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The ugly sides of meal plans: Why they’re not for everyone

meal prep contianers on white background
Photo credit: FotoMaximum/Getty Images

As a nutrition coach, especially one who services Los Angeles, my clients’ most popular request is a diet meal plan. Because we are now inundated with must-have wellness products and nutrition trends, there is a tendency for us to be obsessed with unrealistic expectations to look better, age slower and lose weight faster. The problem with participating in a diet plan merely to look your best for an upcoming vacation or some monumental event is that short-term diet plans don’t work long-term. Worse yet, such dieting breeds a cycle of self-loathing.

The problem with meal plans

Let’s keep it real: Diets aren’t fun. Deep down inside, although you contemplate dieting, you don’t really want to be told, “Avoid X, Y and Z,” or “Eat this, but don’t eat that.” Just imagine: You arduously diet through the week, and then on day 7, you have to attend a birthday party. You forgo the red velvet cake or teriyaki chicken wings because neither follows your meal plan. What a bummer to skip the food fun! You may feel self-conscious because you can’t join the crowd. Or worse, your diet fails because you choose to join in on the birthday food and, regretfully, you shame yourself.

You experience self-loathing and you obsess about the weight gained from that slice of cake. Celebrations are definitely a part of most of our lives and yes, we must be aware of our eating habits and find the balance in our choices. It is possible for anyone to reach a healthy weight; the key is to create the best path there. What is something you can realistically implement for long-term change?

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The healthy alternative to meal plans

Instead of specific diet plans, I suggest habit changes that provide an effective approach to losing weight and keeping it off. Here’s how Habit Lifestyle Coaching works: The client-coach conversation may go something like this: “Hi! My friend successfully did the Whole30 meal plan and lost 15 pounds, and I’d really like for you to provide me with a similar meal plan.” Usually, my response is, “Describe to me a typical day in your week. Let’s uncover what works and what doesn’t. We can assess a plan that fits into your life.”

From these assessments, two main things are apparent: Our lives are so busy that the notion of adding something else to do overpowers motivation. You have a coworker’s anniversary one weekend, date night another night, etc. Secondly, many of us come from cultural backgrounds where food is so much more than sustenance; it’s a display of familial love. Having a set meal plan may not honor where you are in your life.

Take Miguel, for example. He came to me last spring wanting to slim down for his daughter’s upcoming wedding in their homeland, Peru. He wanted a low-carb meal plan, which looks something like this:

Breakfast: 3 egg whites, scrambled, with 1 cup spinach
AM snack: 1 pear
Lunch: 1 cup Romaine salad with chicken breast and 1 ounce olive oil and vinegar
PM snack: 1 handful almonds
Dinner: 4 ounces salmon and 1 cup broccoli

Miguel would probably have lost weight very quickly with this meal plan. Would he have stuck with it for the four months prior to the wedding? Probably not. It is too restrictive for his lifestyle. Reviewing his nutrition assessment, I understood how important it was for him to keep his Friday night family dinner and his favorite Peruvian dishes — ropa vieja (beef stew with beans and potatoes), adobo (spiced pork soaked with bread), chicharrón de pescado (fried fish) and arroz con leche (rice pudding dessert).

The thought of not participating in his traditional Friday night meal saddened him; thus, I challenged him to explore what he could do instead. He mentioned the hefty seconds he usually ate, and that he could realistically cut back to one serving instead of two. For sure, changing habits can lead to weight loss. By slowly reducing his portion intake, Miguel lost weight and enjoyed his favorite foods without feeling restricted.

Starting healthy goals & creating habits

Every goal is doomed to fail if it goes against the grain of your innate human nature. Your habits are shaped by your lifestyle. Consequently, good habits emerge naturally. You just have to identify them.

From the start of my nutrition coaching practice, there have been many learning curves with clients. Some of the biggest lessons stem from what happens when someone adheres to the restrictions of a food group. Rebellion in the human brain is astounding. The lack of something incites our caveman brain into acknowledging we might never eat a particular thing again. Inevitably, overeating is the result.

One thing that is important when forming new habits is to focus on mastering one thing at a time. The implementation of multiple habits can prove as overwhelming as restricting your diet. Focus on one new habit that can easily be implemented (8 glasses of water a day, greens at every meal) for up to 21 days. Ideally, once you adapt to that initial habit, it will forever be a part of you — like tying your shoes or brushing your teeth.

atomic habits by james clear
Photo credit: Penguin

I suggest making habit lists, as James Clear advises in his book Atomic Habits. The list will assist you in determining which habits serve you well.

It works by making a list of your daily habits, which could look something like this:

  1. Check phone messages upon waking.
  2. Use the bathroom and brush teeth.
  3. Check weight before showering.
  4. Shower and wash hair.
  5. Blow dry hair and put on makeup.
  6. Make Nespreso coffee.
  7. Leave for work.
  8. Play podcast on drive to work.

If items on the “habits list” are good, then add a plus sign (+) next to them and a notation that, “This habit aligns with the kind of person I want to be.”

MORE: Think you have gut problems? Wait until you hear about your oral microbiome

Add a minus sign (-) next to habits that aren’t so great and a notation that, “This habit conflicts with how I desire to look/feel/be.”

If the habit is neutral, add an equals sign (=) and a notation that, “This highlights what is current for me.”

From there, determine which habit to work on first.

Creating habits around goals is manageable. Habits foster your success, and being successful provides a major incentive for continued accomplishments. Similarly, identifying long-term goals is also most effective for weight loss and general good health. When choosing a new habit, make the habit an obvious one. Make it attractive! Make it easy! Make it satisfying!

If you need additional guidance on habit coaching, please visit The Habits Academy or www.precisionnutrition.com for their lists of coaches who can help.

Share your healthy lifestyle goals with us. Tag us on Instagram @makeitgrateful and #makeitgrateful!

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