The “I Just Want a Menu” Diet Plan
A significant percentage of the people I talk to want to lose weight. Some want to achieve a better race weight, some want to look better, and some want to feel better. Occasionally I have a client who wants to reduce disease risk or progression. These are general goals (and good ones!), but they require a plan to achieve them. Most people think that the way to achieve such a goal is a rigid diet plan that will precisely account for every last calorie they consume. There are some problems with this way of thinking, but most people have either lost some weight in the past using a strict diet, or know of others who have done so. But consider this:
- Rigid diets ignore real life. It is extraordinarily difficult to follow a strict diet with no variations through birthday parties, holiday dinners, business trips, family vacations, bouts of the flu, relationship upheavals, a spouse’s new cooking hobby, endless tournaments with a kid’s sports team, and, most relevant to athletes, days with different levels of exercise. Having the “right” foods available at the right times becomes a significant hurdle.
- Rigid diets also depend a great deal on available mental energy. When the To Do list lengthens, your mental and emotional bandwidth fills up with the most pressing tasks. There is no energy left over for following the ever-present rules for eating.
- There is guilt, lots of guilt. Any slip, any deviation from the plan can cause painful self-recrimination. You might find no pleasure in your food.
- Strict menus assume that everyone gained weight for the same reason. Rather, some people need to re-engage with their hunger and fullness signals, while others are unaware of portion sizes, and still others could better differentiate between the foods that they want and the foods that they need. There are also a lot of environmental eating cues of which most people are unaware.
- If following a strict menu forever actually worked for everyone, most everyone you know would already be at their desired weights, wouldn’t they?
I much prefer to sit down with the person and come up with a sustainable eating pattern that flexibly accommodates exercise goals, business trips and anniversary dinners, and those times when life just goes south. This is a bit of a thinking shift for some people, and it’s not a fast or easy process. Here are some of the arguments that I hear.
- “I have a race coming up! I can’t eat just anything or I won’t get down to race weight!” That’s true, but I can work an athlete to find a workable eating pattern that also meets the training and race goals.
- “If I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what to eat!” Having an idea of the right foods to eat is the goal, not dictating exactly when and how much you need to eat every day. I can work with you to help to identify the right foods for you so that you won’t feel overwhelmed coming up with a menu and yet also won’t feel frustrated by arbitrary restrictions on what you can have. Feel free to ask questions. Once you’re clear on what to eat, we can come up with a sustainable eating pattern.
- “I don’t want the responsibility of having to develop my own plan and follow it.” Okay, this is usually not stated so succinctly, but it’s often in the subtext. Here I propose some guidelines, such as making sure every meal contains some protein, and a loose structure on setting up the environment to support these guidelines. But as with any training plan, the athlete has to buy in to the plan and commit to following it! That means yes, you have to own what you put into your body. My job is to help you to know what the best options are to eat for healthy training and living. My job is not to put padlocks on your pantry door!
- “If I don’t focus on losing weight, I don’t know what to focus on.” Here’s the thing about losing weight: it’s an outcome. How about focusing on what could be changed to stimulate that outcome that’s NOT a rigid diet? As the triathlon coaches at Experience Triathlon like to discuss the difference between internal and external goals, I like to focus on behavior goals instead of outcome goals.
At this point you have probably figured out that if you call me up looking for a quick diet plan to help you achieve your goals, you are in for a much more in-depth discussion of your needs, aspirations, and long term wellness. As I mentioned above, focusing on what you can do (behaviors) is how you achieve success, not just by worrying about the eventual outcome. This is an important distinction, and one I plan to go into further in a future blog post. Look for it!
Laurie Schubert is the Team Dietitian at Experience Triathlon. She specializes in working with clients to meet nutritional needs and goals within the boundaries of food preferences, cooking ability, medical limitations, and budget. She has a particular interest in sports nutrition, but gets personal satisfaction from encouraging people in weight loss, finding the right meal plan for a diabetic, and watching young children learn to enjoy a variety of foods.