Flexible dieting is one of the best ways to manage your daily dietary intake without feeling like you’re on a boring diet all the time.
Regardless of whether you’re trying to lose fat, build muscle (aka bulking), or simply wanting to maintain your physique and performance, learning how to implement flexible dieting can one of the best tools in your dieting tool belt.
Flexible Dieting Explained
There must be some context so as to give you a proper definition.
Flexible dieting is the opposite of rigid or strict dieting. In fact, flexible dieting was born out of the process of many people being fed up with strict dieting protocols full of nothing but sweet potatoes and fish.
In this case, rigid, restrictive dieting is often seen as the clean eating variety, where people avoid various foods in the hopes of staying lean, getting shredded or packing on nothing but quality, lean mass.
Quality, in this case, basically means all muscle and no body fat.
The truth of the matter is there’s no one way to define or approach so-called flexible dieting, but in this guide, I will show you a sensible, moderate approach to make flexible dieting work for you.
To be fair, and set the tone, I don’t feel like our diets should be overly restrictive or devoid of any particular macronutrient.
Like, if you’re cutting out entire food groups such as carbohydrates, or fat, because you were told by some online boogeyman they’re bad for you, then you’re destined to be on strict diets that cause nothing but struggles and frustration for life.
So, if you’re ready to develop a solid, flexible dieting plan that works, keep reading.
How Flexible Dieting Works
Flexible dieting is simply a way to hit your total macronutrient and calorie goals eating the foods you enjoy.
Another term for this type of diet is often called IIFYM, which stands for if it fits your macros. So let’s say you want to enjoy some ice cream at the end of the day.
Or maybe you want to eat pizza this weekend when you’re at the bar.
The flexible dieting framework allows you to do this while staying within your macronutrient and calorie-related goals.
But before we go any further, you need to know this.
Flexible dieting is not special.
Just like every other diet, there are a few principles we must always remember:
- A calorie surplus will make you gain weight.
- A caloric deficit will make you lose weight.
- And eating enough to maintain your weight is what’s known as your maintenance calories.
It doesn’t matter if your food is deemed clean or you’re having so-called treats every once in a while… your total calories matter most.
And then following the calories, we have macronutrient and specific macronutrient needs.
What Is Your Goal?
Flexible dieting can aid you in reaching your performance and physique-related goals.
It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to lose fat or bulking to build muscle.
First, you pick the goal, then you figure out your macronutrient needs.
You can use my calorie intake calculator.
Once you are clear on how many calories you want and need to eat for your goal, then you determine how to go about setting up your caloric intake.
Flexible Dieting Offers Psychological Freedom
Personally, I prefer to maintain an 85/15 split between natural, whole foods, and what I call treat food, or comfort food.
This way, 85% of your total intake allows you to get enough high-quality food that covers your energy, vitamin and mineral needs but also allows you to squeeze in that meal of pizza and beer if you want once per week.
Here’s a quick example.
Let’s say that you plan to go out on Friday evening after you get off work, get out of school, or the gym.
You want to enjoy some wings or pizza without guilt, and still hit your physique-focused goals without flubbing on your macronutrient targets.
The good news is, you can easily fit something you enjoy into your macros.
Here’s a trick I use when I want to do just that.
One Idea: Track To Your Best Ability + Don’t Obsess
When I’m really paying attention to my intake and tracking my macros meticulously, I will go as far as tracking the giant bowl of pho I love to eat.
And while this process is not as accurate as tracking something you made at home, sometimes a meal out just beats the hassle of cooking at home.
And dining out is a great way to catch up with loved ones.
Here’s what you can do.
In your favorite tracker, like Cronometer (my fav) or MyFitnessPal (totally not my fav), you would input the basic ingredients.
Think of a burger.
You’d type in the following:
- Hamburger bun
- Grilled hamburger patty
- Etc (whatever else is on the burger)
You’d pick the items more liberally than if you made a lean version of this meal at home.
For example, you’d pick a regular bun, nothing fancy that’s lower in carbs.
You’d pick the 80/20 beef, instead of the 90/10 you might make at home.
You’d choose full-fat cheese, instead of the low-fat version you might usually eat.
And then, once you’re done tracking, you’d forget about it and let it be what it is.
It won’t be perfect, but it’s good enough.
