Flexible dieting or IIFYM as some people call it can be a wonderful and enjoyable experience. By now you are probably aware of the benefits of being consistent with your food intake, being able to include a wide variety of food sources into your diet, and having an effective macronutrient breakdown to move closer to your goals.
Remember the first time you heard that you could include poptarts, ice cream, and burgers into your diet and still get results? It’s definitely an intriguing statement. But of course it comes with special conditions. Some of the conditions being that you have to weigh and track your food intake.
For some people that is bizarre. For others it makes perfect sense. Regardless of your standpoint, there is a definite transition period when moving into a flexible dieting approach to nutrition. Suddenly there are no “bad” foods, no “dirty” foods, and no “cheat meals”. Everything is considered acceptable. It is simply a strict, yet unrestricted approach to eating towards specific physique and performance goals.
But what if you just want to eat similar foods each day. What if you don’t want to track every gram of chicken, rice, pizza, or ice cream? How many times do you have to buy new batteries for your food scale before you can just go back to eating instinctively, without reading nutritional panels and pre-planning meal ideas?
Whilst there are definite advantages to tracking your nutrient intake, it is important to know that it doesn’t have to be forever. Often times people will ask me how long they have to track their macros for. My answer is almost always: until it is no longer effective or necessary to do so.
The basis of this idea is that once you reach your goal body composition by tracking your intake, you will have a complete nutrient database stored in your mind from your countless My Fitness Pal food data entries over time. You will have a solid idea of what 100g of chicken breast looks like, which foods are high in fibre, and what the macros are of your favourite dessert. This will greatly improve your potential to guesstimate your food intake, eat instinctively, and still stay within your goals.
Tracking macros is guaranteed to provide the best results possible. It also allows you to have a more flexible food selection with greater consistency. However the transition from flexible dieting to eating instinctively comes with a host of benefits too. For some it’s a less stressful approach, for others it’s more socially manageable.
Transitioning away from flexible dieting can be done in a simple process, but it is necessary to have sufficient experience in tracking your intake before considering the shift. For most people, I would recommend tracking your intake consistently until you have a clear indication that you are moving towards your goals, or have reached your goal. Having specific goals is important, but having moving goals is more realistic. What I mean by this is, rather than pushing towards a specific body weight, consider a body weight range. Rather than a specific body fat percentage, consider a body fat percentage range. Doing this is the first step towards moving away from absolutes and being comfortable with slight variations in progress markers like those mentioned.
Once you have established and reached a comfortable body weight or body fat percentage range, track your food intake less often and check your body weight once or twice per week.
Consider foods that you know to be high in protein, fibre, and micronutrients as the foundation of your diet. It is very hard to overeat these types of foods mindlessly simply because they are not as palatable as carbohydrate and fat based foods. This is a step towards ensuring sufficient protein is consumed daily, and fibre goals are still considered.
Next you want to base your carbohydrate and fat intake on how you look and feel. If you are low on energy and have a training session coming up, throw down some rice, sweet potato, poptarts, or nutella. If you are finding yourself constantly full or heavier on the scale more often, consider pulling back your intake of these foods.
If you shift your focus to eating protein with each meal along with two to three serves of fruits and vegetables each day, you will experience autoregulation where your body will let you know if it requires more nutrients to maintain homeostasis. Generally it is based on what you are accustomed to consuming, and you end up eating pretty close to what you would if you were weighing and tracking everything.
This is the ideal position to be in and can be maintainable for many. For some, a couple of weeks in and the scales are tipping towards the upper end of the goal body weight range. They are unhappy and want to clean things up to get back down. What would be a suitable approach? Simply being a bit more mindful of what you are consuming is a great start. Your nutrition knowledge will never fade. You will always know the nutrient content of the foods you love, and you’ll almost always know what you should pull back on. If this is you, consider mentally tracking your carbs and fat for each meal, or transition back to using My Fitness Pal or similar, a couple of days per week.
Weeks and months go by and you are enjoying a truly unrestrictive and instinctive approach to nutrition, but then an event comes up. A wedding, formal, photoshoot, or fitness competition, and you want to look your very best. This is a time where it is in your best interest to move back into a consistent tracking approach, ensuring specific protein, carbohydrate, and fat targets are met each day. Once the event is over, you can transition back to where you left off, focusing on maintaining the protein and micronutrient importance of your diet, but in simple guesstimation and instinctive style.