Flexible dieting has been a great change for the fitness industry. This approach to nutrition has helped many realize they don’t have to follow a strict meal plan to reach their goals. Gone are the days of lugging around Tupperware and only being able to eat tilapia and asparagus.
Flexible dieting has also helped many people realize there are no magic foods and that our body composition is a result of the macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat, and fiber) we consume on a daily basis. This revelation has been freeing to many, including myself.
Although flexible dieting has been a great change, I see far too many people become rigid with their approach. They forget that flexible dieting should be just that, flexible.
If you are weighing and tracking everything all the time, or not eating food because you can’t find nutrition information, you are doing it wrong. Below are seven tips to help you avoid rigidness and do flexible dieting right.
1. Be Okay With Imperfection
Trying to hit your numbers to the gram every day is not only time consuming but also borderline disordered. Perfection with your numbers isn’t needed because food labels have variability anyway. The numbers on the label aren’t always exactly what you are getting.
Unless you are prepping for a show, being 5-10 grams from your targets each day is totally fine. Don’t stress out too much about being perfect. Just try to be as consistent with it as possible because that’s most important.
2. Guestimate Portions or Macros
If you are prepping for a show or trying to get shredded, you probably should weigh everything or at least use measuring cups and spoons. It will help you control more variables, which may lead to a better outcome. Weighing is going to be more accurate than measuring utensils, though.
For everyone else, guestimating portions and macros is a very useful strategy to avoid being too rigid. Weighing everything all the time can be exhausting and mentally draining. By guestimating, you can relax a little and not be so food focused.
The longer you flexible diet, you will build the skill of estimation. Having been flexible dieting for five years now, I can look at food and guess very closely how much protein, carbs, and fat it contains. This lets me track fairly accurately with little effort. Use this skill during the offseason or times when you don’t need to be as strict with your diet.
3. Eat Out
Let’s say some friends have invited you to eat at a restaurant. Your first reaction is to go to their website and look up nutrition information, but there is none. What would you do? Do you skip?
In most cases, you should go and enjoy yourself.
Some people who follow flexible dieting are afraid to eat out because either there is no nutrition information or they are worried it’s wrong. I find this funny because instead of being flexible and estimating macros, they choose not to go out.
Eating out may not be the best idea during contest prep or times when you have a serious goal with a deadline, but for anyone else, once or twice a week isn’t going to ruin your plan. Just do the best you can with trying to find nutrition information, and if there is none, estimate.
4. Increase Variety
Variety in your diet is very important because it not only allows more creativity with meals but also provides a balanced micronutrient profile. Often, I see flexible dieters eating the same thing day after day. Now, this isn’t a bad thing if you enjoy the consistency of a meal plan and are eating nutrient dense foods, but it may be too rigid to follow all year.
To increase variety in my diet, I only plan out some of my meals and leave the rest open to decide on the fly. For example, I have the same breakfast and lunch every day, but allow freedom with dinner and snacks. This gives me the opportunity to go out to eat or have snacks based on what is available. Because of this, my diet is varied every day. You don’t need to have this much variability, but most people can benefit from increasing variety.
5. Only Track Calories and Protein
Tracking calories and protein can make flexible dieting easier and less rigid because you don’t have to track carbs and fats. All you do is aim to hit your protein and calorie target for the day. Combining this with tip number two is a great approach to the offseason, where you can be more relaxed.
This way of tracking is almost as effective as counting every macro because from a fat loss perspective, carbs and fats are mostly based on preference. There isn’t much data to suggest their amounts will make a significant difference in body composition if total calories are equated. 
Anecdotally, I have found some people respond better to a low-carb diet over a low-fat diet and vice-versa. It’s very individualized, but for the most part, it won’t make a big difference.
6. Only Track Calories
You can be even more flexible with your diet by only tracking calories. Some will say this isn’t flexible dieting, but I still believe it is because you are adjusting your diet based on your goals. Only tracking calories may be most appropriate for those looking to maintain a certain weight. Like many of the other tips, it might not be best during contest prep.
This option is freeing mentally because all you have to track is calories. Trying to hit one target (calories) is much easier than trying to hit all three macro targets (protein, carbs, and fat). Even though you aren’t tracking macros, it doesn’t mean you aren’t aware of roughly how much you are consuming.
Give this tip a try if tracking macros is overwhelming, you are new dieting, or just need a break from tracking everything.
7. Adjust Based on Your Goals and Lifestyle
This is the biggest tip of all to make flexible dieting a way of life instead of just a diet. If your goal is to enjoy life and stay in shape, tracking calories and estimating portions may be most appropriate.
If you have a serious goal, you will need a more strict approach. If your goal is to compete or get shredded, you probably should track macros and weigh out all your foods. This will allow the most control over your body.
Serious Goals = More Rigid Approach
It all depends on what your goals are, which is where the beauty of flexible dieting lies. You can and should adjust your diet to fit your lifestyle, and your strictness should be on a continuum.
Get Back to the Roots of Flexible Dieting
Like the cliché saying goes: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. This gets down to the root of flexible dieting and why it’s so great. The skills and techniques you learn along the way can be used for a lifetime. Just avoid being too rigid by incorporating these seven tips and do flexible dieting right!
- Nordmann AJ, Nordmann A, Briel M, et al. Effects of low-carbohydrate vs low-fat diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(3):285-93.