Just like when I track those big bowls of pho. I search for ‘pho’ and select the generic version and then choose 4 cups because I get the large every time.
I also shot a quick video on this — with 2 extra strategies not mentioned above to help you track while eating out.
One of the benefits of flexible dieting is you can still lose weight (or build muscle) without feeling like you have to live on the generic bodybuilding or fitspo foods like chewy chicken breast or boring broccoli spears.
No hate to all of you broccoli lovers. Okay, maybe just a little (kidding. Not really).
Now that we’ve gotten some of the major perks of flexible dieting out of the way, I’ma hit you with just a few more…
Flexible Dieting Benefits (in no particular order):
Flexible dieting allows for food spontaneity.
Are you feeling like having some chicken wings for dinner instead of the regular potatoes and steak? Good, create a little breathing room by making some leaner food choices early in the day and treat yourself with some wings or thighs. (I’m a thigh guy, myself).
It allows for a social life.
You don’t wanna be cooped up in your room every night of the week? Do you even lift? Kidding (srs, this time).
Flexible dieting allows you to maintain a social life while still hitting your macro goals. Sure, your macro tracking on a night out might not be as perfect as your carefully weighed and measured meal at home, but it’s not the end of the world.
You know why?
Because one day you’re gonna die and none of this training/dieting stuff is going to matter when rigor mortis sets in.
So enjoy the time with friends and family and do the best you can with tracking.
You’ll be okay. I promise.
This way, you can enjoy eating out and being social while getting sliced and diced for your summer vacation.
Also, if you like to drink, make sure you check out my alcohol and weight loss article.
Flexible Dieting removes the boredom of regular dieting and helps you take a break from the mundane.
It’s easy to follow IF you’re familiar with the regular tenets of dieting, which are:
Remember this… food is food.
Nothing is forbidden within reason.
This is not an excuse to subsist on nothing but protein powder, cake and ice cream.
My flavor of Flexible Dieting is not an IIFYM abomination that some of the Instagram shock jocks love to pimp to their followers.
And actually, most of those people posting nothing but those pics of overflowing ice cream cones, 3-inch thick pizzas, and burgers with 10 patties and 18 varieties of cheese are probably lying (be mad if you want).
My 85/15 version of flexible dieting can increase your adherence because it allows you to enjoy your diet instead of hating every meal you prep for yourself.
And if you’re one of those people who loves to use carb cycling, you can have a lot of fun on your carb refeed day by enjoying a giant stack of pancakes, or some candy you’ve been saving from last Halloween, or something.
What About Flexible Dieting And Intermittent Fasting?
I mean, it works. There ain’t anything special about intermittent fasting, other than it cuts your feeding window down considerably, so you’ll have to eat bigger meals closer together.
This can be your friend or foe depending on how well you do with fasting in general.
Also, IF isn’t for everyone… See my video on it:
One cool thing about intermittent fasting is you get to have bigger meals, which can allow for using some of those calories on foods that are naturally higher in calories but low in the “I’m super full” signals.
And I even know a few people who treat themselves to a few scoops of ice cream nightly because they can manage to fit it into their macros… not something I advise everyone, but if the shoe fits… or you know, it works for you… go for it, I guess.
Flexible Dieting Macros And Macros Percentages
Look. Flexible dieting isn’t rocket science.
It’s just eating food you don’t hate and making sure you hit your target macros depending on the goals you have for yourself.
Fat loss, muscle gain, a big squat, whatever… it’s about using the dietary strategy to serve you.
Luckily for you, I actually give a shit.
And I’ve gone so far as to create a calorie and macronutrient calculator that is pretty awesome if I say so myself.
You can access that below:
What About Flexible Dieting And Carb Cycling?
I’ve hit on this a bit, but I need to make this incredibly clear.
When you’re practicing carb cycling, it’s in your best interest to choose carbs that are high in nutrients and help you stay full—especially when you’re eating less than you burn on a consistent basis so you can get that sweet six pack, or squeeze into those tight jeans that show off your booty (ladies, check out my article on how to get a bigger butt).
You know… carb sources like:
- Fresh fruit
- Potatoes (white and sweet)
- Root vegetables
- Easily digestible grains (the ones YOU can tolerate)
- Fresh vegetables (well cooked when necessary)
Again, you can have some simple carbs (things like sugar, honey, etc) but try to keep them low to moderate so you reap the benefits of nutrient-dense foods.
