Our nutrition plays a huge role in our fitness success. Good eating practices allow us to build muscle, lose fat, and feel good. Bad eating leads to an inability to lose fat, difficulty with muscle gain, and general tiredness.
The problem is, there are many ideas and anecdotes for what ‘good nutrition’ should be. With that in mind, I’ve put together this guide on flexible dieting.
Today, we’ll go over:
- What flexible dieting is
- How to calculate your calories and macronutrients
- How to get started in 9 simple steps
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
What is Flexible Dieting?
Your body needs a certain number of calories each day to sustain itself and function. It should also, ideally, receive these calories from a healthy blend of proteins, carbs, and fats.
Now, based on your current goal (which, for my readers, tends to either be fat loss or muscle gain), your body may need more or less energy.
You also need an adequate amount of protein, carbs, and fats as each serves specific purposes that significantly impact your health and fitness outcomes.
For general bodyweight manipulation (gain, loss, or maintenance), what matters most is how much you eat. In other words, the calorie number takes first place. Then comes protein. Then come carbs and fats. Then come vitamins and minerals. And then comes everything else, which makes much less of a difference in the long run, but, ironically, often receives the most attention. Here’s how it looks like:
Now, flexible dieting is more of a philosophy than a diet. You’re not following a strict plan, but rather, you have some general guidelines you need to adhere to.
The basic idea is to get the majority of your calories from whole, nutritious foods and leave the remaining ten to twenty percent for treats. You have specific calorie and macronutrient (or, at least protein) goals for each day. So long as you make mostly healthy food choices, how you fill these up is your decision.
(Remember this because it will come in handy in a moment.)
This is the explanation I give to clients, readers, and friends on what flexible dieting is. And, without a doubt, at least half the time, I get the following in response:
“So I can eat whatever I want, so long as I get the recommended number of calories, protein, carbs, and fats?”
No, my dear friend, that’s not what I meant. You’re thinking of IIFYM.
“Wait, what the hell is IfYFM now?”
What is ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM)?
Remember that feeling when you were younger, and you could eat whatever and whenever you wanted?
Cake? Oh my, give it here.
Burgers with the boys? Is there a better way to spend a summer evening?
A pound of ice cream? Must you ask?
This is what IIFYM feels like for many people.
You see, IIFYM emerged from flexible dieting (or was it the other way around)? People took the principles of solid nutrition that also provided some dietary flexibility and flipped it on its head:
Great dietary flexibility with components of solid nutrition.
The idea of IIFYM (and why I hate this acronym so much) is that, so long as a given food, any food, fits your specific calorie and macronutrient requirements for the day, you can eat it. To be sure, it’s better than nothing. But it’s also not your best strategy, especially if you also care about that thing called good health. Pfft.. who needs that, anyway?
The way I see it, IIFYM is about eating whatever the hell you want, so long as it fits your macros and many folks have taken it up as a personal challenge to shovel as much crap down their throat as possible while ‘keeping macros in check.’
What Makes Flexible Dieting So Great
From the outside, flexible dieting and IIFYM seem like the same thing, and many folks use the two terms interchangeably. Both have the same objective, but they share some subtle differences, which, in my opinion, is what makes flexible dieting the superior approach.
Without further ado, here are four solid reasons why flexible dieting is so great:
1. Flexible dieting is.. flexible.
To be sure, IIFYM is flexible, as well. But, as I stated above, I do believe that many folks misinterpret flexibility and twist it so much that it becomes this junk-food-laden way of eating.
On the other hand, flexible dieting offers balance and enough freedom to help us stay on track with our goals and not have to give up all the foods we love.
2. Flexible dieting is good for your health.
Basing your diet around nutritious and minimally-processed foods with some form of caloric mindfulness is good for your health.
3. Flexible dieting is sustainable, especially when compared to the majority of diets out there.
What most diets have in common, and why (according to unofficial statistics) about 95 percent of them fail in the long-run, is that they are unsustainable.
Sure, everyone can get motivated and adhere to some diet for a few weeks or months. But what happens after that? What happens once you achieve your weight loss goals?
The reason why many people have found great success with flexible dieting is that it’s a sustainable way of eating. So long as you adopt the philosophy behind the approach, you can adhere to flexible dieting for the rest of your life.
4. It’s a worthy predecessor of intuitive eating.
I’m a firm believer that we should all, at our own pace, become intuitive eaters. The problem is, intuitive eating is a skill. And like any skill, you need to work on it so you can get better.
One of the best ways to start working toward intuitive eating is with flexible dieting. Tracking your calories teaches you valuable lessons around the crucial factors of hunger, satiety, and cravings.
Over time, you learn how to tell boredom from hunger, when to put the fork down, and, overall, how much food you need to feel satiated and manipulate your body weight. Thanks to these experiences, you learn more about your body, and you also become better at estimating calories in a given meal just by looking at it.
How I Approach Flexible Dieting (And How You Can, Too)
Unlike traditional tracking where you only have a calorie goal (e.g., eat 1800 calories per day), flexible dieting involves the monitoring of macronutrients (e.g., 160 grams of protein, 60 grams of fats, and 155 grams of carbs for a total of 1800 calories).
Only tracking calories is useful if your goals don’t go past, “I want to lose/gain weight.” But if you care about muscle gain (with minimal fat gain) and fat loss (with minimal muscle loss), you need to pay attention to your macronutrients, as well as your calories.
