Whether you’re a nutrition coach or have weight loss or performance goals, you’ve likely tried various diets and methods of eating. Maybe you’ve heard of flexible dieting but are still asking, “What is flexible dieting anyway?”
If so, this one’s for you!
If a “diet” is the sum of all food and drinks you consume on a regular basis, then a flexible diet is one in which you have just that - flexibility with the types of foods you choose to eat.
Unlike many other diets, with flexible dieting, no foods are off-limits!
Most diets are restrictive in nature. Some simply cut calories. Others ask you to avoid certain food groups, label foods as either “good” or “bad”, control the time of eating or enforce specific meals.
But a diet that doesn’t bend will break.
In other words, when your diet isn’t flexible, it is much less likely to be sustainable.
All those rigid meal plans and restrictive diets ultimately fail you and make it tougher to reach your goals because they become too strict for you to follow long-term.
This is why we love flexible dieting here at Working Against Gravity!
What is Flexible Dieting?
Flexible dieting is an approach to nutrition based on inclusion vs. exclusion.
Through the lens of flexible dieting, no food is labeled as “good”, “bad”, “clean” or “dirty”.
Instead, this approach acknowledges that all foods have intrinsic value and can be included within a healthy and enjoyable diet.
As the name states, flexible dieting is flexible by nature and is designed to ebb and flow as your lifestyle, health or goals require.
This makes flexible dieting a realistic way to maintain your health and work towards your goals without sacrificing your food preferences - aka the foods you LOVE.
In this definition, “flexibility” means finding a diet and way of eating that you can consistently stick to AND enjoy, not just for a period of time, but as a sustainable way of navigating your nutrition for life.
You can enjoy flexibility in:
- The types of foods you choose to eat
- Balancing home-cooked meals vs. meals out or at special events
- The variety of food you eat day to day, week to week & over time
- How you view foods within the context of YOUR diet
- How you utilize nutrition to progress towards your goals, fit your needs & lifestyle
- The way you view nutrition & your relationship to food
The goal of flexible dieting is to help you build an understanding of what foods, in what quantities, and at what times, make you feel your best, and move you closer to your goals. This helps you feel empowered by your food choices and define balance and flexibility for yourself.
When you can approach food without rigid restrictions or limiting labels, you can create less guilt, reduce stress, improve adherence and ultimately improve how you feel about your nutrition.
At WAG, our coaches help you to do just that. They get to know you, your goals, your food preferences and your non-negotiables in terms of what you are (or are not) willing to do to reach those goals. They are there to remind you if and when more flexibility is needed to maintain a healthy relationship with food OR when your goals may require less flexibility to achieve.
How to Use Flexible Dieting to Reach Your Goals
Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is flexible dieting?”, let's explore the considerations and tools within this dietary framework.
Flexible dieting is based on macro counting. But what is macro counting you ask?
Macros, or macronutrients, are the three component parts that make up the calories in our food: Protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
Each macronutrient is made up of different amounts of calories and has unique effects on your body.
“Macro Counting” is simple a way to measure and ensure that your daily food intake includes adequate amounts of each macronutrient, based on your goals, lifestyle, and preferences.
Each day, you’ll aim to hit each of your three macro targets by measuring the amounts of food you eat and tracking them in an app. At WAG, we love MacrosFirst as it syncs with our unique coaching software, Seismic.
While the goal is to eat a set number of proteins, carbs, and fats, the foods you choose to eat to hit those targets are totally up to you! This is why it becomes flexible dieting.
There are no rules guiding which foods you have to eat, or which foods you have to avoid. If the food fits in your daily macros, it’s okay to be guilt-free about your food choice.
Want to dig into macros in greater detail? Check out the WAG Nutrition Guide.
What Flexible Dieting is it NOT
Flexible dieting doesn’t end at counting macros.
There are other factors to consider in order to look, feel and perform at your best!
For example, you could technically hit your daily macros by eating nothing but protein powder, ice cream and chips. And while there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with these foods, eating nothing but ice cream and chips with some protein on the side probably won’t make you feel your best, keep your energy levels stable or help you perform well in the gym…
It’s okay if your diet includes processed foods and treats like ice cream and chips now and then. But you don’t want to be getting the majority of your calories from these types of food.
If you’re only focused on the macros without giving much thought to food quality, you’re missing out on a lot of benefits.
Digestion, performance, energy, body composition, and hunger regulation are all influenced by the types of food you eat. With that in mind, focus on eating the majority of your calories from whole food, nutrient-dense sources while making room for some of your favorite foods.
The takeaway here?
Too much of anything can have consequences. So while you don’t need to completely avoid or restrict any foods to hit your daily macros, the goal of flexible dieting is to be flexible while also demonstrating moderation & balance.
