If you have been in the fitness and nutrition space for a while, you’ve likely heard of the term flexible dieting. But what does it mean? And is it an effective way to lose weight?
In this article we will go over what flexible dieting is, how to plan it out, if it’s a good diet for weight loss and much more. If you are interested in flexible dieting, or simply want to know more about it, this is a great place to start.
What is flexible dieting?
Flexible dieting is a method of weight loss that involves sticking to certain macronutrient and calorie goals without restricting the kind of foods you consume.
This means you can basically eat whatever you want, as long as you stay within your allotted calorie and macronutrient goals.
That being said, this is much more difficult than it seems and it doesn’t necessarily mean eating pizza and donuts all day long.
While you can technically lose weight eating anything as long as you are in a caloric deficit, the foods you consume will determine how full and satisfied you feel.
So ideally, flexible dieting involves consuming a variety of foods including nutrient dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats and dairy products, as well as fun foods like cake and ice cream.
The reason why flexible dieting is so appealing is because most other diet plans involve some sort of restriction of the type of food you consume. For example, the Atkins diet involves limiting carbohydrate intake while the Ornish diet involves limiting high fat foods like animal products.
Many people find that when they include fun foods in their diet, they feel less restricted and are therefore able to sustain a calorie deficit for longer, leading to better results.
Of course everyone is different, but if you find yourself overwhelmed or over restricted on diets like keto, vegan or paleo, flexible dieting may be for you.
Will flexible dieting help me lose weight?
Yes, flexible dieting will help you lose weight as long as you are in a caloric deficit. That being said, maintaining a caloric deficit is difficult for most.
So what is a caloric deficit? To put it simply, you are in a caloric deficit when you are burning more calories than you are consuming.
Let’s say you burn an average of 2200 calories per day. You are in a caloric deficit when you are consuming anything less than 2200 calories daily. Simple as that!
Now, that all being said, people are notoriously bad at calculating how many calories they burn and tracking how much food they consume. This applies even to those measuring out their food meticulously.
It’s hard to be accurate considering nutrition labels can be off and it can be very difficult to track meals eaten out, oil used for cooking and much more.
This is often why people claim “caloric deficits don’t work”. They try eating less calories than they expend but they don’t lose weight.
In reality, caloric deficits do work and there are numerous studies showing this. It’s impossible to not lose weight in a caloric deficit.
In the next section, I’ll go over the best method to figure out your caloric deficit so you can ensure there isn’t any user error. My first tip: ditch the online calculators!
How do you plan a flexible diet?
The great thing about a flexible diet is that it’s… flexible! There aren’t many “rules” and you can really structure your diet to fit your own personal taste preferences, instead of being told what to eat.
The only thing you need to “stick” to is your calories and macronutrients. But even the macronutrients you can be pretty loose with. In the end, it’s the calories that are going to matter the most.
Figure out your caloric deficit
Finding your maintenance calories
The first step is figuring out what your caloric deficit will be. As mentioned before, finding a caloric deficit and sticking to it can be incredibly difficult and people often overestimate their maintenance calories and underestimate how much food they are consuming.
Luckily, there is a pretty straightforward and simple way to figure out your maintenance calories (how many calories you need to maintain your weight).
Before you start your caloric deficit, track your calories for a week. Don’t make any changes to your current diet and don’t attempt to restrict. You can do this in an app or manually, but I would recommend using an app like Cronometer or MyFitnessPal.
After the week is finished, find the average amount of calories consumed by adding up each day and dividing by 7. This is your maintenance calories.
The reason I like this method is because online calorie calculators and fitness watches are notoriously inaccurate. The amount of calories you burn daily depends on a variety of factors including genetics, history of dieting and weight fluctuations, activity, occupation, diet composition and more.
By tracking your calories for a day, you get a more accurate picture of what your maintenance calories are. It’s far more personalized and will make calculating a caloric deficit easy.
Finding your caloric deficit
The next step is to calculate your caloric deficit. Now, I know it’s tempting to create the biggest deficit you can to speed up the weight loss process, but this is actually not the best course of action.
When you create too big of a deficit, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to maintain and can often result in binge eating. Instead, it’s best to start with a small deficit that doesn’t feel too restrictive or leave you too hungry.
I recommend starting off with a 200-250 calorie deficit to begin with.
This will result in about half a pound of weight loss per week (though this varies person to person). I know, I know this is probably slower than you desire, but I promise in the long run it’s going to be worth it.
So, to calculate the amount of calories you should be consuming daily, subtract the deficit from your maintenance calories.
Maintenance calories – 250 calories = weight loss calories
This calculated number is going to be your goal for the course of your diet.
From there, adjust as needed. If the deficit is too big and you are constantly hungry or find yourself binge eating, decrease it to 100 or 150 calories.
But, I wouldn’t recommend restricting more than 250 calories per day, even if you feel tempted to. Slow and steady truly does win the race when it comes to weight loss. The easier you can maintain a deficit, the more likely you will lose the weight.
Figure out your macro split
These three macronutrients will all take up a certain percentage of your daily calories.
So when figuring out your macros, start with protein. A good place to start is aiming for 1.2-1.6 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight. For a 150 pound person, this is about 80-110 grams of protein per day.
Choose a number somewhere in that range and calculate out what percentage of your total calories that would be. Since 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories, multiply grams of protein by 4 and then divide by your total calories.
- 100 grams of protein * 4 = 400 calories
- 400 calories / 1600 calories = 25%
Using this calculation, you will find out what percentage of your calories must come from protein. Once you know this number, you can figure out your carbohydrate and fat percentages.
Calculating carbohydrate and fat
At this point, it comes down to personal preference. Do you prefer a high carbohydrate diet or a high fat diet? Or maybe something in the middle?
