Why Flexible Dieting?“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” – Harrington Emmerson
Almost every food has been villainized by the media. Of course, we have the typical culprits such as processed food, saturated fat, and sugar getting the brunt of the attention. But, depending on where you look, you can find things like grains, red meat, and dairy receiving similar treatment. Furthermore, there are even some circles that recommend avoiding fruits and vegetables.
You may be thinking, if all of these foods are bad, what am I supposed to eat? You see, right there is the problem. Foods shouldn’t be classified as good or bad. Food is food. Everything we eat is simply broken down into calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Of course, some foods should make up more of our diet than others, but any food can be part of a quality nutrition protocol.
I love that Harrington Emmerson quote because it fits with nutrition perfectly. There are an endless amount of nutritional methods. Look no further than your local Barnes and Noble. Diet books line the shelves, and more come out every year. The Atkins Diet, The Paleo Diet, The South Beach Diet, The Carnivore Diet, Vegan Diet, Intermittent Fasting, the list goes on. This is why so many foods get labeled bad or off-limits. Demonizing food is a lot easier to sell than simply providing the facts.
Understanding flexible dieting is really the difference between principles and methods. A flexible diet is not really a diet. In fact, any diet can be flexible; because macronutrient-based nutrition is rooted in principles, not methods.
What is Flexible Dieting?The basic rundown is simple.
With flexible dieting, nutrition is boiled down into a set of numbers. The most important aspect is your daily calorie goal. In addition, there are daily protein, carbohydrate, and fat goals. I like to include a fiber target too, but not everyone does.
Protein, carbohydrate, and fat are called macronutrients.
Protein contains 4 calories per gram, carbohydrate contains 4 calories per gram, and fat contains 9 calories per gram. Your daily macros add up to your overall caloric intake. So, when you track macros, you track calories by default.
Below is an example of a daily macronutrient breakdown.
180g Protein (180 x 4 calories = 720 calories from protein)
275g Carbohydrates (275 x 4 calories = 1100 calories from protein)
65g Fat (65 x 9 calories = 585 calories from fat)
On a flexible diet, the goal is to hit your daily calorie and macro numbers. From there, food selection is left up to your personal preference. You can eat what you want and when you want as long as it fits within the calorie and macronutrient guidelines. If you are craving a slice of pizza, you don’t have to wait for a cheat meal; you can simply make the pizza fit your macros for the day. For most people, this way of eating is more sustainable.
To learn how to calculate your own calories and macros, see How to Calculate Calorie and Macronutrient Requirements.
The Principles of Flexible DietingHow can you eat the foods you want while still reaching your goals? Here are the three principles that allow flexible dieting to work.
1: Energy Balance (Calories)When it comes to building muscle and losing fat, it’s all about energy balance.
Energy balance is the relationship between calories consumed through food and drink (energy in) and calories used for all daily functions (energy out). In other words, the energy balance equation can be defined as calories in vs. calories out. When the goal is to build muscle, you need to consume slightly more calories than your body requires to maintain weight. On the other hand, when the goal is fat loss, you need to eat slightly fewer calories than your body requires to maintain body weight. I hate to put it that simple, but that’s how it works.
All diets “work” by manipulating the energy balance equation in your favor. Did you lose weight when you started eating higher-quality food? Or, how about when you cut out carbs? It was because you ate fewer calories. How much you eat is more important than what you eat.
2: Macronutrient Balance (Protein)Calories are the principal factor for determining body composition and protein intake is the second.
To build and maintain muscle, you need to boost muscle protein synthesis and reduce muscle breakdown. The best way to do that is through resistance training and eating enough protein. In addition to helping you build and maintain muscle, protein can help you lose fat, too. Out of all of the macronutrients, protein is the most satiating. Getting into the nitty-gritty of protein intake is a subject for another time. But, if you want to look and perform at your best, a high protein diet is highly beneficial.
With a flexible dieting approach, a high protein diet allows everything else to fall into place.
What do I consider a high protein diet? The recommended daily allowance in the USA is only .8g/kg of body weight. However, that is the amount needed to avoid a deficiency. Most of us are not worried about being deficient; we are interested in what’s optimal.
The old-school recommendation of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is pretty accurate. It is easy to remember, and it puts us right in the ballpark of what the current research supports. If you are overweight, don’t base it on your body weight base it on your goal body weight. For example, if you are 300lbs but your goal weight is 250lbs, consume 250g of protein per day.
