Episode 97 Transcript – Our Thoughts on Meal Plans

Leah:

Hello and welcome to The Ideal Nutrition Podcast. I am Leah Higl, and I am here with my co-host, Aidan Muir. And today we will be discussing our thoughts on meal plans.

So, obviously both of us give meal plans to clients. We both work with some form of meal plan a lot of the time. So we’re obviously not opposed to the idea. But there are definitely pros and cons to utilizing meal plans. I think we kind of see that argument of health professionals and fitness people online being very anti-meal plan, like, hey, it doesn’t teach you anything about nutrition, et cetera, et cetera. Too rigid. But I think there’s definitely a time and a place for meal plans. And meal plans can look all different kinds of ways.

So, today we’ll just go through, I guess, the pros and cons of meal plans and kind of just summarize with our general thoughts on them.

Aidan:

Yeah, we’ll start with downsides, and then we’ll address those downsides basically, and say why we would still do them. But with the downsides, the first two are stuff that other people say most commonly, and then the third one is going to be one that I spend a bit of time thinking about.

So, the first one is they can be restrictive. And the second one is that they don’t teach you about nutrition. So, we’ll address both of those. The third issue, I don’t see a lot of people saying this, but it’s an issue to a lot of people, particularly if you’ve done a meal plan, you might have experienced yourself, is what I call the seven-day meal plan issue. And what I mean by a seven-day meal plan is if you’ve got something that’s like Monday, breakfast is this, lunch is this, dinner is this. These are your snacks, et cetera. And then Tuesday’s got different stuff, and then Wednesday’s got different stuff, Thursday’s got different stuff.

The big issue I see with that is what happens if you miss dinner on Monday? What happens if something comes up, and you have something different for dinner? You now have the ingredients that you bought for Monday. What do you do with those things? Because now Tuesday’s a different thing. Are you now a day behind, and you just keep everything the same? It creates a few other problems, which kind of encourages you to not want to stick to it because the logistics are difficult.

Leah:

Yeah, and I think going back to the restrictive side of things and kind of countering that. Is I’d say with meal plans, yes, they can be restrictive if it’s done in that very seven-day meal plan kind of way, where it’s very prescriptive, you’re exactly eating this on this day, this on this day, et cetera.

But meal plans can also be in a flexible way, where it’s just providing you structure, so not necessarily being overly restrictive, but providing some kind of structure with different options. That means you maybe don’t necessarily need to track, but you can still meet a certain calorie macro amount.

So, you can make meal plans more flexible, in a way that suits you, your goals, and how you’d like to proceed with your nutrition.

Aidan:

Yeah. And using that flexibility and everything like that. For example, a dinner on a seven-day meal plan could be chicken breasts and rice and then vegetables, et cetera. But does it matter if you use chicken breasts as a protein source, or does it matter if you use fish, for example. If you use white fish as the macros, it’s pretty similar, right?

If you chose pasta instead of rice, once again the macros come out relatively similarly. Does it matter if you chose, I don’t know, asparagus as a vegetable or broccoli as a vegetable? Once again, it’s going to come out relatively similarly. That’s just one of hundreds of examples of how you can make it more flexible, while getting pretty much exactly the same results as well.

Going through other points, as we mentioned, it provides structure. That can obviously have benefits in a lot of situations. It comes out as a certain amount of calories and macros without tracking, and this can also be adjusted based on results. For example, if you were roughly following a meal plan to even say 80% to 90% on the plan kind of situation, that means you’re eating roughly X calories plus/minus 10% to 20%.

If you were looking to get leaner, and you weren’t getting leaner, you now know, okay, I’ve got to reduce my calorie intake or increase my energy expenditure. If we go with the reducing the calorie intake option, you know that you need to decrease the calories in the plan. And then suddenly you can manipulate your calorie intake to a decent degree of accuracy, while being flexible, without having to track everything. I think that is a pretty solid argument if you are following a flexible meal plan kind of template for an advantage over, say, tracking, which although tracking is more flexible, in other ways it can also come with other downsides as well.

Leah:

Yeah, I think the pro of, I guess, if we’re comparing tracking calories and macros compared to a flexible meal plan, is that the flexible meal plan provides you with a little bit of structure compared to calories and macros. And it’s just you don’t need to … It’s not as much work for the individual person. And I think taking out some of that work can usually be beneficial. Usually when people are not, I guess, following their nutrition plan, and they come and say I just need more flexibility. Sometimes adding more flexibility and less structure is actually a bit of a downfall. Not always. Sometimes you do need more flexibility but other times that structure is really beneficial.

