Whether you want to lose weight or build muscle, the only way to do it is by controlling your calories. Every one of us has “maintenance” – the level of calorific intake where your weight will stay the same. Eating above (in surplus) or below (in deficit) this maintenance level will impact your body composition.
Eating in deficit? Your body will struggle to synthesise new tissue and the scales will go down. Taking in a surplus of calories? Well, now you’re setting yourself up to grow - either fat or muscle, depending on your lifestyle. Whether cutting, maintaining or bulking, there are various training programs, daily habits and dietary choices you can adopt. Here I’m going to look at rigid diets vs a flexible approach. Just a heads up – I’m a firm believer in the latter, so this article may not be the unbiased resource you’re looking for.
You’ll find conflicting evidence on most topics out there, but one thing that consistently rings true is that adherence is absolutely key when it comes to adopting a new lifestyle. Countless studies over the years will attest to this.
Flexible & Rigid - what are they?
As the names suggest – a rigid approach to your diet involves eating foods according to a strict plan. Low carb diets for example, have practitioners avoiding grains, confectionery and even fruit, whilst a paleo lifestyle will mean no potatoes, rice or pulses. Short term, most diets will work – weight will drop and the psychological affect of being “on a plan” is often motivating for people. A flexible approach meanwhile, means that nothing is off the table. Those who take on a flexible approach are free to consume anything they like – the key being moderation. Where flexible dieting can fall down is where people use it as an excuse to gorge on pizza and donuts, as long as it “fits their macros”. This shouldn’t be the case. The healthy approach to flexible dieting should still be centered around whole, nutritious foods – meat, fish, vegetables & grains – but allows you the freedom to get in a treat here and there without sending you into a pit of despair for “cheating” or failing at a rigid diet.
Why rigid diets fail
You need to adopt a lifestyle you enjoy – and one that you can see yourself sticking with for years to come, not as soon as you’ve shed your love handles. Too many people avoid certain foods or even entire food groups. They stress about which foods are supposed to be the healthiest or lowest in calories - obsessing over trivial details that, in the scheme of things, don’t really matter - instead of sticking to an overall diet that fuels them, satisfies them and allows them to live a happier life.
But they’ll persevere and suffer through the hunger, the temptation, the mood swings, lack of everyday energy and strength when training. Some people even wear it as a masochistic badge of honour - proudly announcing that they’re too healthy to possibly consider that slice of cake or biscuit to accompany their coffee. This is all well and good but do you really want to spend your life living in fear of food?
Roughly 50% of “fad” diets ultimately fail – usually because those practicing fell off the wagon, hit their short-term goal or simply got sick of being miserable and quit. Rigid diets – Atkins, Ornish, Low-Fat - rarely allow for freedom or balance and, like some kind of culinary cult, start to warp the mind of the practitioner. Your friends are going for burgers and beers on a Saturday night, but you find yourself lying. “Sorry guys, I’ve got plans,” which, translated, is actually “Screw that, I’m staying home watching Netflix”. Christmas day comes around and you’re miserable, staring at your beloved roast potatoes that you can’t have now, because your diet dictates your decisions. You avoid the kitchen because that’s where everyone’s sitting around, drinking wine and eating chocolates. You tell yourself that you’ll just have to live without chocolate if you want to be lean. You’re not exactly happy, but you deal with it because you’re determined to make this work. But eventually the stress becomes too much. Being lean isn’t worth it anymore and you cave. Numerous studies back this story up. When people go on a diet, they lose weight. In most cases they keep it off for a while. Then they get tired of their diet, they stop following the “rules”, and they regain some or all of the weight.
With a rigid approach to dieting, coming off the wagon can be psychologically devastating. When people fall off the wagon there’s often anger, people beating themselves up for “failing” on this unreasonable expectation they’d set themselves.
They’re not alone.. people who are more rigid about their diets tend to have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight and are more likely to have eating disorder symptoms. Worryingly, orthorexia, a relatively new phenomenon whereby sufferers obsess over a healthy, controlled diet, is on the up. Ultimately, rigid diet’s fail because, for the majority of people, they’re not sustainable.
Why flexible dieting works
OK, so you’re a disciplined, motivated, committed dieter. Whether you need to lose 30kg or 3kg, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to reach your goal. However, If you set up a diet you can’t maintain, it doesn’t matter how much weight you lose in the short-term - you probably won’t keep it off or stay as lean as you’d like to. The solution is to set up a diet or lifestyle you enjoy — a diet that you can adhere to and live a happy life by.
Adopting a flexible approach means you don’t have to choose between your happiness and your physique, health, or performance. You can learn to become a flexible dieter, where you allow yourself to have your favorite foods in moderation, and don’t beat yourself up when you do something you didn’t mean to.
Yes, some discipline is important - if you give in to every craving and eat as much junk food as you like, you’ll have a hard time staying lean.
Flexible dieting allows for, well, flexibility in your life. A little bit of something “dirty” is no big deal in the grand scheme of things. Say, you love nutella in your porridge – it makes you excited for breakfast & you feel happy eating it. Why deprive yourself? Have your breakfast of oats with a spoonful of nutella. Followed by a lunch of jerk chicken, sweet potato fries and wilted spinach and a dinner of fish cooked in garlic & chili, rice with peas and a mammoth plate of stir-fried veg. On days when you know you’re meeting friends for pizza in the evening, maybe forgo the nutella or lessen your portion of oats from 100g to 70g that day.
Those who adopt this lifestyle have no problems adhering to it because they’re not depriving themselves. Both physically and psychologically they’re satisfied. As mentioned above, it’s important to have restraint – a tub of Ben & Jerry’s won’t make you feel good (mentally or physically) – but the flexibility to incorporate balance in to your life is key. If your “maintenance” calorie intake is 2,000 calories then feel free to get 200 of these from a biscuit or chocolate bar, so long as you’re packing a decent level of vegetables and quality foods in too. Social media has spawned a wave of flexible dieters competing to show off the biggest, dirtiest stack of pancakes topped with lashings of Reese's cups, chocolate sauce and poptarts - whatever they can squeeze into their daily macornutrient goals that'll get them the most likes or comments. Too often it's at the expense of wholesome, nutritious foods.
The thing with “treats” is that they tend to be calorie rich and nutrient poor – you’ll be a lot more full and satiated from 1,000 calories of chicken, rice and vegetables than you will from half an Easter egg.
So let me tie this in with holiday eating. At some point over the next few months you’re likely to find yourself at a barbeque or party with tables of food, sweets and booze. If you consider yourself ‘hardcore’, you might be obnoxious enough to take your tupperware container of chicken breast, rice and broccoli with you. And you’re likely to feel miserable watching your friends eat the stuff you really want.
So instead, how about going to that same party with a different mentality. Plan to allow yourself a bit of ‘junk’ and realise that, in the big scheme of things, it doesn’t make a bit of difference. You’ll find you won’t put on a kilo of fat because you had a couple of pieces of chocolate and your muscles won’t waste away because you sipped a beer. What you might find is that you enjoyed yourself a whole lot more.
Comparison of diets – with adherence being key.
Similar weight loss with low- or high-carbohydrate diets.
Energy intake required to maintain body weight is not affected by wide variation in diet composition.
Weight-loss with low or high carbohydrate diet? (insulin & triglyc improved low-carb though)
Effect of high protein vs high carbohydrate intake on insulin sensitivity, body weight, hemoglobin A1c, and blood pressure in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Similar weight loss with low-energy food combining or balanced diets.
Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: a randomized controlled trial.