Dieting is simple, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. That confusion is thanks to the cacophony of conflicting information and viewpoints coming out of the health & fitness industry.
We’ve seen friends try the newest, most cutting-edge diet, watch as they lose a ton of weight, and listen as they exclaim that they feel healthier than they ever have before!
And then we watch them stop the diet, the weight slowly (sometimes quickly) creeps back, and suddenly they’re back to the misshapen lump we knew before. “I just slipped up” is usually what they’ll say.
Experiences like this are what shapes our view of health and fitness. We start to think of it as some far-off goal that we can only attain through extreme efforts and for short bits of time. That’s BS. You can get fit and healthy and stay that way. And you can do it eating foods you actually enjoy.
Here’s why fad diets fail.
Don’t think about pink elephants.
You just thought of a pink elephant didn’t you?
Humans aren’t wired for completely cutting something off from our minds. When we restrict ourselves from something, it ends up consuming us mentally. So when a diet says:
You cannot have carbs.
You’re going to start craving carbs, and you may be able to resist through sheer willpower for now but eventually you’ll cave.
This is why extreme diets fail us in the end. We can’t keep up the amount of effort they take indefinitely. But we’re always pulled in by extreme effort diets because of the allure of fast results. This instant gratification style of dieting just doesn’t work out and isn’t the subject of this article.
If you opened this article hoping to read about some dieting method that will help you lose 30 lbs in 4 weeks than I’m sorry but you are in the wrong place. This article is about making a real effort to change your body, and that will take time. However, once you achieve your results they will be yours and will not be going anywhere.
This article is about my approach to Flexible Dieting. It is largely comprised of the information I have found most helpful, tactics for the obstacles I have faced, questions I have had, questions I have answered, and guidance I have given to others. I hope this advice serves you as well as it has served me.
- Flexible Dieting is a method of dieting in which no foods are “off limits” and the goal is to fit what you eat into certain parameters.
- Those parameters can be just calories, or calories and some mix of macronutrients.
- There are 3 main Principles of Dieting, Body Composition, and Health:
- “Health” is a function of eating enough nutrients.
- Body composition (Weight loss/gain) is a function of calorie intake.
- Health and Body Composition are not the same thing. You can be unhealthy and look great.
- Newbies can track just their calories.
- Intermediates can track just calories and protein.
- Advanced should track calories, protein, carbs, and fats (and alcohol)
- You do not have to track forever.
- Find a good community to get support, like the Macros Inc. Facebook group
- Protein supplements and caffeine can be good supplements for dieting.
- Diet pills and Carb/Fat supplements are not.
- This is a dieting method about taking ownership for what you eat. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods or feel guilt over what you eat. You just have to own it.
What is Flexible Dieting?
Flexible Dieting, also known as “Macro Counting,” or simply “Macros” is a dieting method in which you are trying to intake a set amount of Macronutrients everyday. The main goal is to hit your set amount of macronutrients everyday, regardless of the food they come from. This means that you can eat chocolate, burgers, pizza, or even fried chicken – so long as it meets your macronutrient requirements and doesn’t go over.
Right about now you may be asking: “What are Macronutrients?” Well, macronutrients are the larger (hence ‘Macro’) nutritional components of food. The three macronutrients are Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats (and sometimes Alcohol). These are the components of our food that our bodies use as fuel (Carbohydrates), building blocks (Protein), or chemical messengers (Fats). Keep in mind that these job descriptions of the 3 main macronutrients are very generalized.
“Aah” you’re thinking, “I’ve heard of those. But what about Calories, are they a macronutrient?”
Good Question. Calories are a unit of energy. They are the unit we use to determine how much energy a piece of food contains. Macronutrients contain calories, but calories themselves are not a macronutrient.
- Proteins have 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrates also have 4 calories per gram
- Fats have a whopping 9 calories per gram
- Alcohol has 7 calories per gram
The focus of flexible dieting is keeping calories and the macronutrients in balance with one another. Each component has a “budget” to spend within a day and what you spend it on does not matter very much as long as you stay within the limits of your budget. The most popular method of flexible dieting is to keep a food log on a smartphone through an app like MyFitnessPal or MyMacros+. Later in the article we’ll go over how to start tracking, some tips that can make a huge difference, and how to eventually move past the need to track all of your food.
