Why Meal Plans Don’t Often Work

Recently, in a focus group of mine, I asked a few members whether or not they had ever been on a diet or a meal plan. Almost everyone had.

I also asked if the members had struggled with emotional eating. Almost everyone has.

I see this with individual clients, too. Many of them have tried the latest fad diets, or even well balanced diet plans from reputable sources.

I have nothing against meal plan services – their service is valuable and I’m fine with people using them as a basic framework for discovering their own best methods of eating…

…however; for many people, a meal plan is not enough. It isn’t even the first step and it’s certainly not the most important.

The thing about nutrition is – most people know what’s healthy. I would say there are very few people out there who really struggle with whether they should eat vegetables or candy – theoretically; however, when it comes to the decision making and the moment – that’s where the struggle begins and ends.

There are so many emotions and feelings tied into eating. That’s not a bad thing. Food is intricately woven into our culture and community. We eat with friends and family. Our parents are the first to feed us and form a bond with us from babyhood. We share cake at birthdays for celebration. We reward success with candies and chocolates. These things likely aren’t changing any time soon and actually that isn’t my intent.

The problem lies within us when we use these foods to continue to re-create these happy feelings we get during gathering and celebrations or the feelings we get when we are fed by our parents from a young age.

Emotional eating.

Everyone does it to some degree; some worse than others. When you choose to take your feelings and deal with them by trying to recreate the happy feelings that food creates, and do that in excess, it can lead to problems with your nutritional intake; your body may not be getting the nutrients it really needs to survive and thrive and is largely getting empty calories which can lead to weight gain.

Meal plans are, to paraphrase Taylor Swift, trying to put a band-aid over a bullet hole. I’m not saying it isn’t important to plan out your meals; it is. I do it every week, for the most part, although it’s not a perfect system {and that’s OK}.

When someone else makes your meal plan, though, they are assuming things about your life that may not be true. Maybe you will stick to it for a week or two. Or three or four. Invariably, however, something will come up and you’ll get off track. Then you may beat yourself up over it and try to get back on the bandwagon. You may give up on this meal plan and decide to start another one that fits better into your lifestyle. You may just to go toward counting calories or carbs to try to stay under control.

Most people don’t stick to this. I don’t recommend counting any nutrient as a way of life unless you have a chronic or hereditary disease that requires it. Counting is cumbersome and not very much fun. It takes a lot of joy out of eating, and what a joy eating is! You eat whilst thinking the whole time “this is about 3 ounces of salmon/steak/chicken and don’t let me forget to record that in my app…maybe I should weigh it…what if it’s more? What if there’s something in here I didn’t realize? What if my calories aren’t right and I gain weight?” which just adds to the anxious feelings which may actually make you want to eat more (or grab a chocolate).

Sometimes I recommend tracking food in the short term to get an idea of where you are with your nutrition; however this lasts a maximum of a week and may be revisited from time to time.

Overall, though, meal plans, counting calories and carbohydrates – that doesn’t account for life. It doesn’t account for the last minute dinner invite from your bestie. It doesn’t account for your sister’s birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant. It doesn’t account for the barbecue at work or the pool party you’re going to next Saturday. Unless you have unparalleled self discipline, pre-made meal plans don’t really work for you long-term if someone else made them.

Now you may be thinking that because I think all this above, that I believe in no plan at all – a fly by the seat of your pants method. Well I tell you what – a very smart person once said to me that there’s something even worse than a bad plan and that’s no plan. I do believe in a plan. I believe in knowledge about the basics of nutrition (which, if you don’t already have, is easily learned), and then leveraging that knowledge to create a plan that works for you and that is flexible. If you get to Friday and gosh darn it you just don’t FEEL like having the chicken and veggies you put on your plan for that week, well why not pizza? It’s ok. No one’s going to beat you up. You’re certainly not going to beat yourself up. You’re going to eat mindfully an amount of food that your body wants and requires and not. feel. guilty. 

How does that sound to you?

That sounds like my vision for the future of nutrition. {More to come on that later}….


6 thoughts on “Why Meal Plans Don’t Often Work”

    1. Exactly! Thoughts and Feelings lead to Behaviors! That’s a whole ‘nother post. We can’t control our diet until we can control our behaviors.

  1. Ahh thanks for this refreshing perspective on why meal plans don’t usually work. It is something many dietitians try to rationalize and is often a stereotype of ours (that’s all we do!). There are so many factors!

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