Are meal plans dead?
“How much do you charge for meal plans?”
I swear if I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question I… could probably by something to the value of about £35-£40. OK that wasn’t a really exciting way to start the blog. I’m sorry, but please read it anyway.
Ever looked at the social media page of any really in shape person? I dare say that 50% or more people I follow on Instagram sell meal plans and it’s not difficult to see why. Post some pictures of your breakfast, your abs, your butt and/or gunz on Instagram, get followers, sell those followers a meal plan for £75-£100, walk away richer for 5 minutes work. Repeat a couple times per day and you have a damn good business model right there.
Unfortunately, of course, not only is this hugely unethical for reasons I’ll get in to, it’s way overstepping your scope of practice as a coach, nutritionist or hot-person-on-instagram™ (which I will use as the surrogate description for everyone who does this from now on). According to a REPS statement “PTs should recognise that they should not write specific, individualised nutrition programmes for their clients unless they can legitimately use the title ‘dietician’.’’ which in one sentence means that unless you’re an RD you have no business writing out a diet for any client, or anyone for that matter.
Why? Well, let’s talk about that.
The key issues with diet plans
Now of course the first thing that sucks about a diet plan is that it’s restrictive and repetitive by nature. Unless you’re writing out a month of meals with a bunch of swaps and like for like trades you’re going to be telling someone to eat the same stuff all of the time. We know that this isn’t going to happen from a client adherence standpoint, of course, but more than that this can lead to some pretty nasty nutrient deficiencies if you don’t REALLY know what you’re doing.
- Does your diet plan give your client enough selenium?
- What about Zinc?
- How much calcium are you giving them?
It’s not uncommon to see a diet plan given out by a hot-person-on-instagram™ which follows a pattern similar to this:
- Meal 1 – Eggwhites, maybe an egg, some oats. Or just some tomatoes depending on their carbohydrate views
- Meal 2 – White meat/fish portion, sweet potato and/or green vegetables
- Meals 3+4 – Basically the same as meal 2
- Meal 5 – Varies, but usually salmon or chicken with a green vegetables
Look familiar? I thought so.
Now look closely and notice – calcium intake is going to be low, this is all but void of iron and of course there’s very, very little fat in there, too. There’s no mention of salt though adding spices is typically discouraged and I don’t need to point out that there are basically no calories there from much of anything.
If a person were to follow this they would more than likely run into issues sooner or later, but that’s just it, isn’t it – the person doesn’t ever stick to it.
And herein lies the second issue with meal plans – they aren’t remotely flexible and therefore even with all of the will in the world you’re not going to carry it out. Your food choices are individual, your situation is unique and your lifestyle will often get in the way and if your dietary approach is as flexible as a wooden board then you’ll never be able to make it work. I’m not going to wax on about flexible dieting here, you know the score, so I’ll just say that diets which restrict food choice to like 10 foods don’t help you very much and leave that point made.
What I don’t think is part of the typical thought process, though, is that through virtue of being impossible to stick to these plans are in effect products which don’t work. If you buy a meal plan you don’t really increase your chances of reaching your goals over the next 12 months any more than if you just spent the money on something else. They are not fit for purpose. They do not do as advertised. Those who sell these diet plans may believe that “if you want it badly enough and try hard enough you would stick to the plan 100% and you would get success”, but if the plan itself is made in such a way that this wouldn’t be practically possible it doesn’t help matters any.
If you walked into a shop and bought a Blu-Ray but in order to actually watch it you had to spin the disk by hand, you’d probably take it back. Then if the guy at the shop said you just didn’t want to watch the movie enough or you just aren’t as dedicated to The Avengers as he is then you’d probably kick him in the knee. Well, I don’t really see much of a difference.
"Your food choices are individual, your situation is unique…".
So you don’t think we should ever write meal plans?
How do you help someone improve their nutrition in order to lose weight, gain muscle, improve performance or just get healthier? You educate them.
