Set Meal Plans Vs Flexible Plans: Which Is Better?

Set Meal Plans Vs Flexible Plans: Which Is Better?

Ever wondered whether you should follow a set meal pan or a flexible diet? This article will teach you the pros and cons of each to find the best solution for you.

11 Apr 2022

Nutrition Beginner
18 Mins

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There has been a big shift over the last few years in nutrition, especially with regards to dieting. For as long as I can remember, bodybuilders and physique enthusiasts in general would swear by a meal plan being the only way to get in shape. 

It wasn’t until 2005 when one of my top sources for nutritional information, Lyle McDonald, released his book “A Guide To Flexible Dieting” which dispelled a lot of myths and misconceptions when it came to losing body fat. Not only were there no magical fat loss foods you had to eat, but just as long as your protein and calories were being met, the actual composition of your food just did not matter that much. 

Fast forward to around 2013-2014, people on the bodybuilding.com forums kept asking if they could have certain foods during their diets. At the time, the forums were moderated by very well respected individuals in the nutrition space such as Alan Aragon meaning they continued answering the question in the same way.

‘If it fits your macros, go for it.” 

And from there, the term IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) was born and people were getting shredded eating pop tarts and mars bars. 

So if we know that you can get in shape eating virtually whatever you want just as long as you hit certain numbers, we should just throw set meal plans out the window right? Well, not entirely and as always, context is key.

At RNT, we are always trying to maximise the tools that we have at our disposal to get the desired results. This means we endeavour to use the right approach, for the right member at the right time. 

Want to know how? 

Let’s dive in!

Set Menus/ Set Meal Plans

When executed effectively, research has shown a set meal plan can work extremely well at helping people reduce their total calories, lose more body fat, get healthier and make the whole process much more enjoyable. 

The biggest benefits that come from having a ready made plan that is in line with your your goals include:
  • Knowing exactly what you’re eating everyday. This reduces decision fatigue immensely, which is a huge factor when it comes to dietary adherence. The more decisions you need to make each day, the higher the likelihood of making a bad decision later in the day. Ever wondered why nobody wakes up and has a tub of ice cream yet can easily happen just before bed? Now you know.
  • Automatically eliminates many other options. Whatever is on the plan you consume, whatever is not, you don’t. Too many choices is not a good thing, especially when it comes to your nutritional approach.
  • The foods in your plan are going to be highly nutritious, filling and tailored to your own preferences to a great degree.
  • Can be highly motivating to adhere to when seeing quick results which is down to just eliminating a lot of processed foods.
The above are reasons why we like to start all of our members on a set menu that takes into account their preferences, dislikes, allergies, medical complications, life circumstances and financial situation. We need to make sure that whatever we recommend for them can be adhered to for at least a fortnight and if not, we make changes. So even though the nutritional strategy is set for a certain period of time, it’s a collaborative process which is why many don’t gravitate too much away from it even when they have the capacity to.

Where set meal plans fail are when they are not accompanied by education. Our members know exactly why we have selected certain foods while omitting others and throughout their journey, learn all about nutrition so when the time comes to adapt their plan, they have the knowledge to make the most appropriate modifications.
A good analogy I like to use here is that having a set meal plan is like riding a bike with training wheels. 

As you follow the plan, you learn how to prepare meals, solidify a structured eating pattern throughout the day, improve your cooking skills and find combinations that work for you with the foods you’re given. You’re able to do all of these things without worrying whether or not you’re overeating (as long as you are measuring the portions you have been given) and everything is just far more predictable. 

The more you do this, the more your nutritional literacy improves and then before you know it, we take the training wheels off and let you ride around in the backyard. We still want you in our immediate view just in case you do fall. You start adding a few things here and there, noticing what foods agree and don’t agree with you and start getting more confident with eating out while still remaining on track. 

You continue down this path and prove time and time again that you’re able to make suitable changes. You even decide to overhaul your diet completely, having 2-3 various meal plans that you have on rotation while still moving towards your goals. 

Well done, you can now take your bike wherever you want as we have full confidence in your ability to stay safe! 

