Why meal plans don’t work and what to do instead

On the surface, meal plans seem like the solution to all our fat loss woes. They tell us exactly what to eat, how much of it and when. There’s no guessing involved; it’s all spelled out in black and white. And if there’s one thing people love, it’s being given the answer.

But have you ever actually tried to follow a meal plan for an extended period of time? For most of us, it’s kind of hard.

In my younger years I remember trying to follow meal plans in women’s magazines. Each attempt would last a whole two days. It’s not that the food selection was bad. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with eating chicken salads, yogurt and oatmeal every day. But it just wasn’t right for me.

And that’s the problem with meal plans, especially templated ones from a magazine. They don’t take into consideration our preferences or our quirks. For instance, many of these plans are structured with five meals a day. That might not work for someone who prefers to eat two meals a day (which is fine, btw). Meal plans could (and often do) have us eating things we don’t like, and that’s a great way to be miserable and run back into the comforting arms of Ben and Jerry’s.

Aside from being boring and restrictive, meal plans don’t teach us how to make decisions for ourselves. We’re told to eat egg whites, cottage cheese and fruit…but why? Furthermore, we’re not learning to follow our intuition or hunger/satiety cues or figure out which foods actually satisfy us. And satisfaction is immensely important when it comes to consistency. If we don’t like what we’re eating and it feels like we’re white-knuckling our way through our diet, it won’t last. Period.

To make a lasting dietary change that allows us to enjoy both healthy food and treats while either losing or maintaining weight, we have to investigate. We have to do the work. We can’t just be given the answer.

So no, I can’t just tell you what to eat. But I can give you some guidelines.

Have protein at every meal. Drink at least 64 oz of water a day. Eat five servings of veggies. Mastering those three habits fixes most dietary woes.

However, even those three suggestions can be overwhelming and still sort of abstract. Let’s get even more tactical.

What I like to do is have a person take inventory of what they’re eating and find ways to clean it up by working backwards.

I do this by using the #3Rmethod: Reduce, replace, remove.

Following this method allows us to identify the foods that are hindering our goal and make small tweaks that are effective but don’t feel like a drastic change.

The way to use the 3R Method will be unique to each person’s dietary habits, but basically we find one food to reduce, one to replace, and one to remove. I would recommend only doing one R at a time to really make the habit change.

  • Reduce: This is simply portion control. Eat half a burger instead of the entire thing. Eat half a rack of ribs instead of a whole one. An easy way to practice this is by using Precision Nutrition’s portion control guide, where we use our hand to measure food.
  • Replace: Instead of having a side of fries with lunch, swap it out for a salad. Have a Diet Coke instead of a regular Coke. Need a crunchy mid-day snack? Opt for cucumber slices and hummus over chips. I also don’t think it’s a bad idea to replace certain items for lower-fat foods, i.e. diet food, such as lower-fat dressings or Skinny Cow type desserts. No, they aren’t necessarily healthier, but eating moderately is a process and we shouldn’t expect perfection. Furthermore, I don’t believe in classifying food as good or bad. If it’s going to shave off an extra hundred calories, then that’s a big win. We have to look at our diet as a whole, and if the majority of it is filled with nutrition, then a few low-calorie junk foods aren’t going to be a big deal, ESPECIALLY if they leave us satisfied.
  • Remove: This works best for trigger foods, the things that we just can’t control ourselves over. For me, it’s chips and fries. Don’t buy a box of cookies or tub of ice cream for the house if that’s your Achilles heel. I also strongly recommend removing sugary drinks from your diet (yes, that includes juice; no, it’s not healthy), as it’s a small thing that can make a huge difference.

To begin implementing, write down every single thing you eat for three days. Use the 3R Method to see where you can make small changes.

Remember that learning to eat healthier and have a better relationship with food happens on a continuum–one step at a time. Following a meal plan skips a bunch of the those steps, and we often end up right back where we started. Instead, take inventory of your habits and work slowly towards better habits. We’re left feeling much more sane and have higher chances of success.

 

What’s one way you could use the 3R Method to improve your diet?

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