How To Start Flexible Dieting

So in my article Your Tailor-Made Diet I talked about this concept ‘Flexible Dieting’, and whether or not you have heard about it before I am going to give you the low-down.

I will cover everything you need to know about Flexible Dieting:

  • Working out your Calories & Macronutrients.
  • Explaining Flexible Dieting.
  • Why being less strict will lead to better results.
  • Creating your Macronutrient Managed Flexible Meal Plan.
  • Your 4 Steps to Flexible Dieting Success.

There is more to it than macronutrients.

There is a lot more to it than just tracking foods…

First let me tell you, Flexible Dieting works, really really well, that is why it is so popular.


Flexible Dieting Defined 

Who better to define Flexible Dieting than Lyle McDonald himself (author of A Guide to Flexible Dieting):

“You aren’t expecting absolute perfection & strictness in your dieting behaviour”

Basically, if you fall off your diet one day, you get back on it the next, don’t beat yourself up, just remain consistent for the most part. Lyle goes on to use an example of someone trying to lose fat and for whatever reason they cannot turn down a cookie, which is not on their diet plan. They eat said cookie.

If you follow a flexible diet you realise that in the big scheme of things that single cookie within the context of consistently following your diet is not a big deal. However, if you decide to screw it and eat the entire box of cookies because you broke your diet, then yeah, that is a big deal.

Typical dieting approaches do not allow any sort of flexibility, take Atkins (no carbs) for example, cookies are definitely are not on the menu. But what happens when you crave that cookie? You hold that craving and you lock it away. But it never goes away, it grows in size, till it becomes an all consuming force. You break. You go hell for leather and consume the entire box of cookies. What might have not been a problem, just turned into a big one. Often that causes people to go off the rails completely, they admit defeat, they’re not determined enough to stick to the diet. They’ve failed.

cookie

Another example Lyle uses is a social event, in which there will be food, like at a dinner party. Again traditional rigid diets wouldn’t allow for such an event, and so you feel pissed off because you cannot enjoy the good food on offer, or you decide to screw your diet and eat all the food available. So you’re either not enjoying any social occasions because you have to stick to this rigid diet, which in the end you will break. Or you give in there and then, blowing out and turning something that need not have been a problem into one. Again, the dieter thinks they’ve failed.

You know what, it isn’t the dieters that are failing, it is the diets. Restrictive diets are never sustainable, and if you cannot eat how you’re eating today, you’ll never maintain your results. Flexible Diets allow you to remain sustainable, and in the long run see results that stay put.

So traditional dieting approaches fail for two main reasons:

  1. Restrictive & expecting perfection.
  2. Un-sustainable & no long-term approach.

So whether it be a cookie, a dinner party or a holiday, the flexible dieter realises that they can flex, and enjoy themselves, and afterwards get back on track. They have no need to go on an all out binge, because they can flex whenever they like, and so don’t need a big release.

So again, I come back to the definition of Flexible Dieting:

“You aren’t expecting absolute perfection & strictness in your dieting behaviour”

You got that? No I have to stick to my diet no matter what, no oh my god I cannot eat that it isn’t on my plan, no screw it I have been good all month I need a release. What makes or breaks the success of a diet is how someone reacts when such events occur. Aim for progress, not perfection.


Why Being Less Strict Leads to Better Results

My problem isn’t that diets don’t work, they do, we are great at losing weight, but awful at keeping that weight off. It’s because traditional, restrictive diets cause the problem as shown above, we restrict, restrict, restrict, see results, but eventually we break.

We break our diet, and 95% of us gain all the weight back that we lost and 1/3 to 1/2 of us put more weight on than before they started the diet. Fad diets are the reason we cannot keep that weight off, as I said before, if you cannot eat like you are today for the rest of your life, your results won’t remain. If you do not enjoy how you’re eating and have crazy restrictions in place, you will always be driven to focussing on when it’ll be over, this short-term mindset sets you up for failure.

