It's not uncommon to join a gym to start training and be handed a meal plan. This has been a mainstay in the fitness industry for a very long time. We get asked all the time for meal plans when we initially get started talking to our clients about nutrition. Much of the time, this is rooted in the idea that if they are just told what to eat and when, this whole weight loss thing will be a piece of cake. The problem with this method is it's extremely difficult for people to sustain long-term.
Meal plans are simply too rigid for the majority of people to follow for any length of time. You're told what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. Regardless of how easy this sounds, life tends to happen and very quickly this perfect meal plan has become unrealistic. You have a work meeting that came up, your kid needs to be picked up from swim practice early, or, for some reason, chicken and broccoli for the fourth time this week just doesn't seem appetizing. These are all normal things that occur in everyone's lives. You can't always meticulously plan out your day and expect everything to fall into place. What happens when this occurs? The inflexibility of the meal plan doesn't adequately prepare you for any variables that may come up and you may derail a little bit.
All of the aspects of following a meal plan almost ensure it will be very challenging to follow. There are so many habits involved with following a meal plan such as preparing your kitchen, cooking, food preparation, and clean-up, that many people will be adopting several habits at once. With each additional habit you attempt, you decrease the likelihood that you'll be able to follow it. It's best to focus on one thing at a time, master that, and then move onto the next.
If you do happen to follow a meal plan very strictly, and complete it for the recommended length of time, this can cause some serious disordered eating further down the line. Most of these meal plans are supposed to be temporary, meaning you don't continue doing them after a clearly defined length of time, which is typically a few weeks to a month or two. For a shorter period of time, you may be able to complete the nutrition plan and lose some weight. If you happen to continue it for longer, based on some results you got, you can have other issues that come up whether they be behavioral, metabolic, or hormonal.
And lastly, meal plans are truly a one-size-fits-all approach. Every client is handed the same meal plan. There may be some differences on whether you're a man or woman, but for the most part, these are extremely similar. What if you don't like broccoli? Or you're a vegetarian? Or making an omelette isn't feasible for you in the mornings? You're not learning the right ways to eat; you're just following along. Behavior modification is the key to creating lasting lifestyle change.
So what do you do instead? Rather than give our clients a meal plan, we like to work with them and create outcome based strategies for them to do each week. Involving our clients in the process creates much more buy-in and increases the likelihood that they will complete these tasks successfully. It is key, though, that we choose one task at a time. Any more than that decreases the likelihood that the client will be successful at adopting this new way of eating.
We all know what we should be eating. We regularly ask our clients if they know what food is good for weight loss, and what foods would cause weight gain. Nearly 100% of the time, they get the answers correct. This means there's not necessarily an educational issue here. It's largely behavioral. People know what they need to do to lose weight; it's getting them to do those things that is the challenge. This is why many of the habits and tasks we give our clients are based on behaviors and habits around eating. It's not necessarily what they're eating, but what they're doing when they're eating, who are they eating with, how much are they eating, etc.
Some examples of behavioral or habit-based tasks we give our clients include chewing their food slowly, stopping eating when they're 80% full, eating protein with every meal, eating 5 to 7 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables everyday, or eating away from distractions. Each of these is teaching the client strategies that go much further telling them exactly what to eat and when. It allows them to be somewhat flexible and make choices for themselves that will still lead to their goal.
So, don't necessarily look for what appears to be the quick fix. Think of what is going to make you successful and stay successful both in the short term and several years down the line.