the beginner's guide to flexible dieting

We are often taught that certain foods are “good” and certain foods are “bad.” It’s evident everywhere you look.

Everyone has their own conceptions of what is considered healthy from low carb, vegan, paleo, keto, vegetarian, and many more. Do you notice that there are a million different definitions of healthy?

For the sake of this post, let’s consider “healthy” as high quality, minimally processed, micronutrient dense foods.

Most people think that in order for them to reach their health, fitness, or body composition goals, they have to cut out all “unhealthy food” from their diets and eat an extremely strict/boring diet. It becomes an all or nothing mindset. But studies have shown that those who have a rigid/strict diet are actually at a higher risk to binge on the food they were trying to eliminate.

I am a firm believer that if you fail to plan then you plan to fail. But having the “perfect” diet is not synonymous with having a “successful” diet either. What I mean is if I give you a nutritional game plan that is perfect from a physiological standpoint, the fact that it’s perfect doesn’t matter if you cannot stick with it. A successful diet is one that you can be consistent with, one that is sustainable, and one that you can actually execute on.

Plus if you eat a super strict/boring diet, then you pretty much alienate yourself from society as well and who wants that? You will find yourself saying, “Sorry guys I can’t go out to eat and watch the NBA Finals because I can’t mess up my diet or go off my meal plan.”

What if I were to tell you that you don’t have to be that person?

 

Building the Perfect Diet for You

First, when starting a diet or shifting your lifestyle, you need to ask yourself, “Can I see myself doing this diet/maintaining this lifestyle for the rest of my life?” If not, then it is the absolute wrong diet for you! You will eventually fall into one of these three categories:

  1. You will get tired of the rules and quit your plan before reaching your goals.

  2. You will reach your goal and then get tired of the rules and quit.

  3. You will reach your goal and maintain your progress, but you’ll be so miserable that being lean isn’t worth it anymore. You quit and/or go crazy.

Now we need to ask ourselves these simple questions:

  1. Do you want to lose fat and stay lean with minimal effort?

  2. Are you tired of losing 10 lbs and then regaining it all back after your diet stops working?

  3. Are you tired of giving up your favorite foods in order to lose weight?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then this guide is going to be for you.

 

The Decision that Changed Everything

Just over 6 years ago, I decided to give flexible dieting a try. I’ll be candid and tell you that deciding to do so changed my life. I was like most people: I thought that I had to eat certain foods and if I ate one piece of “bad/dirty/unhealthy” food, I was going to immediately ruin all my progress.

The definition of “healthy” was subjective. I was doing the paleo diet. It was the most popular diet at that time, and it worked until it did not. It got me to eat a lot more meat and veggies which I am grateful for now. I learned how much I love them. But it did a lot more bad than good. It wrecked my relationship with food. I was now told that I could not have any of my favorite foods. My pizza, cookies, ice cream, or even bread and dairy. Bread and dairy!  That was all out of the question for so long because it wasn’t Paleo.

So this led me to be “strict” with my diet for a week or two. But with each day that passed, I would feel more and more deprived. I never told anyone at the time, but I would keep a list of all the foods I was going to eat when I would have a cheat day. And when that cheat day would come, it got really ugly. I knew that I had one day to get all these cravings out of my system. It was a glorified binge. I just labeled it as a “cheat day” because it felt better that way and it did not seem as bad when I said it like that.

So that’s what I did for almost two years. I was a mess and would try and tell myself this was normal. I would think to myself, “Well I mean, everyone has cheat days!” But my heart was telling me that this was not normal. Not even close.

I started to wonder why I wasn’t getting anywhere. I thought there was something wrong with me.

It is funny how things work out. I was reading a book that had nothing to do with nutrition but lead to a nutritional understanding that would eventually change my life. I was reading Start With Why by Simon Sinek and it pushed me to understand the “why” in all aspects of my life.

This led me to go back to the drawing board and really learn the “why” behind nutrition: to truly understand what is happening in the body, to understand the physiology of the body as a whole, to understand what the body sees as top priority, and to understand the hierarchy of importance in nutrition.

Six years ago, after immersing myself into figuring out the “why” behind nutrition, I found something called Flexible Dieting. It was not a diet. It was a framework that focused on education. It taught you the why behind nutrition which gave me the ability to create the perfect diet for me. It gave me perspective. I was now in control. It taught me that I had it all wrong and that I had been focusing too much on the wrong things.

Once I had that understanding, everything changed for me. I was now in control and was able to have the body, health and mind transformation and I had been searching for.

So What is Flexible Dieting?

Flexible Dieting is, most simply, the nutritional understanding that tracking your macronutrient intake is an extremely important factor in order to achieve a health and body composition goal. Your macronutrients are your proteins, carbs, and fats. These macronutrients are the nutrients you need in large amount and are what give you your calories.

1 gram of protein = 4 calories

1 gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories

1 gram of fat = 9 calories

Most people are familiar with counting calories, but flexible dieting focuses on tracking your macronutrients.

So you and I are more focused on hitting 175g protein, 140g carbs and 60g fat, which equals 1800 calories rather than just 1800 calories of anything.

  • Protein: 175 x 4= 700 calories

  • Carbs: 140 x 4 = 560 calories

  • Fats: 60 x 9 = 540 calories

When all these 3 are added up, you get a total of 1800 calories. But why does this matter for you to get the specific amounts of macronutrients in order to reach 1800 calories? I’ll touch on that next.

