Disclaimer: I am not a qualified nutritionist, this is purely my opinion based on experience.
I have followed a diet based on purely protein shakes, a typical ‘clean’ diet and have followed flexible dieting for a year and would never go back. The element of choice is a powerful marketing tool that many brands utilize. If you see something as ‘limited edition’, it immediately becomes more attractive to purchase. We, as humans, like the ability to choose and anything that is scarce is instantly more appealing. The same can be said for diets. If something is seemingly unavailable (e.g. Chocolate on a meal plan), what do you instantly want to eat? Chocolate. How about if nothing is off limits? Well, chocolate probably seems a lot less appealing. After all, where’s chocolate going? Nowhere.
Flexible dieting is not binary; following a meal plan is – you either adhere to it completely, or you are ‘off plan’. Say your meal plan dictates that your dinner is sweet potato and chicken, but you really fancy eating rice and chicken. Either you eat something you don’t want to or you deviate from your plan and ‘fall off the wagon’. If you do the latter and choose the rice, you might feel ‘well I’ve failed anyway, I may as well eat a slice of cake’, so now you eat the cake. Then you feel riddled with guilt, vowing to do better tomorrow. But what if you had eaten chicken and rice like you had wanted to? You would be feeling satisfied and the thought of cake would probably have not even entered your mind. However, if you had followed flexible dieting, you could simply swap out the sweet potato for the rice, guilt free.
Following a meal plan is also incredibly restrictive. By its nature, it immediately eliminates many foods, reducing the variety of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) you consume. Following a meal plan is normally done so with the intent of being healthier, so being so restrictive actually is less healthy. Furthermore, being so restrictive can trigger digestion issues when you eat something outside of your parameters. On a separate note of restriction, different brands of foods have different macronutrient profiles. What happens if the store has sold out of Uncle Ben’s rice and you have to eat Tilda rice instead? Flexible dieting is brand agnostic – if it fits in with your day, fill your boots!
What do you do about going out to eat when you follow a meal plan? Probably see it as a ‘cheat meal’, something which I often perceived as the instant right to binge on as many ‘unhealthy foods’ as possible, knowing that I wouldn’t get the opportunity again for another week. The very notion of a cheat meal reinforces the concept that you are straying away from what you should be doing. In my opinion, food shouldn’t be perceived like that. Yes, see it as a treat, but never should you be left from a meal feeling despondent. Food should be enjoyed, not used as a weapon for self-loathing.
So are there any pros…?
I think meal plans are a great introduction into being aware of what you are eating and how much you are eating. Most people are completely unaware of how nutrient stripped their diets are. Moreover, there is so much press on so called healthy foods, that really aren’t very healthy at all. A ready meal may contain kale and so you probably instantly think ‘this is good for me’, disregarding that it is a cheesy kale bake, pretty much void of any protein and micronutrients. By being on a set meal plan, you can start to appreciate how to fuel your body and how to nourish your body. So, as introduction, as a teaching tool, they are useful. But the meal plan should have a shelf limit…learn from the meal plan, treat it as an education and then apply it. Apply it to your life and make it sustainable, something you can implement and follow daily without feeling a drop of guilt at whatever food you eat.