I’m a firm believer that if you want a donut, then you deserve to have a donut.
But it’s important to understand that there is a fine line between eating what you enjoy and eating absolutely anything you want.
Luckily, there is a line between the two: it’s called flexible dieting.
What is flexible dieting?
Unless you have real health concerns that require you to follow a very specific form of dieting (like keto), I firmly believe that you should be able to eat whatever you want.
That is the core principle of flexible dieting.
Although it has the word “diet” in the name, it’s not a diet at all. It’s a lifestyle.
It’s an idea that allows you the freedom to eat whatever you’d like while still staying on track towards your goals. Who wouldn’t want that?
Problem is, many people misunderstand (and will continue to misunderstand until the end of time) what that actually means. It doesn’t mean that you should eat whatever you want all the time. If we just ate whatever we wanted at all times with no regard for our overall health, we’d survive off of only donuts, ice cream, and pizza.
Flexible dieting means knowing that you can eat whatever you want at any time.
It doesn’t mean you’re going to eat pizza every single day, but it’s understanding that you can enjoy pizza every once in a while and be perfectly healthy. And very happy.
Traditional and outdated dieting methods make us believe that choosing pizza is wrong, and eating it is counterproductive to a healthy life. That’s just not true- you can be perfectly healthy AND enjoy foods that may not be super nutritious.
We’re not robots. We’re going to have cravings. We’re going to want food that may be less than optimal. That is totally okay.
As long as we focus on living overall healthy lives, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having ice cream for dessert or Lucky Charms for breakfast.
Okay, that sounds great and all, but how do I know when I can eat unhealthy options?
Flexible dieting revolves around calories and macros (macronutrients).
Once you calculate your calorie goal, we then break that down into the three main macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
I have a breakdown of macros in this post, which I highly recommend you check out, but I’ll summarize it for you here:
When you track macros (macronutrients), you’re simply tracking how much fat, protein, and carbs you are eating.
The reason we refer to these 3, and not things like sodium, fiber, or cholesterol, is that macronutrients are the components of food that have caloric value.
1 gram of fat has 9 calories. 1 gram of protein has 4 calories. 1 gram of carbohydrates has 4 calories.
When you adopt a flexible diet, the main objective is to hit your calorie & macro goals.
You may have heard food referred to as “macro-friendly” in the fitness community before. Macro-friendly simply means that a food has favorable macronutrients, typically referring to food that is high in protein and lower in carbs (although carbs are not bad).
I suppose you could consider all the recipes here on my site macro-friendly.
I put together a calorie & macro calculator that is free that you can use- check it out here.
As a random example, let’s say you find out that you want to eat 2,400 calories per day. When you figure out your macro targets, you decide you want to eat 100g of protein, 60g of fat, and 365g of carbs (these are just completely random numbers).
Remember, each of these macros has a caloric value, so if you do the math based on the values I gave you above, you’ll see that this adds up to 2,400 calories.
With flexible dieting, your focus becomes hitting these values (or close to them- we never need to be perfect).
That means that one day you may eat pizza and ice cream, but as long as you hit these targets, you’ll still be perfectly on track towards your goals.
Some days will be “healthier” overall than other days, but as long as you are close to your targets, your food choices can be very flexible (hence the name).
When everything is broken up into numbers, it makes certain choices seem much less “bad” than you would have previously thought.
Let’s say you’re about to embark on a road trip, and you’re stopping at Dunkin for a cold brew and a quick breakfast. You really want the sausage egg & cheese sandwich, but you also really really want a donut.
Sure, you can certainly have both. But let’s assume you don’t want to consume 1,000 calories for breakfast.
There are obvious ways to save calories, like ordering egg whites with no meat. But you want a sausage egg and cheese sandwich.
By making 2 simple swaps and going with turkey sausage and an english muffin instead of a croissant, you can also grab a donut for fewer calories than the original sandwich you would have ordered (yeah yeah, the sugar content is higher. It’s a donut.)
In the end, the sandwiches are the same exact size, it will satisfy your tastes, AND you get the bonus of a donut!
Suddenly, choosing a donut doesn’t seem so bad.
This is the core of flexible dieting.