When I talk about how many grams of fat and carbohydrate to eat, I like to group them together. When we know how many calories and protein we need to consume, all calories left go toward fat and carbohydrates. At this point, it really comes down to personal preference. Do you want more fat or more carbs in your diet? In terms of body composition, if calories and protein are controlled, low fat and low carb diets result in similar weight loss.
3: Eat What You Enjoy (No Food is Off-limits)There is a reason why eating what you enjoy is third on the list. There is indeed more to food than just macros. But, unless you get your calories and macronutrients right, nothing else matters. Research repeatedly shows that we are terrible at estimating how many calories we consume. Even registered dietitians struggle with this.
It’s entirely possible to overeat healthy food and still gain weight. Are you going to get fat from eating broccoli and apples? Probably not, but an extra 200 or 500 calories per day can prevent weight loss regardless of where those calories come from. The body doesn’t care if the extra 200 calories above maintenance come from an apple or a bag of Twizzlers.
The history of flexible dieting is an integral part of the story. Flexible dieting is not and has never been an excuse to eat junk food.
If we go back, the concept of tracking macros we think of today started in the bodybuilding forums. You may not be old enough to remember, but pre-social media forums were the shit. A wealth of information got passed back and forth on the bodybuilding forums.
However, there was a lot of misinformation on the forums as well. At one time, there were arguments over what foods were off-limits.
It was really black and white thinking.
Any food that did not fit the stereotypical bodybuilding diet was in question. People would often go on the forums and ask things like…
“Can I eat whole eggs, or do I always have to have egg whites?”
“Do I always have to eat chicken, or can I have lean red meat, ground turkey, or pork loin?”
“Can I eat white rice or white potatoes if I don’t have brown rice or sweet potatoes available?”
“Are you allowed to eat bread on a fat loss diet?”
“Can you have sauces or marinades, or do you have to eat chicken plain?”
“Is it ok to have green beans instead of broccoli?”
In response to questions like that, people in the know would respond with, “sure, you can eat those foods, as long as it fits your daily macros.”
Before long, people started responding to those questions with the acronym IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). From there, the IIFYM diet took off. A large part of the popularity stemmed from being a counter-reaction to clean eating. Whenever something gets pushed far in one direction, it’s only a matter of time before it comes back the other way.
Timing is more important than we often give it credit for. Before IIFYM/Flexible Dieting became popular, people thought the only way to get lean was to cut out all carbs or restrict yourself to chicken, rice, and broccoli. When these people learned how to track macros, it opened up a world of possibilities. It allowed people to think outside the box and analyze what they eat. With flexible dieting, food is not good or bad; it’s evaluated based on nutrition profile and how it fits in the totality of the diet. When you can build a diet around the foods you enjoy, it’s much easier to be consistent for the long term.
It’s like the Chinese Proverb, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
The New Rules of Flexible DietingThe new rules of flexible dieting pick up where the principles left off.
1: Focus on Micronutrients and FiberFood quality is a natural question that is sure to come up.
Society has told us that specific foods are the culprit of the obesity epidemic. Sometimes sugar is to blame; other times, saturated fat or processed food. But is that really the issue? The fact is it’s a lot easier to blame certain foods for being overweight than it is to take the responsibility yourself. Remember, it’s not the food. You are just eating too many calories.
With that being said, food quality does matter. As I have said, there is more to nutrition than just macros and hitting specific numbers. Two other factors we need to think about are micronutrients and fiber.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. The best way to make sure you are hitting the recommended amount of daily micronutrients is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense, meaning you get a lot of nutrients without a lot of calories.
To put this in perspective, an entire pint of strawberries is only about 100 calories. The nutrition density of green veggies is even crazier. You can eat a large bag of mixed greens for about 50 calories.
Fruits and vegetables will make it a lot easier to hit your daily fiber intake, too.
Fiber helps with digestion, prevents constipation, maintains bowel health, improves a feeling of fullness, lowers cholesterol, and helps control blood sugar.
However, there is a specific prescription that is best. Too low of a fiber intake, and you do not benefit from everything I just listed. On the other hand, if you consume too much fiber, there is a chance of gastrointestinal tract issues, feeling/looking bloated, and poor nutrient absorption.
Fiber is another number we need to track in addition to protein, carbs, and fat. Most people would do well with 10-20% of carbohydrate intake coming from fiber. So, if you have 200g of carbs per day, you would aim for between 20-40g of fiber.
