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The way to a better body, is to be as strict as possible with your diet, correct? Maybe not.

This has actually been pretty well researched by scientists and the outcome is fairly clear – those who diet in a flexible manner lose more weight over a given period, and are far less likely to ever regain what they have lost, in comparison to those who diet as strictly as possible. This is due to a number of reasons, but the main one is that those who diet flexibly make their new way of eating a part of their life, rather than forcing themselves to fit their life around their new food regime. One report (1) even states that…

It is supposed that high susceptibility to eating problems may be caused by rigid control of eating behaviour, whereas flexible control of eating behaviour may be a less problematic strategy of long-term weight control.

This is in stark contrast to typical dieting advice which advocates restriction, banned food lists and being ‘strict’ with ones self. There is no reason, however, for the vast majority of healthy people to cut out grains (2), dairy (3), sugar (4), alcohol (5) or artificial sweeteners (6,7). Though it may not seem sexy or cool, the trick to staying lean and being healthy really does look like it comes down to the basics – calories in vs calories out, enough protein, and a large variety of plants. This is NOTHING to do with cutting things out, and therefore doing so is largely unnecessary other than for personal reasons (we all have that one food which we aren’t safe around – hide the Nutella!).

So, Flexible dieting is awesome, and in this article we’re going to explain a simple means of dieting in a flexible way, as well as telling you about the 80/20 rule of eating. The goal here is not to tell you to eat crap, it’s not to tell you that sticking to your goal calorie intake isn’t important and it’s not to tell you that adherence or some level of ‘giving up pleasure now for reward later’ isn’t going to be vital, because it is. The goal of this week is to tell you that, yes, you can order Fish and Chips every couple of weeks, and if you are clever about it, it doesn’t have to be a ‘cheat meal’ which blows you way over your given calorie target.

In the article ‘Calories and Macronutrients’ we explained how to work out your needs, in this article we’re going to tell you how to enjoy meeting them.

So what is flexible dieting?

Flexible dieting is, as the name suggests, a means of thinking about how you eat in more plastic or fluid terms than is typical of weight loss or healthy eating plans. The usual approach is to cut out X and Y, to only eat fresh food cooked yourself from scratch, to avoid alcohol and to shun all things tasty which we’ve already explained is bogus. Not only do we not NEED to cut out these things, doing so could actually be a problem long term.

This is not sustainable, not long-term anyway, and sustainability is the NUMBER ONE factor in creating a successful dietary approach. If I told you that you could be in shape, but from now on you can no longer eat white bread products, or chips, or anything sugary, or fried, or chocolate, or drink alcohol, or order food at a restaurant because you can’t be 100% sure of what’s in it, then would you take it? Probably not, I know I certainly wouldn’t.

Some get around this by having periodic ‘cheat days’ but this isn’t such a good idea for a lot of people either. First of all, a cheat day can and often does hamper fat loss – contrary to popular belief, one day can make that much difference if your appetite is good enough.

Here’s an example

Person A needs 2500 calories per day to maintain weight, so is eating 2000 per day in order to lose fat.

Monday to Saturday they succeed, meaning that they are in a 3000 calorie deficit for the week. Pretty good going.

Sunday comes around and they have:

  • Breakfast – Fry Up. 3 Sausages, 3 Eggs, Black Pudding, 2 pieces fried bread, 2 frozen hash browns and a tin of beans. That’s 1000 calories
  • Lunch – At the Cinema – Footlong hotdog and bottle of coke. That’s 850 calories
  • Snack – Still at the Cinema – Standard bag of cinema Sweets. That’s 600 more calories.
  • Dinner – Indian Takeaway. Curry, rice, naan, couple poppadoms, 2 beers to wash it down. That’s 2000 calories.

This is a conservative day, and the person has eaten 4450 calories. They haven’t eaten huge amounts or excessive portions of food, they’ve just ‘cheated’, enjoyed themselves and had some calorie dense stuff, but they’ve eaten their maintenance calories plus 2000, meaning that they are now only in a 1000 calorie deficit for the week – hardly worth mentioning. Weight loss will be painfully slow, and motivation will be fleeting.

A cheat meal is a better idea, as it’s hard to ruin a week of dieting in only one meal unless you stuff yourself (which some do, and some advocate, which is sad) but this still leads, potentially, to an unhealthy relationship with food as already explained.

This approach means that we need to suffer all week in order to ‘treat’ ourselves to something tasty at the weekend. It creates one meal as a focus point, and it’s not a rare thing to hear that people have been thinking about their cheat meal all week. This is not a healthy mindset. The other problem with this, is that it ASSUMES total adherence during the week which is, at best, unlikely.

