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I first heard about the 21 Day Meal Plan—a $20 downloadable diet plan that's been getting a lot of buzz recently—when we covered, last month, how it helped one woman lose 120 pounds in less than a year. What is this magic? I said to myself. I needed to know more.
The plan, it turns out, was written by Tiffany Elizabeth, the blogger behind My Adventure to Fit, and it has helped her personally lose over 85 pounds. After seeing the amazing transformation photos, I was feeling motivated to try it out for myself. (Related: The 10 Best Diet Programs for Every Goal)
Before I got married in September, I was eating well and working out on a regular basis. I had reached a healthy weight and was feeling pretty good. But then I went on my honeymoon to Italy (and ate lots of pizza and pasta), and after that, it was the holiday season. Even after a month of avoiding restaurants, I wasn't quite happy with where I was at. I wanted to see if an extra-restrictive plan might help me eat better and lose some weight.
About the 21-Day Meal Plan
This plan makes some pretty bold claims like it "eliminates water retention," "increases energy and enhances mood," and "improves skin condition." And I was excited to see that there was only one rule: Eat ONLY what's on the list. That's it! There's no counting calories, hitting the gym (unless you want to), or tracking macros or points. (Here's The #1 Reason to Stop Counting Calories)
That's pretty much where the excitement stopped, however.
The list of "approved" foods is extremely limited—and it doesn't always make perfect sense. You can only eat lean meats, eggs, and low-sodium veggie burgers; berries, lemons, and limes; non-starchy vegetables (no potatoes or corn); legume-based pastas, quinoa, and brown rice. One of the hardest parts: No-sodium-added condiments or spices. The only dairy allowed on the plan was one cup of low-sodium nonfat cottage cheese or nonfat Greek yogurt per day. As far as snacking, things like almond butter, unsalted rice cakes, and almonds were compliant (but there were portion limits.)
Since sugar and salt are so restricted, eating out on the plan was not an option (and I'd just finished a month of that!), and things like soda, desserts, and alcohol are not allowed either.
What I Ate
Normally, one of my go-to breakfasts is avocado toast with sea salt, olive oil, smoked paprika, and a little cayenne pepper. Since bread wasn't allowed on the plan I tried making my usual concoction (minus the salt) on an unsalted rice cake.
It was so bland I almost gagged.
After that, I stopped trying to be creative and stuck to the basics. Most mornings I ate scrambled eggs with cottage cheese, or Greek yogurt topped with berries and almonds. Breakfast was probably the easiest meal of the day. When it came to lunch and dinner I had to scour Pinterest and Youtube for recipe inspo. And it was still really hard! I love to cook. Heck, I write for a food website! So I'm used to seasoning my food. It was actually hard to cook without it.
I think I had become so used to salty dishes that when food was unsalted, it tasted terrible to me. I had to learn to lean into bolder spices I normally don't cook with—like garam masala, chili powder, and cayenne—to dress up meals. By the end of the program, one of my favorite sauces to drizzle on proteins was non-fat Greek yogurt mixed with curry powder.
For lunch and dinner, I mostly ate a lean meat, a big side of veggies (often roasted and sprinkled with nutritional yeast), and either quinoa or brown rice. I'd make big batches of grains and veggies in the beginning of the week to easily assemble meals, which definitely helped.
I went for easy proteins like black beans and eggs when I was in a time crunch, and kept raw veggies on hand for grab-and-go snacks. About once a week, when I was inevitably craving pasta, I'd mix up brown rice noodles, cottage cheese, and lean ground beef for a comforting dish.
How Healthy Is the 21-Day Meal Plan?
A real concern with this meal plan is that Elizabeth, the plan's writer, is neither a dietitian nutritionist or a doctor. This is just the plan that worked for her personal weight loss journey. To make sure I was getting enough nutrients and meeting my minimum calorie needs, I tracked my food for the first few days in MyFitnessPal.