With that said, I believe that tracking all three macronutrients is unnecessary for most folks who only want to get in shape. Also, I think that extreme rigidity isn’t good in the long run. With that said, here are nine things I do to maintain my sanity year-round and still use flexible dieting to my advantage.
1. Aim for a caloric range, rather than an exact number.
This is not a huge thing by any means, but it does provide a peace of mind for most folks. Rather than worry about hitting a specific calorie goal (e.g., 2800 calories), having a small range of, say, 2600-2800 calories is a great way to make progress toward your objectives without having to stress out too much.
The only scenario where it would be more precise with your caloric intake is if you were preparing for a bodybuilding show. But, for general fat loss and muscle gaining, you can operate on a range just fine and enjoy the whole thing a lot more.
2. Track protein. Only protein.
I tracked my calories and macronutrients diligently for over two years — every day. Then I decided to track calories, protein, and fats, without calculating my carb or fiber intake. As time went on, I stopped tracking my fat intake and only went over my calories and protein.
After a few months of that, I realized something:
Not only did I feel happier and less stressed about my nutrition, but I kept making good progress in the gym.
Granted, if you plan on competing in bodybuilding, you’ll need to be very precise with your macros. But if you just want to get bigger and leaner, you don’t need to obsess over everything.Track your calories, make sure to get enough protein (0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight is plenty for most), and generally do your best to eat a healthy and balanced diet. Your fat, carb, fiber, and micronutrient intake will most likely sort itself out.
3. Do enjoy some of your meals out with friends. It’s not the end of the world.
Here’s the thing:
If your way of eating doesn’t allow for flexibility and eating out, you’re doing it wrong. The essence of flexible dieting is to be, well, flexible. You should be able to enjoy your social life without feeling guilty over every bite.So long as you’re at least somewhat mindful of what (and how much) you’re eating, you won’t break your diet. You might accidentally have fun.
4. Don’t obsess over meal frequency; do what works for you.
To be sure, we’ve slowly become less obsessed with meal frequency. These days, how often you eat doesn’t seem like the most important aspect of nutrition, and that’s a good thing.
Plenty of research has shown that, so long as you get your calories and macros in, how often you eat isn’t as important (one, two). So, rather than stress over whether you should eat four or six times today, do the sensible thing:
Do what works for you and what allows you to adhere to your nutrition in the long run.
5. On that note, try intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting is by no means mandatory or that one ancient Chinese secret to gains. It’s only a tool you can use to simplify your nutrition and adhere to a calorie-restricted diet more easily.
Say that you want to shed some fat and you have to eat 2500 calories per day. If you find that you struggle with hunger, you can skip breakfast and leave all of these calories for your lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. Will you lose more fat that way? Eh, probably not. But you’ll be able to adhere to your diet more easily.
Some folks feel hungry even while bulking, and having three square meals doesn’t work great for them. But skipping breakfast and eating all of their calories in the second half of the day allows them to enjoy bigger and more satisfying meals without going over their calorie goals.
6. Get the majority of your calories from whole, nutritious foods...
I’m not saying that pizza and cookies are inherently evil. By all means, have at them. But you should try to base your diet around whole, nutritious foods. That way, you’ll also make sure that your body gets a healthy dose of vitamins, minerals, fiber, high-quality protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats.
Here are some suggestions:
7. ...but do enjoy some junk food here and there.
I don’t recommend completely removing your favorite treats from your diet, and I certainly don’t want you to become a social outcast to make good fitness progress. How can anyone ever stick to a way of eating in the long-run if they never get to enjoy their favorite foods?
So, what I recommend is to eat healthy and minimally-processed foods for the most part (say 70-80+ percent of the time), and leave the remaining calories for the foods that tickle your soul.
Now, I do want to mention that, if you can’t eat a given food in moderation and one bite always leads to the next, then you need to be mindful of that, as well. For example:
Your other alternative is to avoid processed foods for the most part and treat yourself to a few meals out during the week.
But most importantly, don’t eat like a dumbass. Use some common sense, and you’ll do great.
8. Bet on water and less so on everything else.
I’m pretty sure that enough has been written on the importance of water and the benefits it delivers. So, rather than bore you to death, I only want to remind you to drink more water and less alcohol, sodas, fruit juices, and energy drinks.
A strategy that works for me is to always have a bottle full of water next to my computer. As I work, I can’t help but see it and drink up every thirty minutes or so.
9. Learn to cook. Seriously.
Knowing how to cook is not only an incredible sign of maturity, but it also means that you have complete control over your meals. You decide everything, which means that you can enjoy healthy meals without having to wonder about their caloric content.
This is not to say that eating out is inherently wrong; it merely means that it’s much more difficult to track calories and macronutrients at a restaurant because there are some unknown variables.
For example, a simple salad with a tiny bit of oil, vinegar, and salt can be 100 calories or less. But if the cook adds an extra round of oil, dairy, and salad dressing, you can be looking at upwards of 400 calories for the same quantity of food.
The Bottom Line
It’s no secret that the world of nutrition is divided… to put it mildly. There are a million approaches out there, and each has its tribe of raving fans.
I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, but I do believe that the more rigid an approach is, the more likely it is to fail in the long-run. This is why I love flexible dieting so much:
It offers a way to make progress in the gym, but it also gives us dietary freedom to live and eat as normal humans do.
My hope with this article is that you’ve 1) realized that flexibility is essential, and 2) that you’ve taken something you can apply to your daily life.
And if you’re interested in getting started with flexible dieting, I’ve put together a quick start guide for your convenience. All you have to do is write your email in the form below, and I’ll send it to you: