THE BLOG
01/15/2014 02:16 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014

Back to Basics

I recently stumbled upon a local advertisement for a magical life coach of sorts. A woman offering to make me thin, wealthy and happy -- If I bought what she was selling and paid to attend her seminars. Her qualifications? Great teeth, a toned ass and a surprisingly large number of followers. I wondered what would make so many people put so much money and faith into a person with so little experience. When I did a little digging I found that at the heart of her empire was Shakeology, the meal replacement product that promises weight loss, increased energy, etc.

Before now I didn't know much about Shakeology, beyond the fact that it has become wildly popular in recent years. Not wanting to rush to judgment I researched the ingredients, the company's claims and sales structure. I talked to people in the fitness and nutrition community and sought honest, unbiased reviews of the product and the science behind it. The latter proved to be somewhat difficult, as Shakeology has a cult-like following and scores of affiliates eager to post their own reviews. In the end I've come to the conclusion that while Shakeology isn't necessarily bad, it's not what it claims to be. And it claims to be a lot of things, most notably, "The most delicious, superfood-packed protein shake on the planet."

First of all, let's be clear about what constitutes a superfood. The much-used marketing term is basically a fancy way of labeling foods with exceptionally high nutritional value. However, there's no food in Shakeology, only lab-processed traces of things that perhaps used to be "superfoods." The ingredients look impressive, but as we've seen recently with the vitamin scam, nutritional supplements are notoriously unregulated and often ineffective. So if you aren't paying for superfoods, what are you paying for? As one reviewer stated, "Bottom Line: The health claims made on the package have no scientific evidence base to support them. There are insignificant amounts of multiple plant products mixed in with the protein, none of which come anywhere close to duplicating the health benefits of whole plants."

The weight-loss success stories touted on Shakeology's website are undeniably awesome and I don't doubt the validity of these testimonials. However, whether the meal replacement shakes were the cause of the weight loss or whether it was caloric restrictions, exercise, healthier eating habits or some combination of the like is unknown. Obviously, replacing a 500- to 700-calorie meal with a 160-calorie shake will create a calorie deficit, which is the main criteria for weight loss. Registered dietician Dana McDonald of Eat Clean, Train Mean, Live Green wrote in an email, "The issue with these rapid weight loss programs is that they are not sustainable -- as soon as the program stops and the individual goes back to eating real whole foods the weight is gained back, generally at a higher rate."

As for the third party clinical study purported to be in the works during 2013, there is no evidence on Shakeology's website that it ever took place. In fact the only "scientific" evidence of Shakeology's effectiveness on the website is the following statement: "Shakeology has been researched by well over 100 medical doctors, along with an extensive array of nutritionists, food scientists and natural food / medicine experts."

I live in Okinawa, Japan, which has one of the healthiest populations and highest percentage of thriving centenarians (people over the age of 100) in the world. Scientists attribute their longevity to eating fewer calories, consuming lots of fruits and vegetables, having good fats in the diet, eating plenty of fiber and staying physically active. In addition Okinawans practice hara hachi bu, which is eating until you're 80-percent full. These are simple ideas and ones that have been largely abandoned by Western society, but perhaps they're exactly what we need to recover from our collective disordered eating and dysfunctional relationship with food. If you like Shakeology then by all means carry on. However, maybe instead of another quick fix, super shake, cleanse or gimmick it's time to get back to basics.