  1. You’re at work and someone brought some awesome looking homemade brownies. Can’t have those.
  2. Starbucks have an offer on a special coffee. Not for you.
  3. Your partner surprises you with a romantic meal out. Nope – you’re on steamed fish and asparagus tonight.
  4. Your kid offers you one of their sweeties. Nope, it’s not your cheat meal.

Yeah – not likely. One day you’re going to ‘crack’, and when it does you’re going to go one of two ways – you’re going to eat ALL OF THE THINGS because this is the last time that you’re going to be able to. You tell yourself that this is the last time you’ll fall off the wagon so you’ll get it out of your system now and have a whole wedge of cake and a nice coffee and then pick up an ice cream on the way home.

Or…

You just have the cake, and you feel really guilty about it. Food guilt is horrible and unnecessary, it eats away at you and makes you out to be a failure. Flexible dieting looks to avoid this.

I’m going to explain three of the most popular ways to implement flexible dieting in your life now – How to plan for a meal out or other ‘special’ meal, how to factor in a small ‘treat’ to your day and how to ‘borrow’ calories from other days to enjoy something in your diet which doesn’t ‘fit’ today.

What’s important to remember, here, is that outside of these situations, flexible dieting looks pretty much the same as ‘clean eating’ does. You focus on lean meats, vegetables and healthy fats/carb options (you know what I mean) appropriate to your goals.

You can adopt this approach if you don’t track your macros, too. The two aren’t necessarily related – though having a rough idea of your calorie intake and need is a good idea if you want to do this properly.

How to eat out

Eating out at a restaurant is something which we do more and more in the modern world. Historically we would do this once or twice per year, but now its usually a few times per week in some way or another. This is great, but restaurants are there as a form of entertainment more than they are a source of nourishment – their primary goal is to give you something which tastes great so that you enjoy it and will come back.

This means that most things in restaurants are the pretty high in calories.

The most important thing you can do when eating out is to plan ahead. Try to get a copy of the menu ahead of time (check websites and Facebook profiles) and have a good look at what you’re going to order. Most chain restaurants have their nutritional information posted on their websites and/or have it available on calorie tracking apps.

If you DO find something which is trackable, add this to your diary FIRST (or a similar option, for example if you are going to a small ‘Mom and Pop’ Italian place and want the Spaghetti Bolognese, find a chain Italian restaurant and simply use their values. The values for restaurant food will NEVER be 100% accurate, but this will be pretty close). This goes for meals out, takeaways, or that delicious homemade lasagne that your partner is going to make you on Friday night.

Once this large meal is in your diary, you can simply look to ‘fill up’ the rest of what you need throughout the day. Easy. If you can’t get hold of the menu ahead of time?

We know, usually, that a restaurant meal is going to be higher in calories than anything you’d usually have. There will typically be a small portion of protein (this is the most expensive part of the meal and restaurants like it when their end of month banking is in the black), a lot of fat, a lot of carbs and – as above – a small amount of vegetables. What you therefore do is reduce carb and fat load from your other meals of the day to as little as is possible (or needed) while focusing on protein and vegetables. For example:

Your usual meals consist of porridge oats with Nut butter and protein powder with a banana for breakfast, a handful of nuts for a snack, and chicken thighs with rice and vegetables for lunch.

This could be swapped for a far lighter meal of Greek Yoghurt and berries with a greens smoothie for breakfast, some Biltong and carrot sticks as a snack and a large chicken salad with balsamic vinegar for lunch. Far lighter, higher in protein, and a good few portions of fruit and vegetables.

What you can do with this approach is to consume 80% or more of your daily protein intake and leave a 1000+ calorie ‘sink’ to fill with delicious restaurant food.

As you peruse the options when at the table, try to find something which is going to be healthy-ish but which you’ll enjoy. It’s not a good idea to go for the cheesy pasta dish unless your ‘calorie sink’ is massive, but you don’t have to have a chicken salad, either. See if you can order extra vegetables, as you rarely get enough, and decide whether you’re going to have a starter, OR a dessert (if you usually have one or both). You don’t need three courses, and by only having one you can save an awful lot of potentially unwanted calories.

On this – don’t be afraid to alter menu items. Swap chips for boiled potatoes, ask for dressings on the side, ask for your steak to be grilled rather than fried, and if you’re not sure if something is battered or not – ask!

