Meal planning is a lot easier when you’re ok with eating the exact same meals every day. On the other hand, variety is one of the keystones of a healthy diet. So how bad is it, really, if you eat the same thing all the time?
Watch out for nutrient deficiencies
Variety is important because each meal can make up for something another meal lacks. Ramen doesn’t have vitamin C, for example, but nearly every fresh fruit or vegetable contains at least a little. Vegetables don’t have vitamin B12, but eat some meat or nutritional yeast every now and then and you’re pretty much covered. With so many different kinds of food available to us, it is difficult but not impossible to get a vitamin or mineral deficiency by limiting what we eat.
Another possibility: if you eat a plant-based diet and only eat the same foods over and over, you might not be getting enough of all your essential amino acids. Meat, animal products, and some vegetarian sources like tofu contain all nine, but most plant proteins are incomplete. This isn’t normally an issue, because different plant sources balance each other out.
Rice is low in lysine, for example, while beans are low in methionine, but in a bowl of rice and beans it all balances out. You could even eat the rice and the beans in separate meals. But if you only ever ate rice, and didn’t get enough of the other amino acids in your diet, you could eventually develop a protein deficiency.
Be aware of mercury content if you eat a lot of fish
Fish and shellfish can contain mercury, which may be a concern if you eat a lot of it. Health authorities have recommendations for children as well as people who are pregnant or may become pregnant. They suggest limiting the number of servings of fish you have each week, based on the type of fish.
Most grocery store fish including salmon, tilapia, and “light” tuna all fall into the lowest risk category, with a recommended limit of 2-3 servings per week if you are pregnant. “White” tuna and mahi-mahi are in the medium risk category, with only one serving per week recommended. Shark and swordfish are in the category with the highest mercury levels, and aren’t recommended at all if you are pregnant.
For people who are not pregnant, there’s no specific number of servings to aim for, but the EPA recommends that older adults and “people who eat more fish than the average person” pay attention to mercury levels. If you eat fish every day, the lower mercury choices would be smarter, and you might want to mix things up with chicken or other proteins.
There’s no other contaminant I can think of that’s both common and particularly dangerous if you eat it all the time, but if you find yourself eating truly enormous amounts of the same food, look up what it contains and whether there are any risks associated with it. You may find some surprises; it’s possible to overdose on black licorice, for example. So look up your favourites, just in case.
How to eat the same thing over and over and stay healthy
These issues don’t have to stop you from meal prepping, but you should think about how to get some variety, even if all your meals follow the same formula.
Make meals on the same pattern, but swap out the specific ingredients
Instead of eating the exact same meals all the time, make yourself a formula where you can swap out ingredients from week to week or season to season. For example, brown rice + chicken breasts + broccoli is a popular choice if you want a lot of high protein, high fibre meals. But you could also think of it as brown rice + chicken breasts + wild card vegetable. Maybe this week the vegetable is broccoli, but next week it could be roasted peppers, and the week after that, carrots.
Or expand the formula further, to something like carb + protein + vegetable, and swap in salmon or turkey for the chicken sometimes, and swap potatoes or pasta for the rice.
Look for other places you can add variety. Maybe you like to have oats for breakfast, but can toss in something different each week. Blueberries, walnuts, raisins, and chopped apples are a few great ideas.
And try this simple way of eating your “rainbow” of fruit and vegetable nutrients. Different colours of produce have different types of phytonutrients, so go to the store at the beginning of the week and buy something from each of the USDA’s five colour categories:
- Dark green vegetables (like spinach)
- Starchy vegetables (like potatoes)
- Red and orange vegetables (like carrots)
- Beans and peas
- “Other” vegetables (anything that doesn’t fit the above, like cauliflower, lettuce, and eggplant)
Work these into your meals throughout the week. Frozen and canned are fine.
Crunch the numbers on your go-to meals
If you know you’ll be eating a lot of the same things no matter what, use an app like Cronometer to figure out if anything major is missing. Enter a day’s meals, making sure that each food has data for all of its micronutrients (some entries just have calories and macros, so double check), and see what comes up. If something is over the recommended daily value, that’s probably fine; those numbers are minimums, not maximums. But if a nutrient is only present in your day’s meal in extremely low amounts, consider adding more of it somewhere. For example, if you end up with very little vitamin A, that’s easy to fix with some carrots or sweet potatoes.
Take a vitamin if you like, but don’t depend on it
Vitamin supplements are often seen as an insurance policy for a bad diet, but evidence doesn’t really support using them that way. Different people have different nutritional needs, but not in the way that personalised vitamin companies want you to think. To account for variation, the recommended daily allowances from food are set to a level that’s more than enough for the average person.
If you know you’re not eating enough of something, it makes more sense to fix your diet than to buy pills. And if you’re healthy and not in a group that’s at risk for a deficiency, there’s a good chance that you don’t need the vitamin anyway.
If you’re pregnant or might become pregnant, a prenatal vitamin is a good idea. And if a health professional has ever told you that you need a specific supplement, like iron or vitamin D, then make sure you’re following their advice. When in doubt, consult your doctor or a registered dietician if you have concerns about your nutrition.