One thing we talk about a lot here at BTN (And on the FOUNDATION ACADEMY which will be launching REALLY soon!) is the idea that rather than thinking of specific protocols as ‘the key’, what we need to do is look at broad and general guidelines then apply them to ourselves, or the people we work with in a personalised way. A great nutritional approach isn’t one based around some secret; a great nutritional approach is one which considers all of the basic, simple stuff alongside a little detail, and then narrows down the key concepts and applies them in a way which is sustainable longer-term for a given individual at a given time.
It’s said that everything works, and to some extent that is true, but it’s always an ‘it depends’, right?
- Should you lose fat fast or slow? It depends
- High or low carb? It depends
- How much fat should I eat? It depends
- Should I track my food on MyFitnessPal?
- Do I need to weigh my food?
How much should I exercise, should I drink diet coke, is sugar OK, what about processed foods, how many meals per day, should I try intermittent fasting in any way, do I need to have a protein shake?
Well – it depends.
In order to know the right approach for any given situation you don’t just need to know that it depends, you need to kow why it depends, you need to know upon what it depends, and then you need to know as many different facets and angles as possible for the various ‘key nutritional concepts’ (calorie balance, macronutrients, food choice, etc) so that you can understand which approach fits to the situation.
You also need to be able to either get yourself started on this approach (which may be difficult if it’s radically different to what you’re doing now) or you need to be able to communicate the idea effectively to a client and get them started off without any ambiguity or lack of assurance. Probably the single most important aspect of motivation is the perception of control – and if you tell your client what to do but don’t tell them how to start, then you have not fully given it to them. As they don’t feel completely competent at the task, they won’t do it 100% and at that point, you’re going to find it difficult to get compliance.
And this is where ‘example menu’ writing can come in.
I generally try to get a client to take some key points away from our consultation to start off with but if a client asks me for a meal plan and insists upon it, these are the steps I take:
- I explain the basic concepts as I always do if this is needed. This is usually a very, very brief overview of things accompanied by some stuff that the client can read in their own time (for example a quick ‘fact sheet’ about macros, micros, the benefits of unprocessed foods, portion control, food environment, alcohol etc). This education puts them in control. Note I say ‘If this is needed’ – most people know, at least roughly, that they need to eat more broccoli and fewer crisps, so if you believe they know enough to get started, don’t start teaching them stuff they’ve heard a million times but simply haven’t implemented yet
- We discuss what they feel they are doing now which is A) not helping them towards their goal and B) a small step which will make a large impact. We usually set 2-3 of these straight off the bat
- I sit with the client and help them plan the next week’s food according to the things we discussed in week 2. If they have a family I typically try to include the partner and even kids in this process as they make up a large part of my client’s home environment, and therefore will impact on their adherence. This should never be ignored, and if you expect a general population client to eat different meals to their family long term and still maintain low levels of stress…
- We create a full week’s menu, including a guideline for portion sizes which is actionable and not too hard to implement. This could be weighing food, hand portions, whatever is appropriate for the client at the time. We then draw up a shopping list so they know exactly what to buy
- The next week, we sit down after a training session and repeat the process, with the client leading the way a lot more this time. After a while, we don’t need to do it as the client is already eating a reasonable diet which is in line with their goals, and we can simply move to semi-regular diet diary writing so we can check in
This is similar to a diet plan as the client goes away knowing exactly what to eat, but it includes their favourite foods (with some tweaking if needed), and is varied week to week as per the normal habits of people so that we don’t run into problems. It’s also non-prescriptive as the client did it themselves, and my only input was to help them think of where they can implement the actions they decided upon.
So in sum I would say that no, diet plans aren’t dead – but if you care about people actually reaching goals, if you don’t want to churn out copy and paste jobs for a profit, if you don’t just want to be another hot-person-on-instagram™ but it’s an approach you want to use - they might just need a makeover.