Undoubtedly, this is one of the most common questions, nutrition coach, Prashanth Rao gets when people approach him for his nutrition coaching programs.
Meal plans have long been a staple in the fitness and nutrition industry. Lots of people who are looking to improve their eating think meal plans are the solution but most often they don’t work and rarely do they last.
We often see that traditional meal plans are explicit prescriptions where we are advised to eat this exact thing, in this exact amount, at this exact time.
For example, you’ll often see:
Breakfast – 7:30 am
- 3 eggs, scrambled
- 1 cup vegetables
- 1 piece whole-grain toast
- 1 cup coffee
- 1 glass water
Morning snack – 10:00 am
- 1 protein bar
- 1 handful of mixed nuts
- Lunch – 12:30 pm
- 4 oz chicken
- 2 cups salad
- 1 handful seeds
- 1 glass water
After exercise – 4:30 pm
- 1 scoop whey protein
- 1/2 cup fruit
- 1 tsp omega 3 oil
- 12 oz water
Dinner – 7:00 pm
- 4 oz chicken
- 1 cup of cooked veggies
- 1 baked potato
- 1 glass water
My clients often think that having a plan is a good thing because they are so tired of trying to figure out what works for them that they often succumb to choosing a meal plan.
The flip side to this is, when you try to follow rigid prescriptions there is a lot that can go wrong.
Scenario 1: You end up not sticking to the plan.
No matter how enthusiastic you are about eating right and getting fit, meal plans can be tough to follow. This is quite a normal scenario where life’s problems get in their way. For e.g.
- People get busy
- We are not always prepared
- Kids falling sick
- Bosses expect you to work late
- Some occasions you might have to attend
- You get bored sometimes and may not want to eat a protein bar at 10 am
What’s more, even if you’ve paid to have someone design the plan for you, you might find yourself rebelling against it in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways.
This means that you might not get the results you hoped for. For instance, a meal plan you hoped would help you lose weight could encourage you to gain weight instead.
Scenario 2: You follow the plan perfectly.
You are adhering to the meal plan to the T but following it for too long may work adversely too. Most meal plans are meant to be temporary and are designed to help a person meet their specific short-term goal, like dropping a few extra pounds before a wedding, learning to manage blood sugar, or cutting weight for an athletic competition, etc. Our bodies adapt to a rigid way of eating for short intervals. But if you’re too strict for too long, you could end up with disorderly eating habits and lasting health (mental, metabolic, hormonal, etc) consequences.
Scenario 3: You follow the plan for a little while but it sucks.
A meal plan isn’t sustainable. Maybe you do see some short-term results or sometimes not even that. You slowly begin to wonder if this is all worth your effort. You never want to look at another piece of lettuce or 4 ounces of chicken. Eventually, you get so turned off by the process that you regress or quit altogether.
You conclude that “eating healthy” sucks. And you miss your big chance to learn how to make healthier, more enjoyable, more lasting and real changes.
Another reason meal plans fail.
One of the biggest (yet generally unacknowledged) problems with traditional meal plans is their focus on “nutrients”.
Real people don’t eat “nutrients”. We eat food.
We eat meals, often with other people.
We eat meals that match our cultural background and social interests.
And we rarely measure things precisely.
Sure, sometimes an explicit prescription is necessary. For instance, professional athletes or bodybuilders (in other words, people who make money off their bodies and athletic skills) use meal plans to prepare for training and competition.
A prescribed meal for someone in that situation might look something like this:
- 1/4 cup dry oats
- 3 oz chicken breast
- 1 cup steamed broccoli
- 5 almonds
- 1 omega-3 supplement
- 1 cup green tea (unsweetened)
But most of us don’t need that level of surgical precision.
We don’t normally eat “ounces” of things, or refer to food by their nutrients (like “omega-3 fatty acids”).
Instead, we eat foods like:
- Idli, Dosa, and Biryani
- Pasta and noodles
- Sandwiches, wraps, and Rotis
- Sambar and Curries
- Fries and Burgers
- Tacos and Burritos
- Cakes and Bread
Bottom line: If you want to eat better, you don’t have to get weird about things.
You don’t need to weigh and measure everything or count out your almonds.
Ask yourself: “Is someone paying me to do this?” If the answer is no, you likely don’t need this kind of approach. But how does one eat healthy without falling into the diet trap? Counting calories or a diet plan is rarely necessary. Also, the hassle of carrying around weighing-scales, measuring cups, calculators or smartphones might get a bit too much.
Why not look at a different scale to gauge food portions? Well…all you need is the ability to count to two and your own hand.
Here how it works:
- Your palm determines your protein
- Your fist determines your veggie
- Your cupped hand determines your carb
- Your thumb determines your fat
To determine your protein intake
For protein-dense foods like meat, fish, eggs, dairy, or beans, use a palm-sized serving.
Note: a palm-sized portion is the same thickness and diameter as your palm.
To determine your vegetable intake
For veggies like broccoli, spinach, salad, carrots, etc. use a fist-sized serving.
Again, a fist-sized portion is the same thickness and diameter as your fist.
To determine your carbohydrate intake
For carbohydrate-dense foods – like grains, starches, or fruits – use a cupped hand to determine your serving size.
To determine your fat intake
For fat-dense foods – like oils, butter, nut butter, nuts/seeds – use your entire thumb to determine your serving size.
A note on body size
Of course, if you’re a bigger person, you probably have a bigger hand. And if you’re a smaller person… well, you get the idea. Your own hand is a personalized (and portable) measuring device for your food intake.
True, some people do have larger or smaller hands for their body size. Still, our hand size correlates pretty closely with general body size, including muscle, bone – the whole package.
You can’t know exactly how your body will respond in advance. So stay flexible and adjust your portions based on your hunger, fullness, and other important goals.
Planning your meals flexibly
Based on the guidelines above, assuming you’ll be eating about 3 times a day, you now have a simple and flexible guide for meal planning.
- 2 palms of protein dense foods with each meal;
- 2 fists of vegetables with each meal;
- 2 cupped hands of carb dense foods with most meals;
- 2 entire thumbs of fat dense foods with most meals.
- 1 palm of protein dense foods with each meal;
- 1 fist of vegetables with each meal;
- 1 cupped hand of carb dense foods with most meals;
- 1 entire thumb of fat dense foods with most meals.
Want more individualization?
For those who want to go further – because they have more advanced goals or because they’re already eating well but still struggling – we need to dig a little deeper.
At Priming Essentials (personal Fitness Training and Nutrition Coaching run by me), we have a really simple shortcut for helping people to “eat right for their body type”.
We begin by classifying clients into one of three general categories (or somatotypes) where each body type gets a slightly different recommendation.
- “I” types (ectomorphs),
- “V” types (mesomorphs), and
- “O” types (endomorphs).
You just need to think about what you’re already eating, and how you could make it a notch better.
This means tweaking a bit here and there and making improvements to what you normally eat and enjoy, one small step at a time.