Today we’re talking all about flexible dieting.
When eating for weight loss there is a level of discipline that is required, some tradeoffs you have to make, and trigger foods you have to identify and remove for a short period of time.
But one of the biggest mistakes I see with potential coaching clients is too many food rules and restrictions. They’ve assumed that “clean eating” alone will lead to weight loss and long term weight management but that’s just not true.
This is where flexible dieting can fit in.
Today, we’re going to dive into what flexible dieting is. If it’s the right fit for you. And how weight loss happens regardless of the foods that you eat. Hint, all diets work. It’s about energy balance.
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What is flexible dieting?
Flexible dieting, also often called, “If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM)” has no restrictions or meal plans. No foods are off-limits, good or bad. Instead, it focuses on eating your favorite foods that fit into your calorie and macronutrient needs.
Calories are a unit of energy. Specifically the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree celsius.
Macronutrients are protein, carbs, and fats. Each with its own level of energy attached to it. Protein has roughly 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates 4 as well, and fats 9.
Most diets have a set of rules or guidelines around what you can and cannot eat. Paleo says to stay away from grains, legumes, and most dairy. Kinds sucks if you like bread.
Keto says to stay away from any carbs. Kinda sucks if you like life.
Vegan tells you you’re not allowed to eat animal products. And the Unicorn and magic berry diet tell you to only eat Unicorn meat and eat magic berries three times a day. Kinda hard if you don’t know where to find a Unicorn.
Magic berries though I got you covered 😉
How does flexible dieting work?
You may have just grinned a little bit and are wondering if this is a license to eat whatever you want.
Flexible dieting works or does not work the same way every other diet works or does not work.
When it comes to weight loss, maintenance, and weight gain it’s important to understand calorie or energy balance. If we eat more calories than we need, regardless of the foods we eat, we will gain weight. If we eat fewer calories than we need, regardless of the foods we eat then we will lose weight.
Now, this doesn’t mean the quality of food does not matter, it absolutely does. But it’s also a nice reminder that eating uber clean all of the time isn’t necessary or sustainable for most of us. Letting pizza, wine, and cheesecake slide into your DM’s every once in a while is totally cool.
How do you know what to eat while flexible dieting?
I know, I’m super annoying because I saw the same thing in most of my diet articles. Every single diet agrees on the same set of principles.
- Understanding calorie and energy balance is important
- Eat lean protein with most meals. Animal or plant-based on your personal preference
- Veggies are good. Eat a lot of them
- Understand when you’re actually hungry and when you’ve had enough to eat
- Eat more whole foods and less processed stuff. This may mean 70/30 for some, 80/20, or 90/10 for others.
There’s not a food list I can give you that’s going to blow your mind. But ya know, here’s one anyway cuz I’m like that.
The best approach is to create your own. Identify your favorite 3 to 5 proteins, veggies, starchy carbs, fruits, and healthy fats. If you have a family ask them to do the same thing and see if there is some overlap.
If we’re following flexible dieting it may look like this.
- Protein: Unsweetened greek yogurt, chicken thigh, eggs, turkey, ground beef
- Veggies: Broccoli, carrot, salad greens, asparagus, green beans
- Starchy carbs: Potato, plantain, oats, rice, bread (yup, you read that right – make a sandwich)
- Fruit: Apple, blackberries, banana, kiwi, peach
- Fats: Avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, and cheese
You now have the world’s most simple and effective shopping list. And if you’re not sure how to cook those things I got you covered. How to cook without recipes.
But you’re not limited to this list as I’ll show you in the coming section. There’s room for foods that are often considered “off-limits” when dieting.
The TL;DR version of this section is that you can mostly eat what you’re eating now, with a few adjustments to the quality, but mostly adjusting the quantity based on your goals.
How much do you eat when flexible dieting (what about macros)
There’s not a shortage of calorie and macro calculators on the internet. Most of them are going to do a good enough job of giving you a fairly accurate calorie range to shoot for.
My preference is the healthy body weight planner from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. This is more precise and takes into account age, gender, and activity levels.
For simplicity’s sake, you can take your current body weight and multiply it by the following numbers based on your goals.
- Weight loss: Bodyweight x 10-12
- Maintenance: Bodyweight x 13-15
- Weight gain: Bodyweight x 16-18
- Example: 150 x 10 = 1,500-1,800
You’ll notice a range. You don’t need to hit your numbers perfectly to be successful. plus or minus 100 to 200 calories can keep you from obdessing about hitting numbers.
Is this perfect? No, but it doesn’t need to be. Getting an idea gives you a target and with a target, it’s easier to aim.
