Here’s The Problem with Flexible Dieting & Why It Doesn’t Always Work

by Jordan Syatt February 2, 2015

Flexible dieting is all the rage.

Ranging in approaches from If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) to Intuitive Eating, flexible dieting has become the industry standard for “optimal nutrition coaching” and, to many, any other approach is not only useless but self destructive. 

Important to note…

I’m a HUGE Proponent of Flexible Dieting

I’ve written extensively about the benefits of flexible dieting and how to use it with extraordinary success on numerous occasions. 

And while flexible dieting is one of the best approaches to help people achieve and maintain long-term nutrition success, its utility has been taken entirely out of context to an unrealistic extreme. 

Every day I see and hear coaches touting the benefits of flexible dieting and the perils of having a structured diet.

You can eat anything you want” they say “just as long as it fits within your calorie guidelines.

You need to indulge and have treats,” they explain.If you don’t regularly indulge you won’t succeed.

Look! I eat ice cream, pizza, and beer while staying lean and strong. That’s what flexible dieting is all about!

They’re Wrong

wrongThat is not what flexible dieting is all about.

Flexible dieting is about teaching individuals how to eat an overall “healthy” diet made up of a variety of satiating and nutrient dense foods while learning how to occasionally incorporate their favorite “unhealthy” foods and making continued progress without accompanying feelings of guilt.

Unfortunately, that’s not as sexy or marketable as saying “eat whatever you want to get ripped” so many fit pro’s just ignore the proper definition altogether.

So What’s the Problem with Flexible Dieting?

Keep in mind…flexible dieting isn’t bad.

When used and taught properly it’s honestly amazing which is why I use it with myself and many of my clients.

But there’s a problem.

A big problem.

It’s not a problem inherent to flexible dieting.

It’s a problem with how coaches view, perceive, and subsequently teach it to their clients.

See, what most coaches fail to realize is…

Flexible Dieting Is a SKILL!

skillNot only is it a skill…it’s an advanced form of eating that takes a great deal of time, effort, and practice to understand and use properly.

Think of it like personal training…

A brand new client – we’ll call her Edith – walks into the gym for her first personal training session with you.

Edith hasn’t worked out in years.

She’s overweight, de-conditioned, and has absolutely zero kinesthetic awareness.

Among other initial assessments and lessons, one of the first things you do (as any good coach would) is teach Edith how to hip hinge.

You know the hip hinge is an essential movement pattern that will help Edith improve her strength, mobility, kinesthetic awareness, and overall performance.

But let me ask you this…

When teaching Edith how to hip hinge, are you going to start by showing her the conventional deadlift?


Of course not.

While the ultimate goal may be to get Edith conventional deadlifting, it’s an extremely advanced variation for which she hasn’t yet developed the necessary strength or skills to train safely and effectively.

Instead, you’d probably start her off with a relatively easy drill that will help her ingrain the proper motor patterns.

In Other Words…You Use Progressions!

You don’t start every client with the most advanced lifting variation, do you?

No, of course not.

You start with the simplest and most basic progressions to ensure they master perfect form and ingrain the right movement habits (key word here being “habits”) until they’re ready for a more advanced variation. 

Likewise, you don’t give every client the exact same progression, do you?

No, of course not.

The progressions and specific exercises will vary client-to-client based on individual needs and goals. 

What Makes Nutrition Coaching Any Different?

nutrition coachingAbsolutely nothing.

Just like personal training, when coaching nutrition clients you must: 

1) Start with the simplest and most basic skills necessary to ingrain the right eating habits

2) Progress each person based on their individual needs, goals, and preferences. 

Practically Speaking…What Does This Mean?

Not everyone is ready for flexible dieting.

  • Some people need more structure.
  • Some people aren’t yet able to incorporate “unhealthy” foods without binge eating.
  • Some people actually prefer adhering to a strict diet.

And guess what?

That’s O.K.!

Every person is different which means there is never going to be a 1-size fits all approach that works for everyone.

And while flexible dieting obviously works for a ginormous amount of people, it’s important to remember:

1) It’s not right for everyone

2) Just because it isn’t right for someone now doesn’t mean it won’t be right for them later

Exactly as we do with exercise progression, we need to assess our nutrition clients and progress them in a similar fashion. 

How Do You Progress to Flexible Dieting?

flexible dietingThere is no one-size-fits-all approach.

However, there are several overarching components which everyone must learn and practice if they are to become a successful flexible dieter.

My method targets 3 main components in a progressive and systematic manner. Depending on the overall readiness of each client, you can progress them as you see fit as they become a more capable and confident flexible dieter.

Flexible Dieting Component #1: Knowledge

flexible dietingThis is the easiest component and usually the one that most coaches do pretty well. Truth be told, most coaches tend to over emphasize the knowledge component but I’ll discuss that later. 

Your clients will never become [autonomously] successful without at least a basic understanding of nutrition. 

As such, it’s important to educate your clients with the most essential components of nutrition-based knowledge. For example, the knowledge portion of my nutrition course emphasizes:

– Calories and their effect on your body

– Protein and why it’s so important

– Meal frequency and how to find what works best for you

– Weight loss and how much can you realistically expect to lose

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

But, as you can see, my goal is to educate my clients with the most essential knowledge necessary to help them achieve their goals.

