A Primer on Flexible Dieting

Unless you are an experienced bodybuilder, powerlifter, or fitness athlete, you may not have ever heard the term flexible dieting. You’ve no doubt heard about various other dieting strategies either from your friends or in the media. Low carb, low fat, vegan, keto, paleo, atkins….the list goes on and on as far as diets go. How could so many different dieting strategies exist? And how can 2 people have success with two seemingly opposite approaches?

The reason for this disconnect is actually fairly simple. It isn’t about which foods you can and can’t eat. Instead, it is the calorie content and nutrient density of the foods you eat that matters most. This is the logic that sits at the core of flexible dieting. Rather than provide “rules” of which foods you should eat, you learn to track your calories and macronutrients such that any food can be included in your diet. Essentially, this means that no foods are off limits to you unless YOU choose to restrict yourself from them. But how could this be? Aren’t some foods bad and others good? While it may seem like voodoo to eat what you’d like and still diet successfully, you’ll soon find out that science backs these claims.


Fad Diets Do Work…..Sort Of

People love to latch on to a simple answer to solve their problems. This stems from our ability to identify patterns and assign meaning to them. When it comes to our diet and body composition, we hear advice or “facts” being thrown around about why we might be gaining weight. Keto people will say that carbohydrates are the devil because they spike insulin and mess with our hormones. Many people hear this and think “well gosh, I eat carbohydrates and I’m overweight. I need to go Keto.” They will then switch to a low carbohydrate diet and low and behold they lose weight. Seems legit right? Not so fast.

When people start a new diet, they often change their food profile in a radical way. They go from a standard American diet filled with fast food, pastries, and soft drinks, to meats, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains (depending on the diet). These wholesome foods have far fewer calories than the foods they were eating before. And they usually have more fiber and protein in them which helps stave off hunger and burn a few more calories. So it isn’t the diet that produced the weight loss per se but the change in calorie/nutrient intake that did the trick.

This might seem like splitting hairs, but let me tell you why this is important. There are a lot of foods out there in the world. Holding yourself to eating only a certain proportion of them can be very self-limiting. What happens when your child has a birthday cake? Or you go out to eat for an anniversary dinner? You could allow yourself a “cheat meal” but this often resonated as shame for people. They feel bad for enjoying their life simply because they’ve decided that certain foods are bad. Or even worse, they thrust themselves down a cycle of binging and restricting. In reality, a better way of thinking could have allowed them to control their diet and still enjoy their life.



Why Flexible Dieting Wins

Let me tell you a little secret. You can still gain weight from eating nothing but steamed veggies and plain chicken. These seemingly “good” foods still have calories and eating too much of them will still cause weight gain. So why do we label some foods as good and others as bad? There is no exact reason but it often has something to do with calorie content.

Most foods that a labeled “bad” have a higher calorie density. That means that they have more calories per unit of weight than other foods. A 4 ounce slice of chocolate cake might have 500 calories while a 4 ounce piece of chicken might have 150 calories. If you are dieting, the smart choice would be to eat the chicken since it will fill you up without blowing too much of your calorie allowance. But what if you’ve been dieting for a several weeks and are just longing for a taste of that cake? Why can’t you choose to eat the cake and just fit into your calorie budget for the day? In actuality, there is nothing wrong with doing that once in a while. And as long as you stay within your calorie budget, you will still make progress towards your goals.

Flexible dieting sees food a little more than the calorie and nutrient content they possess. Lower calories, nutrient dense foods like lean meats and vegetables are more “diet friendly” since you can eat more of them without spending too much of your calorie budget. But these foods can be boring to eat over and over. Every now and then it’s worth spending the calories on a treat whether it be a dessert, a slice of pizza, or a burger. You might think of this as “cheating” on your diet but it doesn’t have to be that way. That slice of pizza can fit into your daily calorie budget if you want. It might mean that you have to eat some smaller portion for the rest of the day, but the psychological break is worth it sometimes.

In reality, this is a much more sustainable approach to dieting. Flexible dieting allows you to enjoy some of your favorite “treat” foods from time to time without feeling shame/guilt or ruining your progress. Plus, you’ll most likely develop a healthy relationship with food. You won’t be tempted to binge on a “cheat meal” because you’ll know you can have those foods again another day. It may take a bit of work to learn how to track your foods but the juice is worth the squeeze.



It is time that we stop looking for the next group of foods to demonize when it comes to weight loss. People have had success in dieting with just about every iteration of a diet you can imagine. The Ketogenic diet and the vegan diet are seemingly opposite strategies that have both lead to weight loss for many people. This same pattern tings true for many other diets as well. This should teach us that it isn’t really about cutting out any one food group. Instead, it is about controlling the number of calories and nutrients we get in our diet.

Learning to track foods and keeping a calorie budget can seem like a daunting thing. And it certainly isn’t a sexy solution compared to the “eat this, not that” approach. But in the end it is one of, if not the most sustainable approaches to dieting we have at our disposal. Not only that, but it teaches you about what is in your food and allows you to be in control over what you eat from day to day. So if you are looking to overhaul your diet for one reason or another, please give flexible dieting a shot. I promise it will be worth your time.

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