If It Fit Your Macros: The False Prophet

Once more and more people started to discover that how much fat you gain and lose all boils down to how much you consume and not what you consume, it was like the holy grail of dieting had been discovered.

No longer did you have to eat the same 5 foods each day to get in shape. Yes, you could lose weight while actually having a Snickers bar, cookies, crisps and fast food just as long as you hit your macros and calories for the day. 

This truly was revolutionary and at the time, the idea really resonated with me as I was a huge proponent of ‘clean eating’ and like many health enthusiasts, thought it was the only way to get in shape. It wasn’t until I started learning more about nutrition and seeing bodybuilders get into contest shape while still consuming pop tarts and cereal throughout their entire prep. If the leanest people in the world are doing it, why can’t anyone who is looking to get in shape implement similar principles?

Luckily, I learnt very quickly that only worrying about food quantity wasn’t the best approach for many people. At first, it felt extremely liberating to be able to consume whatever foods I wanted while sticking to my numbers but on reflection, it was due to feeling restricted for years on end more than anything. 

In psychology, there is the “forbidden fruit theory” that simply means we desire something more if we are told we cannot have that thing. This appears to have first been discussed in the Bible when God told Adam and Eve they could have anything they wanted except for the “forbidden fruit” and illustrated how as humans, we seem to be attracted to things that we believe we cannot have or shouldn’t have.

If you have always been told that these foods are healthy (good, moral, always have them) and these are unhealthy (bad, immoral, never consume them) it’s only natural to desire the “unhealthy” foods much more. This all starts from childhood where many parents (with great intentions) would try to restrict many junk foods or use them as rewards for good behaviour. It’s only natural for us to put those foods on a pedestal and we can carry this same attitude into adulthood.

A 2020 study examining child obesity showed that when candy was restricted at home, the children would respond much more enthusiastically to images of these foods in comparison to the kids who were allowed to have candy at home.

“The results show that children who are not allowed to consume candy at home react with higher emotional arousal when exposed to candy placements than children allowed to eat candy at home. Thus, depending on children’s contextual factors, children react differently to unhealthy food cues.”

The main point to take home here is that when we feel restricted, we are more drawn to the foods that we believe are completely off limits. If you feel like you choose to not have certain foods vs being told you can’t have certain foods, the entire game changes. 

Check out the statements below and notice how with a subtle change in wording, you can alter the entire perception of the situation.

“I choose to not have cookies in my plan because they are extremely high in calories per 100g, they don’t fill me up and they mess up my digestion. Seeing as my goal is fat loss, I would rather select something that isn’t as tasty but doesn’t leave me hungry and wanting more.”

“I can’t have cookies in my plan because they are extremely high in calories per 100g, they don’t fill me up and they mess up my digestion. Seeing as my goal is fat loss, I would rather select something that isn’t as tasty but doesn’t leave me hungry and wanting more.”

The former is empowering, the latter is restrictive. Same situation, completely different perspective.

Flexibility Within Constraints

When it comes to flexibility, we are not specifically talking about trying to fit in as much variety as possible. Instead, having a flexible mindset around nutrition is the key to long term sustainability and making your diet work for you. 

What do we mean by this? To illustrate this point, let’s go through the below scenarios.

Scenario 1

Two individuals who both follow a set meal plan are invited to eat out with their friends. Person A is adamant about sticking to their diet so is very reluctant to accept the invitation so makes up an excuse to not go. Person B on the other hand accepts the invitation, makes the best decision available to them that will allow them to stay on track while also enjoying the evening with their friends. 

Even though Person B follows a set meal plan, they understand that they can still make a really good choice at the restaurant and not sabotage their fat loss efforts. 

Scenario 2

Person A accidentally forgets their lunch one day and only realises when it’s time to go eat. Because of their all or nothing mentality, they go down to McDonalds and order a burger as that is where all their colleagues are going. From here, they consider the entire day a write off so they continue making bad choices. 

