Providing meal plans is a mainstay of the health and fitness industry. And I get why. If you’ve been struggling with your weight, and not sure what to eat, having a meal plan takes the guesswork out if it. Day 1, eat this for breakfast! Day 3, eat this for lunch! Follow this plan for the next few weeks and you will lose weight! Many people feel the need for more structure, and a meal plan can provide just that.
In my Precision Nutrition weight loss program, I am often asked to provide a meal plan. And sometimes I’ve complied. But I realize more and more that meal plans are not helpful, for a number of reasons.
1. Encourages a Dieting Mindset
We know diets don’t work. Things can go okay when you’re sticking to it – you begin to lose weight, have more energy, and feel better. But then the idea of being ON a diet means you eventually go OFF the diet. You might comply for a while, but then it starts feeling too rigid and you rebel. Meal plans and diets don’t give people the tools to make healthy food choices outside of a structured plan.
2. Too Many Changes at Once
Starting a meal plan can involve changing many habits at the same time: new foods, new recipes, new eating and shopping patterns, new night-time routines. It can be a bit overwhelming.
3. Not Individualized
People I see have very diverse nutrition experiences and preferences. One person might know how to cook, but be too busy; another might have lots of time, but no cooking skills. One person loves all foods; another may have a more limited palate. What one person finds incredibly easy to change, another might find impossible.
No meal plan is nuanced enough to accommodate all of these important differences.
Shifting the Emphasis
By doing away with food plans I can shift the emphasis of my nutrition sessions in three ways. First, on education. I teach my patients about food groups, sugar, and processed foods vs. whole foods. I help give them the information they need to make their own decisions about food choices for years to come.
Second, on building habits. I encourage my patients to focus on one new habit at a time until they master it, before moving on to the next one. Research shows this slow and steady approach will help their success rate in the long run.
Third, we build on each person’s strengths and develop strategies for overcoming their personal obstacles. For example, if time is tight for making healthy meals during the week, implement a food prep ritual on the weekend. And if you work better with people than on your own, invite a friend and together you can take over the kitchen. This personalized approach meets each person where they’re at.
Changing the way you eat, without a meal plan, can be intimidating at first. But when you do away with the structured plan, you can start focusing on more sustainable dietary changes, one habit at a time.