While this will not totally leave you hitting your exact macronutrient intake, it should keep you within a reasonable distance from your calorie needs and, if you remember from last week, this is what REALLY matters for body composition. If this kind of meal is a daily thing, you may need to think about how much you actually want to achieve your goals, but on occasion? No problem.

This approach is exactly the same as what you’d do if you wanted a ‘treat’. Going out for coffee is a really popular social activity, but some ‘fancy’ coffees can be quite calorie dense. If you are partial to a Caramel Latte with cream, simply track this before anything else in your day and then build up the rest of your intake around it.

Factoring things in ad hoc

This is actually very similar to the above – you just do it in reverse. Say you’ve gone out for the above mentioned coffee and want a muffin, all you do is then think about the other meals you’ve eaten that day and the ones you will eat. Can you reduce carbs and fats in your next few meals to compensate? Add it to your food diary and see what happens. If so, great, if not - Would you be happy swapping the coffee for the muffin (assuming macronutrient content is similar? If so, do it. If not – maybe next time.

This is where sacrifice really does need to be made, because sometimes things won’t ‘fit’ and that’s OK. People who practice flexible dieting report that the biggest thing for them is that they no longer have strong cravings for things. If you can’t have a muffin today it’s OK, because you will be able to have one tomorrow with a little planning, and you can still have nice tasting foods (More on that in a second). If you tell yourself you can’t ever have a muffin you’ll want one every time it’s offered – if you know that you can, realistically, have one whenever you want, you’ll probably not be all that bothered.

Of course, if the muffin doesn’t fit but you REALLY want it? That’s where you can get a little clever about it.

Borrowing Calories

Remember in previous weeks that we have mentioned calorie balance not being dictated in 24 hour cycles? This is where we can use that to our advantage.

In the above example, you want something but can’t make it fit today – this can easily be dealt with by ‘borrowing’ calories from tomorrow, or even from the next few days. While protein should remain equal day-to-day, and therefore borrowing protein isn’t a good idea (when you want more protein, take your ‘extra’ protein from tomorrow’s carbohydrate figures. This will keep calories equal, though isn’t ideal and shouldn’t be done often because carbohydrates are important), you can take carbs and fats from other days in order to enjoy more today.

So if you want that muffin, all you need to do is perhaps drop 15g of carbs and 5g of fat from the next 3 days, and add them on to today! So long as you don’t take this to extremes, it shouldn’t really effect hunger or performance, and can be the one thing which TRULY makes your diet flexible.

This can even be used on a grander scale in order to plan for a BIG blowout. Perhaps Friday is your birthday and you’re having a party. You know there will be a lot of calorie dense food, alcohol and cake on the go, and you want to partake without ruining your results. You could very easily remove 20g carbs and 10g fat (170 calories) for 10 days in the lead up to your birthday and then ‘spend them’ at the party – over the course of the month your results will be EXACTLY the same, but you’ve got an extra 100g fat and 1700 calories to enjoy (a lot of) buttercream icing!

Don’t make this a habit, and use it wisely – moderation is the name of the game and common sense is key, but it’s a highly effective approach when wanting to have your cake, and eat it, too.

The 80/20 Rule

To finish this week off, we will talk about the 80/20 rule. Sorry – but all the above talk about flexibility needs to be put into context because health will ALWAYS come first.

This ‘rule’ states that, ultimately, so long as 80% or more of your diet is made up of minimally processed foods which are varied and highly nutritious, it doesn’t matter all that much if the other small percentage is less than optimal foods.

This applies to the above situation, where you manipulate meals in order to have a larger, more calorie dense yet less nutrient dense meal, but it can be considered far more subtly.

It means that it’s not all that important whether you have a sweet potato or a wheat wrap with your lunch if it’s paired with a protein source and a load of vegetables.

It means that it won’t hurt you if you choose to have a tablespoon of jam in your porridge instead of a few strawberries, so long as for the rest of the day your vegetable and fruit intake is on point.

It means that you don’t need to have whole wheat pasta if you prefer white and are eating a lot of other nutritious stuff during the day.

And it means that if you can’t prepare a snack of cooked chicken and berries, it’s OK to get a store bought protein bar sometimes.

It means that you don’t have to be rigid with this stuff, and it means that (to some degree) swapping a ‘perfect’ thing for a ‘not terrible’ thing in a few meals isn’t the worst thing in the world so long as – come the end of the day – your calories and macronutrient numbers match up. Prefer bran flakes to oatmeal in the morning? So long as the portions match up and you have more nutrient dense things later, that’s OK.

It’s about consistency, not perfection – and getting it 80% right 100% of the time is far more effective than 100% right until you crack.