Flexible Dieting: How Being Less Strict With Your Diet Could be the Key to Success
The number of fitness trends promising fast weight loss can cause nothing short of an information overload. Wear this waist trainer. Drink this detox tea. Don’t eat carbs at night. Eat five to six small meals per day. Do fasted cardio. Take this pill. Stick to these fat-burning foods. And so the list continues.
Statistics regarding weight loss are grim. According to Dr Layne Norton, a pro natural bodybuilder who holds a Ph.D in Nutritional Sciences, over 80% of people are quite capable of losing weight, but the problem lies in keeping that weight off. “Of those people who do lose weight, 95% will gain all the weight back, and one third to half will put on more weight than they did before they started the diet, “ he said.
Given these dismal statistics, the effectiveness of current fitness trends in South Africa needs to be reconsidered, as they are simply too devastating to be ignored. Are we really addressing our over weight problem in the best way possible? The unfortunate truth is that the more times you try to diet in your life, the more difficult losing weight, and keeping it off, will become. We live in a culture of quick fixes, where fad diets and rigid dietary protocols are prioritized over sustainable lifestyle changes. The bottom line is if you can’t see yourself sticking to the diet you’ve chosen in a year’s time, you’re most likely going to fail.
To solve this weight loss conundrum, some South Africans have turned to a method of eating known as Flexible Dieting. Flexible Dieting, or “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM), is an approach that is based on restricting calories instead of food choices. This method has been growing in popularity in first world nations such as America, Australia and some parts of Europe, and is widely supported by power lifters, bodybuilders, cross fitters and those aiming to reach their aesthetic goals without a rigid dieting structure.
Studies within the fields of nutrition, obesity, appetite and psychology, to name but a few, have been repeatedly showing that those who diet flexibly tend to weigh less, exhibit better diet adherence in the long run and are less likely to binge eat as opposed to those who diet rigidly. In a study done in 2012, the Perceived Self-Regulatory Success in Dieting Scale (PSRS) was developed, where a restrictive diet strategy was compared to a flexible one. The restrictive diet excluded numerous food items, whilst the flexible nutrition approach included all foods in moderation. Results showed that flexible dieting techniques resulted in a strong correlation between a lower Body Mass Index (BMI), and thus overall weight loss as compared to a diet of limited food choices. Further more, the PSRS showed that those who followed a flexible diet approach were less likely to experience food addiction symptoms, psychological stress due rigid dietary control, food cravings and binge eating episodes.
So what is flexible dieting exactly? Let’s look at a logical argument, and one that is firmly rooted in science. Excess caloric consumption, or a positive state of energy balance, is what makes us fat, and those calories or energy come from food. A person is able to get fat by over consuming “clean” foods just as easily as they can on “dirty” or junk foods, and this means that calories, whether they come from whole foods or processed foods, matter. It’s important to remember that clean foods aren’t miracle foods, and they can still make you fat. Therefore, it is possible to lose weight by restricting caloric consumption alone, but focusing on macronutrient intake (protein, carbohydrate and fat) ensures that weight loss comes from body fat.
The basics of Flexible Dieting or IIFYM entail a set of macronutrient targets (protein, fat, carbohydrate), and fibre that must be hit every day. These numbers are personalized and are based on factors such as goals and activity level. No two individual macronutrient needs are the same, which also makes one wonder about the relevance of template meal plans which seem to be surfacing more often these days. Food logging is done via the use of calorie tracking applications comprised of some the largest food databases in the world, like My Fitness Pal or Calorie Counters. Food choice is then left up to the individual, allowing one to write their own meal plan according to their preferences, lifestyle and macronutrient targets.
By placing importance on the correct macronutrient intake, and prioritizing health and longevity by focusing on the nutritional value of food, body recomposition goals can be met in a sustainable way that’s according to your preferences, without having to follow a set meal plan. In this approach, no foods are off limits, and one is taught how to incorporate their preferences in moderation, even allowing room for the occasional sugary treat. It is essentially a method that focuses on long-term consistency as opposed to short-term perfection, and promotes mindfulness with regard to food composition, that in turn provides the structure for making healthy food choices long term, and paves the way for intuitive eating somewhere in the future.
