Flexible dieting is a method of eating that involves not restricting or banning any particular food or food group. You monitor your intake (usually by tracking calories and/ or macronutrients) and place a focus on nutrient-dense, healthy foods. However, if you fancy a little “junk food” you can have it, provided it’s in moderation, and still fits the parameters of your calories and macros.
Flexible dieting is so successful, because it completely eradicates the need for cheat meals, greatly reduces your risk of binging, and ensures you’re far more likely to stick to your diet, and, ultimately, get results.
People still doubt flexible dieting though.
They’re convinced that you have to avoid any “un-clean” foods at all costs, stick to a specific meal plan, or eat magic fat-burning foods.
This isn’t the case at all.
Today, I’ll show you why.
It’s Science, Bro.
The key to any diet working is thermodynamics.
Thermodynamics refers to energy balance. To put it simply –
To lose fat, calories in must be lower than calories out.
If your calories in and calories out are the same, your weight will remain stable.
If calorie intake outweighs calorie burn, you’ll put on weight.
This remains true no matter what style of diet you follow.
You could go the low-carb or ketogenic route, adopt a typical bodybuilder diet, go vegan or Paleo – it doesn’t matter - you can’t cheat thermodynamics.
You could even live off nothing but lettuce leaves, and if you ate enough, you’d put on fat! Granted, you’d have to eat a hell of a lot of lettuce, but in theory it’s doable.
This is where the argument of “not all calories are created equal” comes in.
And this is often the clean eater’s argument against flexible dieting, so let’s clear this one up.
A Calorie is ALWAYS a Calorie
A calorie is a unit of energy.
To be precise, it’s the amount of energy needed to heat 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. This never changes.
Likewise, a gram of protein always has 4 calories, as does a gram of carbohydrate. Fat has 9 calories per gram, and alcohol has 7.
Where things get a little more in-depth though, is how these calories are used and processed.
Each macronutrient (protein, carbs and fats) has a slightly different thermic effect. This refers to how many calories are burned off in the digestion process of each macro.
The thermic effect of protein is between 20 and 30%, meaning that your body only actually absorbs 70 to 80% of those 4 calories per gram. Conversely, carbs have a thermic effect of 6 to 8%, while fats only have 2 to 3%.
This is the reason why flexible dieting promotes having a healthy macronutrient split, usually tailored towards a higher protein intake, with carbs and fats adjusted depending on goals.
You will rarely (if ever) meat a flexible dieter who doesn’t care about macronutrients, and aims solely for a calorie goal.
Meeting Macros with Junk
Now this is a controversial topic – can you adhere to a flexible diet eating solely junk food?
First up, it’s important to realise once again, that true flexible dieters keep health and longevity as a priority, so most would never dream of deliberately eating only nutrient-deficient foods to hit their macros.
Secondly, it’s actually incredibly difficult to hit your macros (especially when in a fat loss phase) while eating only crappy foods.
Your typical junk foods are high in refined carbs and fats, and low in protein.
And most peoples’ macros, as discussed already, will have a relatively high protein target, making this difficult to begin with.
Your carbs and fats may be high enough to get in a load of burgers, fries, cakes and pop tarts, but this would only be the case if you were bulking, and aiming for an extremely high carb and fat intake.
As an example, let’s look at roughly what the starting macros for a 180-lb moderately active male looking to lose fat would be.
(NOTE: I’m going to take you through exactly how to set macros for any gender, any goal and any body type in future articles, so keep checking back for those.)
Protein: 225 grams
Fat: 70 grams
Carbs: 180 grams
Now, when you think about your typical junk foods, you’ll realise that it’s incredibly difficult to fit much at all into the above numbers, while still hitting protein intake and feeling full.
A Big Mac with a medium fries for instance comes in at 42 grams of fat and 84 grams of carbs.
A personal Meat Lovers pizza from pizza Hut has 48 grams of fat and 79 grams of carbs.
Unless our dude was to eat nothing but grilled chicken and asparagus for the rest of the day, there’s no way he’d be able to get enough protein, while keeping fat and carbs to a minimum eating a load of junk food.
Clean Eating Isn’t THAT Different
If you declare yourself a clean eater, and follow a plan where you eliminate certain foods instead of counting calories, your body still recognises calories and macronutrients.
The only difference between a clean eating diet that results in fat loss, and a flexible diet that gives the same results is your food choices, and the restrictions you choose to place on yourself.
The key to both succeeding is creating a calorie deficit, eating enough protein to preserve muscle mass and increase thermogenesis, and manipulating fat and carbs as appropriate.
Accountability is key too, because it doesn’t matter how great a diet is on paper – it will never work if you can’t stick to it.