milkshake-1021027_1920Ok, you’re ready to start. Your fitness goal is firmly implanted in your mind and the excitement is building as you gear up to re-make your body into something resembling a former, youthful and vigorous self.

This first part is huge and is a motivational platform all need to step up on and stay on to succeed. It’s the second step which usually derails most people. The nutritional aspect of how to succeed is unfortunately marred by (1) an overload of information and (2) an under-informed public.

In all my years in the fitness industry as a Personal Trainer and Nutritionist, I never cease to be amazed by how far people go to make their journey easier and faster. Everyone wants the “I’m busy and how quickly can you get me there” approach. Slow and safe is simply not an adage marketers allow anyone to get away with. No sir, let’s crash this party and get results fast – we’ve got your back covered with pre-packaged protein or meal replacement shakes. Here’s a news flash: you’re not being told the entire truth. There’s thousands of protein and diet shake choices out there that can leave your head spinning like a top, desperately hoping that you picked the right one. Where do you start?

First, let me start by saying that there are some good choices out there and judicious use can, and will work for you. However, the problem is that we treat this stuff as food, rather than as a supplement to whole foods. There’s a big difference. I use some powerful whole food supplements myself (especially green powders), but I would never rely on them as a food replacement. The dictionary word for “supplement” means “something that completes or enhances something else when added to it.” In other words, they complete or enhance a whole food diet.

 Why are whole foods superior?

Whole foods contain many ingredients of which we are unaware of – they are as of yet undiscovered. Simply packaging some superfoods into a bag doesn’t make it a well-rounded diet. The organic label doesn’t wash either because whole foods can be bought this way and are inherently more beneficial than packaged products.

I understand that the less processed packaged varieties can be better options than the processed foods eaten by many overweight people, as their diets are largely lacking in overall nutrition. But at the end of the day, meal replacement foods are an expensive option which may work in the short-term by limiting the dieter’s reliance on actual food. However once normal eating is resumed the dieter should expect to see the weight return as the body tries to “re-balance” itself and adjust to normal food again.

At this point  some may tune out because they’re more worried about the way their clothes fit than serious future health concerns. But that’s the problem, isn’t it – the quick fix? We all want it and we defend it, even though evidence points to it ALWAYS being a temporary solution. Yes, food has contributed to your unwanted weight, but not “healthy” food. Your sedentary lifestyle, overeating, too many liquid calories and so on all play their part.

What is the real purpose of weight loss/meal replacement/fitness shakes?

Ultimately, most packaged products are geared toward weight loss or staying lean, with the angle of health and muscle growth tagged on to haul in more fitness buffs. But the underlying basis for all of these products is money – not a love for you. I know money makes the world go round, but weight loss products/nutritional shakes are a major industry, and companies come up with no end of innovative ways to market their newest products and cash in.

Unfortunately, many shakes and supplements are sold through Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) — where users go out and recruit new customers themselves. I personally dislike this type of approach because the incentives is mainly on product income. If the coach is a Personal Trainer, this ultimately might dilute  the quality of their training services.

Where do you fit in?

When it comes to staying healthy and what type of approach to use, I find three groups of people:

1. Food Purists/Whole Foodies: These are people who prefer everything to be minimally processed, keen on eating whole, real foods without additives, fake sugars or a lot of chemistry trickery to make a food light, lighter, and lightest.

2. Those craving shortcuts: Some just love anything that makes it easier for them to lose weight and eat less fat, less sugar – and of course with less effort. Ripping open a shiny package of low-fat, low-calorie, low carbohydrate product, tipping it into a blender and guzzling it within 3 minutes appeals to the busy, modern person. This group appreciates portion control through manufactured foods, even if it costs more. They care about health and they read nutrition labels, but they’re perhaps more lax about what they put into their bodies in terms of chemicals, dyes, and preservatives.

3. People desperate to lose weight. They’ll eat anything light, anything diet or sugar-free, which leaves out one burning question – how much does this cost nutritionally? Truth is, these so-called healthy packaged foods are filled with processed ingredients and chemicals that actually contribute to weight gain by causing us to overeat.

