You have tried it all. You cut out carbs. You started Weight Watchers (or Atkins, or Whole30, or Paleo, etc.). You joined that workout class and regularly attend three days per week. You lost a few pounds … and then gained it back. You’re starting to lose patience and get frustrated. Bathing suit season is rapidly approaching and you have made zero progress toward the New Year’s goals you set on January 1. So what now? What’s the problem?
It’s time to be honest with ourselves.
What, exactly, are you eating?
I’m not talking about a list of angelic superfoods that would impress a nutritionist or personal trainer (“I ate a kale smoothie for breakfast with chia seeds and Acai berries!”). I’m talking about real numbers. How many calories are you averaging? How many grams of protein? How many grams of fiber?
… You don’t know?
Then how will we know what’s working, or what isn’t working?
As a nutrition coach, I have seen and heard it ALL. I am not shocked or disappointed if a client confesses that they binged on jelly beans on Easter weekend or stopped at Taco Bell at 3am after a night out with their friends. We have all been there! (*Of course I hope that 80-90 percent of your diet consists of whole, unprocessed foods and tons of veggies, but do I really expect you to never touch a cookie again? Of course not!)
Intro to Flexible Dieting: We Like Numbers!
I want real, hard data so we can help you succeed. I want to know how many calories you are consistently consuming and what makes up those calories – aka, the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates (including fiber), and fat). I want to help you figure out a nutrition plan – not a diet – that will allow you to reach your goals and keep you sane so you can follow it for the rest of your life. I want to teach you HOW to eat, not give you a list of “approved” and “non-approved” foods that makes you feel more disappointed in yourself than you already do.
This way of eating is called “flexible dieting” (also called “if it fits your macros”). This way of eating allows you to choose what you want to eat, as long as you meet your daily calorie/macro requirements. I love this way of eating because it is science-based (and I am a nerd – I graduated from law school, after all!). It abides by the basic laws of calories/macros (which say that, put simply, in order to lose body fat, we must be in a caloric deficit – but consuming sufficient protein allows us to maintain our lean body mass (i.e. muscle). More on this in a future blog).
Good For the Body AND Mind
Studies are emerging which support flexible dieting as a healthy way of eating both for the body and the mind. How many times have you been on a rigid diet where you eventually quit or lost control and binged because you JUST NEEDED ONE OREO?! A flexible diet allows us to remain versatile with our diet, which means we can survive the social challenges of modern day life (the snack bins at work, the dinners out with your family, holidays, etc.). It allows us to enjoy our diet more and not totally restrict ourselves. This flexibility often allows for a higher rate of long-term success and less yo-yo dieting!
This study found that individuals who engaged in rigid dieting strategies reported symptoms related to an eating disorder, along with poor mood and obsession with body size/shape, while those following a flexible diet did not report the same issues. I can speak to this directly: starting in 2011, I followed a very strict meal plan outlined by a coach which told me exactly what to eat at every meal (i.e. 4 ounces of tilapia, ½ cup green beans, etc.). It worked temporarily, but without a rigid meal plan, I was clueless about how to eat – I never learned the “why” behind the meal plan. On top of that, it definitely exacerbated my disordered eating behaviors – I always ate alone, in secret, and binged weekly so I could eat the foods I actually wanted, leading to feeling ashamed and “fat” and starting the cycle all over again. I began using a flexible dieting method in 2016 and my food obsessions have dissipated. My brain is much healthier!
Taking Flexible Dieting Too Far
Of course, people can take the concept of “I can eat anything I want if it fits my macros” to an unhealthy extreme – you may see bodybuilders on Instagram bragging about eating a Pop-Tart and staying lean. But in reality, in order to meet your fiber and micronutrient requirements, you cannot subsist on “junk foods”. My fiancé, for example, loves his pancakes and eggs each morning for breakfast – but they’re high-protein Kodiak Power Cakes and cage-free eggs with organic spinach mixed in. And later in the day he eats at least 6-7 cups of green veggies because he needs to get at least 30 grams of fiber daily. (He has lost 26 pounds so far since beginning to use a flexible dieting method).
In addition, a Pop-Tart is very “expensive” in terms of your macronutrient “budget” – it will use up a lot of your daily allotment of carbs, leaving you hungry! In order to remain full, you must incorporate high-volume foods … aka, vegetables and fruits! In this way, I have found flexible dieting to be “self-regulating” – I don’t have to tell people to eat veggies because they do so anyway, in order to get enough fiber and feel full.
How Do I Learn How to Do This?
Learning what a “macro” is and how to track your food in an app like MyFitnessPal isn’t easy in the beginning, but anybody can learn how. The best approach is to get some personalized help – ask me if you’re a member of LifeTime Fitness. Or start by reading some articles, like this one. Download MyFitnessPal and start tracking. Have patience and be honest J
In conclusion, when you’re trying to determine what the best diet is for YOU, ask yourself – what can I stick to long-term? Maybe that’s Atkins, Paleo, Whole30, Weight Watchers, or flexible dieting – but be honest with yourself about your lifestyle and preferences so you can jump off the weight “roller coaster” forever.