You look into the mirror one day and you’re all fuck this I need to do something about my flabby ass. And so you find a dietitian and say hey I need a cool meal plan ‘cuz I wanna lose weight. The dietitian says sure thing mate come back tomorrow. 

You come back and say yo where’s my meal plan and the dietitian goes there you go, follow everything as laid out and you’ll get shredded as fuck.

That’s one way to dial in your nutrition — hire a coach or dietitian who would create you a set meal plan designed to put you in a caloric deficit. This takes all the guesswork out of the equation and all you have to do is execute. 

On the other hand, a coach could give you protein, carbohydrate, and fat targets and you would construct a diet to your personal preferences and lifestyle.

Which would lead to greater weight loss?

Well, Conlin et al. (2021) not only compared a flexible vs. rigid diet (a set meal plan) on weight loss but also looked at weight regain in the post-diet period. Here’s what the researchers did:

Two phases: 1) The diet phase of 10 weeks; 2) The post-diet phase of 10 weeks

The flexible diet group was given carbohydrate, protein, and fat targets to consume each day during the 10-week diet phase. The subjects were like fuck you this is not enough I don’t know where to even begin. And so the researchers said fine here’s a comprehensive ebook on how to count those damn macros. And the bunch replied cool, now we talkin’.

For the meal plan group, a registered dietitian came along and said here is an individualized set meal plan for each of you, only eat foods that are included in your meal plan, got it? And the subjects went yeah easy peasy Miss Registered Dietitian. 

Here’s a sample meal plan for the 60-kg participant assigned to the meal plan group:

Meal 1: ¾ cup egg whites, 2 large whole eggs, 1-ounce avocado, 1.25 cups spinach, 1-piece whole wheat toast, ½ of a medium-sized banana. Meal 2: 4 ounces of chicken breast, ¾ cup sweet potato, 1 cup broccoli, 1 ounce of almonds. Meal 3: ¾ cup fat-free Greek yogurt, 1 tablespoon peanut butter, 1 cup mixed berries. Meal 4: 4 ounces of lean ground beef, 1 cup romaine lettuce, ½ cup tomato slices, 1 ounce of cheese, ½ cup brown rice.

Twenty-three subjects completed the intervention. Both groups lost fat (as you’d expect due to being in a calorie deficit). There was no difference between the groups — body composition improved similarly in both groups:

The flexible diet group lost 2.6 kg of weight while the meal plan group - 3 kg.

When 10 weeks were up the researchers said to the subjects do whatever the hell you want but pleeease come back for a follow-up. 

And when they did come back, both groups regained a little bit of weight but all the weight regain in the flexible diet group was due to an increase in fat-free mass rather than fat mass (both groups resistance trained throughout the study):

The flexible diet group gained 1.7 kg of fat free mass while the meal plan group lost 0.7 kg.

The hypothesis is that when people were in the meal plan group they didn’t have to track anything. Including protein. And when the study ended, they might have reverted to consuming less protein which resulted in the loss of fat-free mass. 

On the other hand, by tracking macros, the flexible group might have learned the importance of protein and kept it up.

And that’s where my message stems from — a meal plan works fine as a short-term strategy but problems arise when you go off it.

It’s fine to start off with a meal plan but it cannot stop there. There has to be an educational component and sadly, many people learn absolutely nothing from following a set meal plan. 

Don’t get me wrong, a meal plan has some good things going for it: 

  • It provides consistency and routine;
  • It’s time-saving because it eliminates the choice;
  • It’s money-saving because you prepare most meals at home.

But it has some glaring flaws too: 

  • It’s highly rigid and any slight deviation from the plan can cause you to switch “off” the diet in a form of overeating or binge eating (source 1, source 2);
  • It doesn’t give you the flexibility for social occasions and thus, you might find yourself turning down social events just to not deviate from your meal plan; 
  • It can increase the risk of eating disorders and a poor relationship with food because a meal plan eliminates “forbidden” foods from your diet, thereby narrowing the variety of food choices.

Sohee Lee, a health coach, has a cool opinion on meal plans:

Meal plans work just fine as a short-term strategy (and I do mean short), but problems arise when life happens. And trust me, life will always happen. 
There may be a time when you run out o chicken breast at home or when you find yourself at a restaurant or your best friend’s birthday with limited menu options. 
Or maybe you’re sick and tired of eating egg whites and oatmeal or breakfast every morning and you just want some freakin’ pancakes. 
What will you do then? Will you grit your teeth and stick to your guns? Will you shun your friends and family or the sake o meal plan martyrdom? How long do you think you can keep that up for?

Now, while I’m a big fan of flexible eating, through working with so many different clients I found that it’s not for everyone too — having too many options can be overwhelming for some. 

So regardless of what you choose — following a set meal plan or flexible eating — adherence is the most important factor in your weight loss success. It trumps everything. If you cannot permanently adhere to your diet, I shit you not, you’re going to fail. Miserably.

If you choose flexible eating, read this article about how to implement it and also this article about how to track macros the right way because if you try flexible eating with an inflexible mindset, you’ll end up facing the same exact problems that stem from rigid dieting.

If following a meal plan sounds more enticing, ensure that it leads somewhere. Maybe eventually try to devise a self-made meal plan based on your own knowledge. Or learn about macros. There has to be the bigger picture.

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Originally published by me on Medium on January 13, 2022

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