Or do you?!
This is one of the most frequently asked questions in my clinic by athletes and non-athletes alike.
With experience working in both a clinical and sporting environment, I understand the motivations behind the enquiry.. but I do question why so many think that a meal plan will be the ‘answer’.
Athletes like routine, structure and a goal. You have a training plan to follow from your sports coach, why not one from your nutritionist too?!
What could be more perfect than having your weekly or monthly plan drop into your app or inbox to rigidly follow alongside that training set?
BUT imagine this…
So your held up at work or have to get the children somewhere and suddenly your training gets moved and now what happens to that “meal plan”? Do you have the knowledge and flexibility to move your nutrition as you would your training?
There certainly are merits to following a more prescriptive diet plan for many disease states. Meal plans can also be a useful basis for nutrition education and learning. The use of a carefully crafted meal plan can be super useful to give athletes the basic knowledge to aid an athlete about how to move the macronutrients in the diet around training and the timings of training.
With the key learning points make clear and exemplified within a plan, it provides the athlete with the tools to start to be able to make informed decisions around their training and fuel choices.
We see numerous, very prescriptive diet plans such as those that are extremely low-calorie or those diets that use meal replacement shakes, bars and snacks, fasting days and of course commercial weight-loss clubs and programmes can give results with regards to weight or changes in blood glucose levels.
The research into weight loss has given us evidence into the use of highly prescriptive diets show that, although people may follow them when the diet ends- weight is often regained since the individuals lack the knowledge of how to maintain weight and more so the understanding what and when to eat in the longer term.
A meal plan certainly isn’t just about manipulating body composition or weight loss.
We routinely build very specific personalised plans for race week and race day it’s self. This is when a more prescriptive plan is required and can be very beneficial!
Once an athlete has trailed and trained their guts with their chosen fuels and fluids, then the race plan becomes a little more prescriptive when we work out how much carbohydrate the athlete may be able to tolerate per hour (accounting for the type of fuels chosen, the absorption of the macronutrients in that chosen product, tolerance, weight and of the course race distance, elevation and environment too!)
Of course- in this sense, a race plan is also a very prescriptive plan. BUT, of course, we know races can be very long days and anything can happen out there….. So even the most prescriptive of plans for race days need to be flexible- planning for the unplanned so to speak!
Again it is crucial here that the athlete understands, has the knowledge and skills to be able to be flexible and think on their feet. We have all forgotten race fuel, dropped that last bar or even a bottle or taken longer than thought on one of the disciplines in the case of triathlon. So we have that plan but we need the knowledge to be able to change things when we need to!
When we use a baseline plan with key learning points in place, then we can then really get down to learning about how to periodise nutrition.
Periodised nutrition means the “ planned, purposeful, and strategic use of specific nutritional interventions to enhance the adaptations targeted by individual exercise sessions or periodic training plans or to obtain other effects that will enhance performance longer term” (Jeukendrup 2017).
The strategic planning of nutrition may be used mico periods of specific training bouts, racing or in relation to specific needs or considerations like a female ahtlete’s iron levels around menstruation.
We may also see periodisation around larger macro periods such as within or outside race season. We often talk about training for the work required when we are strategizing nutrition around training goals such as body composition (Impey et al 2016).
It is a good idea to get advice from an expert who can help and support you to manage your periodising of nutrients to optimal effect.
So as you may be starting to see… if we just used meal plans…….how would an athlete learn to be flexible, to be able to adapt their nutrition when needed? There is no one size fits all when it comes to nutrition and it isn’t always as simple as dolling out pre-made plans for athletes to follow without thought.
The use of meal plans, therefore, holds a place to educate and demonstrate key knowledge and learning points to the athlete, for them to then be able to make informed choices about nutrition in their ever-changing day to day lives.
To meal plan or not to meal plan?! It really depends………..the answer lies in imparting knowledge and using them as a base from which an athlete can understand the core principles.
We are all individuals and as athletes, all have different goals and training and therefore all require different nutritional strategies. So a standard “meal plan” may not be the answer you are looking for when you seek out support with your nutrition.
Meal plans are a useful educational tool
Prescriptive meal plans for weight management may not lead to sustainable weight control
Highly specific race day nutrition plans may be useful - but athletes must be flexible on the day to adapt to unplanned occurrences!
There is no one size fits all when it comes to nutrition