Nutrition

Flexible Dieting Explained and Why I Love It

I get a lot of requests asking for a breakdown of exactly what sort of diet I follow.

Since the Summer 2014, I've been using what is colloquially known as “If It Fits Your Macros” or IIFYM.

However, I really think a more accurate (and simple) description is Flexible Dieting.

So here it is – all the details about Flexible Dieting and why I use it.

It's not a diet, it's an eating system

flexible dieting option

In its most simple form, Flexible Dieting involves establishing a daily goal for the three macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein).

Then, you simply meet those numbers everyday.

It doesn't matter if your fat comes from butter, avocado, or almonds.

As long as the numbers add up, you're golden.

Think about that for a second.

Rather than eating ground beef and sweet potato like you had planned, it's not a big deal to grab a grilled chicken sandwich if you happen to go out for lunch that day.

You just switch carbs for carbs, exchange fat for fat, and substitute protein for protein.

Sounds easy right?

Well, it actually is.

I've been following this approach for around a year and a half and it's helped me:

  • gain muscle without putting on much fat
  • lose body fat without sacrificing muscle
  • eat desserts without screwing up my diet
  • maintain abs year round (!)
  • enjoy meals at restaurants and family gatherings
  • drink alcohol in moderation

And I'm not tired of it or tempted to switch programs!

Flexible dieting can be just as effective as any pre-planned diet, but without the undue restriction.

Essentially, Flexible Dieting is the most versatile way to make consistent (and sustainable) progress that I've ever come across.

And I have a lot to which I can compare it.

Been there, done that

Over the past 15 years, I've tried just about every diet out there.

For long stretches of time, I've religiously followed variations of low-fat, low-carb and Paleo-type diets.

I've even played around with being mostly vegan for shorter times.

But all of them had one thing in common – they weren't practical in everyday life, especially over the long run.

The above diets often lead to overpowering cravings and make it extremely difficult to find things to eat if you're away from home all day.

And how many of us actually spend our days within arms reach of a kitchen?

That's not to say they were without benefit, though.

  • Low-carb diets taught me to ditch sugary drinks, excessive grains, and bullshit snacks.
  • Low-fat diets helped me break my dependency on pizza, mac n' cheese, and french fries.
  • Paleo diets helped instill the value of consuming tons of whole, un-processed foods.
  • Vegan eating forced me to incorporate vegetables and superfoods into every meal I ate.

So with these lessons learned and good habits formed, I can now use Flexible Dieting in a responsible way to achieve and easily maintain the body I want.

Why I don't like traditional diets

Besides the restrictions…

There isn't a specific vegetable that “torches belly fat”.

You won't find a single food on the planet that “puts weight on you”.

There isn't a system of macro manipulation that can override the need to control how much you eat.

And you can't alter the number of meals you eat to trick your body into quickly building muscle and simultaneously shedding fat.

It's the sum of everything you eat over the course of the day, week, and month that determines body weight.

But I'll concede that most diets do work (for a time) because they get you excited to pay attention to what you're eating which leads to better choices.

And most decrease total caloric intake simply by eliminating a meal, food group, or macronutrient.

So combine these better food choices with below-maintenance calories, and you have weight loss.

But only for as long you can stick with the restrictive diet.

How long can you keep that up?

flexible dieting low carb

I thoroughly enjoy steak and eggs, but this dish can get a little boring after a year or two.

I'll be the first to tell you about how much I love low-carb dieting.

It all but eliminates hunger, provides stable energy throughout the day, and keeps my blood work in tip-top shape.

But finding suitable menu options can be a nightmare.

Sure, you still have options, but most need so many modifications it's ridiculous.

I felt like a robot programmed on repeat to say, “please take the rolls from the table,” “hold the fruit, toast, and hash browns,” and “can you put the dressing, candied pecans, and apple slices on the side?”

It was frustrating.

I would go to a restaurant, pay for a meal, and only be able to eat half of it.

Not to mention it made meals at home with my wife a challenge, as she isn't always as eager to adopt my various diets.

It's the same story with eating only “clean” foods.

Unless you're making the food yourself from fresh ingredients, good luck finding satisfying, healthy food on-the-go.

