Ever heard of flexible dieting? Every year or so, a fabulous new diet plan comes out that promises to work better than any other: Atkin’s Diet, Paleo Diet, Low Carb Diet, No Carb Diet, Mediterranean Diet, Gluten-Free, Flat Belly Diet, and on and on…
Each of these plans is backed by at least one reputable study or trial—and one or more famous doctors and trainers. “The meal plans will be easier to keep up with!” “This is the way humans evolved to eat!” “All you need to do is avoid X, Y, and Z foods.” That is the exact opposite of flexible dieting in today’s world.
One thing that all of these endorsements/trials/doctors/trainers fail to take into account is that the best diet for you is the one that you can stick to.
If you can’t, the diet won’t work long term.
Enter Flexible Dieting
Also known as If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM). And here are the reasons why it is so successful.
1. It is a more accurate way to count calories
First of all, what is flexible dieting? In a nutshell, it means eating clean the majority of the time while allowing yourself to eat “bad” foods from time to time—as long as they fit within your macros.
The M from IIFYM refers to the macronutrients in your food: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. A macronutrient diet plan, or macro diet, is fairly easy to figure out once the numbers are explained.
Simply put, it is a more accurate way of counting calories.
A gram of carbohydrate has four calories. A gram of protein has four calories. A gram of fat has nine calories. So, if you stay within your macro goals for the day, your caloric intake will add up accordingly. (You’ll find out how to calculate your individual macronutrient needs in a bit.)
You’ve probably heard the saying “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet,” and that is completely true. It’s common knowledge that weight loss comes from burning off more calories than you intake.
However, the composition of the calories matters more than the total calories themselves.
There are a couple of Rules of Thumb with IIFYM plans:
- Between 80-90% of your daily macro/caloric intake should be whole, good, “healthy” foods. This allows for 10-20% of your diet to be “bad.” This is a practical application of moderation.
- ALWAYS meet your protein. Every day. This is the most important because protein helps your body recover and repair itself.
- FIBER. While not a macronutrient, fiber is key to a healthy digestive system. Aim for 20-35 grams of fiber a day, depending on your individual macro needs.
- Protein and fiber help keep you feeling full and satisfied, and it’s almost impossible to consume too much. Unlike fat and carbohydrates, excess protein and fiber won’t store in fat deposits on your stomach.
- If you go over on your carbs one day, you can make up the difference by decreasing your fat intake that day, while not going over your total calories. You could also make up the difference by decreasing your carb intake the next day. Same goes with fat macros.
Unless you’re preparing for a bodybuilding competition, that’s about as rigid as it gets. Flexibility is key! And here’s why:
2. Flexible diets are overwhelmingly more successful than rigid diet plans.
One of the reasons that Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers are such long-running, successful programs is they allow for variation in their diet plans. Whether you’re counting points, calories, or portion control with colored containers, the ability to have a guilt-free treat makes just as much of a mental impact as a physical one.
What the above-mentioned programs don’t have is a focus on protein and fiber intake. They are just about overall calories.
However, they also don’t have the rebound effect that rigid diet plans are infamous for: almost 70% of those that follow a rigid diet plan to lose weight end up gaining all of the weight back, and then some, over the next few years.
Countless studies conducted on long-term diet success over the past few decades reveal some depressing results: rigid diet plans result in more weight gain, hormonal and metabolic damage, an alarmingly high rate of eating disorders, and mood disturbances/disorders.
In contrast, flexible dieting plans have extremely low incidences of eating disorders, rebound weight gain, or mood problems. Why?
Because IIFYM accounts for human error, cravings, and willpower.
The constant voice in your head that says “I can’t have that” or “That food isn’t allowed on my diet” when you’re on a rigid diet plan often results in binge eating episodes.
Unfortunately, the mental toll of binge eating is usually worse than the physical ramifications.
You may overexert yourself at the gym to try to burn off the calories (making you even hungrier after the workout).
You might fast the next day to make up for what you ate; messing with your metabolism and hunger hormones.
Flexible dieting is an approach that not only allows for food normally banned while on a ‘diet,’ but it lets you plan for it.
If you want that martini with dinner, you can have one! Maybe just don’t eat a candy bar at lunch.
Did a coworker bring donuts today? Have one! You may just have to skip ice cream tonight.
And if you go over your macros for the day, it’s ok! Diets work with overall consistency—not perfection. Flexible dieting is about making steady and realistic progress.
Now let’s talk about what flexible dieting isn’t.
3. Flexible Dieting isn’t a “Diet”
Myths about flexible dieting increase as their popularity rises.
First and foremost: the idea that IIFYM is an actual diet.
The connotation associated with dieting is that it is a short-term approach to achieve weight-loss goals. Flexible dieting isn’t meant to be short-term by any means!
Now, what about being able to eat ice cream and candy and drink alcohol every day?
You can eat ice cream and drink alcohol, as long as you account for it in your macros/calories for the day. Eating healthy the majority of the time is the goal. Giving yourself some wiggle room is part of the equation.
