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Meal replacement shakes provide convenient dose of nutrition, but some people wary of claims

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FARGO - Kimberly Ough says Shakeology is so much more than a protein shake.

The 34-year-old independent BeachBody coach started using the nutrient-packed mix as part of her diet in 2009.

"I fell in love with it. And I thought, 'You know what? This is worth it because of the amount of nutrition that you're getting in the shake,' " the Fargo woman says.

Shakeology is listed on the company's website for $129.95 for a 30-day supply, so if you drink one a day, that's about $4 a shake, cheaper for a coach.

Autumn Graber, one of Ough's customers, agrees that it's worth fitting into your budget.

"When you think about it, if you were to make a meal or go out for lunch or something, it's about the same," the 38-year-old Grand Forks woman says.

Increasingly, local men and women are turning to products like Shakeology and Herbalife to supplement their diets, and they're having fun with it, sharing recipes and posting photos of their drinks online.

Some skeptics may call it obsessive, but Ough says they're just excited.

Marco Gonzalez, senior director of corporate communications for Herbalife North America, says its shakes are more than a meal replacement.

"They're a real meal that offers all the necessary, balanced nutrients, minerals, vitamins, carbs and protein the body needs," he says.

To maintain weight, he recommends one shake as a meal per day; to lose, he recommends two shakes.

Gonzales says Herbalife's shakes, which are served at nutrition clubs and sold by independent distributors, are a good alternative to skipping meals or relying on fast food.

"In today's fast-paced lifestyles, people fall into the habit of skipping important meals because they're in a rush; shakes offer a quick and easy way to fuel your body with healthy nutrients and a good option to skipping meals during the day," he says.

Graber chose Shakeology, which is offered through BeachBody, over other meal replacement brands because of the taste and the lengthy list of "super-food" ingredients.

"Others may include a few of the key nutrient groups, like protein, but Shakeology is the only one that provides it all in one shake," Ough says.

In one of Ough's 30-day health challenges, Graber lost 20 pounds using the shakes in conjunction with exercise and a healthy diet.

She's kept the weight off and drinks at least one shake a day.

"It's a lifestyle change," she says. "You can choose whatever vehicle you want to take that journey in."

And it's not just weight loss - which Ough calls the "icing on the cake" - they're after.

One man gave up soda. One woman got her irritable bowel syndrome under control. Another lowered her cholesterol by 81 points.

"She was on the verge of meds at the age of 30, and Shakeology helped her drop below the risk range," Ough says.

Others report increased energy, fewer cravings and less bloating and irregularity, she says.

But what do dietitians and nutritionists think about health shakes?

Cindy Kloeckner, nutrition adviser and co-owner of Total Balance, says buyer beware.

"People make assumptions that if it's in our food - whether it's a shake or anything else - it must be safe," she says.

She researched companies before choosing to sell Body Wise products at her north Fargo gym, looking for things like naturally derived sweeteners and shelf-life testing beyond the expiration date.

"Just because it tastes good and it's in a nicely wrapped container, it's marketed well, doesn't necessarily mean that it is of quality for our bodies," she says.

Kloeckner likes having the option of a quick, versatile shake, which she calls a "real healthy fast food," but she doesn't rely on them to provide all her daily nutrition.

And, considering the drive time, prep time, cook time and cleanup time that goes into a healthy home-cooked meal, she thinks they're worth the cost in convenience alone.

"But don't leave out whole foods; there are so many other things in whole foods that they haven't even identified yet," she adds.

Sherri Nordstrom Stastny, registered dietitian and associate professor of health, nutrition and exercise science at North Dakota State University, is more cautious.

"Meal replacement shakes are an OK method for weight management for busy people. However, the body still needs whole foods because although there are many, many studies looking at individual nutrients, phytochemicals and other substances that we know are related to health and chronic disease, we don't always know the 'whole story,' " she says.

Many users do add whole foods, such as bananas, to their shakes, but Stastny has more concerns.

She tells her NDSU students to be wary of anything with more than a handful of ingredients - more isn't necessarily better.

"You may be paying for something you don't really need, like honey powder. The Herbalife product contains honey powder. I cannot think of a good reason to add honey powder to anything," she says. "Honey, yes, powder, no."

Dr. Rocio Medina, vice president of nutrition training for Herbalife, responds:

"All ingredients are necessary for the formulation of Herbalife's Formula 1 Nutritional Shake Mix - they provide its flavor and consistency. At the end of the day, all ingredients are safe and are in the proper amounts."

Also, Stastny says Shakeology's claims may be misleading.

"Although many of the ingredients in Shakeology are 'good' ingredients, a 35-gram dose (the recommended amount) could not possibly contain enough of everything we need to meet the above claims, and using many, many doses would get expensive," she says, adding that the average $3-to-$6-a-day cost would be better spent on whole foods.

Despite any debate surrounding them, meal replacement shakes continue to sell, whether it's through independent distributors, online or in shake shops.

"I don't think they're going to go away," Kloeckner says. "I think they're going to be part of our future food consumption."