The best way to ensure you are hitting your daily micronutrient and fiber goals is to eat at least 2 servings of fruits and 2 servings of vegetables per day.
Ideally, we want to consume between 2-4 servings of each every day. This is more important during fat loss phases. Few people can successfully lose fat without eating at least 2 servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
You can technically hit your macros without eating any fruits and vegetables, but you will feel hungry and unsatisfied.
2: Leverage Food PalatabilityBuilding upon the last rule, just because you can eat anything doesn’t mean you should. The best flexible diet will contain 80-90% healthy, unprocessed, nutrient-dense food.
Yes, the best part of flexible dieting is being able to consume the foods you love while still reaching your goals. However, fun foods can never replace the daily requirements of hitting your daily protein, fruit, veggie, and fiber goals. Once everything is met for the day, you can layer in a treat or two. You still need to be responsible while following a flexible diet. The goal is not to try and fit in as many fun foods as you can, as that defeats the purpose of a treat.
Aside from being high in calories and low in nutrients, the issue with these types of items is food palatability. Palatability just refers to how tasty food is. Palatable foods are those that bring us pleasure when we eat them. The most highly palatable foods tend to be calorically dense – ice cream, cookies, candy, pizza, chips, french fries, bacon, etc.
Any food that tastes great and is generally considered unhealthy is probably highly palatable.
The problem with these foods is because they taste so good, it is very hard not to overeat them. Think about it; you can be stuffed from dinner but still find room for more when the dessert tray comes out.
In 1995, Susan Holt and colleagues put together a study to determine a satiety index of common foods . They found potatoes, fish, oatmeal, oranges, apples, grapes, beef, and beans are some of the most satiating foods they tested. On the other hand, they found candy, doughnuts, cake, and croissants to be the least satiating. No real surprise there.
After evaluating the data, three things stood out.
One, the satiating ability of each item was largely calorie density, or how much food volume per calorie. This is why green veggies are so beneficial in a fat loss phase. Secondly, they found that the more palatable a food, the less filling it was. Lastly, they found that the more fat a food contained, the less filling it was per calorie. That makes sense; fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient per gram. A tablespoon of peanut butter is 100 calories.
The definition of “processed food” can be controversial since all food at the grocery store is subject to some level of processing.
A recent study took a look at the idea of ultra-processed food being less satiating . The study took 10 men and 10 women and put them in a clinic setting for 28 days. This is important because most nutrition studies can’t put people up for the duration of the study. Because they lived in the clinic for the entire time, the subjects only had access to the foods provided, nothing else. For the first 14 days, subjects received either an ultra-processed or minimally processed diet.
After the initial 14 days, they were switched immediately to the other diet for 14 days. In both cases, the subjects could eat as much as they wanted.
The researchers found that subjects consumed 500 calories per day more on the ultra-processed diet than on the minimally processed diet. What’s compelling is that the diets were manipulated to make them as alike as possible. Both diets contained similar percentages of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fiber, sugars, sodium, and micronutrients. So, although the meals were set up similarly in terms of calories and nutrients, people ate more when offered ultra-processed foods.
Sweet Potato vs. Pop-TartOne of the most heated debates back in the day between clean eaters and flexible dieters was the sweet potato vs. Pop-Tarts. If you are unaware, in the early 2010s, Pop-Tarts became the universal food to represent flexible dieting. I feel like I had at least a little to do with it. Go back and watch some of my old YouTube videos if you don’t know what I am talking about.
It was common for a clean eating enthusiast to say something along the lines of – you can’t tell me a sweet potato is the same thing as a Pop-Tart. A flexible dieter would respond with, in terms of weight loss and body composition, a Pop-Tart and sweet potato are similar. From there, the debate would start.
Let’s dig into this.
How they are the same?
1 Pop-Tart Pastry = 201 calories – 2g protein – 37g carbs (0g fiber) – 5g fat
1 Large (230g) Sweet Potato = 200 calories – 4g protein – 46g carbs (7g fiber) – 0g fat
First, in terms of calories and macronutrients, they can be similar. One Pop Tart pastry is roughly the same calories as a large (230g) sweet potato. You will get a little more carbs in the sweet potato and more fat in the Pop-Tart.
How are they different?
The sweet potato has more fiber and micronutrients (specifically Vitamins A, C, B6, and Potassium). The sweet potato is also more filling. Potatoes score really high on the satiety index. And, as we found out, highly processed foods like Pop-Tarts are not very filling.
