Posted 2 months ago

Meal plans vs Marco plans

In the bodybuilding scene you will have two different camps, both amongst coaches and athletes. On the one hand, we have athletes who prefer following an exact meal plan provided by their coach, and coaches who would rather their clients follow a meal plan to the T; and on the other hand, we have athletes who prefer to manage their own food choices and follow a macro-based plan, and coaches who also prefer prescribing this more flexible approach.

If you are at the start of your journey, you might be wondering: which one is going to be best for you?

From experience, I’ve seen that it’s quite normal to begin by preferring to be told what to eat, especially if you’re dieting for the first time! But more often than not, as time goes on, it might be more helpful to switch over to a macros-based plan. In this article, I’d like to highlight the benefits and drawbacks of both approaches, to hopefully help you make an informed decision that is personally relevant to you.

Meal plan
A meal plan (Figure 1) is exactly what it says on the tin. It will denote the exact quantities of a food in each meal, and sometimes will also prescribe the time of day to eat those meals. This is an example of a meal plan for a 5’4 bikini girl on prep:


Figure 1

As you are probably aware, this removes a lot of the thought process for the individual. It allows you to simply go into robot mode, eat the food each day and not have to plan your meals. It’ll most likely be the option for first time competitors as they often have a fear that if they tried to do it on their own that they would do something wrong.

This isn’t necessarily the case, but what I have found is that athletes that stick to a meal plan are often less stressed. This is in part due to them not having to control the food variable, allowing the coach to make the decisions and alterations when needed: all they need to do it eat, and not waste time playing about with macros and food choices.

From experience, I firmly believe that in prep this would be the best strategy for many first-time athletes, unless they are very experienced with tracking their own food. One other major benefit is that is allows one to stay on top of digestion. If you were to see some digestive stress such as bloating, constipation or loose stools it can often by directly correlated with the diet. By following a meal plan to the letter, it allows you to be very precise with pinpointing which meal(s) might be causing the digestive issues, allowing for a strategic elimination / trial and error of foods. If the athlete was eating different things each day, then the process becomes harder to manage. In the later stages of prep, digestion is very sensitive so I would suggest avoiding changing up food sources too regularly. Some research has also suggested that dietary adherence is improved when food sources remain the same for the duration of a diet, further supporting the idea of a meal plan (especially for first timers!).

However, once prep is over, the thought of sticking to such rigid structure can be very off-putting and can lead to overeating or binge-like tendencies. Therefore, if you’re going to continue eating from a meal plan post show/shoot then I’d suggest mixing up some food sources to include foods you enjoy and have been craving. If they are in your meal plan, then you will be less likely to over -eat or reach for more because you know that food is in there almost daily.

Despite all its benefits, as I’ve just alluded to, one of the main drawbacks to following a meal plan how restrictive it can be. Now, for the most part people won’t mind being that restrictive for a certain period of time, especially if they are dieting for a show. However, what it means is not being able to part take in social event such as meals out, and the last thing you want to be doing is sitting there drinking a diet coke whilst everyone around you fires into their food in the restaurant. If you aren’t wanting to be a pro bodybuilder then you shouldn’t need to make those sacrifices in my opinion. In instances like these, taking a flexible approach to food and orienting yourself to macros can be a lot easier, because you can manipulate your intake for the day, “save” macros for your meal out, and be a bit more relaxed in that environment. As such, even on a bodybuilding prep, there is a way around going out for food.

Here’s a quick tip if this is you: ensure you can eyeball portion sizes very well. Even if you follow a meal plan, knowing how much protein, carbs and fats you have on your plate can help you navigate social situations a lot better. Always account for cooking oil that your food might be cooked in. I often give this a 200-300 calorie allowance (usually going for 300), on top of the calories from the meal you’re eating. That way you can have confidence knowing you’ve given yourself calories to cover that meal and any extra from miscalculation.

Macro plan
If you have a lot of experience in tracking your food and have done for years you might like more of the freedom of a macro-based plan. (Figure 2)

Rather than tell the individual exactly what do eat, instead it’ll simply give the number of macronutrient to eat in each meal. It is then up the person to choose their own food sources that fit roughly into each meal and of course hit the daily totals. I always remind my clients that the numbers they input might not be exactly the same for every single meal but as long as they are around about those numbers, they should be fine.

I find that this works really for those in their 2nd prep or are transitioning out of their first prep then into an off season. Often, once an individual has gone onto a macro-based plan, they very rarely will switch back to a meal plan, until the time comes to prep once more perhaps. The benefits of course come with the freedom of choice.

If you are someone who likes variety and doesn’t like eating the same thing each day then this would be for you. If you have a sweet tooth or get random cravings you will also have the flexibility to add these foods in. It might not be “optimal” but the number one thing you need in a dieting phase is adherence. So, if fitting one bit of chocolate into your daily macros means you’re less likely overeat, then of course you’d add that in.

The same rules apply for meals out as they do the meal plan: account for the calories on your plate and the fat it is cooked in. I’ve actually found that clients who follow a macro-based plan experience less guilt when they go out for food, compared to those who follow a meal plan. Not that one should feel guilty whatsoever, but it is just something I’ve seen from experience. Obviously, we do not want to be experiencing guilt for eating out during a dieting phase, and if you do, it’s important you discuss this with your coach and address it with the rational hat on. Realistically, there should be no fear that “oh but will it affect how I look”. Here’s the thing: in 2019, I ate out 6 times in 8 weeks and ended up looking like so: (Figure 3)


Figure 3

Hopefully this demonstrates that eating out on prep isn’t inherently bad and if you don’t allow it to (by being mindful and accurately tracking), it won’t affect the final look. Of course, the one drawback is that you can be less accurate with digestion if you are continually changing your food. We know how sensitive digestion can be (especially at the back end of a prep), so it would be wise to not include too much variety in your diet the closer you get to the end goal. I’ve often found those who follow a macro-based plan end up doing their own meal plan effectively and just have a couple different options for 1 or 2 meals.

In summary when deciding to use a meal plan or a macro-based plan, it’ll come down to the individual and their experience with tracking food. There are of course pros and cons for both options, but either can be implemented and one isn’t better than the other for achieving the exact same result. You should also still be able to eat out when dieting if your account for the calories on your plate and the fat/oil the food is cooked in.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons