Would you rather listen? Check out the podcast episode here to listen to me talk about the topic and go a little more in depth on each diet strategy
Everyone you talk to will give you, most likely, a different answer if you ask them what the “best” diet is for you. Each person will be influenced by the information they’ve read and what has worked for them in the past. However, it’s important to recognize what worked for them, may not work for you. Whether you’re a coach or a client, it’s important to be able to objectively look at the options and evaluate the best choice.
There are people who eat for health.
There are people who eat for performance.
There are people who eat for aesthetics.
Each of these diets may look drastically different. The physique competitor, at the time the step on stage, will not have the most optimal performance in the gym. On the other hand, a powerlifter who eats to perform at their best, most likely will not look “stage-ready” for a physique competition. The average person, who is overall moving to a healthier diet, may notice improvements in all categories, but won’t be exceptional at any one of them.
For the context of this article, we’re going to focus on broad spectrum diet strategies: Meal Plans, Flexible Dieting (IIFYM/Macros), and Intuitive Eating. Within eat of these, it is possible to utilize other, specialized diets such as ketogenic, paleo, vegan, vegetarian, etc. I’ll save those for a later time.
During the beginnings of the “fitness craze” it was thought that to make progress in the gym, it was ideal to set a meal plan for the week and follow it. Week after week, little to no variation. With a cheat day or cheat meal allowed once per week, often falling on a weekend. People saw progress toward their goals; it was working.
There is no question that setting a meal plan, with the appropriate number of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fats will help in reaching fitness goals. However, eating the same foods day after day, week after week, with little to no variation “allowed” is boring. It becomes restrictive and difficult to integrate into everyday life when coworkers want to go out for lunch on a random Tuesday afternoon.
This type of restriction and labelling of foods as either “good” or “bad” can also lead to disordered eating habits. (Note: Disordered eating habits are not the same as eating disorders.) However, at times, this type of diet is appropriate. For those looking to step on stage for a physique competition or high-level athletes who are constantly travelling, meticulous calorie counting and attention to detail, is required. Even for these people, in recent years, the trend has moved away from meal plans and limited foods to a more realistic approach: flexible dieting.
Flexible Dieting (IIFYM)
Flexible dieting (IIFYM; If It Fits Your Macros) follows the same principles as a meal plan, but has a greater element of flexibility. Based on age, weight, activity level, and specific goals, among other variables, specific calories and grams of each protein, carbohydrates, and fats are calculated. The aim of this way of eating is to them hit each of these numbers, within a 3-10g range depending on how strict you’re trying to be.
The numbers are there and it up to you how you want to fill them. IIFYM or flexible dieting gets a bad rapport as a healthy approach from the posts on social media of donuts and ice cream and pop tarts. However, my recommendation, is to fill your macros with nutrient dense foods first. The flexibility of IIFYM will allow you to fit a dessert into your day, but you won’t feel great if you fit a donut in for every meal.
In addition, if someone is trying to lose body fat, it’s possible that their calories will be quite low. As a result, fitting a whole Snickers bar (250 calories, 14g fat, 35g carbohydrates, 4g protein) into your day is a significant portion of your macronutrients allotted.
If you’re not familiar with macronutrients, there is a bit of a learning curve here. My recommendation is to purchase a food scale so you’re able to accurate weigh and measure portions of food. It will take some time in the beginning to learn what is in foods and how to fill your day, but apps such as MyFitnessPal, can help.
Inherently, our bodies crave different foods. Intuitive eating is just that; it’s listening to our bodies and eating based on what we’re hungry for at that time. Intuitive eating is what I would consider the “next step” after flexible dieting. It takes practice, in a different way than flexible dieting, and time to get it right. If you’re not in tune with your body, it’s easy to ignore our body’s cues and overeat.
If you’re used to eating “bad for you” foods, your body may crave those more often than if you were to eat a vegetables, sweet potatoes, and chicken. Our bodies, when functioning optimally, do not crave an entire large pizza. We might want a piece of pizza, but moderation should always be practiced with any diet strategy.
When first beginning to change your habits with an intuitive eating approach, thing of the obvious: do you drink enough water? Do you eat 3-5 servings of fruits and veggies each day? If the answer is no, start with changing those habits first. Adding or changing one thing each week, not attempting to make drastic changes overnight. Over time, these changes will build up and you’ll be able to add more based on your fitness goals at the time. Check out Precision Nutrition for a lot of great tools on changing eating habits without overhauling your diet overnight.
At the end of the day, the best diet is the one that you’re able to stick to consistently over time.
You might follow one now, but as your goals change so does your diet. You may choose parts of each and combine them. If you like daily variety, meal plans might not be your cup of tea. If you’re short on time during the day to cook and fit in each meal, flexible dieting may not be the approach for you. If you don’t feel very in tune with your body, intuitive eating may not yield the most success.
Currently, my fitness goal is to lose body fat. I’m using a flexible dieting approach, but I also make a meal plan with my macros for each week. Although it’s not the most exciting, I don’t mind eating the same thing every meal for a week or so and having a meal plan approach cuts down on the time spent each day trying to fit foods into my macros. At the beginning of the week, before I grocery shop, I sit down and plan each meal so it fits my macros. I leave a few extra “free” macros each day so I can fill them with a treat or account for the spontaneous lunch with coworkers.
Do you have specific questions relating to your current diet or eating habits? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’m happy to respond to individual questions!