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Tag Archive for: flexible dieting
A few years ago, I started noticing a trend with people who would come to me for help with their diets. When asked what their biggest struggle with nutrition was, an alarming majority would confess that they usually had no problem being strict with their eating during the week, but all hell would break loose over the weekends. Usually, this would be due to having a busy routine from Monday to Friday with little time to unwind, and then being hit with a slew of social events and downtime on Saturday and Sunday.
In light of this, I’ve been switching more and more of my clients over to a different kind of nutrition structure.
Enter the Weekday Diet.
During the week, I provide more structure to individuals, with a set number of grams of proteins, carbs, and fats that they are to hit. The whole point is to take advantage of the very fact that they’re busy and not focused so much on food to really drive home that energy deficit, so their Calories are typically in the lower range.
However, on the weekends, I let them unwind a little – they can relax their intake and kick back. A crucial point here, however, is not to let the weekend spiral out of control. It’s still somewhat structured, but they do have a limit. I’ll use this time to either set them on the high end of their dieting Calories or bring them back up to maintenance Calories.
To do this, I simply set a caloric ceiling and a protein minimum. That’s it. It looks something like:
2,100 total Calories
120g protein minimum
Any combination of carbs and fats
In other words, they are to hit a 120g protein minimum but specific carb and fat numbers are entirely up to them so long as they hit 2,100 total Calories for the day. (Remember that 1g protein = 4 Calories, 1g carb = 4 Calories, and 1g fat = 9 Calories.) The protein and Calorie recommendations will vary from one person to the next, of course.
Do you see what I did here?
I took into account the individual’s nutrition struggles and made it work for them. I used to prescribe an isocaloric diet to everyone to came to me, meaning that they consumed the same number of calories every single day. But if their weekly average intake puts them in a deficit, why can’t we take a few hundred calories from the week and pad them onto the weekend?
Here’s a visual representation of what it could look like:
The red solid line represents the hypothetical daily caloric intake of someone on an extreme diet. I say hypothetical here, but the truth of the matter is I’ve seen very similar variations of this manifested in countless individuals (particularly women, but men as well). There are even some folks to take it even more extreme, with sub-1,000 Calories during the week and then binge eating with well over 5,000 Calories over the weekend.
The blue solid line is the hypothetical daily Calorie intake of someone on the Weekday Diet. Notice how the Calories during the week are higher than that of the extreme diet, and on the weekends, the Calories are lower that of the extreme diet (by a good bit).
Why is this important? Because as you can see from the dotted lines that represent the weekly average Calories, the Weekday Diet ends up consuming far fewer Calories.
Alternatively, if you’re someone who likes eating the same way over the weekend as you do during the week (such as myself), you might do well with a more moderate approach.
Again, the red solid line represents the Caloric intake on an extreme diet. The yellow solid line represents the moderate diet. Since the daily Calories are the same, the weekly average is going to be at that same number (hence why you can’t see the yellow dotted line – the yellow solid line is directly on top of it), and as this graph shows, the weekly average of the extreme diet is still several hundred Calories higher.
The point is that you want to structure your Calories (and carbs and fats) throughout the week such that you can feel good and keep dietary adherence high. That’s going to look different for everyone.
Here are some important reminders about dieting:
The more restrictive you are with your diet, the more likely you are to engage in binge eating and have higher bodyweight. This has been shown time and time and time and time and time again. This sounds completely counterintuitive to people at first, but what you have to take into consideration is that no matter what kind of diet you’re on, you need to actually be able to adhere to it.
Speaking of, dietary adherence is the most important determinant of weight loss success. I love this study in particular because it so eloquently demonstrates that there’s no magic formula out there that’s going to yield lasting results except consistency, consistency, consistency.
The typical dieting mentality – that of deprivation and suffering – is enough to trigger severe incidences of overeating. The colloquial term for this is Last Chance Syndrome, as in, “This is the last chance I get to eat this [forbidden food] until next week, so I’d better eat as much as of it as I can!” Urbszat, Herman, and Polivy found this in their 2002 study in which restrained eaters (those who had been told to diet for several weeks) consumed significantly more of a ‘forbidden food’ during a taste test than unrestrained eating (non-dieters). (Sidenote: Herman and Polivy are two researchers who have been very involved in the research on dieting, so familiarize yourself with those names.)
“Just try harder” or “be more strict” is rarely ever the answer when it comes to achieving diet success. Wendy Wood stands out in the field of habits, and this study of hers in particular shows that healthy dietary habits (rather than white-knuckling behaviors) are key in meeting self-regulatory goals. In other words, it’s not that you need more self-control per se, but better dietary habits overall.
A weekend of irresponsible eating can absolutely erase a whole week’s worth of hard work. I’m sure you or someone you know has been through this before. It’s a slippery slope to an endlessly frustrating cycle of restrict, binge, restrict binge. What’s worse, you don’t make any forward progress – and in fact, you may even find yourself regressing. This is why it’s so crucial to keep everything in check.
The Weekday Diet came about because it really only feels like you’re dieting during the week, when in actuality you’re still making successful fat loss progress because your weekly average puts you in a deficit. The whole premise of this method is that you push a little harder during the week so you can relax a bit more on the weekend. Contrast this with going all out and then crashing and burning.
Obviously, the two higher Calorie days can fall on any two days throughout the week. I recommend that you choose the days when you know you’re going to be the most social or when you know you could really use that mental break. That might be Wednesday and Saturday, or Friday and Saturday… it’s entirely up to you. (And to take it even further, yes, you could make your Weekday Diet four days long and give yourself a three-day weekend with higher Calories. That would either mean, however, that your weekday Calories would have to be a smidge lower than what they would otherwise be so that your weekly average works out to keep you in a deficit, or that you’ll see slower fat loss progress. Your choice!)
I’ve yet to see another coach implement this specific strategy with the sole purpose of providing psychological relief and thereby increasing enjoyment of the program and overall dietary adherence – hence this post.
This is about making your nutrition work for your life and not the other way around.
If you’re a coach who has online clients, I encourage you to try out this method with some of your clients for whom you think this might be a good fit for. If you’re a fitness buff yourself, perhaps you’ll want to try it out on yourself. This has worked beautifully with many of my clients and I suspect I’ll be converting more and more of them over in the months and years to come.
Alhassan, S., Kim, S., Bersamin, A., King, A. C., & Gardner, C. D. (2008). Dietary adherence and weight loss success among overweight women: results from the A TO Z weight loss study. International Journal of Obesity, 32(6), 985-991.
Gallant, A. R., Tremblay, A., Pérusse, L., Bouchard, C., Després, J. P., & Drapeau, V. (2010). The Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire and BMI in adolescents: results from the Quebec family study. British Journal of Nutrition, 104(07), 1074-1079.
Lin, P. Y., Wood, W., & Monterosso, J. (2015). Healthy eating habits protect against temptations. Appetite, 30, 1e9.
Smith, C. F., Williamson, D. A., Bray, G. A., & Ryan, D. H. (1999). Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 32(3), 295-305.
Stewart, T. M., Williamson, D. A., & White, M. A. (2002). Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 38(1), 39-44.
Timko, C. A., & Perone, J. (2005). Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior in a college population. Eating Behaviors, 6(2), 119-125.
Urbszat, D., Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (2002). Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet: Effects of anticipated deprivation on food intake in restrained and unrestrained eaters. Journal of abnormal psychology, 111(2), 396.
Westenhoefer, J., Stunkard, A. J., & Pudel, V. (1999). Validation of the flexible and rigid control dimensions of dietary restraint. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26(1), 53-64.
Hi guys, this is the first Physique Science Radio episode that’s been transcribed for those of you who would prefer to read, rather than listen to, the podcast. Cohost Layne Norton and I sat down with Steve Cook, Courtney King, and Bret Contreras to discuss all things flexible dieting. I have to be honest – this was my favorite episode yet! It’s a topic that’s directly related to my research interest, and it was really encouraging to discuss how flexible dieting has really taken off in the fitness industry.
For your convenience, I’ve added in hyperlinks below to relevant studies/articles mentioned, plus additional commentary where needed. You can also find the video version of this episode at the end of this post.
LAYNE: Hey guys, welcome to the latest episode of Physique Science! I’m here with my co-host Sohee Lee. We also have a few special guests. Bret Contreras, Steve Cook, and Miss Bikini Olympia, Courtney King. I came out to Arizona because I am prepping Steve and helping Courtney. I wanted to get a chance to talk to them because they kind of shook the mold in terms of big names in the fitness industry who do flexible dieting. For a long time there, it was very taboo for anybody to admit that they ate anything outside of the “bro foods”. I wanted to get your guys’s opinion and have a round table on this. One, what drew you to flexible dieting? And two, why do you think it was shunned for so long in the fitness industry?
COURTNEY: See for me, I’m someone who is fairly new into flexible dieting, I am not as good at eyeballing stuff as Steve, but Steve is very very good and he can look at something and think, “Oh, this will fit”. I am not that experienced, I guess. I still do take that approach where I am not so restricted and crazy and, “It has to be these meals, six times a day”.
STEVE: I’ll start. I think our favorite game, and this is when you know you’re prepping and you don’t have a lot of entertainment in your life, my favorite game is to guess the grams on the scale before I put it on the scale.
LAYNE: Steve and I, we did this earlier. We went to eat poke. “Okay, lets try this, whatever I get, you write down what you think it is, protein-, carb-, and fat-wise, and I’ll write it down”, and we were within 5 grams of each other.
STEVE: And I think I was probably overcompensating because when you’re the one dieting, you’ll overshoot. But yeah, the way I got started off with flexible dieting was with Layne. When I did my first NGA show with a bodybuilder in Idaho and he wrote out a meal plan for me. And it was my first introduction to bodybuilding and it was great. I was a volunteer firefighter and I looked forward every night to my protein bar that I got to eat. That was my highlight of my day. And this was around the time I started doing stuff with bodybuilding.com and Layne was really big on there and I started reading about it and Dr. Joe.
I actually prepped one show, Muscle and Fitness Male Model, with Dr. Joe and then he kinda led me into what Layne was doing and I think it was right about that time that Men’s Physique started taking off, so I did a lot of my Men’s Physique. I won my pro card with Layne. I had transitioned to the NPC and then the IFBB. Did one NPC show, pro card, and then I kinda took some time off but it was really working with Layne that was hard for me for a while. I had this mentality that I had to be perfect. It’s like a badge of honor to eat cold tilapia, sweet potato, and asparagus. Like, “you have to get lean this way.” And I realized that I came to a breaking point. I was either going to burn out in this industry and totally go crazy. I remember getting done, before I worked with Layne, like, “I don’t know how go back to eating normal. I can have a sandwich? That apple is bad!” It was so weird. I remember talking to people like “I can’t do this. I am not cut out.”
Really, it’s that negative voice in your head. It’s not that you’re not cut out for it. You’re not meant to do stuff like that! And so working with Layne, I think really helped me to do that. And even since then I’ve prepped eating “set meals” eating the same thing over and over again and it’s not a lifestyle for me. I’ve taken the last 2.5-3 years off and this prep, I’ll be stepping on stage in 2.5 weeks and it’s been really easy, like today. Also in part because Courtney prepares a lot of my meals. Courtney is amazing at making low calorie things taste good. My favorite thing she does is she puts stevia on everything. I call her the stevia fairy. Wherever she goes there is a stevia trail behind her.
COURTNEY: I sweeten everything.
