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Can the popular ‘shake diets’ really work?

By Joe Miller
Correspondent

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With a rapidly growing obese population, shake replacement diets are as popular as ever. So, do they work?

That depends, says the medical community. Mostly on you.

“From a convenience factor, they’re very helpful for people who don’t care a lot about food and variety,” says Diane Danchi, a registered dietitian with Rex Wellness Centers in the Triangle. “They target a calorie count based on your weight loss goal and everything is done for you.”

In the popular Slim-Fast program, for instance, shakes purchased from Slim-Fast replace two of your three main daily meals, leaving you to prepare one 500-calorie meal (designated snacks are also allowed).

“If someone is a foodie,” Danchi says, “they will get bored very quickly drinking the same thing day after day. It’s not going to work.”

The shakes typically come in flavors (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry) and come both ready-to-drink and in powder form to be mixed with water. They emphasize their low calorie content and overall nutritional value, and stress their protein content. Both cost around $2 per serving.

Alicia Fogarty, a nutritionist with Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, sees flaws with the diets – but also a key plus.

“Most people, we’ve always encouraged them to lose weight through healthy eating, with fruits and vegetables,” says Fogarty. “But sometimes those general recommendations are seen as too restrictive and don’t work.

“I’m all for whatever helps people get healthy.”

Both Danchi and Fogarty note that shake-based diets can be pricey and advise that they should be viewed as more of a short-term option, maybe two to three months.

“Long term,” says Danchi, “I would be be concerned about nutrition deficiency issues.” Specifically, she says a dearth of plant-based foods – vegetables and whole grains especially – could deprive the body of phytonutrients, which have been shown to help prevent disease.

A liquid-heavy diet could also deprive the body of fiber, which provides a variety of healthy benefits, from lowering your risk of diabetes and heart disease to keeping you regular.

Ease and convenience were deciding factors in Diane Bone’s decision to try the Virgin Diet. Bone, who lives in Fuquay-Varina, has two school-age kids, works as an elementary school reading specialist and finds time at a premium. Bone, 40, had done Weight Watchers before – with success – but tabulating the points for everything she ate consumed more time than she can now afford.

The Virgin Diet, at least for the first 28 days, involves two shakes and a meal per day (plus authorized snacks). For her daily meal and snacks she invested time on the weekend shopping, plus two-hours of prep time Sunday evening, but that was it.

Adjusting to the shakes was a challenge initially: “It seemed like I was drinking ground-up cardboard.” But she soon adjusted and found the shakes to be more filling than the peanut butter toast she’d previously had for breakfast and the sandwiches and salads she’d eaten for lunch. She lost 10 pounds in the first five weeks.

Medical concerns

Another concern the medical community has with shake-based diets is that while they may help with weight loss in the short-term, they don’t address the bigger issue of establishing healthy eating habits in the long run.

The Medi-Weightloss program stresses long-term change, but also appreciates the role shake substitutes can play. Medi-Weightloss is a medically supervised program that promotes a low-fat, high-protein, low-carb diet, with a goal of building long-term healthy eating habits.

“The educational component is the most important part of our program,” says Kathryne Shaw, medical director for Medi-Weightloss in Charlotte.

The program offers shakes, but only as a between-meal snack to keep protein levels up and keep your body from craving a less beneficial snack, like a doughnut from the break room.

Appetite control

Austin Stone of Charlotte says the shakes have played a key role in his success with the program.

Stone, 44, has an 8-ounce shake midmorning and another midafternoon. “They help to keep me from starving between meals, and I’ve noticed that they help curb my appetite when I do eat.”

Stone entered the program wanting to drop just 10 pounds, but wound up losing 30. He’s been in maintenance mode for several months, still uses the shakes and has kept the weight off.

Joe Miller writes about health and fitness issues in North Carolina. Read his blog at GetGoingNC.com

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