You’re probably thinking: “My diet already does this; it’s called a cheat meal.” The problem with “cheat meals” is that they are generally a golden ticket to consume as many calories as possible in one sitting without counting those calories towards your daily/weekly goal. If you’re not careful, you can eliminate all of your hard work for the week in less than an hour.
Try thinking about it this way:
Jenna uses the (insert popular diet name here) plan. Her overall diet accounts for a caloric deficit of around 3500 calories for the week, which should lead to a weight loss of around one pound per week. She follows her diet meal plan carefully all week, and gives herself a cheat meal every Saturday night. She avoids going out during the week so she doesn’t derail her diet.
Worse, when Jenna does go out, a large portion of the evening is spent detailing her dietary limitations and hungrily eyeing her friend’s plates. She might even bring her own food.
Michelle follows IIFYM principles. She also plans a caloric deficit of 3000-3500 calories per week. Every day or so she allows for a small treat here and there, but never goes all out on a cheat meal (unless it’s a special occasion). She knows she’s got dinner plans Saturday, so she saves up some carb and fat macros to splurge a little.
Jenna lets her cravings build up until the weekend, and then goes out to eat with Michelle. She orders a large margarita (350 calories), an appetizer (700-1000 calories), a full entrée (1300-1800 calories), a second margarita (350 calories), and a dessert (500-900 calories). By the end of the night, Jenna has consumed between 3000-5000 calories and blown her weekly deficit out of the water.
She wakes up the next morning feeling bloated and her weight loss for the week is negligible (she might have even gained a little bit).
3000-5000 calories? Yes. Look up the nutritional values for a random chain restaurant and add up 2 drinks, an appetizer, a regular entrée, and a dessert. You’ll be shocked.
Michelle orders a reasonable, lighter dinner fare, the same margarita, and offers to share dessert with Jenna. She tracks her meal using an app on her phone, making sure she doesn’t go too crazy. Even if Michelle went over her overall macros for the day/week, it wasn’t by much. Her caloric deficit remains intact for the week and her weight loss remains stable.
You may have just read the scenario above and thought “I don’t have the self-control when I go out that Michelle does.”
You can work up to it – practice makes perfect, after all.
But, if you don’t want to tempt fate and you know you’ll need something more rigid, then you can tailor IIFYM to your needs, or hire a coach. Just because you’re not ready for full-blown flexible dieting now, doesn’t mean you won’t be later.
4. You don’t need a coach (but you might want one)
When you do start tracking your food, you’ll probably be surprised at 1) how much you actually eat and 2) the macronutrient composition of your food.
As an example, take a Big Mac vs a Snickers bar. If given a choice between the two, most people would say that the burger is the healthier choice. Not so, when you consider the macros:
Counting macros doesn’t come easily to everyone, but with the internet and tracking apps it’s easy to learn.
Before you get started, you’ll need to establish your own macros. Nutritional coaches or registered dieticians could be key to your success if you need accountability and someone to help you figure out your individual numbers.
However, there are also a number of websites and phone apps to help you calculate and track your macros every day.
First, you’ll need to figure out your daily energy needs – or your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). This will be an estimate, but should be accurate enough to work from. Your TDEE is the baseline for your maintenance calories; what you would need to eat daily to stay at the weight you’re at. (If you know your body fat percentage, you will have a more accurate number.)
For weight loss, you’ll want to consume around 90% of your TDEE (or TDEE – 10%). For weight gain, add 10% of your TDEE to your maintenance calories.
From there, figure out your protein baseline. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to consume between 0.8 – 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body weight every day. From there, multiply that number by 4 to figure out how many protein calories you’ll need every day. The remainder is what you’ll want to eat every day in carbohydrates and fat.
Some people find it easier to have flexibility with their carbs and fats, others like to have exact numbers to reach (like their protein).
To calculate your fat macros, you’ll want to stay between 0.3-0.5 grams of fat per pound.
Finally, don’t forget about fiber and micronutrients! You need at least 20 grams per day, but no more than 20% of your overall carbohydrate intake (so if your carbs are at 200g per day, you wont want to eat more than 40g of fiber).
For micronutrients, you should be fine as long as you consume mostly whole, unprocessed foods. Many flexible dieters rely on protein shakes or bars to meet their protein goals, which is fine in moderation. Supplementing more than one meal per day like this can leave you short on other nutrients like potassium, magnesium, vitamins, and minerals. Consider a powdered greens supplement or a strong multivitamin to meet your micronutrient needs.
5. You work flexible dieting around your lifestyle, not the other way around
This is perhaps the most important factor in determining the long-term success of a diet plan. As detailed earlier with Jenna and Michelle, Jenna found herself avoiding social interaction and binging on the weekend.
Michelle found she just had to practice some self-control, but rarely let her diet interfere with her life.
Most rigid diet plans are incredibly hard to stick with long-term for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is the impact on your day-to-day interactions.
Remember: tracking your macros is a learned skill, like any other. You will have to plan and adapt your meals around your food tendencies until you get the hang of it – and that’s ok!
Flexible dieting, or IIFYM, has the solutions to all of the pitfalls of more rigid diet plans. While it might not be as easy as simply avoiding certain foods, and there are some simple math calculations that need worked, your mental and physical health will thank you in the long-run.