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Nutrition in a bottle: sometimes more hype than help, from the Harvard Health Letter

Supplemental nutrition drinks can be a boon for people who struggle with a loss of appetite, find it difficult to chew, have trouble preparing balanced meals, or are recovering from surgery or illness. But they aren't magic bullets for nutrition, reports the July 2013 Harvard Health Letter.

One misconception is that nutrition in a can mimics nutrition from food. Not so. "Even if they are fortified, they still won't contain all of the nutrients a whole food source would," says Stacey Nelson, a dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Supplemental nutrition drinks generally provide protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, and minerals. There are hundreds of varieties that fall into two general categories. Shakes, such as Boost or Ensure, are drinks intended to help meet general nutrition goals. Formulas such as Jevity and Osmolite are designed for people with cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and late-stage kidney failure. They are often used in feeding tubes.

Using supplemental nutrition drinks as true meal substitutes is okay. If you can't eat and that's the only food that's palatable, "substituting one meal a day with a drink won't hurt, " says Dr. Suzanne Salamon, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. What's not a good idea is to consume supplemental nutrition drinks along with regular meals, unless the goal is to gain weight or stop weight loss. "It's too many calories," says Dr. Salamon.

Supplemental nutrition shakes contain more than just healthy ingredients. Depending on the brand, you may be getting more sugar than anything else. Avoid nutrition drinks that deliver more sugar than any other ingredient. Look for ones that have fruit or forms of protein (such as milk) as the first ingredients. Equally important are the calories delivered. As a meal replacement, 400 calories per serving is a good goal.

Read the full-length article: "Supplemental nutrition drinks: help or hype?"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Health Letter

  • Supplemental nutrition drinks: help or hype?
  • Ask the doctor: Should I worry about x-rays?
  • Ask the doctor: Are there new treatments for COPD?
  • Protect your heart, keep your thoughts clear
  • Quick start to a Mediterranean diet
  • Top 5 ways to reduce crippling hand pain
  • Rethinking fructose in your diet
  • Deep belly fat may weaken your bones
  • Reducing vertigo symptoms
  • Take a walk, reduce your risk of suffering a stroke
  • What can you do about corns and calluses?
  • News briefs: Mammogram rates steady, even with new guidelines
  • News briefs: Fight kidney disease with a better diet, weight loss and smoking cessation
  • News briefs: How to cope with the neurologist shortage

More Harvard Health News »


About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.