Can meal replacement shakes cause headaches?

When we do something to boost our health and make us feel better, we don’t expect to be suffering for it. So why then are headaches and even migraines associated with certain supplements and products - particularly, it would seem, with meal replacement shakes? 

Meal replacement shakes are typically designed to replace one or two of your meals in a day, contributing to a calorie deficit in order to help with weight management. The best meal replacements tend to have a low calorie count but high nutritional value - meaning you can adjust and add ingredients as needed to fit your goals. They often contain a high amount of protein, and the same nutritional profile which you might expect from a full meal in either a powder or a pre-mixed drink. 

They can also be used to offer flexibility and convenience to people who are always on the go, or to help offer extra nutrients to people who suffer with digestive issues, such as Crohn’s disease. So why the headache? 

What’s giving me a headache?

First off, a new weight loss programme itself can cause headaches for various reasons, especially whilst the body is settling into a calorie deficit or a more intense exercise regime. If, for example, you’re cutting out sugars or highly processed foods, then your body may go through a withdrawal period.

Weight loss can also trigger headaches if the calorie restriction causes a dip in your blood sugar levels, or if you become dehydrated due to ingesting less carbohydrates. The suggestion is to eliminate refined sugars and highly processed foods from your diet slowly if you’re concerned about withdrawal symptoms or side effects such as headaches. Ensuring that you continue to eat a whole foods diet can help you to prevent triggering a headache. In fact, both skipping meals and fasting are thought to trigger headaches and migraines, too (Martin and Seneviratne, 1997).

This isn’t specific to meal replacement shakes, of course, but it is still important to note that it might not be your chosen shake which is causing the headache. Making sure that you reduce the amount of sugar and caffeine you ingest slowly, and stay hydrated will help to keep those headaches at bay. 

But there are aspects of meal replacement shakes which might cause a headache, and shows why choosing a high quality shake is very important. Some meal replacements contain artificial sweeteners and flavourings, as well as other ingredients, which might have a physical effect on your body.

What’s in my shake that might cause headaches?

Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose, are common in meal replacement products to enhance their sweetness and flavour. However, both of these products have been shown to trigger headaches in some people. There is also the theory that using products which contain these ingredients frequently can cause the body to develop a sensitivity to them over time, which means the likelihood of headaches becoming more frequent, and potentially developing into migraines over time. Choosing a meal replacement product which doesn’t contain any artificial sweetening agents can help to prevent this (Lipton et al., 1989).

Another culprit when it comes to triggering migraines is monosodium glutamate, or MSG. This is often used to enhance flavour in pre-mixed drinks and processed foods. It is also found in some meal replacement shakes and protein powders. Some people are particularly sensitive to MSG, and so should avoid any products using it. (Ramadan, 2003)

Meal replacement shakes are often high in protein. Protein helps to keep you feeling fuller for longer, and so makes a good basis for a meal replacement shake. However, some meal replacement products contain protein sources which can cause reactions. Many people may be allergic or intolerant to the sugars in whey protein. For those who have a previously unnoticed intolerance, whey protein in meal replacements may cause headaches, and it is the same with soy protein and those who cannot tolerate it. 

If you’re looking for a meal replacement shake that contains nothing but natural ingredients without allergens, and certainly no artificial sweeteners, then you can look no further than Vivo Life’s WHOLE - a plant-based nutritional shake with 21g of protein, 22 essential plant-based minerals and vitamins, live cultures, turmeric, and ashwagandha. With fewer carbs and calories than a typical meal replacement, WHOLE is flexible, and can be customised with other flavours and textures according to what you like best. 

WHOLE definitely takes the headache out of meal replacements! 


Ramadan, N.M. (2003). The Link Between Glutamate and Migraine. CNS Spectrums, 8(6), pp.446–449. doi:10.1017/s1092852900018757.

Lipton, R.B., Newman, L.C., Cohen, J.S. and Solomon, S. (1989). Aspartame as a Dietary Trigger of Headache. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 29(2), pp.90–92. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.1989.hed2902090.x.

Martin, P.R. and Seneviratne, H.M. (1997). Effects of food deprivation and a stressor on head pain. Health Psychology: Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, [online] 16(4), pp.310–318. doi:10.1037//0278-6133.16.4.310.