Flexible Dieting: If you are going to diet, do it well
Some diets make empty promises
Some ‘traditional’ (using that term loosely) diets seemingly have led people to believe that entire food groups are bad for you. In reality, there are not really too many foods that will harm most of us or our diets when eaten in moderation.
A few diets preach far and wide that carbohydrates, for example, are the root of all (dietary) evil for everyone who ever lived. It’s true that some people may have a medical issue with carbs; in that case, carbs are indeed bad for THOSE PEOPLE.
Other diets preach that as many fats as possible should be avoided. Naturally, a fat free diet generally leads to an unhealthy existence. Your body uses fats for TONS of helpful and necessary functions every moment you are alive.
Various other diets preach that you should stay away from various foods, that you can only eat raw foods, or that you need to exist off of nothing but sunlight. (Yes, that last one exists even though I sarcastically included it. Google ‘breatharians.’)
The problem with most trendy diets is that they aren’t realistic or sustainable for most people. Who really wants to give up the entirety of the junk food or dairy categories if they don’t have to and aren’t morally opposed to it? Some people have genuine medical issues or a moral resistance to eating certain things, and that is fine.
A small subset of people fall into that category though, while an overwhelming number of nutritional plans push it. Huge imbalance.
Truth is, most people don’t want to give up entire food groups. They suffer through horrible diets because they want to be healthier; choosing to believe the hype that they read on a blog somewhere.
Most people will probably have a cheat meal somewhere along the way to their goal. For those on very restrictive diets, that meal may very well turn into an unhealthy day; a day may become a binge week; then a month goes by. Old habits die hard, the previous lifestyle returns, and the weight comes roaring back.
Don’t fall victim to a terrible diet that costs more than it’s worth. ‘Flexible Dieting,’ or ‘Macro Dieting,’ is an ingenious concept that sounds harder than it really is. The entire premise is that you can eat whatever you want, however you want. Flexible dieters follow just one guideline: Stick within your caloric and macronutrient needs.
What are ‘Macronutrients’ and why do they matter?
Macronutrients, or macros for short, are what your body sees when it breaks down food. For example, when you see bread, your body sees carbohydrates; if you eat a piece of chicken, your body sees protein; and if you consume some olive oil with dinner, your body sees it as a fat.
Macros come in three forms:
Each macro has it’s own fundamental purpose. Additionally, each contains different variations of micronutrients (vitamins/minerals) within them. None of them are inherently worse for you than the others. Instead, they work together to balance your system, fulfilling different functions.
Carbohydrates are the “sugars, starches, and fibers” that your body needs for fuel. They come from things like bread, pasta, and potatos.
When your body ingests carbohydrates, it breaks them down into glucose, which it then uses to power itself. Glucose, or blood sugar, is a primary source of energy used by your muscles, nervous system, cells, tissues, and organs. Carbohydrates are hugely important to your body, and any extra glucose derived from carbohydrates is stored for later use.
Proteins are long chains of amino acids (the ‘building blocks of life’) that your body uses to build and fuel muscles, strengthen your immune system, help keep your skin youthful. They also do a ton of other really useful things that work to not only help you grow up big and strong, but also protect you from internal and external issues that would otherwise be pretty bad news.
Getting enough protein in your diet is fairly easy in the western world. It is mainly found in animal products like chicken, beef, and eggs, but can also be found in nuts and legumes.
Fats used to be the most maligned macro out there, with entire diets dedicated to eradicating them from your daily intake. Don’t be fooled, though. This macro isn’t quite the villain it has been portrayed as.
Your body uses fats for tons of positive things. They supply the body with nutrients that it cannot make on it’s own, assist with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins and minerals, and serves as an energy reserve in times when food is less available among other critical functions.
Additionally, and unrelated to actual diet, fats add flavor to your food. Without fats, food is bland and boring. That obviously doesn’t work out well for people who like to taste their foods.
I guess they are important, huh?
Yes! Each macronutrient plays a tremendous role in the overall balance of your system. Cutting an entire macro out of your diet might be sustainable in the short term, but we don’t really know long term impacts. That is why people jump into the flexible dieting lifestyle. You can have your cake and eat it, too!