Worse yet, people almost get fat to diet. Ever decided to start a new diet and then the days leading up to it you go ‘what the hell’ and eat all the food? Thus, putting on a substantial amount of weight in a small space of time? This ‘last supper effect’ has been shown in studies for example; in one study in which they looked at the effects of food deprivation on taste perception, half of the participants were assigned to a diet condition and told that immediately after the study they would start on a 7 day low fat, low calorie diet. Along with the diet plan was a list of forbidden foods. Participants were then presented with three plates of cookies (one of the forbidden foods) that they had to taste and rate, and were left alone for 10 minutes with the instruction, ‘help yourself … we have tons.’ Participants then completed a dietary restraint scale and the cookie plates were re-weighed.

last supper effect

Those told they were going to go onto the low calorie diet with forbidden foods ate almost double the amount of cookies. This is a ‘last supper effect’ as a response to anticipated deprivation. It is almost setting yourself up for failure. That pesky cookie rises it’s ugly head again. This binge eating mentality is not a healthy way to act, and rigid dieting strategies have been shown to be to be associated with eating disorders and higher BMIs (this was in women, but likely we can extend this to men) where as flexible diets have not.

The hardest thing therefore is maintaining your results and this is why you need to make your diet a lifestyle, and that is where Macronutrient Managed Flexible Dieting comes in. It’s better than any fad diet, or meal plan. Using this approach you will be empowered to change your physique at your own will, because you will have an understanding of how much of what foods your body needs.

In short:

“There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods; there’s room to indulge in treats as long as you meet your overall weekly targets; micro and macro.”

Why use this approach:

  1. Results Driven – this approach smashes all others out of the park because there is no second guessing, you are tracking your food, so you know you’re in a calorie deficit and you will lose fat. There is no free foods or forbidden foods, there is just accountability of all foods. So you will be much more likely to see results. Plus you have control over your macronutrients, so you can get the right amount of protein, fat and carbs to best maintain/grow muscle mass and provide the best performance. If you don’t believe me just check out Rob, who used a Flexible Dieting Approach throughout his Natural Bodybuilding prep. Sure it got a lot less flexible from start to finish, but it was still a macronutrient managed flexible diet.1rob
  2. Sustainable – This dieting approach is all customised to you, your needs AND preferences. You want to eat oats, cool you can so long as they fit your nutritional aims, you wanna eat a kit-kat, cool you can again, so long as that food provides you the right nutrition for your goals. So because we can eat by preference, and the diet is flexible as already discussed (and I will go over the flexible pillars below) you will see results that stick, no re-bounds. I’ve personally been eating this way for over 3 years now, and I can honestly say, I couldn’t be happier, it took me from a bad place to a great place.

 Macronutrient Managed Flexible Dieting

Right so in Your Tailor-Made Diet you worked out how many calories you need, and you also know now how many of each Macronutrient you need, on top of that you have the education on the importance of Micronutrition. You can combine this with the Flexible Dieting approach and you can get onto a Macronutrient Managed Flexible Diet.

This is brilliant, because it leads to the best results possible. Instead of going into say the Atkins diet, and using a Flexible Dieting mantra, which would work, you actually understand Macros, Micros and can therefore take a more informed approach to your eating. So rather than eliminating food groups, such as carbohydrates in Atkins, you allow for the right amount of each macronutrient. You also then have no restrictions in food choice, you know you need to get sufficient micronutrition, so eat plenty of fruit and vege, but also know you can get a little cheeky and consume some choccy (or whatever the craving may be) now and then, so long as it hits your macronutrient targets. This has been called If It Fits Your Macros or IIFYM, and in summary:

“if micro nutrition needs are met then no matter what foods you eat, so long as the total macronutrients are identical the resulting impact on your physique will be the same (all other things being equal of course).”

So you should eat foods you enjoy, basing your food selection on personal preference. You decide what you eat, the diet just guides this via macronutrients.

How might this look in practice? Alan Aragon has a nice simple 80/10/10 rule. A good recommendation is to get 80% of your foods from wholesome, micronutrient dense items, you know; nuts, meats, fruits, vegetables, starchy carbs etc. Then you have 10% from semi-junk food items, that might be like kids cereal, a protein bar. Finally the last 10% is blatant junk food you love; that might be processed, or contain few micronutrients, you know; crisps, sweets, pastries, donuts etc. There are many items that kinda land in-between, like pizza, it’s processed, sure, but essentially it is just cheese, bread, veggies and meat, not so bad. So it’ll take a bit of practice to get used to balancing things, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll think nothing of it.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 18.44.28

Macronutrient Managed Flexible dieting is about having an understanding that everyone is different in terms of their dietary needs and requirements, depending on goal, activity & age amongst other things. It is inclusive of all foods and allows the individual to enjoy a wide varied diet, that is based around whole foods. The approach is prefaced on being stress free, allowing the individual to fit nutrition into their life.