For most guys, being overly strict for long periods of time eventually leads them to cave and have that double bacon cheeseburger they've been fantasizing about.

Then, more often than not, that one slip leads to more and more “exceptions” and eventual derailment.

Who wants to spend the rest of their life like that?

With flexible dieting, you don't have to “cheat”.

Instead, you simply “adjust” for the occasional treat.

Why I choose Flexible Dieting

flexible dieting why I choose

After everything I've learned and experienced, I think the perfect diet is chock full of whole foods and includes lean meat, plenty of fruits and veggies, some dairy, and whole grains to make up the rest of the calories.

Most importantly, the perfect diet must be practical and enjoyable!

So for me, demonizing and eliminating a nutrient or food group doesn't really work in the long run.

I enjoy beer, pizza, french fries, ice cream, and cookies too much to never have them again.

And I don't want the mental weight of feeling like I'm “cheating” on my diet.

But the real clincher is, diets only work for as long as you can keep up the habits.

With Flexible Dieting, I can enjoy foods I like without ever having that initially satisfying but ultimately discouraging cheat meal.

Flexible Dieting allows me to have a social life without being the guy at the restaurant eating a plain chicken breast and chasing it with a glass of water and a squeeze of lemon.

It just takes a certain amount of discipline to keep the less healthy choices to under 10% or so of your total diet.

Is Flexible Dieting for you?

A lot of guys think that if they follow a specific diet, they don't have to keep track of how much they eat.

While there is much to be gained by simply switching to a healthier diet, you still need to know how much you eat if having an above average physique is your goal.

In the end, it all comes down to appetite.

If you have a small appetite, you'll never self select enough food to put on muscle.

If you have a big appetite, you'll always gravitate towards eating too much for your weight loss goals.

Flexible Dieting is more flexible than you think

With the amount of freedom allowed by Flexible Dieting, it's taken on an image of being extremely high in carbs and junk food.

But tracking your macros doesn't mean that you have to eat bodybuilder levels of carbs or ditch the healthy food all together.

  • You can use it for high or low carb diets.
  • You can use it for bulking or cutting.
  • You can eat as clean or as dirty as you want.
  • You can avoid meat, dairy, gluten, processed foods, etc. and still track your macros.

Regardless of macro distribution, it's still important to track how much you're eating. At least until you're close to your ideal physique and experienced enough to estimate macros.

Essentially, Flexible Dieting is a way to fine tune, and allow some wiggle room, for any eating system of your choosing.

You can start today

With most diets, there's a huge learning curve.

Sometimes I forget that I've been obsessing over this stuff for the better part of 20 years, yet I'm still frequently astonished at how tricky certain aspects of dieting can be.

From the more casual dieter, I often hear phrases such as:

  • “I didn't know X, Y, Z had so many carbs!”
  • “How did they manage to get 71 grams of fat into a salad?! I thought I was eating healthy!”
  • “Ugh, I don't understand how that's not Paleo!”

There's so much room for error with most diets if you don't have enough base knowledge and this confusion can often lead to frustration which isn't too far from throwing in the towel.

On the other hand, Flexible Dieting is very factual.

Did you eat it and did it fit your macros?

That's it.

There's no gray area to consider and you don't have to read a book to figure it out.

All you have to do is download an app and start entering your food, which is just as easy as searching for a movie review in Google.

Work on getting the amount of food you eat under control today, and then clean up the quality as you learn the ins and outs of nutrition.

It's immediate, sustainable, and adaptable progress.

What more can you ask for?

Coming up in my next post, I'll explain exactly how I incorporate Flexible Dieting into my life and show you what a typical week of eating looks like.

Stay tuned,

Nate

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21 Comments

  • Reply
    Shobhit Choudhary
    January 21, 2016 at 12:34 am

    “And I’m not tired of it or tempted to switch programs!”

    That’s the best part about IIFYM. I really don’t get why most bodybuilding websites criticize it? It’s the most effective strategy for evolving specially when you adopt fitness as a lifestyle. You never get bored of the foods and the lifestyle. Though it has only been a year that I have been lifting I have benefited tremendously by following this approach.
    Most people fail with the diets as they are not realistic and mostly unsustainable.
    Sharing it right away!!

    • Reply
      Nate
      January 21, 2016 at 5:43 am

      You said it, Shobhit! We should rename it If It Fits Your Lifestyle (IIFYL).
      I can understand the criticism though, as I’ve been guilty of following the clean eating dogma in the past. When I got into bodybuilding it was the late 90’s and at that time people thought that if you ate white pasta instead of whole wheat your blood sugar would rage out of control and you could watch the body fat accumulate as you were chewing. Obviously, guys like us are proving that wrong, but there are those who feel threatened by the idea that they’re been needlessly following an overly strict plan for so long.
      Keep up the good work!

      • Reply
        Shobhit Choudhary
        January 22, 2016 at 3:13 am

        I think it’s mostly because the bodybuilding websites want people to fail with the unsustainable diets; which will only result in increasing sales of supplements. Thus making them more money.

        IIFYL thanks for that Nate. I launched my blog last month, it will go well with my blog LifestyleDen. Will appreciate your feedback on that! Cheers to fitness!

        • Reply
          Nate
          January 22, 2016 at 5:16 am

          That’s the idea. Most people would rather spend all of their money on supplements rather than clean up their diet or bother tracking anything. Good job on the blog and I love the Peanut Butter on Everything article!

      • Reply
        Joel
        July 31, 2016 at 9:24 pm

        I agree with the diet ideas, good article. But you’ve been into bodybuilding so don’t you feel that the last part of the diet – going from say 10% bodyfat to “very shredded” always involves a certain amount of misery and struggle?
        Do you think that losing the last ~20 lbs, getting the lower abs and obliques really sharp, is harder than getting rid of the beer belly? Or do you think as long as your following a diet that’s working it will continue to work until you’re as lean as you want?
        I’m at the last phase of a cutting cycle, normally I would start cutting complex carbs and fructose even more. If I really don’t have to get crazy strict and carb depleted to get shredded how come every bodybuilder ever seems to feel it’s inevitable? And when they fail to come in to the contest in top shape they usually say they didn’t diet hard enough?

        I’m not trying to get lean enough to have ripped glutes or do a contest, just aiming for 6 or 7% bf.

        • Reply
          Nate
          August 1, 2016 at 5:17 am

          You’re absolutely right, Joel. Getting below 10% is harder than losing the initial beer belly. The body is relatively willing to let go of excess weight, but below a certain point it starts to panic. When you get below your body fat set point, your hormones start to become unbalanced in order to get you to put on weight. It’s really hard to deal with at that point, especially when your calories are already low. Keep pushing!

  • Reply
    Eric
    January 21, 2016 at 5:49 am

    Love the idea Nate. Thanks. My only problem is going out to dinner and understanding the nutrient and caloric breakdown of meals. I always guess but I’m just never sure of my accuracy. . I’ll admit, I eat at restaurants probably more often than most people so it makes tracking the carbs, proteins and fats a little more challenging. Of course I could always go out less but the wife would NOT approve of that idea. Oh well I guess I’ll just have to make gains at other times.

    • Reply
      Nate
      January 21, 2016 at 9:10 am

      I’m with you Eric, I don’t want to cut down on my number of meals out either. I try to order fairly simple meals if I can and track the individual ingredients when possible. Take a chicken sandwich, for example. I’ll search for and enter 1 pretzel bun, a 6 oz chicken breast, 1 slice of pepper jack cheese, and 1/4 of an avocado. Then if it’s an independent restaurant, I’ll use the french fry numbers for a known restaurant like TGI Fridays. Other than that, I just try to be as accurate as possible with my meals I have at home to make up for some inaccuracies.

    • Reply
      Joe
      January 21, 2016 at 1:05 pm

      Once you are keeping track on what you eat for a while, its pretty easy to break it down. Granted, you will never get it 100 percent accurate, but it’s not like your body freaks out if you’re off by a few calories or grams of carbs with this type of eating. It won’t take long to be able to look at a piece of meat, or side of rice/potatoes and make an educated guess on the portion size, macro breakdown, and calories. Any food tracking app can help with that. And IIFYM isn’t an excuse to eat shitty food when you’re out – it means you still eat “good” food, with good ratios, so guessing what grilled chicken breast on a sandwich is won’t be too far off from what it would be at home…but grabbing a fast food chicken sandwich loaded with extras won’t help you keep good ratios.

