Why meal plans don’t work

Over the course of my career I have been asked one question more than any other: “Can you write me a meal plan?”

My answer to this question has varied considerably over the years but I mostly tend towards saying no. Not because I don’t want to help people. I do. It’s also not because I think meal plans are useless. They’re not. It’s because meal plans have an uncanny way of making a person feel unnecessary guilt about food and lose their food intuition. Also, most people never follow them and then come back to me wondering why they haven’t lost weight – or put on weight (if that was their goal).

Let me explain what I mean

You could go to any number of different websites and purchase a meal plan (there are actually plenty of free ones). Most of them will have it all spelled out for you: breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. The idea is that you don’t have to think – all the thinking has been done for you. You’ll get shopping lists, printable plans, recipes, tips and access to competitions, support groups and inspirational memes.

The meal plan seems to have all the ingredients for a successful weight loss adventure. And technically it does. Because whether you choose Michelle Bridges, Kayla Itsines, Ashy Bines, Commando Steve or any of the other online programs out there, if you stick to the meal plan and do what it says, you will lose weight. If it’s not working, you’re not following it strictly enough, because if you were, it would work, right?

But there’s a problem

What if the meal plan has tuna on crackers for afternoon tea but you don’t like tuna? What if you’re out and about and forget to bring your boiled egg and banana for morning tea? What if you’re at work and you pull out a measly chicken salad for lunch and all your colleagues are coming back from the cafe with BLTs, hamburgers and chips?

Maybe one day you’re pre-menstrual and all you want to do is eat chocolate. This is a deep, real and important issue.

One day you cave. You eat chocolate (or whatever). But that food wasn’t on the meal plan and now you’ve messed it up. You haven’t followed it perfectly. There’s a blemish on your once perfect food record (since Monday) and now it’s ruined. You’ve scribbled all over your weight loss masterpiece with a dirty brown crayon. What a disaster!

“Oh well,” you think, “I may as well eat the rest of the block of chocolate. That way it’s all gone and I can’t eat it tomorrow.” The day is further played out with overeating hot chips and takeaway pizza. Because the diet is ruined today, you may as well throw in the towel and go to town on the food that you haven’t been able to eat that week.

The guilt factor

Meal plans make you feel guilty because they foster an “all or nothing” approach. They spell everything out for us and when we don’t follow them perfectly there’s a temptation to feel like it’s completely ruined. Many personalities approach meal plans with the thought that if they can’t do it 100 per cent then they’re not going to bother. When in reality, most of the people successful on these plans haven’t been 100 per cent perfect. They’ve just been close enough.

Meal plans don’t leave room for food intuition. Before following the meal plan, you were most likely eating very mindlessly. You thought about dinner only hours before it was going to happen. You wandered down to the cafe at lunch and chose whatever you felt like. You wandered through the supermarket and just grabbed food that was easy and familiar. Food that you enjoy. And now, this meal plan has tied you down. It’s all about rules with no room to wiggle. For those of you who are free spirits and don’t function well under a tight regime, the meal plan leaves you bitter and angsty. You’re biting at the chain and ache for the freedom of what your food life used to be like. You rebel. You self-sabotage.

How to make a meal plan work

I actually do write meal plans. Quite regularly. But I do it with a few conditions:

You accept this isn’t a quick fix.

My clients must commit to a process of working with me to eventually wean themselves from the meal plan and learn to feed themselves well, all by themselves. I don’t want the old story of: Follow the meal plan. Lose weight. Stop following the meal plan. Put weight back on. I teach them how to write a meal plan and learn how to do it for themselves.

Your meal plan MUST include your favourite foods.

Seriously. If you like bread, then your meal plan will contain bread. It will contain a healthy type of bread, in an appropriate portion size, so you learn how to eat this food in a balanced way. Favourite foods are not about nutrition, they’re about balance and enjoyment which are an important part of long term healthy eating habits. Meal plans shouldn’t be boring. If they are, you’ve got the wrong one for you.

Your meal plan is written after I’ve gotten to know you a little.

I want to know how ready you are to change, or whether you’re in a positive head space and ready to prioritise yourself and do what needs to be done. Again, this is not about getting it perfect but in order to change habits, you’ve got to be in a particular headspace. And more importantly, I want you to understand that you’ll take two steps forward and one step backwards and that’s ok. I also want a chance to encourage you to resist taking an ‘all or nothing’ approach, and be more balanced in your approach.

You commit to learning about food and how to eat well for the rest of your life.

Don’t kid yourself – the majority of people who lose weight on a program put their weight back on again. You’ve got to have a long term perspective and be prepared to make permanent changes, ones that are specific to you.

Progress without pressure

This brings me to my parting words and an explanation of the title of this post: Progress without pressure.

I’m really passionate about this. Our society and culture promotes a certain body type that you apparently MUST have and then tries to sell you all the ways that you could have that body type. There is just so much pressure. Pressure to be thin. Pressure to look healthy. Pressure to be strong. Pressure for glowing skin and hair. Pressure to have energy. To be perky. To be happy. To be amazing. To sparkle. Exercise daily. Lift heavy. Run far.

It’s just ridiculous. And exhausting. And the pressure actually doesn’t do anything except breed a multitude of people – men and women – who become anxious, stressed, obsessive and/or guilty if they don’t make the cut. And let me tell you, against the standard above, I rarely make the cut.

And you know what? I shouldn’t have to. Within the boundaries of my life’s responsibilities and priorities I’m doing my best to eat good food and move my body and it ends there. Do I exercise for hours every week? No, not currently. Do I get a takeaway pizza when I’m tired and don’t want to cook and there’s no food in the house? Yes I do. And you know what? I’m cool with it.

Healthy eating is not about perfection

Healthy eating is more about the small daily habits that I do, like always adding vegetables to my meals (even with takeaway pizza) and grabbing a piece of fruit first when I’m hungry at morning tea. And when I remove the pressure for perfection and just focus on the little things that count day to day, I make progress and in the end, that’s all that really matters.

Make progress, no matter how small, without all the oodles of pressure. If you need a meal plan, go get one. But commit to a long term process of changing habits and looking at the daily processes that support long term good health. If you need an exercise program, go get one. But if you can’t get to the gym every day to begin with, don’t throw in the towel. Just do something once a week. When that’s become a habit, build on it. If you add in one exercise session per month, after six months, you’re exercising six days a week, but you haven’t had to overhaul your lifestyle to do it. You’ve just done it bit by bit.

I’m embracing progress without pressure. Want to join me?

P.S. If you want a meal plan, hit me up, but you do have to follow the conditions above.

Article by Kate Freeman

Registered Nutritionist. Writer. Presenter. Home cook. Mother. Wife. Runner. Hiker. Amateur photographer.