“Broccoli again?!” my friend exclaimed, as he inspected my lunch. “How much of that stuff are you eating?”
“I know, I know” I said. “But my plan says I can only have broccoli with this meal.”
I sat in the break room at the gym where I was working, seven years ago, and I had just microwaved what could have easily been my bazillionth steamer bag of broccoli.
I had lavishly seasoned those green, cruciferous trees with salt and pepper. I had tried dipping them in mustard, dousing them in vinegar, and covering them with hot sauce. Nothing helped. It still tasted like the same soggy broccoli that I had gagged down several times per day for months.
Why was I eating a food that I despised, and tons of it? Because my meal plan said so.
I had chosen to follow a very rigid meal plan in an attempt to lose body fat. This plan outlined exactly which foods I could eat, how much, and when.
Along with gross amounts of broccoli, my plan called for the following foods: egg whites, chicken breast, lean ground turkey, tilapia, asparagus, oats, sweet potato, protein powder, and about one tablespoon of peanut butter per day, which was only enough to piss me off.
The first few weeks of eating these foods were fine. I liked the ten (!) foods the plan called for when I started, but after a few weeks of “Groundhog Day” meals, I slowly started to dread them. Eventually, I couldn’t stand them. I would shovel down my food just to get it over with, because any enjoyment I got from eating was long gone, leaving me incredibly unsatisfied.
I was only able to follow this meal plan for so long, before I finally had enough, and scrapped it. I simply couldn’t be relegated to the same foods over and over again. It was crazy-making. Ultimately, the cons outweighed the pros. There just had to be a better approach.
Meal Plan Pros and Cons
While specific meal plans can work when it comes to altering your body composition, results are usually extremely short-lived. These types of meal plans are not a long-term, sustainable strategy. Very few people can adhere to the typically short list of foods in this type of meal plan forever — and more importantly, who would want to?! It’s simply not a realistic approach.
Besides, what fun is seeing great results if they don’t last? Nobody wants to make amazing progress for 4 to 6 weeks, only to go reeling backwards as soon as you stop following a meal plan, and go back to “normal” eating!
“Meal plan” will mean different things to different people. For some, it’s merely a flexible style of eating that welcomes an indefinite variety of foods across a broad spectrum of qualities, such as an ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM) approach, where you simply need to meet a specific number of macronutrients (protein, carb, and dietary fat) each day; it doesn’t matter how you get there, so long as you hit those numbers.
For others, the term “meal plan” refers to that very strict type of plan that I followed many years ago. The type of plan that may tell you to have five egg whites, ½ cup of oats, and 1 TBSP of peanut butter at breakfast at exactly 8am, and in which there is no flexibility. This extreme type of meal plan is what this article will mostly be referring to.
Nutrition coaches and personal trainers are dishing these types of plans out left and right to their clients who are typically not training for a sport or competition; these are people who merely want to feel better and get in shape. It’s like killing a housefly with a bazooka – it’s not necessary.
Following a strict meal plan may seem great in theory. In practice, however, it’s a different story entirely.
Many people understand that a plan like this isn’t forever, and they believe that they can use it to “jump-start” weight loss. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Because they haven’t laid the foundation of healthful eating, and instead, merely focused on following their plan to a “t,” as soon as they stop following the plan, they revert to old eating habits and find themselves right back where they started, or worse, even further behind because they start eating everything in sight now that they’re not on the strict plan. Not to mention, what a number this experience does to the person’s state of mind!
It’s not uncommon for a woman on this type of meal plan to find herself becoming obsessed with the plan, bending over backwards trying to “perfectly” follow the plan to the letter, come hell or high water. Then, Real Life happens (as it always will), and inevitably she ends up going “off-plan” — and feeling like she failed.
Similarly, when she finally realizes that she can’t continue to follow this type of approach because it’s not realistic, and she can’t maintain the results she got from following the strict plan, she once again feels like a failure.
Meal plans like this don’t take the most vital component into consideration: there is a human being (not a machine) following the plan. A human being with a busy schedule, food preferences, a social life, formed habits, and a finite source of willpower.
When considering the pros and cons of a meal plan, the cons really outnumber the pros.
What are the pros of this type of meal plan? I can only think of three, really.
The Pros Of A Strict Meal Plan
No Decision Making Required
When you have a specific meal plan and a short list of foods from which to choose, you don’t have to think much about your shopping list or your cooking because you already know, and it’s all laid out for you. It becomes predictable and automated.
Fuss-Free Meal Prep
With these strict meal plans, usually, there’s not much time-consuming or “adventurous” cooking required. These plans are usually pretty bland and aren’t big on culinary exploration. You can generally, bake, boil, grill, and steam once a week and you’re good to go. No fancy sauces or multi-step recipes.
Making Weight for Competition
Some athletes (powerlifting, weightlifting, martial arts, etc) follow a meal plan in order to “make weight” and qualify for a certain weight class in their competition. In this case, a meal plan can be very helpful because it automates exactly what the person is going to eat. It removes the decision-making process, allows for precise diet changes to be made quickly, and gives the athlete the energy and space to focus on preparing for their sport, while ensuring they make weight.
However, many athletes who have endured this process will confide that it’s not a pleasant one. The food is very bland, and by the time they weigh in, most of them have a mile-long list of foods that they are dying to eat after the competition. It is, most certainly, a short-term solution.
