Are You Sure You Want That Meal Plan?

Danny LennonBlog Posts4 Comments

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Are You Sure You Want That Meal Plan?
[This is a guest post by Rob Zand, an evidence-based personal trainer based in the UK and is part of the coaching team at Shredded By Science. Tweet him at @RZtraining]

In the world of fitness and nutrition, meals plans are common place.

There seems to be a reoccurring situation in the fitness industry. One that is unfortunate, shady and sometimes just wrong.

It seems anyone and everyone is handing out meal plans. From self-professed models on Instagram to complete idiots out to make a quick few quid.

The plans are FAR from individualised or bespoke. And those providing them are far from coaches who actually use scientific evidence to base their recommendations on.

This situation is currently both extremely prevalent and problematic for consumers.

How do you know who to trust?

Can eating according to these plans work to get you in shape?

Sure. Your coach tells you exactly what, how much and when to eat.

But are they the best way?

Lets take a closer look…

No Flexibility With Food Choices

What happens if you want to eat something not on the plan?

What happens if you want to go out to a restaurant for a meal?

What happens if your 8 weeks into your plan and you’re bored of the egg whites, tilapia and broccoli?

If you’re happy to stick with eating the same foods day in day out, with no influence on what and when you eat, then your call.

However I doubt this is the vast majority of people.

Oh and by the way, you get no extra prizes for causing yourself more suffering than is necessary.

No flexibility with meal frequency

Many of these stock meal plans being doled out are restrictive beyond belief.

You have no influence over meal frequency (looks like 6 meals a day for you!). What if your prescribed 6 meals per day isn’t suited to your lifestyle?

But it’s a sacrifice you’ve got to make right?

Well, actually more meals doesn’t mean more results – it is far from magic.

‘Clean’ Food Only Bro!

It’s common to find restrictions placed on certain ‘bad’ foods for no apparent reason. Because they aren’t “clean”.

What exactly is a ‘clean’ food anyway? Different people define differently, i.e. there is no objective science-based definition.

Scaremongering about the supposed negative effects of “bad” foods’ is prominent in the fitness and nutrition industry.

We are constantly being told what will ruin our health and body composition.

One week it’s dietary fat that is the reason people are overweight and out of shape. The next it’s carbohydrates. The next it’s gluten.

It’s crazy.

When the majority of the diet is composed of whole food sources, including smaller amounts of “indulgences” in the diet will have no real adverse affect on health.

Bespoke… Seriously?

It doesn’t matter whether your aim is muscle gain, fat loss or whatever – all these plans look the same! They’re far from the ‘bespoke’ and ‘individualised’ plan you thought you were getting.

I can see them now.  They’re all 6-8 ‘meals’ per day. They’re all the same few foods. And rarely is the consumers personal preference towards food choices taken into consideration.

On a daily basis I’ll see comments such as “I can’t wait for cheat ‘day'” or “this diet is killing me, I just want a donut” splashed all over social media.

This isn’t necessarily just from people that are preparing for some kind of physique or bodybuilding show, this is just from individuals who want to lose a bit of body fat, gain some muscle and just look and feel better.

Why is this restriction on certain foods and suffering necessary?

You don’t have to eat like a 1980’s bodybuilder to look better naked.

Dieting is challenging enough as it is, why make it more difficult than it needs to be? Surely a good coach/trainer would want to make it as easy as they possibly can for you?

I mean surely you should actually ENJOY the whole process? Isn’t that what life is about? Enjoyment?

What happens if you want to go ‘off plan’? What if you want to enjoy a meal out with your family or friends?

With these plans you are often left with two choices when faced with temptating situations:

  1. You take your cold white fish and asparagus to the restaurant with you in a tupperware box.
  2. Or you eat something not on your plan and instantly feel guilty. You then get a case of  “f*ck it” syndrome and think “ah well I’ve ruined this week” and so end up massively over-indulging.

Why does one meal out with your family, or a bit of chocolate, or a cookie have to ‘ruin’ your diet?

