I think every dietitian has had the experience of being asked for a weight loss meal plan. And there’s no doubt that meal plans are popular – I see them being dispensed by trainers, and in magazines, and even by other dietitians.
I’ve probably been asked for meal plans for weight loss over 1000 times in my career, and besides one or two that I (very reluctantly) made for clients when I first started out, I haven’t done one in probably more than a decade.
And I won’t ever do one again.
Here’s why not.
(Note: this post isn’t about meal plans for treatment of EDs, or meal PREP. Those are definitely different)
A woman walked into practice a while back and demanded a meal plan to lose weight. She wasn’t interested in actual counselling – she was looking for someone to tell her what to eat for weight loss. ‘Just tell me what to eat,’ she said.
I couldn’t do it.
My way of teaching people how to eat doesn’t include barking orders at someone about what they need to eat and when and how and in what quantities. That’s basically what a meal plan is: a highly prescriptive, often unsustainable way of eating. Some ‘coaches’ give the same meal plan to everyone, and please note that that’s a huge red flag.
We’re all different, and nutrition is complex. My job isn’t to talk at you to tell you what to do, it’s to help you understand why you should eat a certain way, how all foods can fit into your life, and to help you find the foods that make you feel both physically and emotionally nourished.
Because I don’t do counselling anymore, I reached out to one of my dietitian colleagues, Andrea D’Ambrosio RD, owner of Dietetic Directions (which I highly recommend if you need nutrition counselling) to talk about meal plans for this post.
D’Ambrosio doesn’t do meal plans for weight loss. ‘Calorie needs are extremely complex. If we throw a 1200 calorie meal plan at someone, that’s not necessarily going to help them lose weight,’ she said.
She’s right. Meal plans for weight loss often come with a calorie level, and even if you put an entire group of people on a diet with the exact same calorie level, they won’t all respond in the same way.
Good segue, because calories are my first issue with meal plans.
It’s not all about the calories.
Meal plans for weight loss usually come in 1200, 1500, 1800, and 2000 calorie configurations.
But assigning static calorie levels to someone’s diet is somewhat of a time waster, because not only do we not know how many calories we need (algorithms can only predict a ballpark figure, and your needs change daily), but we also don’t know how our individual bodies process calories from one person to the next.
This is why my colleague’s assertion that not everyone will see the same results from a 1200 calorie diet, holds true.
But there’s more.
Calorie counting can disconnect you from how you’re actually feeling and what your body needs in terms of food. If you’re hungrier one day to the next, the meal plan limits you in how you can satisfy that hunger – and by the way, you aren’t supposed to feel hunger all the time.
It isn’t a sign of ‘progress’ or a badge of honor. When your diet offers too few calories to satisfy hunger, it’s a red flag.
Calories on packages are also prone to error – regulatory bodies allow up to 20% margin of error in the values, so a 100 calorie pack of cookies may actually be 80 calories…or 120.
Ambrosio says, “It’s a complete farce to say ‘if you only consume X calories, you’ll be Y size. It’s a negative spin on eating, instead of fuelling our bodies to live, and for sustainability.”
Meal plans can create a disconnect between what your body wants and what you’re told to eat.
I’ve seen self-proclaimed ‘diet experts’ selling people diets that supposedly teach them how to ‘listen to their body.’
Listening to your body while eating from a meal plan is a total contradiction.
I know some of you don’t want to think a lot about food, and having a meal plan may take some of responsibility making your own food choices, off of your plate.
That can be fine for a small percentage of people, but if you’re looking to heal your relationship with food and your body, and gain a deeper understanding of which foods make you feel good, a meal plan probably isn’t going to help you with those things.
Meal plans for weight loss don’t bring you closer to understanding your body and having a good relationship with it; in fact, they can bring you further away from those things.
Case in point: If my meal plan says I have to eat a chicken breast, but I really don’t want it, what do I do?
I eat the chicken breast, and I feel upset that I didn’t get to eat what I wanted, and totally unsatisfied with what I’ve eaten. That’s not okay!
