Meal replacement vs protein shake?

Written by Jack Schrupp and reviewed by Ella McGonagle, M.S. Nutrition

Meal replacement vs protein shake? In this article, I will explain the differences between protein supplements and meal replacements so you can decide which one is right for you.


easy to digest

“I have a sensitive stomach, so most meal replacement powders leave me with gas, bloating, constipation, and stomach pain, but not this one.” – Shon

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Meal replacement vs protein shake.

What is a protein supplement? 

What is a meal replacement? 

Can I use protein powder as a meal replacement? 

Meal replacement vs protein shake.

Shakes vs powders.

Why drink wholesome?

What is a protein supplement? 

A protein supplement is a product intended to increase dietary protein intake. There are two types of protein supplements: ready-to-drink (store-bought) protein shakes, and protein shakes made with protein powder. People usually start using protein supplements because they cannot get enough protein from normal food.

What constitutes ‘enough’ protein is different for everyone. For this reason, the decision to start using a protein shake or powder should be yours and yours alone. Do not let anyone tell you that you need a protein supplement. Consider only what makes sense for you. I will add that most people can get more than enough protein from sources like eggs, fish, and legumes. I will also add that protein is just food, so do not expect it to do anything for you that other sources of dietary protein cannot. 

What is a meal replacement? 

A meal replacement is a product intended to replace the nutritional value of a meal, often with fewer calories. Meal replacements are usually a good source of protein, but not always, and there are two main types, ready-to-drink meal replacement shakes and meal replacement powders. Meal replacement powders, like protein powders, must be mixed with cold milk or water. People like using meal replacements as a convenient, on-the-go breakfast, lunch, or dinner. They are also championed as a weight loss food, which brings me back to the original question: what is the difference between a meal replacement and a protein shake? 

Can you use protein shake as a meal replacement? 

A protein shake can be used as a meal replacement, and a meal replacement shake can be used as a protein supplement. That said, every protein supplement is different. Some protein powders and shakes have fats and carbohydrates and other nutrients, whereas others do not. The former make for better meal replacements. Likewise, every meal replacement is different. Some meal replacements have lots of protein per serving, whereas others do not. The former make for better protein supplements. 

The point here is that we can only generalize about the suitability of protein supplements and meal replacements. The only way to know what is in your protein supplement or meal replacement, and what it is best suited for, is to read the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts.

Meal replacement vs protein shake.

The main difference between protein shakes and meal replacement shakes is the nutrition profile. Protein shakes tend to be high in protein, and low in everything else. This is because they are usually made with protein concentrates or isolates, foods stripped of everything but the protein. Meal replacement shakes, on the other hand, tend to have a more balanced nutrition profile. In other words, because they are intended to replace the nutritional value of a meal, they usually have fats, carbohydrates, and other nutrients in addition to protein. 

Many people use protein supplements and meal replacements to help manage their weight, so let us start there. Believe it or not, both protein shakes and meal replacement shakes can help you gain and lose weight. This probably sounds confusing, so allow me to explain. 

Losing weight is all about achieving and maintaining a calorie deficit – eating fewer calories than you burn. Gaining weight is all about achieving and maintaining a calorie surplus – eating more calories than you burn. Depending on how they are used, protein supplements and meal replacements can help you achieve a calorie deficit or a calorie surplus. Drinking a protein shake or a meal replacement shake in between meals, for example, will add calories to your diet and help you achieve a calorie surplus. Meal replacements have more calories than protein supplements, and are probably better suited for this goal. 

Replacing a meal or part of a meal with a protein shake or a meal replacement shake, on the contrary, can help you achieve a calorie deficit. The reason why this works has to do with hunger. Hunger is a powerful sensation, and depriving your body of calories it thinks it needs is uncomfortable. Your body does not like to be uncomfortable, and it will not shut up until you give it what it wants. This is the main reason why losing weight is so hard – even the most stubborn person can only ignore hunger for so long, and will eventually eat (often more than he or she needs to). 

The secret to weight loss is therefore to prevent hunger. In order to do so while maintaining a calorie deficit, you have to eat the right foods. Some foods are satiating, meaning they fill you up. Others are not. The trick is to eat more of the former, and less of the latter. High protein foods are among the most satiating foods and can help with weight loss. They keep you feeling full for longer, which helps prevent cravings and overeating. Protein supplements and high protein meal replacements are therefore a great way to increase the percentage of your calories that come from high protein and help you lose weight. Protein supplements may be better suited for this goal, but a high protein meal replacement can also do the trick. Our meal replacements, for instance, contain a whopping 30g protein per serving, which makes them a powerful weight loss food. 

Shakes vs powders.

Again, there are two types of protein supplements, and two types of meal replacements: ready-to-drink (store-bought) shakes, and shakes made with powder. In order to make shakes with powder, you have to mix the powder with milk or water. This requires a blender or a shaker bottle, and a little extra time and effort. Some people prefer ready-to-drink shakes because they are more convenient, but if they knew what they were drinking, they would probably vomit. 

Ready-to-drink protein and meal replacement shakes are full of emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, sweeteners, and flavors. Ingredients like these improve characteristics like taste, texture, and shelf stability, but can cause uncomfortable side effects and long-term gut damage (more about this soon). This is why I recommend that you make your own shakes with powder. That said, not all powders are created equal, and many contain the same additives found in ready-to-drink shakes!

Before you start chugging shakes, however, you should know that not all protein powders or meal replacements are not created equal. Many protein powders and meal replacements are made with ingredients that can upset your stomach, and in some cases cause permanent gut damage. 

Why drink wholesome

drink wholesome is additive-free.