Cons of the pre-packaged approach

In my opinion the biggest reason pre-packaged foods don’t work in the long-term is that they don’t teach people about real food. I’m not talking about the standard items in the kitchen cupboards of most North Americans. These are not real foods – too much sugar, hydrogenated oils, more sugar, soy byproducts, more sugar, MSG and of course, more sugar.  These products don’t come directly from farms, they come from factories.

The essence of good nutrition in not caloric content, it’s nutrient content. Yes, you can lose weight by eating processed (packaged) foods, but does this really promote long-term health? Only real food accomplishes this purpose.

Salespeople, or coaches gush about how wonderful they feel when they are using the “program.” I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, “You won’t believe it, but this or that product has helped me lose weight! Contact me if you want to try these products or click on the link to my website to buy them.”

OK, I get it, but I can go to any health food centre and get organic foods that are nutritionally superior and cost less by volume. I can also buy it with less sugar and tons more fibre. Here’s a look at some unsavoury ingredients in packaged diet foods:

1. Splenda (Sucralose) –Recent research into the health effects of Splenda has indicated that it may contribute to weight gain, diabetes, disruption of sleep patterns, sexual dysfunction, increases in cancer, MS, lupus, and a list of degenerative diseases. This stuff is so toxic, I usually demand my clients quit taking it as of yesterday. Every time you drown your liver with this foreign toxic, you are poisoning your own organs. Then you justify it by going for a workout to get healthy?

2. Erythritol – touted as a natural product but is a sugar alcohol, a sweetener that’s not completely absorbed into your body. Large amounts of it can cause a delay in absorption, giving a laxative effect in the intestines. For this reason, high intakes of foods containing sugar alcohols can lead to abdominal gas, diarrhea, headaches stomach aches and borborygmi (a medical term for rumbling sounds in the intestinal tract). Other symptoms have included bad breath, shoulder and neck pain, mental reactions and hives. If you mysteriously suffer from these symptoms after starting a new product, look past the hype and read your label carefully. Persons suffering from irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive issues should avoid using products containing erythritol as it can aggravate symptoms or cause further problems.

I believe Splenda is 1000 times more dangerous, but if erythritol is so natural, why would it cause so many unnatural symptoms in the gut? In my mind it’s a bit backward to spend money on something that may cause any of these problems. We’re trying to get healthier after all, not sick!

3. Vegetable oils – Not good since a high intake of omega 6′s has been proven to promote the pathogenesis of many diseases. But again, these types of vegetable oils are in abundance and cheap to use, offering more profits, not more health.

4. Natural and artificial flavours – Whenever you see “artificial” or “natural flavours”, you can bet there’s a good chance it contains MSG, which can lead to common side effects such as migraine headaches, upset stomach, fuzzy thinking, diarrhea, heart irregularities, asthma, and/or mood swings. And let me tell you, “natural” absolutely does NOT equal “healthy”.  Remember, arsenic and hydrochloric acid are “natural”, too!

5. Soy Protein Isolate – 90-95% of US soybeans are genetically modified (GM) and the long-term effects of genetically modified soy products are staggering. They may influence estrogen levels, play a role in the risk of several forms of cancer and some people may experience an enlarged thyroid, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. The process of making soy protein isolates involves acid washes, alkaline baths, and high temperatures, which damages the protein and denatures it in a way that makes it harder to break down in the intestinal tract and, ultimately, harder to digest.

Bottom line

Many continue to focus on weight loss as a model for health, but they’re can’t fool the body. It’s not about calories alone, but about long-term health. Get over the fact that the next five minutes won’t produce a change. If your plate is filled with fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meats and small portions of unprocessed carbohydrates, the chance that you overeat is virtually impossible and you WILL produce a positive change in your body.

None of the packaged shake manufacturers tell you to dose up on fruits and vegetables, because they can’t patent and package them. They have to produce something new, something different, something low-calorie that works right now. But packaged food is not a model for sustainable health. It’s a model for a sustainable business – theirs.