The good thing is that while I was definitely eating less sugar and salt than normal, I was also getting more than enough calories, fat, nutrients, and fiber. Most days, my sodium ranged between 800-1000mg (which is less than the recommended daily value but still meets the 500mg minimum needed for your body to properly function, according to the American Heart Association)
I asked our dietitian, Brierley Horton, MS, RD, what she thought of the plan and here's what she said: "Dialing back on added sugar and added salt is almost always a good thing because most of us, frankly, eat more of those two items than we should. And the whole foods approach to this diet is both healthy and can help you lose weight, particularly if you tend to rely on restaurant meals, takeout, or a lot of pre-packaged foods. But why some foods are excluded and others—like almond butter versus peanut butter, or strawberries versus blueberries—doesn't seem to not have much rhyme or reason."
How I Felt
Here's the good part: This diet is easy to follow, and I was never really hungry. It was helpful having an exact list of foods I could or couldn't eat because there was literally zero room for error. I just had to stick to the plan, and that was it.
Here's the bad part: I live to cook and eat. I get real joy from making and tasting food, and it's a big part of how I see myself. I enjoy going out to eat at restaurants and the communal nature of eating with others.
I firmly believe there are people who live to eat, and those who simply eat to live, and this diet is definitely made for the latter group. Without salt or sugar in my cooking arsenal, food became noticeably blander and less pleasant. Without the ability to enjoy the occasional bit of cheese and glass of wine, or square of dark chocolate, my evenings watching The Bachelor, or afternoons working at Cooking Light were noticeably less enjoyable as well.
Also, I love to cook, but cooking every single meal got exhausting. There were days when I'd worked late at the office and just wanted to order takeout. On those nights, it was so hard sticking to the plan and I sometimes got emotional (which is kind of embarrassing.)
At one particularly low point in the diet, I got into a huge fight with my husband. We had been out running errands and were starving, but we had a sink full of dishes back at the house and the last thing I wanted to do was cook. I was starting to get upset and, being the sweet man he is, he suggested we go out to dinner or pick up a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. This only sent me into a further rage, because I couldn't "have" either of these options, and I took it out on him. Not cool, Jaime. Not cool.
Here's the thing: I have an issue with emotional eating. Whether I've had a hard day, or I've had a great day and want to celebrate, I turn to food. I know it's not always healthy, and it's taken time for me to recognize this as a problem and deal with it. Because this plan takes ALL of the emotion out of food, it hit me harder than I expected. And in that way, I think, I needed it.
Eliminating added sugar and salt and processed foods, and adding more whole foods into my diet, wasn't going to hurt me (in fact, it was probably a good reset for my body), but it made me do some soul searching to get to the root of WHY it was upsetting me so much. In the end, I think I missed the social aspects of eating—like lunch out with my coworkers, dinner with my husband, and cocktails with a friend. And, being the extrovert I am, I need those interactions to thrive and recharge when I'm stressed.
Negatives aside, I definitely noticed some positive physical aspects. I broke through a stubborn weight plateau and lost 5.6 pounds (in 21 days!). I also feel less bloated (my jeans are definitely a little looser), and I have more energy. And now that I can eat added sugar and salt again, a little goes a long way, so I can cut back on them when cooking. Although, today, I'm definitely going to treat myself to some ice cream (I deserve it!)
This plan definitely works for weight loss and it has a lot of good elements—like prioritizing plant-based foods, whole grains, and lean meats while cutting out processed foods, extra sugar, and sodium. However, I don't think it could work as a sustainable lifestyle. Never eating at restaurants or having a treat (or, um, even a bowl of oatmeal) isn't feasible for the long-term.
Horton says, "For some people, not ever having an indulgence is the only way they can stick to a diet, and for others, the occasional treat, or the ability to pair food with socializing, is the only way someone can adhere to a healthier eating plan or a restrictive diet. This is a long way of saying, you need to tune in to what works for you and do that. Because the best diet is the one that you can stick to."
This story originally appeared on CookingLight.com by Jamie Milan.