One of the first questions I am asked is “Can you make me a meal plan?”. This is often followed by “Just tell me what to eat!”. I was not opposed to meal plans when I first entered the nutrition field. After spending years in the classroom and reading textbooks, I believed that a calculated meal plan would lead to successful weight loss. However, after a few years practicing nutrition and trying to follow a meal plan myself, I discovered that meal plans rarely lead to long-term success.
I am not opposed to teaching you how to plan, however I will do my best to talk you out of a meal plan. I truly believe in the saying “practice what you preach” and that is why I myself experimented with following a meal plan. I have drawn on personal and client experiences to express my thoughts on why meal plans rarely work . . . for LONG-TERM success.
1) Change, Change, and More Change
When I first set out to follow a meal plan I was excited, motivated, and committed to the task ahead. This excitement was something I also saw in my clients who I developed a meal plan for. However, I looked at the meal plan as a task I needed to complete instead of a way of life. After one week, I noticed that the changes started to add up. I was spending a great deal of time each day weighing, measuring, and portioning my food. This was not sustainable and after week two burn-out set in. As with many fad diets a meal plan encourages an ALL-OR-NOTHING approach. It’s either all-in or all-out. During week three I gave up and resorted back to my normal eating habits. There was no middle ground! Following a meal plan could mean 20+ changes all at once (examples: frequent trips to the grocery store, incorporating new cooking techniques, time management, addition of new foods, eating at regular intervals, new recipes/ingredients etc.). This can set you up for failure. It is only a matter of time in which burn-out sets in, like it did for me, and you resort back to your old eating habits. In addition to burn-out, I felt shame, guilt, and a lack of will power. “I am a dietitian, why is this so difficult?” I asked myself. I played the blame game instead of realizing that the meal plan was asking too much of me all at once. This negative thinking is common for many and can lead to a downward spiral. Instead of trying to make a million changes all at once, try to pick small, sustainable, and attainable goals. Skip the meal plan and opt for 2-3 mini goals that you can track. Once these goals have developed into habits try to incorporate additional goals.
How does that old saying go . . . “slow and steady wins the race”!
2. What About Reality?
Even with all the will power in the world a meal plan can be hard to follow as it doesn’t account for all of life’s plans. I’d like to think of myself as a very determined individual, but when I was hit with an unplanned family dinner my meal plan had to take a back seat. Budget, taste, cravings, schedule, personal goals, culture, lifestyle, and fitness are just a few of the things a meal plan must consider to be successful. Even if these things are considered in a meal plan there are still birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, holidays, travel and reunions to consider. A common ingredient to these life events is FOOD. Will you be able to follow your meal plan at these events? Maybe, but what about the unexpected? Illness, last minute meetings, order-in lunches, food in the staff room, family emergencies, etc. Trying to follow a meal plan day-to-day is hard enough, adding in an unexpected event and it is next to impossible. The ALL-OR-NOTHING approach promoted by fad diets and meal plans will leave you feeling shameful and guilty when you do not follow it perfectly, as it did for me. This once again leads to the ultimate demise of the meal plan. A meal plan often falls short in accounting for all of life’s events and does not help teach you how to survive various hardships. Instead of acquiring a meal plan, acquire the skills that will help you develop healthy eating habits that can be implemented in various situations. A regimented meal plan does not leave room for the unexpected.
“Expect the unexpected” was ignored when meal plans were developed!
3) Hunger and Fullness Cues are Ignored
Meal plans do very little teaching, but ask A LOT of you. A meal plan is based off a calculation and does not teach mindfulness. A meal plan will tell you what to eat and how much. A meal plan does not ask you to listen to your body or to determine when you feel hungry or full. The skill of mindfulness is ignored and it is this skill that will help you with LONG-TERM success. Think way back to when you were a baby. Did you count calories? Measure your food? Likely no. Instead you relied on the natural ability to determine when you were hungry and when you were full. In today’s busy world, eating has become automatic. It is rare to see a family sit down at a dining room table for dinner and unplug from the world. We rarely spend greater then 10-15 minutes eating a meal. This has all led to ignoring mindfulness and can lead to overeating and weight gain. When you are faced with the inability to follow your meal plan, you will feel lost because it taught you very little on why you eat. Skip the meal plan and start listening to your body’s natural cues. If you fill your body with wholesome foods, your body will reward you!
In the end a meal plan may help you in the short-term but falls short in providing a long-term solution. If you are considering a meal plan ask yourself this. “Will I be able to follow this meal plan for the rest of my life?”. If not skip the meal plan and opt for learning and developing the skills to build healthy eating habits for the long-term. Many of us already know what to eat (what a meal plan will provide you). The piece many of us are missing is ACCOUNTABILITY. A meal plan will not teach you this! Start making small, sustainable, and attainable goals today!