Flexible Dieting and the increasing awareness of the science of fat loss has meant that more and more people have been able to have their cake and eat it too, while still achieving their fat loss goals. With this revolution, more and more people are seeing the part that calories play in determining their fat loss or fat gain results and the impact of macronutrients on body composition. Below we explore the simple science of flexible dieting and the top benefits of practising this scientific method.
The simple science of weight loss
Quite simply, if you want to lose weight you need to be in a calorie deficit (eating less then you're expending energy wise). If you want to gain weight then you need to be in a calorie surplus (eating more than you're expending energy wise). If you want to maintain your weight then you need to be consuming the same energy (calories) as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) - which is what you burn on a daily basis inclusive of your activity.
This is our Equalution client Rhiannon who has been able to incorporate her favourite treats like chocolate, burgers and pizza on her fat loss journey using a science-based approach.
The dangers of dropping your calories too low
A lot of people hear the above equation, and females tend to assume they need to be on 1200 calories and males around 1500-1800 calories. If you were to calculate your TDEE using a generic online calculator (which wouldn't be 100% accurate as it doesn't take into consideration individual factors unique to your nutrition), you'll get an approximate number of what you'll burn on a daily basis, mindful of your activity. Even using a tool like this, you'll see how under your TDEE 1200 calories is, and the dangers of consuming too few calories are:
1. Metabolic Adaptation
Every person has a body-fat set point which is the level our body is accustomed to and will attempt to maintain naturally. It's highly individual and everyone can have different set points. This ‘set point’ is based on a range of factors including genetics, activity level, and nutritional habits over the course of their lifetime. Whatever that set point is, the body wants to keep you there as long as it possibly can.
If you drop your caloric intake too quickly, the body will adapt to make fat loss more difficult and these adaptations are made through changes in your metabolism. This is why when you first start a diet the fat seems to just melt away, however it isn’t long before your body responds by making it a little harder for you to burn calories. This is due to the further you get below your set point, the more efficient your body's energy systems become at storing energy(1).
As well as this, the chemical your body releases to tell your brain you're full, leptin, starts to be released less. So you're hungrier, less satisfied and are burning fewer calories, resulting in a very inefficient way of fat loss.
2. Plateaued results
If you’ve gone too fast too soon, you run the risk of decreasing your metabolic capacity, which makes the process all the slower. If your weight loss results begin to slow down in early stages on an already very low intake, then what room does this give you to drop and manipulate your intake further down the track? Very little, if not, none. This is when a lot of people will either fall off the wagon due to unsustainability or regain lost weight due to too low of an intake followed by a drastic increase that the body wasn’t ready for. If you’re in this boat consider reverse dieting as a possible strategy to combat your plateau and improve metabolic capacity.
The dangers when your calories are too high:
Whether you’re intentionally trying to gain muscle or weight in which case you need to be eating more than you’re burning or you’re aiming for fat loss and aren’t seeing results you could be subject to the dangers of your calorie intake being too high. Generally if you’re aiming to gain weight/build muscle so a ‘bulking phase’ perhaps, if you’re exceeding around 500g a week in weight gain of which optimum results would mean a portion is muscle as the remaining would be unavoidable fat gain than you may run the risk of going too fast and incurring more fat gain than necessary. In a different scenario, if you find you’re gaining weight when trying to lose fat then on a weekly average basis you’re likely to taking in more calories than what you’re expending, a reasonable fluctuation which can happen a lot on a fat loss journey due to fluid retention. This could be due to a number of factors mostly related to your intake such as if you’re incorporating uncalculated cheat meals which is counteracting your deficit, incorrectly judged your activity level, aren’t being accurate in your intake counting etc.
Getting it just right
The key to ensuring you’re on track is through progress. Use a number of forms of progress so when variables affect one method you still have another to resort to, such as photos, a measurement card and scale weight. Each individual is different, so the best method to ensure you’re on track with your goals is to use how your body progresses to give reason to change and modifications to your intake.