Your body will thank you (if only it could actually speak to you).
Flexible Dieting Meal Plans And Meal Prep
In general, I’m not a huge fan of meal plans because they tend to restrict us instead of liberating us.
However, I will often make sample meal plans for my coaching clients to give them a starting point.
I wrote a long article about meal plans and how to set them up.
That should help you make your own without much issue.
The Drawbacks Of Flexible Dieting
Look. Flexible dieting ain’t all unicorns and lucky charms.
When taken to the extreme, it can become pretty cumbersome while you’re trying to track elaborate recipes, or when you weigh out a tiny portion of skittles to hit your macros before bedtime.
Also, if you have a desire to eat junk food too often, you might find yourself overly restricting for breakfast and lunch, just so you can fit in a greasy dinner at the pub.
Now there is nothing wrong with this when done on occasion (a few times a month, in my opinion).
And finally… some people buy into the idea that food choices don’t matter — only macros do.
And when you start to believe this, you’ll find yourself strategically hitting your protein, carb, and fat numbers, but missing out on highly-needed micronutrients like potassium, zinc, vitamin A, C, and many others.
Common Questions And Concerns:
I get emails all the time, and the following are common questions and issues that tend to arise from getting far too liberal with your flexible dieting plan:
“I’m following a flexible diet plan but not losing weight.”
This is a clear indication of a few problems you should investigate.
Are you counting macros accurately?
If you’re not tracking properly, then you’re likely overeating. And with flexible dieting, it’s very easy to overeat on high-calorie foods if you don’t track and measure properly.
“How do I use flexible dieting principles to get ripped?”
It’s very simple… you would simply use them just like you would on any diet.
It’s all about hitting your macronutrient goals and maintaining a caloric deficit if you want to get ripped.
“I’m becoming really obsessed about eating certain foods.”
This isn’t that unheard of.
If you’ve been restricting for a while, it’s easy to get obsessed with all the foods you’ve been abstaining from.
And the pendulum will always swing from one side to the other, so the harder you restrict, the more likely you are to crave those foods you’ve abstained from, and an eventual binge is imminent.
Flexible Dieting Pros and Cons
This is SIMPLE.
The pros are as follows:
- You’ll get to eat out and stick to your diet
- You can enjoy your favorite foods while still hitting your goals
- And you can go on vacation, or travel, without worrying about a perfect diet
- You’ll maintain some sanity without having to rely on a handful of boring foods
- Plus, you can lose fat regularly eating ice cream
The cons are as follows:
- If you eat too much junk, you’ll struggle with hunger and possibly bingeing (not always)
- You can easily become nutrient-deficient from too much low-quality food
- Can be an excuse to eat donuts and pizza because “I’m hitting my macros, bro”
And because many will ask, here are my thoughts on Flexible Dieting versus a whole bunch of other diet principles, or ideas…
Flexible Dieting Vs Keto
I’m not a fan of keto dieting and I’ll have a full write-up in the next month or so about the topic. But here’s how keto differs from flexible dieting.
Ketogenic diets are a low protein, no-carb, very high-fat way of eating and are generally pretty terrible for exercise performance—mostly exercise that requires a high level of effort.
Weight training falls into the category of ‘high level of effort’ due to the intensity required.
So in general, on a keto diet, you don’t eat carbs. But on a flexible dieting plan, you’ll be having carbs.
Unless, of course, you’re doing keto with a flexible dieting variant, and instead of having lots of meat and animal fat, you just wanna drink tubs of lard or have pepperoni parties… Whatever sinks your ship.
Flexible Dieting Vs IIFYM
There isn’t much difference between the two. I’d say that IIFYM is a variant of flexible dieting because you can follow a flexible dieting plan without eating any junk food.
But can you follow an IIFYM diet devoid of junk food?
I have more questions than statements here.
You probably realize this by now — these two concepts are very similar and since my dietary religious beliefs* revolve around health and whole foods that reign upon us from the most high, I tend to abstain from the evils of IIFYM because donuts and cupcakes aren’t healthy to eat all the time, ya dig?
