If you go back and take a short look at the way people were dieting 5-10 years ago, you would witness a horrible scene of well-meaning individuals putting themselves through extreme levels of restriction and fatigue (both physical and mental) for the sake of getting lean. And heck, I totally get it. Being lean is awesome. Especially for those who haven’t been lean before. But the thing is, there is an objectively better way to go about getting there than cutting out every single food that gives you any sense of joy.
Cut to the present. If you really take a look around, you’ll find that most people still subscribe to the all-or-nothing, “I’m cutting x entire macronutrient/food-group out of my diet” approach to getting lean. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, the hard-gainers taking “stuff as much food into my mouth as possible until I’m consumed by anguish and self-pity” approach. But then you’ll find a relatively tiny subset of folks that, thanks to the surplus of incredibly smart people in their little niche community, have figured out a better way.
I’m talking about flexible dieting, a.k.a. macro tracking or counting, a.k.a. the infamous “if it fits your macros” diet.
Flexible Dieting as the Middle Road
Despite whatever sensational headlines you might see, at its very core, all flexible dieting involves is taking all those assumptions made by every fad diet to exist ever, and making a simple attempt to approach them logically and rationally. Maybe even quantify them a little bit. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, what you get is a style of eating that is comprised of mostly whole, unprocessed foods, lean protein sources, plenty and fruits and veggies. And in the cases that your goals allow it, a healthy spattering of treats here and there.
“What’s this? You mean I won’t morph into a baby whale the second a spoon of ice cream touches my tongue?”
The majority of dieting protocols try to force a community to take a side, either for or against a way of thinking. This can be “fat is evil,” or “carbs are evil,” or “cavemen were pretty jacked, so I’m going to ignore hundreds of thousands of years of progress in agriculture and eat like one of them.” And as someone that, over the years, has subscribed to every fad diet around for at least some amount of time, I can empathize with the draw of something like this.
Taking a side invokes an emotional response that makes the motivational aspect of dieting significantly easier, starting out. Feeling like you’re part of a community of some special dieting cult reinforces that response. Even the dogmatic aspect of simply following some arbitrary rule that miraculously helps me lose a few pounds by some unknown mechanism has the advantage of freeing up space in my mind for more pressing matters. If you happen to be someone that is able to continue reaping the short-term benefits of extremism for years on end, then more power to you.
Fad Diets Aren’t Sustainable
One does not draw conclusions based on anomalous results. If you really take a look at the problem, you’ll notice that the people who are able to make sustainable, long-term dietary progress on any type of fad diet are indeed anomalies. There is a larger group of people who might be able to make many months or even a year of solid progress, but they soon end up getting sick of the restrictions, and balloon back up to their original weight.
A study conducted at Oxford University found that just over 80% of all “weight losers”, regardless of method of loss, regain the weight lost and then some within 3 to 5 years.1 In fact, the same study identified the factors that cause this long-term relapse to be very similar to the factors that make fad diets so appealing when first starting out. Namely, the perceived need to strictly adhere to a specific regimen to ensure success, and motivation associated with a group setting.
These two things make logical sense. If your definition of progress is tied to a specific modality of any sort, say your willpower wains just a little bit on one day. You have a bite of a friend’s cookie you weren’t supposed to. All of a sudden, you’ve cheated on your diet. You’re now a failure, and you might as well just say fuck it and hit up that new ice cream buffet down the road and do this whole pathetic loser thing, right?
Group motivation is great. It’s even necessary, at particularly tough spots in any endeavor. But if you don’t have the internal knowledge and discipline to drive you through those moments when no one else is around, then when those times inevitably arrive, you will be worse for wear. As much as you’d hate to admit it, even if no one was around to see it happen, that bottle of wine and pint of Ben and Jerry’s while watching Love Actually after a hard day at work… it happened.
You know it happened. And your gut sure as hell knows it happened.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Sexy to Work
The core tenant of flexible dieting happens to be the factor identified in the above referenced study to be the most enabling factor of diet success: knowledge. That doesn’t mean you need to go out and get a degree in nutrition. Just make it to the end of this article, and you should have more than enough information to get started.
Flexible dieting is easier to sustain in the long-term, but it definitely has something of a learning curve starting out. Blindly following arbitrary rules is easy. If anything, it’s a coping mechanism that makes all the other hard parts of dieting a little easier. Moderation, on the other hand, is tough. Especially starting out. Worse, it’s not sexy. Not even a little bit. So before proceeding, be warned: Even though being flexible with your diet affords you certain luxuries (think guilt-free donuts), doing it right requires you to be more disciplined and analytical than you would be otherwise. If that doesn’t sound like an acceptable trade-off to you, then it just might not be for you. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
1. Byrne, S., Z. Cooper, and C. Fairburn. “Weight maintenance and relapse in obesity: a qualitative study.” International Journal of Obesity 27, no. 8 (2003): 955-962.