Eat What You Like and Still Lose Weight: The World of Flexible Dieting (Part 2)
Updated: Jan 7, 2022
In the previous installment, I discussed what Flexible Dieting is (awesome!!!!). Now I'll take a look at how you actually "do" Flexible Dieting and what it entails.
So how do you DO Flexible Dieting?
It's easy!!!! The first step is to determine your caloric target. This can be estimated using lots of little calculators online or even with an activity tracker you might already wear. BUT these are often fraught with error - and sadly often overestimate how many calories you burn in a day. The much safer bet is to track your food intake in a food tracker, such as My Fitness Pal (free!), for one week without trying to lose. Be honest with your intake (this means counting how many chips you take, weighing meats, measuring out things like rice or spaghetti) and you will see how many calories you eat. Average this out for about one week and you'll have a pretty good idea of what it takes to maintain your weight (so long as you actually maintained during this week).
Next, if your goal is to lose weight, you will want to reduce this number. Some people start ultra conservatively, such as 100-200 calories to see if it gets the ball rolling. Most folks will need to reduce about 500 calories per day to lose one pound per week. Some people who may have been eating a pretty hefty caloric load and who would like to lose a little faster might consider cutting 750-1000 calories per week to lose 1.5-2 pounds per week.
Now, just stick with your number! If you find yourself losing weight, you're eating the right amount.
If not, try reducing by another 100 calories and see if that gets things moving. The best way to keep track of this on a daily basis is either by using a food tracking program such as My Fitness Pal (free app and website), or by keeping a simple paper-and-pencil diary and then using a caloric estimating site such as www.calorieking.com to look up the calories for what you eat. Once you get the hang of it, it's a snap! Be patient in the beginning as you learn how to measure and then search for foods. I guarantee, if nothing else, you will be amazed at what is in what you eat...this is the AWARENESS part I was talking about in my last installment. If you find you are still having trouble and not seeing the scale move, please check out my troubleshooting article here.
But Sarah, why does this work? I thought I could only eat kale and chicken breast to lose weight!
That's simply not true! Are chicken breast and kale healthy? Of course! It would be difficult to find someone who disagreed with this (although I'm sure you could if you really tried...). Here we have to differentiate between two very important concepts:
1. Eating to be leaner
2. Eating for OPTIMAL health
Wait, what?!?! There's a difference?!?!? There actually is! (And don't worry, before you get ahead of yourself, you can totally do both!)
Eating to be leaner is PRIMARILY about caloric intake.
(Are there other factors, such as insulin production, macronutrient distribution, etc.? Sure, but they pale in comparison to the most important factor of achieving a CALORIC DEFICIT.) If you don't believe it's that simple, scientific studies published in real journals (not your newsstand "health and fitness" magazine) support this notion [1, 2]. This means that, as long as you have a caloric deficit, you have some "wiggle room" for what kinds of foods you include in a fat loss plan. And that can actually mean including some of your "treats" (please don't say "cheats" - this makes me nuts)! This is why you may have heard of crazy diets in which dieters eat a seemingly insane diet of, say, exclusively McDonald's or "The Cookie Diet" and still lose weight! What gives??? A CALORIC DEFICIT!
If you're dying to read more about this, check out the fascinating story about a man who lost 56 pounds eating exclusively McDonald's here.
Am I espousing such an approach? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!! As the experts in the article quoted, the diet was deficient in fiber, fruits, and vegetables, but it exemplifies the concept that eating in a caloric deficit, whether through a diet that includes McDonald's or other seemingly less-than-exemplary foods, is the secret sauce to weight loss, AND as the article demonstrates, improving blood chemistry to boot!
On the other hand, eating for optimal health is primarily about eating a balanced diet of carbohydrates, protein, and fat with a variety of foods rich in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Now this is challenging, because what is considered "healthy" and "balanced" can be a bit of a moving target. Back in the 80s and 90s, it was all about low fat; now we hear about the importance of abundant "healthy fats" all the time. Anyone who reads health magazines or watches health programming like Dr. Oz or The Doctors can vouch for this. One week, eggs are good for you, the next week they're the devil and will certainly send your cholesterol into overdrive. Similarly, there seems to be a new "must-have" superfood out every week - coconut oil, chia seeds, acai berries, etc...the list goes on! (I am a bit facetious here, but I'm sure many of you can relate to these frustrations.) This is reflected in the constantly changing government dietary recommendations - 4 Food Groups, Food Pyramid, My Plate...it's enough to make your head spin!
The bottom line is that what is considered healthy will likely continue to change and "experts" that we entrust will confuse this with "weight loss" - telling us that to lose weight, we need to include eggs one year, and then not the next. Eat absolutely no sugar one day, but allow sweet treats the next. Add copious healthy fats, but then limit them since they may cause weight gain or heart disease. I will keep the health aspect of this article simple and within the confines of what is currently recommended by almost any nutritional expert you would ask (unless, of course, your doctor/nutritionist provides you with contradictory recommendations) - eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, eat a wide variety of foods, eat foods rich in fiber, drink plenty of water, limit excessive processed foods and alcohol...the rest is really a moving target and also subjective to your personal nutritional beliefs and preferences (e.g., meat/animal products vs. vegetarian/vegan, religious beliefs, etc.).
BUT, when it comes to weight loss, keep it simple, folks.
Whether you're a vegetarian or a deer-hunting carnivore, a salty crunchy person or someone with a sweet tooth, Paleo or Fruitarian, weight loss REQUIRES a caloric deficit. And yeah, you can totally eat with a caloric deficit AND eat healthy. This would mean eating lots of fiber, produce, and nutrient-rich foods WHILE sticking to a caloric budget. In many ways, eating healthier can make the journey easier because it limits the amount of calorically empty foods you will consume. When you're dieting, it's very important to be more aware of eating a wide variety of foods with lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. This is because when you're eating fewer calories, you have fewer chances to get the good stuff in you.
The Bottom Line
Flexible Dieting is a wonderful way to lend convenience and leniency to a weight management plan. There are absolutely no "restricted" foods, nor are there any "rules" that you must adhere to besides simply hitting a caloric target (and possibly carbs/protein/fat targets, if one so chooses). Much like you budget your bank account, you budget your caloric intake to ensure that you will be able to lose (as well as gain or maintain) weight.
If you are interested in learning more about this approach or getting the guidance you need to get started, I can work with you near or far with my virtual online meetings! I will "meet" with you virtually via FaceTime or Skype and help you navigate the world of Flexible Dieting. For more information, please click here.
In good health,
1. Ballesteros-Pomar, M., Calleja-Fernandez, A. R., Vidal-Casariego, A., Urioste-Fondo, A., & Cano-Rodriguez, I. (2009). Effectiveness of energy-restricted diets with different protein:carbohydrate ratios: The relationship to insulin sensitivity. Public Health Nutrition, 13(12), 2119-2126.
2. Capel, F., Viguerie, N., Vega, N., Dejean, S., Arner, P., Klimcakova, E., … Langin, D. (2008). Contribution of energy restriction and macronutrient composition to changes in adipose tissue gene expression during dietary weight-loss programs in obese women. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 93(11), 4315-4322.