Fad Diets and Flexible Dieting: What Works and What Doesn’t

Fad Diets and Flexible Dieting: What Works and What Doesn't

By Michael P. Abramovitz, www.forgedphysiques.com


Dr. Layne Norton wrote for GORGO Magazine and provided great insights into some of the issues surrounding popular diets as he wrote two great articles introducing “flexible dieting” as well as a passionate info packed video article. If you’re serious about making long-term changes with your nutrition, I encourage you to read each of the articles and watch the videos to start shifting your mindset about “dieting”.

The purpose of this article is to dive deeper on common dietary practices as well as this concept of “flexible dieting”.


With the abundance of information regarding weight-loss and dieting and with the plethora of diet systems available, it’s harder than ever to make sense of the information and to determine what works and what doesn’t. Many sources would lead you to believe that weight-loss (even rapid weight-loss) is easy as long as you follow a certain system. The truth is, weight loss is never easy; however, the statistics suggest that many individuals who attempt to lose weight are able to do so. The main issue is that people just can’t keep the weight off once it’s gone.

A report by the National Institutes of Health, Technology Assessment Conference Statement estimated the frequency and nature of weight loss attempts in the U.S using four recent Federal surveys of health practices. It first should be noted that the data are from 1993 however, I suspect that the trends that the data bring forth can be extrapolated to present day.

  • The data indicate that approximately 40 percent of adult women and 24 percent of men are currently trying to lose weight, with close to 30 percent of each group trying to maintain weight. Among the women and men included in the survey, the average reported time on a weight loss regimen was 6.4 and 5.8 months for women and men, respectively, and the average number of attempts to lose weight within the past couple of years was 5 and 2.0 attempts, respectively [1].
  • The report indicates that many people have success losing weight with short-term programs; however, there is a strong tendency for individuals to regain most of the weight back within the first year after completion of the program [1].

Two aspects of the data stand out the most to me.

  • Firstly, the data suggest that within about 2 years, people undergo multiple cycles of weight loss and weight regain.
  • Secondly, many of the individuals are regaining most, if not all of the weight within the first year after completion of their diet. It appears that many people are successful at losing weight, but are unsuccessful at keeping the weight off once it’s gone. It seems that many people succeed at implementing “effective” short-term weight-loss strategies, and fail at implementing effective long-term strategies.

Wby do many individuals who have success with losing weight, pack the pounds back on?

I propose the following reasons:

  • There is an abundance of short-term weight-loss strategies (generally referred to as fad diets) that people can implement with some level of success;

  • Many of the existing weight loss strategies fail to create a sustainable system and are thus ineffective for long-term weight loss and for keeping weight off;
  • People often opt for the quickest route to success without thinking of compliance, longevity or health;

And perhaps the most shocking given the abundance of “diet systems” available:

  • Few long-term strategies exist and many people do not know how to implement them or know how to get started.

The Fleeting Results of Fads

Fad diets are poor long-term strategies because they fail to create an effective system for compliance, longevity and long-term success.

The majority of the readers are probably familiar with many of the common fad diets. Some examples of the most popular fad diets include: Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, Mediterranean and The Zone Diet. Some will argue that these diets are long-term lifestyle choices however, I do not agree. Each of the aforementioned diets are restrictive in some way, and restrictions lead to problems.

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Some fad diets focus on macronutrient restrictions, usually fats, carbohydrates, or both, while others restrict the types of foods you can eat. Restrictions make dieting extremely challenging when you’re on the road for work, when you want to socialize with friends, or heck, even when you’re at home by yourself and you have a craving for something that your diet doesn’t allow.

Individuals need to focus on making enjoyable lifestyle choices that are sustainable long-term and that create an environment that is favourable for compliance, longevity and long-term success. Of course, in the context of healthy lifestyle choices, the environment should also foster healthy habits from a psychological, physiological and social perspective.


Okay, wise guy, so fad diets aren’t very effective long-term. What strategy do you propose? Enter flexible dieting.

“Flexible dieting”, or “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM), is an option that provides a more sustainable solution to living a healthy lifestyle. It allows people to stick to foods that they enjoy and it allows for flexibility when traveling and when in social settings. Flexible dieting entails tracking your macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates), and total caloric intake. Individuals should also ensure that they are sufficiently meeting their daily micronutrient and fibre needs. To accurately track macronutrients, fibre and total caloric intake, an individual would need to weigh/measure their food and track their intake in an app such as MyFitnessPal until they have a solid understanding of portion sizes (i.e. being able to judget “too much” OR “enough”).

While you will often see flexible dieters posting pictures of their treats on various social media platforms, flexible dieting is not an excuse to eat an abundance of junk food. What you don’t often see, is what those individuals are eating the rest of the time. Don’t be deceived! Those following flexible dieting should still ensure that they are eating a moderate, balanced diet. Typical recommendations are to follow an 85/15 or 80/20 rule. That means that approximately 80-85 percent of your total calories should come from whole, minimally processed foods and the extra 15-20 percent can come from treats, assuming that your macronutrient, micronutrient and fibre needs are met.


