Meal plans are the top request in a dietitian's office - "just tell me what I can eat." It’s no secret that diet programs impose rules on your life - what you can eat, what you can’t eat, where you can eat, and when. While rules seem great, they have pretty serious drawbacks. Why?
How do rules help?
What's the problem?
I heard a guest on Christy Harrison's Food Psych podcast use this analogy - it's not an original thought by me. I'm just detailing it a bit more. I can't remember who it was exactly, but that's all the more reason to listen to the podcast!
Meal plans are a bit like a cast for an injury. When you put a cast on a broken bone, it provides structure and safety so the injury can heal. However, casts also make the muscles weak from not being used. The longer the cast it on, the more time it takes to re-strengthen the muscle.
Usually, when a cast is removed, you receive a brace and gradually strengthen the muscle with specific exercises until the muscle is strong enough to do its job alone. You absolutely could jump back into life without the brace or exercises, but it will likely make recovery longer (and potentially really hurt you). Sometimes an injury is so severe that a brace is necessary for a long time or in certain circumstances.
Applying it to food
Therapy is also aggravating. Sometimes the exercises seem tiny and "too easy" so we skip them. But like an injury, there are many tiny muscles that support major muscles to get the job done.
And just like physical therapy, it can be painful. But a good therapist knows how to push you (but not break you) based on how your body responds.
Not every injury needs a cast...
I know meal plans are what "sell" in nutrition - it's one of the few "products" dietitians feel like they have to sell. But prescribing a meal plan because someone asks for it is like giving a perfectly healthy person a cast because they believe they are too tired to walk by themselves. Sure a cast will support the person, but it will ultimately weaken the person over time, making walking more and more challenging. Movement (though painful) helps the healing process.
It's important to assess the person thoroughly to understand the support they need (not just what they ask for) (for more about assessments, check out this previous post). Clients often ask me for a meal plan and many beg for structure, but often this is because they aren't aware of (or fear) the other options.
The moral of the story...
If you’re looking to remove the cast that binds you, consider taking stock of the rules you’ve used to keep you safe. Which bind you the most? Which are based in fact vs fiction? Can any rules be shifted to be a little looser?
Like removing a cast, it may be helpful to give yourself support along the way. You may start with rules, that gradually turn into principles...then guidelines...then perhaps just thoughts. It takes time to gain personal strength. And just like recovery from an injury, the timeline is different for everyone.
Breaking free of the rules that bind you is not easy. Dietitians certified in Intuitive Eating or Eating Disorders are like physical therapists after an injury. They can help assess the situation, recommend helpful structures, and practice exercises to strengthen your relationship to food.
Stay nourished friends!
DISCLAIMER: The writing here is for informational and educational purposes only. It is NOT a substitute for individual care. Your needs may vary. or individual support, please contact a provider.
Please note it's been a number of years since I have updated these posts. The content and philosophies may have changed as I've grown as a provider. Please reach out with questions or concerns.
Dietitian, personal trainer, mother, wife, runner, and endurance athlete supporting well-being, one bit and bite at a time