If you’ve ever worked with a personal trainer or taken any bit of seriousness surrounding your diet, you’ve probably encountered the coveted meal plan. Essentially it’s a glorified template of eating that prescribes when and what to eat and in specific quantities.
You might be wondering where the problem is. Following a strict meal plan can help accelerate your fat loss, change your body composition and take all the guesswork out of eating.
Sounds great! Where do I start…
Not so fast…
Suffice it to say that most people want to get the quickest and best results possible while doing the least amount of work. It is part of our human nature and to this fault leaves much to be desired in the behavioral aspects of health.
The vast majority of prescribed meal plans are too rigid and overly structured to meet the needs of the average person. They are merely a way for fitness coaches to make some extra money without unpacking the actual eating behaviors of their clients.
Although I just took a chance to smack talk the use of meal plans I still want to present a balanced argument of the positives and negatives while giving the readers some specific strategies to use in the place of a meal plan.
Meal plans, when presented well, can actually be an educational tool to increase adherence and commitment. They can provide useful information for how to prepare your meals, write a grocery list and do the shopping.
In the short-term meal plans can help you reach certain aesthetic goals as long as you are operating in a caloric deficit. However, most of these positives are superficial. They lack sustainability and the formal learning process that is necessary for long-term success.
Think back to grade school when all you wanted to do was get the highest marks possible. It didn’t really matter how you arrived at the grades, but merely that you got them. By following a meal plan you’re being provided with the answers to the test without doing any of the groundwork that it takes to learn the material.
So maybe you get an A on that exam or lose that 10 extra pounds of body fat. But before you applaud your commitment, ask yourself…for what? Did you bring more awareness to your eating habits? Did you learn how to prep and organize your meals? What are you supposed to do once the meal plan is over? It is for these reasons that weight loss sustainability through dieting has such a low success rate.
With that said…Let us consider some strategies that will be more successful for you moving forward.
Focus on whole foods
I constantly remind my clients to incorporate whole foods as their primary nutrient source. Whole foods being ones that are not processed. I’ll even go as far as letting my clients have as much food as they want as long as it fits in this category.
Seems crazy, I know! But in reality whole foods are noticeably more satiating than heavily processed options and therefore much harder to overindulge on.
Protein and more of it
Protein is largely considered to be one of the most important macronutrients for building lean muscle tissue and a favorable body composition. Research will support the intake of roughly 1g/lb of bodyweight for active individuals that resistance train 2-3 times per week. Therefore it would serve you well to focus on fulfilling your protein requirements throughout the day and then sprinkle in the rest of your nutrients with whole foods such as starches, fruits, and vegetables.
Protein is extremely satiating. By keeping your protein in check you’ll notice that you’re not as hungry throughout the day and therefore won’t reach for that candy bar to help pick you up from the afternoon crash.
Drink Plenty of Water
It would be wise to limit the amount of alternative beverages that you consume in the place of water. Most of these beverages are filled with empty calories and offer little to no nutrient value. What’s more is that people struggle with understanding their hunger cues and will mistakenly substitute food in a place where they simply needed more water.
By keeping your water intake high you’ll feel more hydrated and even satiated to the point that you won’t need to be incessantly snacking.
Not to mention the increased activity you’ll get from taking all those extra trips to the bathroom ;).
Keep the “trigger” foods out of the house
This is a good tip that that has worked for some of my clients, not all. If you’re anything like me you like to indulge on snacks with an “all-or-nothing” type approach. Meaning that you can’t just have one oreo, you”ll have to finish off the whole sleeve. You focus all of your eating on the “next” one instead the one that is right in front of you.
So if this resonates with you, try putting a barrier in between you and these snacks. Get them out of the house! Instead listen to your body. If you feel like having those potato chips, drive to the store and pick yourself up a single serving. Not only will this limit your portion sizes but it adds an extra barrier that may cause you to rethink why you want the potato chips in the first place. You’ll have to get your shoes on and drive to the store just to get your snack. Perhaps it will no longer be worth it? Or you do it anyways! But you are far less likely to over eat these types of foods if you eliminate them from your shopping list in the first place.
Meal plans offer little to no value towards the educational aspects of coaching. They are far more likely to create neurotic habits that have no adaptability to individual behaviors. More importantly they don’t take into account the preferences, accessibility, lifestyle habits, and psychology of peoples eating strategies.
So instead of focusing on a particular diet or way of eating, focus on balance. Try different types of food, experiment with preparation, listen to your hunger cues. It’s all one large experiment that is a lifelong pursuit of health and wellness.
Because it’s a journey, there is no endpoint. So there is really no good reason to limit yourself of any food. You’ll have to do the real work of finding out what works for you and your lifestyle.