Flexible – able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances or conditions
Diet – restrict oneself to small amounts or special kinds of foods in order to lose weight
The two definitions above seem to be contradictory, yet when combined yield one of the most popular dietary approaches in use today.
But what exactly is flexible dieting, and should you be using it?
The simple truth (as always) is “it depends”…
Therefore, the goal of this article will be to educate you on WHAT flexible dieting is and WHY individuals should or should not use it. From there, you can decide if it aligns with your journey (or you can hire an iN3 coach to do that for you)
The Origin of Flexible Dieting
To my knowledge, the first people to really discuss this approach were Dr. Layne Norton and Dr. Joe Klemczewski. In a world filled with “fish and asparagus diets”, they were very vocal with the idea that it was not WHAT you eat, but much more about HOW MUCH you eat.
From a calorie perspective, this has been proven several times (just google the McDonalds diet or the twinkie diet). Unfortunately, only addressing calories will only yield a shift in overall body weight.
Instead, the majority of you reading this will be in search of FAT LOSS.
Dr’s Norton and Klemczewski achieved this via the use of a macronutrient based approach…..
And no, we aren’t just talking about counting the proteins, carbs, and fats from chicken, steak, fish, sweet potatoes, rice, green beans, asparagus, and whatever other “bro” foods were common at that time…
We are talking about the macros in ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING that an individual desired to consume in their diet.
Let me tell you, this caused a serious shit storm in the industry…but in my opinion, one that was MUCH NEEDED!
The doors to real balance had been opened….but let’s look at what truly lived on the inside.
Flexible dieting was introduced primarily in the physique world.
As stated above, the ideas were radical and certainly pissed off the “bros”, but the results that were being achieved using the principles could not be argued and the subsequent growth of the practice quickly followed.
As rare as it is, I will make a blanket statement about this approach: You CAN achieve any desired cosmetic outcome by consuming any foods you desire as long as you stay within your protein, carbohydrate, fat and fiber targets!
Reread that statement – and understand that the blanket statement applies ONLY to aesthetics.
Naturally, this becomes the biggest “pro” of this approach….quite simply, IT WORKS.
However, let’s examine a few potential “cons” of this approach.
When in a calorie deficit, it is natural to think about food a bit more than usual. In previous dietary approaches, this would just lead to thoughts of the next meal or more quantity of similar foods being consumed in an individual’s meals.
With flexible dieting, there are no restrictions so the thoughts become endless.
One trend I have observed is a borderline food obsession for individuals that are in search of extreme results (bodybuilders, physique athletes, or those in a prolonged calorie deficit)
This becomes problematic across all areas of an individual’s life, including but not limited to their interpersonal relationships and/or their professional lives.
Diets and training protocols SHOULD help us achieve new levels of success, not detract from success in other areas.
To be fair the approach itself is not to blame for this, but misapplication inside of excessive caloric deficits or prolonged caloric deficits usually yields these outcomes.
Either way, this article is being written for educational purposes so your understanding is paramount.
I must admit my own zealotry here, and tell you that when I first ventured into the performance nutrition world I quickly shunned the practice of flexible dieting for athletes looking to achieve their peak potential.
YES – I WAS WRONG – KINDA!
While flexible dieting is meant to be an all-inclusive diet, it IS NOT and SHOULD NOT BE aimed at the inclusion of any “lower quality” (micro nutrient void) foods.
Sadly, around the time that flexible dieting was making its way to the performance world, this was the issue at hand – foods like donuts, pop tarts, and other sugar-rich foods were being glorified and almost becoming the “staples” of a flexible dieting approach.
Let’s be clear – there is nothing wrong with the consumption of any food in moderation – but to create statements about the absolute inclusion of these foods is completely misguided, and only contributing to problems, not solutions!
This holds to be especially true in the performance world.
Obviously, the goal here is to have the correct amount of energy (calories) to perform at a high level, recover adequately, and facilitate the desired outcomes inside of a given athletic endeavor.
However, we must also consider how an individual feels before, during, and after a competition as well.
With that in mind, the biggest “pro” of this approach relative to performance is the variety of foods that can be used to hit an individual’s macro goals. Additionally, the emphasis on quantity ensures adequate fuel and recovery which are NECESSARY for the performance world.
While most athletes do enjoy looking good as a byproduct of their endeavors, their nutritional programs should NOT be directed at these cosmetic advantages. With this in mind, the freedom that flexible dieting provides inside of food choices is also advantageous to providing balance to athletes using this approach.
While studies do show that flexible dieters consume more variety of micronutrients than those practicing a “clean eating” approach, the lack of emphasis on micronutrients in the flexible dieting approach becomes the main “con” of this approach for those seeking performance enhancement.
We know that performance is not simply about being stronger, bigger, or faster – but that it also encompasses an individual’s ability to recover at the highest level, thereby controlling inflammation and creating an environment for future performance.
With no emphasis on “food quality” (micro nutrient content, sensitivity to food, etc..), this approach does not lend itself to MAXIMAL performance.
The Nutritional Coaching Institute points out that A Flexible Dieting Approach combined with a heavy emphasis on “food quality” may be best for those seeking performance improvement – and I 100% agree.
Assuming weight loss is not intended for purely vanity reasons, or further into physique based competitions, most of the time it will yield improvements in overall health status.
However, longevity in the triangle of awareness refers to those purely seeking life extension, and overall well-being.
With this in mind, the QUANTITY principles of flexible dieting are absolutely applicable here.
Research is relatively conclusive that a small calorie deficit is optimal in regards to maximizing life expectancy. We also know that over-consuming food (even “high quality” foods) is not in any way optimal for life expectancy. Furthermore, there is data that suggests that lower carbohydrate diets may be the most optimal for those seeking longevity-related results.
For all of these reasons, a quantity controlled approach is absolutely viable.
However, where flexible dieting does not seem to be optimal is it’s “all inclusive” nature.
We know that certain foods will be related to increased inflammation, and with inflammation being one of the biggest biomarkers related to longevity we should not be including those foods in our diets if we are aiming to maximize this.
Now it’s your choice
Here’s the deal – flexible dieting works – period!
It has its pros, it has its cons, BUT IT WORKS!
Now you have to decide if it will work FOR YOU…
Do you want to track your food intake?
Where in the Triangle of Awareness are you?
How is your dietary life affecting the other areas of your life?
Answer these questions, use the information in this article, make an informed decision, and CRUSH YOUR PLAN! Results will surely follow 🙂
Have a great week!