When you focus on optimizing your nutrition, do you like to use exact meal plans or nutrition guidelines? I have used both methods and think there are arguments for and against each of them.
Meal plans tell you exactly what to eat, how much to eat and when to eat it over a certain period of days, weeks or months. Nutrition guidelines give you the basic structure on what, when and how to eat but require you to make your own eating choices within the suggested parameters.
Why I like meal plans
The true beauty of a meal plan is that it takes the guesswork out of eating. Everything is mapped out for you down to the precise portion. If you don't know how to structure your nutrition to match your goal (for instance for fat loss), you can't beat a done-for-you meal plan. The same is true if you just need to spend your time focusing on compliance. You refer to the meal plan, go to the grocery, do your food prep and you're ready. It takes the guesswork away and makes it fairly brainless. You pull out your plan, look at the date and time, prepare your meal by the book, eat and wash the dishes. It's exciting when you see results and you didn't really have to think through it. What a relief. You're working toward your goals but you can focus your brain on other things at the same time. Another reason I like meal plans is that if they are well designed and you stick with it, you will likely celebrate some victory quickly in terms of weight loss.
Why I don't like meal plans
Meal plans that are purchased may be a general one-size-fits-all approach. It's difficult for widely available programs to factor in consideration of individual taste and food availabilities, even when they attempt to offer suggestions for food substitutions. Figuring out portions for food substitutions can be tricky too. Meal plans also cannot address individual health and related dietary issues. In addition they may not offer good instruction on altering the plan based on needed calorie intake for weight gain, maintenance or loss. This again can be attributable to a lack of adequate individualization and leaves a common problem unsolved for many people. The flip side of the enticement of it being brainless is that when the plan is over, there is still a problem of not knowing what to do next. Another thing to realize is that meal plans are only as good as the compliance of the person following them. It's easy to get bored with these, have a freak out and jump the tracks like a runaway train. Restless people beware.
Why I like nutrition guidelines
Nutrition guidelines generally require you to make your own decisions within given parameters of suggested food, portion sizes, and timing of meals. This means they teach you the basics on what to eat, how much to eat and when to eat it. Because of that, you become accountable to apply the knowledge and make the best choices. It makes it easier when faced with social events, ordering in a restaurant, explaining to your support system what you're trying to accomplish with your eating, allowing some flexibility. Since this method fosters application of knowledge and accountability, it has a greater chance of long lasting impact.
Why I don't like nutrition guidelines
If the nutrition guidelines do not come with some detailed explanation the educational opportunity regarding balanced nutrition is lost. While it may feel less restrictive than a meal plan, the freedom of a nutrition plan can't be realized if there is no true understanding of the rationale behind the structure. If a nutrition guideline program doesn't provide enough information or support a person can still feel overwhelmed by all the choices and struggle unnecesarily.
Two different times I have used exact meal plans and had great success. Both times I needed that much structure around my eating. The meal plans helped me regain control and detox myself from haphazard or sloppy eating habits. They were positive experiences for me. However, I did flop around a little trying to wean myself to making my own conscious choices. This process stimulated me to seek out nutrition guidelines for every day living because I wanted to learn how to structure my own healthy eating. I still use various nutrition programs that offer guidelines for this purpose because I am not a perfect eater!
Warp Speed Fat Loss is one program that I used that contains exact meal plans for 28 days. Food substitutions are offered for personal preferences. Portion sizes are detailed and a variety of preparation methods are shared. Information is provided on daily calorie and serving adjustments. It also includes a helpful networking and forum opportunity on-line. Important to keep in mind is that its design does not allow for cheating because it's a precise 28 day program to maximize weight loss. That said, I would recommend this one because of the detail behind it and the accessibility and support of the author.
I have used more programs that provide helpful nutrition guidelines. Without a doubt Precision Nutrition is the most comprehensive both in the program materials and on-line support and is the foundation of the way I eat. Afterburn II offers tough but effective, no-nonsense guidance with a very tight initial 3 week time period. Fat Loss Action Blueprint offers not only rock solid nutrition principles and help, but you get daily emails from the creator reminding you of key factors and encouraging you, which goes well with the on-line support provided. Cheat Your Way Thin is a more recent program presenting carb cycling in a unique way with a very active blog by its creator. I feel all of these programs are sound because they are built on lean protein, generous amounts of veggies, fruit, whole grains and good, old-fashioned water.
I'd love any comments on what you have found that works best for you!
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