STEVE: It’s this mustard with coconut aminos with some stevia and, to be honest, it is the best dressing on everything. I put a little on my hair.
COURTNEY: You know what is so funny, when I first got into this industry I was with a team that was super cookie cutter. Every girl had the same plan, we were doing two hours of cardio a day. No lifting really, just plyometrics and stuff. And on our meal plans sodium was forbidden. You couldn’t salt anything. And now I can’t believe that. You couldn’t use mustard or anything with salt. Isn’t that crazy?
STEVE: You probably get 3g, I probably get 5g.
LAYNE: I had a girl that was consuming 20,000mg of sodium a day.
STEVE: Wow, really?
LAYNE: That was probably a little bit excessive. But she also drank almost four gallons of water a day. So why do you guys think that now it’s getting more accepted? A lot of times I felt like I was the guy, and Bret probably feels this way with the hip thrust, that I was out there taking shots from people like, “this can’t work”. Now it’s become more accepted. Do you guys have any idea, why with this method of dieting, that people would look negatively upon it?
SOHEE: I think people take a lot of pride in taking the more hardcore approach. I think it was you (Layne) that wrote a post on Facebook that people try to be hardcore about being stricter with their diets. But you said you know what is really hardcore? People who stay lean year round, and that’s harder to do.
One of my clients a few years ago said that “extremes are so easy and moderation is so hard.” For someone to say, January 1st, I’m gonna go on this extreme diet and lose 50lbs. The people around them say “Oh wow, look at you go!” And they say “look at all these things I can’t eat.”
This is what I’m studying right now with my master’s in psychology so it’s interesting for me to talk about this but the more people restrain their diets you think it makes sense you’re stricter you’re gonna get results faster so why would I not go that route? The problem is it would be fine as long as you were actually able to adhere to it day in and day out, but what happens with most people is that there comes a point with me, and I’m sure with you guys too, that after a certain number of weeks or months that you reach a point of burnout where you’re like, “I can’t do this anymore,” and all of a sudden your adherence is dropping.
For me, I know when I was working with my first coach, I was on a meal plan and eventually, I was on 900-something calories and six days of cardio a week and I was a full-time college student. I was a freshman also and trying to juggle all that so by the end of the six-month period I had gotten to the point where I was following the meal plan for three days and then bingeing every third day. And then my weight started creeping up and I’d start thinking, “this isn’t working because I’m not being strict enough.” But that’s actually the opposite of what you should be doing. One of my clients just last week was telling me that “since working with you I’ve prepped for a show, and put on maybe to two three pounds in the four months since my show, I’m eating more than ever, I’m not spending my life in the gym, I’m doing no extra cardio, I feel good. My co-workers ask me what I’m doing to stay this way and I tell them ‘I don’t restrict foods, I have a little bit of junk food,’” They actually got mad at her, like,“well, if it’s that easy, if it’s that sustainable then I have no excuse to not do it.”
LAYNE: But it was easy, because you had to learn how to do that.
SOHEE: Getting to that point mentally is the hardest thing I feel like. That’s why it’s important to teach people the ways of flexible dieting from the get go rather than just eat clean first and then we’ll teach you how later, because that’s a really hard transition to make.
STEVE: We were talking about this and I think the biggest thing, not necessarily with competitors but with people out there that want to lose weight just in every day life, that they think that there’s some secret.
LAYNE: Yeah, like, “Steve Cook has this ripped eight pack because he’s not eating this one particular food.”
STEVE: Right, they would rather be given one particular meal plan than say, “Hey, I have to take it upon myself to read labels,” and they don’t realize that long term it would be so much easier. It’s gonna be a pain in the butt for a week, you have to look at everything and have to read or write everything down or get familiar with a meal tracking app and that’s always hard to do. But guess what, if you do it, if you get familiar with it, a month or two goes by and all of a sudden you’re able to eyeball things and it’s mindful eating at that point. That’s where you’re actually seeing that it’s really not too bad.
I know that I have this budget in my day and I know the food that I was eating, the Monster energy drink that is not sugar free, that has 42g of carbs. This is my brother talking – he’s been trying to lose weight this year. He had a pretzel and a monster. I’m like, “Do you realize for that same 42g carbs you could have had this, this, this, and this?” And you’re gonna feel so much better but if you love that Monster drink you have that set amount of macros, spend it on something else that you want. Have that pretzel maybe.
LAYNE: The budget analogy makes so much sense. That Monster energy drink – that’s an $80,000 sports car. It’s a depreciating asset.
SOHEE: Unless you really really love that sports car.
LAYNE: But if you make 90k a year or 100k a year should you buy a sports car 80k cash if you can’t pay your mortgage or utilities? So that’s what that Monster is. If drinking that or eating something that isn’t very filling, if that causes you to not be able to take care of the things that you need to take care of and hit your proteins carbs and fats and fiber, then you can’t do it. So flexible dieting done properly is self-regulating. And I bring up your (Sohee) example of the Snickers during contest prep.
COURTNEY: Oh you were the Snickers girl!
LAYNE: We had Dr. Mark Haub on our show, he did the Twinkie diet.
SOHEE: He’s a nutrition professor at Kansas State. He ate Twinkies for 90 days and lost a good amount of weight and his health markers actually improved – they all got better because he was still losing weight.
Dr. Mark Haubs on the Twinkie Diet
LAYNE: That’s the thing, the markers of health — your markers of inflammation, your blood cholesterol, blood lipids — all these things, it’s a weight loss effect. It’s not a healthy foods effect. There’s a health study by Surwit – and I always reference this because it’s a great example – they compared over 100g of sugar intake per day to 10g of sugar intake per day and they had them calorically restrict, same total calories. Both groups lost the same amount of weight, same amount of body fat, and all of them had improvements in their health markers. There was only a slight greater improvement in cholesterol in the group that had lower sugar. Both groups improved, and you can easily explain this by fiber intake because fiber binds cholesterol and causes you to excrete it. The group that had lower sugar had higher fiber, and that is how you can explain the difference. If you equated for fiber you wouldn’t see a difference. Even their markers of inflammation went down.
Mark Haub, when he would give a speech on what he did, he would go up and put up a profile of his nutrition, protein, carbs, fats, fiber. The vitamins and minerals and he would say, “Is this a healthy diet?” And people were like yeah, maybe you’re a little low in vitamin K but other than that you’re dead on. And then he would put up a picture of the foods he ate to get there. And he would say, “is this a healthy diet?” and people would say, “Oh, no no.” He said, “What if I told you these things were the same?”
SOHEE: That’s a really powerful teaching strategy.
LAYNE: Actually I was supposed to debate a guy at ISSN “flexible dieting vs clean eating” and of course, he backed out. In my opening statement for this was going to be, and it was very persuasive. I went to his Instagram and I went to his cheat meal, one day a week. I calculated up the calories he had from junk food. It was about 7,000 calories. And then I went back to calculate how much junk food I ate flexible dieting and it was about 4,000 calories. And I was eating less junk food than the so-called “clean eater”.
COURTNEY: Layne, that was what we talked about too, in our previous video. I thought it was super good because I’d go hard Monday through Friday. And Saturday night rolls around and it’s like, “alright, have a little something or a cheat meal” and then you kind of break it.
STEVE: You reward yourself.
COURTNEY: And then it’s like you just go off the bandwagon. And then all those calories I just consumed in the last 24 hours Saturday night into Sunday, it just kind of puts you in a yo-yo effect.
LAYNE: One of the more brilliant memes I’ve put online was “Binge on chocolate and no one bats an eye but make it fit your macros and everyone loses their mind!”
BRET: When you had the question, “Why is there backlash?” That’s one of the main reasons. I mean I’m guilty of this. You don’t want to take a picture of your clean meals. It’s not fun so when you splurge you want to take a picture of it and put it on your Instagram and hash tagging #IIFYM.
Think if you’re a hardcore bodybuilder and you’ve always done it this way. First of all, we have to get in the minds of how much BS do we see every day, on Facebook or things that are sponsored. Your initial response is, “this is so stupid.” We are trained to kind of roll our eyes at everything that comes by. Then you start hearing about IIFYM and it wasn’t the bodybuilders doing it, it was some skinny kid on the message board. I can see why they’d initially be skeptical.
STEVE: They want to show how much junk food they can actually eat on it.
COURTNEY: That’s just abusing it.
SOHEE: That’s not what it’s supposed to be.
COURTNEY: When people think IIFYM, they think it’s people that only eat donuts and Poptarts. That’s not essentially the case. You can still track and still eat your “clean bro food” or whatever.
BRET: Look at Ronnie Coleman DVD’s from back in the day. He was flexible dieting! He didn’t call it that. He’d have steak and fries at Outback 6 weeks out.
Layne: Exactly. What was funny was that everyone freaked out about the Ketchup.
STEVE: I also think it’s interesting because, really, it comes down to — and this is more psychological — that “bad food” you love posting, it’s almost that excitement like you get from the same part of your brain. It becomes almost like this naughty thing that you feel like you’re doing something bad.
I told you when I was prepping years ago strict that I was working at Texas Roadhouse pounding ice cream in the back because it kind of gave me a rush. I got off on this, “I shouldn’t be doing this”. It’s almost like I was trying to cover up a porn addiction.
But what I’m getting at is that food can become so taboo like you shouldn’t eat that and we tell ourselves that and all of a sudden we get weird relationships with it where it’s totally unhealthy. I think that’s where the normal person just can’t wrap their head around it. Society just says it’s so taboo.
LAYNE: Let’s just say you’ve been doing it [clean eating] for a long time, you’ve had to suffer, you’ve only eaten certain foods. And you’ve seen someone who can get in shape doing this kind of thing –you’re not going to feel happy for them. You’re going to feel like, “I did this for a reason, this has to be the way it works.” So if you’ve only eaten broccoli and asparagus and brown rice and chicken to get in shape and you see people doing different.
The science is there to show that there is no difference. If you want to eat clean, that’s fine, but flexible dieting is just as good. And then they’ll say, “Well show me and IFBB pro who has done it and won a show?” And you know what it is – it just doesn’t look cool. It’s like wearing a hoodie when you’re doing cardio. There’s no extra fat-burning effect to that. It just looks kinda cool. So some of them do it, but they just don’t talk about it.
BRET: But they have a cheat meal and it’s like if you were to split it out across the week, first of all. Second of all, some of them did it, like Ronnie Coleman. Third of all, a lot of them are really dumb. They don’t think to try it.
STEVE: If you broke down clean vs. unclean foods in a flexible dieter, what percent of your diet would be deemed unclean? Maybe 30?
STEVE: You have that 80/20 rule, and again looking at someone that is not a flexible dieter, they’re eating more junk food than you! So really you’re the clean eater! Whoa!
LAYNE: So now we go back and we have tens of thousands of examples of natural guys who do flexible dieting and they get shredded. Are you gonna tell me there’s an IFBB pro that gets more shredded than Alberto Nunez? Good luck! So then they say, “There’s no IFBB pro that’s doing that.”
Okay so you’re telling me that steroids make it harder to get leaner? Okay… so you can get shredded. Can they not building as much muscle? So when you break down the argument, there really is no argument. It’s just an emotional thing where it’s, “I want to justify the suffering that I’ve had to go through,” and it looks cool to suffer.
When I started flexible dieting, I didn’t do it because I wanted to eat Poptarts and stuff. I wanted to win! I am an athlete, and I want to win, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to win. If I thought eating clean was best to win, I would do that.
