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Do I get a meal plan?

This is the most common question I get from people who approach me for, my nutrition coaching programs.

The answer: No, I don’t do meal plan's.

But I can’t blame people for asking.

Sure, meal plans have long been a staple of the fitness and nutrition industry. Coaches are taught to create them. Clients are taught to expect them.

Meal plans usually suck.

Lots of people looking to improve their eating think meal plans are the answer.

The only problem? Meal plans usually suck… and they rarely last. Most of the time, meal plans don’t work.

You see, traditional meal plans are explicit prescriptions. Eat this exact thing, in this exact amount, at this exact time.

For example, you’ll often see:

Breakfast – 7:30am

  • 3 eggs, scrambled

  • 1 cup vegetables

  • 1 piece whole grain toast

  • 1 cup coffee

  • 1 glass water

Morning snack – 10:00am

  • 1 protein bar

  • 1 handful mixed nuts

  • Lunch – 12:30pm

  • 4 oz chicken

  • 2 cups salad

  • 1 handful seeds

  • 1 glass water

After exercise – 4:30pm

  • 1 scoop whey protein

  • 1/2 cup fruit

  • 1 tsp omega 3 oil

  • 12 oz water

Dinner – 7:00pm

  • 4 oz chicken

  • 1 cup cooked veggies

  • 1 baked potato

  • 1 glass water

You might be thinking, “Good! I want a plan. I’m sick of trying to figure all this stuff out! Just tell me what to eat!

Unfortunately, when you try to follow rigid prescriptions like this, lots can (and often does) go wrong.

For example:

Scenario 1: You just don’t stick to the plan.

No matter how enthusiastic you are, meal plans can be tough to follow. This is normal.

Life can get in the way.

  • People get busy,

  • we’re not always prepared,

  • kids get sick,

  • bosses expect you to work late,

  • it’s always someone’s birthday (or a special holiday), and

  • sometimes you just don’t feel like having a protein bar at 10am.

What’s more, even if you’ve actually paid to have someone make your plan, you might find yourself rebelling against it in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways. This is also normal.

Unfortunately, it means you might not get the results you hope for. For instance, a meal plan you hoped would help you lose weight could actually encourage you to gain weight instead.

Scenario 2: You follow the plan perfectly.

In fact, you follow it too well and for too long. Most meal plans are meant to be temporary. They’re designed to help a person get to a specific short-term goal, like dropping a few extra pounds before a wedding, learning to manage blood sugar, or cutting weight for an athletic competition.

Our bodies can usually adapt to a rigid way of eating for a short period of time. But if you’re too strict for too long, you could wind up with disordered eating habits and lasting health (mental, metabolic, hormonal, etc) consequences.

Scenario 3: You follow the plan for a little while but it sucks.

It isn’t sustainable. It doesn’t make you feel better. It doesn’t keep you sane. Maybe you see some short-term results (or not). But you hate living and eating this way. You never want to see another stupid piece of lettuce or 4 ounces of chicken. Eventually, you get so turned off by the process that you regress or quit altogether.

You conclude that “eating healthy” sucks. And you miss your big chance to learn how to make healthier, more enjoyable, more lasting and real changes.

Another reason meal plans fail.

One of the biggest (yet generally unacknowledged) problems with traditional meal plans is their focus on “nutrients”.

Real people don’t eat “nutrients”. We eat food.

We eat meals, often with other people.

We eat meals that match our cultural background and social interests.

And we rarely measure things precisely.

Sure, sometimes an explicit prescription is necessary. For instance, professional athletes or bodybuilders (in other words, people who make money off their bodies and athletic skills) use meal plans to prepare for training and competition.

A prescribed meal for someone in that situation might look something like this:

  • 1/4 cup dry oats

  • 3 oz chicken breast

  • 1 cup steamed broccoli

  • 5 almonds

  • 1 omega-3 supplement

  • 1 cup green tea (unsweetened)

But most of us don’t need that level of surgical precision.

We don’t normally eat “ounces” of things, or refer to food by their nutrients (like “omega-3 fatty acids”).

Instead, we eat foods like:

  • Idli, Dosa and Biryani

  • Salads

  • Pasta and noodles

  • Sandwiches, wraps, and Rotis

  • Sambar and Curries

  • Cereal

  • Fries and Burgers

  • Tacos and Burritos

  • Cakes and Breads

Bottom line: If you want to eat better, you don’t have to get weird about things.

You don’t need to weigh and measure everything, or count out your almonds.

Ask yourself: “Is someone paying me to do this?” If the answer is no, you likely don’t need this kind of approach.

You just need to think about what you’re already eating, and how you could make it a little bit better.

This means fiddling and adjusting. Making small changes and improvements to what you already normally eat and enjoy, one small step at a time.

Think about a spectrum of food quality rather than “bad” or “good” foods.

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