NCH dietitian Audry McKernan offers meal-replacement education

Meal replacement shakes are giving new meaning to the term "liquid lunch."

From SlimFast and Usana to Nutrisystem's new protein shakes, people watching their weight — and even those too busy to cook — are turning to these nutritious powders and liquids.

"Making a shake in the morning, being busy getting two kids off to school, and (having) something portable intrigued us," says Kristen Goodman of Naples, who, along with her husband Dennis, has used Usana since November. They have lost a combined 35 pounds so far.

She drinks the chocolate powder plain with ice or mixed into coffee as a mocha treat. Her husband puts frozen fruit in the vanilla or banana powder.

"I love the taste of it," she enthuses. "I can't wait to make it and drink it."

Goodman also likes the fact that the Usana products are a low-glycemic plan, a term familiar to diabetics who are concerned with blood sugar control.

"People are eating too many carbohydrates, and the carbs are turning into sugar, which if it is not utilized as energy turns into body fat," explains Audrey McKernan, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and licensed dietitian nutritionist with the von Arx Diabetes and Nutrition Health Center at Naples Community Hospital. "Increasing your protein instead of carbs will help you lose fatty tissue, build muscle and increase your metabolism."

McKernan runs a 12-week weight management program called The Healthy Weigh. (The next one starts April 24.) McKernan also offers one-on-one consultations for people with diabetes and celiac disease, as well as for children with weight management issues.

As part of the 12-week program, she typically recommends that people use protein shakes that contain whey protein isolate, which she says is the purest form of protein available, as a supplement in their daily meal routine.

"We combine these protein components into a normal meal plan, so they're not strictly on a liquid fast," she explains. "The reason I recommend whey for meal replacement is it's a high quality, complete protein that has all the essential amino acids your body needs."

McKernan has worked in the nutrition field since 1998 and, in the past two years, has noticed an increase in the number of people using meal replacement shakes. She says the supplements can replace one to two meals each day, but she cautions that not all protein shakes are created equal, with some containing whey protein concentrate rather than isolate.

The top two she recommends are the whey protein isolate powders from Jay Robb, which is available locally at stores such as GNC, and Bariatric Advantage, which can be purchased online.

For people who want only an occasional meal replacement shake, she suggests Muscle Milk Lite, EAS, Glucerna Hunger Smart Shake, Boost Glucose Control or the Premier Nutrition brand sold at Costco. She doesn't recommend SlimFast, which is says is "pretty much all sugar."

Most people mix the powders into unsweetened almond milk, but McKernan says 1-percent milk and unsweetened soy milk are also fine. People who don't like milk can use Crystal Light or a low-carbohydrate clear liquid.

Evelyn Sevilla is a personal trainer, instructor for Pilates and Zumba, and associate who sells Usana. She has used Usana herself for years, so she is comfortable recommending it to her clients, including the Goodmans.

"People can't believe how quickly they lose their cravings," she says. "But, once you stop eating things that are so highly processed, your palate becomes better."

McKernan cautions people to watch their overall protein intake, however: "You have to be aware of how much protein is in a serving of these products. You don't need 50 grams in a meal."

From 18 to 25 grams per meal is fine for most people, she says.

McKernan's counseling teaches people to pay more attention to what they are eating.

"By adding more protein in your diet and decreasing carbs, people are snacking less, overeating less and are less ravenous at mealtime. So, it's really helpful," she asserts, saying people stay full by using the shakes because "calorie for calorie, a meal plan with appropriate amounts of protein increases satiety more than carbohydrate or fat calories."

Items on her low-glycemic meal plan include foods such as chicken, fish, vegetables, monosaturated fats, wild rice, quinoa and sweet potato.

McKernan's advice leads to results, with most people losing 20 to 30 pounds during the 12-week program. And, she says most people stick with what they learn.

"Maintenance is really good, because along the way we teach them to eat the low-glycemic meal plan." She leads supermarket tours, talks about which products to buy and gets the entire family involved, so it becomes a lifestyle change. McKernan also does cooking demonstrations, because she said some people are afraid to try new items such as tofu and hummus. The program also includes a three-month membership at the NCH wellness center and group fitness classes.

In addition to diet and exercise, McKernan also focuses on behavior modification. She talks about stress management and emotional eating.

"Most of the time, people have done so many diets and they don't keep off the weight because they don't break the barriers that are stopping them from keeping it off."

Once people leave the program, they typically have one meal-replacement shake per day, getting most of their nutrients from whole foods.

Protein shakes are not for everyone, including vegans who don't want animal protein — whey is produced from a milk source — as well as anyone with chronic renal disease or kidney problems. As with any diet, people should check with their doctors or dietitians before starting, McKernan emphasizes.

McKernan also says the trend of juicing is not necessarily as healthful as people may think.

"People are throwing a million fruits in the blender, but the carbohydrates in the fruits really add up, and calories can be a huge problem."

She suggests using primarily vegetables and adding one portion of fruit, such as an apple with carrot, spinach and kale.

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