Transitioning from a Structured Meal Plan – to Healthy Eating for Life

Blog, Wellness

by Melinda D. Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDE

It’s been said that “diet is a four letter word.” This is due in part to the fact that for many people, diets don’t work, drastic changes in eating don’t last and people often regain the weight once they go off the diet. Adopting healthy eating patterns for life is the better approach, with an emphasis on small changes that lead to gradual weight loss.

However, many people do find that following a restricted, structured diet for a short period of time can be very helpful for a jump-start, but transitioning back to a healthy eating pattern for the long-term can be challenging. So, here are some tips to make it a little easier. These suggestions fall into two categories: one, things to be thinking about while you are still on the structured diet and two, things to do once you start transitioning back to an “Eating for Life” plan!

While you’re still on the structured diet:

Pay attention. During the time you are on the structured diet, notice what new habits are developing.  Are you eating more slowly? Are you feeling more full with less food?  Are you snacking less often?  Notice those new habits you want to make sure you hold on to and carry into the transition phase, and  commit to doing them.

Have a written plan. If you’ve not been given a plan for after the structured phase ends, write one for yourself. Set up some guidelines you feel you can meet. For example, write 2-3 meals you can try to have for breakfast and lunch. For dinner, aim to follow the plate method as a guide.

Have realistic expectations. Keep the 80-20 rule in mind… aiming to eat healthy at least 80% of the time, and allowing wiggle room for special events and treats.  

Transitioning to an Eating for Life plan:

Adjust to a new “normal”:  It is likely that you can never return to your former eating patterns – and that is probably a good thing. Due to changes that happen during the weight loss process, you’ll find that you’ll need to eat less to maintain your new, lower weight than you did before you followed your structured diet.

Take it slowly.  It is unrealistic to go from a very structured diet one day – to eating whatever you want the next. 

  • Start with one meal at a time. If you’ve been used to three strict meals a day, begin by keeping breakfast and lunch structured, and widen your options for dinner.
  • Try a 3-4 plan. Transition by choosing 3 days a week when you’ll continue on a structured diet, and four days when you’ll move to your lifestyle plan.
  • Limit your choices. Use meal replacement shakes or bars or a pre-prepared meal (such as a frozen dinner). These can be very helpful in controlling calories. We often overeat because we are faced with too many choices.   

Weigh and measure foods. While you don’t have to do it all the time, it is easy for portion sizes to start creeping up.  Consider pulling out the measuring equipment for 3-4 days at the beginning of each month to make sure you’re still on target with your portions (especially for high calorie foods like starchy carbs [rice, pasta], nuts, cheese, meat and oils).

Weigh yourself regularly. It’s a fact.  People who hop on the scale every morning do a better job of keeping their weight off. Don’t rely on only paying attention to how your clothes fit. 

Exercise regularly.   Regular physical activity is important in helping keep weight off.  Include both aerobic activity (such as 30 minutes of walking a day) and activities that help build and maintain muscle (like using stretch bands or lifting light weights). 

Log your food.  Whether you do it all the time or every so often, whatever you do will help!   Decide which is easiest for you (using a digital app on your phone or scribbling in a notepad) – and create some shortcuts to make logging even faster. 

Continue mindful eating practices. Eat slowly.  Avoid distractions when eating. Aim to eat at the same place (instead of all over the house or in your car).  

Keep your PMR (personal motivating reason) in mind.  Don’t lose sight of why healthy eating is important for you.   Remind yourself each day of why you put all the hard work into your structured phase so you can keep up your commitment to maintaining some new good habits.

Seek support and be kind to yourself.  You may want to periodically talk with a dietitian for additional support and ideas to keep you on the success track. Join a walking or exercise group.  Ask for the kind of support you need from family and friends to help you stick with healthy eating for life!

An important note: for many people, weighing themselves or following structured meal plans leads to unhealthy attitudes about food and can also create an unhealthy “all or nothing” mentality. If this has been an issue for you in the past, intuitive eating might be a better approach for creating a balanced eating approach that creates more peace in your life. As always, we provide general suggestions—talk with your doctor or dietitian to figure out what’s right for you.

To learn more about different eating habits, click here.

To find a weight management physician in Canada near you, click here.

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