This blog post started out as “Two Roads Diverge In The Woods…” which I really liked but would probably lead people to believe I was writing about hiking or trees.
Doughnuts are sexier. Doughnuts grab the attention of dieters and non-dieters alike. Doughnuts are also a staple in my diet when I am looking to lose body fat.
Wait, say what?
During my last competition prep, when I dieted down for a WBFF fitness show, I ate doughnuts several times per week. During that time I lost a calculated 5 lbs, which is a lot considering I maintain a rather “fit” frame, most of which was body fat. After battling through a 16-week prep, 2 bouts of sickness, and a move across the country I placed 3rd in bikini and 4th in fitness.
Thank you nutritional science gods for flexible dieting! I would have failed on a meal plan.
If you followed my Diary of a Fitness Competitor series (or if you currently follow me on social media) you know I am an advocate of macronutrient tracking and flexible dieting.
To put it simply, macronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in large quantities (macro means large) and are our primary source of fuel. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Every food you eat contains these three macronutrients (alcohol is the outlier), in varying proportions. Some foods, for example, are much higher in carbohydrates and contain almost no useful protein. Other foods are high in fats and protein but contain no carbs.
“Macronutrient tracking” or “If It Fits Your Macros/IIFYM” means tracking the amount of carbs, proteins, and fats you are consuming on a day-to-day basis.
This is different than strict calorie-counting.
When counting calories you are able to eat whatever foods fit into that caloric goal, with no regards to macronutrients. Many times, body composition is negatively affected due to an under-consumption of protein and over-consumption of carbs and fats. Getting the proper amount of all three macros is vital to achieving health and fitness goals.
Whew, that seems like a lot. Isn’t it easier to just follow a meal plan or “eat clean”?
Easier, perhaps. Sustainable or useful long term? Absolutely not.
When looking at competition prep plans or diets aimed at rapid fat loss I see alarming similarities. These similarities usually include:
- Intense caloric restriction
- Decrease or elimination of carbs
- Elimination of total food groups
- Control over the types of foods “allowed” to be eaten and
- Increased cardio (to an unsustainable level)
One of my biggest pet peeves as a nutrition coach is watching people unnecessarily suffer through restrictive dieting practices or meal plans.
Do restrictive diets work? In the short term, absolutely. But what happens when a person completes their “8 WEEK BODY FAT SHRED” or their 12-week bikini competition diet?
More often than not, total and complete chaos.
Let’s say there are two paths to get to the same place
The place we are headed is a bikini competition (or just “weight loss” to make it easier for everyone to understand. So, we are dieting and our destination is lower body fat.)
Clean eating, bro dieting, low calorie, meal plans, restrictive, unsustainable cardio
Your diet starts off with rules. What you can eat, what you can’t eat, entire groups of foods are cut out, food is labeled as “good” or “bad.” (This includes common programs like the 21 Day Fix, Nutrisystem, Atkins, Whole 30, etc.)
You follow a rigid meal plan with limited calories and/or food options. The calories and macronutrients (carbs, proteins, fats) are not strategically set with your goals or body in mind but rather just arbitrarily slashed to encourage fat loss.
Cardio gets increased weekly. Sometimes up to twice a day for an hour or more. The cardio is always performed fasted because well… we’re not sure why actually but the program or coach says it must be fasted. (There is very little evidence to support the theory that fasted cardio burns more fat. In fact, many studies have shown that fasted cardio burns the same amount of calories [or sometimes less!] when compared to non-fasted cardio.)
Say goodbye to social events, gatherings, or eating out with family or friends. Unfortunately, those don’t fit into your plan. Your friend is in town for just one precious day and wants to grab lunch? So sorry, not on the meal pan.
As long as you follow this plan, you will lose body fat. It’s pretty much guaranteed. Why? You are starving yourself.
You are so low calorie and so high activity that your body has no choice but to shed the fat. Muscle loss is also a high possibility. The weight loss is rapid and intense (as long as you don’t succumb to intense cravings and eat a pigeon doused in salsa and chocolate.)
Peak Week/Show Day/End of Diet: Water is loaded, then cut. No water the night before or the morning of your show. Sodium is cut. Calories are cut. No artificial sweeteners. “Clean food” only. No fruit. Nothing “bad.” Extremely limited list of foods you can have. Enjoy your rice cakes and unseasoned steak. Step on stage depleted and hangry.
Outcome: Lost 5% body fat and probably a found pounds of muscle mass. You win a plastic trophy and place first in your class (or reach your “goal weight.”)
Tell everyone it was totally worth it with a fake smile plastered on your face. (Blog about it years later and tell everyone how miserable you actually were and how you are now struggling with infertility and thyroid issues.)
