Flexible Dieting 101

When I first got involved in fitness four years ago, I learned all about “clean eating,” weighing out every morsel of your food, the “importance” of meal-timing (yes, there’s a reason why that’s in quotations), and the dozens of supplements you absolutely had to take in order to be fit. I fell for all of it, and it took a toll on me without my even realizing it. I became almost instantly obsessed with being PERFECTLY FIT and emulating my newfound role models and turned a blind eye to how that was affecting my life. Before I knew it, I was dodging social opportunities out of fear that I would be presented with a platter of food that didn’t fit my meal plan. I became anxious whenever I had to eat out; God forbid my chicken be cooked with butter! I started spending my evenings alone at home as I told myself that I’d rather be reading about fitness than working on my relationships with my friends. I’d alienated myself from everyone – and although I was aware of this on a subconscious level, I kept telling myself that I was just fine.

But it sucked. It really, really sucked.

I’m sure you’ve been there at one point or another. Perhaps you’re still living by those rules now. It took me a while to learn and fully understand that there really is no dichotomy of fitness and social life besides the one you are artificially creating inside your own head.  Whether you want to get stronger, fit into your high school prom dress, or simply lower your cholesterol, know that, in a way, you can have your cake and eat it, too. It’s time to break free of your self-imposed confines and start living your life the way you deserve to. Below I’ll discuss some of the key tools I’ve picked up and incorporated into my everyday life to help me become a flexible yet successful dieter.

Intermittent Fasting

I may have mentioned before in passing that I’m an intermittent faster. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, it entails fasting throughout most of the day and consuming all of your food within a 6-8 hour feeding window. I do this for several reasons, but the main ones are as follows:

  1. I like to eat until I’m full. Small meals that leave me wondering if I actually ate anything in the first place kind of bum me out. If I can eat a large meal in one sitting, that will leave me satisfied and I won’t think about food for the rest of the day. Besides, it’s really awesome to be able to eat 2lbs of meat and 1lb of potatoes in one go.
  2. I’m more productive. If you’re anything like me, you might think it’s a bit of a hassle to go to the kitchen or break out your Tupperware every few hours. Not having to worry about food throughout the day has given me the freedom to focus my energies on other things – like working on academic assignments, writing this article, and running errands. It’s nice not to have to stop and think about how long I think I’ll be out of the house to decide if I should pack my meals or not.
  3. I’m no longer obsessive about food. With my eating disorder background, falling back into the trap of having food constantly on my mind is the last thing I want to do. What’s more, studies have shown that rigid dieting in fact is associated with increases eating disorder symptoms, mood disturbances, obsession with body shape, overeating, and higher BMI [1-2]. I don’t sweat about it anymore and it has made such a world of difference for my peace of mind. This in itself may just be enough reason for me to continue this practice.

I originally learned this concept from Martin Berkhan’s site, LeanGains. Check out John Romaniello’s recent article to read about other styles of intermittent fasting. 

IIFYM

I may be opening a can of worms here, but… this term was brought to light not long ago  (tswdan) and it so accurately describes my philosophy on dieting. If It Fits Your Macros. The basic premise of this is that as long as some food fits into your allotted macronutrients/calories for the day, then by all means, chow away. One of my clients has bacon every morning as well as Jujubes and has most recently lost 3lbs in the past week. Do you even awesome? I went through a phase when I fit in Swedish Fish, the gummy candy, into my diet everyday. Now I’ve moved onto ice cream. Yes, full-fat ice cream.

Candy and dieting? You bet!

If you’re following macronutrients, I recommend that you plan ahead so you don’t find yourself panicking in the kitchen late at night when you realize that you only have room for three flakes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I personally like to sit down every evening and map out my next day’s eats.

A caveat: I’m not giving you permission to eat like crap all the time. I don’t want to hear any of this “but Sohee said so!” with fingers pointed squarely at me. No. Just because you’ve miraculously found a way to eat nothing but junk food, toss back a few protein shakes, and meet your macros for the day doesn’t mean you can make that your regular diet. I would say that even with IIFYM, I eat whole foods 90% of the time. IIFYM is a way for you to maintain your sanity while dieting and still enjoy your favorite foods. Moderation is your friend here.

Guestimate

This relates to the above two ideas. You won’t always be in control of what food is available to you. Maybe your boss will unexpectedly take you and your fellow coworkers out for a surprise lunch. Perhaps a friend you haven’t seen in two years will be in town one night and call you out. There are some opportunities that simply can’t be avoided, nor should you eschew them completely. I don’t believe in saying no to every fun activity because you’re paralyzed by the thought of not having your food scale with you.

When you find yourself in a bind, the best advice I can give you is to guestimate. If you can, try to make protein the primary component of your meal, and then add in some veggies and some complex carbs.  Eyeball your portions. Familiarize yourself with what 150g chicken breast looks like. Approximately how much volume does 200g brown rice take up? (The answer is 1 cup.) Match everything as closely to your remaining macros as possible. If in doubt, err on the side of more protein. A general rule of thumb is that 100g meat will yield 20g protein, give or take.

Oh, what’s that? But this is your one and only opportunity to eat at that fondue restaurant? Okay, that’s fine. Make the decision that this is more important for the time being than sticking to your macros. Accept the fact that you will likely retain some extra water the next few days – and if it’s still worth it to you, then by all means, indulge and don’t worry about calories. Realize that this is a conscientious choice that you’re making. So shed the guilt, enjoy the food, and then move on. You have control over the food, not the other way around. One isolated meal like that is not going to negatively affect your progress – as long as you keep it isolated.

Just Relax

When it all comes down to it, the most important thing is that you are willing to change your plans according to the unfolding circumstances and just go with the flow. Don’t flip out because there’s no way of weighing out that butter that’s slathered on your sandwich. What are you gonna do, scrape it off onto a food scale? Really, now?

And let’s say that you accidentally do go over your allotted macronutrients/calories. Your day is not completely shot. What’s 200 extra calories in one day in the long run? Negligible. Yet I see this all the time: “Oh gosh, I ate a handful of extra almonds. I might as well finish off this pint of ice cream and half a batch of cookies and yes, this entire box of Reese’s Puffs. Then tonight I will devour half a cheesecake. The day is ruined anyway.” That’s like saying Oops, I broke my leg; might as well break the other. It just doesn’t make sense, right? I’ve certainly been guilty of this.

I encourage you to loosen your iron grip on your diet and open up your mind a little bit. This isn’t black and white. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not dedicated enough just because you’ve found a way to incorporate your favorite candy into your daily diet.

If it helps, stick to the same foods every day. This can relieve a lot of the stress that comes with feeling pressure to be creative with every single one of your meals. There was a period of time when I tried to re-create all those fancy “clean” recipes; it only exacerbated my neurosis. Today I’m the laziest cook you’ll ever come across, but hey, at least I’m happy with my food. Keeping it simple.

One more thing along these lines. Do not engage in compensatory behavior. This can be in the form of calorie restriction the next day or through extra “punishment” cardio. It doesn’t work, and it only sets you up for an unhealthy cycle. As soon as you try to do this, you only make your situation worse. Just get right back on track the next day as though nothing ever happened and continue on. Those 3 extra pounds showing up on the scale? That’s water weight. Don’t sweat it (literally).

…but at the end of it all, you do you.

I’ve given you the tools that I use in my own dieting crusades. I’m not saying you have to listen to everything that I say; these are merely ideas. You may find that not all of these are meant for you. That’s fully expected. Intermittent fasting, for example, doesn’t suit everyone. My hypoglycemic father would pass out well before 2p.m. rolled around if he were to attempt this. In the same way, not everyone does so great with counting calories. I personally find comfort in the structure that comes with knowing how grams of protein, carbs, and fats I am to consume on a particular day.

It’s going to take some trial and error to find the methods that will help you thrive. I hope I’ve helped you understand that dieting shouldn’t equate to lonely nights with hot tea and Ten Things I Hate About You on repeat. Don’t let dieting hold you back from enjoying the rest of your life.

It doesn’t have to suck. Smarter, not harder.

 

 

***Thanks to Richard Talens, JC Deen, and Rog Lawson for their contributions to this article.

 

1. Smith CF, et al. Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite. 1999 Jun;32(3):295-305

2. Stewart TM, et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite. 2002 Feb;38(1):39-44

 

About the author  ⁄ soheelee

I am a fitness buff with a Stanford B.A. in Human Biology – Psychosocial and Biological Determinants of Health. I’m also an NSCA-certified personal trainer and a nationally qualified NPC bikini competitor. I've written on Bodybuilding.com, Greatist, and other awesome publications sharing tips on fitness, psychology, and motivation.

  • http://djkreger.me Daniel Kreger

    I spent quite a bit of time this weekend stressing out about what to do with my fasting day…which was Sunday…and the Super Bowl…where there would be LOTS of food! I was coming up with alternate realities in which I could gorge and workout and come out even in the end. But then I realized I was being ridiculous and getting myself all worked up for nothing. It just wasn’t going to be worth it to forego the good food that would be there. It just wasn’t going to be worth it to drive myself into the ground to “earn” the calories. So I found a happy balance via IF and enjoyed the party. Thanks for this great article, Sohee.

  • Sean

    It’s funny how many people I find in the fitness community (that I respect anyway) having the very same background I do.

    Grew up unhappy with weight, found fitness, went OCD with it, got results/lost life, found IF, loosened up, found a balance, became awesome.

    I just recently found your site (through JC’s tweets), but I’m looking forward to more awesome articles!

  • Jeff Britt

    Great article. I love how many more people are talking about IF. In all the years I’ve been looking for the perfect diet this is the closest. Just discovered it few months back and already seeing great results. Easiest way of eating ever. Hope it continues to gain momentum in the mainstream. It is the only way I will recommend to my clients. Keep posting great articles. Also thanks for link to Roman Fitness. Just another person to learn from.

  • Sohee Lee

    Daniel – Yeah, trying to exercise off the calories you ingested (or are about to ingest) is NEVER a good idea, contrary to popular belief. Glad you came to your senses ;)

    Sean – I especially with the “became awesome” part. I’ve met only a handful of people in real life who practice IF but they’ve been all really cool so far, heh.