For these reasons, it’s pretty clear why the sweet potato is often the better option. However, it’s not the only option.
What should you eat?
As mentioned, your diet should be about 80-90% minimally processed whole foods. Load up on lean protein sources, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats.
After that, with the remaining calories, having a Pop-Tart is fine. Countless people have got in lean while eating Pop-Tarts, ice cream, etc. The key is that those things make up a small amount of the diet.
3: ConsistencyIt’s better to be consistently good than occasionally great.
Consistency is a critical factor for any diet. You can have the best diet on paper, but if you can’t follow it, it won’t
When it comes to nutrition, ask yourself, “Is this something I could see myself following for an extended time?” If not, it’s probably not the best diet for you. This is where most restrictive diets fall short. Yeah, keto works, but what are you supposed to do, not eat carbs again for the rest of your life? The more restrictive the diet, the harder it is to follow long-term.
In my opinion, consistency is where flexible dieting separates from other dieting strategies.
The added flexibility allows you to have a treat you are craving or stay on track while traveling.
With that being said, an issue a lot of people had with flexible dieting early on was a lack of daily structure. Remember, flexible dieting was a push back against clean eating and meal plans. A lot of people wanted to avoid that altogether. Unfortunately, if every day is essentially a blank slate, it is hard to be consistent. You end up playing nutritional Tetris, trying to get all of the numbers to nicely fit together. This is how you end up out of calories by noon, or with 1,000 calories still to hit at 10 pm.
The Consistency DietThe easy way to solve this issue is to plan ahead. I call this the consistency diet.
Essentially, it’s just a basic setup of how you eat most of the time. A consistent diet provides structure to make it easier to hit your numbers.
When coming up with a sample meal plan, prioritize foods that work best for you. We have all had meals that leave us happy, satisfied, and energized, while others leave us bloated and miserable.
Here is a basic rundown of how I eat. Keep in mind that this is not something you should follow, just an example of what I do.
Intra Workout: 15-30g of intra workout carbs.
Notes: I train first thing in the morning, so I lift on an empty stomach. To help with performance, I take intra workout carbs. Once in a while, if I wake up hungry, I may have a Pop-Tart or banana before I leave the house instead.
Meal #1: 5 egg whites, 1 whole egg, 80g dry oats, 140g strawberries.
Notes: If you follow me on Instagram, you know this breakfast. I eat this meal pretty much every day. Occasionally, I will replace the eggs with a protein shake or the oats with multigrain Cheerios, but 95% of the time is eggs and oatmeal.
Meal #2: 5oz chicken breast, ~80g mixed greens, 1 serving baby carrots, 1 serving cucumbers, 1 serving black olives, 1-2 servings light dressing.
Notes: Meal two is always a big ass salad. This meal serves a couple of purposes. One, it’s pretty low-calorie, so it allows me to save calories for later on in the day. Two, the veggies satisfy my hunger. Lastly, I can easily order this at a restaurant. Almost everyone has a grilled chicken salad on the menu. I would just order light dressing on the side.
Meal #3: 1 scoop protein powder, 8-10oz unsweetened almond milk, 1 medium apple or banana.
Notes: This is a little snack I have in the late afternoon to hold me over because we eat dinner late. Sometimes I have a protein bar instead.
Meal #4: 6oz meat (steak, salmon, lean ground beef, chicken, etc.), 2-3 servings of carbohydrates (rice, potato, pasta, etc.), 1-2 servings of veggies (broccoli, green beans, asparagus, etc.).
Notes: This is dinner with my family. Honestly, anything goes here. I just try to be in the ballpark of 40-50g of protein, 75-100g of carbs, and 15-25g of fat. Usually, we have lean meat, a carb source, and a veggie. If we go out to eat, I eat close to the same thing. I think being able to look forward to this meal helps keep me on track throughout the day.
Meal #5: ½ scoop protein powder, 150g Greek Yogurt, 16-32g peanut butter, 2 flavored rice cakes.
Notes: I usually have this snack at night while my wife and I watch TV. It’s kind of our nightly ritual. Our days are crazy. The last hour of the day is literally the only hour of the day we get to ourselves. We put the kids to bed and sit down to watch a show. I adjust this snack based on what macros are left. If I had a big dinner, this snack might just be a scoop of protein and nothing else. On the other hand, if we had a small dinner, I may have some ice cream or add chocolate chips or a cookie to my protein/yogurt blend.
