The Upside To Repetitive Eating: Part III
Yo! So in The upside to repetitive eating part one I covered observational studies, and in part two I covered experimental studies on repetitive meal patterns as a strategy to prevent eating too many calories. Here in part three, I will discuss anecdotal a.k.a. real word evidence of this strategy.
I will start out on the origin of my experimenting with repetitive meal patterns. As a teenager, I would read bodybuilding magazines and occasionally jump on forums for training and nutrition information. At that time, a lot of the magazines would post sample diets supposedly used by pro bodybuilders. Now that I have a little more perspective, in addition to there being greater transparency within the sport due to social media, YouTube, etc, I am more prone to believe the results obtained by the pros are largely due to a combination of genetics and high tolerance to anabolic steroid usage. The diets I read were likely just facades in most cases, but eating repetitive, simple diets has been a staple of many bodybuilding circles for decades. You can see for yourself in this older bodybuilding.com post highlighting former Mr. Olympia, Jay Cutler’s weight loss diet. More recent articles place more of an emphasis on obtaining macronutrient and caloric targets in order to reach one’s goals. Nonetheless I thought eating a repetitive, simple diet of “clean” foods would help me improve my physique and become healthier. As time has passed, I no longer believe this type of diet is necessarily required, and I have become less rigid with it. However, I still follow this type of dietary approach, particularly when I am attempting to lose weight. Let me explain why.
Every weekend Sofia and I prepare meals that will last us Monday through Friday. We generally have less to do on the weekends, and we perform our higher intensity resistance exercise training sessions on the weekend as well. Therefore, prepping food on the weekend usually results in us eating more than we would on a typical week day. I like to sample the food as I make it, especially some of the dishes we make for Sofia, as they tend to be more calorically dense. For instance, we often make her a meal or a snack for the week that is kind of like a treat (see this pancake recipe or this cookie recipe for examples). Anyways, this meal prep and snacking serves as a “refeed” day to support the heavier weekend training days, and also saves a lot of time during the work week as most of our meals are prepared already. Additional reasons I prefer eating the repetitive meals every weekday include: I have reduced a potential source of stress in trying to figure out what I will eat, I can track calories easily, I can easily modify my average caloric intake to meet my fitness/training goals, and I save money relative to those who go out to eat everyday to eat similar quality meals. As I pointed out in part one, eating similar meals every day has been found to be an effective strategy for successful long-term weight maintenance. However, as Dr. Mike Roussell pointed out in a recent lay article for Shape Magazine, if you are eating a very limited number of foods, this could leave you susceptible some nutritional gaps over time.
In order to avoid our diet becoming too boring or introducing nutritional gaps, we simply switch up our meals every week. So for example, if I eat two Beet Strong bars and a bowl of berries for breakfast one work week, the next week I may eat a bowl of peas, an apple, and two eggs. For lunch, I generally take rice, some combination of three to four vegetables (mushroom, celery, pepper, and onion has been my combo kick recently), and a source of protein (wild-caught salmon or tofu most weeks, sometimes pasture-raised chicken). We do not prepare dinners in advance, but we have taken the thought out of that as well. Every week, Monday through Friday, we usually eat rice and vegetables with over-easy eggs. We mix it up on the weekend for some variety. Same applies to snacks. I only eat about a combo of two or three items, from a list of about five or six, for post work/pre-gym snack. This snack list includes protein bars, protein shakes, apples, berries, peas, or rice cakes. Personally, I have found this strategy helpful for several reasons. That’s enough about me though. What about some anecdotes from other people?
In a reddit forum a couple years ago, a reader asked for some advice on people’s experience with repetitive diets. To my surprise, a lot of people had quite a bit of success with these types of meal plans. I only say to my surprise because I do not have many personal acquaintances who have adopted such a strategy. Anyways, one reader commented she had been using this strategy for around ten years, and hypothesized she did not get tired of her meals because she makes “lovely” meals (her meals really did sound exquisite). Another reader commented that he too, ate very similar meals. However, he increased his perceived variety by adding different spice combinations and low calorie condiments to his meals. One reader noted they eat the same breakfast and lunch to keep things simple, but they enjoyed a unique dinner every night. Another member pointed out that she did not prepare her own meals, but ate one of two things for lunch everyday, and one of four meals for her dinners. She found this to be a good strategy which allowed her to incorporate repetitive meals and count her macronutrients. Another reader mentioned that the repetitive nature of the diet helped them with avoiding uncontrolled bouts of eating as they no longer saw food as a form of entertainment. Another member pointed out they prepared three meals for each day of the week, but they did not eat them in any particular order. So on any given day, they may eat lunch/dinner type foods for breakfast and breakfast type foods for lunch or dinner. Here is another reddit thread by a college-student that you may find helpful. She essentially outlines her diet and exercise routine that allowed her to drop about 10 lbs. You’ll notice she also ate a fairly repetitive diet with some refeeds and a little bit of alcohol mixed in.
