DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am looking for help with a family debate. On weekdays, my husband has a meal replacement bar for both breakfast and lunch while at work, plus a banana or apple on occasion. We have various meals for dinner; some are more balanced than others. My position is that he needs more variety, and he could be harming his colon because of an inadequate intake of vegetables, fruits and fiber. He reasons that he cannot bring "real" food to work, so the meal replacement bars are a perfect substitute to help prevent vending machine overindulgence at the office -- though he does give in to his cravings for cookies and chips at night.
He is 43, takes multivitamins and antioxidant supplements, gets a cardio workout every other day, and is not overweight. His annual blood tests remain normal, but there could be other issues brewing that we don't know about. Would you please enlighten us on these issues? I have my husband's best interests at heart. -- M.H., Brooklyn, New York
DEAR M.H.: I think your concerns are on target. There is no question that your husband is doing some good stuff, and his active lifestyle can help him big-time. But as you allude to with the "issues brewing" comment, chronic disease sneaks up on us like a thief in the night. Is there a specific reason he is not able to have fresh food at work? This may not apply to his situation, but at one of my early jobs, I purchased a small refrigerator for my workspace (it caught on with my co-workers).
Meal replacement bars are formulated to please the palate in a convenient, shelf-stable format. Contrast this to whole foods, which are governed by the essential need to have the right stuff to support a plant in nature. Plants survive because of the compounds they create for their own needs. We have only begun to understand the identity of all these substances and the ways they work together in plants. We are still playing catch-up on understanding the combinations and amounts of these substances needed to provide health benefits for us.
Granted, we are not plants, but it seems foolhardy to assume that, convenience aside, meal replacement bars have all the bases covered. This fits with the consistent advice of sticking to a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
At best, the bars might be thought of as a convenient, short-term fix in life's long-term game; they can be great when traveling, camping, hiking or otherwise away from your usual routine. The sensible approach for your husband would be to find a way to have "real" whole foods as the core of his diet, leaving those bars as occasional backups. I also do not know the ingredients in the particular bars your husband is having; there is quite a variety on the market. He should consider minimally processed bars with at least four grams of dietary fiber, five grams of protein and a minimum of added sugar (counting for no more than one-third of the bar's calories).
Meal replacement bars do have their place, but they are a questionable daily substitute for meals where whole foods could be on the plate.
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