The reason I started this was because I found myself blowing up in the off season and getting so far out of contest shape that I would lose a lot of lean body mass trying to get back down to contest shape as a natural. Every single case study we have of natural bodybuilders shows they lose at least 5lbs of lean body mass dieting down for a contest. Every single case study. Contest prep on a natural bodybuilder crushes your lean body mass. Regardless if you do it right, you’re going to lose lean body mass. And the harder you have to diet, the more likely you are to lose lean body mass. So I thought that if I could stay closer to contest weight and I’m not getting so far outside of that, then maybe I can maintain more of my size going in. And what I found was that introducing some more flexibility rather than doing a cheat meal was good. I’d try to figure out the macros on a piece of pizza.
SOHEE: You kind of thought of this on your own.
LAYNE: Yeah. And then I found the science afterwards.
COURTNEY: People ask me when my last cheat meal was and I haven’t had a cheat meal in a long time.
LAYNE: I haven’t had a cheat meal in eight years because I’m always eating mindfully. Even if I’m not weighing it out to the gram, I’m looking at it like, “it probably has this, this, and this”.
BRET: I’m 40 years old. I remember reading all the bodybuilding magazines when I was 16 years old and thinking, “Why do they always eat oats and brown rice and whole wheat stuff?” And, “What if you wanted a glass of orange juice? Couldn’t you substitute that?” And, “What if you wanted a yogurt? Where does yogurt fit in?” And, “What if you like milk? Couldn’t you have a little less meat or a little less rice and have some milk?”
I remember thinking about flexible dieting when I was 16 that none of it made sense but none of the bodybuilders did it that way. I feel bad because I said that most of them were stupid and it’s not that. It’s that they don’t experiment enough. If they did, they might say, “I’m gonna experiment during the off season,” but substitute things and they wouldn’t have a problem if they substitute turkey for fish.
LAYNE: Joe talked about this on our podcast. Joe had a contest prep guy that had him eating green beans and he said, “I don’t like green beans, can I eat peas?” and the guys said no but couldn’t give an answer. I think the science guys in the industry are drawn towards flexible dieting. You’d be hard pressed to find a guy with a background in science who advocates for clean eating over flexible dieting. I don’t know of any to be honest. Maybe there’s a couple. A scientific person, the actual nature is to be inquisitive and not just accept what somebody tells you. I’m very skeptical just by nature. That was how Joe came to it, I came to it. And then on the message boards people would say, “Is an apple okay?” And I’d say, “Yeah it’s fine, if it fits your macros.” And I don’t want to say that I came up with it. I think it was Eric Koenreich that came up with “IIFYM”.
STEVE: One thing I’ve often thought about is, does it have to be a 24 hour thing? Can you spread it out over the week? Maybe one day do a day that is all veggies? And another day do a super super high day? There’s some people that I know that are like, “I don’t want only one cookie, I want five cookies.” It’s their personality type. There are people that can have a bite of chocolate and put it away. When you’re carb cycling can you do something like that?
LAYNE: Like a weekly balance?
BRET: I think so. The leanest I ever got was 224lbs and DEXA said I was 16% body fat. I looked great for me. As soon as I got leaner, I was going to make a product called Putting the Flex in Flexible Dieting. We are not flexible enough.
First of all, one day a week we could do an If It Fits Your Calories day, not If It Fits Your Macros day. You could set minimums for proteins and fats. As I got leaner, one day a week, I felt like it helped with adherence. I can eat a lot of calories, about 6,000, but 3,800 was my lowest. Could I get to 6% body fat like that? No. Even with protein if you get 1.6 grams one day and 2.2 the next and then carbs and fats are interchangeable. If you’re the type that that affects your training maybe not, but I found that it didn’t affect my training.
LAYNE: So we don’t really have any data about carb cycling. I think you’re looking at a hierarchy. Yes, it’s probably weekly calories that are the most important and then below that is weekly macros, and then below that is your daily calories, and then below that is your daily macros. At the absolute lowest rung is meal timing and these sorts of things.
What I tell people is that I prefer that they get closer to their macros because there is something to be said for consistency in terms of what you’re feeding your body. If you are used to a certain amount of carbohydrate, if one day you flip it, your body is used to metabolizing carbohydrates and not used to metabolizing that much fat. If you flip it and you’re doing high fat, low carb, there is a lag time for your body to get adjusted to that.
I sometimes have clients who tell me that they’re going on a two day vacation and eating this and that and so I’ll cut 300 calories off of their daily intake to give them more flexibility when they go out there. If you know you’re going to be traveling, the meals that you can control, go low carb and low fat. So the meals that you have less control over, you have more flexibility to fit it in. I really try to have lower fat, lower carb breakfast, if I’m traveling. If you have a pretty high fat, high carb breakfast, now you’ve roped yourself into what you have available to you later in the day.
STEVE: And speaking to that, your self control is a muscle. The more you use it, the weaker you get. You start out in the beginning of the day and we’re going to be on our diet, and we’re going to hit our macros to a T, and what happens at 10 o’clock when you’ve had to make a million other choices in the day. At the end of the day, you don’t have more strength to give that willpower.
BRET: It’s called ego depletion. There was a meta-analysis that came out.
SOHEE: It’s my first year of my masters thesis right now and I’m studying the psychology of eating behavior. The first 10 weeks of my semester I was talking with my advisor and trying to do a study on ego-depletion which is the idea that self control is limited and he was iffy about it. Not long ago, the meta-analysis came out [Correction: It was a pre-registered replication report, which you can read about here] where they had 47 different labs around the world replicate the same exact self control protocol and they found that the effect size was not as big as they initially thought so now they are trying to say that maybe ego-depletion is not an actual phenomenon.
There’s actually a study by Carol Dweck at Stanford who showed that whether or not you are limited in self control depends on your belief that you are limited in self control. If you are taught, “hey, you have self control and it’s unlimited,” and then you guys would perform better on some cognitive task and then I’d say to another group ,“self control is limited. The more you use it, the less you have,” and then that group would go in that direction. So there is some conflicting evidence and I don’t really know what to think right now, but there’s a lot of evidence for it and there’s some against it.
LAYNE: Do you remember what Kori Propst said on our show?
SOHEE: Self control is fatiguing!
BRET: Is flexible dieting bad for decision fatigue?
SOHEE: There’s a balance!
LAYNE: Some people will trade one disorder for another. “I have 2g of carbs left and 1g of fat left, what can I fit in?” and you don’t need to. You’re fine [fret about it]. If you’re within 5-10g of your macros, you’re fine.
SOHEE: I read a blog post 14 months ago called “No One Gives a Shit About Your Macros”. If that’s what you’re talking about all the time, it’s a form of orthorexia. There’s a big misconception that being lean or adhering to a diet is about self control. That’s not true. There’s so much research that shows that it’s people who rely on their habits more than self control are healthier year round. They have lower BMI and healthier lifestyles overall. It’s not that you need more self control; you actually need to build better habits. They are two sides of the same coin. With habits, you don’t rely on self control. There’s no cognitive effort involved.
LAYNE: People will ask me “Doesn’t it bother you to track like that?” No.
SOHEE: Layne, when you were visiting last fall – I like to pay attention to peoples eating behaviors and I noticed this with Spencer Nadolsky — the way that you eat, you go for the low calorie, you go for the Splenda, egg whites over whole eggs, spray butter over natural butter. These things add up throughout the day. I’m looking at it knowing that it’s your default. But these are your habits; it takes no extra effort for you. For someone else to replicate the same behaviors it might be a lot more difficult because they are not there yet, but for you that’s your automatic and that’s why you can stay lean year round. It makes a lot of sense.
LAYNE: It doesn’t cause me extra stress. It’s just something that I’m so used to doing that it’s become a habit. If I go up a level and I’m prepping for a contest because to get that lean, it does take another level of commitment and precision. That will be fatiguing for me. I will get to a certain point where I would just love to take a bite of a protein bar and not track it. That sort of thing.
SOHEE: Detail matters for you guys and that’s really extreme, but that’s not what you do year round. Short periods of time, it’s fine.
STEVE: This is one of the hardest things for competitors is going from stressed because you have kicked it up a notch to back to mindful eating. That reverse diet is so important.
LAYNE: Most people diet for something. The transition period is very crucial. I see people put a few pounds on and the negative place it puts them in. They go into fuck-it mode. And then all of a sudden, they’re back on a diet again.
I binged after every show except for my last series of shows. I dieted for 35 weeks for those shows. I didn’t count macros when I was done because I didn’t want to. I just said, “You know what? I’m going to eat until I feel physically full, and I am not going to eat past that”. Physically full and mentally full are two different things.
SOHEE: Binge eaters are familiar with that.
STEVE: It’s a weird feeling to feel so full but still want more food.
LAYNE: That was my goal going into it. I’m going to have a few bites backstage. It was a guest posing, had a few things backstage, went to a restaurant and did deep dish Chicago style pizza from Giordano’s. I had two slices of that, a Corona, and I felt physically full. I still felt the compulsion to eat but I felt physically full so I said, okay, I’m done. Got back to the hotel, and some beef jerky and then I went to bed. I gained a pound. But I felt pretty good and I hit my goal of practicing cognitive restraint. The rest of that reverse went so well because I was in a good mental place.
STEVE: Because you were realistic.
LAYNE: You have to have some form of cognitive restraint. What we usually see is a prayer to the heavens and then they act shocked when they gained 5lbs. Of course it happened! Your metabolism is the lowest it’s ever going to be and you ate whatever you wanted. If there is a mental checklist in your head and you are okay with gaining body fat, then go ahead. But you have to have that inner conversation with yourself. If you want to stay shredded, it’s not going to happen eating whatever you want.
SOHEE: It’s so gratifying seeing more and more competitors moving in that direction. When I first competed, I was bingeing on almond butter before I even went out for finals, and within two weeks, I had gained back about 15lbs that I had lost. I realized over time that it doesn’t have to be that way.
When Paul promoted his first OCB show in Tampa, that was my comeback show where I did a 20 week prep and I didn’t want to tell anyone about it because I didn’t want to pressure myself. That was the first time that I took my time getting the body fat off. I also had a very clear understanding that once I competed, that was not the end goal. That was just a pit stop and I had so much more ahead of me. My first thought was just do the show and worry about the aftermath after the show. Now I had a plan in place, I want to get this weight off and I want to keep it off.
Now it’s been over two years post-show and I stay within 5lbs of stage weight. I stay lean year round. It’s not that hard. I’ve made this my norm.
STEVE: Did you have an immediate goal when you stepped off stage? I have an immediate goal that’s not look-related. I want to do a sprint triathlon a couple of months after my show. I need goals. I don’t want to always be about looks. That gets old. I think it’s important for the competitors out there to have something that is not physically related in terms of how you look. Maybe you have a goal to deadlift 500lbs.
SOHEE: Even if it’s not fitness related anymore, your priorities are allowed to shift. You don’t always need to make lifting and bikini competitions your first priority.
STEVE: The more focused you are on it, the more hypersensitive you are about it.
SOHEE: And sometimes you can’t enjoy it anymore.
COURTNEY: Yeah, because it becomes exhausting.
STEVE: They should put a pamphlet outside every auditorium. “Here’s your trophy, and here’s a pamphlet on reverse dieting.”
