If you haven’t gathered by now, let me give you a key insight to my fitness and nutrition philosophy: I don’t do extremes. I don’t like them, and I don’t think they do anyone any good. I especially don’t like when these extremes start becoming dogma: absolutes that develop their own morality. No! There is no morality in fitness and nutrition. There are only better choices that you are free to make, or not.
So when I read an article about flexible dieting, I was excited about it. Until I got further in, and realized it was actually about Macro counting, the idea of basing your diet around eating specific amounts of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The flexible part comes about because people are more free to choose WHAT makes up those macros than some major nutrition schools of thought would allow. While I do think we should be free to eat a balanced macronutrient diet, I don’t think most people are ready to sit and think about what each piece of food is made up. I know I am not!
So, what is my idea of flexible dieting? Eating a balanced diet made up of REAL foods—whole plant foods and high-quality animal products—to get your body the nutrition it needs, or to be more specific, the nutrients it needs. Then, add in treats here or there, because sanity is also key!
So why doesn’t this catch on? I mean, it makes sense, right? No cutting out major food groups, no counting calories, no dissecting macros. It should sound great to people. But it’s not flashy, it doesn’t have a hook, and there isn’t much for anyone to make money off of. Deciding to follow a diet like going vegan or paleo gives people a sense of excitement, of belonging (and yes, perhaps of morality). But for MANY (not all, of course—there are always exceptions, they are the ones writing the cookbooks) these extremes don’t inspire long-term healthy changes.
One reason for this may be that most people go into it concentrating on their long-term goals. Wait, isn’t that a good thing? Well, yes, of course you want to be aware of your goals, but when you are sitting down to yet another salad while everyone else is eating pizza, or steak, is thinking about being 20 pounds lighter, or having a flat stomach, or even improving your blood pressure, going to keep you on track? Probably not. And when people give in and go off their arbitrarily chosen plan, they tend to give up completely. Because, after all, it was an extreme diet to be on, so going off of it has to be equally extreme.
What if we thought more about immediate gratification? Not in the “yum McDonald’s French fries” kind-of-way., but rather more along the lines of “this salad is giving my body everything it needs to get my work done, and I know it will give me the energy I need to get through the afternoon slump”. Or how about, “I am so glad I can be confident that after I eat this balanced meal, I will not be gassy, bloated, have reflux, etc”. Then, occasionally, it will be “I am so excited to eat this cake without guilt, because it is completely okay to enjoy treats”.
If the idea of including occasional treats leaves you sweating because you know that, while you mean well, you can’t possibly be trusted to stop at one piece of cake (so you haven’t had any in 6 years, even though it makes you want to cry), there is a concept for you to consider called habituation. Basically, habituation is the idea that by exposing yourself to the foods that you crave, and allowing yourself to enjoy it (that is key, no guilt!), it may actually help to decrease cravings. According to Motivational Interviewing in Nutrition and Fitness, doing this can help alleviate the anxiety you feel around food, and help you build a healthier relationship with food, as it allows you to give yourself permission to actually enjoy your favorite foods. With that permission, you are able to relax around the food instead of obsessing over it.
I want to stress once more, that this whole dietary idea is based on REAL food for the bulk of your daily intake. As I talked about here and here, real food will help you maintain your appetite and cravings better than processed foods. But, within the frame of real food, you can eat what your body and tastes call for, whether meat, fruit, nuts, and yes, even grains. I am giving you permission!