Flexible dieting has unfortunately gotten a bad rap for being a “junk food” diet. Look for the hashtag “iifym” and you’re bound to be over loaded with what looks like sugar laden and highly refined foods. However, this is an incorrect impression of IIFYM as it is simply more exciting to take pictures of your pizza and ice cream as opposed to your chicken breast and brown rice. But yes, there is lee way to incorporate sugar into your diet. Sugar does not have to be completely omitted in order to achieve weight loss or your physique goals, and this has been proven. In 2005, a study was done which examined whether low glycemic index (GI) and load diets increased the weight loss effects of a calorie-restricted diet more so that a high GI diet. The results found that no link existed between faster weight loss and low GI diets, proving that caloric restriction is the overriding factor when in pursuit of weight loss. This in essence means you can still see progress by fitting in cookies into your diet! However, within the framework of flexible nutrition, whilst room for the occasional cookie or doughnut is left, those who are mindful of their fibre goals will also naturally gravitate toward fibrous whole foods, and in this way IIFYM is self-regulating.
In South Africa alone, a number of physique athletes will be hitting the stage this year who use flexible dieting and macronutrient tracking methods, which is a far cry from the usual tuna and broccoli diets that most bodybuilders have to endure. Some may argue that following a flexible approach for athletes may not be optimal as nutrient dense foods may be given the boot in place of more exciting foods. However, if flexible nutrition is executed properly this will not be the case. By concentrating on hitting a fibre goal each day, the IIFYM dieter will naturally be forced to choose whole foods, which are more fibrous in nature as compared to processed foods. However some leeway will still be left to incorporate more exciting food choices, depending on how big a person’s caloric budget is. Everyone’s metabolism is different. And flexible dieting must be used within one’s caloric bounds. If you have a fast metabolism, your caloric budget will be bigger and more treats may be fitted in, whereas if you have a small budget, not that many fun food items can be included.
The research has shown that weight loss success lies in finding a pattern of eating that is suited to your lifestyle and preferences long-term that promotes variety and individualism. Believing that there are miracle foods for weight loss will only result in an unhealthy relationship with food, and a tendency to binge eat. The moral of the story is to eat according to your preferences, including all foods in moderation, according to your goals. Flexible dieting is one of the few philosophies that is based on longevity, promotes independence and doesn’t demand perfection.
If you have never tracked macros before, it’s important not to overwhelm yourself. Start at the beginning by simply tracking your current eating habits to see where you stand. Most athletes we deal with, especially those attempting to gain mass, think they are consuming massive quantities of food. But when their behavior is actually tracked, their overall caloric consumption comes in far lower than what they thought they were eating. So, if your goal is to gain, then you know how many calories to exceed. And if your goal is to lose body weight, you will have an idea as to where you need to reduce your calories.
So whatever dietary protocol you choose to follow, make sure that you can actually adhere to plan long term. If you want to eat clean, eat clean. If you want to follow paleo, go paleo. If you like ice cream and cake, be flexible in your methods. Whatever method you choose, make sure it’s something that’s maintainable long term. A diet that doesn’t allow for personal preference is unfortunately doomed to fail.
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Meule, A., Papies, E., Kubler, A. (2012). Differentiating between successful and unsuccessful dieters. Validity and reliability of the Perceived Self-Regulatory Success in Dieting Scale. Appetite, 2012.01.028, 58(3):B22-6.
Meule, A., Westenhofer, J., Kubler, A. (2011). Food cravings mediate the relationship between rigid, but not flexible control of eating behavior and dieting success. Appetite.
Raatz, S., Torkelson, C., Redmon, J., Reck, K., Kwong, A., Swanson, J., Liu, C., Thomas, W., Bantle, J. (2005) Reduced Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Diets Do Not Increase the Effects of Energy Restriction on Weight Loss and Insulin Sensitivity in Obese Men and Women. The American Society for Nutritional Sciences, Vol(135), Issue 10, 2387-2391.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chennel Jagesur holds an honors degree in Applied Mathematics (cum laude), has a background in research (ERSA), and is qualified through the International Sports Science Association in Sports Nutrition. She battled obesity since the age of 8, until becoming a competitive road cyclist, runner, power lifter and competed in her first bodybuilding show in 2015. She now runs an online flexible nutrition consultancy called Fit Guru Consulting, and is a proud ambassador for Pure Nutrition.