For certain groups of people, nutritional drinks can be a healthy dietary supplement. In a tidy package, they provide calories, vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients, and they can serve as occasional meal replacements when you have no time to prepare a more balanced meal. Most healthy people, however, are better off meeting their dietary needs through food and steering clear of nutritional drinks.
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Some nutritional drinks are very low in calories and are designed to promote weight loss. Others are supposed to stimulate muscle gain or general weight gain and are much higher in calories. Regardless of the type you choose, you are likely to gain weight if you drink it in addition to your usual diet. According to Harvard Medical School instructor Dr. Suzanne Salamon, you should only drink supplements in addition to eating full meals if your goal is to gain weight or prevent weight loss.
If you’re going to use a nutritional drink, it’s healthiest to find one that is low in added sugar. According to pediatrician Dr. Robert Lustig, added sugar is a “poison” that can raise your risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer and other ailments. Harvard nutrition researchers recommend reading ingredient labels on drink contenders and avoiding those that list sugar as a first or second ingredient. Instead, look for drinks that list a fruit or a protein source, such as milk, whey protein or soy protein, as the first ingredients.
To keep you full and keep your energy levels up, there’s an optimal ratio of nutrients to look for in a supplemental drink. According to registered dietitian Stacey Nelson, that ratio is about 10 to 20 grams of protein, 6 grams of fat or less and 40 grams of carbohydrates or less in an 8-ounce serving. Look for a drink that’s under 200 calories if you’re using it as a snack or a weight-loss meal replacement and a drink that’s about 400 calories if it’s serving as a meal replacement or you’re trying to maintain or gain weight.
When to Use Nutritional Drinks
Getting your nutrients from a liquid supplement isn’t as desirable as getting them from whole foods because supplements aren’t able to reproduce some naturally protective substances found in foods, including antioxidants and phytonutrients. However, for purposes of weight loss and calorie restriction, nutritional drinks can work. In 2010, “Nutrition Journal” published the results of a study in which subjects who drank five nutrition shakes daily lost more weight over the 40-week trial period than subjects who followed a food-based diet. Nutrition drinks can also help prevent malnutrition in elderly individuals. Before you add any supplements to your diet, get approval from your doctor.