What is a Flexible Diet?

Flexible Dieting typically refers to a calorie controlled diet (weight loss diet) that allows greater flexibility in the type of foods that you can eat. The premise of flexible dieting means you can eat what you like as long as calories are controlled and certain macronutrient numbers are achieved (macronutrients being protein, carbohydrates and fat). So yes, that anything includes pizza, pasta, fast food, ice cream, etc. Whatever your choice, you name it.

Now this may sound heavenly (eating what you like…sign me up!) however, there are certain rules. In a flexible diet you will still need to abide by the rules of a calorie deficit (eating less energy/food than your body burns) in order to lose weight. A.k.a you can’t eat whatever you like ALL the time, it has to be in moderation. Additionally, a true flexible diet still requires a certain amount of calculating and preparation. Specifically, I am referring to counting your calories and the regularity of your macronutrient balance. However, I will talk more on the macronutrient balance below as I believe this is not entirely necessary. For now, let’s look at an example of a flexible diet in action.

Mike and John are looking to lose weight. Their amazing personal trainer (let’s call him Scott Farkas) has calculated their calorie requirements and expected time frame. Mike is expected to eat 2500 Calories for 4 weeks and John is to eat 2300 calories for 4 weeks. The personal trainer will monitor and adjust calories, according to any adjustments in exercise and metabolism, as the week’s progress.

Mike is a frequent ‘dieter’, dieting on and off most of his adult life. For 4 weeks Mike eats a typical “clean diet”. Salad, chicken and rice with veggies, egg whites and white fish etc. Fruit is his main snack. At the end of 4 weeks Mike had successfully hit his calorie and protein target each day. No ‘cheat foods” consumed. Although tough, job complete.

John has decided to take up flexible dieting as an approach, for 4 weeks John eats a balanced, but controlled, diet that suits his lifestyle. John eats out at lunch every other day at work, occasionally has cereal for breakfast and enjoys chocolate and yogurt regularly. Every Friday was pizza night. At the end of 4 weeks John had successfully hit his calorie and protein target each day. John found this diet relatively easy, job complete.

Review: Mike’s diet is what many associate with “clean eating”. Mike was able to eat a lot of food with this diet, it is high in volume, which is excellent for satiety. The food is also nutritious, for the most part, but for many individuals this diet is extreme and unrealistic to maintain and non-typical. Chances are, after the diet, Mike will revert to his regular diet of takeaways and sweets.
On the other hand, John was flexible dieting. John was still tracking his calories and protein (like Mike) but he was not restricting his diet. Although still portion controlled, John was able to eat half a pizza for dinner on Friday and snack on sweet treats on most of the evenings with only small changes or swaps/substitutes to his regular routine. Flexible dieting allowed john to lose weight, just like Mike, but without the cravings and inhibitions that one may associate with a diet.

Typically, flexible dieting is compared to “clean eating” or restricted diets. You can picture lots of salads, boiled chicken, vegetables and fruit etc. Typically we associate a diet with this “clean eating” style. However, for a weight loss diet to become successful we know that calorie deficit is required (eating less calories than the body burns) and so this deficit can be achieved via any combination of foods that you choose as long as you are in a calorie deficit. A quick trip to YouTube will give you multiple examples, specifically ‘How I lost weight only eating McDonalds’, ‘How I lost weight eating only ice cream’ or ‘I lost weight eating only fast food’. What they really should say is, “I lost weight because I monitored my calorie intake”.

BENEFITS of Flexible Dieting

  • You can eat all the types of food and drink you desire (in moderation)
  • You are not restricting your diet
  • You may adhere to your diet better (not craving or breaking diet)
  • You may improve happiness and mental health (i.e. less pressure to be ‘perfect’)
  • Social gatherings are not a constant worry

NEGATIVES of Flexible Dieting

  • Eating calorie dense foods (e.g. Pizza) will consume a large amount of your daily calories
  • You will have to moderate your food closer
  • You have to plan ahead for larger meals (eating smaller meals prior, or post)
  • You may restrict a lot of micronutrients into your diet (vitamins and minerals)
  • Counting calories is not necessary but highly recommended

Calories and Protein

Typically a flexible diet will ensure that a client achieves a calorie limit and maintains regular macronutrient percentages (i.e. 60% Carbs, 20% Protein, 20% Fat). Although regularity is exceptionally helpful for many reasons (water retention, fibre intake, energy, body composition etc.), I strongly believe a calorie limit and protein limit is the only necessary principle to monitor and regulate if your only goal is to lose weight. Opposed to maintaining regular macronutrient percentages, protein is the only macronutrient responsible for building and maintaining muscle. Maintaining our muscle mass is important. There are multiple reasons as to why we want to keep as much muscle as possible when we diet, primarily muscle is very calorie demanding. This will explain why a bodybuilder can eat in excess of 3/4000 calories a day – the muscle demands the energy. Additionally, protein has a high Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). TEF means protein is metabolised by the body differently, meaning your body has to actually use extra energy just to process the protein you ate. These are helpful aids for fat loss. Roughly 20-30% of protein’s calories are burned instantly by the body just through the process of digestion. If you maintain a certain level of protein and calories you will set yourself up efficiently to preserve your muscle, keep metabolism high and drop weight. A healthy and safe amount of protein to consume is around 1.6-2.0g of protein per Kg of body weight.