It is easy to add or subtract calories from this basic structure as I adjust my calories throughout the year.
The Art of TrackingTrust me, tracking macros is not as hard as you may think.
With practice, it’s actually quite simple. With apps like My Fitness Pal, MyMacros+, and others, the process is easy to get the hang of.
Before we go any further, do you even need to track your macros? The short answer is that it depends. You only need to be as strict as your goals require. Sometimes that requires weighing, measuring, and tracking, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Flawless diet execution is not always required to get results, but the more precise and consistent you are, the closer to maximum results you can achieve. My goal is to help people get to where they don’t feel glued to a macro tracking app. It’s a tool, but not something that should run our lives. Getting to that point usually requires time spent “in the trenches” learning the process of weighing, measuring, and tracking.
When Do You Need to Track Macros?In my opinion, everyone should spend a few months of their lives tracking macros. It will be the best nutrition education you receive.
You will learn what portion sizes look like, the calorie and macronutrient breakdown of the foods you eat and gain awareness of mindless eating/snacking.
Track your macros for the following reasons:
- You are just starting out on your nutrition journey.
- You are in a fat loss phase. The extra layer of accuracy and consistency will make the process more successful.
- Occasionally as an audit to make sure you are actually eating what you think you are.
- If you are not seeing results.
How to Start Tracking MacrosThe first step when starting to track macros is to get a food scale. You can pick one up on Amazon for under $20.
When tracking your food, I prefer actual weight to volumetric measuring. Using a food scale is more accurate than using cups, tablespoons, etc. Some items may not have a listing with their weight on the nutrition facts. They may be either listed by volume or by item. Even though it says this, weigh it out. For example, with oats, the nutrition facts will say one serving is 1/2 cup or 40g. Cups are not uniformly manufactured. The 1/2 cup instrument you have at home might actually be 30g or 50g. This is why we just use the food scale to measure 40g.
Should you weigh your food cooked or uncooked? The answer is that it really doesn’t matter. The key is to be consistent with how you track it. For example, if you weigh your meat cooked, track it as cooked meat, not raw meat. The same goes for something like rice. If you weigh it out before cooking it, track it in your app as uncooked rice.
Next, you will want to download a macro tracking app on your phone. My Fitness Pal is the most popular, but I prefer My Macros+. It cost a couple of bucks, but it’s worth it.
Keep in mind that there can be mistakes in the apps. If something doesn’t seem right, google it to cross-reference the macros.
Once you have a food scale and a way to keep a running total of calories and macros, you are ready to get started.
Step #1: The first step is to spend a few days just tracking everything you eat. Do not worry about hitting a specific calorie or macro target yet. Get comfortable with the food scale and macro tracking app. Plus, just seeing what you eat in a day will give you some awareness. What gets measured gets illuminated.
If your food has a bar code, My Fitness Pal or My Macros+ will allow you to just scan it with your phone. If the food does not have a bar code, you can just type it into the search bar. For example, just type in “apple” and pick one of the options.
Remember to eat at least 2 servings of fruit and 2 servings of vegetables per day bare minimum.
Step #2: After a few days of practice, start trying to stay within your goal calorie requirements within +/- 100 calories. Don’t worry about macros right now. Just focus on total daily calories. If you need help figuring out your calorie intake, see this article: How to Calculate Calories and Macros for Building Muscle and Losing Fat - Hunt Fitness.
Step #3: Once you get a handle on hitting your daily calorie goal, start aiming to hit your daily protein goal within +/- 5g. You may not need to go any further than this. Many people reach their goals simply by hitting their daily calorie and protein targets. As long as you are hitting your calories and protein, carbs and fats can fluctuate without much difference in results.
Step #4: This is the final step. When you are ready to take things to the next level, start tracking calories and macros. Aim to hit calories +/- 100 per day. And aim to hit protein, carbs, fat, and fiber all within +/- 5g per day.
Where to Go From Here?As I said at the outset, once you understand the principles of nutrition, you become immune to the diet frustrations that derail most people.
Flexible dieting is a skill you will use for the rest of your life. While walking through the grocery store, you will scan the nutrition facts almost subconsciously. When you go out to eat, you will estimate the calories and macros for each meal as you look over the menu to help you make the best decision. The diet section at Barnes and Noble will now seem less fascinating…unless you are a nerd like me.
Don’t get me wrong, dieting still requires effort, but you are a pro now. The old you is gone forever.