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If you’ve tried to lose weight in the past, then you may have come across various different meal plans or even coaches trying to sell you one.
Before we get into whether meal plans are any good, let’s define what a meal plan is.
A meal plan is a sort of food itinerary for the day, in which each of your meals are planned for you.
The idea is that this will take the thinking out of process and give you a clear plan to follow.
Meal plans typically limit you to certain foods, have minimal alternative options and are a rigid form of dieting.
Here’s a basic example of what a meal plan could look like
Porridge oats (with water) – 60g
Blueberries – 50g
Almonds – 15
Whey Protein Shake (with water) 30g
1 Piece of fruit (any)
150g Chicken Breast
½ Cup Wholegrain Rice
½ Cup Broccoli
½ Cup Green Beans
150g Turkey Mince
1 Cup of Pasta
1/2 Can Tinned Tomatoes
1 Shredded Carrot
1 Cup of Spinach
Looking at that for face value, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the meals.
But the issue isn’t the foods or the meals, it’s the principle of giving a rigid plan for someone to follow.
Why Does That Matter?
The biggest underlying factor when it comes to successful dieting is adherence.
Take that meal plan from above and give it to 50 different people all looking to lose weight.
How many people do you think will stick to it?
Will it work for 50 different people with different lives and preferences?
People aren’t robots, and when it comes to food there are a myriad of caveats that affect a person’s adherence.
You can have the greatest meal plan in the world, but what’s the point if you don’t stick to it?
This brings me on to first main point.
Meal Plans do Little To Educate You
Give a (wo)man a fish and (s)he’ll eat for day, teach a (wo)man to fish and (s)he’ll eat for a lifetime
I’m a big advocate in educating clients in nutrition and helping them to consciously make better choices, understanding the whys, how’s, and find what works for them.
Look at that example above again; apart from telling you exactly what to eat at each meal, what else have you learned?
Let’s say you follow that meal plan precisely and get results.
What happens next?
What happens when you can’t source those ingredients?
What happens when you really want a certain food?
What happens when you need to think for yourself?
Knowing more about foods, the principles of weight loss and improving your relationship with food are paramount to long term success.
Rigid vs Flexible Dieting
As mentioned above, meal plans are a rigid approach to dieting.
The issue with rigid dieting is that the majority of the time it’s shown to be inferior to a more flexible approach. Timko & Perone (2005); Hays & Roberts (2008); Westenhoefer et al (2013)
A rigid diet can lead to dichotomous thinking when it comes to nutrition and can result in demonising certain foods, excessively restricting yourself and the development of a bad relationship with foods.
This dichotomous thinking isn’t helpful in the longer term, especially when it comes to maintaining your weight loss. Palascha et al (2015)
Whereas a flexible approach gives you unconditional permission to eat anything (just not everything of course).
That’s not to say I’d recommend solely eating chocolate cookies, but it’s important to understand that you are able to enjoy these foods and still lose weight.
Without getting into the nuances of specific foods, the point is that the underlying principle of calories in vs calories out can be reinforced by different methods, and the method you use doesn’t really matter if it maximises your adherence.
Eating within the realms of only certain foods that don’t take into consideration your personal preferences can create an environment in which you are restricted from the things you like.
When this happens, you may be more likely to experience cravings, which can lead to “binging” and a negative relationship with food. Muele et al (2011)
Meal Plan Typically Don't Address Your Relationship With Food
A big part of long-term success with weight loss is improving your relationship and understanding of food.
A large amount of people regain weight once they’ve lost it, and this often comes down to the diet they’ve been on not reflecting the way they like to eat in the real world.
Take that meal plan for example, perhaps you could eat that for 6 weeks and lose weight (if in a calorie deficit).
But eventually you’ll come off that meal plan and most likely go back to those foods you’ve not eaten for the past 6 weeks.
During that time period, you’ve not addressed your actual relationship with the foods you like, learnt anything about nutrition, made any choices for yourself or built habits for the longer term.
You’ve just eaten what you’ve been told to eat with no real understanding of why.
This leads us back to that dichotomous thinking and a rigid mindset, which has negative implications for long term weight loss.
Are There Any Benefits?
It seems I’ve been harsh on meal plans, and there are very few circumstances (if any) in which I’d use them with a client.
However, they may be a few benefits:
1. Help you to understand portion sizes
2. Give you an idea of what a days’ worth of eating could look like
3. Help you build to build a varied meal
If I have a client that struggles with building meals or eating in a structured way, then using a meal plan as an experiment for them to see what a days’ worth of eating could look like may be an effective tool.
But it really is client dependant, and after any circumstance where meal plans are used, we would go back to building skills and habits for the longer term.
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Timko, C. and Perone, J., 2005. Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior in a college population. Eating Behaviors, [online] 6(2), pp.119-125. Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1471015304000662> [Accessed 8 April 2022].
Hays, N. and Roberts, S., 2008. Aspects of Eating Behaviors “Disinhibition” and “Restraint” Are Related to Weight Gain and BMI in Women. Obesity, [online] 16(1), pp.52-58. Available at: <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1038/oby.2007.12> [Accessed 8 April 2022].
Westenhoefer, J., Engel, D., Holst, C., Lorenz, J., Peacock, M., Stubbs, J., Whybrow, S. and Raats, M., 2013. Cognitive and weight-related correlates of flexible and rigid restrained eating behaviour. Eating Behaviors, [online] 14(1), pp.69-72. Available at: <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2012.10.015> [Accessed 8 April 2022].
Palascha, A., van Kleef, E. and van Trijp, H., 2015. How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain?. Journal of Health Psychology, [online] 20(5), pp.638-648. Available at: <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359105315573440> [Accessed 8 April 2022].
Meule, A., Westenhöfer, J. and Kübler, A., 2011. Food cravings mediate the relationship between rigid, but not flexible control of eating behavior and dieting success. Appetite, [online] 57(3), pp.582-584. Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666311005290> [Accessed 8 April 2022].
Conlin, L., Aguilar, D., Rogers, G. and Campbell, B., 2021. Flexible vs. rigid dieting in resistance-trained individuals seeking to optimize their physiques: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, [online] 18(1). Available at: <https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-021-00452-2> [Accessed 8 April 2022]