If you are a big fan of pasta and bread, perhaps choose a higher percentage of carbohydrates, about 50-60% of your daily calories. If you are a big fan of steak and cheese, it might be best to choose a lower percentage of carbohydrates, about 40-50% of your daily calories so you have more room for fat.
You can also adjust these percentages as time goes on based on what has worked for you or not worked for you. I do recommend keeping protein consistent though.
When figuring out the grams per day of each macronutrient (once you’ve figured out the percentages) remember that 1 gram of protein is 4 calories, 1 gram of carbohydrate is 4 calories and 1 gram of fat is 9 calories.
Here is an example of what your macro split might look like:
- 1800 calories per day
- 25% from protein (112 grams)
- 50% from carbohydrates (225 grams)
- 25% from fat (50 grams)
Consider different tracking methods
With these apps, you simply add the meals you eat throughout the day as you eat them. The app will show you the amount of calories each food has as well as how many calories you have left in your day.
There are also more advanced apps including MacroFactor and Carbon Diet Coach that will adjust your calories throughout your diet based on your results (which is super cool). If you have some money to spare I highly recommend either of these apps.
You can also calculate your food out manually. Honestly, this method is pretty time consuming, but to each their own.
Simply write out your meals and portions and use nutrition labels or Google to figure out how many calories are in each food. Then add it all up using a calculator.
Whatever you choose to do, try your best to stay consistent with tracking. The more data you have the easier it is to make adjustments if you reach a plateau.
Plan ahead or wing it
When it comes to actually eating, there are two ways you can go about flexible dieting: planning ahead or winging it.
Planning ahead means you have a rough idea of what you are going to be eating throughout the day. Perhaps you’ve prepped the meals ahead of time or have a calorie goal for each meal.
Winging it means just eating normally throughout the day, maybe having a rough time of how many calories you want to have at each meal and adjusting based on how many calories you have left for the day.
Choose whatever method works for you. Perhaps something in between planning and winging it works best for you.
And adjust as time goes on. If winging it means you run out of calories at 3pm, perhaps try adding some loose structure. If planning ahead means you can’t handle unexpected meals or social events, try loosening it up a bit.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to do flexible dieting. Find what works best for you and stay consistent. If you need to make small adjustments to better fit your lifestyle, do so.
Is flexible dieting sustainable?
Honestly, it depends on you as an individual. Some people do really well on flexible dieting because they enjoy the freedom of not having strict food restrictions.
Along with this, some people do better with rigid rules around food and may find a low carb or paleo diet works best for them.
Think back on your past dieting history. What worked well and what didn’t work well for you? Perhaps you tried cutting out sugar and ended up binging on a whole pack of Oreos. Perhaps you tried calorie counting but ended up binging whenever you went over your caloric limit.
What triggers you more, restriction of certain foods or counting calories?
That being said, flexible dieting is far more sustainable when you are in a small caloric deficit. The bigger the deficit, the less sustainable and the more likely you are to binge and give up. This is something to consider as well.
But won’t certain foods make me gain weight?
There is a common belief that certain foods “cause” weight gain. You may think foods like pizza, candy, desserts, french fries and fried chicken are inherently fattening.
In reality, you could eat only pizza or only ice cream and still lose weight as long as you are in a caloric deficit. This is simply how the body works.
That being said, sticking to a caloric deficit is super difficult and tasty foods like those mentioned above make it rather difficult to eat less.
Even though these foods aren’t going to make you gain weight, they shouldn’t be the bulk of your diet. While it’s okay to have them in moderation (in fact keeping them in your diet often helps with cravings), you should focus mostly on satiating, filling foods.
These are foods high in protein, fiber and/or water content. Some examples of these foods include fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, low fat dairy and whole grains.
I think the 80/20 rule is a good place to start. 80% of your daily calories should go towards nutrient dense, filling foods and 20% should go towards “fun” foods like dessert, fried foods, etc.
What is the best diet for weight loss?
There is no such thing as the “best” diet for weight loss. This is mostly because it comes down to the individual and what they find the easiest to maintain long term.
One person may have a great experience with flexible dieting. Another person may swear by low carb or ketogenic diets. Another might lose weight eating a low fat vegan diet.
If you need to lose weight, choose a diet that you find easy, simple as that. And this is going to be different for everyone, because we all have different preferences.
Many health coaches or nutrition “experts” will try to sell you a specific diet, telling you it is the only method that works and everything else will kill you or make you fat. Don’t listen to the hype. Find what works for you, whatever that may be. And let others decide for themselves what works best.
Flexible dieting didn’t work, what do I do now?
Let’s say you have tried flexible dieting and it didn’t work for you. Well, there are a few reasons this could be happening and a few things you can adjust to be more successful.
Reason #1: You tried to maintain too large of a calorie deficit. As mentioned earlier, you should aim for a 200-250 calorie deficit. If you try to go larger than that, you will likely experience extreme hunger, burnout and possibly binge eating. If this was you, try eating more while maintaining a small deficit to see if you are able to sustain it better.
Reason #2: You didn’t use the correct maintenance calories. I discuss how to figure out your maintenance calories earlier in this article. Read this section over again and recalculate your maintenance. Then use this to calculate your deficit and start over.
Reason #3: You tried to do too much at once. Focus on your calorie and macronutrient goals. Don’t try to restrict foods or food groups. This will likely be far too overwhelming and lead to burnout and binge eating.
Reason #4: Flexible dieting simply isn’t for you. And that’s ok! Perhaps the method didn’t work for you or perhaps your body simply doesn’t need to lose weight. It’s entirely possible you are at a healthy weight for you and dieting will cause more problems than solutions. Reflect and determine if weight loss is really necessary or if you should work on loving your body the way it is now.