Bag of whey protein under your arm, digital food scale sticking out of your bag, MyFitnessPal ready and loaded on your phone and bottle of Walden Farms in hand, you proclaim to your pals –
“It’s okay, I’m on a flexible diet.”
Looking at you like you just told them you were going to use your new-found leg strength from all your squatting to jump to the moon, your buddies start laughing.
“What’s flexible about bringing half a kitchen on holiday with you?”
“why’s there a blender in his holdall”
and “is that a bottle of Coke Zero in his pocket or is he just pleased to see me?” they wonder.
The problem, my friend, is that you’re bastardizing flexible dieting.
The clue is in the name – FLEXIBLE.
Someone asked me to sum up flexible dieting for them last week. It took a while, but I eventually landed on –
“Flexible dieting is the process of tracking your food intake, and aiming for certain calorie and macronutrient ranges. How closely you hit them depends on your goals.
The concept is that you eat mainly nutrient-dense, “healthy” foods, but you can consume some nutrient-deficient foods, provided you stay within the aforementioned calorie and macronutrient guidelines.
By not imposing unnecessary restrictions, it essentially means that a person never breaks their diet. It preaches healthy habits and moderation, while allowing you to maintain a social life, and reaching whatever physique and performance goals you have.”
Whether that’s accurate or not, I don’t know. All I know is that’s how I see it, and how I try to explain it to people.
The main point though, is that flexible dieting shouldn’t impact your life any more than it needs to.
You should be able to see friends, go out for meals, go on holiday/vacation, attend functions, and have a good time while eating in a way favourable to body composition and health.
Your problem is that you don’t do any of that.
Just like those who take the piss by eating as much junk food as they can within their macros give flexible dieting/ IIFYM a bad name, the same can be said of those who misuse flexible dieting.
If you’re guilty of any of the following, you aren’t following a flexible diet. You may as well go back to your tuna, rice and broccoli eaten out of Tupperware 6 times a day….
What does any sane flexible dieter do when they go to a restaurant?
They do three things –
For instance, someone on a bulk might go all out and decide on ordering something pretty high calorie, like a burger and chips with dessert. Someone on more modest macros could go for a stir fry with some rice, or steak and potatoes.
Then we have those poor souls on “poverty macros” for whom a salad will be more or less the only choice.
The assertive flexible dieter will metaphorically weigh up what they’ve got left to play with in terms of calories/macros for the day, and decide how much they want to “spend” on this meal.
If you’re going to a chain restaurant, you can bet your boots there’ll be calorie (and possibly even specific macro) information on their website, on your app, or even on the menu itself.
If there isn’t any information specified, they’ll take an educated guess.
Pretty simple, right?
Unfortunately though, far too many newcomers to flexible dieting see eating out as something to be avoided.
Worried that they won’t get their macros spot on, they give restaurants a wide berth. Cos, you know, the chef adding an extra half a tablespoon of oil, or not knowing the exact amount of rice you’re eating is pretty much the end of the world…..
Meals out and socialising are all part of flexible dieting, so embrace it, and don’t sweat if you’re not in complete control.
The blue cheese sauce and pancake syrup from Walden Farms are like crack to me – I love them, but I don’t use them year-round.
Companies like WF make some fantastic calorie-free products (we could get into the semantics about how they’re not actually completely calorie-free, but that’s for another article) which are a great way to make your foods more interesting without adding a tonne of calories from sugars and trans fats.
But there’s a time and a place for zero-calorie foods, and that time is mainly when dieting.
If you’ve only got 100 grams of carbs per day, you don’t want to waste 20 of them on some sweet chilli sauce, or spunk half your allowance on real maple syrup. Even a few grams of carbs from a sauce or dressing can feel like you’re giving up much tastier carbs in favour of a little flavour on your meals.
So when cutting, zero-calorie foods are particularly useful.
At other times though? Not so much.
There’s nothing wrong with eating real peanut butter rather than always going for PB2, and while I myself have been guilty of taking my Walden Farms out with me when grabbing lunch, there’s no way I’m going to take my 1-carb ketchup to a friend’s house, or carry round a bottle of sugar-free coffee syrup with me for 95% of the year.
When starting out counting macros and tracking food intake, I tell me clients to weigh everything.
I believe it’s vital to get an idea of exact quantities for every food you eat on a daily basis. Once they’re comfortable with this though, I let them eyeball green veggies, and even lean meats. I don’t ask them to weigh fruit, and state that how accurate they are with weighing and measuring depends on their goals…..
If you’re dedicated to getting shredded and in the final few weeks of a diet, then everything should be weighed and measured.