The 3 Principles of Dieting, Body Composition, and Health
Smart flexible dieting is rooted in the 3 principles of dieting, body composition, and health (stupid flexible dieting is rooted in only one of these principles). There is no getting around these principles, however they can be leveraged to make the dieting experience more enjoyable (aka ‘flexible’).
Principle 1: Health is based on Nutrient Intake
Food contains nutrients. Micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, affect our cellular and metabolic functions. Macronutrients are larger nutritional units our body uses as energy and as building blocks. The whole reason we need to eat is to intake these nutrients to ensure our bodies continue to function. Nutritional Health is the adequate intake of these nutrients to continue bodily functions.
Foods that we normally associate with being ‘healthy’ – fruits, vegetables, grains – tend to be vey high in their micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) content while being low in calories. We need to eat sufficient amounts of these high quality foods to ensure that we are avoiding any nutritional deficiencies and providing our bodies with the nutrition it needs. The majority of the food you eat should come from nutrient dense sources like these.
Why are we only tracking macronutrients and not micronutrients?
You do not need to track micronutrient intake unless you find out you have a specific deficiency – it would simply take way too much of your time. In 2016 I wrote a ~60 page article on Muscle For Life’s blog about micronutrients and after spending weeks researching each micronutrient, their function, and how to optimize the intake I came to the conclusion that it’s ridiculous to try to track all of these nutrients. By making sure the majority of your calories (at least 80%) are coming from a variety of nutrient dense foods that aren’t prepackaged you’ll enjoy a higher-than-normal level of health that doesn’t require measuring things in micrograms.
Principle 2: Weight Loss/Gain is a Function of Calorie Intake
Okay, this is the principle everyone is going to care the most about so let’s be very clear about it.
First, calories are a unit of energy – we measure how much energy can be obtained from food in calories.
Second, when we do not get enough energy from food our bodies can obtain energy from fat or muscle tissue by “cannibalizing” that tissue on a cellular level.
Third, when we eat more energy than we need, our bodies are able to use that excess energy to build new tissue – usually fat, but under the right circumstances it builds muscle as well.
That’s it. The grand equation for weight loss/gain is simply “Calories in – Calories out.” However, this is an extremely simplified equation. Things get very complicated when you dive into the specifics of what is “Calories in” – absorption rates, actual nutrient content – and what is “Calories out” – literal energy expenditure, fluctuating metabolic processes – but that increase in complexity doesn’t result in an increase in usefulness.
Principle 3: Body Composition and Health are not the Same Thing
From Principle 1 we know that health is largely derived from getting adequate amounts of nutrients from your food. From Principle 2 we can see that we can manipulate our body composition by simply increasing/decreasing our calories. Principle 3 is the notion that these two things are separate and distinct.
- That is, it is entirely possible to lose weight eating only candy and bacon as long as you eat less calories than you burn regularly. But you won’t be meeting your micronutrient needs, and therefore won’t be “healthy.”
- It’s entirely possible to eat only “clean” foods, such as rice, chicken, broccoli, and still have an undesirable amount of body fat if you’re simply eating too much of these things.
- It is possible, and advisable, to achieve a desirable body composition and health while still eating small amounts of “junk” food as long as calorie intake is controlled and micronutrient intake is adequate.
How to Leverage these Principles – The 80/20 Rule
So to get optimal health we need to eat sufficient amounts of ‘healthy’ foods, so this needs to be the largest part of our diet. To lose weight we simply need to limit calorie intake to be less than the amount
of calories we burn, the source of these calories does not matter in this context. Putting it all together, if we want to be healthy and lose weight we need to eat mostly ‘healthy’ foods but we can still fit in some ‘junk’ foods as long as it fits within our calorie goals.
The best way I have found to think about this is the 80/20 rule of dieting. More specifically, the 80/10/10 rule. I’m not sure where this idea originates but I first heard about it through Alan Aragon.
How to Diet Flexibly
First – Figure out your calories
Your body uses energy to move around, and to stay operational in general. This energy is measured in calories, which we get from food. When we eat too many calories we gain weight and when we eat too few calories we lose weight (See Principle #2).
Using mathematical models are able to estimate the amount of calories we burn in a day, aka our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). These models provide an estimate of how many calories you burn a day on average. Don’t worry about precision too much, some days you’ll burn more, some days you’ll burn less. This number is simply a daily goal to keep you consistent in your efforts.
Below is a TDEE calculator that uses a weight-based formula and the popular Katch-McArdle formula. Calculate both and pick whichever you like better to use as your TDEE. Click here a more detailed explanation on how to use this calculator.
Write down your TDEE. This number is your maintenance caloric intake, which means you can eat this many calories daily and not gain or lose any weight. Eat less and you’ll lose weight, eat more and … well you can figure it out. So now I want you ask yourself “What is my goal?”
Is your goal to lose weight? In that case you’ll want to eat less than your TDEE. Multiply your TDEE by 0.85 and you have your calorie intake for a mild diet (lose weight slowly but you’re not starving). Multiply your TDEE by 0.70 and you have your calorie intake for a more extreme diet (lose weight fast, but very hungry). You can learn more about how to lose weight effectively here.
Is your goal to build muscle?. In that case you want to go the opposite direction and multiply your TDEE by 1.15 for a mild gain (slow gain, but little fat), or 1.30 for a more drastic gain (fast gain, more fat). You can learn more about the science and art of building muscle here.
Once you’ve calculated your TDEE and adjusted it based on your goals you are ready to determine your macronutrient spread. Keep in mind, if you’re completely new to this it’s okay to start with only counting calories and start tracking macros later when you’ve got the hang of it. If you want to go more in-depth in your tracking then you’ll use your calorie goal to calculate your macros.
Second – Calculate your Macros
Next on our Flexible Dieting hierarchy was Protein. Most of you reading this are going to tend towards a high protein diet. This is good if you are an active athlete or recreational weight lifter. The common recommendation floating around nowadays is 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. This is a good recommendation for bodybuilders and physique competitors but it’s not absolutely necessary. You can generally maximize muscle growth and retention with 0.75-0.85 grams per pound of body weight.
This isn’t to say that eating 1 gram per pound of body weight is wrong, many bodybuilders and physique athletes swear by it. Considering that these competitors put massive amounts of time into prep for their competition it makes sense they would tend to an overestimation. For people counting their macros with a more recreational approach 0.75-0.85 grams per pound is sufficient to build large amounts of muscle.
Next, Carbs and Fats fill the rest of remaining calories. This area of calculating your macros that is the most flexible for the majority of the population. You can experiment with this as much as you want to find out what works best for you, and if someone says you have to do “low fat” or “no carb” – ignore them. The split of carbs and fats can be broken down into 5 very general categories:
- Very High Carb/Very Low Fat
- High Carb/Low Fat
- Moderate Carb/Moderate Fat
- Low Carb/High Fat
- Very Low Carb/Very High Fat (Keto)
What about Alcohol?
Alcohol, also called “the fourth macro,” contains 7 calories per gram. If you’re tracking your calories it is certainly worthwhile to also track your alcohol intake.For those tracking just calories, or calories and protein it’s easy enough to log alcohol on it’s own. However, if you’re tracking all of your macros it can be made difficult because most macro tracking apps log alcohol as calories without macros. To work around this you can simply take the number of calories in your favorite alcoholic beverage, say a 160 calorie IPA, and log it as carbs or fats. In this case you would log it as 40 grams of carbs or 18 grams of fat.
You should also be aware that alcohol has other effects outside of the calorie count. Alcohol blunts muscle protein synthesis significantly for at least 12 hours, slowing your overall metabolic rate and impairing your ability to repair muscle tissue. Men and women that regularly engage in binge drinking tend to have poor body composition compared to those who don’t. Many coaches and trainers recommend limiting alcohol to 0-2 nights per week and avoid binge drinking – this is good advice outside of fitness too.
Third, Track Your Food – How To Track
Once upon a time people tried to track this in notebooks. Thank technology for the beauty that is smartphones and calorie tracking apps, we don’t have to do it like that nowadays. The two most popularly used apps in flexible dieting circles are MyFitnessPal (MFP) and MyMacros+ (MM+). MFP has both a free version and a paid version, the free version is more limited in how you can set your macros but is still fully operational. MM+ is very customizable but has very a limited food database when compared to MFP.
Try both apps, or even find a different one, and see which you prefer. Just remember that these apps are simply a tool for tracking. Your results are not dependent on which app you use, they are dependent on the consistency with which you use them. I’ve known a lot of people that invest a lot more time and energy figuring out which app they should use than they did tracking their food intake, you can predict how successful they were.
Do I Have to Track FOREVER?!
Tracking is actually just a learning tool to learn the nutrient composition of food and the amounts of those nutrients your body needs every day to reach your goals. Eventually you’ll be able to move to a more intuitive approach that no longer requires diligent tracking of every meal. The best description of this transition was on the “Macros Inc.” Facebook group (I believe Brad Morgan posted it), I’ll try my best to paraphrase it.
- Track Everything. Eat whatever you want as long as you hit your calorie and macro goals. Lots of ‘junk’ food at this stage.
- Still tracking everything. Now the majority of food (80-90%) is ‘clean’ foods and only 10-20% of calorie intake is from ‘junk’.
- Track only when losing weight. At this point you’ve learned how to eat intuitively and responsibly when you’re maintaining weight or gaining muscle but you still track when the scale creeps a little too high for comfort.
- Eating Intuitively. After a lot of experience and a reservoir of knowledge about nutrient composition has been built you are able to control your diet intuitively.
How do Supplements fit into this?
Anyone dieting or working out undoubtedly has a lot of searches in their browser history containing the word “supplements.” It’s a popular area of interest, and supplements can be helpful. Unfortunately, supplement manufacturers know this and aren’t benevolent about it. A lot of times they are selling expensive crap that will only work to slim down your wallet.
Protein supplements are one of the few supplements that can benefit your dieting efforts. Protein powders are simply a means to increase your overall protein intake for the day, so if you’re goal is muscle gain/retention and you engage in some sort of resistance training then it’s a good idea to invest in a quality protein supplement.
You can learn more about my recommendations for protein powders here.
Just as there are supplements to aid in hitting your protein goals, there are supplements to help hit your carb/fat goals. These are not nearly as useful as their protein counterparts. Carb supplements tend to be nothing more than simple sugars like maltodextrin, and fat supplements tend to be overpriced cooking oils.
You shouldn’t be looking to supplements to fill these macros, these should be very easy to hit with mostly healthy foods, and some “junk” food. Don’t resort to powders to fill your carb and fat macros, those are the fun macros that you can fill with snickers bars!
Few things in the health and fitness industry are as useless as diet pills, and few things make my blood boil more. These pills, whose names I will omit from this article, market heavily to people desperately looking for any way to lose weight and make grand claims about their effects. Then, in tiny writing next to the tiny asterisk, they state that none of their claims are verified . In fact, No weight loss supplements actually meet the criteria necessary to be recommended by physicians.
Three common ingredients in diet pills are Caffeine, Green Tea Extract, and DHEA. Caffeine has been shown to have some benefit on fat loss but it’s nothing significant. Green tea extract may have some benefits for fat burning, but they seem to be dependent on not having a caffeine tolerance. DHEA is a hormone that can convert to both testosterone and estrogen, possibly leading to an increased metabolic rate when combined with exercise. DHEA is also banned by the NCAA and Olympic Committee.
These ingredients don’t seem very harmful when considered individually, and they may actually be quite safe when taken responsibly. However, responsibly means taking these ingredients with an informed mindset and these brands do not try to inform their customers of the best practices to take these ingredients and even obscure their ability to know how much of each ingredient that are taking. The amounts of each of these ingredients are often hidden in “proprietary blends.”
