If you Google “meal plan for…” you will see you can find a meal plan for pretty much anything.
Apparently people are not only looking for meal plans for body composition changes, but also for children, and managing diseases as well. Obviously most of the results have to do with manipulating one’s body composition.
When I Googled “meal plan for weight loss” the top result on Google pointed me to this Medical News Today page. On this page was the following 7 day meal plan.
From a positive perspective there are a lot of whole foods in this plan, which I love. Overall I think from a food quality perspective I could get behind this.
However, this example will exactly illustrate some of the reasons why I encourage you to stay far away from meal plans and why I personally don’t give them to my clients.
My biggest reason for not giving meal plans to clients is because it does nothing to teach them how they should eat.
Say I gave you the above meal plan and you followed it perfectly for the time we worked together.
Great, you worked hard and were committed…maybe you even reached your goals!
Now what happens when we are no longer working together?
What happens when you get bored eating these foods and meals?
Where do you turn then?
Unfortunately you never learned the skills and tools you need to use to construct your own meals. What ends up happening in these cases is people turn back to what they know, their old eating habits….the ones that didn’t serve them in the first place.
The sad truth is the way you are eating now is not going to be the way you are eating 1 month, 6 months, or 1 year in the future.
Life circumstances change.
Taste preferences change.
Changes in the season cause desires for certain foods.
Vacations will happen.
Celebrations will occur.
When the inevitable change comes, can you handle it, can you adjust your diet?
If all you know is how to follow a written meal plan what are you going to do?
When I work with clients I teach them how to deal with change, and give them the tools they can use on their own to make changes to their diet and still achieve their goals. Meal plans don’t give you that.
So how can you develop the skills to adjust your diet to your goals as you navigate the inevitable changes of life?
The first thing you need is patience. Learning is a process, you will make mistakes, you will have to backtrack, it’s an exploration and that doesn’t come without challenges along the way.
How do you begin this process?
First is by exploring where you are at.
When it comes to food, you need to become aware of what you are eating. Awareness in terms of food involves not only the things that make up the foods you eat, but also how certain foods make you feel and end up dictating your actions and choices.
From a nutritional perspective, I often encourage clients to better understand the calories they are consuming, as well as the macronutrients within those calories.
Now I know some people are averse to quantifying their food in any way. Certainly if you have a diagnosed mental condition or think you might have a serious problem related to food intake you should stop reading this blog and reach out to a medical professional.
However if you just don’t like it or don’t believe in quantifying your food, it is still a useful exercise to work through even for just a short period of time.
There are a couple of good reasons..
- It allows us to use a common language to talk about what you are currently eating and have a meaningful conversation about your diet.
- It gives us a baseline to measure changes to your diet.
- It allows us to identify hidden issues that could be causing you to actually make progress.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of how quantifying your food intake can help.
First is protein intake.
We roughly want to get in between 0.7-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight (or ideal body weight if you are overweight). That means if you weigh 150 pounds you are going to want to get around 120 grams of protein per day. Do you know what it takes to reach that number?
Here is the sad truth, 2 eggs, some deli meat, and a piece of chicken are not getting you there!
Skipping breakfast? Guess what you are even further behind (well not that bad because 2 eggs only has 14 grams of protein!).
Eating the right amount of protein is universally important because it supports all goals anyone will have whether it is performance, fat loss, longevity, muscle gain, or playing with your grandkids everyone will benefit from optimal protein intake.
Spend a week at least tracking your protein to understand how much you are actually eating. Then in all likelihood, increase it!
The next big thing is that quantifying your food intake helps you understand how much you are eating.
Whether you believe in “calories” or not, there is no denying certain foods provide more energy to your body than others. A pound of steak has more energy in it than a pound of broccoli. Some foods pack a nice amount of energy in a very small size, while others do not. Understanding roughly how much energy is in your food is important, especially for those concerned about body composition.
