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Why generic meal plans DON’T work, and 5 things you can do to reach your health goals without them

Hello, I hate generic meal plans.

Why? Well let's start with this scenario that happens to me on a daily basis:

Meet Kate* (left). Kate is a lovely young woman, who has been trying diets all her life but they all seem to fail her, which sends her into a vicious cycle of restricting food, getting disheartened, then self-sabotaging by binging on food, which leads to another diet... and so on. Kate comes into my clinic and this happens:

Me: Hi Kate*, what can I do for you today?

Kate*: Oh I’ve tried so many diets and they work for a little while but then when I stop I gain the weight (and extra) back on! I’m confused about what to do and I just want to lose the weight for good

Me: OK, so tell me about your nutrition knowledge, do you have a good understanding of food?

Kate*: Yes! I know what to do but I just seem to get confused with the information. Can you just give me a meal plan to follow? I just need to know exactly when and what I should be eating!

Me: *tenses jaw and fists but tries to keep in a calm state* - No worries Kate, before we get to that… (consult continues and I do my thing and Kate decides it’s better to not get a meal plan after all)

*Kate is a hypothetical person who represents the clients that I see.

So, why is it that I tense my jaw and clench my fists when someone asks for a meal plan?

Well, I’m a Dietitian and a Nutritionist, right? Like, isn’t that what I do? Meal. Plans.?

Mmmm, not exactly. Although meal plans have long been a staple for the fitness and dieting industry, and people love them because all the answers are given to them on paper – unfortunately, they just don’t work (not long-term at least).

Do you really believe that eating an exact thing, at an exact time, in an exact amount, is really enjoyable, or let alone… sustainable? I can answer that for you because I see it 99% of the time – no. They’re not enjoyable, not sustainable, and B.O.R.I.N.G.

Here are some reasons why meal plans aren’t for everybody…

Why don’t they work?

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 salad in the middle of winter.

What’s more, even if you’ve actually paid to have someone make your plan, you might find yourself rebelling against it. And guess what? This is also normal.

But in the end, this just means that 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. Because in your head ‘you’re not allowed to eat this at this time’ – so your body can and WILL make you rebel against this.

They might work for some people, but end up being the worst thing for them

You may stick to the plan so perfectly – too perfectly, which could lead to some serious problems.

How? Well…

Meal plans were first designed as a ‘quick-fix’ to help a person get to a specific short-term goal, like dropping a few extra kg’s before a wedding, learning to manage blood sugar levels, or ‘shredding’ for an athletic competition.

Our bodies can usually adapt to this strict way of eating for a short period of time. But doing this for too long, not only do you lose touch with your fullness and hunger cues, forget how to listen to your body and nourish it with what it needs, you could actually develop disordered eating habits and health consequences too, (i.e. mental, metabolic, hormonal, etc.)

You get put off, because you’re human

Following a specific way of eating just isn’t sustainable. It doesn’t make you feel better. It doesn’t keep you sane.

Maybe you see some short-term results (or you don’t). But you hate living and eating this way. You never want to see another stupid piece of spinach or tuna or eggs ever again.

Eventually, you get so turned off by the process that you relapse or quit altogether. You decide that “eating healthy” sucks.

Then, you miss your big chance to learn how to make healthier, more enjoyable, more lasting and real changes. Because you’re put off. Forever.

…and this reason is exactly why I hate meal plans. They make my clients hate ‘healthy food’, hate themselves (because they think they’ve ‘failed’) and stress so much about having to do another diet ever again.

So if it’s not a meal plan, what do you even do as a Dietitian and Nutritionist?

Well, we start slow. We start to practice mindful eating. We start to transform our dieting habits into lifestyle habits that will actually stick, and will make you feel good! And the best thing of all, there are no rules, no strict guidelines, so you never actually feel bad about eating or drinking anything in particular. Because you learn how to move on.

Let’s be real, everyone’s a nutrition smarty pants these days. You know exactly what it is you should be eating – but how do you put that into practice?

You need to stop thinking so much about the WHAT, and more about HOW you eat and WHY you eat. These are some of the key ingredients that determine much of your choices and decisions around food – and most of the time, we make these unconsciously – which leads us to bad habits and bad experiences with food.

So, going back to Kate... We worked through the following 5 things, over 5 weeks, which allowed her to make her OWN decisions about what to eat, and actually be able to stick to it. Because you know what? No one, not even the best Dietitian or Nutritionist in the world knows what you’re body needs more than you. It's your turn now. Get up and grab a pen and paper, and start jotting down some of these notes:

1. Start small. One step at a time.

Pick one meal or snack to change in your day, and focus on that.

For example, you may need to be:

  • adding more good quality protein

  • adding more veggies or fruit

  • eating less processed food or decreasing added sugar

2. Add things slowly.

Once you’ve improved on one meal a day, try another. Or, once you’ve improved one factor in a meal (e.g. adding more vegetables to it), try another.

For instance, if you’re getting more vegetables, try then switching out your sugary drinks for some soda water.

Remember, this isn’t a race. Be patient and kind to yourself.

3. Set yourself up for success.

Notice what makes it easier and simpler for you to eat better, and then figure out how to do more of this or get more of that.

For example:

  • Is pre-planning helping you? How could you do more of that?

  • Is setting aside time on Sunday afternoon to cook for the week, a good idea?

There’s no “right” way to do this. You need to do what works for YOU.

4. Enjoy your meals.

Meal plans don’t usually address how you eat. So, before you change what you eat, you should try changing how you eat. Try these steps:

  • Slow down.

  • Breathe between bites.

  • Relax.

  • Savour your food.

  • Sit at a table with no distractions.

  • Have more family meals, without TVs, phones or tablets.

Give yourself some time and space to appreciate those tasty concoctions you put together. Meal time is YOUR time.

5. Finally, you are your own boss. Embrace this!

Sometimes, or most of the time, it is easier to just get told what to do. This can be helpful sometimes, but not for long. Because as I said, no one will ever know what your body needs at any particular moment more than you.

So, try looking for ways to help you to intuitively and wisely make better choices, rather than just following horrible, strict rules.

Think long-term. What do you want to happen over the next few months? Year? 10 years? Do you want to be on a meal plan for the next decade?

In conclusion...

Today, you all need to do is take one small step towards a ‘better’ you. Don’t aim for perfect, NEVER aim for perfect. Because at the end of the day, better will always be achievable.

Need help getting some guidance with this?

If you still feel like you’re struggling, come and have a chat with me. We will discuss all these points slowly and we will work on what is best for you.

I promise you, you’ll walk in my door wanting to ‘lose weight’, but when you walk out, you will have gained more than you’d ever imagined.

For more info, contact us here.

Lots of love,

ADM xx

Joyce Haddad, Director of A Dietitian's Mission, is an Adelaide based Dietitian, Nutritionist and Master Personal Trainer with a passion for health and wellbeing. ADM aims to help the public make informed and realistic nutritional choices and ensure everyone has a healthy relationship with their body and with food.

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