Is it sustainable?
Flexible dieting’s entire premise is that it is a long term, sustainable diet. After all, if most people fail on diets because they miss whatever they cut out, why not just fit it into the diet? Letting people have small amounts of whatever their problem foods are can avoid the whole FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) thing that throws people off in the first place.
Besides, with flexible diets you should be getting all of the required nutrients your body needs to not only survive, but thrive.
I can eat junk food?? On a diet?
Of course that is as long as you can fit it into your overall calorie intake and macro ratio.
Obviously, this type of dietary freedom shouldn’t be abused. Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you should. Sure, you might be able to fit a cheeseburger or a few slices of pizza into your diet daily, but are those choices really going to help you get to your goal? It isn’t so much that you should avoid them entirely, just that you should make conscious choices when you do partake.
A serving of pretzels and a medium apple might be roughly the same in terms of calories and macros, but pretzels lack the vitamins and minerals you find in the apple. Besides, a serving of pretzels does almost nothing to curb hunger, but a medium apple can suppress hunger for a little bit longer.
Calorie and macro density should be taken into consideration when counting macros, with a concentration on nutrient dense, calorie light foods.
How does flexible dieting actually work?
The hardest part of a flex diet is figuring out how much you should be eating in both in total, and for each macro. Once you have that figured out, it’s a cakewalk.
First step: Find Daily Calorie Needs
Like most diets, the first thing you need to do if you are serious about your goals is determine your BMR/TDEE. This will give you an idea of how much you should eat a day.
Knowing your total calorie consumption for the day lays the groundwork for pretty much any diet. In fact, it is good for everyone to know their own personal daily needs. Lots of people undereat and don’t even known it, leading to as many problems as those who overeat.
Second step: Figure Out Your Macros
Once you know your daily caloric requirement, you need to figure out what ratio of macros works best for you to reach your goals. No tool or measurement will give you the same answer. It is an individual thing.
A good ratio to start at might be:
- 40% Carbs
- 35% Protein
- 25% Fats
This is a generally accepted starting spot, and there are tons of online forums to help you adjust as needed if you aren’t seeing the results you want. Try it out for a month and half or so. If it isn’t working, adjust.
Step Three: Plot Out How Much of Each Macro to Consume
The next logical step is to figure out how many grams of each macro you are supposed to eat each day. A good thing to note here:
- 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
- 1 gram of carbs = 4 calories
- 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
Knowing what your overall calorie needs are, what percentages of each macro you are shooting for, and how many calories there are per gram, you can figure this out.
Total Calories * Percentage per macro / calories per gram = Total Grams per macro
Of course, if you don’t want to calculate that all by hand there are a ton of tools out there that can help you figure this out. They take into account activity levels, overall goals, etc. and help you to modify your needs based on those things. Here are a few good options for this:
Step Four: Fit It All Together
Once you have it all figured out, the hardest part is done. Macros don’t change dramatically over night. They can, and generally do, stay the same for a few months before you need to adjust them. By that time you will be rolling along on the diet, easily eyeballing foods and knowing what fits where. You will probably have a good schedule going by the time you need to adjust, and even then they are usually minor adjustments.
Fit in your foods to those numbers, balancing a bit of each macro everytime you eat. Keep things balanced and the diet is a breeze.
Example Macro Requirements
Let’s look at a scenario to see how it all fits together. Make up someone in your head. Let’s name them ‘Bob,’ or something. Pretend they are a 26 year old male, 5′ 8″, and roughly 185lbs. They lead a fairly light, but not sedentary, lifestyle. He wants to stay the same weight, but change his body composition mostly jiggles to something a bit healthier.
Let’s get ‘Bob’ on a good flexible dieting schedule.
First thing he needs to do? Calculate his BMR/TDEE. These two metrics measure how many calories he expends just existing (BMR) and how many calories he expends throughout the day when exercise/activity is taken into consideration (TDEE).