LAYNE: I have a small group of women that we are teaching flexible dieting to, and they’re using Avatar Nutrition. We have a private Facebook group for them. We want to see if there are any mental health improvements. They are having a difficult time jumping into macros. They keep saying, “I want a meal plan.” Some people do need those training wheels to start. It’s a skill. It’s budgeting. If you want to get wealthy without budgeting, you can, but you’re going to need to make a lot more money. If you budget, you can get there faster. If I teach you the skill of tracking, it’s going to take a few weeks and you’re going to mess up, but once you’ve gotten that skill down.
Sohee said something brilliant a few years ago that I quote to this day, “If you can’t see yourself doing this diet in 3 months, 6 months, or 12 months, then you need to rethink your plan because it’s going to fail.” And it fits with exactly what the data says.
BRET: I can tell you as a trainer who used to give meal plans — it [the meal plan] was so strict, and they’d get shredded. And they’d quit training with me and then they’d blow up. I gave them the worst system. I did not teach them, and I feel bad about that.
LAYNE: The most I ever learned about my nutrition was tracking my intake. I’ve done a PhD in nutritional science, and the most I’ve ever learned was having to go to the store. I had a complete book of food counts.
STEVE: My first competition I had that too. I had a list in the back of my training journal of all the foods and their calorie counts.
LAYNE: I had to do all the math. I learned so much. I didn’t know what a high protein food was. I didn’t know what a low carb, high fat food was. I’m a data-driven guy. If there is a system out there that works better, I’m all for it. But right now, I feel like this is the best system we have. Hopefully, we can give people better resources so we can give them those training wheels to get them to a better spot.
With Avatar one of the things that has helped was the Facebook Group we have with several thousand members. The support between the people is great. We have the flexible dieting queen, Kate Robertson, The Macro Experiment. She is the best at macro-friendly recipes. There are so many options out there now.
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BRET: A lot of the criticisms against flexible dieting are if people like to eat “clean”, whatever that is. If you compete, and some foods tend to make you bloat, you can eat them in small amounts at certain times of the year and not during prep. The criticisms just don’t hold up.
STEVE: I don’t really mind. I had Chick-fil-A, I had poke, and I had some popcorn. It’s not my normal foods, it’s much better than me taking a bite of something on a “clean eating” program and then cheat. That is the point. Invest some time into learning about macros, and then take two weeks, don’t even adjust your diet, just start tracking. Just become aware.
SOHEE: There was a survey in the early 2000’s where they surveyed a bunch of Americans and it came out to something like 40-80% of Americans didn’t understand what a calorie was. They don’t understand their own energy needs. That is a shockingly high proportion of people who have no clue. They have no idea how to interpret it or put it into any kind of context. If you asked someone how many calories they need to maintain their bodyweight, they have no clue. Even the most basic instruction of, “Here’s around what you might need for your day”.
LAYNE: Why don’t we teach people budgeting, taxes, nutrition and things like this in school? This is information they actually need. There was a survey done in 2007. “Is a calorie a calorie” and 70% of Americans believe what you ate was more important than the amount of calories you consumed. We had to argue for and against. They made a lot of emphasis about the thermic effect of food. Protein has a higher thermic effect. You still have to account for those calories. If you have a food that tends to be better for body composition, it’s not because it’s magic, it’s because it has higher protein or higher fiber. You just don’t see differences in studies. If you equalize for calories most of the differences go away. If you equalize for protein and fiber, virtually all of the differences go away. If you equalize for fiber, you have zero differences.
BRET: That’s what I was going to ask you. I think if you do track and you’re fit and healthy, you could get all of your carbs from sugars, and your physique and health wouldn’t change at all.
STEVE: It may change how you feel.
BRET: Yes, but if I eat fruit it doesn’t make me feel bad.
LAYNE: People say that sugar is associated with obesity. Sugar consumption over the last 10 years has gone down and obesity has continued to rise linearly. People have largely done what the government tells them to do in terms of food. In the 70’s, they said to stop eating fat, and fat intake went down. In the early 2000’s, they said stop eating sugar, and we went down in sugar intake and obesity continued to go up.
The association with sugar is because people tend to overconsume it because it’s not satiating. If you drink a Coke, it’s 50g of carbs, take 50g of carbs out of what you eat.
People who eat fruit tend to be leaner and healthier. Why is that? Because fruit has fiber in it. People don’t tend to overeat on fruit. It’s a calorie, protein, and fiber issue. I think you can take anything to an extreme and make it ridiculous.
BRET: There is a study that showed that one groups carbs was all sugar and the other was all complex, the calories were equal, and the all sugar group lost more weight.
LAYNE: It’s funny when you show that to someone like Gary Taubes or someone who is a low sugar, low carb zealot, their response is always an emotional, visceral, “I don’t believe that!”. We were at Epic [Fitness Summit], and Gary Taubes is giving a talk. Alan Aragon and him were debating and Alan was crushing Gary and quoting all these studies. Gary says, “I don’t believe that one”. Then he has the audacity to say that he’s funding studies that are going to prove that. So I raised my hand and said, “Let me get this straight. The studies that were funded for Alan you don’t believe, but the one that you’re going to fund is okay?” When the study came out it disproved his hypothesis, and he didn’t believe it!
BRET: Remember Alan asked if given enough research would he change his mind, and Gary said “No, would you?” That means you are not a scientist; you are a zealot.
LAYNE: For my fifth video log, I did one on intermittent fasting. I think it’s fine for fat loss, and maybe sub-optimal for muscle mass based on the data we have for protein distribution. He took that and went on a rant on Twitter about me. I think people like the about belonging to something.
BRET: When I met Brad Schoenfeld, I said “Fitness is like religion,” and a few years later he said I was so right.
LAYNE: Crossfit, Paleo, Ketogenic diets. I have anti-ketogenic diet people and pro-ketogenic diet people both mad at me! Don’t hate me, hate the data. I went into my PhD trying to find magic foods.
STEVE: The takeaway is a lot of the people who aren’t familiar or the every day dieter, it’s the easy route to cut things completely out of your diet. When you really invest in learning about your diet and how to count macros and how to eat mindfully, there aren’t such things as good foods and bad foods. It’s eating in moderation. When you learn to count macros, it changes your life.
SOHEE: What is really encouraging about flexible dieting is I don’t know a single person who has been a flexible dieter who said, “I liked clean eating better.”
LAYNE: In Laurin Conlin and Bill Campbell’s study, they polled them [the participants] after the study, and asked, “If you had a choice, what would you choose?” and every single person aside from one said they’d choose a flexible diet [versus a meal plan]. Even people who crushed it on their meal plan would choose a flexible diet.
SOHEE: If you can stick to a meal plan and adhere to it, that’s awesome. However, if your quality of life has gone to shit because of that, that’s not a win. You are not better off for it. You don’t want to just look at your adherence, you also want to look at how it’s affecting your day to day life and how you feel physically and mentally. Flexible dieting in that regard allows you to maintain high dietary adherence. It allows you to adhere and have a semblance of life.
Buchholz, A. C., & Schoeller, D. A. (2004). Is a calorie a calorie?. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 79(5), 899S-906S.
Hagger, M. S., Chatzisarantis, N. L., Alberts, H., Anggono, C. O., Batailler, C., Birt, A. R., … & Calvillo, D. P. (2016). A multilab preregistered replication of the ego-depletion effect. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(4), 546-573.
Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion—Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological science.
Krukowski, R. A., Harvey-Berino, J., Kolodinsky, J., Narsana, R. T., & DeSisto, T. P. (2006). Consumers may not use or understand calorie labeling in restaurants. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 106(6), 917-920.
Surwit, R. S., Feinglos, M. N., McCaskill, C. C., Clay, S. L., Babyak, M. A., Brownlow, B. S., … & Lin, P. H. (1997). Metabolic and behavioral effects of a high-sucrose diet during weight loss. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 65(4), 908-915.
Today’s guest post comes from Stephanie Dorworth, a doctor of physical therapy, pilates instructor, and internationally published fitness model. Together with her husband Zachary, they provide health & fitness tips and coaching on their website www.BeautifultotheCore.com.
In 2012, I attended a bodybuilding show and I was deeply inspired. The competitors opened my eyes to the fact that competing is a form of art. I left there with a newfound passion and goal in life: to compete in a bikini competition. In 2013, that goal was accomplished. During my prep, however, I struggled to find help and information about competing, so I set out on a journey to offer quality help to fellow competitors.
When it came to signing up for a show, curling my hair, putting on my makeup, getting dazzled with my jewelry, and posing, I was on point! However, when it came to my training, cardio, nutrition, and happiness, things were a little more of a disastrous, hot mess. I prepped my body completely wrong for my show. This was a huge mistake. Due to my ignorance, I was unsuccessful on stage, did not place well, and did not fully enjoy the experience.
Placing or not, it’s clear that Stephanie looked beautiful on stage.
You see, I was trying to do a contest prep on my own. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, I would blindly take in free advice that I had found online and adopted the old school method of prepping for a show. I read about girls who would eat plain chicken and asparagus, do over an hour of cardio each day, never have cheat meals – and they looked great! So I was naive and assumed that that was the way to do go about my own prep. My excitement to compete clouded my judgment on my education and what I knew was right. If only I knew then what I know now, I would have looked much better under those stage lights and had a far more pleasurable experience.
I am sharing my struggles with you today in the hopes that I can prevent you from walking down the wrong path. As I share my story of then vs. now, if you feel you can relate to the old Stephanie and you believe that you are heading down the same road as I was, then please: detour, honey!
Way back when, my workouts were focused on isolation exercises. I did not pay attention to timing and I took little rest breaks between sets. I thought a five-minute bike ride was sufficient warm-up, even for upper body days. I never asked for help, I never asked for a spotter, and I therefore was not improving with my lifting techniques. I was working out with bad form and using momentum to lift and cheat my reps, which is detrimental to your joints, not to mention unproductive and unsafe.
My training has shifted from isolated exercises to heavy, compound exercises like bench press, squats, and deadlifts (though I still incorporate isolated movements toward the end of a workout). I time my rest breaks and focus on the timing of each exercise by putting a longer emphasis on the eccentric over the concentric contraction.
A video posted by STEPHANIE, DPT (@beautifultothecore) on
My body has completely transformed as I have gained muscle and trained more effectively and safer. One way to train safer to avoid joint pain is to include active warm-ups, pre-workout dynamic stretching, and post-workout static stretching and foam rolling.
Research shows that static stretching pre-workout may negatively impact performance (1), so instead practice active warm-ups, which are safer and better for performance outcomes (2). Your training should also involve techniques conducive to muscle hypertrophy, such as time under tension (TUT), daily undulating periodization (DUP), and blood flow restriction training (BFR). BFR is shown to be beneficial for increasing strength if used 2-3x/week at less than 50% of your 1RM (3-4).
Many moons ago, I would spend 20-60+ minutes daily performing steady state cardio with very little variation in speed or intensity. If I missed a session, I would feel anxious and incomplete. Due to my overexercising, however, I experienced frequent joint pain like knee pain, sacroiliac joint point, and shin splints. On top of that, my metabolism took a serious beating.
Excessive steady state cardio promotes muscle breakdown. When it comes to cardio, more is not better; smarter is better. Intensity, not duration, is what elicits results, which is why high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is what I implement now if I desire to lean out for a vacation or photo shoot. Research shows it is a better option for fat loss than jogging because your metabolic rate stays increased for up to 48 hours after your session! HIIT can be performed 1-3x/week for <20 minutes (6). My favorites are bike sprints or deadmills on the treadmill.