You know what else you don’t need to sweat? Meal timing. Want to eat 1 meal, 4 meals, 8 meals, who cares? Not you, because you’re a flexible dieter and that means you take an informed eating approach. This means you realise small details like timing your meals isn’t going to make enough difference to sweat over. If you’re not sure why meal timing doesn’t really matter, check our my article Meal Timing Myths.

tomato-mozzarella-653838_640

I think some people struggle with what is enough micronutrition, I know when I started using this approach I did, and many of my clients do too. So in Get Big, Stay Lean I came up with the following bullet points:

  • Consume a minimum of 10% of your carbohydrate in fibre, with a minimum of 25g (if you eat 200g of carbs, get at least 25g of fibre daily, if 300g then 30g of fibre).
  • Consume a minimum of 2 portions of fruit and vegetables per 1000kcal.
  • Consume a range of fats, including nuts, vegetables oils, animal fat and Omega-3’s.

Revive’s Pillars of Flexibility

Ranges

So I have gone over this roughly already, but if you’re following macro’s such as 164g protein, 234g carbs and 62g fats, you’re not flexible dieting. You would really have to closely monitor everything you ate, or find yourself never ever getting the ‘right’ numbers. This is not a liveable diet, that will destroy consistency, and therefore destroy progress. It becomes another fad diet.

So, I suggest you round your calories to the nearest 100 and round your macros to the nearest 5. Then just as you have a range for calories you can set a range for your macronutrients, I would go for a 10g to 20g range on protein and carbs, and a 5g to 10g range on fat. You will go closer to the lower end of those ranges the more important it is for you to get results fast e.g. contest prep. You can then work within these to hit within your calories. This will be much more enjoyable and makes things incredibly flexible, making the diet much easier to stick to. Making you more consistent, which is really key.

Priority Scale

This is a three layered scale, with the outside being the most important and inside the least. It allows you to know you are still making good progress, yet gives that extra bit of flexibility if so desired.

Using this scale we can therefore get our priorities in order. Imagine you are out all day, making sticking to the ranges harder, or having a meal out, or are going away for a few days. During these times you may require more flexibility than the ranges provide. In these cases you can look to this scale.

priority scale

First things first, aim to get within the calorie range, this is because calories regardless of macronutrient intake control whether we gain, lose or maintain weight. Next up is to try and land within your protein range and then carbs and fat. That means you could trade up some of your carbs one day for a bit more fat, but you’d try and remain in your calorie and protein ranges. Heck you could go hitting layers 1 and 2 and see terrific results, especially if this allowed you to be consistent.

Weekly Averages

Your final pillar is Weekly Averages, and by that I mean say you are trying to hit 2000 to 2100 calories, with 160 to 170g protein, 200 to 210g carbs and 55 to 65g fat. You’re going through your week and maybe one day you end up going to 2300 calories, so you’re over by 200 calories. Instead of stressing out, you’d just pull back later in the week, so that overall when you averaged everything out your calories and macros fell within the ranges provided. 

tracking calories

I’d recommend not going hog wild changing you intake week to week, day to day, because that will make tracking your progress hard. So I like to cap movement at 20%, so say you’re aiming for 2000 to 2100 calories, you could move around 200 calories from one day to another as you please. That is small enough so that if it happened all the time you could still monitor change successfully and large enough to give an extra boost of flexibility. I believe I got that from Eric Helms, he is one intelligent gent.

Just remember, your energy output day to day changes, one day you might walk an extra 1000 meters, or maybe you got up more times in the night to pee, or had a night out and danced a lot. So splitting hairs about hitting a particular gram of protein or calorie number is pointless.


EXAMPLE

3100-3200 Calories of which 160-180 Protein | 400-440 Carbs | 75 – 85 Fats

So I ensure I land within my Calorie range and then fall into each of my Macro ranges, and sometimes use the flexible pillars to provide more leeway. This might mean I hit the high end of my protein and carbs one day and the low end of my fats, or maybe I went out and had a fatty meal and so I’m at the high end of my fats and so shoot lower for carbs and protein. The calories guide the macronutrients and then the macronutrients guide my Flexibility.

flexible dieting

A days worth of eating:

  • 11am: 2 medium eggs, 2 slices of wholewheat bread, half a tin of baked beans, onion, pepper and mushrooms fried.
  • 2pm: A serving of Kids cereal and a chocolate chip cookie.
  • Train.
  • 4:30pm: A Protein Mug Cake, 140g Blackberries, 1 Nectarine & 1 Ice-Cream Wafer
  • 8pm: Vegetarian Chili with Croquettes
  • 10pm: 3 omega 3 capsules, a homemade nut flapjack, 3 servings of Kids cereal with milk, 150g of Chocolate Brownie Icecream, another Protein Mug Cake

Macro’s for that day: 165 Protein | 435 Carbs | 79 Fat (72g fibre – too many beans!)

