Flexible Dieting: An Introduction
There are macro and micronutrients. Macronutrients (macros) consist of protein, fat, and carbs. Each of these has a different caloric value. Flexible dieting uses a certain construct of calories to either help you cut, maintain, or gain weight. So it’s not simple calorie counting, it’s optimizing your calorie intake with the right levels of macronutrients. It allows you to be flexible in that you can use your macros however you want, whether it’s on a burger or some lean meat with vegetables. The ideal goal is to eat healthy most of the time, allowing for treats or more calorie dense foods in moderation.
You may have seen this at the bottom of a label. It tells you that each gram of fat is worth 9 calories, and protein and carbs are worth 4 each. The fact that fat is more calorie dense is part of what has led to the misconception that fat makes you fat. Fat does NOT make you fat. You just can’t eat fatty everything, or you’d be consuming excess calories.
That's all I'll say about the principles of flexible dieting for now. This article is a good introduction to counting macros if you want to know a little more.
I am one who knows well that theory and practice are not the same thing. For over two years I’ve followed many fitness people on their health journeys. I’ve watched them do extreme competition preparation dieting and fall into eating disorders. I’ve watched them be obsessive. And I’ve watched many of them recover through flexible dieting.
I wrote a little bit about it last year. My observations were that it seemed like a pretty sustainable and balanced approach to eating and weight management. And though I’ve sat and read and watched these women make some amazing changes, I haven’t jumped in myself. Because though I understood the principles, I knew it would be different to actually try it myself.
The reasons why I’ve delayed are kind of complex. I’ll get only slightly into some of the reasons why.
1.Diets are bad news. I’ve done them. I’ve lost weight quickly and gained it back even more quickly—and more than I had before I started. These yo-yo diet cycles are not good and don’t create healthy relationships with food. They’re not sustainable.
2. I love my body. I’ve always had a small struggle with my weight and body image. But in the past five years or so, I’ve come to love and appreciate what my body can do. I’ve taken the focus off my weight and put it onto its strengths, loving my body now, not how it used to be.
3. I love to exercise. Turning a passion into an obligation is a great way to blow out the fire. (Refer to studies about how kids love to read and then start hating to read in junior high.) Exercise has NEVER been about weight loss for me. It’s been about health, strength, and stress-relief. Treating my body right.
4. Fear of extremes. I value balance and moderation. I don’t want to be obsessed with fitness and eat “only healthy food,” and cut off that aspect of socializing with people.
5. Fear of failure. I’ve tried and quit diets before. I’m pretty sure everyone has. I don’t like to “start” something like a big project, as the accountability actually makes me feel more pressure. I know my perfectionistic tendencies, so I know that when I “start a diet” and tell other people, it actually works against me because I get a little bit psychotic.
Because of these things, I’ve never wanted to commit to a certain way of eating. I didn’t want to do another diet. I didn’t want to hurt and deprive my body. I didn’t want to hate exercise. I didn’t want to be “that crazy fitness girl.” I didn’t want to fail.
It shouldn’t surprise you then, that I was in the pre-contemplation stage of the “Stages of Change” model below for a long, long time.
My moving on to the “contemplation” phase took me a long time, too. It was baby steps. First, I ordered Krissy Cagney’s book on flexible dieting in November, 2014. I started to read it and got distracted. I never finished it and just wasn’t ready to commit.
In the next few months I started thinking more seriously about pursuing at least a side career in health and fitness. I know that to build a client base, I have to be able to put in time, sacrifice, and commitment, and show people what success looks like; I have to understand the struggle.
Let’s be real, who wants a chubby physical trainer? I have a lot of muscle and strength, and I decided that it was time to burn off the top layer hiding all the good stuff underneath. After several years of serious commitment to physical activity, I decided it was time for the outside to accurately reflect my views and my hard work. If I loved my body as much as I claimed to, it was time to drop some weight and treat it the right way.
I’ve told myself for a long time there are lots of women who would be happy to look like me. That didn’t make me satisfied though. My personal best is different from others, and it was time for me to accept that I had progress to make in order to feel fully comfortable in my own skin.
A couple of months ago I didn’t like what I saw on a quick video clip of me at school. I realized that I could love myself and still want to change myself. It’s an odd balance, and I still haven’t completely found it. Recognizing that I will never reach perfection is important, but I can always strive to be better because I love myself.
After reaching these conclusions, on February 18, I decided I would start studying Cagney’s book more intently. I’d start figuring out my numbers. I’d see if it would even feel possible to me. I entered the preparation phase. I spent a couple of hours measuring and calculating, trying to figure out my lean body mass, my activity level, my maintenance and “cut” calories, and all of the stuff in between.
Without putting any pressure on myself, I decided to “just try a few days” tracking on MyFitnessPal to see how things would go. I had tracked on MFP before, sometimes for several weeks at a time. I figured it could be a helpful tool for me. I didn’t really tell anyone what I was trying to do. It was just that: a trial.
On February 23, I jumped in—the action phase. That was the same day my personal nutrition class through Shaw Academy began. It seems interesting that I’d start counting macros on a Monday, and start on the same day as my nutrition class (sounds a lot like a commitment). But again, I just wanted to see how things would go. I didn’t want to put pressure on myself or beat myself up if I couldn’t make it work. I gave myself room to make mistakes, to embrace flexible dieting as a learning process.