      • Reply
        Nate
        January 21, 2016 at 3:04 pm

        That’s one of the main benefits, Joe. After tracking your macros for a while, you’ll be much better prepared to make good decisions if you ever decide to go back to just regular old healthy eating.

  • Reply
    anthony
    January 21, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Great article. Quick question: What have you found works in terms of establishing those macros? There are a bunch of calculators out there – do you have one that you’ve had success with?

  • Reply
    John Tyndall
    January 21, 2016 at 11:54 am

    Hey Nate,
    I recently refered back to your first article on IIFYM, and this is great added info!
    I’ve tried a bunch of diets too, and have always tried to avoid counting calories since it seemed like a pain, but I’ve started doing it now. Using My Fitness Pal as you recommend makes it easy. I doubt I’d stick with counting calories if not for that app.
    Do you have a cheat meal?
    I know you can eat whatever you want if it fits your calories and macros, but do you ever ignore all that maybe once a week and eat as many calories in any macro combination you want?
    Or do you throw out the cheat meal concept altogether on flexible dieting?
    Thanks,
    John

    • Reply
      Nate
      January 21, 2016 at 12:13 pm

      It is super easy with the app. With any diet you’re going to have to do something restrictive and counting macros is the lesser evil for me. I do my best to stick to the same numbers everyday and avoid going over because I don’t ever have days where I allow myself to fewer calories. What I do is have a high carb day, usually on Saturday. I’ll go over my carbs by roughly 100 grams and cut back on the fat a little. I’ve found that this has the same mental relief as a cheat day.

  • Reply
    Cody
    January 22, 2016 at 10:12 am

    Nate,

    I’ve been using this system for a while now and it’s helped me so much. I’m such a fat kid at heart. No matter what my goals or my motivations are, I will always eventually break down and eat a cookie or a side of fries. With this system, I never feel guilty about it so long as (for that day) I can change my consumption to fit my overall macros. My only problem when I was first starting out was figuring out exactly what my distribution should be and how many calories a day I should be having to reach my goals. I think the most important aspect of this system is knowing what your maintenance level caloric intake is and what your macro breakdown should be with carbs and protein based upon what your goal is.

    I think I’ve figured it out for myself for my current goals, but do you have a system to estimate what % of the breakdown should come from carbs/protein based upon your exercise and goals?

    • Reply
      Nate
      January 22, 2016 at 5:47 pm

      It’s nice to be able to enjoy the occasional treat without feeling guilty about it, isn’t it? I’m doing a follow up article within the next week where I show how I come up with maintenance calories and macros.

  • Reply
    Craig
    January 24, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Nate,
    This article is pure gold for me, I’ve been reading so much contradictory information in books and various blogs for so long, that something as simple as eating, and enjoying a healthy lifestyle has become some huge effort that leaves me feeling guilty whenever I have a beer or some fast food. Its some strange perception I’ve falsely convinced myself of over the years that there’s a perfect way to eat that leads to optimal health, which is nonsense really and leaves no room for enjoyment. A book I found interesting and has similar principles to flexible dieting is Diet Cults by Matt Fitzgerald.
    Cheers mate, your website is quality.

    • Reply
      Nate
      January 25, 2016 at 5:45 am

      I’m glad I could help, Craig! I’ve been down every extreme dieting path and the results were almost always the same. I can gain weight on any diet, provided I eat enough and I can lose weight on the very same diet, as long as I control quantity. I’ll have to check out that book.

  • Reply
    Flexible Dieting: How I Stay Lean (plus 7 days of meals) - Iron and Tweed
    January 27, 2016 at 3:56 am

    […] In my last post I explained why I love Flexible Dieting. […]

  • Reply
    Quince
    February 2, 2016 at 12:32 am

    To be fair, someone on the gear can eat much less healthier and yet have better results than someone who is all natural and has a clean measured diet. I think it would be fair for you to make this disclaimer.

    • Reply
      Nate
      February 2, 2016 at 6:35 am

      That’s very true. But there are tons of fat guys using gear. Drugs can help, but in the end it all comes down to diet.

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