The fitness industry has done a good job at creating an unrealistic perception of results to expect within a certain time frame of dieting. For this reason, many people will be fixated on ‘a kilo a week drop’ ignorant to the fact that fat loss varies depending upon your starting position and how much fat you have to lose, the aggression in your methods, your activity level and your dieting history (metabolic capacity). A loss is a loss, be aware of dropping your intake too soon if your losses are not meeting your expectations. In a gain scenario if you’re gaining fat too rapidly, then decrease your intake slightly until you reach a reasonable pace, as mentioned the recommendation here - depending on the individual and their goals - would be no more than 500g a week.
Once you get your intake goals right, which we suggest professional assistance in making these calculations and strategy implementations. Flexible Dieting then gives you the liberty to self-select food choice based on preference and macronutrient intake requirements.
Macros are important too
Macronutrients - so hitting your required protein, fat and carbohydrate intakes - play an important role in body composition. Rule of thumb is protein will amount to about 0.85-1.15g per pound of body weight (for our more intricate calculation check out Your Guide To Protein), fat between 20-30% of total daily intake and carbs will make up the remainder. The effect of each macro is as follows:
You need to ensure you get enough protein every day to preserve muscle - losing muscle and water will give an unfavourable body composition, commonly referred to as ‘skinny fat’.
You need to ensure you eat enough carbs, which provide your muscles with the glycogen stores needed to maintain training intensity, and energy levels.
You need to ensure you eat enough fats, which play an important role in hormone synthesis.
This is why macronutrient intake is as important as caloric consumption given the role that macros play in your body composition. At the end of the day though, calories in vs calories out will always be the equation of fat loss or fat gain, however to do this optimally macros need close attention too. The reality is the carbs in lollies turn into glucose and glycogen just like the carbs in broccoli. The protein in a Big Mac burger is made up of the same amino acids as trimmed chicken breast.
That being said, lollies are not the same as broccoli and eating McDonald's burgers all the time is not encouraged. Just because you can eat a box of Pop-Tarts every day and lose weight doesn’t mean you should. Food is beyond a mere source of protein, carbohydrate, and fat and is also a source of vital micronutrients which support the body’s many physiological functions.
A lot of stereotypical ‘junk food’ lacks in these micronutrients and the deficiency in these requirements is why many Flexible Dieters can’t get away with meeting their intake requirements through junk and treat foods alone. Is it possible to eat only junk in a calorie deficit and still lose body fat? Yes, and it’s scientifically proven(8).
Aesthetics shouldn’t compromise health. In other terms, your health is just as important if not more important than looking good.
5 Benefits of Flexible Dieting
1. The Guaranteed Results
You might have tried macros before, and it didn't work for you. The thing about Flexible Dieting and tracking your micronutrient intake is that ALL food is made up of macronutrients. You don't just 'do macros', but rather, you should be monitoring your macronutrient and calorie intake, no matter what method of dieting you practise.
Where you can go wrong with tracking your macros and calories, is that you might be working towards the wrong intakes. This is where working with a professional company like Equalution can come in handy, as our in-house nutritionists can determine exactly what your optimal calorie deficit number is, as well as your macros and micros. They will also monitor and adjust your goals as you lose weight, to help keep you achieving results, and then eventually maintain your goal weight.
Each person has goals that are unique to them, there's no cookie-cutter number or generic tool that can help you get them exactly right.
2. Eat What You Want
But also what you need. As mentioned above, while it's totally fine to work in some of your favourite snacks and treats, your body still needs essential nutrients to keep you in good health. How we create meal plans is that we work in foods that you love to eat, for example a burger and ice-cream for dinner, and balance that out with a fibre-packed, high-protein, low-calorie breakfast and lunch. That way, you'll still be getting all the good nutrients your body needs to thrive, stay at your optimal calorie deficit AND also get to sneak in that burger you've been craving. Who said you can't have your cake and eat it too?