Back in the day, I ate dangerously low calories for my build and activity level, including low carbohydrates. My meals consisted mostly of plain chicken, asparagus, sweet potatoes, almonds, and protein shakes. I therefore had cravings all the time and felt unsatisfied. If I ate a little piece of chocolate, I felt immensely guilty. I did not enjoy my diet and experienced a good deal of anxiety surrounding food.
I am currently reverse dieting and working on increasing my calories above 1,800 per day with a healthy balance of proteins, carbs, and fats. I practice flexible eating, meaning I eat wholesome, nutritious foods 80% of the time and treats 20% of the time. As a result, my cravings are satisfied and I no longer feel the need for “cheat meals”. Very low calories promotes metabolic damage. It may also lead to symptoms like fatigue, hormonal disturbance, poor concentration, and irritability.
Your goal should be to eat as many calories as possible while staying on track to meet your goals. So if it is your off-season, reverse dieting may be an appropriate approach. An excellent source to learn about metabolic damage is Dr. Layne Norton’s videos as well as the e-book Reverse Dieting.
In the old days, I was doing excessive cardio, which made up the majority of my workouts. I did not leave the gym unless I did cardio on a machine or went on a run. Looking back, I don’t know how I made it through those runs while eating such low calories and carbohydrates. I was completely drained! I had low self-esteem and poor confidence and I was extremely unhappy.
When my bikini competition rolled around, then, I was still unsatisfied and even more miserable than before despite having lost body fat. I did not enjoy the contest prep process because I was constantly irritable and tired.
Today, I am much happier and more confident in my body. Who wants to be moody for the rest of their life when there’s a better way to get in shape?
Choose happiness and love your body.
While many women think that attaining a lean physique will bring happiness, it’s unrealistic to stay that stage lean year-round. It’s important, then, to find peace with your off-season body. This is another reason why having other goals, such as shooting for a double bodyweight deadlift, can help you stay motivated and in an optimistic frame of mind. For example, when I hit a new PR at squats, I celebrate! Always challenge yourself and be better each and every day.
A much happier and healthier Stephanie!
Are You Ready for Contest Prep?
As coaches, my husband Zachary and I are often asked when you know you’re ready to begin contest prep. First and foremost, you should make sure you fall into the “now” category. Then go through our checklist and ensure you meet the criteria below:
You are experienced in lifting heavy with an emphasis on compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, bench press).
You are keeping cardio to a minimum.
You are experienced with tracking macronutrients – meaning that you are capable of consuming foods in the right quantities such that you can meet a prescribed set of macronutrient numbers (grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats) everyday.
You have spent a reasonable amount of time out of a caloric deficit.
Training and eating right during off-season will not only enrich your health right now but they will also make future contest preps much easier and healthier.
Let’s go over an example of two women:
Anna is a young female who wants to take her try at a bikini competition. She comes to us for coaching and is currently 5’4″, 130lb, does not do cardio, and consumes 2,000 calories per day. After looking at her history. we would likely take her on as a client because she appears to have a great metabolism and plenty of room to adjust her macros. So over the course of a 12-week prep, we would be able to slowly adjust macros based on her progress. She would likely be able to drop body fat fairly easily without having to take her prep to the extreme.
Beth is a young female who also wants to compete and comes to us for coaching. She is currently at 5’5″, 130lb, runs 5+ miles a day, and consumes 1,400 calories per day. We would likely take her on as a client under the condition that we need to implement reverse dieting and wean her off of all the cardio first before we beginning a fat loss phase. If we were to begin a contest prep right away, we would have little room to adjust macros because they are already too low and unable to increase cardio because she already does plenty. We’d have no room to make tweaks to her program, in other words, and as a result, she’d likely obtain suboptimal results in the 12-week span and be disappointed. If she were to agree to set aside her short-term goal and do a reverse diet first, she would ensure better long-term success when it finally came time for contest prep.
Now you can see how important a healthy off-season training and nutrition program is. It is crucial to take charge and make smart choices. You only get one body – take care of it now and invest in your long-term health.
Take a look at some of our contest prep clients who did things the right way. You can, too!
I could not have achieved this goal without your help and guidance during the 12-week journey. I have to be honest, the journey was tough and there were days when I felt like I could not keep going, but I was dedicated and determined to finish it. It was also a very unexpected but delightful surprise that I placed 5th in 2 different bikini classes. There were so many beautiful girls competing and I made many new friends, so I plan to compete again next year. For everyone out there wanting to compete in a bikini competition or if you have just been thinking about it. Beautiful to the Core is your best online resource. Stephanie is amazing and very knowledgeable in every aspect of competing. I’m glad I had her with me each step of the way. I love you!!!! And Beautiful to the Core rocks!
Carrie R., Wake Forest, NC
Carrie on show day!
Working with Stephanie using the Beautiful To The Core bikini prep was a great experience. Stephanie was prompt, professional, super pleasant, and always supportive. Not only did her plan get me the body I had been striving to achieve, but Stephanie was there to make adjustments and help me through all the way up until show day.
Terra M., Belmont, NC
Terra shortly after giving birth
The contest prep process is stressful enough as it is. The information I provide in my latest e-book, Bikini Competition Prep Guide, has helped over a thousand competitor hopefuls to this day. In this product, I share tips on picking a league, choosing a show, typical costs of competing, building a competition suit, shopping for heels and jewelry, hair and makeup, posing tips, and lots more.
With this program, you also get access to our Facebook community group so you can interact with other ladies who are prepping for a bikini competition and learn from one another.
Again, you can pick up a copy of the e-book at this link.
Vetter, R. E. (2007). Effects of six warm-up protocols on sprint and jump performance. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Researhc, 21(3), 819-823.
Perrier, E. R. Pavol, M. J. Hoffman, M. A. (2011). The acute effects of a warm-up including static or dynamic stretching on countermovement jump height, reaction time, and flexibility. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(7), 1925-1931.
Loenneke, J. P. Wilson, J. M., Marin, P. J., Zourdos, M. C. & Bemben, M. G. (2012c). Low intensity blood flow restriction training: a meta-analysis, 112(5), 1849-59.
Takarada, Y. Takazawa, H. Sato, Y. Takebayashi, S. Tanaka, Y. Ishii, N. (2000). Effects of resistance exercise combined with moderate vascular occulsion on muscular function in humans, 88(6), 2097-2106.
Schoenfeld, B. Dawes, J. (2009). High-intensity interval training: applications for general fitness training. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 31(6), 44-46.
Herodek, K. Simonovic, C. Pavlovic, V. Stankovic, R. (2014). High intensity interval training. Activities in Physical Education and Sport, 4(2), 205-207.
We all have that one friend – the one who makes regular exercise and proper nutrition a priority in her life. She loves nothing more than to discuss the latest and greatest with what she’s doing in the gym and keep everyone updated on all the morsels of food she consumes on any given day.
At first, we may find it amusing – admirable, even. Look at Judy, so dedicated to her health! Look at Judy go, waking up an hour earlier in the morning so she can squeeze in her workout before the day begins – and then telling us about every single exercise she performed. Look at her spending extra time scouring the menu at our favorite restaurant to find the most macro-friendly meal. We lean in closer as she explains why she’s not eating the top bun of the turkey burger she’s ordered. We oooh and aaah as she goes on about portion sizes and how some days she’ll have four slices of Ezekiel bread instead of two depending on whether or not she worked out.
We’re intrigued. All that discipline! Much knowledge. If only we could all be a little more like her.
But after a while, it starts to wear on us. We can’t even put a glass of Riesling to our lips before she shrieks out But what are the macros in that wine and how do we log it? If she can’t find a restaurant menu online before heading out, she decides that she’d rather stay in and cook up her own meal at home – you know, for security reasons. She goes out of her way to audibly guess the macronutrient content of everything everyone’s eating whether we ask for it or not.
It’s exasperating, damnit. Judy, do you mind? We’re trying to enjoy ourselves here, not argue whether last night’s potstickers were cooked in three tablespoons of oil or four.
What are the macros of this amazing Korean meal? Not sure, but let’s not talk about that tonight.
Obviously, the title of this post is mostly tongue-in-cheek. Macronutrient consumption does absolutely matter – as does total calorie intake – particularly if you are actively working toward shedding bodyfat. I’m not denying that by any means. And yes, as a fat loss coach, it is technically my job to “give a shit” about your macros. Please hear me out.
I’m also not denying that there is a time and a place to be meticulously tracking macros and adhering to prescribed protein, carb, and fat numbers. (I even wrote an e-book all about it, for cryin’ out loud!) But it’s entirely possible to be dedicated to your nutrition program (or not!), attend social functions and mentally guestimate the macro content of what you eat (or not!), and not have to give the whole world an unsolicited play-by-play.
This much we’ve already established in the #eatliftthrive community:
Calories in vs. calories out determines whether bodyweight is gained or lost.
When it comes to nutrition, total calorie intake matters above all, followed next by macronutrient breakdown of said calories.
Consistent dietary adherence is paramount in achieving your physique goals. In other words, the best nutrition program in the world will do nothing for you if you are unable to stick to it over the long haul.
Here’s a great video by Eric Helms going over the nutrition pyramid:
Unless you’re deep in the throes of preparing for a bodybuilding contest and you’re within weeks of stepping on stage, or unless you’re a professional athlete whose livelihood is contingent upon making weight, it’s not worth fretting over one social function, or even one meal.
I know individuals who “brag” about routinely ditching their friends and missing out on amazing restaurant food because the idea of having to eyeball portion sizes sends them into a frenzy. And yes, it can get addicting, and maybe for now you’ll be able to sleep better at night knowing that you were able to control your macronutrient intake down to the very gram. Considering the long-term costs to this kind of behavior, however – particularly when repeated over and over – it’s worth asking yourself if this is truly making you happier or if you’re letting your obsession with macro tracking take over your life for the worse.
I’m not trying to be a prick by any means, though I can understand that I’m probably coming off as an insensitive jerk. I simply feel strongly about this matter because I used to be one of those individuals who thought and talked about food and calories and macronutrients nonstop, to the point where my social life all but dissipated and I was no fun to hang around anymore. And for what?
As it so happens, my friends and family didn’t love me for my bodyfat percentage. And they certainly didn’t love me any less if I didn’t nail my macros on any given day. In fact, they didn’t give a shit – and that’s putting it lightly. But I couldn’t see it back then because I was so hung up on this false idea that being more compliant with my diet, and thereby eventually getting leaner over time, would equate to happiness, more fame, and more friends. It’s highly ironic – and sad, really – how that pursuit completely backfired on me.
It was. not. worth it.
I wish I could go back and have a do over, but obviously that’s not possible. The next best thing I can do, then, is to help others learn from my mistakes and heartache and live better, happier, more fulfilling lives.
Eating gelato, [temporarily not lifting], and thriving in Lake Como, Italy this past August with my family. Life’s too short to miss out on authentic gelato!
Don’t misunderstand me: This post is not a cop-out for getting sloppy with your nutrition. If you’re committed to a goal, you obviously need to be consistently adherent to see results. But it doesn’t have to become an obsession, and one isolated, mindful, non-tracked meal is not going to derail you.
I’d say that one of the hardest parts about macro tracking is knowing when it’s worth the effort and sacrifice. Are you just going about your everyday life and trucking along the fat loss train? Then perhaps it’s worth it. Are you headed to your aunt’s annual holiday bash where she busts out her famous homemade apple pie and Uncle Jon whips together his world-renowned stuffing? Then probably not.