Keep in Mind: Most clients don’t give a shit about the science behind nutrition. They just want to look good naked. Period. So drop the fancy words and text book terminology and start making it easier for them to understand. As my good friend, Pat Kotch, says: thinks science, speak client.

Finally, it’s important to remember clients need more than knowledge-based information. The reality is many people logically understand what foods they should be eating and in what quantities. The problem, however, often stems from a lack of accountability, willpower, and skill-based knowledge.

To combat this, my nutrition program emphasizes 2 more components.

Flexible Dieting Component #2: Skills

flexible dietingLet’s say you need to build a house.

You have a bull dozer, tons of brick, cement, and every other piece of the best construction equipment the world has to offer.

But there’s a problem.

You don’t know how to build.

At all.

Hell, you couldn’t build a square block out of leggos never mind a real house.

So what now?

With all the equipment and none of the skills, you’re left with a construction teams’ dream come true but not a single clue where to start.

You’re screwed.
See what I’m getting at?

You can have all the nutrition knowledge in the world but if you don’t have the requisite skills there’s no way in hell you’re going to succeed. <—Click to Tweet!

In other words, dieting is a skill and you need to teach your clients how and when to use these skills so they have the best chance to succeed.

What kind of skills am I referring to?

In my nutrition course, some of the skills I teach my clients include:

– Calorie Counting: What it is and how to do it effectively

– Reading and understanding nutrition labels

– Recognizing trigger foods before they become a problem

– The importance of planning meals in advance for long-term success

– Quick and easy bodyweight workouts that take 15-minutes or less

And the list goes on and on.

See, these skills are the backbone of my clients’ success.

They all know they need to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat.

They all know exercise is important

They all know protein will help them maintain muscle

But knowledge isn’t enough.

They need the SKILLS to help utilize this knowledge in the simplest, easiest, and least demanding way possible.

Which brings me to the final component…

Flexible Dieting Component #3: Tricks of the Trade

flexible dietingIn my article Do You Need to be Strong to be a Strength Coach? I wrote about the importance and role of personal experience for coaches.

Does a good strength coach need to be strong?


But experience under the bar and understanding the physical, emotional, and psychological barriers your athletes go through will make you a better coach.

It can be the difference between being a good coach and a great coach.

The same applies to nutrition coaching.

Does a good nutrition coach need to be shredded?


But having personal experience with fat loss and going through the process to achieve and maintain a lean physique will not only help you better understand what your clients are going through, it will also give you time to learn the tricks of the trade that you can only gain through experience. 

For example, some of the tricks of the trade that I include in my nutrition coaching program include:

– Tips & tricks to stay full without eating a boat load of calories

– Low-cal, high protein recipes that take less than 10-minutes to cook and taste AMAZING

– Simple strategies to stay motivated when the going gets tough

And that’s just the beginning of a very long list.

See, the tips and tricks you learn from going through the process will benefit both you and your clients in that you can provide them with little-known ways to stay comfortable, confident, and determined throughout the entire process.

Also worth mentioning …

In showing your clients that you not only understand the science and theory but also practically apply your methodologies to yourself, you will inspire and instill confidence in them to stick with the program.

I maintain 8-9%  body fat year-round
I maintain 8-9% body fat year-round

Again, you don’t need to have a 6-pack for your clients to trust you or succeed, but talking the talk AND walking the walk will improve their self efficacy via social modeling and drastically increase their chances of long-term success.

A Brief Re-Cap

  • Knowledge-based information is essential for you and your clients’ success. That being said, remember your clients can have all the knowledge in the world but without the requisite skills you’re setting them up for failure.
  • You don’t need to be shredded to be a good nutrition coach, but experiencing fat loss for yourself will give you far more insight into the process which will help both you and your clients’ long-term success.
  • Flexible dieting is a SKILL and, as a coach, you must progress your clients to become a flexible dieter just as you progress them in strength training. 

Oh, One More Thing… 


It’s become popular in our industry for coaches to post pictures of their “dirty” meals and indulgences (pop tarts, ice cream, cakes, alcohol, etc) on social media to show how easy and effective it is to be a flexible dieter.

This needs to stop.


Don’t get me wrong, I have zero problem with eating traditionally labeled “unhealthy” foods, but that’s because I’ve learned how to incorporate these options into my lifestyle through years of practice. 

The reality is most people don’t know how to be flexible dieters yet. Most people need more knowledge, skills, and tricks to help them get to the point of becoming a successful flexible dieter. 

Consequently, posting these pictures and giving off the impression that you never (or rarely) eat traditionally labled “healthy” foods is not only confusing but downright misleading. 

As coaches we need to post more pictures of our “healthy” meals.

flexible dieting
My ridiculously tasty kale salad with a hefty portion of lamb and beef posted on Instagram


We need to show our clients that “healthy” eating is the backbone of our success and, more importantly, it doesn’t have to suck.

We need to lead by example and instill the knowledge, skills, and habits within our clients that are essential for their long-term success.

So, before you post another picture of your cheesecake and pizza on social media, try posting a picture of a “healthy” meal so your clients and followers can see how you truly eat a majority of the time and understand what it takes to achieve their goals.

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