Flexible Dieting For Long-Term Success

by Jordan Syatt September 14, 2011

Each and every person has an innate desire to be the best.

It’s an instinctive characteristic of our species to crave dominance, power, and a high social status.

While this inbred human quality is of the utmost importance to our continued survival, it can also severely handicap us.

Our societies relentlessly hunt for the ultimate “quick-fix,” notably in regard to training and nutrition is one area in which this intrinsic yearning to be the best can become extraordinarily detrimental to ones long-term success.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about people through being a training and nutritional consultant, it’s that everybody regardless of age, gender, race, socio-economic status, occupation, etc… wants to look good naked. Granted, “good” is a tremendously subjective word, but suffice to say that no matter how good-looking you may find someone, we all have our own individual self-image and are seldom content with what we see.

Combine the innate desire to be the best and the common longing to look good (naked) with the endless pursuit of the coveted “quick-fix,” and you’ve created the perfect recipe for long-term fitness failure.

What’s My Point?

Among those of us who pay an extraordinary amount of attention to our training and nutrition, it’s very common to see people trying to achieve their goals through extremely rigid dieting. While it’s undoubtedly important to establish guidelines and a clear plan of action in order to reach your ultimate goal, it’s essential to realize that being a successful dieter is not synonymous with being a perfect dieter.

Practical Application

Interestingly enough, studies have shown “attempts to enforce highly rigid control over eating seems to be counterproductive to weight control efforts and may disrupt more appropriate food choice behaviors.” That being the case, in addition to the fact that being a rigid dieter is no fun whatsoever and is a sure-fire way to alienate yourself from society, I have found a majority of people tend to experience better overall and long-term results through approaching their diet from a more flexible point of view.

Defining Flexible:

In the context of dieting, being flexible means allowing yourself to enjoy your favorite foods and treats in moderation without the accompanying feelings of remorse or guilt. It means handling your diet in a strategic and intelligent manner which allows you to see consistent and significant results without isolating yourself from friends, family, or social events. In short, a flexible dieter is able to incorporate nutrition into their life opposed to a rigid dieter who has trouble incorporating life into their nutrition.

Perhaps the greatest part about being a flexible dieter is that there is no single “right” way to do it. Each and every individual has different goals and needs which makes designing a one-size-fits-all diet utterly impossible. That being said, through experimentation with myself and my clients, I’ve found little tricks, or guidelines if you will, that have made becoming a flexible dieter significantly easier and stress free.

1) The 80/20

Odds are you’ve probably heard of The 80/20 rule before. For those of you who haven’t, The 80/20 basically entails working hard and sticking to your diet 80% of the time so during the remaining 20% you can deviate from the norm and enjoy some tasty treats. To be honest, I thoroughly enjoy the concept of The 80/20 as it very clearly depicts progress can only be made through consistent hard work. Additionally, The 80/20 not only gives people the opportunity to take a break from their usual diet but it actually makes it O.K. to do so.

There are numerous ways to manipulate The 80/20; it’s just a matter of finding which way works best for you. A common strategy I have used with great success is to incorporate a favorite treat at 20% of my meals throughout the week.

To illustrate:

3 meals per day for 7 days = 21 meals

.2 x 21 = 4.2 (I’ll round it down to 4)

Number of meals per week to incorporate my favorite foods: 4 meals per week

As you can see, using The 80/20 as outlined above allows me to enjoy my favorite foods in moderation 4 times per week. Considering many standard diets commonly encourage the complete elimination of certain foods (usually the most delicious ones) and give dieters the impression that eating these “unclean” or “cheat” foods is equivalent to total diet failure, being able to incorporate your favorite treats several times throughout the week is a huge benefit, from both a physiological and psychological standpoint.

I should note there are just as many ways to abuse The 80/20 as there are to use it correctly. I’ve had people tell me since 20% of 7 is nearly 1.5 they thought it would be ok to eat as much as they wanted of whatever they wanted for a day and a half every single week. Ignoring the blatant disregard for rational thinking displayed by these people, this is a perfect example of how not to use The 80/20.

I’m only suggesting The 80/20 because it illustrates while hard work is necessary to make progress, it’s also totally fine to take a break and relax every once in a while. The 80/20 is by no means the only way to incorporate your favorite foods and is only one example of how one can practice flexible dieting. The message I want readers to take away from The 80/20 is that consistency and dedication to a generally “healthy” diet is the most efficient way to see long-term progress, but having the ability to relax, take everything in stride, and enjoy the process while including your favorite foods is an equally important skill that cannot be ignored.

2) Plan Ahead

Let’s be honest, no one likes going out to eat with friends or family only to order a tossed salad with balsamic vinaigrette on the side and completely skip out on dessert. So, in an attempt to enjoy your favorite foods with the people you love while continuing to make progress…plan ahead!

If you know you’re going out later that day or during the week adjust your diet accordingly in order to make your time out as enjoyable as possible. Using the example from above, if you have 4 meals throughout the week in which you can incorporate your favorite treats, simply adjust your schedule to make that night out one of those meals. If it’s more of a spontaneous deal and you had no time to “prepare,” please do not panic; it’s not a big deal!

Go out, have fun, and eat some delicious food. The following days get back on track and resume your diet; your sanity will thank you for it.

3) Re-define your idea of “clean”

As I spoke about in my article How To Make Fat Loss Taste Good, the most important aspect in regard to body composition is calories in vs. calories out. While other aspects certainly play a major roll in body composition changes (notably an adequate protein intake and its ability to maintain/build muscle mass), the fact remains that a calorie deficit will result in weight loss while a calorie surplus will result in weight gain. Assuming protein intake is adequate and training is optimal, it doesn’t matter if you fill the rest of your daily calorie allotment with apple pie, PB & J, or deep fried Twinkies.

Does this mean I recommend everybody hit their daily protein requirements (roughly 1-1.5g/lb of total body weight) and then eat junk food as the remaining portion of their daily calorie intake? Absolutely not. You would lose out on myriad health benefits that whole foods have to offer, would probably be hungry the majority of the time, and would most likely feel as though a sack of bricks were permanently strapped around each of your legs.

However, by re-defining your conventional view of “clean” foods and understanding the most important aspect in regard to body composition is calories in vs. calories out, you can allow yourself the freedom to enjoy your favorite foods without worrying about whether or not you’re setting yourself back or ruining all of the progress you’ve made through dieting.

Take away message: There is NO FOOD that is inherently fattening. If you are in a caloric deficit you will lose weight, and if you are in a caloric surplus you will gain weight regardless of what you’re eating. In the main, stick to whole food meals with lots of veggies and protein but realize that occasionally indulging in moderate amounts of conventionally labeled “unclean” foods will not ruin all of your hard earned progress and may actually help you in the long-run.

Wrapping Up

As I’ve said before and I’ll say again, life is entirely too short to be spent worrying over each and every insignificant detail. If achieving or maintaining a specific goal forces you to exclude all other aspects of life and keeps you from enjoying the things you love, you may either want to reconsider the goal or your plan of action to achieve it. There is rarely a single right or wrong way to achieve anything in life, regardless of the situation. Set specific and realistic goals while constantly challenging yourself to be a better you, but don’t fall into the trap of believing it’s all or nothing as that may be the most efficient way to fail.

Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.


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