This sort of behavior doesn’t bring you closer to your natural cues; it takes you further away from them, and can trap you into not having the ability to make choices about your food. You’re being told what to do in a situation that should be intuitive.
I understand the desire to lose weight; I don’t understand the desire to do it in a way that takes away from your life, choices, and happiness. Nothing is worth that.
If you break the meal plan’s rules, this can lead to guilt and shame around food, not to mention physical and emotional dissatisfaction with what you’re eating.
Also: following a meal plan for weight loss in front of your kids – and dieting in front of your kids at all – is a dangerous example to be setting for them.
They don’t help you self-manage your food choices.
I always say that meal plans don’t teach you how to eat. You can’t follow a meal plan for the rest of your life, and when you eventually go off of it, you’ll be in the exact same position as you were when you started.
No wiser about what makes your body feel good.
Not at peace about making your own choices around food.
Anyone can eat two eggs and a piece of toast for breakfast every Tuesday for the rest of their life, but being told what to eat isn’t teaching you anything.
To sustain a way of eating for the long-term, you need to be able to make your own decisions about your food.
Ambrosio told me, “People don’t follow a static weight loss meal plan long-term. If you teach someone ‘how,’ they can create their own flexible meal plan to meal prep and organize themselves for the week, without the focus on calories or weight loss. The focus shifts to health versus weight.”
You have to do the work. It might be tempting to have a meal plan do it for you, but in the end, you’re going to have to learn the habits that come along with positive change.
Meal plans for weight loss are often a last resort. These plans have a ‘magical illusion’ that they’re the silver bullet to weight loss, but they aren’t. You’ll probably lose weight, but will it be a happy and productive process? Will you be able to sustain that weight loss when you go off the meal plan?
My guess is no, on all counts.
Meal plans can also have a more sinister side to them, according to D’Ambrosio:
I had a client who clearly had disordered eating. Instead of seeking therapy to find out the reasons why she was restricting so much, she asked for a meal plan that would supposedly ‘heal’ her relationship with food by helping her have regular meals.
Don’t be fooled – if you have issues around food and eating, a meal plan isn’t going to solve them.
They can create anxiety – especially around meals that you can’t control.
It’s pretty safe to assume that you’re not going to hide out in your house for the rest of your life.
What happens if you go on vacation? Or, if you’re at a friend’s house for a meal, and you can’t eat what you’re ‘supposed to?’
Some people who are on more flexible eating plans can adjust their eating habits to accommodate those situations. But those who are following a meal plan may have considerable anxiety around them and either skip these events altogether or, feel guilty afterwards if they went ‘off plan.’
And often, when a plan is too difficult to follow, you blame yourself, not the meal plan.
Ambrosio told me this: “meal plans for weight loss promote all or nothing thinking, where if you can’t follow the meal plan perfectly, you’ve failed. It’s like diet culture at its finest. Prescriptive meal plans are also very negative and ‘closed,’ versus positive and open towards creating meals and enjoying food.”
You’ll probably waste a lot of food…and spend more money on groceries.
Weight loss meal plans are typically inflexible. With perishable foods like fruits and vegetables, you might end up using some of them, and wasting the rest because they didn’t fit in with your prescribed meals for that week.
When I shop for food, I usually look for what’s on sale, especially with expensive proteins like meat and fish.
But meal plans also don’t take into account what’s on sale at the grocery store – you have to buy what you need to make what’s on your plan. So besides the fact that you’re probably wasting more food, you’re also buying it without regard to cost.
Weight loss is so often NOT about the food. Meal plans address only food, but what about the emotional aspects of your eating habits? Your ‘why’? This is a whole other piece to the puzzle that, in my experience, needs to be taken care of before making changes to your diet.
Once that’s done, being able to buy what you like, and eat what you want when you want it, is a far more freeing way to live. If you need guidelines around food and eating, I wrote some here. But I don’t think it’s necessary to go all the way to the other end of the spectrum to follow a meal plan.