Protein Shake vs Meal Replacement: What’s the Difference?

Protein Shake vs Meal Replacement

“Hey, Coach! I’ve been thinking about trying this supplement. What do you think?”

I have this conversation quite a bit with my clients. Although I appreciate them coming to me before jumping right into something, it’s important to explain to them everything about supplements.

We live in a time where weight loss fads rule the internet. I’ve been asked everything from Keto to juice cleanses but clients always want to know more about protein shakes and meal replacement shakes.

There are plenty of great brands out there that provide high-quality products and then there are some that don’t.

It’s important that you understand the entire picture of protein shakes and meal replacements before deciding.

Before you choose let’s dig into some details about both to see which will help you achieve your goals.

What Are Protein Shakes?

Protein supplements come mainly in powder form, usually as a shake, and are used to promote muscle growth.

Although protein is mainly marketed towards athletes, anyone who exercises can benefit from them.

The most popular protein supplement is whey protein. Although there are different options (plant-based for you vegans!) you’ll mostly find whey or casein protein.

A benefit that protein shakes have is they contain amino acids that help recovery. The funny thing about amino acids is that our body requires them, but it doesn’t hang onto them like it does with carbohydrates and fat! That means if our diets aren’t sufficient in getting us enough amino acids we may not have the resources to build and repair muscle.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is around 0.8-1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Now, this isn’t necessarily the amount you should strive for. Whether your goals are to lose weight or gain muscle eating more protein will always help.

One 2018 study found that older women who followed a higher protein diet experienced an improvement in their body composition compared to the women who ate more carbohydrates.

You should always strive to consume more grams of protein per day because you’ll maintain your muscle mass! Most protein shakes will contain at least 20 grams of protein per serving, which is plenty for the average consumer.

What Is A Meal Replacement Shake?

A meal replacement shake is meant to give you the nutrients you need, protein, fat, and carbohydrates, while not stuffing you with added calories. Most meal replacement shakes will contain around 300-500 calories per serving, but still, make you feel full.

Although meal replacement shakes don’t contain the amount of protein that protein shakes do, they have all of the added vitamins and minerals that a balanced meal would provide. Meal replacement shakes also have the added bonus of extra fiber, which most people lack in.

Not every meal replacement shake is created equal though! Some products just contain carbohydrates and sugar, which may have the opposite outcome for your weight loss goals. Make sure to always check the ingredients of the meal replacement shakes you’re buying.

When Should I Drink A Protein Shake?

Protein shakes are meant to be consumed after your workout. Some people will tell you that they need to be consumed thirty minutes after your workout or they’re useless! This time frame is referred to as the anabolic window, however, organizations such as the International Society of Sports Nutrition has recommended that protein can be ingested up to twenty-four hours post-exercise and still be effective.

While consuming a protein shake post-exercise is important, ensuring you are consuming adequate amounts of protein throughout the day is just as important.

No diet will benefit from a protein shake alone and needs to be supplemented with high-quality nutrients from a variety of sources. If protein intake is not maintained throughout the day a high protein shake will not be sufficient for a healthy individual.

When Should I Drink A Meal Replacement Shake?

Meal replacement shakes can really be consumed anytime throughout the day.

If you’re more of a busy professional, you may want to consume one for breakfast on your way out the door.

If you’re a stay at home mom, you can replace lunch.

The great thing about meal replacements is there is no best time to have one. Whatever meal you need to replace most is where a meal replacement will work best.

Which Should I Choose?

When deciding on whether to choose a protein shake or a meal replacement shake it all comes down to your long-term goals.

Protein shakes have the added benefit of amino acids to help you repair muscle, are higher in protein, and can benefit most people who go to the gym.

Meal replacement shakes are lower in calories, provide more vitamins and minerals, and aid in weight loss.

If you’re someone who enjoys the gym and feels great when they lift I would recommend protein drinks. If your goal is to look and feel strong you’ll need the extra protein to build muscle.

If instead, you’re someone who has a weight loss goal a meal replacement drink will be right up your alley. They contain fewer calories but will still provide you with the necessary vitamins and minerals you need.

Some people suggest you can use a protein shake as a meal replacement shake, but I disagree. I think they serve different purposes. As meal replacements are lower in calories they’re meant for weight loss or weight management.

Protein shakes should be used when your goals are to gain muscle and get stronger.


Protein shakes and meal replacement shakes are a hot topic in the health and fitness world. The difference between the two doesn’t seem like much but can have a big effect on your goals.

If you’re looking to lose weight, have something that’s low in calories, or just replace a meal I would go with a meal replacement drink.

If instead you’re looking to gain some muscle and don’t mind a drink higher in calories then protein shakes are for you! Remember though protein shakes aren’t always meant to replace a meal, instead, supplement it.

Whatever you decide to choose always make sure that they align with your goals!

A Quick Warning About Protein and Meal Replacement Shakes

I will always recommend protein and meal replacement shakes to my clients, however, I give them a warning about them. Unfortunately, the food and drug administration does not regulate the supplement industry. Right on their website, they confirm that they don’t require supplements to be proven safe.

This isn’t to say that these supplements aren’t safe. There are many reputable supplement companies who pour millions of dollars into creating safe and effective supplements. But there are still companies out there trying to make a quick buck.

When you’re shopping for your next protein or weight loss shake do some research and figure out which companies you can trust. I tell my clients to avoid the fifteen to twenty dollar brands like the plague! They may say they contain twenty grams of protein, but many studies have revealed that the label isn’t always telling the truth.

I don’t want to scare you from investing in supplements only to remind you that there are great ones and then there are bad ones!

Nick Benhoff
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