Rodney Wynn, founder of Wynn with Fitness, holds both a master’s of business administration degree and a bachelor’s degree in information systems management from the University of San Francisco. Wynn is also a certified specialist in performance nutrition. You can reach him at rodney@wynnwithfitness.net.

We have all heard it time and time again. A client goes to a personal trainer and asks why they can’t seem to lose weight. They work out all the time, limit their calories and get plenty of sleep but still can’t seem to shed those excess pounds. As a personal trainer, it’s out of your scope of practice to give specific nutritional advice, but here’s is the skinny: It is not the actual workout or lack of calories people eat on a daily basis that affects their weight but the types of foods and meal frequency. The best way to sabotage a diet is to limit calories or eat only one or two meals per day. This slows down your metabolism and forces the body to hold on to extra fat.

The whole concept with this is that our bodies were designed to hold on to the nutrients that we eat because our ancestors went through periods of famine. At that time, the food that was taken in was slowly metabolized because it could be days or weeks before the body was fed again. This, in essence, created fat storage so that the body would have something to draw against. The analogy here would be like reserves in a savings account. To keep our bodies off guard and speed up the metabolism, we need to eat five to six small meals per day spread out over every two to three hours during our waking hours.

When you tell clients to eat five to six meals per day, it is a little deceiving as a meal could be as little as 100 calories. Typically, the breakdown should be like this: breakfast, lunch and dinner should each consist of 400-500 calories, while two additional small meals should each consist of 100-200 calories.

Breakfast foods should consist of whole grain items such as oatmeal, whole grain cereals, fruits and legumes. Some lunch ideas are turkey on whole grain bread with a small salad or tuna fish with whole grain crackers. There should be special consideration when it comes to dinner. Because this is the last meal of the day, clients should not exceed 500 calories because our metabolism tends to slow down at night. Some ideas for dinner include chicken breast, brown rice and steamed vegetables, or tuna casserole with steamed vegetables.

If clients stick to this meal plan, chances are they will start to see the results they are after. This type of diet also allows for clients to have two to three “cheat” meals during the weekends. Cheat meals include a break from the normal diet and allow clients to have some of their favorite foods such as pizza.

There are some diet plans that stipulate an entire cheat day during the week, but I believe this is a recipe for disaster. If a client has a cheat day to eat any and everything they want, this could sabotage the clean diet that they had all week. An all-day free pass could easily lead to 5,000-7,000 calories that the body would then have to burn off. Also, there could be alarming amounts of saturated fats as well as sugars in these cheat meals.

The best situation would be to have a cheat meal on both Saturday and Sunday. The clients should eat their normal foods at three-hour intervals throughout the day but then be allowed to have a cheat meal for dinner as well as some dessert on both days. This way the client is shocking their metabolism to burn excess calories but not so much as to spike blood sugar levels. One rule of thumb: if a client is going to eat about 35 meals during a seven-day period, make sure that at least 31 of those meals are from sources of nutritious foods.

This is a lifetime commitment, so clients need to be consistent with their diets. They cannot follow this plan for a week and then go back to bad eating habits the next week—it simply won’t work.

There is a little bit of an adjustment as well because it is very difficult to drop all bad food habits at a moment’s notice. Have clients take baby steps initially until their diets are fully locked in. They may eat 25 good meals and 10 bad meals during the week when they first start. Eventually, they will find themselves not craving the junk foods that they are accustomed to eating. Once they have their cheat meals on the weekends, they will start to crave a healthier choice of foods rather than an unhealthy choice. Above all, tell clients to have fun and take it day by day.