between meals.

When Should You Use a Meal Replacement Shake vs. a Protein Supplement Shake?

Now that we’ve covered the similarities and differences between meal replacements and protein supplements, let’s summarize what we’ve discussed:

  • Meal replacement shakes can help you lose or maintain weight because they offer balanced nutrition and portion control.
  • Meal replacement shakes help take the guesswork out of calorie counting.
  • Protein supplement shakes are meant to boost your protein intake throughout the day. They are especially convenient when other protein sources are not available.
  • Protein supplement shakes are great for fueling intense workouts. When you’re building, toning and repairing muscle tissue, your body needs more protein.
  • Because protein promotes satiety, protein supplement shakes can serve as snacks to help with hunger control and weight management.

Overall, protein supplement shakes and meal replacement shakes can help you achieve your wellness and weight management goals. Now that you know the subtle yet important differences, you can use your best judgment on how, when and where to use one or the other.

You can incorporate both products into your lifestyle, whether you’re building a reduced-calorie meal plan or fitness plan.