The point of a hobby is to add to your life, not take away from it. So if you’re not enjoying the journey – and worse, if you’re making those around you miserable – then what’s the point?
I can’t eat this; I don’t know the macros. What are the macros for this dish, do you think? Can you tell me the macros on that?
These above statements should be kept to a minimum.
So how, then, do you learn to feel less anxious not weighing everything you eat? How do you go to a restaurant, enjoy a handful of fries, and not worry about how many grams of carbohydrates and fats it contains and not let it consume you?
It’s a practice. You have to get your reps in. And if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.
(Sorry, I had to!)
On a more serious note, dealing with uncertainty with your food is actually more about your mindset than the food itself.
It’s not one extreme or the other, either. Your choices are not only to either be neurotic with your macronutrient intake or become a shameless glutton. How about we learn to navigate the middle ground most of the time?
Let’s say, on a scale of 1 to 10, that 1 is essentially eating yourself into a food coma each night and a 10 is being a basket case and spending an absurd amount of time trying to figure out your macros.
We don’t want to be at a 1, of course, and I think that a 7 or 8 ranking should be reserved for high level bodybuilders whose success is contingent upon strict nutrition adherence. But even then, it doesn’t have to take over your life.
Where does that leave the rest of us, then? How about those of us who maybe just want to drop a few pounds and live a happy life while doing so?
I’d say we should fall at a 5 or 6. I think it’s important to always have a pulse on at least approximately where your calories might be, and if you are actively trying to adhere to macronutrient numbers, then do so without that becoming the bane of your existence. You don’t have to talk about it all the time, and not everyone needs to know every single detail of what you choose to (or not to!) ingest.
I promise you won’t spontaneously combust if you allow yourself to enjoy a meal every now and then sans macro tracking.
Is your meal delicious? Are you eating just enough? Are you staying mindful? Then you’re good!
Quality of life, quality of life, quality of life.
A little over two months ago, I came up with the idea of eating a full-size Snickers bar everyday.
It started out as a joke at first. I was brainstorming a list of topics to write and/or produce a video log about, and I was thinking of ways that I could send a powerful message through my next bikini prep. What could I do through the next 10 weeks leading up to my national-level bodybuilding show to hammer home a point that I’ve been trying to communicate to the world? Naturally, I thought of flexible dieting. Despite its growing popularity in recent years, the concept is still wildly misunderstood and met with skepticism.
As a role model and educator in the health and fitness industry, I believe that it’s important to not only walk the walk but also constantly experiment and test different training and nutrition methods on myself. This, I’ve found, is the best way for me to learn, and in turn, become better equipped to then turn around and effect positive change in others.
The next thing I knew, I was driving to the grocery store and picking up my first six-pack of Snickers bars.
Shortly after purchasing my first batch of Snickers bars
At the beginning of my prep, my stats were as follows: 25 years old, 5’2″ in height, 110lbs bodyweight, 25.0-inch waist. My job was sedentary, and I lived a lightly active lifestyle. I had over 7.5 years of resistance training experience and was familiar with proper form with the main compound movements.
My junk food of choice had to meet three criteria for this experiment:
It had to be widely recognized by all as a treat with the general consensus that said treat had little nutritional value. I couldn’t choose an obscure brand of chocolate only available in select stores in specific countries, and I couldn’t opt for something like a protein bar that some might qualify as partially healthy.
It had to taste good to me. I knew that if it was something that I didn’t genuinely enjoy consuming, I would quickly get sick of it and jump ship on the experiment prematurely.
It had to be convenient and portable. With numerous work-related travels coming up, ice cream wouldn’t work. I needed to be able to chuck the treat into my purse and go on my merry way.
It didn’t take long for me to settle on Snickers.
It was important that I think and act like a scientist throughout the duration of this experiment, and this meant controlling for as many variables as possible. To that end, I was meticulous about tracking and adhering to a prescribed set of macronutrient numbers, exercising regularly, managing my sleep and stress levels, and consuming roughly equal quantities of water and sodium everyday.
As far as my exercise regimen, my trainer Bret Contreras wrote me a four-days-a-week strength training program with an emphasis on compound movements. I performed squats, deadlifts, bench presses, hip thrusts, and pull-ups through a multitude of rep ranges, and also added in assistance work such as chest-supported rows, lunges, and lateral raises. With each workout, I was to employ progressive overload, which is another way of saying doing more over time. That meant I always made it a point to either get in an extra rep within the prescribed rep range, increase weight, and/or use better form. (See related: What is Progressive Overload?)
Utilizing this approach rather than simply going through the motions in the gym ensured that I maintained as much muscle mass as possible throughout the fat loss process. In other words, I lifted heavy weights because what builds the muscle keeps it (Hunter et al., 2008).
At the end of every workout, I also sprinkled in 10 minutes of glute work, usually using a combination of bodyweight, minibands, and long bands. The purpose of this was to help shape the glutes and provide some conditioning work without running myself into the ground.
Here is an example of the kinds of glute circuits I would do:
No formal cardio was performed throughout the duration of this prep. I did not do traditional steady-state cardio, nor did I engage in high intensity intervals of any kind. Low-intensity leisure walking was performed two to three evenings per week.
In total, I exercised four days a week for approximately one hour each session and took three full rest days per week.
I used a flexible dieting macros-based approach for my nutrition. In other words, I adhered to a prescribed set of macronutrient numbers (specific grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats tailored to my unique needs) and, though I relied primarily on whole, nutrient-dense foods, I also made room to fit in a small portion of junk food here and there. (See related: This is What Flexible Dieting Actually Looks Like)
The daily Snickers bar, of course, was a constant. I made it a point to eat one every single day no matter what, usually paired with a protein source.
On days that I resistance trained, I consumed higher carbohydrates and lower fats; on rest days, I consumed lower carbohydrates and higher fats. There was no difference in total calories between my training days and rest days.
The only variable that changed throughout the 10 weeks was my total calorie intake, which was gradually reduced over time.
At week 0, my daily target calorie intake was 1560, with a 2,300-calorie refeed day strategically implemented every 10 days. I continued in this manner through week 4, after which point I dropped my calories to 1460 for week 5, 1350 for week 6, and 1280 for weeks 7 through 10 with a refeed day still tossed in once every 10 days.
The MyMacros+ iPhone app was used to track my daily macronutrient intake. A food scale was used to increase the accuracy of my nutrition logging.
Besides meeting my macros within +/-5g of each prescribed number everyday, I also did the following:
I planned out the next day’s meals the night before. The Snickers bar was always plugged into my meal plan first, and everything else was planned around it. I tweaked food choices and quantities until my total intake for the day lined up with my target numbers.
One of my staple meals during this prep: Greek yogurt, mixed berries, and a chopped up Snickers bar.
I aimed for a minimum of 30g protein for most meals to maximize muscle protein synthesis.
I honored my food cravings and shifted my nutrient timing and meal sizes to suit my lifestyle needs and maximize satiety. As prep wore on, I found myself unintentionally moving into an intermittent fasting style of eating, whereby I consumed my first meal at approximately 11am and my last meal at 7pm, totaling an eight-hour feeding window. I also found myself feeling more satisfied with three larger meals per day rather than four or more smaller meals.
Here is an example of how I was eating nine weeks out from my bikini show:
And how I was eating two weeks out:
Throughout the duration of this 10-week experiment, I lost a total of 5.2lbs off the scale and 2 inches off my waist, dropping from 110.8lbs to 105.6lbs and 25.0 inches to 23.0 inches, respectively.
On October 24, 2015, I stepped on stage in the bikini at OCB Nationals, a national-level drug-tested bodybuilding competition. I won my height class and thereby earned my IFPA pro card.
Winning my IFPA pro card with a Snickers a day!
I also got bloodwork done as soon as I was done with the show to see where my health markers were standing. The results are shown below.
As you can see from my starting progress picture shown above, I didn’t have much body fat to lose to begin with to be stage-ready. The point, however, was not to lose as much fat as possible, but rather, to show that it’s entirely possible to improve body composition while eating some junk food so long as overall nutrition is managed.
Throughout the contest prep, I was able to retain much of my strength in the gym. While my squat strength diminished the most, my deadlift, bench, and hip thrust strength dropped marginally, and my chin-up strength increased.
What’s interesting to note that, though I did lose an inch of size around my hips, I was able to attenuate further losses via the high volume glute training I performed multiple days per week. Had I not been proactive about maintaining as much glute size as possible, it’s likely that I would have lost far more size, as has been the case with previous contest preps.
I also came in at my all-time leanest body fat level. I was not able to get a DEXA scan done before or after the contest prep, but I would estimate that my body fat dropped from approximately 17% to 14%. (See related: Body Fat Pictures and Percentages by Leigh Peele)
I did not get bloodwork done at week 0, which would have been helpful in providing baseline numbers for comparison after eating 70 consecutive daily Snickers bars. However, as you can see from the images above, my lipid panel, insulin, and glucose are all currently within healthy ranges.
Dietary adherence throughout this experiment was above 95%, meaning that I consistently met my prescribed macronutrient numbers within 5g. Had I not controlled for my overall calorie intake, I could have easily not made any progress or even gained some bodyfat while eating my daily Snickers bar.
One note I’d like to make about this is that the last few weeks of my contest prep were excruciatingly difficult because each Snickers bar took up a good chunk of my calories per day. Clocking in at 4g protein, 33g carbohydrates, and 12g per bar, that totaled 250 calories that effectively ate up 20% of my allotted daily calories. I found myself feeling especially low-energy and drained in the final weeks leading up to my show, and I know that the diet would have been far easier had I been able to opt for another food that was less calorically-dense. Nevertheless, for the sake of this experiment, I pushed through. To view the full details of what and how much I ate every day, you can follow me on MyMacros+ under the username SoheeFit.
The objective of the Snickers Diet was not to encourage people to consume junk food on a regular basis, and by no means does anyone need to consume a Snickers bar (or any other specific junk food for that matter) everyday to lose fat. Rather, the purpose of this experiment was to drive home four points:
1. Junk food is not inherently fattening, and there is no such thing as a good or bad food. It is absolutely possible to lose fat while regularly incorporating treats such as candy bars, ice cream, and cookies into your diet. Sugar gets a bad rap because it scores extremely low on the satiety index and it’s also highly palatable, which means it’s easy to overconsume.
Conversely, if consumed in excess, it is theoretically possible to gain body fat on nutrient-dense foods such as chicken breast and rice. Think about the last time you ate too much broccoli, though. Probably never happened, right?
Then, when people do enjoy treats such as chocolate cake, they tend to overindulge. However, what many fail to realize that it’s the excess calories and not the sugar itself that contributes to fat gain. Correlation does not equal causation.
Note Dr. Mark Haub’s Twinkie Diet from a number of years back in which, in similar fashion, the professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University shed 27lbs while eating convenience store foods.
2. Junk food consumed in moderation is not necessarily unhealthy. I know there are many individuals out there who proclaim that junk food in any amount is artery-clogging – yet as my bloodwork shows, that is not the case. This is supported in the literature as well, whereby multiple studies suggest that consuming simple carbohydrates or complex carbohydrates affects neither body composition or blood lipids (Saris et al., 2000; Surweit et al., 1997).
Unless you have a specific intolerance or allergy, judicious quantities of junk food are harmless in the grand scheme of things.
