As both the awareness and practice of flexible dieting rises, there has also become a lack of clarity and more confusion surrounding how to maintain good health. How to know what it is your body needs in terms of nutrients and how to ensure whether flexible dieting can satisfying those rules of thumb are also raising some confusion. In short it certainly can, and amongst the many photos of oversized ice-cream bowls, Poptarts and burgers on social media, flexible dieting in its optimum practice is an 80/20 rule; 80% wholesome and nutritious food and 20% fun and flexibility. Can it be more of a 50/50 split and results still obtained? Yes, of course, but quite often aesthetics are not the epitome of good health and the best practices of balance and moderation will acquire all-round good health from the outside in.
Our Equalution client Sarah's transformation so far achieved through independently selecting foods of her choice meeting our strategised macronutrient and micronutrient intake requirements set on a weekly basis according to her progress and goals.
There are two approaches to dieting that fail time after time:
1. Becky in a quest to lose as much weight as possible for an upcoming wedding drops her calories aggressively and starts clean eating. In conjunction to this she cuts all gluten, dairy and artificial sweeteners. Perhaps once a week she’ll have a cheat meal which makes her nervous as she doesn’t know if she can control herself with all that great food as well as that she feels it’s a bit of an oxymoron to what she practices all week, but doesn’t find clean treats all that satisfying so it’s the only option.
2. Sharon has just started flexible dieting after years of clean eating. She can’t believe how much junk she can fit in her day! No more veggies, no more fish just white bread, ice-cream and protein bars! She’s been a bit off in hitting her macros and often misses protein but she’s not gaining any weight and keeping in her calories so happy days!
What is wrong with both of these scenarios and why will these methods come crashing down for both Becky and Sharon?
In scenario one Becky will form a very poor relationship with food. Not only do her practices neglect the foundational science of the body in that no food is recognised by the body as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather for its macronutrient value (i.e whether it’s a protein, carb or fat), but she’s also put herself in a ticking time bomb scenario. Due to the unsustainability of her practices, over time Becky’s energy levels will significantly drop, the restriction will become unbearable and it will come crashing down with a blowout or deviation from her plan. What happens if Becky goes to a friends house for a party? Can she not eat cake again? She gets a promotion at work and her boss comes in with office treats and a bottle of bubbles... what will Becky do? This restrictive method eventuates into diet fatigue, resentment and the start of a cycle of falling off track and then getting back on again.
In scenario two Sharon thinks she’s hit the jackpot, but not so fast. While Sharon may not put on weight due to being in a calorie deficit, in fact, she may even lose weight, however over time this practice will begin to affect her energy levels and she will feel fatigued and may also experience unfavourable body composition changes due to not meeting her macronutrient requirements and chipping away at her muscle mass. Your body requires beyond protein, fats and carbs for optimal functionality. It also requires vitamins, minerals and fibre - micronutrients.
Why the 80/20 rule works
Whether intuitively eating or following a flexible dieting approach diligently meeting your intake requirements for optimum results, an 80/20 rule is a sound and healthy principle to live by day to day. Of course, its human nature that naturally some days will be better than others but the underlying gain of following an 80/20 approach is that for the most part you will be satisfying your body with its requirements for optimum functionality, as well as satisfying your mind with food for your soul that will allow for long term sustainability and a healthy relationship with food.
The 80/20 rule practices a moderated approach where all foods can fit into a balanced diet. When flexible dieting, this simply means allow yourself a portion of the day for your soul foods whether that be chocolate, biscuits, ice cream or your favourite slice; but incorporate it in a proportionate way so it’s not your dominant source of fuel. Around - but not doesn’t have to be spot on - 80% of the time choose whole foods that are rich in micronutrients, such as whole grains, leaner cuts of meat, legumes, veggies, fruits, grains etc and give yourself around 20% of the time where you choose foods that nourish your soul, such as a slice of cake at a birthday party, an ice-cream, or maybe your favourite grilled tasty cheese sandwich on thick, white bread.
What does the body need?Our body runs on 3 things essentials for living and proper functioning:
1. Macronutrients which are the nutrients that we need in LARGE quantities for survival - protein, carbohydrates and fat - providing energy in the form of calories for our body.
2. Water which is the staple for survival and metabolism.
3. Micronutrients which is the nutrients required in SMALL quantities for survival. These are vitamins and minerals - most importantly fibre.
When flexible dieting or eating according to your macronutrient requirements, you have the ability to change your entire body composition. In a calorie deficit and meeting your macronutrient targets, you can lose body fat and optimally retain muscle as opposed to a lot of other crash diets which are too low in calories, deprive you of macronutrients and leave you post WEIGHT loss (not fat loss) with a ‘skinny fat’ look. But yes, macronutrients are NOT the only essentials for health, micronutrients are of utmost importance too.
