Why meal plans don't work
As we move into the colder months and back into some semblance of a pre covid routine, that January health kick and New Year's resolution to shift the lockdown weight can seem like a distant memory. One of the most common ways people attempt to avoid this inevitable slump in motivation is by getting themselves a meal plan.
"I just want a meal plan. I just want someone to tell me what to eat"
Have you been guilty of uttering these words? Maybe you've said it to your colleague, your friend, your partner, your pet...? Have you been sucked into a "free meal plan" (provided you handed over a valid email address and spent the next year deleting email spam)? Do you have an expensive fitness app subscription that provides daily meal suggestions? Did your PT write you out a meal plan that you've since misplaced?
Have any of these worked for you? If they have, good on you. If they haven't, it's not your fault, and here's why.
Whether in the form of a downloaded e-book, your PT's handwriting, or an app subscription; meal plans tend to follow the same format. The most basic simply give you food suggestions designed to meet a (usually over restricted) energy target to promote weight loss. The more thorough versions aim to provide an allotted amount of energy distributed across our three main nutrients: carbohydrate, protein and fat. With meal plan apps you might be afforded a certain level of flexibility in the form of swapping different snacks and meals to personalise it further. But no matter how flexible, varied and user-friendly these plans are they face one infallible flaw: they exist in a vacuum.
A meal plan does not care if it's Sarah's birthday this weekend and you're going to an all-you-can-eat taco bar. It does not account for your parents being in town and you want to take them to all your favourite restaurants. Unscheduled celebration drinks for a colleague's engagement? Nope. Your healthy sandwich store is shut? Whatever.
You must still somehow eat those dictated 3 meals and 2 snacks and avoid all temptation in your path. And the icing on the proverbial beetroot and carrot cake with no added sugar is if you DO succumb, if you DO let your fingers close around a few tasty tacos, then you have to deal with the GUILT! Oh the guilt. It creeps up on you at your next meal time, questioning your choices. I mean, you've deviated from the meal plan already, why stop there? Why not forget the whole thing? You gave it a good go, but you just couldn't get to the supermarket on Sunday and now you don't have the ingredients to prep tomorrow morning's oat granola parfait with mandolin sliced strawberries and a honey reduction. Or the energy. MAFS is on: just eat bread from the bag like last night.
Seriously; these meal plans have no respect for the chaos that is "an average week."
The premise is sound. Help people eat healthier by taking arguably the hardest part out of the equation: the decision making. However a key component is missing - flexibility. In this way a nondescript meal plan is the same as any other fad diet marketed by the billion dollar health and wellness industry. It is there to give the illusion of diet control, while simultaneously providing a product that's unsustainable and will inevitably end in failure. Harsh, but true.
So how can you make a meal plan actually work for you?
1. Factor in the flexibility you need. Maybe you know you will always be having the same thing for breakfast, but you're prone to having lunch wherever a colleague suggests. Or you know by Thursday you're craving a Maccas cheeseburger and that's when your "healthy" week gets derailed. That's fine - just factor it in. Don't expect your food behaviours to change just because you've downloaded an app (scandalous, I know).
2. Have back up meals that take 5 minutes to prepare. In a perfect world you'd cook a gourmet, perfectly prepared meal every night. But that's just not realistic. Have some back up meals in your arsenal; think a frozen meal, eggs on toast, or a healthy take away.
3. Don't let one bad day ruin your week...or your month. This is critical. So often we get into that 'all or nothing' mentality when it comes to food. Imagine if we let this thinking dictate our decisions in any other parts of our lives. You have a bad day at work - may as well quit. You have an argument with your partner - throw the whole relationship away. Not very sustainable is it? The same applies with changing your eating habits. If you've struggled to make healthy choices on a single day, that's fine. Go to bed and try again tomorrow (it also helps to start identifying why that may have happened and that's where I come in).
4. Expect change to take time. Fad diets and any other weight loss programs often include one key thing - instant results. So often these are unsustainable and promote yo-yo dieting where you end up putting back on all the weight you lost plus more after the "program period" is over. Real change does take time, but the most important difference is that you end up being able to sustain these changes for the long term. I guarantee if you're a chronic crash dieter, you've spent more time on these programs than it would take to implement long term food behaviour change that would keep you healthier for the rest of your life.
5. See a dietitian. If you're struggling to make dietary changes, see a dietitian. We're accredited, we're experienced, and our science based recommendations are based around your lifestyle. We're also trained in medical nutrition therapy, which means if you have any medical conditions, or are on any medications, our recommendations will take that into account. I'm yet to see a generic meal plan that does that.
By Isabella Maugeri, APD