What flexible dieting is NOT…
Flexible Dieting got a bad rap years ago when “if it fits your macros” burst onto the scene. I recall back in 2017, “if it fits your macros”, or the IIFYM diet, became very popular within the fitness Instagram community.
All of a sudden, fitness enthusiasts started sharing the insane, gluttonous food they were eating and revealing that they still had ripped abs. People started buying into the idea that you can eat whatever you want, as long as it “fits your macros.”
This is the core principle that flexible dieting is built upon, but IIFYM majorly misconstrued it.
Over the years, IIFYM and flexible dieting have more closely meshed together, and they are often used interchangeably. Personally, I don’t love to use the term “if it fits your macros”.
But the basis of it is indeed true: if your calories and macros are in check, you will see results.
Less-healthy options are not the core of a flexible diet- they’re just a piece of it. You can eat nothing but Oreos and cookies and still lose weight, but that doesn’t mean that’s the right approach.
Far from it.
That’s why I don’t love the term “if it fits your macros”; it feels like you’re encouraging someone to eat carelessly. But the idea of being flexible with your diet is one I can get fully on board with.
It’s not about eating all of the sweets and junk food that you can. It’s about eating a balanced, healthy diet overall, but fitting in the “unhealthy” foods when you want to.
I’ve been told that I’m “lucky” because I can eat tons of junk food and not gain weight. But that is not the case. At all.
I’m guilty of touting my less healthy food on Instagram. Not because I want to create a false perception, but because the less healthy food is the fun stuff. A nice-looking pizza, an epic waffle creation, or a stacked burger… that’s more fun to share than an apple or a side salad.
But that’s not all I eat. It’s not even the majority.
I eat an overall healthy diet, but most people don’t take note of the normal, mundane food I eat every day.
I eat tons of grilled chicken. I eat fruits and veggies every day. I drink plenty of water. I make sautéed veggies almost every night. But most people don’t see that.
But you CAN have it both ways; it’s called flexible dieting.
Can you follow a flexible diet without tracking your intake?
For some people, tracking macros is simply not an option, and that’s okay!
Flexible dieting is easiest when you track your intake, because our whole focus is eating within your calorie and macronutrient goals. But, it’s not completely necessary!
There are many reasons why you wouldn’t want to track your food…
But, that doesn’t mean you can’t still follow a flexible diet!
Put simply: your food choices should be no different regardless of whether or not you are tracking your intake.
The obvious difference here is that you won’t be building your meals to hit specific macro targets or calorie goals, but that doesn’t change the actual food you’ll be eating.
Just because you don’t have a 120g protein goal to hit, that doesn’t mean you’re going to eat nothing but Lucky Charms for every meal.
There are many different ways to build a diet, and you need to cater to your specific dietary needs and preferences, but here are two tips that I find to be very important:
1. Make protein the star of every meal
Instead of eating a bowl of pasta for dinner, enjoy some breaded chicken with a side of pasta. Or, if meat isn’t your thing, swap that pasta out for chickpea pasta to get more protein in. Instead of having 2 slices of avocado toast for breakfast, have some eggs with one slice of avocado toast to prioritize protein.
Every single meal doesn’t have to be centered around protein (I mean, sometimes we just want pizza) but it’s a great rule of thumb to go by when you can.
As long as you are focusing on protein, you can enjoy some more “fun” options on your plate to adopt the flexible dieting approach.
Have a side of fries with your grilled chicken, or enjoy a fresh-baked cookie for dessert after your protein-packed meal.
2. Try to make sure your meal has a little bit of each macronutrient: protein, fat, and carbs
This isn’t going to work for any snack you have, but when you have a major meal, try to get a little bit of everything!
If you want some oatmeal for breakfast, enjoy your oatmeal, but add a hardboiled egg or two on the side to get in some protein & fat. Feel like snacking on an apple? Have it with a little bit of peanut butter for some fat and protein. By incorporating each macronutrient, every meal will be more filling, which is what we want to strive for!
I have nothing against grabbing an apple or banana as a snack, but you’ll find it much more satisfying if paired with other foods as well.
Maybe you previously looked at crackers as a waste of calories or considered them “junk”. Pair those crackers with some cheese to add some fat and protein, and you’ve got yourself a well-rounded snack!
Suddenly, food you would have previously avoided is a great option, with or without tracking the specific macros.
What are the benefits of a flexible dieting approach?
The above is a concept that took me a very long time to understand and grasp, but I think it is SO important for everyone to understand it.
I used to have the mindset that some foods were off-limits.
Candy bars and fast food certainly fit into that category- I would NEVER let myself eat them.
Now, I enjoy food that people consider to be “junk food” all the time, because I understand the basics of how calorie intake & macros work.
I credit this understand to flexible dieting.
When you look at the 2 options in this graphic, it’s clear that they’re not exactly the same.
The healthy breakfast bar and salad on the left will probably leave you feeling more full and satisfied, and they will definitely provide you with more micronutrients.
But that doesn’t automatically make the other option a bad choice.
From a weight or fat loss standpoint, there is virtually no difference in these options.
You can enjoy a burger from McDonald’s and some Reese’s cups and be in the same exact position had you eaten a grilled chicken salad and the kind bar.
And ya know what? That is a perfectly acceptable choice to make when you follow flexible dieting!
Adapting a flexible dieting strategy helps us to be able to see food for exactly what it is. No food is good or bad, and you can fit any food into your life regardless of your goals!
THAT is the best part of flexible dieting.
With flexible dieting, you can’t fall off track
When it comes to weight loss and body composition, calories and macros are the driving forces.
When you understand calories & macros, you can put the food you eat into perspective. The food you would have previously considered to de-rail all of your progress suddenly becomes a perfectly acceptable option.
On the surface, eating a candy bar and chips looks like you’ve failed your diet. On the flip side, eating a slice of avocado toast and some banana chips likely feels like a winning day.
But when you break down the calories & macros, they are nearly identical!
Yes, maybe the food on the left fills you up more. But from a pure calorie & macro standpoint, we’re looking at very similar options here.
Maybe the day threw some crazy curveballs at you and all you had access to were the Snickers and Doritos.
Or maybe you just straight up enjoy those foods and wanted to eat them.
Regardless of the reason, you didn’t fall off track. You can easily eat these foods and stay perfectly on track!
It’s not ideal to make candy and snacks the staples of your diet. But you can absolutely, 100% work them into your diet without falling off track.
If you follow traditional strict dieting principles, this kind of choice would be unacceptable.
Thanks to flexible dieting, you can completely change that mindset and enjoy and food you want.
Is flexible dieting good for weight loss?
As I’ve talked about over and over here on my blog, weight loss is all about being in a calorie deficit.
In other words, in order to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume.
As long as you focus on being in a caloric deficit overall, you can still lose weight! Yes, you can eat absolutely anything you’d like, as we’ve discussed here.
Sure, some options may be more beneficial for your overall health, but that doesn’t change the fact you can eat any food you’d like and still lose weight!
Here’s a great example…
A “wellness smoothie” with fruits & vegetables is surely the better option for weight loss, right?
Don’t get me wrong, a smoothie is great to enjoy. It’s packed with micronutrients and (usually) great ingredients, making it very healthy in that respect.
But when your goal is weight loss, it’s not automatically the best choice.
In this case, a small smoothie contains more calories, more fat, more carbs, and less protein than a bagel breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s.
Many people would assume the McDonald’s breakfast is a “bad choice” for losing weight because it’s fast food.
But when you actually compare them for what they are, it’s not necessarily a bad choice at all. In fact, that applies to all fast food (most notably the salads).
You can and should choose whatever you want.
Personally, I’d MUCH rather have the breakfast sandwich. Not only is it going to fill me up more than a 20oz smoothie, but I’m going to enjoy it significantly more.
When you’re in a calorie deficit and eating less food overall than usual, you might as well focus on food that you actually enjoy! Why make dieting more miserable than it needs to be?
Just because something sounds like a better choice, it doesn’t mean it always is for YOU. It always comes down to what your goals are.
In conclusion: breakfast is the best, and we should all eat breakfast food always.
Just kidding, there is a real conclusion here, and it’s this:
You can eat any food you’d like and still lose weight.
Focus on your macronutrient intake and overall calories.
As long as those 2 things are in check, you can enjoy any food you’d like thanks to flexible dieting!