The first time I heard about flexible dieting and eating your favourite foods while getting leaner, I genuinely laughed in someone’s face.
Like, straight up belly laugh.
Up until this point I was a so-called “clean eater”.
My diet consisted of all the classic bodybuilding foods (chicken, broccoli, rice, etc.) and the very prospect that we could eat “normal food” while achieving the same results seemed impossible. Being so rigid sucked, but it worked – and that’s all I cared about.
Heck, I had been doing it for so long that even the idea that life didn’t need to be this way seemed absolutely crazy.
If I recall correctly, I laughed out loud and chuckled the words “Whatever dude!” then broke into my pre-packed chicken and rice which tasted like broken f**king dreams.
But here’s the thing…
They were right!
THE DANGERS OF RIGID CLEAN EATING
Looking back, it’s hard to believe I used to have such a rigid diet.
Switching to a more flexible, numbers-based nutrition plan completely redefined my approach to dieting and it’s something I’ve put to good use with thousands of clients in the years since then.
It wasn’t all roses, of course.
It took me a while to fully trust the flexible dieting system (every bit of chocolate felt naughty!), but it slowly began to highlight just how flawed my old “clean eating” approach was. Specifically, it came with lots of unequal trade-offs which destroyed my mental health.
- I was always in good shape… but I hated my life.
- I loved family get-togethers… but I’d often skip them to avoid being surrounded by cheat foods.
- I would eventually give in to my cravings for a chocolate bar… but I’d spend the next two days beating myself up about it.
That’s not a great way to live, and it turns out I wasn’t alone!
A 1999 study from researchers at Louisiana State University worked with two groups of female trainees to test the emotional effects clean eating and flexible dieting. One group followed a rigid preset calorie controlled diet, while the other group took a more flexible approach (but calories were still controlled).
Interestingly, the participants who used the rigid “clean eating” style nutrition plan reported far greater feelings of anxiety, depression, and over-eating. (1)
That discovery blew my mind, because it was the first clinical trial to delve into this and it highlighted that, while certainly effective for weight loss, there are perhaps some potentially huge drawbacks to the “clean eating” lifestyle we were previously unaware of.
In 2002 a second study from researchers at the same university went even further, highlighting the links between rigid dieting and disordered eating patterns, mood swings, and body dysmorphia issues. (2)
What’s important to realize here is that I’m not saying “clean eating” is bad.
It isn’t bad.
I’m saying we’ve f**ked it up.
You see, at its base level “clean eating” is a term used to describe eating lean meats and plenty of fruit and vegetables. That’s a really solid foundation for a healthy diet!
However, over the years more and more stipulations have been introduced to the point where certain “gurus” demonize individual foods and others recommend avoiding entire food groups, drowning the trainee in misinformation which makes them feel like they’re a f**king slave to their diet.
As researchers from Harvard put it:
“In some cases, clean eating, especially in its more rigid forms, can become less of a diet than an identity and could lead to disordered eating.”
That definition struck a chord with me.
I mean, a few weeks into my final clean eating-style cutting phase I was madder than a dwarf with a yo-yo, and when I finally got my hands on a Creme Egg I violated it in ways I will never talk about.
WHY FLEXIBLE DIETING WORKS BETTER (FOR MOST PEOPLE)
No diet is perfect for everyone, but about 75% of the clients I’ve introduced to flexible dieting stick with it.
One of the key reasons for this is that there are no “good foods” or “bad foods”. A numbers-based approach lets you to choose your own foods to hit your targets, and most people prefer this over following a meal plan which has them eating the same things every day.
However, it isn’t perfect.
Much like “clean eating”, it’s a term which has already started to get twisted by weight loss gurus looking to sell bulls**t programs.
(I’m sure you’ve seen the adverts about eating ice cream all day and getting shredded, etc.)
So let me make something very clear:
Flexible dieting does NOT mean cramming as much junk food as possible into your diet!