Let’s look at a typical day for a Flexible Dieter.

Example 1: Lucy has a calorie limit of 1900 calories per day and target of 140g of protein.

Breakfast: Cheerio’s (60g) w/Milk 200ml, plus toast + Peanut butter (30g)
= 599 Cal/ 23g of protein

Snack: Arla Protein yoghurt Raspberry (200g) + apple
=186 Cal/ 20g of protein

Lunch: McDonald’s Grilled chicken wrap w/sweet curry dip
=399 Cal/ 29g of protein

Dinner: M&S Fish Pie w/Mars ice cream bar
=460 Cal/ 30g of protein

Snack: Atkins chocolate chip crisp bar + Arla Protein yoghurt
=244 Cal/ 29.8g of protein

Total: 1888 Calories and 132g of protein.

Example 2: Lucy has a calorie limit of 1900 calories per day and target of 140g of protein.

Breakfast: 3x Large egg’s scrambled, 20g cheddar cheese + 200ml OJ
=393 Cal/ 27g of protein

Snack: Arla Protein yoghurt raspberry (200g)
=126 Cal/ 20g of protein

Lunch: 85g of precooked chicken, 200g of veggies + Rice (75g)
=316 Cal/ 30g of protein

Dinner: Large Dominos Deluxe (6 slices)
=1028 Cal/54g of protein

Total: 1863 Calories and 131g of protein.

These two examples highlight how easy it is to maintain a flexible diet and hit your calorie allowance. I will highlight, the protein target was not achieved on each example – this would be easily rectified with better planning during snack time, breakfast or increasing protein during the established meals. However, for the purpose of achieving a calorie deficit to lose weight, both examples are successful and will lose weight (remember calorie deficit is the process to lose weight). Notice how Example 2 was not able to eat after the domino’s pizza, it was very calorie dense. However, with a bit of prior planning example 2 was able to still enjoy Friday night pizza.

How does Flexible Dieting compare?

Compared to other, more recognised, diets, flexible dieting offers flexibility, obviously. Usually each diet has its own limitations and restrictions within a strict guideline. Below are a list of a few issues with the related diets:

  • Low Calorie/E.g. Cambridge: Eating 800 or less calories. Exceptional hunger, risk of dehydration, lack of essential nutrients, lack of energy, increased headaches, aches and pains.
  • Slimming groups/E.g. Slimming world: Guided food allowance, labeling of ‘good’ or ‘Sinful’ foods. Food restrictions, shaming in group setting, demonizing foods, short term fix with unrealistic expectations to maintain that diet.
  • Keto Diet: Eating primarily Fat and Protein with low, to zero, Carbohydrates. Increased fat intake can possible lead to Coronary Heart Disease risk, excessive protein turnover/high acidity, Calcium reduction in bones, stressful on the kidneys.
  • Paleo Diet: Eating seasonal foods available to the environment, primarily the inclusion of meat, vegetables, nut and seeds. Lack of dairy produce and possibly poor calcium intake, lack of variety micronutrient intake, possible bloating and constipation due to excess fibre.

Although I have not listed any benefits to the above diets (you can do the research for yourself), clearly there is not a definitively superior diet. Each diet or guideline will have its limitations, as does flexible dieting. As mentioned earlier, if you only eat McDonald’s but you hit your calorie target you will lose weight. However, with the McDonald’s flexible diet there is no doubt that you will be consuming well above your recommended daily saturated fat intake, including a deficiency in multiple micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). A Flexible Diet is exceptionally different from one individual to another and it’s up to yourself to ensure that you eat a varied and balanced diet for health interest…or you don’t. I would always recommend to my clients that they hit their 5-a-day fruit/veg target and make health conscious decisions or substitutions.

Additional note: Flexible dieting is not always pizza, cakes, biscuits and takeaway. Most people will post these pictures for the ‘gram but I can assure you that it is not a regular occurrence. Typically a strict diet is employed for the majority of the weight loss phase with flexible dieting foods taking up a small portion (I will stab a guess at maybe 10%). The main inclusion of a Flexible Diet is for those who wish to sustain a realistic diet, develop a better relationship with food and maintain a (somewhat) regular social life.

Here is an example of my diet during a weight loss diet

Thanks for reading this far down. I hope you might be able to come away with some new information regarding what a diet can look like. If you would like to discuss further about flexible dieting then please leave a comment below or get in touch with me today. I offer personal 1-to-1 training and online coaching to my clients. If you would like guidance and support my door is always open.

If you like what you read please leave a comment below or share with anyone that you believe may benefit from reading this post. I’m off for a Pizza…

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