Flexible Dieting 101
We tend to treat eating and diets as one size fits all. But the human body is very personalized.
Flexible dieting marries some form of food tracking with a degree of flexibility (duh) that makes it a more sustainable approach than most current popular diets.
In this article, I aim to cover:
The first three sections of this article are excerpts from my Quick Guide to a Balanced Diet. Sign up for my free monthly newsletter at the bottom of this page to read the full guide!
The problem with popular diets
In the context of weight loss, all the most well-known diets, from Atkins to Weight Watchers, work because they create a calorie deficit. However, most dieters regain all the lost weight and then some.
Why does this happen?
Because these diets aren’t designed as a long-term weight maintenance solution. They are “quick fixes,” nutritional band-aids slapped over the true issue, which lies in the lack of understanding of how to adopt a balanced diet to last you a lifetime.
In fact, dieters don’t regain weight because the diets failed. It’s because, once they complete the dieting protocol, they revert back to their original eating habits.
However, the way you were eating before the diet is the reason why you put on weight in the first place.
The only difference between a truly successful fat loss diet and your “normal” diet should be the portion size.
To achieve this, you need to educate yourself on what a balanced diet looks like in general and on what it could look like for you, based on your food preferences, budget, and lifestyle.
What is flexible dieting and how is it different from popular diets?
Unlike many dieting approaches, flexible dieting isn’t a military protocol that you either succeed or fail at, but a long-term way of eating that can be tailored to any goal, be it fat loss, muscle gain, or weight maintenance.
Furthermore, there are no hard and fast rules, so that your eating strategy can be modified to suit life events like holidays and social outings, or your increased nutritional knowledge and experience.
There are no “good” and “bad” foods, either. You don’t have to eat chicken salad at Thanksgiving dinner or refuse pudding at Christmas. You can have fruit, vegetables, and chicken breast, but also biscuits, pudding, and chips.
As a result, you don’t “fall off the wagon” because there is no wagon. Instead, there are food choices, and the decision you make will change depending on the situation.
For example, if you are tracking your calories, these questions might help you navigate a food choice:
Flexible dieting usually involves at least one method of controlling your food intake: counting calories, tracking food portions, or eating according to hunger and satiety cues whilst taking into account the social context.
The specific strategy you employ depends on your current nutritional knowledge and awareness of what and how much you eat versus what and how much you might need to eat to reach a specific goal.
In this article, I will refer primarily to counting calories and macros, a strategy that lays the foundations for more complex methods, such as only relying on portion sizes or not keeping a food journal at all.
The premise of flexible dieting
Flexible dieting is based on the concept of calorie balance, which is the relationship between energy expenditure and energy intake.
We need energy in order to survive. We get this energy from food and use it to carry out a number of functions:
We measure energy using calories (kcals).
You are in a state of energy balance when you eat as much energy as you burn. This way, you will maintain your current weight.
If you eat more energy than you burn in a day, you will gain weight. This is called a state of positive energy balance (or calorie surplus).
If you are also eating adequate protein and engaging in resistance training, and your weight increases at an appropriate rate, this will be mainly muscle or lean mass. However, it is inevitable to gain a little body fat, too.
If you burn more energy than you eat, you will lose weight. This is called a state of negative energy balance (or calorie deficit).
If you are also eating adequate protein and engaging in resistance training whilst losing weight at an appropriate rate, you will minimise muscle mass loss and maximise body fat loss.
In the context of weight changes – maintenance, fat loss, muscle gain – food quantity (how many calories you eat) is more important than food quality (what kinds of food you eat).
However, food quality can impact:
French fries, cake, cookies, and other highly palatable foods have a lot of calories, but not a lot of vitamins and minerals.
So, if they comprise 80% or more of your calories, you might be at risk of some micronutrient deficiencies, especially if you are on a calorie-restricted fat loss diet.
For example, during fat loss, having all your calories come from donuts, burgers, and ice-cream likely means you will be forced to have very small portions to stick to your calorie goal.
As a result, you will always be hungry, and it will be very hard to adhere to the diet.
On the other hand, in a muscle-gaining phase, eating exclusively “clean” foods might result in an excessively high fibre intake, which can cause bloating, gas, and one too many toilet trips.
A diet that is high in protein will be more likely to help you retain muscle mass than one that is not.
Most highly palatable, nutrient-poor foods are high in fat and carbs, but low in protein.
Where do you start?
In general, a food journal is a great educational tool for beginners.
Someone who doesn’t have a good understanding of calories yet will see great benefits from simply writing down everything they eat and drink in a day, how hungry they felt when they ate on a scale from 1 to 10, and how full they felt afterwards.
