Why meal plans often don’t work (and how you can fix this!)
For those of us with health and fitness goals, many of us at some point or another have tried to follow a meal plan of sorts. Typically this gets off to a great start but somewhere between the 1 to 6 week-mark we fall off the bandwagon and have difficulty roping it back in.
Sounds familiar? Don’t beat yourself up over it if a meal plan isn’t working for you. This is often just a sign that it’s not personalised to your own unique needs. Finding something that creates a sense of balance in your life is the key to making a meal plan work. Here are some of the key reasons why meal plans fall short and what you could think about doing to help fix them.
Meal Plan Problem #1: It’s too over-complicated
Track your calories. Track your macro blocks (protein, carbs, fats). Track your points. Measure all your food. Only eat carbs every third day. Replace two meals every day with a shake. Some meal plans may be good to help us gain awareness of our initial eating habits, however are just too difficult to follow on an ongoing basis because they are too complicated or require tracking of some kind. Following a meal plan in this way can also often develop dependencies on tracking, and create an unhealthy mindset around eating if followed in the long-term.
Fix: A good way of overcoming this is to learn what a basic portion size looks like visually. Your hand is a great tool for comparison as it goes everywhere you do 😉 For most people, each meal should have a lean protein portion around the size of the palm of your hand, two fist-sized portions of vegetables, healthy fats about the size of your thumb, and one cupped hand portion of carbohydrates (potato, pasta, rice etc.) if you’re a female; two if you’re a male.
Snacks and the old-school mindset of 5-6 small meals a day aren’t actually a necessity if you’re not physically feeling hungry for them. Getting in touch with how your body feels and responds to food can help you break away from the measurements and paper, and become more intuitive with the way you are eating.
Meal Plan Problem #2: It’s too far from our normal way of eating
A meal plan that gets you to eat mostly lean fish or chicken with salads may sound like an easy way of eating, but if you’re from an Asian background like I am you’ll likely really struggle to not eat noodles, rice and cooked vegetables! Same goes if you’re trying to follow a meal plan that’s completely different from that of the rest of your household. Do you really want to be making yourself a separate meal every time?
Fix: Find a meal plan that makes adjustments to the way you already eat. Healthier versions of what you’re already cooking. Focus on quality of food. Figure out portion sizes that are right for you (as opposed to portion sizes the other people in your house should be eating). Learn what adjustments you may need to make if you eat foods mostly from a specific culture. These are often a better way of helping you stick to a meal plan rather than doing a complete dietary overhaul.
Meal Plan Problem #3: It’s too hard to stick to
Often meal plans are easy enough to follow when you have access to your home kitchen, your local supermarket and your usual ingredients. But what happens when you go out for social occasions? Or you get sick? Or over-stressed? Or too tired to cook? Or you go on holiday? Or work a late night shift?
Realistically situations like these will come up over time and it’s perfectly normal. They’re also the situations that often derail meal plans and people find it difficult to pull things back into line. But you know what? It’s not good to be panicking in a restaurant when you’re out with your friends because you can’t/won’t eat anything on their menu apart from the side salad without dressing. These are usually signs that your meal plan is just too difficult to stick to.
Fix: Come up with backup plans to help you get through these situations. You might just eat whatever is there but focus on what you can control: portion sizes, eating vegetables and/or fruit, allowing yourself to eat the pizza but sticking to your healthier way of eating for the rest of the week. There are many ways to eat everything in moderation and unless you have specific medical dietary requirements you shouldn’t have to restrict yourself from eating specific foods.
Meal Plan Problem #4: It worked for someone else
Whether it’s a celebrity, a Netflix documentary, a family member or someone’s transformation we’ve come across on facebook, it’s easy to get excited about someone else’s great results isn’t it? This is how diet ‘trends’ often start: Paleo, Ketogenic, clean eating, low-carb…
Translating others’ results to ourselves may seem like an easy plan to follow, however, the only problem is that wee’re all individuals with personal preferences, personalities, likes, dislikes, lifestyles, cultural background, medical situations, genetics and social circumstances.
Fix: Really look into the plan and what it’s asking of you; is it realistic for you to keep it going in the long term? If not, look for something else more simple. Remember that what works for a sponsored bodybuilder who gets their supplements for free, is used to the feeling of being slightly hungry and trains 10+ hours per week, will often not work for someone with a lesser budget, a normal appetite and job, and limited time or energy to train (translation = different calorie/energy/nutrient requirements).
General tips to help you stay on track
The simpler your meal plan the better. What really works is focusing on the ‘boring’ stuff that often gets overlooked because it seems too easy. Eat more vegetables. Learn how to make a new meal. Cook at home. Learn how to read food labels. Learn what a standard portion size is. Eat more fruit. Drink more water. Eat more lean protein. Be mindful when you’re eating and do it slowly with your full attention. Make yourself a list of things and aim to do it as many days as possible over a 1-2 week period, only adding something new once you have mastered the previous step.
Try not to think of your healthier meal plan as an all-or-nothing deal. Aim for progress rather than perfection, as consistency over a longer period of time is what’s really going to get you the results that last and won’t disappoint!
Image / NZ Real Health