Hassle-free Weight Loss: The Zen Habits Meal Plan

I’ve decided that in order to get serious about losing weight, you need to count calories. I’ve tried doing it without counting, and while you do see some weight loss, it’s not the results I’m looking for.

However, I’m too lazy to measure and calculate the calories of every single thing I put in my mouth.

So how have I solved that problem? I call it the Zen Habits Meal Plan (clever, huh?).

Notice that it’s not the “Zen Habits Diet”. That’s because to me, diets are intended to be restrictive and temporary. I’ve created an easy way to plan my meals so that I don’t overeat, so that I’m eating fairly healthy, and so that it’s got some leeway for pleasurable eating. And for me, this has to be something I can do for life.

So here are my requirements when I was coming up with this plan:

OK, so with those requirements in mind, here’s the plan:

  1. Calorie goal: Using a calorie calculator, I figured out how many calories I burn every day, just by living my regular life (my Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR). It’s about 2,400. As I plan to burn at least 100 calories a day through exercise, I increased that number to 2,500. Then I figured out what I should eat to lose about 1 lb. a week (that’s a healthy and sustainable rate) … a deficit of 500 calories a day gets you to 1 lb. a week, so my calorie goal for each day is to eat 2,000 calories. Give or take 100 or so, but that’s my goal. So my meal plan is 2,000 calories a day … yours will be different, depending on your BMR and your weight loss goal.
  2. 5 meals: To prevent binging, I spread my meals more evenly throughout the day. Most people fall off a meal plan or diet because they are hungry. If you get hungry, you tend to eat unhealthy stuff, and eat too much. So my plan calls for 5 meals spread evenly throughout the day. As my calorie goal is 2,000, I divided that evenly into the 5 meals to come up with 400-calorie meals. Your meals will be different — divide your calorie goal by the number of meals you want.
  3. Meal schedule: So I have 5 meals of 400-calories each … and my plan calls for me to eat them at regular intervals. Here’s my schedule: 6 a.m., 9 a.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. I found that after 3 hours, I start to get really hungry. But if I eat every 3 hours, I don’t binge. Your schedule will be different, but I suggest spreading the meals out every 3 hours, so that you eat not too long after you get up (within 2 hours), and not to long before you go to bed (within 3 hours or so).
  4. No snacking after dinner: This has always caused me to eat too many calories. I eat dinner, and then an hour or two later I start snacking. However, I’ve told myself not to do that. It was hard at first, but now I don’t get hungry after dinner, usually. Your body adjusts.
  5. 400-calorie meals: So I created a list of 400-calorie meals. Foods I like to eat, that add up to 400 calories. I used a calorie calculator, or just looked on packages. It took me about an hour, but after that, I didn’t have to do any calorie countinig. These are medium-sized meals — not exactly snacks, but not huge meals. Just enough to satisfy my hunger.
  6. Healthy stuff: I loaded my meals, as much as possible, with healthy stuff. That includes whole grains, nuts, beans, veggies, fruits, lean protein, flaxseeds, blueberries, avocadoes, oatmeal, lots of greens, etc. It’s not all healthy, but I tried to put in good stuff. I also put in treats, here and there, so that I can enjoy myself.
  7. Eat till satisfied: For too long, I overate. This was mostly because I was hungry, but also because I wasn’t conscious of my eating and my body’s hunger signals. My goal during this plan has been to pay more attention to my body, and to know when I’m satisfied (not stuffed) and to stop. Sometimes I don’t think I’m satisfied, but I wait. And in about 10-20 minutes, I feel satisfied. Listen to your body.
  8. Eating out: Another thing that derailed my previous plans is that I didn’t plan on eating out. But it happens, all the time. And as the restaurant food isn’t on your plan, what do you do? You just eat whatever’s available. My list of 400-cal meals includes stuff from all of the restaurants where I commonly eat.
  9. Logging: I never used to log my eating, because it was so much hassle. But I’m now a firm believer in logging your eating. It keeps you honest, helps you to be more aware of what you eat, and helps you to stick to the plan. It doesn’t matter how you log, but three things: 1) keep it simple, so you can log quickly and easily; 2) log it immediately (don’t wait until later, when you might forget); and 3) let others see your log, whether it’s one person or all the readers of your blog. There are a million logging tools. I’ve recently been using Peer Trainer, and it works pretty well … you join teams of four people, and everyone on the team can see the logs of others, and leave comments for each other. Very motivating. Calorie Count Plus is another good one.
  10. Cheat meals: Twice a week, I have a cheat meal. I try to keep these planned, but they’re flexible. So I might know that I’m going out with friends, and let that be my cheat meal … but if I go way over on a meal for some reason, I’ll designate that to be my cheat meal.
  11. The Three-Bite Rule: If there’s a dessert or treat I want to try, I don’t deny myself. I just follow a simple rule: eat three bites, and no more, and eat them slowly. I try to enjoy the flavor to the fullest. And then I stop. With no guilt.
  12. Forgive: If I mess up, I just forgive myself, and continue. Don’t beat yourself up about messing up. Just learn from your mistakes, forgive yourself, and keep going. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
  13. Exercise: While exercise isn’t absolutely necessary for this plan to work, it certainly helps a lot. And it’s much healthier. My goal is at least 5 minutes of exercise daily, but I often do more. Once a week, I allow myself to take a complete rest day. If I don’t feel like working out, I just do 5 minutes — it keeps my habit going. It’s working well!

That’s it! I have a list of 400-calorie meals, and each day I choose 5 of them. I eat them at regular intervals, and log my meals. Easy peasy!

My Initial Impressions
I should note that I’ve only been doing this a few weeks. So far my rate of weight loss has been about 1 to 1.5 lbs. a week, which is exactly what I’d hoped for. It’s how the plan is supposed to work — sustainable, healthy weight loss.

The first few days were harder than the days following … my body had to get used to eating smaller meals, and I had to get used to eating only until I was satisfied. I would get hungry 2 hours after eating, and force myself to wait for the extra hour before eating again. But now, I don’t even get very hungry after 3 hours.

And I feel great. The plan is working like a charm. I’ve been hitting around 2,000 calories a day, every day. Sometimes I go over by 100 cals, sometimes I’m under by 100 or 200. And with added exercise, sometimes my calorie deficit is a lot larger than 500 (but less than 1,000), which is a good thing.

The cheat meals have allowed me to be flexible. And I’m also flexible throughout the day. For example, sometimes I’ll want some chocolate. No problem. I just take three bites, enjoy it, and log it. Then I’ll take the calories off my next meal, or just exercise more.

It’s important to be flexible. But by keeping my calories to a certain limit, and logging everything, I am guaranteed to lose weight over the long term.