So should you eat a repetitive diet? Before concluding this series, I want to point out some caveats and offer a few points to consider. Like myself, a lot of the commenters in the thread on repetitive meals I mentioned did not mind the monotonous eating. However, some of them mentioned that they had a spouse or children who refused to eat in such a way. Author Gretchen Rubin discusses this topic at length in her book on building good habits, titled “Better than Before”. Gretchen discusses how our personality type will largely affect our adoption strategies in regards to forming certain habits, like eating patterns. She classifies individuals into “moderators” and “abstainers”. An abstainer would be the type of person to adopt repetitive eating patterns. This is the type of person who knows they cannot eat just a few chips, a piece of pizza, a couple squares of chocolate, etc. Therefore, this type of person would have better success eating repetitive meals containing foods they find satisfying, but not likely to trigger over eating. Every so often they can allow themselves to eat multiple servings of chips, a whole chocolate bar or two, or several pieces of pizza, tacos, etc.
I will say be careful you don’t turn refeeds into binge eating splurges where you lose control of yourself. With that said, I want to point out there is a difference between repetitive and restrictive diets. If you find yourself bingeing every few days because you are seeking variety, then this type of eating pattern is not for you. A recent article by Krista Scott-Dixon on Precision Nutrition highlights this very issue, whereby the author practiced restricted eating during the week and set herself back by bingeing over the three days of the weekend. There are also research studies demonstrating that restrictive eating patterns are associated with higher BMIs, a surrogate measure of being overweight and having poor body composition (1).
If you absolutely hate the idea of a repetitive diet, then do not attempt to do it. The best diet for you is a relatively healthful diet that you will actually adhere to. As I pointed out earlier, some folks are moderators. These types of folks can eat tasty foods in moderation and meet their macronutrient and caloric goals. This type of person might want to try an IIFYM or “flexible dieting approach”. I don’t want to turn this into a clean eating vs IIFYM post, but I think it’s helpful to point out a few pros and cons of IIFYM compared to a repetitive approach to eating. Making IIFYM work as a lifestyle requires the discipline to constantly track macronutrients. Initially this requires weighing and counting foods, and a lot of looking up foods that can’t be reliably assessed (for example, a restaurant meal). After some time you can “eyeball” your portions as you become more familiar with the foods you typically eat. As long as one hits their macronutrient and caloric targets there is not really any limitation to what foods they can eat (save for allergies, budget, etc) which can be liberating. There are several examples on social media of people taking it too far with junk food choices on IIFYM. However, you could just as easily eat a bunch of junk food on a repetitive diet, like eating a particular fast-food meal for lunch every day and a sugary cereal for breakfast everyday. In my opinion taking elements from both approaches is a great idea.
No matter what style of eating one decides to improve their health, physique, and/or both some degree of self-restraint and discipline will be needed. In this series, I have highlighted the potential benefits of using a repetitive eating strategy to do so. If someone were to ask me for a few tips I would suggest they calculate their macronutrient needs and try to make sure the meals they choose to prepare or buy on a regular basis will fit those needs. Furthermore, I would suggest making sure they eat their recommended 5-9 servings of fruit and vegetables and for the most part avoid foods that are highly processed and contain added sugars and oils, unless they are actively trying to maintain or gain weight for performance reasons. Rotate the foods you eat every week or at some regular interval to make sure you get enough variety to avoid nutritional gaps, and lastly make sure you can differentiate repetitive vs restrictive eating. You can adopt any style of eating you want but repetitive eating patterns might be worth a shot.
1. Timko CA, and Perone J. Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior in a college population. Eating behaviors 6: 119-125, 2005.