You don’t need a meal plan and I don’t write them anymore. Yup, I said it. That might surprise you since “meal planning” was a big part of my personal training business…and if you’ve been around long enough, you might even have an old plan I wrote for you a while back.
I used to write a lot of meal plans. I’d calculate a client’s body measurements and get her entire nutritional profile down to a series of numbers. How many calories she should eat every day based on her fitness goals. Then, how many grams of protein and carbs she should eat based on that series of numbers that were based on her body measurements and so on. I actually enjoyed crunching the numbers and feeling like I was making a difference in her health by giving her a menu of healthy food choices. However, without fail, every time I sent a meal plan to a client she responded almost immediately with a bunch of questions. Those questions were things like, “Hey Trin, I see you listed XX food but can I eat XX instead?” or, “You have me eating XX food in the morning, but can I have that at night instead?” and very often, “Is there an alternative to XX food because I’m not allergic to it but sometimes it doesn’t agree with my stomach?” Yes, I used detailed questionnaires, but with nutrition, things can change. So, I’d respond and tell her that yes, she could make this swap or eat that instead or cook this food how she liked it or switch the times around, etc.
Over time I realized that giving clients meal plans was not an effective strategy for helping them reach their health and fitness goals for these 5 reasons –
1. A meal plan doesn’t know as much about you as you do – Your body is communicating with you every day, all day. You’ve been with your body longer than any nutritionist or dietitian (no matter how credentialed or well-intentioned they may be) who wrote the meal plan. That said, you know your body better than anyone else.
2. Your nutritional profile can’t be condensed to a series of numbers – What works one month might not work the next. Have you experienced this? Maybe you tried a certain way of eating for a while and got results but then it stopped working, you got bored or both. Did you log your nutrition using an app and when you ate according to the app’s suggestions, you didn’t like how you looked or felt? Your body is complex and you’ll need to make tweaks at the different stages of your journey. Things are not always as straightforward as those calculations lead you to believe….maybe you don’t actually need to lose weight.
3. Meal plans show the what but not the how – Meal plans don’t teach healthy, sustainable eating habits…in fact, the opposite is normally true. You’re more likely to develop a rigid way of eating, have feelings of shame and food guilt when you go “off the plan,” and ignore the subtle cues your body gives you when you’re eating according to a plan that isn’t working.
4. A meal plan won’t change your body on its own – What you eat is only part of the equation. You can definitely transform your body through nutrition but there are many other factors that also influence your transformation.
5. Meal plans aren’t flexible for the real world – Hence the reason I was getting so many questions about how to actually make the meal plan I wrote fit into the client’s busy life, and work for her family.
Now, I coach clients toward intuitive eating. First things first – the thought of eating intuitively can be really scary. I get that…After all, eating what you wanted based on how you felt is part of what got you here, seeking out nutrition information to make some changes, right? Intuitive eating is about how you’re eating and then, what you’re eating. The how comes before the what. Addressing the how is crucial to making real change.
What is intuitive eating? – Making food choices without experiencing guilt or hesitation, honoring your hunger, respecting your fullness and enjoying the pleasures of eating. In other words, don’t diet, just eat healthy based on the signals your body is sending you.
Below are 8 principles of intuitive eating that you can start working through to ween yourself off the meal plans and the ‘meal plan mindset’ –
*Please note that these suggestions/principles might not be suitable for those with disordered eating
1. Acknowledge your hunger – Simply put, hunger is a sign that your body needs a good meal and a glass of water. Ignore it and you’ll over eat later in the day, interrupt the normal pattern of your blood sugar levels and zap your energy. Food is fuel so give your body the fuel it needs to drive through your day. It’s up to you to decide which foods will give you the fuel you need to keep it moving.
2. Respect your fullness – Stop eating when you’ve had enough. (Or, keep eating but know that you probably won’t feel very good later…) This is the biggest test of your intuitive eating, especially if you eat while distracted. We tend to overeat when we watch TV, eat with friends and family and go out to eat because we’re focused on external factors that distract from the internal “fullness cues” our stomach gives us. In these situations, intuitive eating might look like taking a beat before you go up for seconds or, sitting back in your chair to breathe before you take another bite. But sometimes it looks like continuing to eat because the cake is worth it and you’re having the best time with your loved ones!
3. Love your body – Show your body some grace for where it is now and trust the process as you continue to progress toward where you want to be. Focusing on the how of your eating is the compound effect of health and fitness – how you’re eating today determines what you’re eating, which determines how you feel and how you move and how much progress you do or don’t make toward your short and long-term goals. It starts with intuitive eating.
4. Silence your inner “food police” – Intuitive eating allows you to heal your body and mind from harsh diets, labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” and silence those inner voices that make you feel guilty for having something sweet or savory or otherwise “off the plan.”
5. Don’t diet, just eat healthy – Count nutrients, not calories.
6. Experience your food and pleasures of eating – Sometimes you gotta eat in the car, I feel you! But as often as possible, set the mood for meal time and make eating a ritual that you do without distraction. I catch myself reaching for Hulu the minute I sit down to eat but the meals that I eat in silence in my naturally lit dining room are the meals I remember and enjoy the most.
…is it just me or do you ever look down at your plate and see that it’s been wiped clean…but you don’t remember taking every bite? It’s like driving home and not remembering what roads you took to get there. I guess that’s auto-pilot eating!
7. Address emotional eating – You can honor your feelings without using food to cope. This takes time and it starts with being mindful of your emotional triggers. Do you eat when you’re sad, bored, anxious, happy, etc.? What do you eat when you feel this way and how does it make you feel? What else could you do that would make you feel better or, if you like the feeling, that would give you the same rush without the food?
8. Make your health a priority – It’s funny how as I’ve gotten older, numbers like my resting heart rate, blood pressure and triglycerides matter 10x more to me than my weight and body fat percentage. I’m grateful for social media and the many millennial health activists for shedding light on the fact that you can be healthy at any size…the human body can do so much more than gain or lose weight. As you’re working toward whatever health and fitness goals you have, remember to make your actual health a priority.
How to make it all work…
What if you’re super Type-A and like the structure of a meal plan? What if you already have a meal plan and want to make a smooth transition to intuitive eating? – Start small. Self-trust takes time, especially with food since the biggest shift is all in your mind. A certain amount of planning is helpful, even with intuitive eating, so you might take that strict meal plan and turn it into a grocery list of foods you really like, foods that make you feel good and give you energy, etc. Overtime, you’ll start making healthier choices without a list because you will be in tune with what your body wants and needs.
Intuitive eating is about gathering information and deciding what to do with that information bases on how you want to feel. It’s an on-going, ever-changing, never-ending process…such is life!
Learn how I stopped dieting and started eating healthy here. I’d love to hear how you’re making intuitive eating work for you! Tweet me @trinperkins