The idea behind meal plans seems very straightforward: a dietitian or nutritionist tells you what and how much to eat, and you eat exactly that—nothing more, nothing less. Diet plans and weight loss meal planning services start by calculating your calorie and macronutrient needs and often assign a calorie goal or “points” based on a formula that factors in your current weight, height, and activity level, as well as your future weight goals.
Diet plans are so prevalent that you can generally find one to fit any of your needs at little or no cost. Just scroll through any health and fitness site and you’ll find “A 1,500 calorie, 7-day diet meal plan to lose weight.”
Yet for all this time and strictness, for all this hard work—these plans might do more harm than good. This is because they teach you to rely on external cues, such as finishing everything portioned out on a plate, or restricting food intake once a certain calorie or macronutrient limit has been reached.
By contrast, the most effective and sustainable approach to address individual nutrition issues and achieve health and fitness goals might be a little surprising! It’s called Intuitive Eating. This means learning to tune out diet talk about “good” and “bad” foods, while fostering your ability to perceive and trust internal cues, such as hunger, fullness, and satisfaction.
For some people, the idea of trusting your body to tell you what to eat seems like an impossible goal. You might even be thinking, “I need exact portions, and I need calorie limits. Otherwise, I will be lost. I will lose control.” Let’s work on that assumption. My goal today is to give you some hard evidence to chip away at those ingrained ideas about dieting, meal plans, and calories.
Food tracking apps and online calculators will allow you to plug your weight, height, sex, and age into equations that estimate how many calories your body needs each day. In nutrition science, this number is known as your basal metabolic rate. Premium weight loss services, also rely on similar equations to create your meal plan. These equations are widely used and touted as an exact science—but the estimation error on these calculations can be as high as 20%.
Twenty percent! If your true energy needs were 2,000 calories per day, that 20% error rate likely has you underfueling your body by 400 calories (or more), causing hunger, fatigue, poor performance in exercise and at work, and many other symptoms. That error rate could also result in an overestimate by 400 calories, though this is much rarer.
You might even be thinking that it doesn’t matter if the equations are wrong because your goal is weight-loss. Surely, eating way below your caloric needs will result in this. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. When you restrict the number of calories you consume, your body responds by reducing how much energy it uses (your metabolic rate). The more your metabolic rate declines, the more slowly your body burns calories.
This biological process is well-suited for conserving energy to get you through the famines and food shortages humans have been subjected to throughout history. But it’s less effective for weight loss meal plans, where it just leads to a vicious cycle, and a downward spiral into chronic, restrictive dieting.
This spiral is often the direct result of traditional weight loss “expert” advice to address a slowed metabolism, which generally tells you to further cut calories, portions, and even entire food groups. Yet the more appropriate course of action would be to increase energy intake to more closely align with your body’s needs and return your metabolic rate to normal.
By paying attention to your hunger signals instead of your calories and by focusing on what's nutritious versus what's restrictive, you can keep your metabolism up, reduce overeating, and get on a lasting path to achieving your health and fitness goals. You can even get started today with one behavior: mindful reflection. Reflect on your food intake without counting calories, macros, or measuring portions. After a meal or snack, ask yourself:
This introspection will begin to build your skills for a better approach to nutrition.
Chelsea is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a Certified Personal Trainer. She received her Master's in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition from Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Her interest in food and nutrition began while studying the relationship between agriculture and climate change, and she received her B.S. in Environmental Science and International Agriculture at Cornell University.