3. Total calorie intake matters for body composition far more than specific food choices. It’s the law of thermodynamics in action. When there is an energy surplus, weight is gained because the energy must be stored; when there is an energy deficit, weight is lost as the body oxidizes bodily tissue (Wardlaw & Kessel, 2002).
Granted, the topic is a little more complex than that, and the specific details are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that there are various factors, including fiber and the thermic effect of food (with protein having the highest thermic effect at 25-30%) that influence the calories-in-calories-out equation (Halton & Hu, 2004). The case still stands, however, that total calories, at the end of the day, will determine whether weight is gained, lost, or maintained.
4. Incorporating a small quantity of junk food into your diet can help increase dietary adherence, which will in turn yield better fat loss results. This last point is the beauty of flexible dieting.
The best way to ensure that you stick to a nutrition program is to actually enjoy it. It’s important, then, to be honoring your unique food preferences and factoring that into your day. For some people, that’s going to mean Poptarts and cookies; for others, it may be grilled cheese and french fries. If these foods can increase dietary adherence by nipping cravings in the bud before they get out of control, then total calories will be kept in check consistently over time, which we’ve established as the most important factor in weight gain vs. weight loss.
Obviously, the daily Snickers bar was an extreme case of flexible dieting used to illustrate a bigger picture. And while junk food is not mandatory per se to achieve results, it just so happens that we humans happen to have a strong affinity for high sugar, high fat goodies. It would be prudent to make that way work for us rather than against us.
Please don’t misunderstand me: This is not to say that you can achieve optimal health by fitting in only junk food into your diet and fitting your macros. Here’s an excellent video by Eric Helms discussing the nutrition hierarchy:
Since everyone’s been asking: For now, I’m very much enjoying fitting other treats into my diet, like my good ‘ole mini chocolate chips, grilled cheese sandwiches, and Lucky Charms cereal. Consuming any treat for 70 straight days is bound to get tiring after a while, and this scenario was no exception.
To learn more about fitting treats into your diet while still working your way toward your fitness goals, check out my product, The Beginner’s Guide to Macros. This e-book teaches you the practical tools you need to lose fat while still enjoying your life.
Let me teach you how to have your cake and eat it, too – literally!
Halton, T.L., & Hu, F.B. (2004) The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr., 23(5):373-85.
Hunter, G.R., Byrne, N.M., Sirikul, B., Fernandez, J.R., Zuckerman, P.A., Darnell, B.E., & Gower, B.A. (2008) Resistance training conserves fat-free mass and resting energy expenditure following weight loss. Obesity (Silver Spring), 16(5):1045-51.
Saris, W.H., Astrup, A., Prentice, A.M., Zunft, H.J., Formigueera, X., Verboekte-van de Venne, W.P., Raben, A., Poppitt, S.D., Seppelt, B., Johnston, S., Vasilaras, T.H., & Keogh, G.F. (2000). Randomized controlled trial of changes in dietary carbohydrate/fat ratio and simple vs complex carbohydrates on bodyweight and blood lipids: the CARMEN study. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 24(1):1310-8.
Surwit, R.S., Feinglos, M.N., McCaskill, C.C., Clay, S.L., Babyak, M.A., Brownlow, B.S., Plaisted, C.S., & Lin, P.H. (1997.) Metabolic and behavior effects of a high-sucrose diet during weight loss. Am J Clin Nutr, 65(4):908-15.
Wardlaw, G.M., & Kessel, M. (2002). Energy Production and Energy Balance. In: Perspective in Nutrition 2nd Ed., New York, NY. p. 535-7.
There are lots of misconceptions about flexible dieting out there, and I want to take some time today to clear them up.
Myth: flexible dieting is a specific nutrition program.
Myth: flexible dieters eat nothing but junk food all day long.
Myth: flexible dieters don’t care about their health.
On the contrary, when done correctly, flexible dieting is actually comprised primarily of nutrient-dense food sources. It’s the beautiful intersection of eating for health and for enjoyment. This last part is especially important, as many folks who like to demonize flexible dieting overlook the fact that quality of life matters and that a freakin’ donut every now and then is perfectly okay.
So these are the things that flexible dieting is not.
What is it, then?
Flexible dieting is:
a methodological approach to nutrition that places a heavy emphasis on wholesome, minimally processed foods while allowing some wiggle room for treats
a mindful way to enjoy junk food in moderation while still making progress towards fitness goals
a sustainable nutrition strategy that strikes that fine balance between honoring an individual’s food preferences and eating for health
I’ve taken the liberty of logging all of my meals over the past three days to give you a visual of what a true flexible dieter’s eating consists of. Please note that the images are not all to scale.
This is what flexible dieting actually (could) look like:
Day 1: day’s worth of at-home eating
Clockwise, starting from the top left picture: bacon and an over-easy egg with sautéed green beans and diced turkey meat, side of Ezekiel toast; whey protein shake with milk; grilled ham and cheese sandwich; giant chicken salad.
Day 2: another day’s worth of at-home eating
Balsamic chicken and roasted fingerling potatoes with cherry tomatoes and cucumber; giant bowl of cherries and a banana; ham, turkey, and cheese sandwich; Greek yogurt with mini m&m’s and crunchy peanut butter.
Day 3: making it work outside the home
Bacon, roasted fingerling potatoes, and green beans sautéed with ham; protein shake with milk; Rockstar energy drink and a cup of cinnamon sugar soft pretzels (at the mall); spicy tuna roll with a side of miso soup and edamame (not pictured).
For specifics on my total food amounts and macronutrient breakdown, find me on MyMacros+ at SoheeFit.
MyMacros+: the best macro-tracking app out there.
On some days, you may even think that maybe I’m actually a member of the “clean eating” camp. But nay.
To really drill the point home, I’ve asked my assistant Lauren Dasher to send over her daily food as well. (You should follow her on Instagram, by the way – she’s an avid poster and comes up with some of the best meals!) Here’s what she eats:
Lauren Dasher’s day of eating, noticeably more interesting than mine
Toast with butter, asparagus, lean beef hamburger, butternut squash; Quest coconut cashew bar; Russell Stover Minis – dark chocolate coconut (2-3/day); protein cheesecake with blueberries, 1/2 Smores Oreo, cereal, and a coconut oil “magic shell”; grilled pork loin, grilled zucchini, and salad with reduced fat cheddar and a homemade cheddar Greek yogurt biscuit.
Another day of Lauren’s eating. Again, way more fun than mine! 🙂
Chicken meatloaf with salad and Alexia hashbrown/cauliflower mix; peanut butter, cream cheese, and turkey on wheat bread; egg whites with mushrooms, veggies, and cheese with a peanut butter, banana, and chocolate chip grilled sandwich; grilled chicken sandwich on a bun with a side of roasted red potatoes and steamed broccoli topped with fat free cheese.
What do you notice in the pictures above?
We make a point to consume lots of colorful veggies, plenty of fruit, and high quality protein.
When we actually do eat junk food, the portions are incredibly moderate.
None of the days above are perfect, but that doesn’t matter because “perfect” eating is elusive.
We honor our personal preferences, and that means that every day of eating might be slightly different.
Truth be told, flexible dieting is a mindset more than anything.
We have the freedom to eat whatever foods we please, albeit in controlled quantities. As well, we understand that just because we can eat a food does not mean that we necessarily have to. That means that if you don’t like Poptarts, then good news for you: you don’t have to eat them – ever!
How can I make flexible dieting work for me?
You’ve probably read or heard about people who have been able to eat cookies all the way into show day or lick an ice cream cone into Shredsville. I can assure you that despite the food porn photos flooding your Instagram feed, those people are not eating sugar all the doo-dah day. Don’t be fooled into thinking that that’s all they eat. Quite the contrary, actually.
Rather, they control their overall daily calorie intake and likely are tracking the total number of grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats they consume. More specifically, they tailor their dietary intake toward their specific fitness goal, be it fat loss, muscle gain, or anywhere along the gamut.
You have to monitor your calorie intake, first and foremost (Schoeller, 2009). To lose weight, you must be in a caloric deficit; to put on weight, you must be in a caloric surplus. This is the first law of thermodynamics (energy cannot be created or destroyed) and is the number one most important determinant of body weight change. So yes, theoretically speaking, you could follow the Twinkie Diet just like Dr. Mark Haubs did and lose bodyfat, provided that you are at a caloric deficit.
(By the way, if you missed our podcast episode with Dr. Mark Haubs himself, you can listen below.)
Second, ensure that you are consuming sufficient protein. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is currently set at 0.8g/kg bodyweight/day, but this is merely a minimum number, not a maximum, as many tend to believe. In other words, the implication that consuming above the RDA for protein is harmful is flat-out incorrect.
In fact, Dr. Don Layman, professor of human nutrition at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, points out numerous flaws with the RDA, including: failure to recognize that protein intake is inversely proportional to energy intake (Millward, 2004); failure to recognize that protein utilization efficiency decreases throughout adult life (Wolfe, 2006); and the incorrect implication that consuming about the RDA for protein is harmful, among others (Layman, 2009).
The point is that we can and probably should consume above and beyond the RDA for protein – up to 2-3g/kg bodyweight/day for an active, resistance training individual, according to Dr. Stu Phillips.
Third, manipulate carbohydrate and fat intake accordingly, and vary your food sources.
If you restrict your food choices, you can find yourself deficient in micronutrients. In fact, a study conducted on bodybuilders found that the females, despite consuming adequate total calories, were woefully deficient in calcium in large part due to their avoidance of dairy(Kleiner SM et al., 1990). Swinging to the other extreme, excessive intake of vitamins and minerals can also be observed in food-restricted conditions (Bamman et al., 1993). So here we have simultaneous micronutrient deficiencies and excess.
What does this mean? Strive for a diet rich in food variety. Get in your colorful veggies, enjoy dairy in moderation (unless you are intolerant, of course), and don’t omit any single food group arbitrarily.
Last, allot up to 20% of your daily intake for discretionary calories.
I’m not aware of any research that suggests that a small sprinkling of junk food in your dietary has any adverse health effects. In fact, a study shows that flexible dieting is correlated with absence of overeating, lower body mass, and lower levels of depression and anxiety (Smith et al., 1999). Surprised?
And of course, we can’t forget that the more you restrain your diet, the higher risk for eating disorders (Jacobi et al., 2004) – and we don’t want that.
I like setting 20% as the upper limit because it still ensures that the large majority of your daily intake comes from whole, minimally processed foods. And since we absolutely do care about our health, I should note as well that consuming 20% of daily calories from added sugars does not adversely affect micronutrient consumption (Gibson, 2007).
You know what I like the most about this? Making some room for daily treats allows you to maintain your quality of life. As in, you can still go out on a date with your boo, you can still hit up that BBQ, and yes, you can absolutely chow down on some movie theater popcorn every now and then. You simply have to be smart about managing your caloric (and macronutrient) intake.
Eat, lift, thrive, baby.
If you’re looking for more information, below are some solid starting points for you.
How to transition from “clean eating” to flexible dieting:
Revelations with flexible dieting:
And if you’re looking for a little more guidance, you’re in luck!
This is your go-to resource for learning about macronutrients and setting yourself up for macro-tracking success. Here’s what the e-book covers:
What’s a macro?
Planning your macros
Adjusting and tweaking your numbers
Making your diet work for your life
Practical tips and tricks
Weaning yourself off of macro counting
Mindset hacks to help you succeed
On top of that, your purchase comes with indefinite membership to an exclusive Facebook support group, where you’ll have access to some of the industry’s top coaches and other like-minded individuals for accountability and support.
