Of recent times rigid meal plans seem to be getting a bad wrap in the health and fitness community with flexible dieting and tracking calories being heavily favoured. Whilst flexible dieting certainly has many benefits associated I believe strict and rigid diet plans are also very valuable tools within the health and fitness world. The poor reputation for rigid meal plans revolves mainly around their misapplication rather than them being an overall poor nutrition modality. As you will find out below, applied in the right context and with the appropriate structure (calories, macros etc), rigid meal plans can be used highly effectively.
What do I mean by rigid meal plans? I’m talking about bare basic, consistent meals repeated over weeks and months. For example, you go see a coach or nutrition expert, have an assessment and they give you a weeks worth of structured meals that you follow for a period of time. Here are some characteristics of what you may see within the plan:
Minimal food variety with the same/similar meals day to day.
Often consists of minimal to zero of what would be considered ‘junk food’.
Potentially bland meals with minimal extras i.e sauces.
We’ve all heard the arguments against this.
“It’s not sustainable”
“You won’t enjoy yourself”
And so on.
Now these are probably true BUT no one said you had to follow a rigid meal plan forever! Rigid dieting is a TOOL and has it’s PLACE, just like flexible dieting. Within one’s journey towards any health and fitness goal there may be times where having very tight restrictions around their nutrition is necessary and the best option. The same applies to flexible dieting, intuitive eating etc.
The following are some reasons as to why I believe rigid meal plans have their place.
IT'S YOUR FIRST ATTEMPT AT DIETING: RESULTS + EDUCATION
If it’s you’re very first attempt at dieting and you’re not familiar with the health and fitness world then it’s likely you’re not educated on what you need to do with your nutrition to attain your goal. If you don’t have a basic understanding of calories, macros, how to manipulate these and what foods will help you achieve this then dieting is hard. All of this can take a bit of time to learn so starting a diet and trying to learn this on the go can lead to a lot of confusion and mistakes which will delay progress.
Potentially a better way to approach this and one I’ve had success with as a coach is to start the process with a rigid meal plan. Basically, it will increase the likelihood of results as long as it’s adhered to and along the way a point can be made of educating the individual to give them a basic understanding of nutrition and its application. For example;
The individual will be able to get a gauge of what X amount of calories looks like in a day of eating.
The individual will be able gain an understanding of good food sources for each macronutrient.
It will allow them to develop good eating patterns and portion control.
Tie all of the above into an understanding of energy balance and how it works depending on their goals and rigid meal plans become very effective.
These are all hard to navigate for a beginner. If you simply throw a calorie and macro number at them and say eat whatever you like as long as you hit these, you’ve essentially thrown them straight in the deep end before they’ve learnt to swim. A rigid meal plan with education on the basics of nutrition will allow for results but also put them in a position to attain more autonomy over future nutrition decisions.
The reason many will attempt and fail a diet is due to lack of results in the early stages of dieting. Once again, if a rigid meal plan is set up and adhered too, results will likely come. This can be so important for someone who is new to trying to change their body composition as it allows them to build trust and excitement in the process. This will help keep them motivated to continue doing the right thing in the present and future.
YOU HAVE LESS DECISIONS TO MAKE
A rigid meal plan will essentially take the guess work out of your dieting for the period of time you use it. The less decisions an individual has to make, especially if you’re new to dieting, the less likely you are to make a mistake.
As stated in the first point, individuals brand new to dieting likely don’t have the background knowledge around nutrition so when presented with many different options there is a good chance that they won’t select the one that will be most in line with their desired result. This is why taking the decision making process out for the time being can be very valuable.
Another common scenario is when an individual has a very hectic day to day schedule. It’s very common for someone to be working a high stress corporate job with long hours as well as up hold family duties involving kids. Having to then make more decisions about nutrition only adds to the high stress and hence they will fall back to old habits. There is also the fact that the decisions will be made to satisfy their short term needs, disregarding their desired long term outcome i.e use food junk to as a means to release stress.
IT LIMITS TEMPTATIONS
A rigid meal plan helps create an environment that steers individuals clear of temptations. If that person is more often than not, only surrounded by the foods they are prescribed then it’s highly likely that’s what they will eat. When given the option many will fall into old habits and temptations as that’s what’s comfortable and easy. Rather than giving them that choice and asking them to resist, often its better in the short term to simply remove those options completely. Even the most seasoned dieters have their moments where food will get the better of them. Often this tactic of rigid dieting and removing temptations is used by experienced comp prep athletes, as they know it will help reduce the chances of a ‘slip up’.
IT TAKES OUT THE GUESS WORK
A rigid meal plan allows for near certainty of what we are consuming which can lead to predictability. The near certainty of what is consumed is simply that the individual consumes only what’s prescribed. The predictability of results is based on the premise that the meal plan has the appropriate amount of calories needed for that individual to achieve their goal and that they stick to it. This ties in really well with the first point as individuals with low knowledge on nutrition and how it effects the body are very unlikely to be able to make decisions that will be conducive of their goals if they are simply just given calorie and macro targets.
WHEN RIGID MEAL PLANS GO WRONG
Whilst the above points have explained why rigid meal plans can beneficial in certain contexts, there are reasons as to why rigid meal plan have the poor reputation they do. Like many things in the health and fitness circle, it comes down to it’s misapplication. In terms of rigid meals plans and how it’s reputation has been tarnished, misapplications include:
Coaches prescribing very long term use (years) of meals plans with very low calories and low food variation. This is extremely common and probably the biggest factor in the bad reputation rigid meal plans have. In most cases (not all) I believe it is from coaches that are poorly educated on the fundamentals of nutrition and the effects it has physiologically or psychologically OR they are simply lazy. They see individuals as numbers not humans and have that mentality of ‘eat clean’ and ‘less of it’ and you’ll eventually lose weight.
When there is little to no education that will give the individual the ability to move away from the rigidity of that meal plan and make decisions for themselves that are conducive of their current and future goals. If a coach simply gives someone a meal plan and instructs them to follow it, sure results will come but what happens when they decide they want some more control and flexibility over their nutrition. The reality is they still don’t have a basic background knowledge as all they have done is followed instruction but without any thought. Now left on their own, old habits will begin to creep back in as that’s what they know.
When the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food is re enforced via a meal plan. This is a prime example of how one will develop a poor relationship with food. A food that’s not included in a meal plan shouldn’t be pushed as ‘bad’ but rather for the time being it’s not conducive of the individual’s current goals. Simply placing someone on a meal plan and ingraining in their mind that this group of foods is how you lose weight and any deviation from this will result in weight gain is a recipe for disaster.
This is another reason education is key. Basic knowledge of nutrition can allow individuals to have and understanding that it’s energy balance NOT particular foods that are getting them results. This allows them to have more autonomy and the confidence to manipulate their own food choices post the meal plan without compromising all their hard work.
A rigid meal plan used in the right context and structured correctly to suit the individual’s goals can be a very effective tool for nutrition interventions. Whilst other nutrition modalities will be more sustainable long term (i.e calorie tracking), rigid meal plans used for short periods of time can prove to be a valuable tool via taking the immediate responsibility off the client to simply ‘grab hold’ of everything required to have autonomy around their nutrition. With a rigid meal plan in place we can have a period of time where the likelihood of results is increased if adhered to, motivation will be high and during this time an important educational process can be implement to ensure the client begins to build autonomy around their nutrition which will hold them in good stead for the future.