Meal Planning Can Improve Your Health

[ This article is part of our series of articles on the benefits and practice of meal planning ]

Whatever your health goals are, whether you’re trying to lose weight, build muscle, or simply want to improve your diet, meal planning could be the solution. Meal planning is a great way to ensure that you eat the right foods at the right times and in the right amounts.

The most important consideration before getting started on your meal planning journey is understanding what makes up a healthy diet, as well as understanding your unique nutritional needs. There are so many different diets out there that it's hard to keep track of them all: DASH diet, mediterranean diet, keto diet, paleo diet, and intermittent fasting just to name a few. They're all praised as being the ultimate solutions to eating well and meeting your health goals quickly and easily, but the truth of the matter is every person is different and has different nutritional needs. There is simply no one-size-fits-all approach. Balanced diets come in different shapes and sizes just as we humans do, since nutritional needs vary based on all types of factors including genetic traits and activity levels. However, healthy meal plans are generally rich in whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, such as chicken turkey, beans, tofu or eggs, and healthy fats.


Nutrition is the Foundation of Health

Proper nutrition is important for our mental and physical well-being, with research showing that a healthy diet can help us feel better emotionally as well as physically.

A balanced diet is one that includes all the nutrients you need in order to stay healthy. This means eating foods from every food group on a daily basis. If you don’t eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables, your body can start to break down muscle tissue and using it for energy. You may also have trouble with digestion if you don’t consume enough fiber-rich foods like whole grains. Make sure to also include protein, carbohydrates, fats (no saturated fats), vitamins, minerals, and water. Protein keeps your muscles strong and prevents them from breaking down. Carbohydrates are used for energy and provide fuel for your brain. Fats are needed for growth and development. Vitamins and minerals are essential for good health. Water keeps your body hydrated and helps flush out toxins.

With this basic understanding of nutrition guidelines you'll be better equipped to meet your health goals and feel better.


Health Benefits of Meal Planning

Planning meals ahead of time can help you stay on track regardless of whether you're trying to lose weight, gain muscle mass, or maintain your current body composition. It’s simply much easier to eat a balanced diet with a bit of advance planning.

Improve Diet Quality and Variety

Eating home cooked meals (those prepped with healthy ingredients) is generally healthier than eating out. Planning meals ahead of time is scientifically linked to a healthier diet as well, so it helps provide you with the nutrition you need without having to rely on fast foods. One study found that people who planned their meals were more likely to follow dietary recommendations than those who did not. Research also suggests that more time spent on food preparation is linked to an increased intake of vegetables, salads, and fresh fruits.

Most takeout meals are higher in calories, total fats, saturated fats, and salt than those prepared at home. That explains why meal planning has been linked to better health outcomes and is linked to lower odds of being overweight and obese in both genders.

Nobody said you can never eat dessert again, but you can't deny the fact that "consuming too much added sugar can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation, both of which are pathological pathways to heart disease." According to the American Heart Association the average American eats 28 teaspoons of added sugars per day—way more than the recommended amount of no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 for men.

Control Your Portions

By meal planning ahead of time you can be in control of your meal portion sizes, unlike ordering takeout or eating out at a restaurant. You can buy a specific quantity of each food so that your servings are standard and you don't fall into the risk of overeating. Even eating too much healthy food is a bad thing. By controlling your portions you're able to control your overall calorie intake, while still diversifying the variety of healthy foods you serve on your plate.

Eat More Meals at Home

Studies have shown that eating meals prepared away from your own kitchen is significantly linked to an increase in mortality. One study found that those who eat at home often (less than one takeout meal per week) live longer than those who dine out frequently (two or more meals per day).

By having a defined plan, you can make sure you have all your meals covered and full of nutritious foods to avoid having to eat out, improving your health as well as saving you money, which we discussed in a previous article here.

Eliminate Impulsive Food Choices

Even if you're taking all the right steps to healthy eating, impulsive food choices can really dampen your chances of benefitting from your balanced meals. When your blood sugar levels decrease, your brain is going to look for quick energy sources, which often comes in the form of simple sugars that are quickly absorbed by the body and cause a spike in blood glucose levels. Increased consumption of these simple sugars will have adverse effects on your body such as higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease which are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.

By taking the steps to carefully tailor your meal plan to your needs, you can ensure that you'll have enough nutritious foods to help you feel full for longer so you don’t find yourself digging into the cookie jar. That includes eating protein and complex carbohydrates that take longer for the body to digest, keeping food off your mind for longer until the next planned meal. If you typically get hungry midday, rather than trying to starve yourself (which will more likely than not end with uncontrolled eating of unhealthy snacks and fast food), try to include healthy snacks as part of your plan. Healthy snacks could include yogurt, fresh fruits, nuts or granola, to share a few examples; but you can eat almost anything, just make sure to stay away from any products high in sugars and saturated fats, which you can verify on the nutritional labels.

Improve Your Mental Health

There's no worse feeling of defeat than mounting an effort to make healthier choices and having it crushed by the increasing demands and pressures put on you by society. You might have made some great progress towards better nutrition, only to find yourself backsliding because of work deadlines, family obligations or other external factors. This can be avoided with a bit of advance planning, which will prevent you from being caught off guard without knowing what to eat and nothing but a fridge and pantry full of less-than-healthy choices. One study found a correlation between the time that Canadians spent on daily meal prep and increased mental health, as well as reduced stress levels.

Additionally, since meal planning supports an overall improved diet there are further mental health benefits to meal planning. A growing body of research is finding that what we eat can have a major impact on our psychology. In fact, there’s a whole new field of study called “nutritional psychiatry” that explores just this relationship. One way in which an improved diet is believed to improve mental health is by supporting a healthy gut microbiome, which is able to produce neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine that help regulate our mood and emotions. Further research suggests that eating food that promotes the production of compounds like brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or foods that reduce inflammation, can be beneficial to mental health. While much is still to be learned, the evidence of a strong link between our diet and our mental health is growing - and since meal planning is one of the most frequently recommended methods to improve diet an added benefit may well be that it can support improved mental health as well.

In Conclusion: Meal Planning Can Improve Your Health

In summary, there are many health benefits of meal planning. While meal planning can help you meet your health goals it’s important to not blindly follow popular diet plans you find on the internet, but rather tailor your meal plan to your specific nutritional needs. There will be even greater chances for success in sticking to your goals if you design a plan that fits into your daily routine. Meal planning can help you feel better about your diet and lifestyle, allowing you to focus on the important things in life instead of worrying about what to eat. Meal planning also helps you reduce food waste, it saves you money on groceries, improves your emotional wellness, and supports your physical wellbeing. We wish you luck on your meal planning journey, it’s one that’s well worth embarking on.

If you’d like to get started with meal planning today check out our free Google Sheet Meal Plan Templates, or to really simplify matters sign up for the Budgeat app.

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Are you interested in reducing your food waste, saving time, and money? Check out our app. We create personalized meal plans that consider your budgetary, dietary, taste, and cooking preferences, incorporate ingredients you have on hand, and generate easy to use grocery lists that don’t break the bank.

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