Why Meal Plans Don’t Work.

I will be the first to admit that I have given my clients meal plans to follow in the past to help them with their weight loss goals. The longer I work with people however the more I have come to realize that this approach has far too many limitations and fails to really deliver what people need, education and coaching.

Meal plans and diet cheat sheets have been a long-term staple of the health and fitness industry, yet it’s time we all moved on and accepted that these have had their day and we should all move on and apply some modern thinking. Now while meal plans can have a specific place (more on this later) In a persons regime or goals, this is not the norm for most people.

The majority of my clients are busy professionals who are time poor and stress heavy. My clients are overstretched mums balancing working life and a growing family. I train entrepreneurs building empires online from their garden offices and high-performance amateur athletes qualifying for far-flung championships while still walking the beat during their day job.

We all lead individual lives and we need an individual solution that fits around us, not the other way around. A meal plan requires an individual to change the vast majority of their diet overnight in most cases. This can not only mean the foods they are eating but the shopping they do, the supplements they buy and of course the time now required to cook, meal prep and plan ahead. While these are all necessary actions for lifestyle change and results, would you ask a rookie mechanic to tune a high-performance car on the first day of their apprentice. Or put simply could you expect Usain Bolt to win the 100m Olympic final on day one of training as a fresh face sprinter who’s just be scooped up my the talent scouts. The answer to both is no. Yet for some reason, we think that people should be able to change everything that is familiar, safe and that fits their lifestyle overnight because they have asked you to help them lose weight.

Now, these clients might indeed adopt the changes in a meal plan and they could well see amazing results in the short term. This does, however, lead to the second big problem with meal plans,  no exit strategy. You are either on-plan or off-plan. This not only plays mental ping pong with the dieter but it also fails to teach them how to fit these changes into their regular lifestyle. Too often people on meal plans feel like it is something they are doing or following for a few weeks, or until they reach goal weight. This is not long-term change and it is why statistically they will be more likely to put the weight back on.

Meal plans do have a very specific place within the fitness industry and that is usually based around competition prep for body building, goal weight for fighters or performance athletes and of course those seeking to hit a certain weight for a specific goal. This could be achieving a certain weigh to have surgery for example. In these circumstances, greater diet manipulation may be undertaken but this is not about long term health, and is built around a specific need and is not the general recommendation for everyone. Losing weight and toning up is not a specific need.

So if meal plans are out what next?

The industry needs to shift to longer term sustainable results and that means being realistic with peoples lifestyles, situation and the level of change they can manage at that point in their lives. If an individual works 50 hour plus a week and is very time poor then you simply might not be able to change this. You might realistically not be able to get them to an ideal BMI and weight. This does not mean you give up on them however. Taking an individualised approach means you work with them to adapt their lifestyle and the key sticking points to help them make progress where they can. These smaller changes often lead to bigger ones further down the road, like finding more time to train. Helping a person move from 3 stone overweight to one stone overweight means they are reducing their health risks and improving their longer-term health prospects. Would I like to deliver all the results they need, of course, but this is not always a reality based on a client’s personal circumstances, however, this shouldn’t mean these people are forgotten by trainers who perceive them to be lazy or not committed enough.

The best way to tackle these changes that I have found is the triage approach. Following a dietary analysis with a new client I asses the positives and negatives of their diet and lifestyle. Next, I use the triage method to start the process of manageable change. Triage comes from the American health care profession and is a simple way of assessing a casualty in order of priority. So, if for example a paramedic arrives at a road traffic accident and they see three patients, one with a sprained ankle, another with a broken arm and the third with a punctured lung they are able to use the triage system to quickly and effectively prioritise the areas needing most attention first.

This method is extremely effect with diet interventions as it enables people to concentrate on just one to three areas at any one time before moving onto the next. This allows them to focus quality time and attention on the major areas affecting their lifestyle and make those changes stick without feeling overwhelmed. Once a client has tackled one are successfully then the triage method is applied again and the next two to three priorities are picked out.

Clients who have successfully worked using this method are more gradual in their progress initially, however their long term weight loss, health gains and confidence to continue the process are significantly higher than those who follow a meal plan alone. The simple reason is they have learned how to make changes to the areas directly affecting them from making progress. This is the reason why Fundamentally FIT clients are so succesfull at maintining there weight loss for the longer term.

This is the reason why Fundamentally FIT clients are so successful at maintaining their weight loss for the longer term. This approach for many will not deliver the rapid fire results they are dreaming off, but what it does do is deliver a longer term improvement in your overall health. My core belief is in delivering a health first approach that educates my clients to be not just successful today but for the long term.

Try it yourself.

While I would love to help you make the changes to your lifestyle, triage is a simple process you can adopt on your own if motivated enough. Simply complete a food diary listing all the foods and drinks you consume over a three to seven-day period. Once you have done this go through and pick out the three main areas you think are holding you back. Work on these for the next two weeks or until you have them locked into your routine and lifestyle before repeating the whole process again.

I have been using this approach for some time now with my clients and it delivers quality long term results. This approach frees a client from stressing about every single aspect of their diet from day one, this then enables me to educate them on nutrition and lifestyle from the ground up, building a solid foundation for future success.

Let me know what you think, do you think meal plans have had their day or do you crave the structure?

Andy Strong
Fundamentally FIT

  • Debbie Giri

    Yes this makes a lot of sense. Changing your diet to lose weight and live healthily in the long term needs to be sustainable to avoid the yo yo, which is quite difficult when you’re following something as specific as a meal plan. I’ve tried a few diets and whilst a kick start like the juice diet (an extreme meal plan?) is great for immediate weight loss, it just comes back when you go back to normal life!

    • Andy

      Hi Debbie, I think it’s an interesting shift in what people really want from their diets and goals. Most people have tried a meal plan, juice or shake based diet before and they know that even with the best intentions in the world they cannot sustain it for very long. I think if the industry can start to move away from these practices (although they will never disappear) I think people are ready for a fresh approach and a more realistic one.