All Shook Up - Diet Drinks

Over the past 20 years, nutrition drinks and supplemental shakes have moved out of the hospital and into the mainstream. They are no longer for those who are nutritionally compromised from poor growth or chronic illnesses. It's commonplace now to see people of all ages downing these drinks instead of, or in addition to meals and snacks. How do these drinks stack up against "real" food?

An Occasional Drink

As a quick meal or snack, the pre-made shakes or powdered mixes added to skim milk, soy milk, or rice milk are adequate on occasion. Many are enriched with added vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, phytochemicals and other micronutrients that are found in real foods and are associated with good health. But they do not take the place of eating a variety of whole foods from the food groups outlined in your eating guidelines for several reasons:

Choosing a variety of foods helps ensure that you'll get all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need every day to optimize your health. When you drink a formula from a can, it is the same thing every day - no variety.

Formula drinks have a lot of added nutrients, but they do not contain all the nutrients in their natural state like whole foods do. There is much to be learned about the value of certain foods, and why some foods are protective against diseases and promote health. These subtle substances may have yet to be identified. So, eating real foods can help you get the beneficial nutrients that aren't put into a can.

Nutritional shakes and supplemental drinks are expensive!

Most of the drinks list sugar or corn syrup as the source of carbohydrate - not the greatest source of nutrition compared to whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, and this low nutrition carbohydrate adds up and takes away from your ability to eat high quality carbohydrates if you are watching your calorie intake.

Weight Gain vs. Weight Loss

Generally, shakes and supplemental drinks have a better role for weight gain than for weight loss. If you're trying to gain weight and you're following a solid fitness program, your goal is to put on lean muscle mass and reduce your body fat. You'll need to eat a lot of high quality whole foods as part of your basic food plan. But gaining weight can be challenging - eating often even when you are full and timing workouts can be tough. Supplemental drinks can be a pretty good source of calories, but in addition to, not in place of your healthy eating plan.

For weight loss, you're better off with whole foods for the reasons mentioned above. These drinks really don't take the place of a variety of foods and you should not replace your good carbohydrates with high sugar drinks on a routine basis. So, o.k. occasionally, but use discretion!

Look at the chart below. It compares a typical snack of 1 cup skim milk, 1 slice whole wheat toast with 1 Tbsp. peanut butter with several popular supplement drinks. The calories and amount of carbohydrate and protein is pretty similar. The drinks are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but you'll need to drink four 8-ounce servings to get all of your vitamins and minerals, and once again, the source of carbohydrate is mostly sugar or corn syrup.

Comparison Table

Nutrient Info Food Snack
(skim milk, toast, peanut butter) Boost w/fiber
8 oz. Boost High Protein 8 oz. Carnation Instant Breakfast 8 oz.

Calories 241 240 240 220
Protein,g 14.7
10 15 13.4
Fat,g 9.5 4 6 1.4
Sat Fat,g 1.9 .5 .5 .3
Carbohydrate,g 26.5 42 33 39
Calcium,mg 325 330 330 506
Potassium,mg 565 380 380 726
Sodium,mg 362 170 170 206
Zinc,mg 1.8 4.5 4.5 3.4
Folate,mcg 39.3 140 140 154
Vit C,mg 2.4 mg 60 mg 60 mg 38 mg
Fiber,g 3.8 3 0 <18