One of the reasons why we make the best protein powders and meal replacements is that we do not use food additives. Most protein powders and meal replacements, on the other hand, are full of food additives. Although not necessarily bad for you in small quantities, additives can add up quickly (especially if you drink a protein shake every day) and cause gastrointestinal (GI) side effects like bloating, constipation, diarrhea, gas, and stomach pain. This is because food additives are hard to digest, and sit in your gut for longer than food should, which gives your gut bacteria more time to eat. As they eat, these bacteria produce gas, which causes bloating and stomach pain. Gas also slows colonic transit (the amount of time it takes food to travel through the colon), and can lead to constipation. In the long term, food additives can disrupt regulatory pathways in the intestine, which can result in the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and systemic inflammatory disorders.

One additive to avoid in particular is artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are among the most harmful food additives in the long term as they alter the composition of your gut microbiota (the collection of microorganisms that help you digest food). This can lead to serious, chronic GI problems, widespread inflammation, and permanent damage to the gut microbiome. Some sweeteners, especially sugar alcohols like xylitol, are also poorly absorbed by the gut (meaning they feed those hungry gut bacteria), and cause diarrhea because they draw water into your intestine. Now you finally have something to blame for those post-protein shake trips to the bathroom!

Here is a list of the most common food additives in protein powder and meal replacements:

acacia gum, acesulfame potassium, artificial flavors, aspartame, carrageenan, cellulose gum, dextrin, dextrose, erythritol, gellan gum, guar gum, gum arabic, inulin, locust bean gum, “natural” flavors, maltodextrin, rice syrup solids, soy lecithin, silica, sucralose, sunflower lecithin, xanthan gum, xylitol

When it comes to identifying food additives, go with your gut. 😉 As a rule of thumb, they are the ingredients that you cannot pronounce. Food additives are not the only thing to look out for when buying protein powders and meal replacements, however. There are several other ingredients that can upset your stomach.

the alternative:

Protein Matrix Comprised of (Whey Protein Concentrate,  Whey Protein Isolate, Calcium Caseinate, Micellar Casein, Milk Protein Isolate, Egg Albumen, Glutamine Peptides), Polydextrose, Sunflower Creamer (Sunflower Oil, Corn Syrup Solids,  Sodium Caseinate, Mono- and Diglycerides, Dipotassium Phosphate, Tricalcium Phosphate, Soy Lecithin, Tocopherols), Natural and Artificial Flavor, MCT Powder (Medium Chain Triglycerides, Nonfat Dry Milk, Disodium Phosphate, Silicon Dioxide), Lecithin, Cellulose Gum, Salt, Yellow 5, Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium, Papain, Bromelain.

*This is the actual ingredient list of one of the best-selling protein powders in the United States.

drink wholesome is dairy-free.

Another reason why we make the best best protein powders and meal replacements is that we do not use dairy-based proteins. Many protein powders and meal replacements are made with whey and casein, which are byproducts of cheese and yogurt production, and known to cause digestive issues, especially for people with lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Over one in three Americans are lactose intolerant, and the prevalence of IBS is somewhere between 10 and 15 percent in the United States. It follows that you may be lactose intolerant or have IBS and not even know it. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a poorly understood condition, and it is unclear why dairy triggers symptoms. Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is clearly understood. People with lactose intolerance are unable to fully digest lactose, the sugar in dairy. As you just learned, partially digested food feeds the bacteria in your gut, which produce gas and cause stomach pain.

drink wholesome is made with real foods.

A final reason why we make the best protein powders and meal replacements is that we do not use protein isolates. Most protein powders and meal replacements, on the contrary, are made with protein concentrates and/or isolates, foods stripped of everything but the protein. They are listed on the ingredient list as “collagen protein,” “pea protein, and” “whey protein” as opposed to “collagen,” “peas,” and “whey.” I will not go into the details, but protein concentrates and isolates undergo heavy mechanical and chemical processing before becoming protein powder or meal replacement Sometimes, manufacturers use chemical solvents like hexane to isolate (separate) the protein from the food. This means that what you end up putting into your body looks nothing like real food. 

If you think about it, your gut was designed to digest naturally occurring foods, not laboratory formulated imitations, so if you feed it anything but real food, it might get upset. The long term implications of eating processed foods are still not well understood, but more and more research is finding that it can alter the composition of your gut microbiota, and lead to permanent damage to the gut microbiome. It is therefore in your best interest to avoid protein powders and meal replacements made with protein concentrates and isolates. 

Instead of protein concentrates or isolates, we make the best protein powders and meal replacements with egg whites and almonds. Egg whites are simply pasteurized and dried before becoming protein powders and meal replacement. Almonds are just roasted, pressed, and ground. Minimally-processed ingredients like these are an easy to digest, gut-friendly alternative to protein concentrates and isolates. Unless you have a sensitivity or allergy to eggs, egg white protein is the best protein for your gut. Egg whites are low in fiber, low-FODMAP, naturally alkaline, and have the highest protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of any whole food. Our customers have experienced fewer digestive issues with egg white protein than with any other type of protein. If you cannot eat eggs, try our almond protein powder. Unlike protein concentrates or isolates, almonds contain lots of healthy fats, fiber, and other nutrients like calcium and vitamin E. We prefer almonds to other minimally-processed plant protein sources because they are more gut-friendly. Research suggests that almonds possess prebiotic properties and can improve the diversity and composition of the gut microbiome.


easy to digest

“I’ve had Crohn’s disease for 20+ years and it’s always been hard to find a protein powder my stomach can handle. I’ve had no problem digesting drink wholesome AND it tastes great. I highly recommend this protein powder if you have IBS or Crohn’s.” – Jesse

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Protein shake vs meal replacement shake.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. drink wholesome is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.