After a period of “calorie-free tracking,” I would usually introduce MyFitnessPal or another calorie-counting app to replace the food diary.
You don’t need to count calories forever, but a few weeks or months will help you understand the calorie and macronutrient content of the most common foods you eat. In turn, this will help you guide your choices in the future, even when you stop tracking calories.
Calculating your maintenance calories
The first step to designing your own flexible dieting approach is to figure out how many calories your body requires to stay more or less at your current weight. In other words, your maintenance calories.
You have two options for this:
Option 1 is quicker, but much less accurate, whereas Option 2 takes longer, but is potentially more accurate.
If you go with Option 1, a quick Google search will reveal the existence of a great many formulae to estimate calorie expenditure.
Each one of them involves a certain degree of error and, most importantly, all of them will only give you a general estimation of your maintenance. Nevertheless, this is your starting point, not the end all or be all of your nutrition for the foreseeable future.
What I’m saying is that it isn’t so important which formula you choose, as you will adjust your macros and calories as you go.
If you prefer Option 2, keep a food diary on MyFitnessPal or a similar app to find out how many calories you eat on a daily basis for the next two weeks. Weigh yourself at least twice a week and keep a record of your weight fluctuations.
After two weeks, it’s time for a little math:
Based on this example, your maintenance is around 2900 kcals per day (20 300 kcals per week).
You can then aim to hit your calorie target plus or minus 100 calories if you are trying to lose fat; or plus or minus 150 to 200 calories if you are maintaining or trying to gain muscle. If you know you are going to be off by several hundred calories on one or more days, focus on your weekly target instead of going crazy over your daily one.
If your weekly calories are within your target range, then you will be making progress regardless of daily fluctuations in your food intake.
Calculating your macronutrient targets
Protein: Set this first, aiming for 1.6-2.2 gr per kilogram of bodyweight to maintain weight or gain muscle. To lose fat, the range is a little higher at 2.2-2.8 gr per kilogram.
For example, if you weigh 73.3 kg, 1.6 gr of protein per kilogram would be:
73.3 * 1.6 = 117.28 gr of protein per day
1 gr of protein and carbs has 4 calories, so 117 gr of protein per day contain:
117 * 4 = 468 kcals
Fats: These should be set at a minimum of 0.5 gr per kilogram for health-related reasons. 0.5-1.2 gr per kilogram is a good range to experiment with based on your personal preferences.
If you weigh 73.3 kg, 0.5 gr of fat per kilogram would be:
73.3 * 0.5 = 36.65 gr of fat per day
1 gr of fat has 9 calories, so 37 gr of fat contain:
37 * 9 = 333 kcals
Carbs: Your remaining calories should come from carbs, starting from a minimum of 1 gr per kilogram.
Assuming your maintenance is 2900 kcals, subtract your calories from protein and fat, then divide the remaining number by 4:
[2900 – (468 + 333)]/4 = 2099/4 = 524.75 gr of carbs
Finally, your targets will look like this:
Total calories = 3750
Total protein = 117 gr
Total fat = 37 gr
Total carbs = 525 gr
Your carbohydrate-to-fat ratio isn’t all that important for your fitness goals as long as you have your protein dialled in.
However, carbohydrate is the body’s preferred fuel source for resistance training activities and high-intensity endurance training, so you could play around with a higher carb intake before you attempt a higher-fat approach.
If you find that high-carb doesn’t work for you, then you could increase fats gradually until you discover the amount of both nutrients that appears optimal for your own needs.
Aim to meet your macronutrient targets within a 20 gr range for protein and carbohydrates, and within a 10 gr range for fats.
Perfection is not required
The reason why you should set yourself target ranges rather than specific numbers is that flexible dieting is supposed to be, well, flexible.
When aiming to hit your macros and calories on the nose every day, it’s easy to get stressed, obsessive, and frustrated.
These negative feelings can result in one of two unpleasant scenarios: you could decide “you’ve already fucked up” and turn a single unplanned cookie into a binge fest; or you could stop going out with friends and family for the sake of your macros and calories.
Either way, you aren’t going to feel good about yourself or your nutrition plan.
This is a list of nutritional strategies you can employ when life happens, ordered from the least to the most flexible:
Choose the best strategy for your circumstances because you won’t be able to choose the best circumstances for your strategy.
In Future Episodes:
Next time I will cover an appropriate rate of weight gain or loss and how to calculate your calories accordingly.
Have you ever tried flexible dieting? Share your experience in the comments!
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