Flexible Dieting V.S Meal Planning
Flexible Dieting V.S. Meal Planning
Chances are, if you have been working out for a while you have tried at least one fad diet. From paleo to keto to carb cycling, you have probably heard it all… and sometimes it can be hard to discern what is hype from what is scientifically validated. Today we are going to look at two “styles” of eating: flexible dieting and following a meal plan.
While one could make a scientific argument for how IIFYM (“if it fits your macros”), we are not talking about how many pop tarts and donuts you can fit into your diet while still hitting your macronutrients. Instead we are talking about a diet rich in fruits and veggies, adequate fiber, lots of protein, all while being flexible in nature. To contrast that, a meal plan is a rigid set of foods to eat every day to reach a specific goal.
Let’s start with meal plans. You may have been recommended a specific meal plan from the local trainer at your gym or even purchased a meal plan online from your favorite fitness personality. A meal plan is just that: a set of instructions of exactly what to eat on a daily basis.
Pros of a meal plan:
- No mental effort, you just need to eat what the plan says
- If you adhere a plan that was set up properly, results are very likely to happen
- Creates a great routine for your day
- Can save money (no more impulse purchases and eating out less)
- Less food wastes
- Saves time (don’t have to think about what to cook and you can plan ahead)
Cons of a meal plan:
- Largely puts the trust into the person setting up the plan and does not teach nutrition fundamentals
- Very rigid and doesn’t allow life events (if birthday cake isn’t on your meal plan and it’s your daughter’s birthday you are put in a precarious position)
- Lack of food variety
- Higher risk to develop a food disorder (1)
Here is an example of what a 7-day meal plan might look like. But remember, if you pull a meal plan off the internet or a friend shares it with you it is NOT going to be optimal for YOU. Your current body weight, body fat percentage, activity level, and a slew of other factors should be incorporated within your meal plan to optimize your health. A one-size-fits-all meal plan does NOT exist.
When choosing to use a meal plan after reading this article, it is advised to work with someone who has a nutrition background to help you set up a meal plan.
Let’s look at the other camp: flexible dieting. In this camp, after setting certain parameters (around macronutrients), you can substitute one food for another so long as you meet all of your parameters at the end of the day. This style of eating allows for choices on-the-fly but still comes with its own drawbacks.
Pros of Flexible Dieting:
- Variety in foods on a daily basis
- Nutrition education
- Greater ability for intuitive eating
- Easier to maintain long term (2)
- Allows you to enjoy life events (think about that birthday cake) while staying on track
Cons of Flexible Dieting:
- Requires accurate tracking (time consuming)
- Can lead to poor quality choices that still “fit”
- Inaccurate data (especially on platforms like MyFitnessPal that have user entered nutritional data)
- Can be harder to pinpoint specific diet problems (for instance if you are mildly lactose intolerant)
The starting point of a flexible dieting approach is the macronutrients. We have a free tool at Midwest Meals to set you up with your macros (and fiber). The key here is to focus not only on those macronutrients but also to include fiber and make smart food choices 80% of the time. Think of it like this when flexible dieting, 80% of your food should be nutritious whole foods (think chicken breast, sweet potato, etc.) and the remaining 20% can be fun foods (think about a tasty snack at work).
Well, you might be thinking, is there any middle ground between these two extremes? I would certainly say YES! While there is a LOT less literature on a dual approach, Dr. Joe Klemczewski has begun to use the term Structured Flexibility in his nutrition education and coaching platforms. This type of approach tries to extract the “best of both worlds” (although admittingly it is NOT a perfect diet either).
The basic concept is to have a structure for part of your day (for most people this would likely be during the work day) that tackles the majority of your macronutrients and fiber using good quality foods – and the remaining portion of the day is flexible to handle whatever you are feeling and life throws at you (so long as you still hit your macronutrient goals).
Want to learn more about flexible dieting and nutrition? Here are some great resources to get started:
- Midwest Meals blog
- The Diet Doc blog
- Strength Cave primer on macros
- Or if you REALLY want to nerd out on science (on both nutrition and training) you can subscribe to MASS, a service that breaks down the current latest strength, physique, and nutrition research
About the author
This article was written by Dan Beck, CEO of Midwest Meals and Nutriprep Meals, both food companies with the ultimate goal of ending obesity in the United States. Dan is a NASM Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist and obtained his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire (also attending California State University San Bernardino and online curriculum with Harvard Business School).
- Jesse Westover