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(If you’ve already purchased How to Count Macros, the first edition of the book, and you’re wondering if this next one is worth buying: if you’ve got a good handle of tracking macros and feel like you know your stuff, then you probably don’t need TBGM. But if you like learning new things and want to be a part of the Facebook support group, then you might want to get your hands on this baby!)
If you have any questions about the product at all, please direct them to macros(at)soheefit(dot)com.
Bamman, M.M., Hunter, G.R., Newton, L. E., Roney, R. K., Khaled, M.A. (1993). Changes in body composition, diet, and strength of bodybuilders during the 12 weeks prior to competition.
Gibson, S.A. (2007). Dietary sugars intake and micronutrient adequacy: a systematic review of the evidence. Nutr Res Rev. 20(20:121-31.
Jacobi, C., Hayward, C., de Zwaan, M., Kraemer, H. C., & Agras, W. S. (2004). Coming to terms with risk factors for eating disorders: application of risk terminology and suggestions for a general taxonomy. Psychological Bulletin. 130:19-65.
Millward, D.J. (2004). Macronutrient intakes as determinants of dietary protein and amino acid adequacy. J Nutr. 134:1588S-1596S.
Kleiner, S.M., Bazzarre, T.L., Litchford, M.D. (1990). Metabolic profiles, diet, and health practices of championship male and female bodybuilders. J Am Diet Assoc. 90(7):962-7.
Layman, D.K. (2009). Dietary Guidelines should reflect new understandings about adult protein needs. Nutr & Metab. 6:12
Schoeller, DAA. (2009). The energy balance equation: looking back and looking forward are two very different views. Nutr Rev. 67(5):249–254.
Wolfe, R.R. (2006). The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 84:475-482.
It’s Friday and you’re wrapping up a difficult week. Work’s been dreadful, your boss has been on you for shit that’s not even your fault, and on top of all of that, you’ve been craving sugar every waking minute. You’ve been on this new diet, you see, and you’ve sworn off everything “bad”: no cream in your coffee, no freakin’ ranch dressing on your pathetic little salad, no cookies, no ice cream, no fun. Your coworker Sally Sue told you before that this is what needed to be done to get shredded for the summer, so you went ahead and threw out all the junk food you had stashed away in your kitchen cupboards. You stuck to sad lettuce, you choked down dry chicken breast, and you cried tears of despair as you quietly sipped down that kale smoothie.
But it was Bob’s birthday at work today, and of course someone had to bring in a cake from Publix to celebrate. Ugh. Why does it have to be someone’s birthday? Doesn’t everyone know that you have a freakin’ diet to stick to? Rude.
You stick your nose up as paper plates topped with sugary goodness are passed around the room over lunch. You purse your lips together as your stomach growls loudly in protest, and it takes everything in you to stick to your celery and carrots. After a round of office gossip, you slunk forlornly back to your cubicle and try to get back to finishing up that Excel project before heading home for the weekend.
An hour later, you get up for a pee break and you can’t help but notice the birthday cake still sitting in the break room as you walk by. There’s still a bit left – plenty, actually. But no. You’re determined. No sugar no fun!
But as the hours go by, your mind keeps wandering back to that cake. It’s only 20 steps away. So easy to get to. Your lunch, quite frankly, tasted like cardboard, and you have been feeling rather lethargic. You could use the sugar boost, right? You could let loose just a tiny bit to reward yourself for a solid week’s worth of work, can’t you?
Okay, just one small bite, you tell yourself. For Bob. After all, I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings by not partaking in his celebrations, right? Happy birthday, you sonofabitch.
Whoa. Ohmigodthistastessogood. Is this what heaven is like? But what about your diet?
Ah, what the hell, you think to yourself as you reach for another slice of birthday cake. And then another. And another.
Before you know it, half of the remaining cake’s been devoured and you’re sitting in the corner of the room, frosting smeared all over your face. You can hardly recall the past 10 minutes as you stare blankly ahead. Your heart’s racing and you know you’ve totally blown your diet, but there’s absolutely no turning back now. Might as well finish off the cake before the day is over….
Uhh… so that happened.
I’m willing to bet that you or someone you know has been through a similar situation before. (I know I’ve definitely been guilty of this.) Let’s discuss what happened in the scenario above from a psychological standpoint.
Restrained eating describes the phenomenon in which an individual must actively exert effort to avoid the urge to eat, particularly foods that are deemed “forbidden” (Herman & Mack, 1975). This tends to be the default for people wanting to lose fat. Contrast this with unrestrained eaters, who do not set foods off-limits. (If you’re thinking that this reminds you an awful lot of the difference between “clean eaters” and flexible dieters, you’re not incorrect.)
A high score on the 10-item Dietary Restraint Scale (Herman & Polivy, 1980) is considered a risk factor for eating disorders (Jacobi et al., 2004), particularly bulimia nervosa. In other words, the more you restrain your eating, the higher the likelihood that you will develop eating disordered tendencies. But how could this be the case? Why is it that trying to be “better” about your food choices could actually backfire?
We tend to operate via bright lines, according to Dr. Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. According to him, bright lines are a set of straightforward, unambiguous rules that help us function. And while this can be useful and beneficial in many situations, when it comes to our diet, this can land us in a lot of trouble.
A must-read if you’re interested in willpower/behavioral psychology.
Instead of, “Oh, I’ll just moderate my sugar consumption,” it’s, “I will never eat cookies ever again — ever!”
Dieting is typically associated with self-imposed boundaries (Herman & Polivy, 1984): calorie restrictions, shunning of your favorite chocolate cake, and swearing off your favorite treats for good. The list goes on and these boundaries vary from one individual to the net, but one theme is common amongst all: “I’m not allowed to eat that.”
This is not a problem, but only insofar as the individual actually sticks to the diet, day in and day out, for long enough to see the fat loss results desired.
No biggie, right?
This is life.
Unfortunately, life happens, and we don’t live in a bubble. There are bachelorette parties, get-togethers with old friends, and Aunt Judy pops in for an impromptu visit from out of town and whips up baked goods in the kitchen.
As well, the more self-control you exert turning down foods, the more your willpower storage is depleted (Baumeister, 1998). And the more your willpower is depleted, the less likely you are to continue exercising that self-control to do the harder thing.
Chances are good that you’ll eventually cave. Probably not on day one, maybe not on day five, but somewhere down the line, sooner or later, you’re just going to be too damn weary, and that ice cream is going to be too tempting to resist.
Come on – you know you want it!
What happens next is called counter-regulatory eating, or the what-the-hell effect in more colloquial terms: once some dietary rule is broken, all hell breaks loose, and you write off the rest of the day, weekend, or even the month as you binge on all the foods that were previously forbidden.
You’ve crossed that bright line.
Counter-regulation is indicative of binge eating tendencies. In fact, the greater the degree of counter-regulatory eating, the more severe the binges (McCann et al., 1992). What’s more, Polivy & Herman propose that dieting is actually the cause of binge eating behavior (1985). If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense; the body is not wired to thrive under extreme dietary restrictions and will fight back (ferociously so, might I add) to ensure that you get the calories it craves.
This falls in line with restraint theory, which states that individuals restrain themselves from things that they deem enjoyable yet detrimental (think peanut butter, chocolate, ice cream, and cookies). Furthermore, dietary restrictions make individuals vulnerable to disinhibiting stimuli such as high-calorie preloads and emotional distress and ultimately can lead to increased weight gain in some cases (Herman & Polivy, 1984). For example, if you’ve banned all sugars from your diet but you find yourself standing in a donut store at 11p.m. on a Saturday night, there is a high likelihood that your diet rules will be abandoned for the evening. Or the weekend. Or what the hell, maybe even the rest of the month.
Smells like sweet, sweet trouble to me.
Interestingly, higher dietary restraint is correlated with higher body mass (Klesges et al., 1992) as well as greater weight cycling history (Lowe & Timko, 2004) – quite the opposite of what common sense might dictate.
What can you do?
Okay, so we’ve established that setting restrictions on your diet when you’re trying to lose fat won’t set you up for long-term success, however tempting it may seem. And it’s understandably easier to set black-and-white rules about what you can and cannot eat, but that doesn’t quite work out, either.
So what to do? The answer is clear:
If the goal is fat loss, you want your everyday diet to mimic your regular diet as much as possible.
Try not to label foods as “good” or “bad,” as doing so can lead to feelings to guilt can ultimately can contribute to self-sabotaging behaviors.
If you enjoy sugar, don’t eliminate it completely for the sake of fat loss martyrdom; rather, moderate your intake. As long as you keep your total calories and daily overall macronutrients in check, some sugar won’t negatively impact your fat loss efforts. (See related: “Sugar – The Sweet Truth,” an excellent write-up by Menno Henselmans on Bret Contreras’s blog.)
Find a way to make your nutrition program enjoyable. The more you enjoy your diet, the more likely you are to stick to it. And the more consistently you can stick to your nutrition program, the more successful you will be. If that means having a small handful of m&m’s every evening to keep your sanity in check, then so be it.
Finally, let good enough be good enough. Your nutrition is never going to be perfect, but the great news is that it doesn’t need to be. When you boil it all down, consistently adherent will beat sometimes perfection any day.
Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., and Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74(5):1252-65.
Boon, B., Stroebe, W., Schut, H., & Jansen, A. (1998). Food for thought: Cognitive regulation of food intake. British Journal of Health Psychology. 3:27-40.
Heatherton, T.F., Herman, C. P, Polivy, J., King, G. A., & McGree, S. T. (1988). The (Mis)measurement of restraint: An analysis of conceptual and psychometric issues. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 97:19-28.
Herman, C. P., & Mack, D. (1975). Restrained and unrestrained eating. Journal of Personality. 43(4):647-60.
Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (1984). A boundary model for the regulation of eating. In: A. J. Stunkard, & E. Stellar (Eds.), Eating and its disorders ( pp. 141 ± 156). New York: Raven Press
Jacobi, C., Hayward, C., de Zwaan, M., Kraemer, H. C., & Agras, W. S. (2004). Coming to terms with risk factors for eating disorders: application of risk terminology and suggestions for a general taxonomy. Psychological Bulletin. 130:19-65.
Klesges, Robert C.; Isbell, Terry R.; Klesges, Lisa M. (1992). Relationship between dietary restraint, energy intake, physical activity, and body weight: A prospective analysis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 101(4): 668-674
Lowe, M. R. (1993). The effects of dieting on eating behavior: A three-factor model. Psychological Bulletin. 114:100-21.
Lowe, M., Timko, A. (2004) What a difference a diet makes: Towards an understanding of differences between restrained dieters and restrained nondieters. Eating Behavior. 5:199-208.
McCann, K. L., Perri, M. G., Nezu, A. M., Lowe, M. R. (1992). An investigation of counterregulatory eating in obese clinic attenders. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 10:461-71.
Polivy, J., & Herman, P. (1985). Dieting and binging: A causal analysis. American Psychologist. 40(2):193-201.
Rogers, P. J., & Green, M. W. (1993). Dieting, dietary restraint and cognitive performance. British Journal of Clinical Psychology. 32:113-16.
I'm a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA-CSCS) and a Certified Sports Nutritionist from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (CISSN). I'm an IFPA bikini pro and amateur powerlifter, and I specialize in helping women learn how to eat well, lift heavy, and thrive in all aspects of their lives. See more