I would be the absolute biggest liar if I said this whole thing has been easy. It hasn’t. I’ve had maybe two or three days where I’ve hit within 5 grams of my macros. But so what? Who cares? I’m trying! I really have been trying. And that’s where I’m allowing myself to learn and grow.
Results and Thoughts
So here’s how it has gone down. I started tracking macros 31 days ago, and I am now about 6 pounds lighter than when I started, even with all my imperfect days. It took me the first week to accept that losing the fat would be a process, that I would have bad days, and that it was OK to have bad days. I understand that we gain weight over a long period of time, so we should lose it over a long period of time as well. Losing weight fast never worked long-term for me or most anyone else.
There have been days where I’ve been hungry. There have been days where I’ve been too full to even hit my calorie goal. I’m still having some major struggles a month into this.
For one, it is hard to get to 115g protein (and it was recently upped to 120)! I am not an enthusiastic meat eater (I almost vomited eating my chicken at lunch on Monday, no lie). I don’t love egg whites. Nuts take a lot of fat macros away. Beans? Protein powder? Meh. It is HARD!
Secondly, I don’t like to math. Yes, math is a verb now. Figuring out fractions and decimals and things when I’m not eating a full portion size isn’t my favorite.
Third, it takes more planning than I might like in order to be successful. You think of “flexible dieting” as being able to fit in what you want to eat and then just adjust based on that. It’s not that easy. I don’t know how enthused Patrick is when I have to weigh my spaghetti squash before we can eat. But it’s important to know how much I eat so I know how much I have LEFT to eat!
Fourth, lots of my favorite unhealthy foods are not in the system. Donuts are hard to track, Waffle Love doesn’t have nutrition facts available, and neither does Sweet Tooth Fairy. So I go off imitation recipes or similar items and cross my fingers that those are somewhat close. I had to put a sandwich in today in all separate parts and just hope the macros were close (it was a catered lunch at a conference).
Fifth, I haven’t been certain if it’s better to come up short on one or two macros and go over on another, but still be under my calories. It’s hard to find a balance, especially if you don’t plan your day. You don’t want too big of a deficit because rapid weight loss isn’t good for several reasons.
Sixth, I wasn’t sure how to adjust my numbers for my activity level, as I felt that MFP was adding too many calories and other macros when I put in my exercise. I didn’t want to rely on their formulas. I’d rather have accurate numbers for me individually.
I could go on. The point is, I’m still learning. I’m not good at it yet. But I’ve still seen results. I still enjoy life and food and have seen the numbers on the scale go down. It’s encouraging, and I haven’t seen that in a long time.
Tweaking and Getting Assistance
A couple of weeks into the process, I was still questioning everything I had calculated. I wanted to know if my calculations would work even during my training for a half marathon. There are days I’m running four miles, and on Saturdays 6-7-8 or more miles to come. I’m not an expert at this, so figuring out how to “tweak” my carbohydrates on more active days, and how that would affect my fat intake, was hindering me from feeling confident about the numbers I was trying to reach (plus feeling hungry on highly active days wasn’t the most fun). I didn’t want to be creating too much of a deficit, nor did I want to go over. So I emailed Dallas Sainsbury (@dallassrae on Instagram).
She offered to do my macros for me for a discounted price since I had already bought her cheat sheet. I sent her my training plan and filled out her intake form. For $25, it was worth it to me to know someone who knows what she is doing is the one who calculated my macros.
Dallas has given me a variety of macros. For example, on my medium training days (MWF and either Tues/Thurs), I’m supposed to get to 1702 calories. That breaks down into 58g fat, 175g carb, and 120g protein because of how much running I am doing. On Monday, I hit the mark—within 5-9 grams of every macro (1721-54g fat, 165g carb, and 123g protein). Again, I won’t call it easy. I wanted a Biscoff and Cream waffle so bad that day, but I couldn’t make it fit with what I had left in my macros. So I “settled” for part of a chocolate Oreo concrete from Culver’s. I ended up having a protein shake with peanut butter and some Cocoa Puffs too. If this isn’t winning, I don’t know what is. I reached my goal and ended the day full and satisfied.
Yesterday, Tuesday, was a low day. On low activity days, I’m supposed to hit 1525-120p-115c-65f. I went 20g over on my carbs and was 8g under on my fat, but spot on with my protein. Today, Wednesday I am over my calories (1790). I’m under on my carbs (17g) and protein (21g), but over on my fat (15g). Since I’ve reached my calorie goal, I’m stopping for the day rather than having more protein. Is this the right call? I don’t know. I’m still learning. But you can see I'm not perfect at this.
In short, it has certainly been a journey. I’ve had to learn in my life that it is OK to fall short. It takes time to learn new things and to adjust, even if you’ve been watching others do it for a long time. Relapse is a regular part of the Stages of Change Cycle. It is no reason to quit. We can keep trying as many times as we need to, rejoin the cycle at any point. And so with flexible dieting, I will. If I can lose weight slowly and in the right way for both my mind and body, I will continue on this road. I owe it to myself.