What should my macronutrients be when flexible dieting?
When it comes to weight loss I’m in the, “it doesn’t really matter for most people camp” (1). Overall calories and protein matter most. Carbs and fats can fill in the rest based on your personal food preferences.
With that said, context can matter. If you’re an endurance athlete or someone that is very active and trains hard, more carbohydrates in the diet might make sense. But If you’re less active than lower carbs might make sense.
If you like a more balanced approach to eating you could break that up into 35% fat, 35% carbs, 30% protein.
Note: 2,000 calories is an arbitrary number that I am only using as an example.
- 2,000 calories per day
- 150 grams of protein
- 175 grams of carbs
- 77 grams of fat
Or maybe you prefer lower carb. That could be 50% fat, 30% protein, 20% carbs
- 2,000 calories per day
- 150 grams of protein
- 100 grams of carbs
- 111 grams of fat
On the flip side if you enjoy more carbs if could be 50% carbs, 30% protein, 20% fat
- 2,000 calories per day
- 150 grams of protein
- 250 grams of carbs
- 44 grams of fat
Don’t overthink this. Get close enough to your calorie goals and eat protein with each meal. You’ll be fine. And as a reminder, you don’t have to hit numbers perfectly to be successful. Plus or minus a few grams you’ll be ok.
How do I track calories macro’s (eating, portions)
Here are a few tips to make tracking easier.
Weigh everything (sorta) – You’ll need a reliable food scale for this and an app to track your foods in. Some recommendations below.
The apps come in handy because most of them have label scanners you can use for foods or already prepped meals.
1). Weigh protein 🥩(chicken, fish, beef, etc…) before cooking. If it’s already cooked you can look up the information on your tracking app.
2). Weighing things from a jar. Set your scale to zero and place the jar on it. This will give you the weight of the jar and the contents. Take out what you need using a measuring utensil or spoon and re-weigh the jar. The difference between the two is your serving size or what you will track
3). Weigh rice cooked, banana without the peel, and most other carbs (sweet potato, oatmeal, etc..) before cooking.
4). Weigh your veggies but don’t get too worried about them. Non-starchy veggies like broccoli, cucumber, lettuce, spinach, etc.. are so low in calories that not weighing them won’t matter much. But it might be a good habit to weigh them when you start
5). Start with weighing and tracking 1 meal. If you’re having trouble weighing and tracking consistently. Try just tracking 1 meal per day to start. You’ll learn plenty about the calories in foods and how much you’re eating.
6). Tracking when eating out. Most restaurants will have their info online. But if you can’t find it try looking up a similar meal. Or break down the meal into individual components and estimate the serving sizes. Keep in mind that meals out won’t be super accurate because the way they are prepared is going to be different from restaurant to restaurant. But again, perfection isn’t’ the idea. Awareness and getting a baseline is.
Front-load your meal planning and tracking to make things easier
Flexible dieting when eating out
If body fat and weight loss is a goal – it’s best to make and eat as many home-cooked meals as possible. This is for a few reasons.
1). It’s easier to control the portions and calorie content of your meals. You know exactly what you’re eating and how you prepared it. At restaurants, you have no idea.
2). Restaurant meals tend to be higher in calories than we think, listed online, or given on their menu. It’s great that restaurants are doing this because it gives you an idea of how much you’re eating. But studies are showing that this can be off as much as 40%. This is mostly because restaurants will differ in how they prepare and serve food.
3). The psychology of the receipt or sunk cost fallacy. We tend to eat more when we go out because of the price tag we paid for the meal. We want to get our money’s worth, so leaving food on the plate feels like a waste of money and experience. Thus, we eat past satiation and most likely more calories than we normally would have.
We’re going to eat out from time to time and it’s not something you need to avoid. It’s fun, the food is great, and it’s social. Here are a few quick tips for navigating nutrition while dining out.
- Focus on protein and veggies with your meals and eat these first.
- Check out the menu before you go. Look up nutrition info. And choose a meal before you get there.
- If you already know you’re going out to eat and may eat more than normal. Reduce your calories or portions during the day. Or the next day to help balance it out
- Pass on sauces (choose red and avoid white) and dressings (choose oils and avoid creamy) or ask for them on the side. If you use them, dip your utensil in rather than dumping it on the food. You’ll eat less of it.
- Purposely leave about 20% of the meal on the plate. Either ask the wait staff to take it away immediately (or you’re likely to pick at it). Or put it in a to-go box and include it with your next meal
Most importantly – savor the meal and the company you’re with. Eat it slowly, enjoy the hell out of it, and pick back up with your next meal
Eyeballing portion sizes
For most people, this is an easy strategy to apply, and one that seems to work well long-term. It might not be as precise as weighing portions and tracking food but it can be good enough.