I can’t tell you how many clients I have who track their food and don’t ever enter any oils, cooking fats, or salad dressings they use. Use a cooking fat 3 times a day at each meal? That’s 300-500 calories. Put a bit of salad dressing on that healthy salad plus some nuts…that’s another 300-500 calories. Put a tablespoon of nut butter on your sourdough toast, a couple hundred more calories. Finish off the leftover fries on your kids plate at night? There are several hundred more calories.
All of these things rarely make it into a food log, but can make up a huge portion of your daily intake. Again whether you believe in calories or not, there is no denying these things add up to account for your overall energy intake.
Lastly, understanding what is in your food can be eye opening. We often hear things like nuts are a good source of protein, or fruit is high in sugar, or below ground veggies are super starchy. However when you actually look at a given food and put it in context you realize that some of these common “food facts” are just not true.
Nuts are a terrible source of protein when compared to animal sources, so if you need to eat more protein don’t rely on nuts.
Yeah dried fruit is high in sugar and you probably want to limit your consumption, but most whole fruit is relatively low in sugar in comparison.
The starch in a carrot is very different from the starch in a potato, both are below ground veggies but the same rule does not universally apply.
Many clients I have go through “AHA!!!” moments about the food they are consuming once they start to actually understand what’s in their foods.
The next thing I ask clients to pay attention to is how foods make them feel. Does a certain food make you feel tired? How is your digestion after you consume a meal? When you eat certain foods does it make you feel more or less hungry? What foods are hyperpalatable for you? Which foods do you know you need to keep out of your environment or else you are likely to over consume them? Can you moderate certain foods or do you need to abstain from them entirely?
A food journal can be very helpful in tracking your behaviors around food.
Every time you have a meal or eat a food, write down how it made you feel both immediately and in the hours after. Again this is about awareness. Oftentimes we have both good and bad experiences, but never make the connection that maybe it was the foods we consumed a few hours ago that played into that experience.
In addition to the journal, it’s best to spend some time undistracted while you are eating your foods so you can immerse yourself in how your body is feeling while you are eating the food. Today we are so distracted, eating while we work or watching TV or reading a book that we do not pay attention to the food we are eating and miss out on our feelings and behaviors around that food.
I am certainly one to turn to science as a way of deciding how I should do many things when it comes to my health.
However I also realize that science works in averages, it’s not specific, and there are very few universal truths, especially when we are talking physiology.
You need to learn to listen to your body and let it guide you along the way.
If the next longevity super food gives you a bunch of GI issues….don’t eat it!!!!
If eating low fat, high carb makes you feel better day to day, own it, go for it, who cares if all your friends are jumping on the keto bandwagon (for the millionth time)!
I recently had a friend reach out to me and say that he was completely turned off by certain types of animal protein. I told him…
“Roll with it. You are still hitting your protein goal with other high quality protein sources.”
Sure enough he did and a few weeks later the aversion went away. He could have tried to power through in the name of eating the “optimal” diet, but he would have been miserable and maybe the odd aversion to certain foods would have turned into a lifetime aversion! Instead he listened to his body and everything worked out.
We need to learn to not be afraid that our body is going to lead us down the wrong path and instead trust what it tells us and follow its lead.
Now obviously our bodies also can tell us to eat a pint of ice cream, cake, a box of cookies, or a candy bar. In most cases, yes you probably don’t want to listen in those cases.
The problem is our bodies still think we are living in a time where food is a luxury so if we are in the presence of a ton of calories our body will tell us to eat them.
However, if your body is telling you to eat an apple, or avoid kale, or add some extra salt, listen to your body and go ahead and eat the food.
Change is inevitable, your diet is no exception. Following a ridgid meal plan or diet might be good for the short term. It is certainly one way to get started, and you might even reach your goal long term. However, unless you truly understand your own needs, and how to make intelligent changes to adjust to your ever evolving lifestyle you won’t be able to maintain any progress you have made. If you want to learn more about the tools you need to achieve your goals, sign up for my weekly newsletter which provides actionable information you can start using right away to get you where you are trying to go!