The Cons Of A Strict Meal Plan
The foods called for on your meal plan won’t be available to you in every situation. You’ll inevitably find yourself in situations where the food choices are out of your control, and navigating those situations can pose some challenges.
I remember feeling panicked when I had to dine out. What if they didn’t have exactly what my meal plan called for (and they usually didn’t)? What if they put butter on it? WHAT IF THEY COOKED MY VEGETABLES IN OIL AND DIDN’T TELL ME?! Oh, the horrors of having to eat something that wasn’t listed on this piece of paper that supposedly held the key to the body of my dreams.
I recall frantically emailing my coach. “They don’t have sweet potato. Can I have regular potato?? What about my chicken? I think they may have put a sauce on it. Can I still eat it?”
If your plan calls for 4 ounces of chicken, 1/2 cup rice, and 10 spears of asparagus, what do you do if those specific foods are not available?
Satisfaction — Or Lack Thereof
Another important question is, what if those foods just don’t sound good to you in that moment? Or ever?
In order for a nutrition strategy to be sustainable, satisfaction is non-negotiable. Choking down a meal that you can’t stand, just because it’s outlined on a piece of paper, is no way to live. It simply won’t last. I adore brussels sprouts, but if you forced me to eat them several times a day for weeks on end, I will surely start to resent them.
I’m a firm believer in the idea of “Satiation, not deprivation.” This means pouring your nutritional energy into maximizing satisfaction. When you are satisfied, your mind and stomach are happy. You achieve this kind of satisfaction by choosing from among your own food preferences, based on what you have available, and what sounds good to you at the time.
You can only force yourself for so long to consume certain foods dictated to you by someone else before you finally throw in the towel. We are hard-wired to want to make our own choices. It’s one thing if we decide we want to eat loads of broccoli, exercising our free will; it’s another thing entirely if we’ve been commanded to do so, with little or no other option.
“Good” vs. “Bad” Thinking
Rigid meal plans tend to perpetuate the dieting rollercoaster. The brain starts categorizing the foods on the plan as “good” foods, and any foods that aren’t on the plan as “bad” foods. This quickly turns leads to believing that we in turn, are being “good” or “bad” based on what we’re eating.
When we view eating a meal that’s off-plan as “cheating,” it can lead to feelings of guilt. We’re either succeeding or failing; “on the wagon,” or “off the wagon.” Let me tell you something: unless you were in an episode of Little House on the Prairie, chances are fairly good that you’ve never been on, and probably never will be, on a wagon.
There is no wagon — it’s simply life. Every day is different, and our appetites and energy requirements naturally fluctuate. A strict meal plan can not help in this regard.
I want to be loud and clear here: eating in a manner that moves you towards your goals and enhances your health does not have to be — nor should it make you feel — miserable.
If you really enjoy food, having to suddenly stick to a strict plan is very likely to leave you constantly daydreaming about what you can’t have and what you want. The more you obsess, the more likely you are to go off-plan, which can trigger the good/bad thinking, the feelings of guilt, and even lead you to over-exercise as “damage control.”
If you don’t typically care about food that way, a meal plan might be convenient (see the “pros” listed above). However, most people do want to enjoy their meals and eat things that taste good and are satisfying.
Disconnection From Hunger Cues
Meal plans can create a big disconnect between you and your body’s hunger and satiety cues, which are two very important signals that determine how much your body needs and when it’s had enough.
Just like our energy requirements will naturally fluctuate each day, so will our meal frequency. Some days, your body may require three meals, and on others, it may need four. When you have a meal plan that instructs you to eat at certain times of the day, you aren’t taking your body’s natural hunger signals into consideration.
It’s common to have a hard time figuring out your nutrition after you’ve followed a meal plan, because you have become so out of touch with the signals that your body is sending you! In order for a nutritional approach to work long-term, it’s got to enhance awareness of what the body needs, and how it responds to what it receives. A meal plan only serves to cover these things up.
Teach a (Wo)Man to Fish…
Instead of following a plan that accounts for each morsel you put in your mouth, it’s absolutely vital that to learn how to adopt sustainable nutrition habits, and learn how and what to eat to help you feel your very best.
You are an adult. You do not need to ask anyone for permission to eat certain foods. There are no magical fat loss foods. It’s about figuring out what works best for you and your body. That’s going to be a little (or a lot) different for every body.
A meal plan is essentially slapping a band-aid over eating habits that need work. Again, this can work for a short period of time, but chances are you don’t want temporary results; you want them to last forever. You deserve that.
When coaches dole out specific meal plans that tell you to ‘eat this, not that,’ they’re cultivating co-dependency. This type of plan gives the illusion that you can’t be successful without it, and that’s simply not true. Rather than hand you that band-aid, we think it’s important to give you the tools for lasting success and self-sufficiency.
It’s important that you be involved in the decision-making process when it comes to what food you’re eating, how much of it, and when. In fact, we strongly believe only you should be making those decisions for yourself. This is paramount to your learning experience, and while we cherish the opportunity to support you, our goal is to coach ourselves out of a job. We don’t want you to need us; we want to teach and guide you, arm you with knowledge and useful tools, and then send you on your way toward a lifetime of success. None of this involves a rigid meal plan.