At it’s core, flexible dieting is about not making emotional attachments to certain foods and not beating yourself up if you have a bad day. If you want a treat food you can simply work it into your daily targets without the usual fear and self loathing that accompanies it, and research shows this ‘freedom’ actually leads to way less instances of binge eating. (1, 2)
With regards to food choices, the world is your oyster.
However, it’s important to remember your training goals (i.e. you want to build muscle and look ripped). This means that lean protein sources, fruit and vegetables will still be hugely important – the key difference is you have the freedom to switch it up however you want, and treats can be slotted in very easily as long as you hit your numbers.
The concept of a preset list of “good foods” and “bad foods” is GONE – and that’s a great thing!
SO NO MORE “GOOD” & “BAD” FOODS?
Indeed, one of the biggest flaws of most traditional diets is that they cannot help categorize foods:
- Good & bad
- Clean & dirty
- On plan & off plan
- Nice & naughty
I’m sure you’ve seen that kind of thing before.
This creates an unhealthy relationship with food because it causes us to negatively associate certain things with weight gain and fat storage, and encourages us to beat ourselves up if we eat any of those so-called forbidden fruits.
That sucks, because your fitness journey should be a celebration of what your body can do – not a punishment for what you ate.
As Dr. Layne Norton puts it:
“One of the biggest flaws in the concept of so-called “clean eating” is that the word clean is such an ambiguous term. A bodybuilder will say that brown rice, sprouted grain bread and cream of wheat are all clean carbs.
Someone on the Paleo diet, though – those “clean” carbs are now forbidden foods, as, in the Paleo follower’s eyes, grains are evil. They prefer a clean diet of nuts, seeds, in-season veggies, fish and meat.
“Hold it there!”
In comes the vegetarian – “what’s so clean about animal products?”
According to them, we shouldn’t be eating these – we need a diet full of fruit, beans and legumes. And so it goes on and on. There’s no single definition of clean, and it can’t be quantified.
What can be quantified however, is calories and macronutrients.”– Dr. Layne Norton
A 2017 study pubslished in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition hammered the final nail in the coffin of so-called rigid “clean eating” by eliminating the idea that certain foods are “better” than others when it comes to fat loss.
The researchers had participants replacing whole grains with refined grains to see if this would have an effect on energy balance and weight, and they found that even when dieters substituted ALL whole grains for refined grains (which no sensible person would do) there was only a minuscule difference in energy balance. (3)
Not that you should replace all whole grains, of course (because sugary carbs will not fill you up and don’t contain very many vitmamins and minerals), but the job of a clinical trial is to test these extremes, and we now know that basically calories are king.
“So now when someone asks:
“If I swap 1000 calories of wholegrain rice for 1000 calories of jelly sweets, you’re saying there won’t be much difference in fat loss/gain?”
You can now legitimately say, “That’s right. Here’s the reference.”Martin Macdonald
Occasionally, though, flexible dieting ISN’T the best choice.
You may remember earlier when I said “about 75%” of clients prefer flexible dieting – so what about the others?
I mean, sure it adds variety into your diet, and sure it let’s you squeeze treat foods in without worrying about it.
But for some, the lack of a preset meal template actually hinders them because they can’t control themselves when every food is allowed.
Every prison movie has a guy who doesnt want to escape and, when asked why, he says something like; “In here at least I know where I stand.”
It’s the same thing.
But I’m not here to CONVINCE you that flexible dieting is the way to go for you. I’m just here to show you the evidence. Ultimately your nutrition is a numbers game and it relies on you being consistent for long enough to see great results. That’s it. While most people find it easier to stay consistent if you give them more choices, sometimes people prefer keeping it straightforward.
- Smith C. F., et al. Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite (1999).
- Stewart T. M., et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite (2002).
- Karl J. P., et al. Substituting whole grains for refined grains in a 6-wk randomized trial favorably affects energy-balance metrics in healthy men and postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr (2017),