Following a diet with flexibility is more psychologically sound than following a diet loaded with restrictions. A study by Smith and colleagues, found that flexible dieting practices are associated with the absence of overeating, lower body mass and lower levels of depression and anxiety [2]. The same study found that more rigid dieting practices are associated with overeating while alone and increased body mass. No strong evidence exists suggesting that a diet following the 80/20 or 85/15 rule is not just as effective at maximizing health, or improving body composition, performance or longevity as a diet consisting of 100% whole, minimally processed foods.

TRUTH IS: Tracking Is Still Working

Tracking my food sounds like a lot of work. Do I have to track everything?

I don’t claim that flexible dieting is easy; there is no easy solution for weight loss or living a healthy lifestyle. I don’t recommend taking advice from anyone trying to sell you a quick fix. Making healthy changes takes hard work and dedication. Ultimately, the effort that you put in will be proportional to the level of results that you get.

A fitness competitor, for example, will want to take their dieting to a whole different level and will likely track every calorie they consume. They will want to track their body weight, and anthropometric measurements regularly to ensure favourable body composition changes are taking place.

If you’re not looking to compete, then you may want to implement flexible dieting more moderately. The degree to which you want to track your food depends on how committed you are to the lifestyle choice and how meticulous you’re willing to be. The more dedicated and meticulous you are, the better your results will be.

Personal Enjoyment Facilitates Your Success

There is no universal solution that works for everyone. Some people may need to stick to a restrictive diet to avoid falling off the wagon and they may enjoy that diet strategy. If it works for them – great! What works well for someone, may not work well for someone else. Regardless, you should enjoy your program.

If you enjoy it, you’re going to put more effort into it and you’re more likely to stick with it. If you put more effort into it and you stick with it, you’re more likely to get favourable results. For these reasons, I weigh personal preferences very heavily when working with my clients.

What if your kids want to go out for ice cream? What if your friends are in town and they want to go out for a couple of drinks? You have a lunch with important clients; do you have to opt for a salad? With most diets, you’d either need to “cheat”, or you would have to avoid partaking. But don’t worry, flexible dieting has you covered. The best part is that you don’t have to feel guilty for enjoying yourself because your program allows it.

Is Flexible Dieting for You?

I recommend flexible dieting to anyone who is looking for an alternative way to live a healthy lifestyle. If you’ve had mixed results with fad diets, then flexible dieting may be right for you. If you’re a busy mom, world traveler, time-crunched professional, or aspiring competitor, then I highly recommend giving it a try.

Not sure where to start? In my next article for GORGO Magazine, I will delve into the process of starting and maintaining a flexible diet. So make sure you subscribe! ;)

You May NOT Be Ready for Flexible Dieting

If you really just want someone to schedule out all of your foods and say to you some foods are “good/bad” or “eat this/not that”, then you are not ready to handle the flexibility and unlimited choices inherent flexible dieting.

Also, if you mentally are not in a place or not open to learn about the fundamentals of nutrition (portion sizes and the true nutrient values of your food and that means more than what food marketers slap on the front to sell it to you), then flexible dieting will not work for you.

Perhaps this is sounding silly to you – who wouldn’t want flexibility, and isn’t learning always “good”? Yet in my experience as a coach, many clients want me to just tell them what to eat.   Decades of diets have many clients expecting that’s what they paid for.

Even if you’re someone who usually says “Just tell me what to eat!” I see you’re still reading this article, so I’ll ask you two more questions:

What happens when your time with your coach ends or your diet program book/printout reaches its end? Who will tell you what to eat then?

  • The saddest statement I’ve heard (too often) from clients coming off of a prescribed diet is “I don’t know what to eat anymore.”  Without someone telling them to eat this/don’t eat that, they feel lost and cannot self-select food choices without feeling “bad” about their choices.
  • In a world of unlimited food choices, without being shown how to self-manage your food choices, do you really think you’ll maintain any fat loss you achieved?

The statistics presented at the beginning of this article suggest that you’re likely to regain the weight you lost. Unfortunately, the statistics aren’t on your side. Do you really want to to attempt another prescribed diet and set yourself up for what is likely to be an endless cycle?

As the saying goes “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for life.” I’ll change that to “Give a woman a diet and she’ll eat for a day, teach a woman how to eat and she’ll thrive for life.”

About the Author
Michael P. Abramovitz holds a Bachelor of Science (honours) in Kinesiology and Physical Education and holds top certifications as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Sports Nutritionist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the International Society of Sports Nutrition, respectively. Michael is a professionally qualified fitness model, natural competitive bodybuilder, exercise fanatic and an aspiring power lifter. He is a physique and performance coach with Dreams Fitness and he is a business development professional.
National Institutes of Health Technology Assessment conference Panel, “Methods for voluntary weight loss and control,” Ann Intern Med 119 (1993): 764-70. Smith CF, et al. Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite. 1999 Jun;32(3):295-305.
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