Person B catches themselves in the same position but realises that they can easily go find a healthy alternative as they have been paying attention to their meal plan, not just blindly following it. They notice that the majority of their meals contain a protein source, a lot of vegetables and some healthy fats so they also go to McDonalds but instead of grabbing a burger, they ask for a chicken salad with some avocado. 

Person B simply gets back to their normal meals for the rest of the day and continues making progress towards their fat loss goals.

Fundamentally, this is the approach we recommend all our members adopt once they have developed enough education and experience throughout their journey. Having a few set “base meals” that you keep as your rocks (because you like them) while allowing for some flexibility when you need it, seems to correlate with the best long term success.

Researcher Kevin Hall sums it up nicely in this article where he discusses “cognitive flexibility” as one of the underlying factors for long term weight maintenance.

“Many tendencies that promote initial weight loss are unrealistic over the long term. For example, many patients aim to make large, absolute changes in an “all-or-none” fashion via rigid rules, such as aiming for “no carbs” or very restrictive intake. Much as a sprinter can run all-out for a short race, but not for the entirety of a marathon, expecting strict, all-out efforts and clear-cut, black-and-white outcomes over the lifelong management of obesity is a recipe for frustration and failure. Instead, learning to accept that rigid expectations and “perfect” adherence to behavioral goals is unrealistic and building cognitive flexibility to take in stride when one’s plans do not go according to plan is a core competency for long term sustainable behavioral changes and weight management.”

Unfortunately, the ‘all or nothing’ approach is far too common in our industry. This is something we are trying to eradicate through our content and year-long curriculum where we give our members all the tools they need to not only get in the shape of their life, but stay there with sustainable methods. Research and our “in the trenches” experience illustrates the pitfalls of this approach as we are yet to see anyone successfully keep the weight off long term. 

If you have only ever learnt how to follow a meal plan without understanding the principles, it’s not a matter of if you’re going to fail, but when. Granted, there are elite athletes out there who actually have NO idea about what they are eating and simply follow what they are being told but unfortunately, you are not them. Also, I can assure you that when they retire, they will be in for a rude awakening as they start piling on the body fat due to their energy expenditure being far lower than what it was. Check out Diego Maradona’s (RIP) 20 year transformation below.

Final Thoughts

When starting your transformation, a well structured set meal plan can work wonders to remove decision fatigue, make meal preparation and planning very easy, kickstart the weight loss process and allow you to gather some serious momentum. 

The key here is to pay attention from the start as to why it works so that you start to improve your nutritional literacy. 
  • Why does each meal have protein? 
  • Why am I consuming so many vegetables?
  • How am I so full despite eating half the calories I used to? 
  • Why are my meals spaced 3-4 hours apart?
  • Why do whole foods make me feel so much better?
The above questions plus many more should be coming to mind as you progress and if you’re within RNT Pro, we will all be there to guide and help you along the way. 

Whatever strategy you choose, the principles of healthy eating still hold true. The majority (80-85%) of your nutritional strategy should still be coming from nutrient dense, whole, unprocessed foods from lean protein sources, vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, low fat dairy, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish with the rest coming from whatever other foods allow you to stay within your calories the easiest.

Throughout certain phases, it makes more sense to lean more towards more rigidity than flexibility and vice versa. When dieting or getting close to your checkpoint, we have found far more success when members select a certain menu they follow vs trying to play “macro tetris”. This simply eliminates more variables, making tracking progress much easier as weight fluctuations can be very erratic throughout a fat loss phase, especially towards the end. The less variability within your foods, the less decisions you need to make meaning lesser room for error. 

When transitioning to maintenance or muscle building, we actually encourage more flexibility as this is going to be far more reflective of real life while also being more healthy. In fact, a mixture of both appears to be the most common “middle ground” and is the approach we recommend.

For example, many of our members have found using a set plan from Monday- Friday with more flexibility on the weekends to work very well. Or altering their dinner each evening while sticking to their “core” meals throughout the day. 

Ultimately, you will have the expertise to create your own nutritional strategy that not only allows you to stay in shape for life, but also works with your life. And yes, if you travel a lot or need to eat out more than most people this approach can still work for you as the fundamentals still remain the same.

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” - Harrington Emerson

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