Nutrition is both simple and complex. It's simple in that if we want to lose weight, we need to burn more calories than we eat (and vice versa if we want to bulk up). But genetic, environmental, lifestyle, psychological and social factors can affect our individual nutritional needs making them more complex. "Flexible dieting" isn't a diet; it's a nutritional concept where you have a daily calorie and macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein and fat) target and as long as those specific numbers are achieved, then food selection is left up to your personal preference. Here's the skinny on how it works.
I'll use myself as an example. As a Precision Nutrition certified coach, I know that based on my body type, lifestyle and fitness goals that my daily caloric needs are about 2,800kcal and that ideally those calories would come from 40% carbohydrates (280g), 25% fat (90g) and 30% protein 210g). The method I use for myself and my clients is fairly sophisticated, but there are many decent online tools that can give you a sense of your own needs. My numbers are a bit higher than the needs of most of my clients as I move and stand all day and am trying to gain muscle. Most folks will require fewer calories and based on their bodies may have a different % macro split.
Knowing how many calories I need to stay within/hit in a day and ideally how those calories should be broken down to help me achieve my goals is great. But information without action is useless. So those who practice flexible dieting use tools like MyFitnessPal to plan and track their food. Are these tools perfect? Nope. But they can be better than guessing/estimating/eyeballing. Research suggests that we are bad at estimating our food intake and though not perfect, tools like MyFitnessPal, nutrition labels and online databases can give us helpful info to work with.
A quick note on "calorie counting". Lots of articles and industry experts say it doesn't work. And they're right. Sort of. It doesn't work for a lot of people, especially if you have a history of disordered eating. So I would never advocate or "prescribe" this method if it goes against your own food ethics. For those who are generally heathy but lacking a true understanding of what they are eating, I think short term food tracking/logging can be a very useful and eye opening experience. It can help us understand our nutritional needs, measure with "some" level of accuracy what we're actually taking in and then make changes to bridge the gap. Once those changes are shown to work (or tweaked if they don't) and become part of our lifestyle, certainly we don't need to meticulously measure/track every ounce of food we eat for the rest of our lives. There are other strategies like these or simply using a meal deliver service that might better suit you.
The appeal of flexible dieting is that it allows us to include the foods we love into our menus. Here's an example of how I used it this morning. I'm writing this having coffee with my partner Peter and we decided we want to go to our favorite pizza place for dinner tonight. I have one training client, my own workout and two massage clients today. As usual, I take a few minutes in the morning to prep my food for the day. I went into my FitnessPal and pre-logged four pieces of cheese pizza for my dinner. And then I planned my breakfast, lunch and snacks around that so I hit my kcal and macro targets. MyFitnessPal makes this pretty easy to do. So I know I'm heading into my busy day armed with the food I need to fuel me and with the knowledge that I can enjoy my pizza tonight. I left myself an extra 400 calories for margin of error or if I get a hankering for dessert (it's Saturday night after all).
JJ's Flexible Dieting Menu Example
- 4oz smoked salmon, 8tbs egg whites (microwaved for 2m), 1/2 medium avocado and 2tbs salsa
- 8oz roast turkey (from Whole Foods prepared foods case), 1/2 cup frozen Jasmine rice and 1 cup frozen broccoli,
- 4 slices of cheese pizza (The pizza place I love is local and I know they use basic ingredients. They aren't listed in MyFitnessPal like many chains are, so I found the best match "generic cheese pizza slice".)
- Veggie bag
- Brown rice cake and 1tbs peanut butter
- Rx Bar
- Chicken salad in a tortilla
- 2 scoops of protein powder and BCAAs (to sip on during my workout)