    Jeff – I’m not sure if it will ever become mainstream in large part due to the many ways it can be misconstrued (eg. “omg, an excuse to binge everyday!” and all the diet dogma out there that will likely never die. Sad.

  • Katie

    I bought into the ‘eat clean’ fad myself. Got all her books, cookbooks, magazines, etc. I drove myself nuts with the timing, i now hate cooking and plain grilled chicken & egg whites. Oh and I have a life! I can join my friends for wing nights and the occasional pizza night (only if its a cheat day!). I’m glad i’m not the only one who feels this way!

  • http://rippedbody.jp Andy Morgan

    “Guestimate” Indeed.

    That’s my whole client philosophy right there. Set people up in a sustainable way so they can continue and have success in the long-term.

  • http://twitter.com/seanbrown_ Sean Brown

    Hi Sohee, thanks for the article, very good. I especially like your idea on “overages” (e.g. going 200 kcal over the daily plan due to extra almonds). I like to think of my targets in weekly terms rather than daily, for both macro and micronutrients (like Omega 3, magnesium, calcium, etc.). In fact, I just set a minimum level of protein I’d like and then let the fat/carb fall where it may within the weekly caloric constraint, though obviously this approach isn’t for everyone.

    Weekly targets gives me a greater fudge factor for social situations or even just “brain farts” like you discussed. At the same time, having a solid weekly target gives me a good reason NOT to just say “F” it and grant myself a massive cheat day after eating an extra handful of almonds (works in converse too – sometimes I am so busy I would just rather not eat the whole day, and my weekly target helps remind me that “it really would be better to eat something today.”)

    Finally, I used to have multiple hypoglycemic episodes/day when I was eating 5-6x/day. (Of course, I’m not sure if my actual blood glucose level dropped, but I was dizzy, felt faint/brain-dead, felt better after a sugar rush, etc.) I thought this was just a problem to manage for the rest of my life. I switched to IF in the summer of 2010 and felt a massive improvement after 2 days. I now have a “hypoglycemic feeling” about 4x/year, normally when I haven’t eaten for at least 22 hours and/or lift 16 hrs fasted and don’t eat afterwards either. (Martin’s recommendation of eating fructose in the “last meal before lifting” has yielded good results, though.)

    Obviously, this is far from a scientific experiment and weightlifting likely helps my blood sugar stay at a healthy level and keeps my brain clear. During two recent LASIK-induced layoffs, I could feel my hypoglycemic symptoms slowly crawling back.

    I think some of Martin’s posts related to hypoglycemia are worth reading –

    http://www.leangains.com/2010/09/eat-stop-eat-expanded-edition-review.html (search for “hypoglycemi” within the page)

    http://www.leangains.com/2011/01/better-blood-glucose-with-lower-meal.html

    http://www.leangains.com/2010/05/early-morning-fasted-training.html

    http://www.leangains.com/2009/03/interviewed-by-adam-steer.html

    Thanks for sharing your methods and thoughts.

  • James

    korean girl that IFs?

    <3
    you're awesome. keep doing you!

  • http://katebachus.com Kate

    Reasonable, sensible, sustainable.

    I have a colossal eating-disorder background and finally gave up dieting, of any kind except “hey, my body likes some healthy stuff and also I like Twix.” In the 20 or so years since then, I haven’t gained weight that I can’t directly attribute to the addition of a new food habit I could easily stop (I did a donut thing for a while that was a bad idea that I dialed back before it became catastrophic LOL), or becoming sedentary.

    Years of yo yo, now I’m constant and while I’m not thin, I’m ridiculously healthy and fit.

    A lot of my success I attribute to living with my wife, who is a pro chef and Italian, and very much of the philosophy “if it isn’t good food, what’s the point?” We eat a lot of fresh food, a lot of good food. She uses real butter (I grew up on margarine), the best olive oil. I’ve come to appreciate food in new ways, and it’s no longer the enemy or some secret comfort. It’s just awesome food and we have a lot of it around the house and we eat it, no big deal. I don’t gain weight, I don’t stress. I don’t force myself to eat an orange or an apple because it’s “good for me,” I eat a plum because I really like plums. Or my body weight in broccoli or eggplant because YUM.

    As you have really wisely said, the damage all the deprivation does is mental. It’s taken me years to undo it, and frankly now I’d rather be whatever size I’m at, fit, and enjoy my freakin’ food.

    This is the most reasonable, sensible thing I’ve ever seen, and clearly it will never be a fad because fads fade and this is a reasonable way to eat and pretty much how we all should eat, all the time.

  • Pingback: The Sexification of Sohee Lee: Part II » Sohee Lee Fitness

  • Pingback: Quora

  • Mike Samuels

    Great blog Sohee. I’m a true IIFYM convert now and it makes cutting/dieting so much easier! Hope it’s cool if I share my own post here, get some discussion going

    Mike http://www.healthylivingheavylifting.com/flexible-dieting-tips-1-iifym/