Supplement companies use the term “blend,” “compound,” or “matrix” in order to list the ingredients and the weight of the blend as a whole but not have to list the amounts of each ingredient. This practice allows supplement companies to include the names of high quality ingredients, but actually their product is filled with cheap filler ingredients.
Diet pills should be avoided because they are at best useless wastes of money, and at worse harmful. It’s certainly possible that diet pills containing hormones, such as DHEA, could be harmful, especially to developing teenagers. This is a large problem considering that thousands of teenagers are taking diet pills regularly in a misguided attempt to lose weight.
This isn’t necessarily a ‘supplement,’ it’s just something we like to take to give us extra energy and it turns out that it can help us in a multitude of ways to burn extra fat. Most people think that caffeine ramps up their metabolic rate and turns them into a fat burning machine, this isn’t quite what’s going on.
Caffeine stimulates our central nervous system by blocking out the chemical messengers that tell our body that we are tired. When we’re wired on caffeine we’re more likely to expend more energy by tapping our feet more, pushing harder in our workouts, or just talking a lot more. Caffeine is nothing magic but when taken responsibly it can be a great tool to help burn fat.
According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 400 mg of caffeine in a day appears to be safe for adults. Of course, this has to be taken in context because 400 mg of caffeine is still a lot. Caffeine taken too close to bed time can wreck our sleep and that certainly will cause health issues after a while, regardless of how much we ingest. It’s advisable to cut off caffeine intake 8 hours before going to bed. Personally, I try to cut caffeine intake off 10 hours before I plan on going to sleep.
Tips and Tricks for Success
Tracking is overall a simple process but there are a lot of little things you’re going to encounter. Here are some of the best tips and tricks for tracking your food intake.
0. SOS – Start Out Simple
As a reminder, you don’t have to start out tracking calories + protein + carbs + fats + alcohol. You can start with just calories. When you get comfortable with that you can add in protein. Once you can manage those two variables you can track everything else. Start simple and make small accomplishments that snowball into a greater ability to track your food.
1. Don’t Worry About Being Perfect Right Away
I’m going to tell you right now: you are going to suck at logging your food for the first 2-8 weeks. There is no way around it, you simply don’t have the experience and you’re not going to do a very good job. But THAT’S OKAY.
You’re not going to be punished if you’re not perfect right away. Log what you eat and try to get closer to hitting your goals today than you were yesterday. After a few weeks you’ll be pretty damned good at this.
2. Find a Supportive Community
This may be the most important tip on this list for ensuring you stick with this longterm. Communities are able to provide support when things get hard, answer questions when things are confusing, and give adulation over your success. Dieting is hard enough as is, but it’s infinitely harder when you feel like you have to do it alone.
The best online community for flexible dieting that I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of is the Macros Inc. Facebook group. Their team continues to impress me with their dedication to empowering people to meet their fitness and health goals by arming them with real information. If you’re going to enter the world of flexible dieting I cannot stress enough how supportive a community like this can be and how much a of a game changer it is.
3. Buy a Scale and Learn How To Guesstimate
Buy a quality food scale and weigh out your food whenever you are at home, especially snacks. Weighing out chips into a small bowl instead of taking the bag to the couch is an extremely easy way to cut out some bonus calories.
As you weigh out your food, try to guess how much a given thing weighs. Even if you have no idea, make a guess. Our brains are good at learning when we try to make predictions and get feedback on how far off we were. This will develop your ability to ‘eyeball’ the amount of food you’re getting which is a very handy skill to have at restaurants, or whenever someone else is doing the cooking.
4. Some Days Just Don’t Go Right
No matter the extent of your planning, or the strength of your willpower, eventually you’re going to have a day that just goes wrong. Like a few thousand calories more than you planned on kind of wrong. When this happens don’t react by trying to make up the calories by starving yourself the next day or by doing 7 hours of cardio (I’ve seen this happen, it ain’t pretty). Just accept that it happened and move on to the next day.
