Meal Plans: The Good, the Bad, and the "Same Plan for Everyone"

What Are Meal Plans?

Meal plans are essentially a weekly or daily plan of what foods, and in what quantities, someone is to consume, usually in order to elicit a body composition change, or improve sporting performance.

 
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Who Can Make Them?

Contrary to what some coaches might think, it is not within the scope of practice of anyone who isn’t a Registered Dietician to prescribe a diet plan. 

However, as a nutritionist, it is within the scope of practice to advise on methods of hitting a recommended intake of calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients, for example, and providing an example meal plan may be an appropriate method of doing so. It is not, however, legal for them to simply provide a diet plan and tell someone to follow it blindly.

You can see that the lines are blurry and we often see nutritionists, coaches and personal trainers taking advantage of these blurry lines. 

Just yesterday, I saw a nutrition plan that had been handed out to bootcamp participants. The meal plan itself was disputable. The 6 small meals recommended, were coupled with with 4 protein shakes per day without any statement made towards why this might be required. That, along with the 8 other supplements they recommended for the participants daily, led me to conclude that they were getting commission of the supplement company they kept referring to.

However, what struck me more was the fact that everyone got the same document, which only contained one example meal plan, and therefore everyone who was doing the bootcamp got the same meal plan. This meant that a 100kg man was recommended to eat the same as a 60kg woman. The same diet that might put the 60kg female in a nice 500 kcal deficit could put the 100kg male in a 2000 kcal deficit. Yes, both would lose weight, but I would suggest that someone eating in a 2000 kcal deficit shouldn’t be part-taking in a high-intensity bootcamp. Not only is it unnecessary, but it’s potentially dangerous.

Anyway, the point is that whilst meal plans can be useful, they should only ever be prescribed by a dietician. Anyone else who provides a meal plan is obliged to make it suggestive rather than prescriptive, with evidence-based advice around why they suggest this might be a good choice for the client.

How are they made?

In the best case scenario they would be made by creating an estimate of someones nutritional requirements in terms of calories, macronutrients and micronutrients based on a detailed questionnaire, finding an eating schedule that works for the individual, and working with the client to create an example daily plan of how they would go about achieving this intake. This would be followed up by educating the client on why this would be a good option, and how to adjust it in various situations that may come up.

At worst, they can be a version of a diet that a trainer found “worked” for them, which they then presume will work for everyone, so they prescribe it without any education process or evidence-based information around how the plan has been set up.

 
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Pros and Cons of Meal Plans

In spite of my previous ranting, I’m not completely against the idea of a meal plan, if it is utilised in the right way, and I have done so with a few of my clients. (I’m not a dietician, by the way, so this would never be done in a prescriptive way, but would always include an educational element, where the meal plan was an example of one way of doing things.)

So with that said, I will go into some pros and cons.

Pros

1. They’re easy to understand.

One of the biggest advantages of meal plans is that they’re easily understood. We all know that nutrition can be a complicated topic. Education can take a good amount of time, especially for beginners, whereas a simple plan of what to eat and when is much more simple, regardless of experience level. 

2. They usually work, if followed.

If the meal plan has been constructed properly, and the client follows it, they will likely see the results they’re chasing. 

Even a poorly constructed meal plan can lead to results. The only requirement is that it is better than what someone is currently doing. So, if someone currently has a terrible diet, and are given a slightly better meal plan, even if it isn’t great, the fact that they have a clear plan, which is slightly better than there current one, and they follow it, can lead to improvements in body composition.

It is also worth noting that meal plans are usually given in conjunction with a new exercise plan, and so, the exercise plan may be enough to produce results, regardless of the meal plan quality.

3. They can produce immediate progress.

Another advantage is that meal plans can be implemented immediately, whereas a more habit-based approach, which may be better for long-term adherence, is implemented over the course of weeks and months.

The advantage here is that the client can begin to see a good deal of progress straight away, perhaps in the first few weeks of implementing it, which is motivating, and can lead to better adherence.