*I should mention, for those not aware of my sarcastic tone, I am simply poking fun at all the people who make diet and nutrition their religion. They’re so closely attached to their dietary beliefs, they build up an identity around the food choices they make. If you don’t believe me, go look at the Vegan, Intermittent Fasting, Keto, or Carnivore diet advocates and zealots. A quick look on Twitter will reveal their inability to think critically or rationally or hold an opposing viewpoint for sake of pragmatism.
Flexible Dieting Vs Clean Eating
These two are definitely different.
Most clean eaters will abstain from any food that they deem to be unfit for human consumption, or the foods they believe is harmful to their bodies, regardless of whatever research suggests.
The flexible dieter is usually okay with having some so-called dirty foods like pizza or hamburgers without much guilt or shame.
The textbook ‘Clean Eater’ has been known to have some strange hangups about food, in general. For example, a common thought is “I can’t go out to that restaurant… I am not sure how much salt they use in their cooking. And I’m not sure if their hamburger buns are minimally processed and free of gluten. Definitely no clean choices there. I’ll stay home and have my chicken and broccoli.”
Flexible Dieting Vs Calorie Counting
You can be a flexible dieter while counting calories. And you can count calories while being a flexible dieter.
The main difference here is that most people following flexible dieting are already familiar with tracking macros and focusing on hitting a good amount of protein for gains in performance and muscle mass.
Most of those following a diet and counting calories only are typically just interested in weight loss and don’t focus too much on macronutrient intake.
If you are remotely interested in fat loss (not weight loss), maintaining or building muscle, you should always be focused on hitting macronutrient ratios that are good for those goals. You can use my macronutrient and calorie calculator.
Flexible Dieting Vs Carb Cycling
Alright, remember — flexible dieting is just a way to enjoy foods you like without going out of your mind and carb cycling is way of manipulating your macronutrient intake to influence fat loss or muscle gain in the most favorable way possible.
Flexible Dieting Vs Paleo
These two dieting approaches are vastly different because some of the stuff flexible dieters are eating, most Paleo advocates wouldn’t allow into their house.
For instance, some Paleo people are strictly anti-dairy.
Many flexible dieters enjoy some ice cream from time to time.
Some Paleo zealots aren’t a fan of carbs that aren’t tubers, green vegetables, or a small list of fruit.
Flexible dieters tend to be okay with potatoes, grains, and candy.
These two approaches are vastly different and they both offer advantages.
It’s really up to your personal preferences.
For more information on a dietary plan that I feel is more optimal than eating candy all day, read my review on The First Diet.
Flexible Dieting Made Easy: How To Get Started
There are 3 Principles to follow that will make your flexible dieting journey easy to get started.
Principle 1: Set your calories and macros according to your goals
The best way to start is by using my maintenance calculator.
Principle 2: Make your diet easy and predictable to follow
Once you’ve determined your goal, then you’ll want to start thinking about your diet and how you want to set it up with food choices and all.
I highly recommend my BBED Principles, which stand for the Boring But Easy Diet.
Principle 3: Follow the 85% rule when making food choices
This should go without saying, but your diet should emphasize whole foods a majority of the time.
Junk food is fine once in a while—maybe once per week but it shouldn’t make up the majority of your eating.
Focus on the following and you’ll be on your way:
- Lean cuts of meat (beef, chicken, pork), fish and eggs
- Root vegetables: potatoes, squashes, onions, yuca, carrots, radishes, etc. (just google root vegetables for more ideas)
- Fat from animals and some plants (coconut, olive oil, various nuts)
- Green veggies, cooked well for digestibility. Spinach is my favorite.
- Lean dairy (if you can tolerate dairy well)
- All fruit
I would generally stay away from the following:
- Meats that aren’t grass-fed, or are fed grains
- Any grains or vegetables that cause digestion issues or bloating
- All seed oils and any highly processed oils (vegetable oils are terrible for you)
- Fast food
- Junk food, in general
If your 3-4 meals per day are full of whole foods, you’ll be getting enough vitamins and minerals to keep your body healthy and functioning while dropping body fat.
And if you wanna enjoy that pizza on the weekend, or get some wings and beer (see my alcohol and weight loss article) with some friends, it’s totally fine. Just make sure you’re keeping track of it and it’ll all be easygoing and effective.