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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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