It also gives the person some immediate steps towards improvement. If we have an hour to work with someone, it is really up for debate whether that time is best spent educating them around something like muscle protein synthesis or carbohydrate metabolism, or whether it is better to show them how to eat on a day-to-day basis. Again, this will be based on the individual and how much they value progress in the short term vs. the long-term.

Cons

1. They usually don’t involve an education element.

As I’ve spoken about throughout this article, the biggest element that is often missing with meal plans is education. 

If there is no education process, the potential is there for the client to create false mental models of why they are getting results, which can be detrimental in the long-term.

For example, as someone creating the meal plan, we know (or should know) that if the client wants to lose weight, the meal plan should be constructed with the aim to create a caloric deficit. If the client is not made aware of this, they may presume that the reason they are losing weight is due to the time of day they are eating, or the amount of meals they are eating, or the types of food. If we don’t provide this education, the client can take those made-up rules into their future nutritional protocols and perhaps without the fundamentals in place, could feel as if they’re are doing everything right, but still not seeing any results.

2. They can be unnecessarily restrictive/inflexible.

Another problem with meal plans is that they can be specific to the point of being restrictive and inflexible. If someone thinks that they are restricted to eat a certain choice of foods at certain times, what happens when they miss a meal or don’t have the food that is prescribed? One thing that can happen is that they believe they have now failed for the day or week, are “off-the wagon” and will therefore wait until tomorrow or the next week to start again, whilst in the mean time eating as they please (and feeling guilty about it) and potentially moving backwards in terms of progress.

The sceptical part of me thinks that sometimes coaches will make these diets so difficult to follow, simply so that if the person doesn’t see results, it will be easy to conclude that it was because they didn’t follow the diet plan to a tee.

3. They are often not individualised.

A big problem with meal plans is that they often aren’t individualised. Usually this is down to laziness of or lack of education on the coaches part.

Let’s say there’s a coach who believes that there are certain foods that are ‘fat-burning’ in nature, and that eating 7 times per day will lead to more fat loss. Well if that was the case, then the same eating plan would work for everyone!

However, this is not the case, but instead each individual needs to eat the amount of food that is in accordance with their energy expenditure, and other individual factors, which is different for each individual.

 
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Who Should Use Them?

Beginners

As mentioned before one of the scenarios where a meal plan could be implemented would be with a complete beginner. This will be useful in giving the person an idea of what an appropriate day of eating would look like, which is often very useful, since it allows the client to see how any information being given to them can be applied in a real-world context. It will also potentially lead to immediate progress, providing the motivation to continue. 

As I mentioned throughout the article, there would need to be an element of education as to why this would be an appropriate way of hitting their recommended intake, and therefore give reasons as to why they’re making progress.

Experienced people

For someone who has gotten themselves to a high level of nutritional knowledge, built up good eating habits, and has perhaps even been tracking their specific macronutrient intake for a prolonged period of time, it may be useful to create a meal plan for themselves, in order to free up some of the mind-space of having to track everyday. 

People who have been tracking their macronutrient intake for a long time often become disillusioned with it, and feel it unnecessary, since they seem to be eating roughly the same things each day anyway. Yet, they don’t want to stop, due to the fear that they’ll lose the ability to hit their required intake. However, if they were to create a meal plan for themselves, that they knew would get them to their required intake each day, this would be a good way of easing their mind.

Since they’ve already built up a good set of habits and knowledge, they would be well equipped to adjust their meal plan, as and when it was necessary to do so.

Conclusion

For coaches, the conclusion is to be careful with your scope of practice, recognising what you are and aren’t allowed to do and say. I would also advise educating yourself on the topic of nutrition, so that they advice you are giving out is in-line with the current evidence.

And to people who are taking advice from coaches, I would recommend that you are careful who you take advice from. If you find out that someone is giving out the same meal plan to everyone, with a lack of education around it, you should probably disregard the information. Also, if they can’t tell you why they are advising a certain method, this should ring alarm bells.

And finally, I would recommend that you educate yourself on the fundamentals of nutrition: Energy balance, macronutrients and micronutrition. If you know the fundamental principles, it is much easier to identify the B.S. (Bad Science).

Conor

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