I’m a fan of flexible dieting; however, the plate below is what most of my meals look like. I enjoy routine. In fact, my meals tend to be the same every day. While dinner may rotate between a handful of favorites, it usually looks something like the picture below. Is this incongruous with flexible dieting? Not in my mind.
I think that it is a common misconception that flexible dieting and structured eating are mutually exclusive. Given that the flexible dieting approach that has become popular in recent years has taken in a lot of refugees from overly restrictive and dogmatic meal plans, I definitely understand that perspective. To me, however, not only can structure and flexibility coexist, I’ll take it a step farther and say that they probably should.
The problem with too much structure
We know that arbitrary rules and restrictions, as well as excessive or unwarranted rigidity, generally lead to undesirable behavior. It’s only natural that when you restrict people to eating the same five foods repeatedly for months on end, they’re going to come unglued at some point.
This is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to dieting, either. When we pull the pendulum too far in one direction, what is going to happen when we release it? Initially, it’s going to swing too far back in the opposite direction. This is not a problem with the person, however. It’s a problem with the approach.
Excessive rigidity aside, another issue that I have with meal plans is that they don’t teach people how to fish, so to speak. Sure, if I were to dictate to you (a) what to eat, (b) when to eat it and (c) how much of it to eat, you’d probably see good results. But then what do you do after we’ve finished working together?
Have you learned any real skills during our time, or have you just blindly followed a very specific plan? I’d rather teach you how to be autonomous and successful for life. And I’d rather you actively participate in the process, versus having it dictated to you. Accordingly, meal plans aren’t my preferred method.
The problem with too little planning
In contrast, flying by the seat of one’s pants without a plan at all usually doesn’t lead to good outcomes either. For example, sometimes with flexible dieting, people will eat randomly throughout the day, track what they’ve eaten after the fact, then scramble at the end of the day to make the numbers work.
In this case, the tracking is utilized more like an autopsy than a planning tool. While an individual coming from a background of having very little structure or mindfulness to their eating may find success tracking this way, they would still likely see more benefit from incorporating a bit of planning.
Yet another benefit to planning is that it takes the thought out of eating. If you prep even some of your meals ahead of time, or at least lay out your plan for the day in your calorie tracker the night before, then all you have left to do each day is execute your plan.
Hell, you could even lay out the whole week in your calorie tracker if your eating patterns are that predictable. The plan need not be rigid, as you always have the freedom to make adjustments if and when life happens — or if you just want something different in the moment.
Even so, there is great benefit in at least having a rough plan from which to work. Given that most of us lead busy and sometimes stressful lives, and that our days are filled with enough other decisions that need to be made, going on autopilot where meals are concerned can be a great thing. In doing so, we free up some of that mental energy that would have otherwise been devoted to food for use on other, more important, things.
The compromise between the two
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from using a meal plan, nor from living in the moment, if one of those is how you’re most successful. I believe that all approaches have their time and place for different individuals, as well as at different points in the same individual’s journey.
But if you’re struggling with flexible dieting because you feel like you’re hanging in the wind without any support, there is nothing wrong with structure. The beauty of it is that you can create this structure for yourself. Create your own meal plan within the overall framework of the calorie and macronutrient targets that are appropriate for your body and your goal.
- Don’t want to eat the same things daily? Great! You absolutely don’t have to. Create a different meal plan for every day if that’s what suits you. Change it from week to week, if you like. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with eating similarly each day if that’s what works for you.
- Don’t want to eat 6 meals per day? Do you do better on 3 meals per day? Do you like intermittent fasting? Do you like to train on an empty stomach, or a full stomach? All of these are great! Divide up your calories throughout the day in whatever way works best for you.
- Do you like to follow the 80/20 rule and fit some junk food into your plan daily because it alleviates cravings? Do you prefer not to eat any super high-reward food because it creates uncontrollable cravings, or lends itself to unwanted behavior? Do you like to eat out frequently? Do you prefer to cook all your meals at home? Great! Any of these can work just fine.
- Do you eat gluten, avoid gluten, eat low carb, eat high carb, eat low fat, eat paleo, eat not paleo, eat vegan, eat steak every day, and so forth? Great! As long as you’ve not subscribed to dogma simply for its own sake, I encourage you to follow whatever food philosophy you believe in.
- Do you hate the idea of any structure at all and think that having a plan sounds terrible? Great! In that case, tracking in the moment might work fine for you. No plan can be your plan.
The point is simply this: create a plan, then own it and do it consistently. Above all, however, make it work for you. Do what suits you and leads to your success.