If you want to learn more about how to think about flexible dieting in the context of your overall health, check out this episode of The WAG Podcast.
Flexible Dieting for Different Goals
The beauty of flexible dieting (or at least ONE of the many reasons we love it) is that it can be applied to anyone, with any goal!
It doesn’t matter if you’re focused on weight loss, increasing athletic performance, or simply wanting to feel healthier, flexible dieting is a great approach.
However, it might look a bit different in practice based on the type of goal you’re pursuing as there are different tradeoffs to consider with each goal.
Flexible Dieting For Weight Loss & Aesthetic Goals
If you are using flexible dieting to lose weight or with the goal of changing your body composition, there are some specific things you’ll want to consider like:
- Macro counting accuracy (aka, how often you’re “hitting your macros”)
- Food quality & volume
If you want to lose weight or get lean, you almost always need to be in a calorie deficit and consume fewer calories than you expend each day.
That means you’ll have to ensure that you are not eating too much for your goals and therefore will need to be more accurate and consistent with your macro counting. Since it is important to hit your macros each day, you may have to be more specific with your food choices. A coach can help you nail down these amounts and stick to them!
When you’re in a calorie deficit, your hunger tends to increase because you are eating less food overall.
So, you’ll need to be more choosy about which foods you eat to ensure you’re getting in high volume and high nutrient options. These foods help you feel satiated and ensure you’re still getting all the important micronutrients your body needs.
How do you eat high volume?
Choose foods like greens, veggies, salads, berries, melon, etc. and carb sources with more fiber. HERE are some great ideas! These foods will physically fill you up, keep you satiated for longer and help your digestion move at a good pace.
While highly palatable, high-calorie foods like those chips and ice cream are delicious, they pack a calorie punch and still leave you feeling hungry again shortly after. Think about how much physical room a salad takes up in your stomach vs. a few bites of ice cream for the same calorie amount.
You may also have to be more mindful about meals out at restaurants and focusing on supportive habits like meal prep in order to adhere to your macros.
You can still have flexibility in your diet and include the treats you love, but you’ll need to be more intentional about when, where, and how you incorporate those foods so you feel your best along the way.
Flexible Dieting to Increase Performance
If your goals include performance improvements, there’s a good chance you’ll be eating at maintenance or higher. This will give you tons of room to explore your food preferences and include your favorite foods.
Even with more calories to play with, you still need balance and intention behind your diet. As an athlete, you’ll want to consider things like:
- Meal timing (pre & post-workout)
- Food quality
While you might not have to worry too much about excess hunger, you will want to prioritize your pre and post-workout nutrition to ensure adequate fueling and recovery.
This means opting for certain foods over others in the meal leading up to, and the meal following your training session. However, the exact types of foods, portions, or times in which you eat them are still totally up to you!
Check out our Competition Prep Guide for more specific suggestions.
As for food quality, when you want to perform at your best it is important to keep inflammation low and give your body the best chance at recovery possible. This is done best by fueling with mostly whole, healthy foods vs. processed foods that can increase inflammation and decrease recovery.
Health & Longevity
If you aren’t concerned with losing weight and performance isn’t your biggest goal, there are still some things to keep in mind on your flexible dieting journey like...
- Food quality
- Balance and moderation
As mentioned for those wanting weight loss and/or performance gains, food quality is important!
In a healthy diet, you can have your treats and enjoy them guilt-free, but you also need to keep in mind your overall food quality.
To do so, try the “80/20 guideline” in which you would focus on filling 80% of your diet from whole-food, nutrient-rich food sources - think unprocessed, veggies, fruits, carbs, lean meats, and healthy fats. The other 20% can include more processed, or specialty foods that you love.
You can still be flexible! But if you want to feel your best, focusing on whole foods first is a great approach. This will help get you adequate micronutrients, fiber and help keep your hunger and energy regulated.
Keep in mind, you can use this 80/20 approach if you’re seeking performance or weight loss goals too.
Balance and moderation within flexible dieting might include:
- Creating ‘balanced meals’ that include a high-quality source of protein, carbs, veggies, and fats at each meal
- Having portions that fit your needs and goals
- Including treats in order to avoid feelings of restriction or guilt
- Approaching food without labeling it as “good” or “bad”
- Understanding how different macronutrients support your body and health
Creating a Sustainable Way of Eating
While flexible dieting includes macro counting and tracking your food, remember that it’s just a tool.
You can eat flexibly for the rest of your life by learning about the different macronutrients, how they affect your body and ultimately what foods feel best for you. Whether that means continuing to track your food or using flexible dieting as a way to learn about how the foods you eat impact your goals, is up to you.
Through flexible dieting, you can create your own definition of balance and flexibility and eat in an empowered way, no matter what goals you’re chasing.