As a Registered Dietitian treating so many individuals with different types and severities of eating disorders, I’ve had countless number of people ask me the question, “What’s the deal with meal plans?”
The deal is, for any person, at any level of care, at any place in their treatment and recovery, there will always be pros and cons. I’ve utilized meal plans in a number of different ways in attempt to be supportive of someone in their journey, and so far – anecdotally – it’s turned out very differently for each individual.
Having worked at the highest level of care, and now lowest level of care, I’ve personally gained even more of an appreciation for meal plans in their flexibility (as a provider). The following pros and cons are things I am typically able to explore with my clients at an outpatient level of care; however, the value one places on each point will vary based on their space in recovery!
- The first thing I consider to be potentially helpful for some in using a meal plan of any kind, is structure. Despite the level of care, many begin their recovery journey having already felt either incredibly rigid, or incredibly chaotic, around food. Some sense of structure can serve as a different type of familiarity and control in an otherwise challenging the process. Not to mention, as an RD I’ve seen utilizing structure in a meal plan become a reasonable way to spread intake out throughout the day to minimize any physical discomfort!
- Meal plan structure can also become a realistic sense of guidance for those not yet able, or ready, to tune into body cues. It is common in those struggling with restriction, undernourishment, or a chaotic sense of eating to lose connection to accurate hunger and fullness cues. Eating adequate, balanced meals and snacks can be a way to begin “reminding” your body that you are working with it, often mimicking the way our metabolisms prefer to function. In return, the hope is to work with your provider on learning more about how to receive this new communication!
- A more selfish use of meal plans and structured guidance is to provide more consistent, detailed intake information for providers like myself. Sometimes getting to know someone new and help them on their way to a healed food relationship, understanding the details of intake before, during, and throughout the learning process can help us providers make more succinct recommendations.
- Some of the same “pros” of meal plan use can quickly become cons. It’s important to note that using a meal plan structure is meant to be temporary for everyone! I often see that the most difficult part of a meal plan, is moving on from said meal plan. Learning to trust in yourself and your body can feel much less predictable than a predetermined plan for eating. Worst case scenario, some fall pray to their eating disorder finding yet another loop hole for control, and structure becomes rigidity. With the right provider, and lots of trust built, there is a way to move away from this healthfully!
- Again in the name of control, meal plans can easily become comfortable. Familiar. This alone can make the idea of working toward Intuitive Eating a little more daunting. However, as mentioned, meal plans are meant to be temporary. The ultimate goal in an ideal world, would be to support all clients in their own way to understand and trust more of their body and food relationship without rigidity.
- On the flip side, utilizing a meal plan prematurely may not support those ready to learn and listen to their bodies! It can function as a mask, if you will, to understanding and trusting one’s newfound intuition. “Is this hunger reliable/consistent? Is it because of my meal plan or is my body truly working with me? Can I trust this? Is it time to move on?” No one’s goal is to create more confusion! This is the perfect circumstance to bring up with your individual dietitian for some help in determining the next best steps.
Overall, remember the basics. Meal plans can be useful. They can also be contradictory. It ALL depends on the place you’re in. As always, take these thoughts with space to explore your own needs, and discuss what’s best for you with those who know you best!
Be gentle with yourselves,