Written 21st Feb 2018
by APD. Holly Baxter
Master of Dietetics
Bachelor Food Science & Nutrition
Online Physique Coach
The very first question almost everyone asks me is, ‘what is the best way to lose fat?
The second most common question I get asked is, ‘do I offer meal plans?’
The common consensus around meal plans is that there must be some magical combination of foods that a person should eat every day in order to achieve their ideal physique. There are no magic foods. Period. Strict adherence to a meal plan isn’t necessarily the key to success for everyone.
The only time I follow a meal plan is with a very strategic purpose. This would be during the final 2 weeks of a contest preparation in order to keep things simple. That’s it.
This article discusses both the positives and negatives of a meal plan and the key considerations for achieving your physique goals, be it fat loss or muscle gain.
Here is my hierarchy for achieving your fitness goals;
1. Calculating accurate energy requirements
2. Determine your eating behaviors and preference for certain foods
3. Calculating accurate macronutrient ratios
4. Correct training methods to facilitate your goals
5. Adequate micronutrient and fiber intakes
6. Nutrient timing
The key player here is energy balance, no matter who you are, what you do for a day job, how big or how small you are, if you take in more energy from food than your body expends throughout the day, you will gain weight. Period.
If you take in less energy from food than you expend throughout the day, you will lose weight. Period.
Think back to when you first started your health and fitness journey. Most of us probably went straight down the list to point number 7. It is point 7 for a reason. Calculating your energy requirements accurately is key. If this is incorrect, then nothing else on this list matters when it comes to achieving your physique goals. Understanding the type of food you like to eat, and when you like to eat is also important. If you don’t particularly enjoy high fat foods (cream, cheese, eggs, avocado, nuts and seeds etc.), and you love sweet, high carb foods, then a ketogenic diet is not going to yield positive results.
A successful diet is one you can stick to long term, so having an understanding of the foods you enjoy can help you make the best decision about your macronutrient ratios. It surprises me the number of experienced athletes who have their training all wrong. For example, they want to be more muscular, but they don’t follow a program or record their weekly training volumes. The more experienced we become, the more precise we need to get with our training programming. This is the only way to make progress.
We also need to consider our daily micronutrient intakes and dietary fiber needs. I describe this with the metaphor of building a house. Vitamin and minerals are like the mortar when building a house. Sure, you could stack the bricks together and the house still stands, but without the mortar you don’t have a very sturdy home. While nutrient timing of carbohydrate is important for performance in specific types of sport, and timing your protein intake correctly is necessary for optimal muscle protein synthesis, if your overall energy intakes are inaccurate or your protein needs are inadequate, then timing is of little importance. For the average person trying to lose body fat or gain muscle, supplements are not really necessary. I list these as optional. At an elite level however, this small 1 or 2% difference or improvement to performance might be what is necessary to move you into 1st place. But for the average person, supplements are only going to benefit you if you are already perfecting all the points listed above this.
How might a meal plan benefit you?
A meal plan is one of many ways you could achieve your physique goal. I personally prefer flexible dieting, and this is how I typically coach but I won’t go into this to much in this article. I want to focus on the positives and negatives of meal plans.
Nutrition plans help you to remain consistent with your dietary intakes, when it comes to nutrition and our metabolism, consistency is crucial. Chopping and changing from one fad diet to another, from high carbs to low carbs, high fat to low fat, tends to have a less than a positive effect on our metabolic health. Even if you followed a structured meal plan where the food choices were less than perfect and your macronutrient ratios were out of proportion for your goals, at the very least you are being consistent.
Having this type of consistency over time enables your metabolism to adapt, and eventually you come to what is known as your caloric set point. This is often referred to as your maintenance calories, the point at which your energy intakes in are at equilibrium with your energy expenditure, consequently your weight remains fairly unchanged at this point, perhaps buffering within a 1% range from day to day.
A structure meal plan can free up your available time when compared to other dieting strategies i.e. macro tracking and calorie counting. Not having to track means less work and effort by eliminating the need for meal planning. Instead your meals are listed for you.
For those who are new to dieting, tracking macros & counting calories can often be overwhelming. Food tracking or calorie counting can feel like a highly time-consuming task, particularly if you’re not technology savvy or you are unfamiliar with mobile tracking apps. A meal plan can save time if this sounds like you.
Less Food Waste
Another consideration and a positive about meal plans is that there is usually far less wasted food. In theory, you can determine exactly the right amount of food you need each week based off your plan and minimize food waste.
Meal plans can also help you with budgeting and saving as you aren’t buying a food you are uncertain of actually using. How often do you buy fresh food products and end up throwing half of it away because its past its use by date? A pet hate of mine is wasted food so this is another positive of following a meal plan.
Customized Meal Plans verse ‘Cookie Cutter’ Meal Plans
Assuming your energy requirements and macronutrient ratios have been calculated correctly, a customized meal plan can certainly be beneficial.
Majority of the meal plans I prepare for my clients are tailored, this is of course if they aren’t following a flexible dieting approach. Some meal plans can be fully customized to your food preferences which in turn, increases the likeliness of your overall adherence. It is also important that the foods included on your meal plan are meals you are prepared to cook. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times a client has requested a tailored meal plan, only to have them they say to me they don’t have the time to make the meals, even if the listed them as a food preference!
My advice is if you are going to use a tailored meal plan as your approach to achieving your fitness goals, make sure you include foods that you actually are prepared to cook. Also, a little effort at the start of the week to prepare your meals will make your week run much more smoothly.