1). Start with 1 macronutrient and level up. Start by using your hand to estimate protein for 2-weeks. If you’re consistent, then level up to veggies, then carbs, and finally fats
2). Start with 1 meal. If you already feel pretty confident but not ready to do this at all your meals, try just 1.
3). A half plate of veggies. If you’re really struggling, a simple adjustment is filling half you plate with veggies and the other half can be split into ¼ proteins and ¼ carbs
4). Read nutrition labels. Even when using your hands to estimate portion sizes a good habit to get into is reading nutrition labels. Look at calories, serving sizes, and create awareness around how much you’re eating. Same when you go out to restaurants – look up the info online or in an app.
5). Use smaller plates or Tupperware. This is a great way to control portions and calories without changing the foods you eat.
6). Combo meals. If it’s a combination meal that was already prepared for you (chili, mac n cheese, stir-fry) try the 1-2 cupped hands method. It shouldn’t be more than 1-2 cupped hands together.
This is a place to start. You’ll inevitably adjust as you go.
How do you lose weight with flexible dieting?
The same way you lose weight with any other diet, calorie deficit.
A calorie deficit is created by taking in fewer calories than your body needs over an extended period of time. If you do this one thing consistently you will lose body fat and weight.
This can be done by creating a slight deficit every day
This can be done by creating a slight deficit over an extended period of time.
Some days you’re under your calorie needs and other days you’re over.
Or by following a specific diet like keto, paleo, intermittent fasting, or vegan and eliminate entire food groups (or macronutrients like carbs or animal protein) to do this.
You can also do this by improving the quality of foods you eat, eating less calorie-dense foods, and controlling portion sizes by using your hands.
As you can see, there are a number of ways (and many more) to go about doing this one thing. Hell, you may find that a combination of a few works well, or that using different approaches at different times based on your goals and needs works best.
Benefits of flexible dieting
Because there are no real food restrictions it’s easy to follow. This can also create a psychological benefit. It also allows for more spontaneity and variety with meals and it may allow for easier social dining.
You learn a ton about portion sizes, what you’re eating, and the calorie and macronutrients of the foods you enjoy most. Awareness like this can go a long way.
Disadvantages of flexible dieting
Look, tracking food can be tedious sometimes. But you may not need to do this forever. There’s something called “diet breaks.” You’re allowed to practice flexible dieting, track food, and then take a break from it. The important thing is to keep the lessons you learned in mind.
Flexible dieting could be too lose of an approach for some. If you’re the type of person that needs more rules and guidelines it may not be the best fit.
There’s no emphasis on the quality of food (micronutrients). While it doesn’t say eat anything, everything, and yolo your face off. There’s also no clear recommendations around food quality.
Misconceptions about “clean eating”
Many people still believe that you can’t get fat eating clean, assuming that calories don’t matter and that eating clean alone will help you lose fat or build muscle better or faster.
The futility of dieting and ongoing debaters of diets distract people from what really creates sustainable weight loss. That being a consistent calorie deficit over time. And balancing whole foods with the not so whole foods so you don’t go bat shit crazy.
Misconceptions about “a flexible diet.”
Please don’t tell your friends you read this article and that I said it was ok to eat shit all-day. That’s not what flexible dieting is.
Flexible dieting is simply another tool in your arsenal to help you create more awareness around your BEHAVIORS. A way to help you take a long-term view around what you can do to live a healthy and happy life with food.
You don’t need to do it forever.
Is flexible dieting the right fit for you?
Know your type dieting type.
Flexible dieting is a good fit for moderators. These people can take a few bites of food and stop. They don’t have many trigger foods and have excellent appetite and hunger awareness.
Restrictors need more rules and structure around what foods they can and can not eat. They may have more trigger foods and have a difficult time stopping at just one bite.
Flexible dieting might also be a good fit If you’re more analytical and numbers-oriented. You treat hitting your numbers like information rather than good or bad.
Flexible dieting is also a good fit if you have elite athletic or body composition goals. For example making weight for an event, achieving sub 8% body fat, or even short term goals like a wedding in 6 to 12 weeks. As goals become more precise so too does the attention to detail. This is where the tracking and weighing in flexible dieting can benefit.
This is also great for those that need to build food and calorie awareness in a short period of time. You’ll learn so much about portion sizes, what you’re eating, how much you’re eating, and what foods contain what calories.
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