Servings of fruit & vegetables: 9

That is quite a typical day for me, you can clearly see I eat a very varied diet, with multiple protein sources, different fats and a load of carbohydrates. But I definitely get my fair share of treats in there. Because I am on a high caloric intake I have a larger budget for this sort of food, when I was in contest prep and on under 2000 calories, I certainly did not have this many treats. You see the 80/10/10 rule keeps you in check and is directly relational for each individuals circumstances.

I enjoy my diet, I don’t wake up and shudder at the thought of breakfast, I wake up and look forward to eating. This means I am consistent with my approach, and will be able to sustain it for the long term. Sure there are days I get a bit too off track, but I am sure to then reign it in when it’s needed. I have seen great results and the best thing is they stay. I use this approach with all my clients and you can see the sort of results they got here.

Being honest and accurate in your calculation is essential for long-term success.


Starting your Macronutrient Managed Flexible Diet 

So you have the knowledge that there are not good or bad foods, only good or bad diets. Plus you now know how many calories and macronutrients your body needs to progress towards your goals. You also know that you can be a little flexible with your diet, you don’t have to be perfect day in day out, but the more consistent you are, the better the results you will see. You’re now ready to start building your macronutrient managed flexible diet.

Step 1 – Work-out your numbers

Step 2 – Get your gear

  • A food scale is going to paramount, you’ll need to weigh food so you know how much you’re having
  • Download a food diary app so you can track you intake, my favourite is myfitnesspal

Step 3 – Plan for success

  • I suggest before you start free-balling and eating and tracking as you go, you try and make up a day in advance, so you have a meal plan that gets you landing within all your ranges. Think of this as a stepping stone to full flexible dieting.

Don’t expect yourself to be perfect from day 1, it takes some time to get used to tracking, weighing and measuring your food. It isn’t for everyone, and doesn’t need to be done with such accuracy all the time. For me personally tracking is a habit, and so I do not find it difficult putting my bowl on the scale before I put out my food and then inputting it into my phone.

salmon

However, I am still much more flexible now than I have been, for example, when I was dieting and needed to get to sub 10% bodyfat, I was not flexible in the slightest. I didn’t eat out, I hit my macro’s within 5grams and didn’t slip up ever. Whereas now I will sometimes just hit my protein and my calorie goals and let carbs and fat land where they may. I will go out for meals frequently and just guestimate the macronutrients in the meal.

Just remember you will see better results the stricter you are, times such as getting prepped for a photoshoot, or holiday, you may want to be less flexible. However, you can see great results with just a moderately strict approach, tracking just calories and protein is a very easy approach and you will see great results. Then when you are away on holiday or you’re having a meal out, you can flex a little further, because occasions like this don’t always happen.

Your Final Step

  • Move away from the idea of dieting:
Flexible Dieting is a philosophy that has sticking power, it is something you can do for life. Click To Tweet

Now you know how to set up a diet geared for long term success be sure to check out this article if you want to progress in the gym, week in week out, getting to the strongest and most muscular version of you: Periodisation for Progress.


Resources
  • Lyle McDonald ‘A Guide to Flexible Dieting’
  • Smith, C. F., Williamson, D. A., Bray, G. A., & Ryan, D. H. (1999). Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 32(3), 295-305.
  • Steve Hall ‘Get Big, Stay Lean
  • Urbszat D Herman CP Polivy J (2002) Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet: Effects of anticipated deprivation on food intake in restrained and unrestrained eaters J Abnorm Psychol 111 396 – 401
  • Bray GA1, Most M, Rood J, Redmann S, Smith SR. Hormonal responses to a fast-food meal compared with nutritionally comparable meals of different composition.
  • Smith CF1, Williamson DA, Bray GA, Ryan DH. Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioural outcomes.

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