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Time-starved or just plain starved, many of us are reliant on searching for a convenient and healthy "meal replacement to complement our fast-paced lifestyles.

Time-starved or just plain starved, many of us are reliant on searching for a convenient and healthy "meal replacement" to complement our fast-paced lifestyles.

Be it a quick breakfast, a post-workout snack, or a nutritionally dense food product, sometimes we need an extra kick to get us through a tough stretch.

Commercial Products

Meal replacements such as bars or nutritional shakes are functional foods, engineered to conveniently replace one or more meals. Their composition is regulated under the Food and Drug Act in accordance with recommended nutrient intakes (RNIs) and the Canada Food Guide. They must contain a minimum of 225 calories and approximately 25 percent of the RNIs of 22 stipulated nutrients (12 vitamins and 10 minerals) per serving. In addition, the number of calories derived from protein should be 15 to 20 percent, and the number of calories derived from fat should be less than 30 percent. The remaining calories should be derived from carbohydrates.

Canada Food Guide regulations for meal replacements are based on the premise that they should act as a substitute for an average, well-balanced meal. This is not an unrealistic assumption, but it has its flaws. Firstly, the guide is heavily influenced by manufacturers of processed foods, and reflects the interests of industry as much as scientific fact. Secondly, RNIs were established to ward off serious deficiency diseases and not to promote optimum health. Also, although meal replacements are an effective means of portion control, they are inappropriate for those on carbohydrate-controlled diets such as Atkins, South Beach, and Zone.

Sugar, glucose, and similar sweeteners, which adversely affect insulin levels, often make up the bulk of ingredients in meal replacements. The fact that regulations do not differentiate between carbohydrate sources has led to the use of inexpensive high-glycemic carbohydrates to satisfy the carbohydrate requirement. The consumption of high-glycemic carbohydrates rapidly raises blood insulin levels, making the product unsuitable for those with type 2 diabetes. This is a huge concern given Health Canada estimates two million Canadians suffer from type 2 diabetes, many of whom are overweight and would benefit from taking meal replacements.

Homemade is Better

Although it may sound daunting, it is very easy to develop a meal replacement tailored to your needs, be it high protein, low carb, low fat, or your own custom blend. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

High Protein, Low-carb

Choose a whey protein (one serving), mix with 250 mL of water and add half to one tablespoon of essential fatty acids (e.g., an oil blend), and four to five blueberries or strawberries. This is nutritious and suitable for diabetics, and those on low carb diets. Whey protein aids in stabilizing blood sugar - an additional benefit for diabetics. You can reduce the fat content in this recipe by reducing the essential fatty acid (EFA) content, but remember EFAs are essential for good health and actually contribute to proper fat metabolism.

Energy Shake

Use either whey or fermented soy protein as a base, mix with 250 mL of soy or rice milk or fruit juice to increase the available calories from carbohydrates, and add half to one tablespoon of EFAs. You can substantially increase the nutritional value of this recipe by adding either a green food or powdered/liquid multivitamin and mineral product to the mix. Fibre is also a consideration, but be advised that some fibre products may absorb the essential fatty acids and inhibit their absorption. Always consult your health or nutritional products advisor for the product best suited to your needs.

Be adventurous, mix and substitute ingredients, and make the perfect meal replacement for your lifestyle. Your health will be better for it.

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