Flexible Dieting Part 1: A Maintainable Lifestyle

Flexible Dieting Part 1A: A Maintainable Lifestyle

Layne Norton, PhD Nutritional Sciences, BioLayne.com

In my previous article for GORGO we discussed why most weight loss diets fail. They simply cannot be maintained in the long term and often create unhealthy relationships with food.  I also said that I am a proponent of what is called 'Flexible Dieting' also known as IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros).

The Premise behind this diet is:

-Instead of only eating certain 'good' or 'clean' foods and excluding everything else, which can lead to binging and massive weight regain post diet, you eat much of what you like.

-You target specific macronutrient (protein, carb, fat) intakes, but your food choices are more flexible.

Now when I say the words 'flexible dieting' and 'IIFYM', many of you will have flashbacks to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where proponents of these diets post pictures of ice cream, cakes, cookies, pizza, and all kinds of forbidden goodies.  Many of you will say "That can't be healthy, and it seems like an excuse just to eat crap!"  Indeed, I've seen many criticisms from 'experts' saying that IIFYM or flexible dieting are merely utilized by lazy people to eat garbage foods.

Unfortunately, many people have the incorrect impression of flexible dieting. The point is not to use as many 'bad' foods to hit your macronutrient intake as you can but rather have the flexibility to have SOME of these foods in moderation. The fact of the matter is that if you are eating a macronutrient breakdown that is friendly to body composition, you are not going to hit those numbers by simply eating only 'crap' foods. Now a quick disclaimer: In my opinion, there really are no such things as 'good' or 'bad' foods... any food can be consumed as part of a healthy nutrition program if done so in moderation and not over consumed. By the same token, any food can be bad for you if you over consume it. It can contribute to greater caloric load or in some drastic cases, causing some kind of poisoning from overconsumption of specific micronutrients or vitamins. But that is an argument for a different article.

There are essentially 3 basic ideas that most contribute
to altering body composition as a part of a diet:

1. Total Calorie Intake

This is the most critical aspect of any diet.  In order to lose bodyfat, you must create a caloric deficit in some way.  As we discussed, things like paleo, clean eating, and keto all create caloric deficits because they exclude many foods or food groups.  But you can create the same deficit by reducing your calories (and hitting a specific macronutrient intake).

1. Macronutrient Intake

Specifically, diets with higher protein have been shown to be thermogenic and produce more favorable body composition outcomes.  Now many people will take information like that to the extreme and recommend absurd protein intakes like 2g/lb of bodyweight.  This is unnecessary and suboptimal.  Virtually all of the positive benefits of protein intake on body composition are maxed out around 1g/lb of bodyweight.  So be sure your macronutrient goals contain sufficient protein, but don't overdo it either.


A Note from the Editor: As I was reading this, I emailed Layne because I am eating a little more protein that 1g/lb of bodyweight. I asked if he was steadfast on that or if there was some flexibility. He said, "1-1.25g is fine. Most of the research shows the benefits are maxed out at 1g/lb, but 1.25 isn't going to hurt you if you just like eating more protein."
-Valerie Solomon


3. Fiber

Fiber is thermogenic, almost at the same level as protein.  In fact, fiber is so powerful that many of the perceived negatives of sugar intake are actually more due to the fact that high sugar diets are typically low fiber.  If fiber intake is sufficient, sugar intake becomes are less problematic, likely because fiber slows digestion and reduces the glycemic load of a meal.  So maybe IIFYM should be renamed 'IIFYMF' (If it fits your macros and fiber).  Now that said, you can eat too much fiber, and MANY people in the fitness industry do.  I remember a girl who once told me that she was sure she was gluten intolerant because she was always bloated.  When I asked her how much grain products she ate, she said she ate less than a serving per day.  She said this is how she knew she must have been gluten intolerant, because she was so sensitive to it.  To make a long story short, she was eating over 70g of fiber per day, including a pound of broccoli.  No wonder she was bloated!  Fiber is great; it's very filling because it draws fluid into the GI tract making you feel full.  But if you take that to the extreme it can cause serious GI discomfort, bloating, indigestion, and can even cause malabsorption of some micronutrients that bind to fiber.  So how much fiber?  I would recommend absolutely no more than 20g per 1000 kcal intake.  15g per 1000 kcal intake will probably give you plenty of benefits without the GI discomfort.

So how does this all fit together?  How 'flexible' can I be?  Can I really have pop tarts, ice cream, and cookies?  The answer is, 'it depends.'  If your metabolism is extremely slow and you are trying to lose fat and your macronutrient intake is down to 150g protein, 100g carbs, and 30g fat, it's going to be tough to fit two Pop Tarts or Ben and Jerry's into your macro targets and still get enough fiber.  But if you have a very fast metabolism and are trying to put on muscle and you are eating 150g protein, 300g carbs, and 70g fat, then you certainly can afford to have some treats and still hit a body composition friendly macronutrient breakdown.  But even at lower calorie intakes, you can still have small treats to keep you sane.  In my previous contest preps, I always loved having low fat popcorn.  This is a food that most people would not consider 'clean', but it was low in fat and a mini bag only had 23g carbs but had a whopping 6g fiber!  More fiber than from consuming similar amount of carbs from oatmeal or sweet potato, which are universal 'clean' foods.

Another treat I loved was low fat ice cream bars during prep.  I miss ice cream during prep and instead of having a crazy cheat day when I got a craving, I simply had a single bar, satisfied my craving, and accounted for it in my macronutrient intake.  No 'cheat' mentality.  No binge.  No feeling guilty afterward.  No impulse to drag myself to the treadmill to do extra cardio to pay for my sins.  It also made transitioning after my prep was finished easier because I didn't miss many foods.  There wasn't anything that I felt like I just had to have post show because I had it all in moderation as I dieted down.  I didn't go out and put on 10 lbs in a day.  I went out, had a couple slices of pizza, a beer, and called it a night.  And yes, I counted it in my macros.  I've seen it consistently work over time with people and in many cases, I've seen it save people who've had their lives demolished by eating disorders.

On a final note, one complaint I hear a lot from people who are 'anti' flexible dieting is that they don't have time to track their macronutrient intake.  So you don't have time to punch a few keys on your keyboard or your smart phone but you have the time to cook up 30 lbs of 'clean' foods and package them up in Tupperware?  The fact of the matter is that sites like myfitnesspal, fitclick, and apps like mymacros+ have made tracking your macronutrient easy, simple, and convenient.  Another added benefit to tracking your macronutrient intake is you will learn a TON about nutrition and how your body responds to various nutrient intakes.  I went through 6 years of graduate school in nutrition, and learning to track my macros still taught me more about nutrition than anything else I've ever done.

Give it a shot! I think you will be surprised how much fun you can have dieting.

About the Author
Dr. Layne Norton holds a PhD in Nutritional Sciences and a BS in Biochemistry in addition to being an accomplished pro natural bodybuilder and power lifter. You can learn more about him on his website.
Photography by: Liana Louzon
Models: Lauren V. Reid MUA by Brittany Wielgosz