5. Meal Prep
Back when I was single, any time I went to the store on an empty stomach was a shitshow. I’d come back with a package of steaks, some potatoes, some frozen fries, chicken nuggets, and a roasted chicken to eat while I cooked the rest. And that’s if I maintained some semblance of self-control.
We make bad decisions about food when we are hungry. Obviously, the best way to make sure we don’t make these terrible decisions is to not let ourselves get this hungry. That’s where meal prep comes in. It’s a lot easier to stay ahead of your hunger if you have a small collection of ready-made meals to eat.
6. Cheat Days? Try a Refeed Instead
The whole point of this diet is that you don’t have to cut out any of your favorite foods. You can eat whatever you want as long as it meets your calorie and macro goals. In this context, a cheat day is just a reason to go way over your calorie count. This can be detrimental if you’re trying to lose weight, especially if you can really pack away the calories. Here’s an example:
- Imagine someone is cutting out 500 calories every day for 6 days a week, and is having a “cheat day” on the 7th.
- By day 7 they have accumulated a 3000 calorie deficit but now are going to eat pizza, fried chicken, beer, donuts, and whatever hell else they want because it’s a cheat day. It’s actually pretty easy to go 1500 – 3000 calories over your maintenance in a binge like this.
- Now their weekly average deficit is anywhere between 1500 and 0 calories.
Instead, a planned Refeed can provide the physical and psychological satiation you are craving at the end of the week. A Refeed is a planned day of increased calories, typically calories are increased to their maintenance level. In our example above if you replaced the cheat day with a Refeed day we still end our week with a 3000 calorie deficit.
People debate the benefits/detriments of fasting and fasted training in health and fitness incessantly. Analyzing that debate is another article in and of itself. However, by fasting and limiting the time you eat to a small 4-8 hour window each day you enable yourself to eat larger meals despite being on an overall lower calorie intake. Fasting isn’t for everybody but people that find it’s easy to skip breakfast and have just black coffee sometimes find it to be a very easy way to cut calories without having to eat tiny meals.
Here’s how this works. Let’s say someone is dieting on 1800 calories per day and normally eats 4 meals per day – Breakfast (500 cal), Lunch (500 cal), Post workout (300 cal), Dinner (500 cal). That’s a decent spread of calories but you might never feel really satisfied with smaller 500 calorie dinners. Instead you could opt to skip breakfast and add those calories to dinner – Lunch (500 cal), Post workout (300 cal), Dinner (1000 cal). You may feel more satisfied and able to continue dieting longer with 1000 calorie dinners versus 500 calorie dinners.
8. Don’t Obsess on Hitting Your Numbers Perfectly
One of the most fun things you see in the online flexible dieting community is people that are about a month or two into counting their macros post “I’ve got 3 protein, 33 carbs, and 8 fat left, what can I eat?”
This is a fun exercise for people to try and come up with some interesting food choices but sometimes people take it too seriously. Unless you’re planning on competing then you don’t need to worry about hitting your macros perfectly each time. Aim for being within a given range (like +/- 10 grams) for each macro and if you hit that, call it a success.
Do it Your Way
I’ve written a lot about how to diet flexibly but at the end of the day this is all coming from my experience and how I’ve found success. Your journey is going to be different and you’re going to have to find out what works best for you. I’ve had clients find success using methods very different from my own and none of these approaches is wrong.
Taking a flexible approach to dieting means that nothing is “right” or “wrong” anymore. You don’t view grains as demonic seeds come to wreck your GI tract, and you don’t see a burger as an instant gain of 5 pounds. You see it for what it is – food, that has nutrients and calories. Too little or too much of either and our body becomes something that we stop recognizing. But get just enough and we become the stronger, better looking, and happier versions of ourselves that we want to be.
Extreme fad diets come and go, and repeat, because they work – but they only work for short periods of time and usually the relapse leaves us worse than before. Flexible dieting is about taking control and ownership for your diet and making changes that will last. It’s about being sustainable and finding a dieting method that you can continue for the rest of your life.