What happens when you replace ALL your daily vegetable intake for the equivalent calories and carbs in a low-calorie bread? You don’t obtain any of the micronutrients (e.g vitamins A and C, and minerals zinc and magnesium + the fibre!) but MAY meet the same macronutrient target so visually this has no effect on your body but for health purposes, you’d only want to make this substitute if you had adequate micronutrients elsewhere throughout your day - it’s all about balance!
As we’ve previously said if you miss the mark on ONE day - this isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, however not meeting your micronutrient requirements day in and day out may not have any physical effect (provided you’re meeting your macronutrient goals) however you may over time begin feeling sluggish and experience the adverse effects of deficiencies.
For instance here are just a few examples of the role of some vitamins and minerals we get from just the smallest quantities of some foods:
- Vitamin B1 and B2: helps with energy production in the body.
- Vitamin B3: helps your body use the carbs, protein and fat you consume to make energy.
- Vitamin B6: helps your body to make and use protein and glycogen; (forms hemoglobin).
- Vitamin C: can help prevent cell damage and reduce risk for certain cancers; helps cuts heal, increases iron absorption from the foods you eat.
- Calcium: builds and maintains strong teeth and bones; helps muscles work properly.
- Potassium: maintains fluid balance in the body; controls blood pressure, helps nerves and muscles function.
Can you get your micronutrients from supplements?
In short yes, however now supported by nutritional research there is evidence that micronutrients function better when consumed as part of a balanced diet, rather than as pills.
Killing two birds with one stone
You need fibre, no less than 20g per day is the universal recommendation. Fibre predominantly comes from fruits, whole grains and vegetables. If you’re meeting your fibre intake daily then chances are you are also meeting the vast majority of your micronutrient requirements too.
Macros vs. Healthy - what you shouldn’t do
Don’t ignore calories in pursuit of good health. If you’re not even interested in getting your physique to an optimum condition or even drop a few kilos but just don’t want to gain weight - DON’T look past your daily caloric intake thinking the health benefits of your food choices outweigh the numerical side of calories in vs. calories out. It’s one thing to strive for giving your body what it needs, it’s another to be ignorant of the caloric cost of doing so in a negligent way.
For example, a breakfast bowl topped with granola, nuts, seeds etc in chase of a ‘healthy’ meal without factoring the likely 600+ calorie intake into your day of eating can likely result in a progressive calorie surplus which is what leads to weight gain. So despite food quality, anything calorie-dense in excess of your daily caloric requirements will result in fat gain no matter what you exceed your intake with. So yes, that does apply to clean cheats - you can’t cheat the calories in vs. calories out system!
Tips for maintaining good health while flexible dieting/meeting your macronutrient intake targets:
1. Don’t make a DAILY habit of substituting your fruits, veggies, lean meats etc for processed food. While there is NOTHING wrong with processed food and absolutely NO inability of the body to lose body fat eating ONLY processed food(2), it is just good practice to have a balanced 80/20 approach with 80% being lean meats, veggies, fruits etc rather than it being 20%.
2. Have treats daily as a controlled portion of your overall intake. This will help with practising balance and having fewer days of blowing out and all ‘soul food’ consumption.
3. Aim for about 5 serves of fruit and veggies a day. This will help ensure you are getting all the vitamins and minerals you need. It seems small, but truly, consuming micros in excess is going to do you no benefit.
4. Don’t cut dairy. Dairy is a great source of vitamin D and calcium - not to mention it’s delicious.
5. Eat fish. Have a few servings of fish a week for omega 3 - barramundi is great for this!
6. Aim for 15g per 1000 calories as a fibre goal. Like micronutrients, fiber is also important for optimal body functions particularly digestion. It is a type of carbohydrate though doesn’t digest like one and has a dual benefit as it also has a thermogenic effect. Fruits and vegetables, as well as some breads and grains, are amongst foods that are high fibre. The universal recommendation is no less than 20g of fibre per day.
7. Drink plenty of water! Aim for 2-3L a day. Water helps you metabolise foods, and is involved with the majority of chemical reactions in the body.
Our Equalution client Bree's variety of food she's had on her fat loss journey. Bree has lost 7kgs and 66cms while maintaining a balanced diet which meets her macronutrient and micronutrient requirements.
You don’t need to label foods as good or bad, it isn’t that black and white. Moreover, it doesn’t do you any good in overloading your body beyond its essential requirements. The more you avoid certain foods and sway towards living and breathing only clean wholesome foods with zero balance, the further restricted you’ll feel and likely to blow out.
Follow a balanced and moderate approach according to an 80ish/20ish rule of thumb. This way your body gets what it needs and you get to also have your cake and eat it too. Food doesn’t ONLY serve the purpose of fuel but is also able to be enjoyed, whether that be your wedding cake, a glass of celebratory bubbles, chip and dip on a weekend away or your favourite dish your Mum makes. Don’t avoid these occasions, the beauty of flexible dieting in its best practice is that it can factor in each of these scenarios within what your body needs for your goals. It doesn’t deprive you of health benefits but rather ensures longevity and a good relationship with food.