Why Meal Plans Don’t Work, and What To Do…

I used to make meal plans. Hand them out. Expect results. Get puzzled. Repeat.

But…it never happened. And with speaking with multiple other nutrition coaches, and dietitians, they all said the same thing.

Meal plans sound great in theory. Just eat this EXACT plan and you will get results. If they are made properly and calculated correctly, they CAN totally work. But usually from a quick fix standpoint or something that is not truly sustainable.

The time and effort that can be put into a meal plan, only for it to break apart in one meal is unmatched.

“My meal plan says 4 ounces of chicken, 1 cup of rice, and 1 cup of broccoli…but I had to go out to eat for work! HELP!!!”

Meal plans are too rigid. They take away any actual learning about food that is involved, and they only work for people who are willing to eat the same twigs and sticks every single day.

Now – there is a difference between a meal plan and a sample day (which I use). A sample day is one single example of what a day at a certain calorie/macro level might look like. But, nobody is expected to follow this one day for weeks, months, or years.

It is only an example of what the day might look like. Why? Because people often underestimate how many calories they eat, and seeing it on paper, and maybe trying it for one day can be very eye-opening.

Showing an example of a day at a set calorie level is good, but teaching sustainable habits and how to be flexible with your diet is better.

What is flexible dieting? 

Let me use an example. Let’s say your current goals are to lose weight. After finding that you currently eat 3000 calories, I would start with a nice deficit of 300-500 cals. So your goal will be to eat 2500 calories.

After figuring out your macros (carbs, protein, fat) – let’s say your goal is this:

2500 calories – 220 grams Carbs (25-35 grams Fiber), 220 grams Protein, and 82 grams Fat (these are all hypothetical)

With flexible dieting, your goal is to hit these numbers every day, by any means possible***

Some people will think this means you can eat whatever you want…which yes, you can! However, as fun as that may sound, it might not be the best idea.

Let’s go back to that photo from above.

These both are 1470 calories. The meal on the left is what we call calorie dense. It means there are a ton of calories (1470) in a small volume of food. The meals on the right are more nutrient dense – more volume, less calories.

If you think you could eat these foods, and hit your macro targets, you are good….but that might be highly unlikely.

Most calorie dense foods are high in fat, and carbs, and LOW in protein and fiber. Think about things like donuts, greasy burgers, pizza…

These three foods account for 154 carbs, 89 fat, and 69 protein, with only 9g of fiber.

That leaves our hypothetical person with:

66 grams of carbs – 151 grams of protein – and NEGATIVE grams of fat…

So pretty much the rest of the day would have to be PURE protein, and some rice…not the healthiest day.

How can you “have your cake and eat it too”?

Once you have your macros set – and you know you want a donut, go ahead and plug it in.

Then work the rest of your day AROUND that choice, with nutritious, whole foods, and high nutrient dense options.

Yes, this involves a basic understanding of nutrition, how to track, and how to measure foods…but when you understand how this all works, and it does, and it is like “magic” every single time you eat those foods that make your friends say…

“I thought you were trying to lose weight?”

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Stay healthy my friends,

Do I Need to Track Food Forever?

I get this question a lot. “You always talk about tracking food, do I need to do that forever?”

Short answer, NO.

I recommend everyone tracks their food at some point though. Not because it is the only way to see results, but because most people have NO clue what they eat, how much they eat and aren’t even aware of half the food they put in their body.

According to studies, people underestimate their calorie intake by about 50%.

More than 4,000 people tracked what they are for four days. Men reported consuming an average 2,065 calories a day, but were estimated to actually consume 3,119; while women reported 1,570 but actually consumed 2,393.

This brings up the often made point “I barely eat, and still can’t lose weight!”

It’s not that people are willfully lying about their food intake (maybe some do) – but most are just not truly aware.

Take my current standard breakfast for example:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup whites
  • Veggies
  • 100g of carbs (varies by the day) – let’s say it was my 130 grams of Life Cereal I had this morning (that is 130g of WEIGHT = 100g of carbs, in this case)
  • 1 cup of Fairlife Skim Milk

If someone tracked this as is, I would say that is some pretty dang accurate tracking.

But, what about the oil I used for the eggs? Oops forgot to track that (5g coconut oil = 45 cals)

And the veggies – didn’t track them, but likely 50 calories or so.

Oh, then Adalynn didn’t finish her oatmeal, so I had a couple of bites of that (20 calories?)

So right there, even though they were all healthy calories, it still was 115 calories unaccounted for…at one meal. Project this over 2 more meals, and that could easily be a 300-400 calorie swing, which is enough to move you from a deficit (eating less than you burn) to a surplus (eating more than you burn)

This is why I highly encourage consistent tracking for at least a couple of weeks to get an idea of what you actually eat.

Once you educate yourself on this and become more aware, you can make some tweaks.

Once things start going in the right direction, and you get into a routine or have a vacation coming up, or something called life happens…this is where the lesson needs to be applied.

After tracking for a while, and seeing what your ideal intake actually looks like, you CAN take a little step away from tracking…BUT this doesn’t mean you need to go fully off the rails.

Try to keep meals consistent, and duplicate portions sizes, and keep in a solid routine when not tracking.

But still, you should be monitoring SOMETHING. Your weight, your measurements, your performance in the gym…and if it starts to go the wrong way, maybe it’s time to get back to tracking.

If you maintain your loss without tracking, then that’s great! The eventual goal IS to maintain! Maintenance “practice” while taking a break from tracking is a great challenge in itself, and something that with enough practice, can be done!

IT takes practice, and it takes time – but once you learn more about the foods you eat, and make adjustments, and LEARN from the process (this is why meal plans FAIL, they don’t teach you anything ACTIONABLE), you can APPLY what you learned and build on it, take breaks, and jump back in the game when you are ready to make more changes.

If you still are stumped with all this, let me know, and let’s jump on a call!

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Stay healthy my friends,