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Why blindly following a meal plan can backfire

A few weeks back I met with Sarah* for the first time. Sarah had tried every diet known to man – Atkins, a very-low-calorie diet, Weight Watchers, Paleo, South Beach….like most, she did really well in the beginning and lost a good amount of weight, but eventually gained it all back and then some. Sarah was clearly exhausted. She looked me in the eye and said, “I do so well when I have a structured plan and I don’t have to think about food. Please, I just need something simple I can follow and doesn’t require any thinking or major planning, in particular during my workday.”

This sentiment comes from such a tired, despairing place. Unsurprisingly, the cycle of feeling like you never succeed at this weight loss battle can lead to an urgent need for change – and starting now isn’t fast enough. I hear phrases like the above often, and I always have to gauge the individual carefully before responding – is he or she ready for the truth? Because the truth is, not thinking or actively participating in your food choices actually backfires. And here’s why.

1. It’s the opposite of mindfulness. Many dietitians and mental health practitioners promote the practice of mindfulness. This is the process of being present in the moment with awareness. When it comes to eating, it can mean being aware of many things: how something tastes, whether or not you are hungry or full, why you are eating, why you chose the food you chose, etc. All of these pieces contribute to the eating experience, and yes, experiencing eating is important. In fact, some studies note it’s possible the benefits of eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet are just as much related to the socialization and activity of eating as the types of foods consumed. There is something to be said for the value added by taking an active role – from deciding when you are hungry to choosing what you eat.

2. It doesn’t create a new (positive) habit. If you want to improve your nutrition choices long-term, then spending a few months not thinking about your choices isn’t a good place to start. Yes, having a plan made for you may break you out of your comfort zone and give you some excitement for a fresh beginning. And it may give you some relief that forward progress is happening. But it doesn’t really teach you how to make your own choices, and as a result…

3. Unplanned events lead to eating chaos. Let’s face it, there will always be unforeseen events in life, and even some planned events (extended family visits, work trips) can leave folks feeling like the “diet” has to be put on hold. It is possible to make food choices in line with your health goals in almost every scenario (keeping in mind that sometimes a health choice isn’t just about the nutrition value but perhaps about something else like your psychological or emotional well-being). Not knowing what to do when the “plan” doesn’t apply can lead to a downward anxious spiral – one “bad” choice leads to another and another, followed by a shower of self-guilt and despair that it happened once again.

4. It creates a mindset of “on” or “off” a diet. Sometimes deviating from a detailed eating plan makes individuals feel as if they have cheated (and we know where that feeling leads, right?) If you are trying to follow a plan that contributes this idea of being “on” or “off” your diet, then it’s not the right path for you. You need to have some flexibility in your day-to-day eating choices, and this includes building in foods which you really enjoy but think are “bad”.

Structure can help, but too much structure and rigidity with eating can lead to feelings of deprivation, and eventually you cave and overeat. On the other end of the spectrum, without any structure or plan you give no thought to your eating choices and just mindlessly nosh without consideration for health.

Now don’t misunderstand me – having a plan is very important. Things like keeping a snack readily available, knowing where you can eat when traveling, and having a grocery list are all examples of plans which are beneficial. However, sticking to a cookie-cutter meal plan every single day can promote being disconnected from all those mindfulness concepts mentioned above.

So you can have a plan, just don’t put yourself on autopilot when it comes to eating.

*Name has been changed.

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