As a nutrition coach, clients sometimes come to me with the expectation that I will give them a meal plan for weight loss. "Just tell me what to eat, and I'll do it," they promise. And they mean it. Or they think they do. The problem with meal plans is that they are a short-term solution to a long-term problem.
WHY MEAL PLANS DON'T ALWAYS WORK
Meal Plans aren't Sustainable
Most people won't be able to follow a meal plan for more than a couple weeks. It's not realistic to expect to weigh, measure and calculate every morsel that you eat for the rest of your life. Even if you could stock up on Tupperware and white-knuckle your way through a 12-week meal plan, what happens when you stop eating the meal plan and go back to eating in the real world? Does a meal plan teach you how make healthier choices in real life or just teach you to follow arbitrary rules that aren't tailored to your body and life?
The number one factor you should consider when choosing a diet or eating plan is sustainability. If you want a sustainable weight, you must have a sustainable diet. Extreme measures provide short-term results. Long-term results require sane and sustainable methods. Can you eat this way for the rest of your life?
Meal Plans aren't realistic
Meal plans usually disregard one important factor: that you have a life. You do, right? You probably have a family, a job, responsibilities, friends, and hobbies. A meal plan never takes into account that next Friday is your best friend's birthday or your high school reunion, or that you have planned a much-needed vacation. Meal plans don't care that you had to work late, through lunch or had to travel for business. Meal plans don't factor in taste preferences, bonding with friends, or family traditions. Meal plans will happily hurt Grandma's feelings when you turn down her cheesecake because it's nowhere to be found in your meal plan.
Locking yourself in your room to eat skinless chicken breast and steamed vegetables out of a Tupperware dish by yourself because you're trying to stick to a meal plan when your family and friends are bonding and celebrating isn't healthy either. It's all about finding the right balance that works within your life.
Meal plans don't teach you real-world nutrition skills
Food is a part of our lives. It's not a separate entity. For long-term success, the best plan is one that sustainable, dynamic (It changes with you) and makes sense in your busy life. If you follow a boring meal plan for weeks on end you never learn how to make healthy, good-enough, real-world nutrition choices for yourself.
You never get the opportunity to listen to your body's feedback. If you eat spinach and chicken because your coach told you to, but spinach makes your stomach feel weird, should you listen to your coach or your body? If cutting carbs makes you act crazier than bald Britney, should you power through? Spoiler alert: Learn to tune-in and honor the feedback that your body provides. Once cultivated and understood, the feedback is more valuable than any meal plan could ever be.
The truth is, the best healthy diet is one that works for you. That means making the best choices possible within what is reasonably available to you at the moment. That means you don't have to be perfect, you just have to make a conscious effort to do your best most of the time.
Instead of obsessing over weighing and measuring, a better use of your energy is to develop real-world healthy nutrition habits.
Meal Plans Promote All-or-Nothing Thinking
Meal plans promote all-or-nothing thinking. You either are on your meal plan or you're off. If you mess up and eat something off your plan (we're human, we all mess up, all the time) you're more likely to go way off your plan. "I already messed up, I might as well order a pizza for dinner." What do people say when they mess up on their diets? "It's ok, I'll start over on Monday." Even if it's only Tuesday.
A meal plan is too rigid and structured for most people in the real world who have health and fitness goals to lose weight, be more active and feel better. Fitness models and professional athletes may follow meal plans to reach short term goals, but for the average person, there is no need to go to those extremes in order to meet your goals. Forget rigid meal plans and instead learn to navigate healthy nutrition in the real world.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD/GUIDELINES FOR SUCCESS
Instead of following a strict meal plan that probably wasn't built to your individual nutrition needs anyway, start with healthy habits first.
CHOOSE WHOLE FOODS
Whenever possible choose whole or minimally processed foods from nature. That means to choose apples instead of applesauce, choose fruit instead of fruit juice and potatoes instead of french fries. The closer the source to nature with the least amount of processing, the better. Aim to do this for 80% of the foods you eat and you'll be on the right track to ideal nutrition. Leave some room for treats and grandma's lasagna to keep your sanity, but most of the time choose whole foods.
LEARN SERVING SIZES
I don't know about you, but last time I went to lunch with friends I didn't bring a set of measuring cups and spoons and a food scale. Simplify. I love Precision nutrition's method of using your hand for portion sizes to easily control calories.
- The size of your palm determines your protein portions.
- The size of your fist determines your veggie portions.
- The size of your cupped hand determines your carb portions.
- The size of your thumb determines your fat portions.
The idea is that a big guy needs more protein than a small-framed girl. If you use your hand as a general guideline for portions, you can eyeball your portion sizes without lugging around an extra bag with all your scales and measuring cups. A man may need three palms of protein at a meal a small-framed woman may need one. Of course, it's just a guideline and isn't appropriate for all foods. For example, how do you eat a hand portion of casserole or protein shake? Generally speaking, it gives you a quick reference for appropriate portion sizes. It's intended to be a starting point and you adjust as needed from there. Brilliant and works in the real world.
CHOOSE A LITTLE BIT BETTER
The goal with a real-world healthy eating plan is not to be perfect, because that's impossible. We want to strive to make better choices than before, to make the best choices that are appropriate in the situation. Which means something like instead of bringing Tupperware chicken to your best friend's wedding rehearsal dinner, you eat the meal served, prioritize protein first, fill up on veggies if possible and save a few calories for dessert. I wrote a post about making choices on a continuum if you want to explore this a little further. Do your best. Be mindful. Leave a little room to live your life. Work to choose just a little bit better. Not perfect, just a little better.
MONITOR AND LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Our body tells us almost everything we need to know, but we've been ignoring the signals for so long that we forgot how to listen. It's a side effect of modern society. They manufacture foods that are created to be so highly palatable that we override those signals that tell us to stop eating. I am as guilty as anyone else.
Slow down during meals. Avoid distractions while eating (put away your phone. I know, it's hard). Eat until you feel 80% full. Pay attention to how you look, feel and perform and adjust as needed.
Learn more in this blog post called 10 healthy habits that will change your life. Need help with nutrition? My nutrition program is powered by Precision Nutrition and is 75% off the first month to see if you like it. No hassle cancel anytime. It's a fantastic program that helped thousands of people achieve their goals but it's NOT for everyone. Take this quiz to see if you are a good fit for the program.
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