Everyone thinks they need a meal plan. I get it. Whenever we think of a nutrition plan we instinctively think of the old nutrition groups that set up in strip malls across suburbia and sold consultations, meal plans, and frozen pre-packaged meals. Well, let’s not ignore the fact that obesity continued to skyrocket.
I understand the appeal of a meal plan. It tells you exactly what to do, you don’t have to think about it, and the math needed for weight loss is built in. But the appeal of these plans is exactly why they are doomed to fail. A successful nutrition program shouldn’t give you a meal plan but instead, teach you to plan your meals.
At Stronger U, we believe in teaching a man (and woman!) to fish. We want to implement lifetime strategies that last long after 12 or 24 or 52 weeks. We want the principles of the program to prevail. A meal plan just cannot provide that, and here are 5 reasons why.
1. You Still Have To Cook
A big complaint I hear from people who are apprehensive about starting a nutrition plan is that they “just don’t have time/don’t like to cook”. Aside from the fact that the time excuse makes me crazy (if you follow me on any social media you already know how I feel about that), a meal plan will not save you from the time suck that is preparing your meals. In fact, it most likely will take more time out of your week.
Think about it, if you have a meal plan that stipulates 4 meals per day and a snack you will need to have those meals prepared exactly the night before. So you might need to make some eggs, a small salad, some grilled chicken, some steamed broccoli, a cup of rice, and pack a piece of fruit with some cottage cheese. That is a lot of individual items that will need to be cooked and separated in order to be prepared for the next day. And that’s just one day. If the menu changes from day to day then you have to do this every single night. Hopefully, there will be some overlap in menu items but there is no guarantee.
Compare that to our main strategy at Stronger U, the 3-3-3 method. Basically pick 3 lean proteins, 3 carbs, and 3 fats and use them to make up all of your meals for at least the first couple of weeks (I personally use this for the entirety of my diet run, switching out foods every month or so). So in order to prep for the week, you might cook a few lbs of chicken, a couple lbs of shrimp, and have some liquid egg whites ready to go for breakfast. Make a big pot of rice, buy some fruit, and have some instant oatmeal ready to go for breakfast. Use peanut butter, olive oil, and goat cheese for your fats and you are ready. That 2 hours on a Sunday and a Wednesday each week is vastly preferable to nightly prepping.
2. You Aren’t Learning
One of the things we pride ourselves on at Stronger U is that we educate our clients along the way. You have probably seen the incredible stories of transformation on our Instagram or Facebook pages where our incredible members have lost 50, 100, or even 200lbs! But the “after” picture isn’t where the story ends. In fact, in many cases, it is only the beginning. Research shows that many people who lose weight to dieting often gain it back over the next few years (the numbers are all over the place ranging from 65%-95% so “many people” is my scientific average). If people are successful at losing weight, why do so many people gain it back? And what is the secret that Stronger U members have found that has helped them to keep it off?
For one, many diets are just giving you information, they aren’t educating you on “why”. This is the crux of what a meal plan does. It hands you an exact menu that you will recreate exactly if you wish to see success. But what happens after the meal plan ends? Will you continue to recreate it ad infinitum? Or will you at some point hope to make your own meal plan? Have dinner with friends? Go to a restaurant with your significant other? Good luck with that.
Some of our most successful stories continue to keep the weight off well after they have “graduated” and no longer work with a Stronger U coach directly. How do we know this? Because they are active in our members-only Facebook group and we get to see their continued success every day. They also tend to be great sources of inspiration (and information) for our newer members. Some have even become coaches! They weren’t just told what to eat, they were educated on the mechanisms that drive fat loss, muscle gain, and given guidelines on how to maintain. The education is the greatest value that one can take from investing in a nutrition program such as Stronger U because it lasts forever, not just the duration of the “diet”.
3. They Are Too Restrictive
A big issue with lack of diet adherence long term is the diet itself being too restrictive. While this can actually be a positive in the short term by eliminating foods that were major culprits in the client’s weight gain (high-calorie beverages, alcohol, highly palatable foods), in the long term it can lead to breakdowns and “cheats” or lessened adherence. It’s why we see so much success short term with 30-day challenges such as Whole 30 only to see them gain back the weight and then some. Many people can white-knuckle it for a few weeks but when the dam is released the flood waters come rushing in hard.
