The first time I heard about flexible dieting, I laughed in someone’s face.
Like, straight up, belly laugh.
“Whatever dude,” I said, 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’d been a religious “clean eater”.
My list of trusty foods contained all the old bodybuilding classics; oats, rice, broccoli, chicken. That wasn’t one day of food. That was every day.
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 food felt somewhat naughty.
I grew up reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. This is the opposite of flexible dieting. I was going against everything I had learned.
Bizarrely… it worked.
I felt leaner, stronger, and happier than I had in ages.
And I was kinda p***ed off at first, because I figured “Why have I wasted so much time before this?!” 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 know.
Turns out, I wasn’t alone in “eating clean” 100% of the time and being afraid of anything outside my designated list of muscle magazine approved foods.
Most guys and girls around the world were also doing that EXACT SAME THING!
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 otherwise the gym gods would strike down our progress in an instant and 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…
I was constantly sick of my life.
I’d say things like, “That’s it! I’m completely off junk food!”
I meant it, too.
So I’d diet HARD for 2-3 weeks then inevitably headbutt my way into the chocolate cupboard and smear it all over my naked body in sheer frustration. Then it was time for the sequel; Diet Hard 2: Diet HARDER.
But with a new approach, I was able to maintain my diet and hit my targets for a much longer period of time.
Even though it didn’t feel anywhere near as strict, the consistency factor was playing a major role in getting me in top shape.
So what I previously classed as great was actually pretty s**t.
I began questioning the very belief system I’d been programmed to follow.
“What even is clean eating?”
Does it mean we wash our food before we eat it?
Of course not, but it’s as silly as it sounds.
“Clean”, by definition, implies that a food is in some way superior or optimal, and therefore should play a major role in our diet.
But 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, as I watched on from a safe distance and listened to their criticism about how I was “doing it wrong” and “you’ll get fat, just watch…”
Rather than judge foods on their nutritional values, I watched as they created a very unhealthy relationship with food by putting things on some bulls**t list of “good ” and “bad” which didn’t seem to have any scientific merit.
Then there were the binges…
Oh, the binges…
I remember those days well!
They could either completely avoid junk food for weeks at a time, or gorge on it until they 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.
But, funny as it was, it was sheer frustration.
Because, just like me, the wheels of the clean eating train tended to come off every 2-3 weeks before hitting the ‘reset’ button and making plans to go even harder next time.
When they wondered why they weren’t getting any leaner, they pin-pointed individual foods as the problem (“Ah! I need to add Himalayan rock salt!”) rather than looking at the numbers:
- 2500 calories to maintain body weight = 17500 calories per week.
- -500 calorie deficit Monday-Saturday = 12000 calories so far.
- +10000 calorie binge on Sunday = 22000 calories.
- = 4500 calories over maintenance level for the week = weight gain.
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?
No difference! 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 1000kcals of wholegrain rice for 1000kcals 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
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”, and a plan of set meals at set times appears to work just fine for those guys.
Unfortunately, that’s does not represent the majority 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 you apply flexible dieting protocols to your nutrition plan right away.
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.
No food was inherently “bad”. Everything was okay in moderation. Make it fit. What a f**king life.
It took me years to figure it out, but 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.
If you’ve enjoyed this article on why I use flexible dieting and why I stopped following clean eating, 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)