4/1/2021 0 Comments
5 myths about meal plans and diets you should stop believing.
“Hey, do you write meal plans? I want to lose 20 pounds by my wedding next month.”
I get this kind of desperate direct message at least once a week, and you know what my answer is? No. I do not and will not write meal plans.
Meal plans will fail you. You have the ability to be so much more intuitive and attuned with your body than any meal plan will ever be.
I do get it though. You’ve got this idea that knowing exactly what to eat at exactly the right time is going to quickly solve all of your problems — including your relationship with food, your habits that got you where you are, and your body image. You think if an expert will just tell you what to do, then and only then you’ll achieve the results you so painstakingly want.
Let me be frank. Meal plans are the opposite of what you need and they will do nothing for you but teach you how to be a slave to a meal plan. A meal plan will not teach you the skills and habits you need to get lasting results.
Read on as I bust a few myths and teach you what to do instead of putting your trust in a bull-crap meal plan from a (probably) bull-crap source — like a 1,200 calorie Pinterest diet or your favorite Instagram influencer.
Myth 1: Meal plans are magic bullets
The facts: Starting a meal plan won’t automatically result in weight loss or improved fitness.
You think getting extremely specific and strict with your diet will automatically yield results — hence the DMs I get every week. What you don’t know is how difficult it is to follow a meal plan and that an inappropriate meal plan can do more harm than good in the long run.
If you cut your calorie intake by too much, your body will begin producing too little of some hormones and too much of other hormones, like cortisol (a stress hormone). This will lead to your body storing excess fat for survival and water retention (resulting in a puffy look), which constitutes the opposite of your goal.
Eating too few calories will also affect your performance and recovery in the gym and create unsustainable results.
Myth 2: Meal plans work for everyone
The facts: Meal plans work for some people, but not for the majority of people. And different meal plans work for different people.
Meal plans work for some people, and sometimes they are medically necessary. Those with diabetes or other conditions can benefit from some form of macronutrient tracking or meal plan.
Elite, competitive athletes can also gain a competitive edge with extremely specific meal plans, micronutrient tracking, and macronutrient tracking for periods of time. This looks like working extremely closely with a registered dietitian or doctor, though, not your favorite Instagram “fitspiration” account.
At Smarter Sweat, we aren’t against meal plans when truly beneficial, however, we recognize some common themes: friends following other friends' meal plans, the fitspo guy at the gym telling you what to eat, or the mom from your kid’s daycare convincing you to try their new keto, intermittent fasting meal plan.
Myth 3: Meal plans “fix” your eating habits
The facts: A meal plan might make things worse, and meal plans don’t teach you long-term habits.
If you’ve ever followed a meal plan, you probably rotated through a list of “clean” foods like egg whites, chicken, oatmeal, broccoli, tuna, and, if you’re lucky, a piece of fruit.
You may feel as though this “perfect,” controlled way of eating is fixing your poor habits because you’re getting solid results really quickly. But what happens when the meal plan fails you? When you finally allow yourself to indulge in something like ice cream, fried chicken and gravy, or chips and queso, you probably eat quickly and feel out of control because you went “off plan.”
And so begins the cycle of guilt, shame, and restriction all over again.
Did the last meal plan or diet you tried “fix” your eating habits or your relationship with food? If you’re reading this, my guess is no.
Myth 4: Meal plans aren’t diets
The facts: … Yes, they are.
Both diets and meal plans are restrictive in some way or another, extremely structured, have a specific goal, and leave little room for flexibility. When someone follows a diet or meal plan they typically have a specific start and end date like 30 days or eight weeks with a sole goal of weight loss.
That’s a problem. When the sole goal is weight loss and not health, you set yourself up for failure because your mindset is that of restriction rather than freedom through life-giving food choices and health.
These unsustainable methods may help you reach your goals fast, but most people quickly find out that the goals reached are not sustainable with the methods used (like cutting extreme amounts of calories or carbs, or doing endless amounts of cardio).
Myth 5: Meal plans make eating easier
The facts: A meal plan might make it harder to shop for groceries and prepare food.