Answer: it doesn’t!

What To Do Instead

This 100% ‘all or nothing’ approach may bring about results in the short term, but sustainable is this approach?

What do you do after your ‘8 week transformation’ diet is over?

For THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, are you:

  • going to eat foods you don’t particularly enjoy?
  • going to eat at a meal frequency that doesn’t suit your preference?
  • going to eat at times of the day that don’t suit your lifestyle?

What exactly do you learn from one of these restrictive meal plans? Do you feel you’ve got a better understanding of nutrition?

Do you actually know how many calories you’re eating on a daily basis? How much protein? Carbohydrate? Fat?

Do you know WHY you’re eating the way that’s laid out in this plan?

Quite simply. Meal plans (without coaching and education) suck.

So if getting one-off meal plans off some random ripped-up dude on social media is such a bad idea, then what’s a better alternative?

Flexible dieting.

Flexible dieting is an approach that basically means that you don’t need to be neurotic about food. You don’t need to avoid certain foods. You don’t need to eat specific foods. You don’t need to have a set meal frequency. It’s as the name suggests; it’s flexible!

If you eat in a way that allows you to consume adequate amounts of calories and macronutrients on a daily basis that fits your goal, then there are no certain foods that NEED to be included or NEED to be avoided.

[Side note from Danny: If you aren’t familiar with the concept, I’d HIGHLY recommend Lyle McDonald’s book ‘A Guide to Flexible Dieting’Lyle is awesome.]

You should enjoy all your meals!

You should enjoy all your meals!

Why Flexible Dieting Works

  • Studies have shown that rigid dieting where restrictions are placed on the consumption of certain foods has strong associations with causing anxiety, eating disorders and a negative effect on mood in comparison to a flexible dieting approach.
  • Knowing your calorie and macronutrient requirements for the day (which will be person, goal, training specific) allows YOU to chose what foods you want to eat and when.
  • It also means that you can factor in ‘indulgences’ into your daily intake, allowing you to go out for meals at restaurants or have some chocolate whilst staying on track to reach your goals.
  • It means you don’t panic, you’re not caused unnecessary stress or feel guilty because you ‘ruined your diet’! No more tupperware at social gatherings.
  • This also puts to bed the need to ‘cheat’ on your diet, whether that be a meal or day, which potentially ends up being a binge.  During your cheat meals you’re potentially more likely to eat more ‘junk’ food than if you simply factored in ‘treats’ everyday and just applied some portion control. A slice of pizza won’t ruin your progress but a 5,000 calorie cheat day sure will.

But wait, ‘bad’ foods like ice cream, chocolate and pizza make you fat though right?

No, not quite. Only an OVER-CONSUMPTION of total daily calories will result in fat gain, whether its from cookies or chicken & rice.

Admittedly, it may typically be more difficult to overeat calories from ‘whole food’ sources but however you look at it, calories matter.

Let’s be clear though, one thing flexible dieting is NOT, is an excuse to try and see how much ‘junk’ food you can fit into your daily calorie and macro intake.

If you have a daily target of 300 grams of carbs, are you going get that exclusively from poptarts? Of course not.

However, can you allow some ‘discretionary’ carbohydrates to come from more “junky” sources to meet your requirements? Sure. Context is key!

Most of your diet should still be based on whole foods. You can allow say 10-20% of your food intake to come from so called ‘indulgences’, as long as they are factored into your caloric needs.

 Do You Need to Change Your Approach?

  • Are you meeting your daily protein, carbohydrates, fat and fibre requirements?
  • Are you eating to a meal frequency that fits your personal preference?
  • Is at least 80% of your food intake coming from ‘whole foods’ sources?
  • Can you see yourself following this eating style in 6-12 months from now?

If the answer is “NO” to these questions, then you need to re-assess.

The take home message here is that the best diet is the one that fits your lifestyle and you can stick to in the long term. In other words, the best diet is the one that is suited to YOU!


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