 

CALORIES VS. MACRONUTRIENTS

We’re often told that calories in vs calories out determine weight loss or weight gain. But macronutrient ratios are what influence our body composition and lead us toward optimal health rather than just weight loss or gain.

  • Sufficient protein intake is necessary to build/preserve muscle mass and organ tissue.

  • Sufficient carb intake is necessary to provide your muscles with enough energy (glycogen) so you can hit your workouts with high intensity. They also play a huge role in the health of your Thyroid (the engine for your metabolism).

  • Sufficient fat intake is necessary for the production of vital hormones (hormone synthesis) that set the tone for all of the functions in our bodies.

 

POP TARTS VS SWEET POTATOES

Now to get to the part where it is going to sound like voodoo or magic or whatever you want to call it. I have yet to talk about “food quality”. This part might shock you but bear with me. It will all make sense.

What foods you eat to hit your macronutrient targets is secondary in importance when we are talking strictly about body composition. What does this exactly mean? Let me illustrate it for you.

  • Your friend eats a pop tart for his snack and you eat a sweet potato.

    • Both options are carb heavy choices

    • One is considered “good” and one is considered “bad”

    • As we stated above, carbs in the pop tart and carbs from the sweet potato both turn into energy (glycogen)

    • Since our bodies do not necessarily distinguish between sources in regards to glycogen production, both will have the same effect in our bodies.

Ok, so you must be thinking that I am advocating that you can only eat McDonald's, PopTarts, ice cream, pizza, and any other food you once thought was off limits and still get shredded/toned/whatever you want to call it. Well yes, and no.

 

ACUTE VS INSIDIOUS DAMAGE

Just as I advocate the flexible dieting strategy to anyone and everyone because it is a framework you can use for the rest of your life, I also advocate that your nutritional strategy should be a tool to ensure that you live a long and healthy life.

  1. Acute symptoms and effects are what you will see in the short term.

  2. Insidious symptoms and effects are the small changes that you will see in the long run.

  3. Most people think in the short term and do not think of the long term repercussions of their decisions. The same can be said with our diets.

  • Ex. So let’s say that our diet consists of low-quality protein sources like McDonald's, micronutrient sparse Pop Tarts, and a large amount of our dietary fat coming from the trans fat that tags along with our McDonald's.

Let’s now go back to our example above of the sweet potato vs. Pop Tart.

At the macronutrient level, these are the same but at the micronutrient level, they are not.

I want you to think of your micronutrients as little buckets of life-giving nutrients that you need to fill up on a daily basis.

Simply put, Sweet potatoes offer you tons of micronutrients; Pop Tarts do not.

Sweet Potatoes also give you a lot of dietary fiber, which you will learn the importance of later in this post.

If we choose low-quality sources of food to reach our body composition goals, we are putting our overall health at risk. We might not see any short term, acute problems to our health, but in the long run, the insidious damage that will occur will increase our risk for developing cancer and other health issues later on in life.

 

HEALTH AND PERFORMANCE

THE 80/20 RULE

  • 80% of your daily calories come from healthy (high quality, minimally processed, micronutrient dense) foods that you enjoy.

  • 20% of your daily calories come from those foods that are at the opposite end of the spectrum that you once thought were off limits.

    • 3 meals per day for 7 days = 21 meals

    • .2 x 21 = 4.2 (so let’s just say 4)

    • Number of meals per week to incorporate my favorite foods: 4 meals per week


By not making any foods off limits, you substantially reduce the risk of binging, developing an eating disorder, excessive concern with body size/shape, and an increased risk of rebound weight gain after dieting.

By all means am I not advocating that you can’t eat 100% “clean”! If you thoroughly enjoy eating 100% healthy, minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods, then go for it!

But there is one key understanding I need you to have. Remember our buckets of micronutrients I mentioned above? Those buckets can be filled with the 80/20 strategy. Overflowing those buckets does not give you any added benefits. So if hitting 80/20 or even 90/10 or even 99/1 makes you feel less stress than 100%, then take that approach. The chronic stress of trying to eat 100% clean is really what is taking years off your life.

 

SO WHAT IS FLEXIBLE DIETING?

  • A diet that allows ALL foods and is more focused on hitting your overall nutritional needs.

  • A diet that allows ALL meats, fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, nuts, and legumes (beans) without demonizing any whole food source.

  • A diet that is not a diet. It is simply nothing more than an understanding that all foods can be consumed to achieve sufficient nutritional intake for health and body composition. Life balance is the key to long term dietary success.

  • A form of eating that allows you to enjoy foods without the guilt of self-punishment.

 

WHAT YOU LEARNED TODAY

  1. Eat smart and flexible, not stupid and restricted.

  2. Food is not meant to stress you out! It’s a tool that helps us live the life we desire.

  3. If you are currently doing a diet you do not see yourself doing for the rest of your life, STOP immediately.

  4. Eliminating foods you love from your diet sets you up for failure and science shows that.

  5. Calories in vs calories out = weight gain or weight loss

  6. Macronutrient ratios = body composition/health

  7. The 80/20 Rule = 80% from “healthy” foods, 20% from foods you once thought were off limits

 

TIPS

For more inspiration, recipes, and tips on flexible dieting, follow Zach on Instagram: @theflexibledietinglifestyle

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