Meal plans are seen as a path to perfection but real life is messy and we aren’t perfect. It’s kinda like if a teacher gave you all the answers to an exam. In reality, going through the struggle and sometimes though the messiness to become stronger and learn more about yourself and what you need.

But as we’ve mentioned before, nutrition is not black or white. So with respect to that, here’s some ways meal plans can be helpful and why I’ve used them with some clients.

They can provide more ideas of food choices.

I come across a lot of people who are stuck in their food habits and want to create more variety, but simply finding and providing recipes doesn’t always cut it for them. Showing what more variety looks like in a nutritious manner for their needs can be helpful. This is especially true for clients I’ve seen who have little grocery money who often feel like variety is out of reach. A meal plan showing less expensive food with variety and talking about cooking skills can be a practical way of introducing nutritious changes.

It shows how much food you can actually eat for your needs.

One of the most surprising things I’ve found when working with clients is how so many people chronically under eat – or starve themselves throughout the day in an attempt to lose weight, then ravenously overeat to the point of feeling physically sick one they do eat in the evening. One of the most common reactions I’ve gotten to meal plans has been “this is so much food!” Chronic under eating is not doing any favors for your body and can increase risk of over-indulgence and an overall unhealthy relationship with food.

Can help to begin the shift of mindful eating and listening to your body cues.

Including more balanced meals for your body and activity levels has an impact on energy and overall feelings of wellbeing. If you’re used to skipping breakfast or always eating a small salad for lunch, chances are that hunger cues and maybe even fullness cues have gone suppressed. We’ve seen how being more kind to the body by providing it with adequate nutrition can actually help people begin the journey of being more tuned-in to their body. Perhaps one of the biggest differences people see is the change in their performance at the gym; when we add a meal or snack before working out they notice the changes not only in performance but also in recovery and mood.

Can help teach how food pair together to make you feel well.

We generally think everyone knows how to eat healthy and that they just don’t implement it. While that’s the case for many (and the complicated topic of a future blog), there are a LOT of people who legitimately don’t know what foods are nutritious and which ones that should make up the bulk of their intake and furthermore, how to pair them together to get more and longer lasting energy, increased performance and recovery. Plans can provide as another way to encourage balance based on their goals that is more concrete and may be easier to grasp for some clients.

So… ready for the dark side?

With all the positives mentioned above they can still be perceived as encouraging/reinforcing an unhealthy relationship with food. Here’s why:

They can encourage some to deny hunger AND satiety cues.

Hunger isn’t necessarily a bad thing at times (again, not black or white), but chronically suppressing does not help to be tuned into your body and what it needs. Our bodies are not robots and sometimes we need more or even less than what the plan may call for. Trying to stick 100% to the plan doesn’t always align with what you need – but getting to the point of listening to your body and understanding what it needs is a journey by itself.

Some people can see it as an “all or nothing” plan – This continues the cycle of strict intake-binge-strict intake-binge-strict intake-binge rather than account for the reality of daily living. While it can be helpful to be prepared (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that), it gets to be a sticky situation when something comes up and the thought of “messing up” one meal (or even a day) leads to anxiety and overwhelm rather than just going with the flow and knowing that nothing can ever be 100% in their control. No meal is powerful enough to provide an “all or nothing” result. Unless you’re deathly allergic to a specific food, there is none that will either make or break your health or goals. Putting that much power on a specific food or meal only drives an unhealthy obsession and takes away the focus and joy you deserve to put on more important things.

It can introduce the inner rebel.

The inner rebel is stronger in some than in others, but often appears when she/he is tired of the rules and restriction. The inner rebel is best friends with entitled eating – eating that is basically giving a big “F you” to diet rules and is a form of disconnected eating that is not very satisfying to hunger or taste. It’s generally overindulgence centered on making a statement – one that doesn’t need to be proven to anyone.

It might be unrealistic for your lifestyle.

Some plans are a 180-degree from where you’re at and from what you need to make long-term changes. The more of a change they are, the less sustainable they are likely to be. If you are used to having a hectic morning where, on a good day, you’re able to grab a yogurt, what makes you think have a plan that includes day-of food preparation of non-travel friendly food is going to be realistic and sustainable?

It can unintentionally enforce diet rules that aren’t necessary.

As long as we are human and have different perceptions, there can be subconscious food rules internalized by the examples provided. Example, just because a plan gives a snack option in between breakfast and lunch doesn’t mean you have to eat it, in the same way that just because it does give you a snack option doesn’t mean you can’t have one if you are truly hungry. Someone might see that snack (or lack of one) and think they either have to have it (or not) rather than being able to take a step back and looking at the whole context of the situation.

It doesn’t address underlying issues.

While I support nutrition coaching from a variety of places, what I see often doesn’t even begin to address the underlying issues that surface as what is considered the primary issues; and without that, problems will resurface down the line. Let’s say someone is always grabbing a sweet or salty snack at night. A less experienced coach might encourage them just to stick with the plan, but here we want to go through a list and find the underlying cause.

  • Pattern and physiological craving: it’s something your body is used to getting and it begins to get ready for it (salivating, stomach pains, etc)
  • Not eating enough food/carbs: your body could be missing out on energy in the form of food and simply adding another serving of healthy fat could help.
  • Not having enough balance (protein and fat) in a meal: riding the blood sugar roller coaster
  • Disordered gut microbiome: there may be an overgrowth of the bacteria that favor sweets.
  • Lack of sleep: poor sleep increases ghrelin levels (hunger hormone) and lowers leptin levels (a hormone that tells you you’re full).
  • A pseudo-craving: craving of a superficial thing to cope with an issue, a core-human craving that’s not being met.

Working together, we can try to identify which one(s) someone struggles with. And this is just a small piece of the puzzle and what we look at.

A better way

Meal plans are not for everyone. On the occasion that I do provide them, I like to get people to get off them ASAP by working with them on how to do that. It’s a tool, not a solution.

Instead of looking at them like a road map (usually with only one way to get to the goal), it can be helpful to use it as a tool and to look at it like a theme park map. Theme park maps provide you many different ways around the park. Some times you might want to ride the roller coaster twice, while other times you may not feel like riding it. Sometimes you may need that extra snack, or more fat or carbs in a meal, while other times you may not.

If meal plans make you feel overwhelmed, anxious, guilty, bad, over rigid, and/or preoccupied with food, there are other things to focus and work on that need to be addressed.

I don’t work like many nutrition gurus, I like to focus on what we can add to the diet, rather than what can we take out.

If you only focus on how you aren’t perfect, you won’t be able to see how far you’ve come. How far you’ve come is the only thing that matters – it’s what is going to keep you going to a healthy lifestyle.

At FeMVMNT, we’re about consistency, not perfection. If you “fall off the wagon” and have an “all or nothing” approach, stick around because we’ll be talking more about breaking free.