When people want to make wholesale changes to their health and fitness, many tend to throw themselves into it boots and all. They hit the gym 5-6 days a week and embark on a strict eating regime. Then the inevitable happens. After a month or so, when that burst of initial willpower has dissipated and it all starts to become hard work, cracks appear. Gym sessions slowly decrease in number, and the strict diet plan starts to fall apart.
That’s why, for busy people, three days in the gym, in addition to increased activity in your everyday life, is plenty. Your muscles will get all the work they need to grow, and your body will reap the numerous benefits that come with exercise. But today I want to talk about strict meal plans, because numerous studies have shown that they simply do not work.
What’s the problem with diet plans?
Being told what to eat and when to eat it is a recipe for disaster. You’re a busy person. You’ve probably got a career, maybe there are kids to consider, you want a social life, and you’ve got other interests. And fair enough too! Only a very small percentage of people want to dedicate 100% of their lives to being fit and healthy. The rest of us want to live a little, right?
In the short term, having a strict meal plan might seem like a great idea. After all, you don’t really have to think about what you’re going to eat and when you’re going to eat it. You just look at the prescribed menu, make the meal and eat it. But life doesn’t work like that. We’re not always at home at those times when you have to make that particular meal at that particular time. You could be busy when you’re supposed to be eating. I mean, work, family and life conspire to keep you busy all the time, right? There are thousands of life moments that can get in the way of sticking to a rigid diet plan.
And once you miss a prescribed meal, or you have to eat something not on the menu for some reason, it opens up the door to make other eating choices that don’t fit the rigid meal plan.There are many reasons why meal plans fail. As I’ve already mentioned we lead busy lives, and sometimes it’s just not possible to make and eat that tuna and salad sandwich on wholemeal bread at 12:45 pm. What if you’ve got a work meeting at that time? Or little Johnny has an accident at daycare and you’ve got to pick him up and take him home?
There are many reasons why meal plans fail. As I’ve already mentioned we lead busy lives, and sometimes it’s just not possible to make and eat that tuna and salad sandwich on wholemeal bread at 12:45 pm. What if you’ve got a work meeting at that time? Or little Johnny has an accident at daycare and you’ve got to pick him up and take him home?
Sometimes the meal plan you’ve been given by a nutrition expert just doesn’t do it for you. After giving it a go for a week or two, you decide you don’t like the 100g of quinoa in your 200g of lamb curry. So you take it upon yourself to substitute in 125g of white rice instead, but now your macronutrients are all out of whack!!! Or you figure now that you’ve taken the 180g of brown rice out of your beef stir-fry, you can replace those carbs with a 45g Snickers bar for dessert. And once you head down that slippery slope your meal plan starts to unravel pretty quickly.
But the main problem is the maths required for strict meal plans. How many calories am I eating? How much does this chicken breast weight? What’s the protein, fats and carb breakdown of my porridge, full-fat milk and mixed berry breakfast? Who’s got time for that? Look, it might be a good idea to fill out a 3-5 day food diary and calculate the macronutrient breakdown and total calories, just so you have a good idea of where you’re currently at. But who’s got time to do that every day? And once a meal plan gets too hard, we fall off the wagon pretty quickly and take up our old eating habits that got us where we are in the first place. And sometime we regress even further.
And unless your friends and family are going to follow your eating plan as well, then you’re going to be spending a lot of time eating meals alone. Or you’ll be preparing every meal yourself and eating differently to everyone else. Is that sustainable? One of the great joys in life is sharing a meal with people you care about, so a strict meal plan isn’t really going to work at those times either.
If diet plans aren’t the answer what is?
The truth is, for most people a strict diet plan is completely unnecessary. There is no need to complicate things. A few simple, easy to follow rules is all it takes to transform a poor diet into one that will nourish your body with everything you need. You don’t need to count calories, get your macros perfectly balanced or weigh your food. Instead of making huge changes to your health and fitness world and hoping it all sticks at the same time, the secret to making lifelong positive change is by identifying what changes you can make to your current diet, then tackling them one at a time. Yes this may take a while, and it might mean you won’t lose 35kg in 8 weeks like some “fitness expert” has promised you. But it will lead to a long and healthy life, and that’s got to be a healthier and safer way than extreme dieting and yo-yo-ing for the rest of your life…well, at least until you give up!
So what’s the key to success? There’s one question you should ask yourself every time you make or buy a meal:
What’s one thing I can do to make this meal healthier?
That’s it. So what does that look like in reality?
- When you go out for a hamburger with friends, do you need the fries as well?
- Can you use zucchini spirals instead of pasta for that spaghetti Bolognese?
- Instead of drinking sodas like Coke and Sprite, why not buy a SodaStream and squeeze some fresh lemon, lime or orange into your carbonated water instead?
- How about using a good quality whole grain bread instead of the white fluffy stuff for that lunchtime ham and salad sandwich?
See how easy that is? You still get to enjoy the meals you love, but you’ve tweaked them slightly so they’re better for you than they were before. And once you’ve mastered those small changes, you’ll continue to make improvements. All you have to do is ask yourself, “what’s one thing I can do to make this meal healthier?” There may come a time when you look at your meal and answer that question with, “nothing, this meal is as healthy as I can make it.” And if you’re still loving what you’re eating, then that is a moment to be celebrated. You’re still enjoying your food, you haven’t restricted yourself, you aren’t eating at specific times throughout the day, and you’re in total control of what you put in your mouth. You’ll be like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, you will have cracked the code!
And the beauty of this is you can still enjoy the odd indulgent meal as well. There is no pressure to eat the healthiest meal possible morning, noon and night, seven days a week. Pizza and a couple of beers after work on Friday with the boys? Go for it. But just remember, two beers are fine, 10 beers and you’re asking for trouble. After all, when was the last time you had a chicken salad after a skin full of booze? For that matter, when was the last time you had a big night out, then the following day you enjoyed an egg and zucchini frittata for breakfast, lamb and quinoa salad for lunch, and a chicken breast with mixed vegetables for dinner?
To help you achieve your healthy eating goals, it’s important to spend a little time each week planning for the week ahead. Now that doesn’t mean spending hours meticulously planning every meal, researching the ingredients and spending hundreds of dollars at the supermarket. But it might mean asking yourself:
Are there times when I’m going to be too busy to prepare a healthy meal?
If so, plan what you might like to have on those occasions, make a shopping list and go to the supermarket. When you get home, prepare a few healthy options that you can quickly take with you as you rush out the door. For the rest of the week, just ask yourself as you prepare your meal, “what’s one thing I can do to make this meal healthier?”
The goal is to have a good relationship with food, not a destructive one. And by asking that one simple question each time, you can make subtle changes that will build over time into huge changes. Good luck.
Over to you…