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The Truth About Meal Plans: A Look at the Pros, the Cons, and What Your Diet Really Needs
I don’t know who first started the meal plan craze, but they’ve got a lot to answer for.
As a personal trainer, I understand the desire to have a structured list of the foods you should eat and when you should eat them. I really do. Daily life is already a struggle without adding in a worldwide pandemic, so taking an item off the to-do list? Perfect!
Or is it?
If you think you know the truth about meal plans, think again. We’re going to dive into their pros and cons and figure out once and for all if following a meal plan is the right choice for you.
A Definition and a Cautionary Word
I’m not going to make you wait for the answer: The truth about meal plans is that — for the vast majority of people — they don’t work. That’s right. Meal plans aren’t the solution you’ve been looking for to get fit and healthy.
When I say meal plan, I’m not talking about you sitting down at your computer and creating a weekly dinner plan for you and your family. That kind of meal planning is great, and I want to see more of it. No, in this case, a meal plan is a dietician-recommended plan of specific foods that you must eat at specific times.
I’ve got strong views on this type of meal plan, but that doesn’t mean that it’s NEVER the answer to someone’s problems. Dietician-prescribed meal plans do work — for athletes, for models, for people with medical conditions who need controlled diets, basically for anyone who is eating for the nutrients.
That said, let’s dive into the pros of meal plans.
Meal Plan Pros
As we’ve already discussed, meal plans work great for people who need to have their bodies in a specific shape. This means people like bodybuilders, wrestlers, models, and athletes. For them, micromanaging nutrients is helpful; for us, micromanaging nutrients CAN BE helpful in the short term. Why?
1. You might not know what to eat. Don’t know where to start when it comes to eating healthy? Meal plans help by taking away the guesswork and offering healthy alternatives to your normal meals until you can do it yourself.
2. You might need to replace a bad habit. It’s hard to kick a bad habit without something to replace it. If you stick to one long enough, a meal plan can help with that in the short term.
3. You might not have time to do it yourself. You may want to eat healthier; you may even know how to eat healthier, but there just aren't enough hours in the day to sit down and make your dreams a reality. Meal plans can be great for people who really don’t have the time at the moment to incorporate healthy meal planning and prep into their busy lives.
4. You might need help reaching a short-term goal. You want to knock off a few pounds for an upcoming wedding or gain some muscle mass — that’s great. Meal plans are meant for this kind of short-term goal!
Meal Plan Cons
You may have noticed a common theme throughout the pros list. No, don’t go back and try to find it, I’ll just tell you: Meal plans only work in the short term. That means if you’re truly trying to create a fit and healthy lifestyle — a sustainable one, too — meal plans are not only unhelpful, they can also be downright dangerous.
1. They aren’t sustainable. The truth is that most people have trouble sticking to a meal plan long enough for it to take effect. Meal plans do not mimic our natural relationship with food — they don’t factor in hunger, taste preferences, or cravings. It’s much better to listen to your body than it is to listen to a piece of paper
2. They aren’t realistic. Life happens and meal plans are not made to fit our schedules. There aren’t any exceptions for times when you get sick, want to enjoy a treat on your birthday, share a family meal during a holiday, or even for those days when you have to work late.
3. They offer limited options. A rotation of egg whites, chicken breast, and whole wheat rice? No thanks. There are so many ways to eat healthy, so why confine yourself to such a boring one?
4. They’re easy to overdo. Most people fall off the meal plan bandwagon at some point, but others take to them like a duck to water — and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Remember, meal plans are meant to be a short-term means to an end. Adhering unnecessarily to such a strict diet can have disastrous consequences for your physical and mental health.
5. They make you feel like a failure. It’s inevitable that you’re going to mess up, miss a meal, or take a “cheat” day — after all, you’re only human. Unfortunately, most people treat meal plans as a win-or-lose situation, which can make you feel like a failure and hurt your relationship with eating healthy.
6. They turn you off of eating healthy. You’ve tried a meal plan and it was bad — really bad. It was such a miserable experience that you don’t even want to LOOK at another plate of quinoa again. And that’s a shame, because eating healthy should not be that rigorous, difficult, or upsetting.
7. They can be wasteful. Meal plans often don’t make the best use of ingredients, which means a lot of wasted food, wasted time, and wasted money.
8. They won’t help you learn. Meal plans don’t teach you how to eat healthy — all they teach you is how to follow a meal plan! If you want lasting results, you need to learn how to cook and eat healthily and responsibly.
I can’t stress this enough: Meal plans are disastrous for anyone trying to achieve long-term health and fitness results!
Should I Follow a Meal Plan? The Solution
Should you follow a meal plan? Hopefully by now you can answer that question for yourself.
Meal plans are not the one-size-fits-all solution to a healthy lifestyle; most of us can and should be able to eat healthily and sustainably without resorting to a prescribed meal plan. If you do end up trying a meal plan to help you reach a goal, remember that it’s like learning to ride a bike: By the end of your plan, you should have a better grasp on how to plan, shop, and eat healthier.
Real and lasting changes come from small, daily changes to your diet. Learning about portion control, meal prepping, healthy meal planning (the kind you do, not what your dietician does for you!), choosing whole foods, and making minuscule changes to the food you already eat will add up over time.
You’ve heard the saying it’s not about giving a man a fish; it’s about teaching him to fish. When it comes to eating healthy, I firmly believe that.
If you want help becoming the best you — without a meal plan — consider talking to an expert like me. My online coaching programs include nutritional guidance that will give you the tools you need to create better eating habits and feel empowered about your choices in the future.
Want to learn more about how I can help you? Feel free to contact me online today.