After two years of coming to the gym four days a week and not losing a single pound, my client approached me utterly frustrated.
Her solution: That I write her a rigid meal plan that tells her exactly what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat down to the gram.
I was skeptical and mildly voiced my skepticism that there’s a better way than a rigid meal, but she was adamant. “I like the idea of a meal plan. I’ve tried everything else,” she urged.
In the name of meeting her where she’s at—something I have taken to heart as I make my way through the Precision Nutrition coaching certification—I got on board with her plan to follow a rigid meal plan with carefully-calculated macronutrients:
- Breakfast: 2 whole eggs and one egg white, 1 cup spinach, 1/2 an avocado.
- Snack: 6 almonds and 1/4 cup blueberries.
- And on and on.
She did manage to follow her meal plan down to the exact number of almonds for two full weeks. Then she came to me and confessed, “You were right! It’s too much. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t do the meal plan!”
Diet Rigidity Isn't the Best Approach
I have seen this situation unfold over and over. People feel particularly motivated to lose weight, gain mass—whatever their body composition goal is—and think a meal plan will ensure they muster up enough discipline to finally make these diet changes. The thing is, we’re just not wired, nor is it practical for our lives, to be that rigid all the time.
Further, often an even bigger problem arises when people fall off their meal plan, because now, not only do they feel like a failure, they also have no idea what they should eat and then all hell really breaks loose.
To a certain degree, it’s a bit like differentiating between memorizing and understanding. You can pass a test by temporarily memorizing the information, but truly understanding the material is what will bring long-lasting success.
After my client established that she needed to lose the meal plan from her life, she became discouraged that something else hadn’t worked for her—that she had once again failed—and now she was at a loss about what to do next.
Not. So. fast.
It was time to rethink the way she thinks about failure—to consider failure as feedback.
After chatting for a bit, she realized she had actually learned a lot from following a rigidly laid out meal plan for two weeks. Not only did she learn it wasn’t the answer for her, she realized it helped her learn a lot about appropriate portion sizes, and become more familiar with how many grams of carbohydrates, protein, and fat she was consuming each day. This would become valuable information moving forward.
In this sense, meal plan dieting might be able to play a role for some people, but as more of a short-term solution that can then be bridged into a more sustainable, long-term plan after.
There are various services that will write meal plans for you if you want to try it for a couple of weeks or a month to help you learn new healthy recipes, get in the habit of cooking your meals, learn about portion sizes, and become more familiar with how many macronutrients your body wants.
- $5 Meal Plan offers some affordable, easy-to-make meals, and although you’re following a generic plan, it will get you cooking whole foods.
- Once a Month Meals promotes batch cooking, so you conceivably could spend one day a month cooking all your meals for the entire month.
- The Six O’Clock Scramble is slightly more personal, as you can customize for things like gluten-free or vegetarian.
But the best, most individualized way if you’re dead set on a meal plan, is always to hire a nutrition coach to figure out your exact wants, needs, and goals, and then design meals accordingly.
More likely than not, you’re going to realize you have gotten all you can from a rigid meal plan and will be ready to take what you learned and create a more sustainable way to live.
Here are three simple tips for long term success that work better than meal plan dieting and allow you to bridge your meal plan into long-term success.
1. Start with Small Habit Changes
Time and time again, research shows taking on one thing at a time—not biting off more than you can chew—is the easiest way for something to become habit.
Think about the idea of brushing your teeth. You just do it every day without thinking about it. It’s almost a subconscious habit. It requires little to no forethought, planning, or willpower.
I recommend making a list of 10 habits you’d like to adopt in the next 12 months, such as drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning so you’re not as hungry when you wake up, or having protein with each meal, or reducing the frequency with which you eat out at restaurants.
Then adopt just one or two of these habits per month over the course of six months to a year. Sometimes it helps to write them all down so you can visually see the small changes you’re making each month.
Before you know it, you’ll be intuitively doing the right things most of the time and it won’t feel like you need more discipline or willpower to eat well. These habits will be second-nature and normal, almost subconscious, like washing your hair.
2. Accept That You’re Not Perfect
Lose the guilt. You’re not perfect, and you’re not going to be perfect with your diet.
Part of the problem here is how we consider some foods “good” foods and other foods “bad” foods, and we associate all this negative attention to bad foods. It creates a dichotomy for success and failure and almost puts pressure on you unnecessarily. As a result, you’re even more tempted by these “bad” foods—they almost have power over you—because we always want what we can’t have.
Food is just food. Not good or bad. Lose the guilt if you don’t eat as cleanly one day as the day before. It doesn’t need to lead to a spiral effect of negativity and a complete unraveling of your diet. Again, it’s just like forgetting to brush your teeth or to put on deodorant one day. It doesn’t need to lead to a month of stinky armpits.
3. Chew Your Food More
This sounds like a silly one but believe it or not chewing your food 15-30 times per bite not only helps you slow down and become more aware when you’re full, it actually helps your digestion and absorption, which ultimately helps your metabolism speed up.
A study from the University of California Davis found that when people chewed almonds longer, they were absorbed faster by the body. Meanwhile, another study found that chewing more led to weight loss and an increase in energy, because when people chewed more, they ingested 12 percent fewer calories. (The researchers think it’s because more chewing alters hormone levels (ghrelin and cholecystokinin). Pretty fascinating.
- Step 1: Choose your first habit to change. When it becomes second nature, add a second habit.
- Step 2: Expect to screw up sometimes. When you do, let it go and get back to the habit changes.
- Step 3: Chew, chew, chew.
Keep in mind that food is merely food. Consistency is key and a less than perfect meal doesn't have to disrupt the whole apple cart.