A meal plan is no different. There is no room for variation, no allowance for socialization over food, and no way to adjust your diet when you aren’t able to eat the meal that has been prescribed that very moment. There is no option to audible when your plan gets blown up. We have found that a better way is to allow for some variance, limited at first, in order to help the transition from diet mode to lifestyle mode more seamless. We believe that it is much more realistic to hope for success in normal life after having practiced while under the guidance of a coach than to start practicing the day after your precise nutrition plan abruptly ends.
If your goal is long-term success in the area of body composition you must learn to exist in a real-world environment. Meal plans just do not give you that allowance.
4. There Is No Autonomy
A determining factor in long-term success in both nutrition and exercise is one of motivation. Specifically intrinsic motivation which simply means “internal”, as in there is no external reward for the behavior but rather an enjoyment of the process. In their work on Self Determination Theory, Edward L Deci and Richard Ryan surmised that one of the of the basic needs to initiate a behavior based on intrinsic motivation is autonomy or freedom from external control.
Now, we hear a lot about motivation in the fitness and nutrition spheres and while I would love to go more into what motivation is and isn’t, what it actually means, and the different types of motivation that exist that will need to be a post unto its own. For now, let’s just understand that every behavior has a motivating factor and that it can either be external (extrinsic) or internal (intrinsic). When you receive a meal plan it removes autonomy, which in the onset is somewhat freeing. But as the new car smell starts to fade from your diet, as weight loss fades or plateaus, as you start to get sick of the foods you are eating you will begin to lean on any motivating factors you may have available to you. If you have not had the autonomy to develop your own intrinsic motivation, to learn to love the process, you are doomed to failure.
If, instead, you were to commit to a nutrition plan that allowed you to make individual food choices and also allowed you to decide when and what to eat (within certain parameters) how would you feel when things became difficult? If you were motivated by the process and how you have changed as a person and had exhibited control over changing yourself how much easier would it be to continue? We believe, and have the success stories to prove it, that giving you the autonomy to make better choices (and sometimes to let you fail a little) you will become self-motivated to continue a healthier lifestyle long after you no longer need a coach.
5. It Alleviates You Of Responsibility
A meal plan is a simple way for you to remove any responsibility or accountability for your own success or failure on a nutrition program. It might sound harsh but sometimes that is just how reality is. I have found that those who are insistent about wanting meal plans are the same ones who have a laundry list of excuses for everything from why they can’t work out to why they can’t prep meals. I always say, “I will do everything in my power to help you reach your goals but I can’t eat and train for you. That is on you.”
A meal plan lays it all out. You just eat what’s on the plan. And if it works, great. If it doesn’t, it’s not your fault. After all, you have done everything and just can’t lose weight. You must be different/special/damaged. In reality, though, there is nothing wrong with you that can’t be fixed. It will just require a bit of work on your end. And that is what a good Coach will bring to light.
In a nutrition program set up for long-term success, you will be held accountable for your actions, you will be responsible for planning, cooking, and tracking your food. You will be the reason if you succeed or fail. The coach is there to help you realize your potential for greatness and to bring that out of you. No meal plan can do that.
So while it sounds scary to be told that your eventual failure or success lies in your own hands, it is actually freeing. You no longer will have to rely on someone else to do it for you. You will be your own motivation.
Plan Your Meals, Don’t Ask For A Meal Plan
Meal plans have their place. They can be helpful to get obese clients into a structured nutrition plan who may find it completely foreign. When paired with a meal planning service for those who don’t cook it can be a very successful, if expensive, option. On the whole, though, they are not the ideal path for those looking for lifestyle change over the long term.
We believe in change. Sustainable change, not the kind that waxes and wanes with every passing phase of the moon. In order to promote that change, we have found that there are very definitive strategies for success. Giving our members autonomy, personal responsibility, a community and a lasting nutritional education is why we have a 17,000+ backlog of success stories. It is also why so many continue to be successful on their own.
Give up the meal plans. Find a plan that teaches you to make your own meal plan. Find a coach that understands you and your personal struggles. Learn to fish. And I guarantee that you will find success in ways that you never before imagined.