For general fat loss though, this is just overkill, even for those looking to get “beach lean.”
And for people just after a better physique and feeling healthier, weighing each individual lettuce leaf is, well, absurd, and goes completely against the flexibility aspect.
There is undoubtedly a time and a place for being attached to your scale, and that’s when shit starts to get serious and you’re in comp prep.
For instance, I had lunch this past weekend with a couple of my mates. Steve (of https://www.facebook.com/revivestephenhall and http://stephenhallrevive.com/ ) is just 8 weeks out from his first natural bodybuilding competition and looking diced. He DID quickly whip out his scales and weigh his chicken and burger bun before he started his meal.
This, in my eyes, is perfectly acceptable. Doing this means he stays on point with his progress, keeps accountable and it enabled him to come out and have lunch with us. Had I (currently reverse dieting) done this, I’d have expected a barbell to be delivered straight into my chops.
So your macros are set at 200 grams of protein, 300 grams of carbs and 50 grams of fat.
Does that mean you have to hit 200 grams of protein, 300 grams of carbs and 50 grams of fat every single day?
Much like the above, it comes down to what your goals are.
For the vast, vast majority of people, being within 10% of the numbers (provided that’s not 10% over on every one, every day) is absolutely fine.
A bit more serious? Aim for within 5%, or even 5 grams of each. Even the aforementioned contest preppers needn’t nail each macro on the dot.
In fact, the more I personally see how clients progress, the more flexible I am with my recommendations.
I’ve moved from giving every client precise macro targets to hit, to giving many a calorie range and a minimum protein target.
For example, instead of getting a tracking newbie who’s prepping for photo shoot to eat 200 grams of protein, 200 grams of carbs and 60 grams of fat every day, I might ask them to get between 2100 and 2200 calories, and a minimum of 180 grams of protein each day.
Provided they’re sensible with their food choices, they’ll still get a decent amount of fibre and essential fats, and will find the whole process much easier.
Just as an example of how being consistent, rather than perfect works perfectly well, check out this post from Nick Cheadle of http://nickcheadlefitness.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/nickcheadlefitness –
“I use MyFitnessPal to track my macros & log my foods for the day.
Yesterday, for the first time in my 154 day streak, I hit my macros dead on, along with meeting my nutritional guidelines.
Yep – for the first time.
My point? You don’t need to be a dieting nazi when it comes to meeting your daily macros to see results. Consistently getting within 2-5g of your protein, carbs & fats is going to suffice & give you accurate enough feedback to ensure you can tweak your diet accordingly moving forward. So relax! You aren’t always going to be able to hit your numbers spot on.”
Oh, and in case you think Nick’s probably in “ok shape” doing this, I’ll let you decide for yourself –
Behind the wheel, the barbell and the Adidas Ironworks squat shoe, MyFitnessPal is undoubtedly the greatest ever invention.
That being said, it’s a tool to make flexible dieting easier, it is not your boss, your bible or your best friend.
If you spend more than 5 minutes each day working out macros and calories, you’re overthinking things. MFP is there so you don’t have to make your own spreadsheets or spend hours pouring over calorie guides.
Spend less time with your head in your phone, and more time cooking and eating tasty food.
These forum posts are the bane of my life.
I love the fact flexible dieting teaches people about nutrition, as well as moderation, but the sheer number of people posting these requests baffles me.
For one thing, if you have 30 grams of fat left, and no carbs or protein, you’re basically limiting to necking some olive oil, or eating butter off the spoon. 100 grams of protein? Say hello to egg whites and dry tuna.
Hitting macros perfectly for the sake of perfection is miserable – rather than looking at each macro individually, aim to hit calories and roughly get your macros right. (As per point 4.)
30 grams of fat left? That’s 270 calories. How about you have some peanut butter instead?
Sure, 45 grams of PB will give you 23 grams of fat, 11 grams of protein and 4 grams of carbs, but that comes to 267 calories of predominantly fat, so close enough.
Like I said right at the very start, the idea of flexible dieting is …..
By removing unnecessary restrictions, you take the stress away from food and fat loss. While your friends are going batshit crazy about avoiding gluten and dairy, you can eat bread and cheese without worry.
Going out for a meal? No need to scour the local area for places that only serve grass-fed beef – a flexible dieter can eat anywhere.
By being so inflexible though, you’re setting yourself up to be just as dogmatic and ritualistic as those who follow clean eating plans and rules-based diets.
So chill out, keep your macros in mind, but go out, enjoy life, eat some good food and embrace flexibility.
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