The first time I heard about flexible dieting, I laughed in someone’s face.
Like, straight up, belly laugh.
I said, “Whatever dude!”, as I got stuck into my third bowl of chicken and rice which, by this stage, tasted like broken dreams.
You see, up until this point I was what’s known as “a clean eater”.
My trusty list of foods contained all the old bodybuilding classics; oats, rice, broccoli, chicken.
It sucked, but it worked. And that’s all I cared about.
Because whether I wanted to “bulk” or “cut”, I knew I could do it by swapping rice for pasta and simply playing with the measurements of those four simple foods.
But suddenly I had Joe Donnelly saying “Team Donuts!”, and Dr. Layne Norton enjoying post-workout Pop Tarts.
I knew I needed to try it.
And that’s when everything changed for me.
The F**k Is Clean Eating?
Switching from my old approach to a more flexible, numbers-based nutrition plan was surreal.
I giggle now when I do it for personal training clients, because it reminds me of my own experience.
All this choice!!!
I felt like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, freed from the prison of his own little world and thrust into the big wide open.
I still didn’t fully trust it, either.
At first, every bite of foods not on my list felt somewhat naughty.
I mean, I grew up reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. That book is the opposite of flexible dieting.
And now I was going against everything I had learned.
But strangely… it worked.
I felt leaner, stronger, and happier than I had for a long time.
And I was kinda p***ed off at first, because I figured “Why have I wasted so much time eating this boring list of foods if I didn’t even have to?!”
The fitness world owed me an answer, so I went in search of one.
And what I found was quite bizarre:
They didn’t f**king have an answer.
Turns out, I wasn’t alone in “eating clean” and being afraid of anything outside my designated list of muscle magazine approved foods.
And even though most of us were sick of the sight of another bowl of chicken and f**king rice, we daren’t stray from the rulebook for fear the gym gods would punish us with immediate fat gain around the lower abdomen.
I began questioning whether my previous “clean eating” protocol was actually as productive as I thought…
Sure, it had helped me to get into decent shape.
But I was sick of my life.
I hated being around temptation, so I’d skip get-togethers, etc.
And I’d beat myself up every time I caved an had a piece of chocolate. I’d say things like, “That’s it! I’m completely off junk food!”
This would result in me dieting hard for 2-3 weeks in an attempt to kick my own a**, then rip the kitchen door off its hinges and smear chocolate all over my naked body in sheer frustration.
… then it was time for the sequel; Diet Hard 2: Diet HARDER.
But with this new approach, I was able to stick to my diet for a much longer period of time.
Even though it didn’t feel anywhere near as strict with my food choices, consistency was playing a major role in getting me in better shape than I ever had been before.
Turns out, the diet I had previously classed as great was actually pretty s**t.
Clean vs Dirty?
I began questioning the very belief system I’d been programmed to follow.
“What even is clean eating?”
“What is a clean food and what is a dirty food?”
“Does it mean we wash our dinner before we eat it?”
Of course not, but it’s as silly as it sounds.
Because “clean”, by definition, implies that a food is in some way superior for the results we want to achieve.
Yet there were plot holes everywhere…
“Clean is such an ambiguous term, and the definition of a clean food changes depending on who you speak to. Talk to your typical bodybuilder, and they’ll 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
And the more I looked into it, the more I moved away from the clean eating movement forever…
I began noticing nasty trends with friends of mine who were avid clean eaters.
Shaking their heads in disbelief as I strayed away from my sacred list of four foods, they would try their best to panic me by saying things like:
“Just watch… you’ll get fat.”
And I never did.
But moving away from clean eating is one of the best choices I ever made.
I was stuck in a system which saw me create a very unhealthy relationship with food; disregarding the nutritional values, in favor of putting items on some bulls**t “good ” and “bad” list which didn’t seem to have any scientific merit.
And I remember the binges…
Oh, the binges…
Like my clean eating buddies, I could either completely avoid junk food for weeks at a time, or gorge on it until I felt sick.
It was all or nothing.
There was no such thing as “a Jaffa Cake”. These motherf**kers dealt only in boxes.
I once watched a female friend go to town on a Creme Egg.
It was so graphic I felt a red glow coming from my own face.
The company slogan is “Have a fling with a Creme Egg”, but she violated that egg with her tongue in ways I couldn’t believe.
When they weren’t getting any leaner, they pin-pointed individual foods as the problem, rather than looking at the numbers.
“Ah, I need to add Himalayan rock salt to my meals!”
But when we do actually work out the numbers, things become very clear:
- If it takes 2500 calories to maintain body weight, that gives you 17,500 calories per week.
- If you create a -500 calorie deficit between Monday and Saturday, you’re at 12,000 calories so far.
- If you gorge on +10000 calories on Sunday, you’ve had 22,000 calories.
- Which is 4500 calories over maintenance level for the week. So even though you felt like you dieted hard Monday-Saturday, you still gained weight.
What Does Science Say?
Despite initially going against all bodybuilding logic, flexible dieting truly holds its own in terms of academic research.
The first study to fully demonstrate this was published in Appetite way back in 1999. (1)
In this trial, researchers found that a more flexible approach to dieting (versus rigid “clean” eating) led to fewer cases of anxiety, depression, and over-eating!
(Literally everything we were just saying above!)
Three years later, a team from Louisiana State University and Pennington Biomedical Research Center doubled-down on these findings, concluding that flexible dieting led to fewer cases of disordered eating patterns, bad moods, and issues associated with body dysmorphia compared to more rigid dieting. (2)
In March 2017, the final nail was pushed into the coffin of “clean eating”.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the effects of replacing whole grains for refined grains to see if it would affect energy balance in men and women.
The end result?
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)
“So when someone asks, “So 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, “Yes, that is what I’m saying. There will be a very small difference, but there won’t be much difference, and here’s the reference.”“– Martin MacDonald
Not that you should do that, but basically calories are king.
Will Flexible Dieting Work For You?
Although the research above is very interesting, it’s not saying “clean eating” won’t work for you.
Heck, providing you hit your daily calories and macronutrients, you could definitely do this by sticking to a list of so-called “clean foods”.
My question is this:
Why would you want to?
You know you can enjoy your favorite treats along the way without losing your results, so why not enjoy that?
But hey, flexible dieting isn’t for everyone.
Some people genuinely prefer sticking to those foods they’ve come to class as “safe choices”, because removing temptation works better for them.
But you may find that you’re part of the other group of people…
Trying a preset, cookie-cutter plan which focuses on a rigid, overly-restrictive list of foods generally leads folks down a path of frustration and failure, kick-starting a cycle of Diet > Fail > Binge > Repeat which never ends.
If that’s you, then I recommend using flexible dieting instead.
Since applying flexible dieting to my own diet a few years ago and seeing positive results from it, I began experimenting with personal training clients.
The vast majority of the men and women I’ve trained with over the years (around 80%, in fact) have preferred using a more flexible approach.
Well, for most it came down to freedom and variety.
Nobody likes being the c**kwaffle who turns up to family occasions with chicken and rice in tupperware or, even worse, skipping the event altogether for fear of ruining their diet.
By focusing on simply “hitting their numbers”, they lost that fear of being around temptation and it also went quite far in regards to helping them create a better relationship with food.
Your fitness journey is more fun when it’s a celebration of what your body can do, rather than a punishment for what you ate.
No food is inherently “bad”. Everything is fine in moderation. Make it fit. What a f**king life.
If you’ve enjoyed this article on why I use replaced clean eating with flexible dieting, jump on my e-mail list for free training tips when I send them out.
You can also download my training app, for stacks of proven workout routines and nutrition plans. Enjoy.
- 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)