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Take Home Message: Blending meal plans and flexible dieting makes a healthy diet easier mentally while still effective towards fat loss and muscle gain.
Meal plans are bro, they're unsustainable and you'll likely be called an idiot for even mentioning them in the flexible dieting circles.
Not too long ago I was quick to place meal plans in the "bad" category as I only saw them as inflexible and a quick fix to a long-term issue. Now, as a seasoned nutrition wizard, I've changed my mind.
Regardless on your current stance on meal plans. There should be no doubt there are some benefits.
- Little cognitive energy expenditure knowing all food decisions are made
- Less room for error in macronutrients and overall calories when the same foods are consumed
- Meal consistency leading to positive training attitudes. For example, if you have pancakes before bench pressing and hit a PR. Now every pancake day feels like PR's are coming.
As a MyoBrain follower, you're likely more aware of meal plan pitfalls
- Boring even after a few days
- What to do on vacation, social settings and eating out
- Craving foods not on the meal plan
- At risk for micronutrient deficiencies if meal plan is ultra restrictive.
Arguments on both sides can be made. Instead of choosing sides, it's in your best effort to combine meal plans with flexible dieting for the best long-term results.
Here’s how to do it
Beginner Flexible Dieter
For any of my clients who are new to tracking their macronutrients/calories I always suggest pre-planning food for the next day. If you throw target macronutrients at someone who’s never tracked they will be overwhelmed. They may eat four whole eggs and guacamole for breakfast and now find out they’re halfway to their fat goal by 8AM. These growing pains aren’t terribly hurtful in the long-term,but avoiding them can build more success and positive attitudes with the diet from day one.
So build your own meal plan. Take your target macronutrients and plug in a usual day of eating and see where the gaps are in your target macronutrients (not sure how to find your target macros, check out this video.) Maybe you’ll find you need to add more carbs around training or can remove some fat from snacks.
Whatever it is, this method allows you to be proactive and solving problems before they occur.
Experienced Flexible Dieter
Once you’ve troubleshot and developed better habits over a few months it becomes easier to “freestyle” eating and still hit target macronutrients. Normal meals and snacks will allow you to hit your target macronutrients without preplanning.
This is normally the crowd that shuns meal plans. They’ve forgotten the initial growing pains of tracking food because they're on autopilot after months or years of hitting their macros. This is where I was only a few months ago.
Even the experienced flexible dieter can use meal plans effectively.
The biggest benefit for this group is the cognitive ease of not having to decide what you eat 4-6 times per day, everyday. Flexible dieting is awesome because it allows for nearly infinite decisions with food choice. This is great in the beginning, especially if you’ve been following a fod restrictive diet, but after awhile I’ve seen flexible dieters become WAY too food focused. Personally, I don’t want to spend 30 minutes every morning deciding if I want breakfast pizza, pancakes or an omelette. (click here for more on decision fatigue.)
A Healthy Blend
If you've been tracking for a few months and can easily hit your macros, but want to spend less effort and time doing so, try this:
- Make Sundays meal prep day. Prepare 2-3 meals for every weekday. For example, breakfast, lunch and snack. Not all of the meals have to be the same, but I recommend matching the macronutrient content closely so you can interchange the meals if you wish. For example, make all the breakfast meals roughly 15g fat, 60g carbohydrate and 30g protein, but mixing up the food choices if you wish. These meals should be moderately large portion of total intake.
- The prepared 2-3 meals each day should make up ½ to ¾ of the intake for the day. Which still leaves you with a great deal of flexibility. Mainly for dinners and late-night snacks. I've found it most helpful to keep my prepared meals low-fat, moderate carb and high-protein. That way it leaves me more room for fattier dinners that most people like to consume. Also easier to eat out when leaving room in your fat intake. Then if I'm still short on carbs or protein at the end of the night something simple like cereal and a protein shake does the trick.
- This healthy blend eases your mind from decision fatigue, while giving flexibility to prevent burnout from eating the same things everyday. If you start to bore from the preplanned meals or want to try a new recipe you can simply prepare different meals the next Sunday.
The Bigger Picture
Don't be a sheep. It’s become cool to count macros and hate on those who use meal plans, but both groups can learn from each other. Being dogmatic about any topic often leaves you close-minded to making your approach better. By now, we know that tracking macronutrients is the most effective nutritional strategy to lose fat and gain muscle, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use other methods from the “bro” camp to make tracking easier.