3. Eat When You Want
What science has shown us is that meal timing and frequency is irrelevant to achieving results and isn’t necessary for, nor enhances, the ‘fat-burning’ process(2). What is responsible for this is a calorie deficit. Instead, give yourself a 24-hour window and consume your required intake for your goals within this time period using foods that are convenient and accessible for you. The gas station diet is a good example of a study that was conducted to show the necessity of a calorie deficit for fat loss and lack of effect of ‘food quality’ given the subject consumed only food purchased from a gas station (petrol station)(3).
Flexible dieting won’t tie you down with regulations and requirements to eat every few hours. Basically, you’re hitting an intake goal within each 24 hour period and what you select to meet those requirements and when you consume that food is up to you. Flexible dieting is made by you, for you and highly reflective of your lifestyle.
4. Maintain Your Social Life
A lot of ‘diets’ will lead the individual to socially seclude themselves or automatically resort to saying ‘no’ when asked out to dinner, for social drinks or whether they want cake at a birthday party. Flexible Dieting allows for you to maintain this sense of ‘normality’ and very recurring, inevitable, and enjoyable part of life. Like above, you simply make adjustments to your daily food choices to compensate or make an allowance for whatever you’ll be having in a social situation. There are circumstances where guesstimations and around about calculations will be made, which increase the margin of error in meeting your intake requirements. What flexible dieting adherents do accept is this is a small price to pay for long term adherence and results. It’s a lifestyle, not a fad.
5. Manage Eating Disorders:
Eating disorders don’t go away overnight and should not be band-aided with solutions that don’t address or are strategised to resolve the problem. From binge eating disorders to anorexia, bulimia, clean eating orthorexia, or even obsessive-compulsive eating habits; you need to be able to understand your triggers, preventative methods and long term management strategies.
The core issue of a lot of these eating disorders stems from a combination of relationship with food issues and self-image/perception issues. Food can be either the comfort consumed in excess, the cause of frustration for lack of results and then the outlet that emotion is released. Either way, food is often just as much the cause as it is the affected area when eating disorders are present.
Flexible Dieting allows for a better relationship with food by removing a lot of the restrictions that prohibit a positive stigma towards food in the context of dieting and achieving results. By following a plan that 1) achieves results, 2) isn’t discriminative towards foods and food groups, 3) doesn’t bound the individual with rules and restrictions and 4) doesn’t create any lifestyle hindrances; a better relationship with food can be created and any eating disorders managed through personalisation of the strategy and food choices.
For example, take someone who suffers from a severe binge eating disorder where the individual may have gained a significant amount of weight and be on a roller coaster of ON/OFF practices when dieting. They're dieting very strictly on very low calories or having big, blow out days in excess of thousands of calories above maintenance. What we may do is start the individual on a higher caloric intake in slight deficit to maintenance, so they aren’t feeling restricted and can incorporate a range of foods, regardless of caloric density given they have the caloric freedom to do so. In these cases, a lot of the problems will lie in the previous dieting methods, restriction and frustration from lack of results. Slowly but surely through a consistent approach and acceptance of the process requiring patience in the initial stage, binge eating can well and truly become a thing of the past through the Flexible Dieting method. Coaching in this regard is very important as some eating disorder suffers highly benefit from the support through the flexible dieting process.
Flexible dieting works for everyone, without fail. What it allows for is the ability to eat a variety of foods you like on a schedule that works best for you, in light of your lifestyle, which makes the diet enjoyable and thus extremely easy to stick to. And when it comes to long-term results, compliance and consistency are of the essence.
Seek our assistance for optimum results with a diet that is FOR YOU made BY YOU - your body data and food preferences. We are the Flexible Dieting experts.
1. MacLean, P. S., Bergouignan, A., Cornier, M. A., & Jackman, M. R. (2011). Biology's response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 301(3), R581-R600.
Yours in Health & Fitness,
The Equalution Team