We make eating difficult by believing there is a perfect meal plan or diet to follow for optimal results.
In reality, sticking to mostly real, whole foods and following hunger cues is significantly easier than following a rigid meal plan.
If you’re following a rigid meal plan, you probably won’t be able to go out to eat, you’ll need to grocery shop one to two times a week, and you’ll be tied down to weighing and measuring your food (which is not necessarily a bad tool to learn, but it does get exhausting and restricting).
This means lots of prepping and probably eating the same things several days per week until you get more experience with whatever plan you’re following. Counting macros specifically has a higher learning curve for the first several months and can turn into a huge stressor, because it can be a real pain to hit your macros perfectly each day.
All this isn’t to say that grocery shopping, food portioning, and pre-preparing meals are a bad thing. It just requires more time and effort, and it isn’t for everyone — and there is a better place to start (see the list below).
What to do instead of following a meal plan
Get in a habit of prepping some foods.
You don’t have to prep every meal ahead of time, but complete lack of prepping can leave you in a bind. It’s helpful to have healthy snacks on hand, cooked protein sources, and freshly cut fruits and veggies that are easy to grab or toss into a quick meal.
Incorporate more veggies.
A great start is getting in four to six fists of veggies per day for females and six to eight fists for males.
Incorporate protein at most meals.
Depending on goals, activity level, and current calorie needs, females should aim for at least four palm-sized portions of protein each day while males should aim for at least six. Of course, this depends on a lot of factors — working one on one with a coach will give you more clear direction.
Portion out snacks you love.
Grazing on family sized bags of chips/crackers, granola, or trail mix can add up to a lot of excess calories. Try pre-portioning these into Tupperware or snack bags. You’ll be surprised at what an actual serving looks like.
Think 1% better — not perfect.
Make it a goal to increase the amount of quality foods you are consuming rather than restricting “less healthy” options. If you are getting in adequate fruits, veggies, protein, and healthy fats you will be less likely to crave lower quality choices like honey buns, fast food, and chips. Although, keep in mind that all of these can fit into an overall healthy diet. Remember, we are not aiming for perfection.
Make meal time a sacred time spent with friends and family when possible. Try to sit and eat slowly.
Studies show that eating attentively (without distractions) can aid weight loss and weight maintenance without the need to count calories. You’re more likely to slow down and actually feel your hunger cues when you’re eating with others rather than scrolling through social media or watching TV.
Smarter Sweat takeaways
Meal plans and calorie counting can serve a purpose for some, especially elite athletes and those who live with medical conditions. For most, getting a solid understanding of quality nutrition and food hygiene is a better place to start for building long-term habits and results.
I have personally tracked macros and counted calories with incredible results, but following a specific plan through sheer willpower is definitely not the place to start. Many of my clients have made small, sustainable changes to their diet and habits and have achieved incredible results over time (like losing 25 pounds in 7 months and gaining muscle mass) without developing a poor relationship with food.
Slow, sustainable changes make a big difference. If you embrace the process, know your intentions, and remain consistent you’ll likely realize that you don’t need to count calories or follow a specific meal plan to get the results you want.
By Ashley Pfantz
Ashley is the cofounder of Smarter Sweat, certified personal trainer and professional health and fitness coach. She also owns Smarter Sweat I.D., an individualized fitness, nourishment, and lifestyle coaching business where she coaches all of her clients remotely.
Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Vinas D, Hunger JM, Dejager J, Taylor SE. Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosom Med. 2010;72(4):357-364. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c
Robinson E, Aveyard P, Daley A, et al. Eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;97(4):728-742. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.045245
Podcast: Mind Pump Media 1506: How to Change Your Body Fat Set Point, The Truth About CrossFit, When to Use drop Sets & Supersets in Your Training & More (skip to 48 minutes into the podcast)
Guide: Precision Nutrition Portion Guide
Did you like this story? Read more like it:
About Smarter Sweat
Smarter Sweat is a fitness company built from the ground up by fitness experts Amanda Capritto and Ashley Phantz. Amanda and Ashley are both dead-set on cutting through the clutter of the fitness industry and providing raw, real, utterly honest information about fitness and wellness.