Adding supplement also adds calories

Eating Well

April 16, 1996|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A vibrant, energetic, college-educated gentleman in his mid-70s came to see me recently. Dismayed by an unexplainable 10-pound weight gain, he arrived with a record of everything he had eaten and drunk for the past week.

He assured me that his eating was quite normal. Food choices and portion sizes were the same as they had been for years.

The difference, I discovered, was the twice-a-day addition of a liquid food supplement designed to boost his energy, improve his health and add life to his years.

It never occurred to him that "extra energy" means extra calories, 500 to 600 per day, in fact. If he keeps eating normally, and drinking those supplements, he'll gain a pound of fat every week!

What's the problem here? A new marketing ploy is leading healthy adults to believe they'll be more energetic if they drink canned supplements.

Liquid meal replacements, like Ensure, Sustacal, Boost and Resource Plus are essentially vitamin-enhanced milkshakes, originally designed for people too sick to eat real food. And for those people, they work wonders.

Some people in chemotherapy, for instance, lose interest in food, have mouth sores that make chewing difficult or have changes in taste that make liquid meals more acceptable than regular food. At 250 to 350 calories per can, the supplements keep the patients' energy up and help prevent weight loss until they're able to eat again.

The supplements also work wonders for bedridden patients who are unable to swallow and need a liquid tube feeding to meet all their nutritional needs.

Even extremely nervous athletes, unable to eat before a big event, can benefit from a liquid meal replacement to provide the energy they need.

But now liquid supplements are being marketed to vigorously healthy older adults who are obviously able to eat -- and enjoy -- real food.

And if they make the same mistake my friend did, and add the supplements to an already-adequate diet, they too will start to gain weight, increasing their risks for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.

But liquid meal replacements could have a place in a healthy adult's life, as a substitute for a cereal, milk and banana breakfast, perhaps, or as a grab-and-go lunch instead of a soup and salad. In a pinch, a liquid meal is better than no meal at all. But on a daily basis, think about what you'd be missing.

Although meal replacers provide their calories from a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fatand include vitamin and mineral supplements, they contain almost no fiber, so they can't improve bowel function and prevent constipation. Also, because they contain no fruits or vegetables, they're missing all those newly discovered phytochemicals that appear to reduce cancer and heart-disease risks.

And then there's taste, the No. 1 reason why people choose food. Who would trade thin-sliced, Virginia baked ham on fresh deli rye and a juicy pear for a chocolate drink described by Tufts dental students as "very sweet," "metallic/sour aftertaste" and "thick and gritty"? Tufts Diet and Nutrition Letter suggests we'd all get more pleasure by drinking a chocolate shake and popping a vitamin pill. The calories, fat, vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals would be the same.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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