The downside is that not all meal plans are tailored to your food preferences. Thinking back to my first experience with a coach, the meal plan was straight up cookie cutter diet. It included foods I strongly disliked, as well as foods I was unfamiliar with. Some of the foods were timed at very strange hours of the day, for example, I was asked to eat steak for breakfast, fried specifically in organic coconut oil with sauerkraut and ‘Himalayan salt’. When I asked if there was any benefit to eating these highly expensive organic food products and at such specific times of day, he couldn’t give me any scientific answers, so I knew it was time to sever that relationship.
My advice for you is if you are going to start following a ‘cookie cutter meal plan’, make sure you are someone who is open to trying new and unfamiliar foods, as well as putting in the work to do the preparation it requires, or at least someone close to you is. If not, opt for a tailored meal plan or it’s a guaranteed waste of time and money.
Calculating Energy Requirements and Metabolic Adaptation
How often have you tried a new diet or meal plan which you follow meticulously, only to find that after 2 weeks you stagnate and stop making progress? Answer yes?
Then you aren’t unlike me. You may have had a shitty coach who set your caloric intakes and macro ratios all wrong and you ended up gaining weight. This happened to me too with my first coach I spoke of before.
Not all energy calculators or equations are 100% accurate, many of these basal metabolic rate calculations have descended from research which looked at fairly homogenous population groups, and some people simply do not fit this homogenous subset. Not everyone has a healthy functioning metabolism.
Your energy requirements are not static, they are constantly shifting are adapting to your meet your needs. This shift takes place during any type of diet, be it a muscle gain phase or fat loss phase.
As a result, our maintenance calories fluctuate and adapt over time as our food intakes change.
One point I wanted to make is how crucial it is to have a sound understanding of your diet, weight and exercise history. Using my own dieting history as an example, after adhering to very low caloric intakes which were accompanied with very high training volumes for the majority of my teenage years, my metabolism was at rock bottom and my first coach completely ignored these important details.
His energy estimates were well in excess of my actual needs and I gained 5 kg over a few weeks because he didn’t consider my dieting history. This small weight gain wasn’t actually the worst thing for me, in fact a slow increase in calories over a long period in time would have in fact had a positive net result on my metabolic health had I continued to follow this plan. On the other hand, had I followed a meal plan that was drastically below my energy needs for an extended period of time, this could lead to even further metabolic suppression which is much more difficult to undo.
Something else to consider is that our body weight will fluctuate from day to day within a ~1-2% weight range which is due to variable daily fluid and food intakes. Based on data observed in my personal clients, I believe there is a theoretical caloric range where regardless of the number of calories consumed within that range, your body weight will remain fairly stable.
Meal plans don’t accommodate adaptive metabolism
Any meal plan can work successfully when the caloric intakes are such that they take you out of your maintenance caloric range and into deficit or a surplus. When calculated correctly you may lose or gain weight depending on your goal, and the amount of weight you change and the duration it takes to achieve this is governed by the extent of the calorie deficit or the calorie surplus created by that meal plan.
The problem with a meal plan is that these initial calculated energy requirements aren’t going to work indefinitely.
After a short period of time, your metabolism adapts and you reach equilibrium, where calories consumed are equal to the calories being expended, and the only way to continue progressing further towards your goal is by further increasing or decreasing your calories. A once off meal plan cannot do this.
Who do meal plans work best for?
Meal plans are typically well implemented by those who have highly regimented schedules with very little variation in their day to day lives. They also tend to work well for people who are happy to consume the same food on a daily basis. For those who are extremely busy or whose agenda changes from one day to the next, i.e. someone who travels for work, trying to adhere to a structured meal plan and finding a means of refrigerating, transporting and reheating food can be challenging.
Some rural and remote job occupations will often provide catering services to their workers so a meal plan in these types of scenarios make it very challenging to adhere to.
For someone who still likes to have a meal plan created for them, I personally offer meal plans packages. This enables me to provide my clients with new recipes and foods which increases food variety helping achieve their daily micronutrient needs. This also allows me to adjust my clients macronutrient targets to continue progressing towards their goals.
This approach seems to produce better results as it suffices the clients macro and micronutrient needs as well as preventing poor adherence due to poor food variety.
Why I prefer Flexible Dieting
Personally, I love food and enjoy trying new things as often as I can, and the thought of having to use a meal plan and consume the same foods every day in order to achieve my health and fitness goals would lead to failure rather quickly.
One thing I can say with a great amount of confidence is that those who take the time to learn how to flexible diet and track their nutritional intakes agree that this strategy is much easier in the long term as it enables far greater food flexibility and variety, as well as resulting in far higher rates of long term weight loss success. A recent research paper found that female bikini competitors who followed a IIFYM (a popularized flexible dieting approach) actually had more favorable micronutrient intakes compared to those following structured meal plans and fewer micronutrient deficiencies in a post show setting.
For some people, the thought of having to look up foods, guess a food weight or measure foods using scales in order to track their macros can take far too much time and effort. However, no one is perfect at tracking to begin with, and when learning any new skill, it takes time. Research shows that it takes on average 66 days for a new behaviour to become a habit, so if you can tough it out for 10 weeks, the hard work is essentially done.
There are a number of benefits to following a set meal plan, for example they can help you develop better routine and consistent eating behaviours, as well as reduce food waste, save you time and money. However, there are also many limitations if calories are calculated incorrectly, as well as not being able to accommodate our highly adaptive metabolisms.
In my experience as a coach, meal plans only works effectively for a very small subset of highly regimented people, and are typically not sustainable long term.
I recommend following the hierarchy above, in combination with flexible dieting are a more effective way of achieving your physique goals.