So, I’ve been doing some thinking about free meals lately. As you likely all know, I’m quite the stickler when it comes to dietary adherence.
So, the number you’ll often here me (and many other diet coaches) throwing around is 90%; meaning that 90% is generally the lowest acceptable level of dietary adherence that doesn’t lead to too much in the way of compromised results. The more you fall below this 90% figure, the greater the likelihood that your progress will stall or simply be non-existent.
So on a 42 meals-per-week plan (simply assuming 6 meals/day x 7 days for the same of argument), that basically means 38 of the 42 meals have to be perfect. On a 35 meals-per-week plan, it’s about 32 meals. That seems easy enough doesn’t it?
Now that’s not to say you’re smart to have 3 or 4 free/cheat meals per week of course.
However, what about the size of these ‘off plan’ free meals? What if your free meals are on the order of say, 1500 calories? It’s really not that hard to do. And let’s say you have two of them a week. Well, I think it’s pretty easy to see that causing a problem even though technically on a 42 meals-per-week plan, that’d still be 95% adherence to your plan.
Do you see where I’m going with this yet?
Instead of looking at this from a ‘meals position’, let’s look at it from a ‘calories position’. Let’s say your total weekly calories consumed is 11200 (1600 calories x 7 days). Technically, a 10% deviation (resulting in 90% adherence in terms of caloric intake – which is really what matters for progress), is
only 1120 calories.
So, you’d basically have a maximum of 1120 calories to ‘screw up’ with, and still remain at 90% adherence. That’s it. That might be two meals that add up to 1120 or perhaps just one bigger meal. And the lower your calories (sorry to those of you who are smaller/lighter) the smaller the free meals need to be.
I’m still fleshing out this idea, but I feel that this is definitely more important when we’re looking at dietary adherence.
If this person who has 11200 calories per week to consume, has two 1300 calorie free meals (again, very easy to do), that’s 2600 calories of off-plan eating. That equates to only 76.8% adherence and that is unfortunately much too low.
My guidelines for free meals, if you choose to take them, have been a rather general and vague ‘be mindful of portions’ and ‘choose what you want but eat responsibly’. This is still my preferred advice since the point of free meals is to take a break and not have to worry about things … but it assumes they’re taken responsibly, which unfortunately, is sometimes asking a lot. So for a number of people, this really doesn’t mean much and provides little to no guidelines for what is and is not acceptable.
So, now we have something a little more concrete for those individuals who, at least for the time being, still need a bit of structure to keep them reigned in on free meals. When we know our weekly caloric intake, we can see what 10% deviation equates to and set that as a top limit. Again, that’s not to say that one has to take all those calories, as 95% is better than 90% and 100%is better than 95%.
Don’t see this as something set in stone – all it does it provide some kind of frame work or ‘limit’ to cheat meals.
Does it take a little fun out of the free meals? Maybe. But they were never meant to be free-for-alls anyway.
Food for thought …