After calculating his TDEE, let’s say he discovers his daily caloric need is:
Total calories for the day: 2201
That helps quite a lot, actually. Based on the information he entered, this is his ‘maintenance level’ for caloric intake. It’s how much he needs to eat each day to stay at roughly the same weight.
Overall daily needs are where most people stop worrying about what the eat. As long as they stay at or under their requirements, they are good. But, this isn’t a normal calorie counting diet afterall.
Bob’s next step is to determine how much of each macro to eat a day.
After a bit of research, he decided to try these macros:
- 40% Carbs
- 35% Proteins
- 25% Fats
This would make his individualized diet:
- Carbohydrates: 233g (880 Calories)
- Protein: 153g (770 Calories)
- Fats: 73g (550 Calories)
After a bit of meal planning, he will be rolling on his way towards hitting those macros each day.
Make it easy on yourself
The hardest part of this diet is initially figuring out what your calorie needs and individual macro requirements are. After that, its fairly simple.
To make figuring that part out easier on yourself, you could download something like the MyFitnessPal app. Enter some information and it will calculate all of these things for you. What a wonderful world we live in, eh? You don’t even need to do the math by hand. It is, however, useful to know how to do it by hand so you can understand the science behind it and why it works.
When you first start off, write down the calories and macros for each item you eat for a week or two. After you track them for a bit, look them over. You might be surprised at how much (or how little) you actually eat. You might even be more surprised at how heavy your diet relies on one macro over the rest. Flexible dieting can help fix that.
Ok, but does it actually work, or is it hype?
When I first experimented with this diet, I dropped my overall body fat percentage 11% in three months. On top of that, the macros I was using helped me to drop 17 lbs, retaining all but one pound of lean mass. That’s crazy.
But, don’t take my word for it. Mark Haub, a Kansas State University professor followed the diet for 2.5 months. “He found that he lost 27 pounds and improved his blood cholesterol levels” even though he was eating a bunch of junk.
There are tons of other examples out there that are similar. The concept works. It just requires balance.
It sounds too good. What are the drawbacks?
Obviously, a diet based on flexibility should be light on drawbacks, right? As much as I would love to say it is foolproof, there are a few drawbacks.
The BIGGEST problem with flexible dieting is that it can be time consuming to sit down and plan out days worth of meals, snacks, and beverages to make it work. This is especially true for beginners who really can’t gauge what does and doesn’t work.
Using an app like MyFitnessPal can go miles in helping to not only track macros, but also get it right in a much shorter period of time. Reducing the time spent on meal planning can help with motivation and give you more time for the things you actually enjoy in life.
Additionally, MyFitnessPal’s deep database of foods can help with the next draw back.
Not all restaurants were created equal. The same can be said about the amount of nutritional information provided when you sit down to order. One restaurant might provide a complete break down of calories and macros for every item on it’s menu, but most do not. Flexible dieting is a bit difficult for the beginner in this situation.
This leaves people guessing about how hard their meal might hit their ‘diet budget.’ Some of this can be negated through nutritional documents on the brand’s websites, but that is not always the case.
Guessing about nutritional content isn’t fun and often we are all wrong about it. People who have been tracking calories and macros for awhile can generally guess fairly accurately, but even then it will probably be off by a bit.
Finally, willpower. Yes, you are free to eat what you want, but remember that it has to FIT. If it doesn’t fit, you have to say no. This is where willpower comes into play.
Having a slight taste of something sweet, while most people consider it to be better than nothing, might cause others to partake more than they should. Overall, the willpower issue is common for any diet though and discipline is important.
Not all Macros are equal
Remember, not all food sources are equal. A homemade steak and potato dinner with a side of veggies can be much, much lower in total calories than a single meal at a fast food restaurant. The same can be said for macros. You won’t get too far if all of your carbs come from sugar cookies. Sprinkle in the junk if you can, but don’t make it a primary source of calories.
Overall, flexible dieting is a valid option for most people. It works. If it is for you, make it a part of your overall fitness program, stacking it with proper hydration and exercise. You will go far.
If you want to turbocharge your diet, stack it with an Intermittent Fasting routine.