Aidan:

Yeah. And that structure can also encourage certain behaviors that might be de-emphasized with other certain approaches. Tracking is a good example. Because there’s more options than just meal plan or tracking everything like that. But if we’re creating a narrative around plans versus tracking. When tracking, you can lose a bit of a focus on things like meal frequency, fiber, micronutrients, pre-workout nutrition, and other things as well.

Something, I can’t remember, it was one of our clients amongst Ideal Nutrition, I can’t remember who, but they were talking about how they don’t like wasting their calories earlier in the day because they don’t want to run out too early kind of thing. And then what they were basically doing was having 25% of their calories before 5:00 PM and 75% after 5:00 PM.

But they were also training in the middle of the day. And it’s like, with have a meal plan structure, you’ll end up consuming the same amount of calories. You’ll probably feel better when you train. You’ll probably have more of an emphasis on protein distribution throughout the day. You’ll probably feel less hungry throughout the day. It may or may not impact your ability to stick to it because this is a personal thing, but if I only ate 25% of my calories before 5:00 PM I probably would find it harder.

Leah:

Yeah, me too.

Aidan:

Because that’s the middle ground where it’s not even intermittent fasting or anything like that. You’re still trying to eat just a little bit of food. A lot of thoughts around that. But the meal plan structure can emphasize certain habits.

Another example I really like is say somebody was in a calorie deficit, they didn’t have super high needs or anything like that. Let’s say they were aiming for roughly 150 grams of carbs in their total calories and macros and everything like that. If we say a serve of fruit, a larger serve of fruit, say a large banana comes out as 25 grams of carbs, for example, somebody might look at two large serves of fruit and be like, that’s 50 grams of carbs. I don’t want to waste my carbs on that when I could have Paddle Pops, for example, is a common thing. And I’m not saying calorie tracking and macros and everything like that reduces it down to just calories and macros. It’s just the implementation in some cases can end up going down that route.

Leah:

And I think flexible meal plans also allows me as a dietician to just have, I guess, a little bit more control over things like meal timing, dietary quality, and in the process teach that person about it without it being so much work for them.

A really good example is I work with plant-based people a lot of the time, so I’m focused on specific at-risk nutrients. If I gave someone calories and macros and said, okay, and also plus all of these things that you need to do to meet your dietary quality needs, your vitamins and minerals, that all of a sudden seems like a lot of work. Or I could give them a plan that already meets all of their needs, is still flexible, and then they can go away and start utilizing that. And in the process of working together, start learning about why I’ve done certain things. So you’re getting the results almost faster or you’re getting from point A to point B faster. And you can learn about everything in the process. So there’s still an opportunity for education and learning.

Aidan:

Yeah, I think the criticism of meal plans not teaching you anything about nutrition is a bit silly because no individual approach teaches you about nutrition.

It’s like this logic isn’t about teaching about nutrition. Ideally you learn a lot about nutrition while also implementing with your nutrition.

Leah:

Yeah. And I guess, the same argument could be made against tracking calories in macros, in that doesn’t necessarily teach you anything about dietary quality. So same arguments can be made and there’s pros and cons with both. And I think it’s just all about what works for you best as an individual approach.

Aidan:

For sure. The other low key benefit, and we’ve spoken about this on previous podcasts, but planning out your meals can have benefits of saving time, money, food wastage.

And it also might set you up for success with being able to stick to a plan more consistently because you might find less situations where it is Friday afternoon and you don’t have any food lined up or whatever because you’ve had to sit down and plan it out and make sure you’ve got everything lined up too.

Leah:

Yeah. Sometimes that structure, whilst it can be a little rigid, can be a beneficial thing.

Aidan:

Yeah, easy. Should we summarize?

Leah:

Yeah. So I think overall, this is a nice short sharp one, but overall, meal plans, they have a time and a place, they can be used to provide structure, meet certain requirements for specific goals. And they can also be used to educate people about nutrition.

How we think about meal plans I think also needs to be a bit more broad in that it’s not just that seven day meal plan, very prescriptive. A meal plan can look a lot of different ways. And it can come in a flexible way and be used in a lot of different kinds of situations in order to provide structure, et cetera. So time and place for them, and it all depends on what you prefer best as an individual approach.

Aidan:

This has been episode 97 of the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. As always, if you have not already, if you could please leave a rating and a review, that would be greatly appreciated.