Meal Plan vs Flexible Diet

There has been back and forth argument about which of these two methods is superior for many years now. For a while, social media glorified the idea that 'a calorie is a calorie', however there has been some revival of the old school meal plan. If you are currently unsure which approach to take to reach your physique goals, this unbiased review will present the cases for and against each, allowing you to make an informed decision.

Meal Plan

A meal plan is very simple. Every day, you eat the same meals, most likely at around the same times of day, with the same amount of time between each. Foods in a meal plan tend to come from simple, whole foods (insert fish and a rice cake... chicken and rice jokes).

Pros:

Ease of organising and prepping food. When foods stay constant, it is easy to go into the supermarket and get what is needed, quickly and efficiently, without spending time considering what you can make fit your macros. It also becomes second nature to prep the same meals and create a routine that fits around a busy lifestyle. For people who do not want to waste time staring aimlessly into the fridge deciding what to cook- meal plans are the way forward!

Can identify better food choices. If a food in the meal plan is not digested well, it will become apparent early into the plan, and be easy to switch out. In contrast, with a macro based approach, diet one day may consist of entirely different foods than the day before, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.

More consistent weigh ins. While it is true that calories in vs calories out is the determinant of fat loss, there are other components of food that can vary massively when following a macro based approach, such as sodium or fibre intake. Both of these can have a massive effect on weight fluctuations- too much or too little fibre can bloat us, and higher or lower sodium intake than usual can result in water retention: causing scale weight to be affected even when body fat isn't. While some can take this with a pinch of salt (no pun intended), it can play with the minds of others, and cause them to adjust macros in their panic when it isn't necessary. A meal plan is much more standardised from one day to the next, so less variables need to be considered when weight shifts.

Cons:

Low adherence. Many people approach a coach or personal trainer thinking that they want a meal plan, but are unable to actually stick to it the second they are offered food in the office or an occasion pops up. For those with busy social lives or who have cravings/food envy when others around them are eating differently, it might not be the most realistic plan to be on.

It may cause intolerances. Over a long course of dieting, for example a 20 week bodybuilding prep, some develop sensitivities to foods such as whey or egg whites that they are having in large quantities. In any case of gut issues, remember that correlation does not always equal causation. For example, it might not be the lactose in your daily shake that causes symptoms (bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhea), but the artificial sweeteners added to it. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to cycle food sources in and out every few weeks (chicken for lean turkey, rice for oats, avocado for peanut butter, and so on).

Flexible dieting

Flexible dieting, IIFYM, whatever you want to call it. This focuses on hitting consistent numbers of protein, carbs and fats each day from whatever food sources you choose.

Pros:

Can have foods you are craving. Flexible dieting allows you to incorporate foods that you are craving, admittedly in smaller amounts than you would probably like. If something like a square of your favorite chocolate is enough for you to move on and continue to hit your goals, it is a great way to have the best of both worlds!

Dealing with the unexpected. Macro counting gives the option to pick up food on the go and deal with last minute plans stress free. For example, some restaurants have the calorie content of meals on their website (not nearly as accurate as having prepped the meal yourself of course). Having the freedom to buy and eat food out removes fear around certain foods and lessens the need to be constantly prepping food and eating out of tupperware, allowing you to diet and still feel 'normal' around peers.

Learn about food. You can learn a lot more about calorie densities and the compositions of different foods by tracking macros than you ever will from following a meal plan. While it is possible to come off a meal plan and be no more educated on how to eat, tracking macros allows to to transition to intuitive eating and still have an idea of how many calories you are eating, if you have consumed enough protein that day, and so on.

cons:

Trigger foods. In the previously given example of eating a square of chocolate to satisfy a craving, some are not able to do this. For people who find that planning a spoonful of peanut butter leads to them eating the jar, it probably isn't the right time to be considering any kind of structured diet.

Lower food quality. It is easy to forget that food is more than just macros and should be valued for health and performance benefits too. A 300 calorie protein bar might seen a great choice... but it will always be better to have chicken and sweet potato with green vegetables. Remember that you are not just trying to lose/gain weight, you are trying to ensure that your body can function as optimally as possible in all areas.

Conclusion

Hopefully these points have helped you to identify which type of person you are- meal plan or flexible dieter. Both can be effective, and in many cases the best plan is what you can stick to. A final disclaimer we would like to make is, when consulting someone for macros or a meal plan, ensure that they are qualified to do so and don't be afraid to ask questions. Having chronically low fat or calories in a diet can cause long term issues. Find out what qualifications and experience they have, as well as anything else that you value, such as personal skills and response time.

About the Author

Savannah Westerby, BSc Sport and Exercise Nutrition. IG:@savannahwesterby
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