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Why Meal Plans Don’t Work



I’m regularly asked, "Can't you just make me a meal plan?"


As a health coach, my clients sometimes come to me with the expectation that I will give them a meal plan that tells them exactly what they should be eating for weight loss. You know, eat this for breakfast, that for lunch, and the other thing for dinner. These are your snack options. Do this for a week, maybe a month. Eat only these things. Don’t eat these. Etc., etc.…


I couldn’t follow a plan like this, and I don’t expect my clients to either. Where’s the fun, flexibility, practicality, and creativity?

For most people, meal plans don’t work. And if I’m trying to help someone reach long-term success with their diet and reach optimal health, it’s in their best interest NOT to have a meal plan that outlines exactly what to eat.

Here’s why I believe you don’t need a meal plan and why they aren’t part of my health coaching:

Meal plans are unsustainable.

An important factor you should consider when choosing a diet or eating plan is sustainability. If you want a sustainable weight, you must have a sustainable diet. Extreme measures and restrictive meal plans provide short-term results. Long-term results require practical and sustainable methods. Could you follow a meal plan for the rest of your life?


Meal plans are restrictive.

Most meal plans are explicit prescriptions. Eat this exact thing, in this exact amount, at this exact time. Unfortunately, when we try to follow rigid prescriptions like this, lots can (and often does) go wrong. For example, as soon as most people are told that they can’t have something, that’s all they want.


Making extreme changes all at once is hard to do.

Your eating behaviors are habits you’ve been practicing for years. A new meal plan requires you to change those habits overnight. For most people, tackling one new habit or small change at a time is enough to take on. When you start making large changes to your diet, it can become very hard to maintain the new routine. This is a common reason why people are often unsuccessful when dieting.


Meal plans don’t teach real-world healthy eating skills.

Food is part of our lives. It is at the center of our social interactions - we eat when we celebrate, when we visit with friends, when we meet with business colleagues. If you follow a specific, prescribed meal plan you never learn how to make healthy, real-world nutrition choices for yourself. Following a meal plan doesn’t teach you how to eat. All it shows you is how to follow a plan. So what happens when the plan ends?


Meal plans don’t teach you how to determine the nutritional value of food.

A long, healthy life begins with what you put in your body. In short, what we eat is central to our health. Food can promote health, maintaining, preventing, and treating disease, or it can raise the risk of dying from heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Meal plans ignore the importance of learning how to make healthy food choices.


Meal plans aren’t usually delicious meals that you want to eat.

Food provides us more than a balance of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. We want our meals to be appealing and delicious. We want them to stimulate our senses and provide comfort. Meal plans are often just a list of food items, they’re not a meal as such, and don’t form an appealing plate of food.


Meal plans aren’t realistic.

Meal plans usually ignore a very important factor: that you have a life. And that life often gets in the way of sticking to a plan. You probably have a family, a job, responsibilities, friends, and hobbies. What happens when you go out to eat or on vacation? It's all about finding the right balance that works within your life.


Meal plans don’t teach you how to listen to your body.

If you follow a meal plan, you never get the opportunity to listen to your body's feedback. Our bodies react differently to different foods. Some foods may cause indigestion or bloating. Some energize, while others sap energy. Some are satisfying, while others leave us craving. Once you become aware and the responses are understood, the feedback is more valuable than any meal plan could ever be.


Meal plans reinforce external motivation. For long-term change, motivation should come from within an individual rather than from external influences. When you follow a meal plan, you are doing so because someone else told you to eat a specific way and not because you are choosing to eat healthy food. In order to be successful in the long-term with your weight loss and healthy eating efforts, you need to find satisfaction from eating and being healthier, rather than from the direction of an outside source.

So, if meal plans aren’t the answer, what should you do?

Instead of obsessing over weighing and measuring, a better use of your energy is to develop healthy eating habits that fit your lifestyle. When you follow a prescribed meal plan, you miss an opportunity to learn how to make healthier and more enjoyable choices for sustainable and real changes.


Working with a health coach is valuable because you are working on strategies to overcome your obstacles to eating right versus just being told what to eat and how much. And every person is different as far as what their obstacles are to eating right. For some it may be needing to learn how to decipher a nutrition label or how to put together a nutritionally balanced meal. For others, it might be a lack of knowledge about cooking and preparing food. Whatever your challenge, when you have someone to coach you through it and motivate you and hold you accountable, you will be empowered to listen to your body and embrace the best healthy diet that works for you.

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