Aftermath: Metabolism is guaranteed to slow down, your relationship with food is completely damaged, and (more often than not) intense rebound post-diet includes bingeing, rapid weight gain, and disordered eating. 10-20 (sometimes 30) pounds is the standard re-gain within weeks of finishing the diet. Adherence to any type of nutritional programming is lost due to such a restrictive period of dieting. No long term lifestyle changes have been made.
Customized nutrition, macro tracking, flexible dieting, strength training focused, minimal cardio
This option includes following a flexible nutrition plan that is 100% customized to you. The numbers you receive are based on your current body composition and future goals. Your calories are determined and set based on you as an individual, not a random “1,200 calorie” dietary goal. Dietary adherence is high because you are eating foods you actually enjoy in moderation and in the proper amounts. Calories and carbs only drop when progress stalls.
Oops, ran out of chicken, eggs, or broccoli? No problem! You can look at your macros for the day and make changes where necessarily, swapping out chicken or broccoli for something else. Your best friend dropped in from out of town for lunch? Awesome! Move around some macros and “make room” for a small indulgence.
The focus is on strength training to prevent muscle wasting and maintained muscle mass. Cardio is just enough for cardiovascular health and sprinkled in as needed for additional fat loss. Short bursts of high-intensity cardio are ideal and never more than 20-30 minutes per day (and never 7 days per week.)
Following this method, you will also lose body fat. The science-based approach looks at each person as an individual and takes into account their metabolic rate, activity level, and body composition to determine exact caloric goals. Progress is also looked at holistically (i.e.; “whole person”) rather than simply “no weight loss = more calories cut.”
This method normally takes a little longer because fat loss is slow, steady, and controlled.
Peak Week/Show Day/End of Diet: No water depletion, no sodium depletion (no science behind these methods.) You continue to eat the foods you’ve enjoyed your entire diet, taking into consideration small things like bloating. Remove only the foods that make you (as an individual) bloat. Step on stage happy, healthy, and well-fed.
Outcome: Lost 5% body fat and maintained muscle mass. You win a plastic trophy and place first in your class (or reach your “goal weight”.) Actually feel great about your prep or diet.
Aftermath: Metabolism is slower (metabolism always slows when dieting down) but you have a perfect plan in place to bring your calories back up in a controlled manner. (This is called a reverse diet and is the exact same concept as dieting but in reverse. It’s the slow and steady addition of calories and carbs.) You don’t feel the need to binge because you enjoyed all of your favorite foods throughout the entire process. Rapid weight gain is less likely to happen and the probability of establishing a healthy, long-term relationship with food & fitness is high. Healthy “lifestyle” habits can be established.
Before Team Clean has a chance to go off on a rampage about “nutrients and health” I’m going to nip it in the bud.
Flexible dieting does not mean “eat all the crap.” Flexible dieters tend to get a bad reputation as “junk food eaters” because we like to post photos of our treats on social media. Let’s face it, photos of chicken breast aren’t as sexy as a photo of a perfectly iced and sprinkle-covered doughnut.
What “Team Clean” doesn’t seem to understand is that it would be damn near impossible to meet macronutrient goals while only indulging in pizza, poptarts, and doughnuts. Furthermore, many flexible dieters also have micronutrient goals. Micronutrients include fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Try meeting a daily fiber and protein goal (as well as meeting the RDA of Vitamin D, calcium, or iron) by only eating Swedish fish and cake. Newsflash: It’s not going to happen. Flexible dieters eat a wide variety of lean proteins, vegetables, fruit, dairy, and whole grains.
The best part about macro-based customized nutrition? It’s all about the individual.
Nutrition, and how you approach what you eat, is an extremely personal choice and no one has any business telling you what to eat. Not even your coach.
Are you vegan? Cool. As a coach, I have no business telling you that you need to incorporate meat into your diet. It’s my job to give you protein and carb goals. It’s your job to meet them. Are you a dedicated “clean eater?” I might throw a little nutritional science your way but other than that, have at it! Only eat those “clean” foods but do so within the bounds of your macronutrients. Gluten Free? Paleo? Raw? Dairy Free? Pescetarian? It literally doesn’t matter. Whatever nutritional philosophy you abide by can be followed while also tracking your macronutrient intake.
Macro-based/flexible dieting programs are probably the most individualized nutrition plan a person could ever get, outside of seeing a registered dietician. The numbers, quite literally, rely on a client’s current statistics (weight, age, height, activity level, goals.) In order to ensure my clients see results, I have to actively engage and communicate with them on a weekly basis. This method requires me to look at “the whole picture” rather than just copy and paste a meal plan.
Flexible dieting also means long term habits are being established which, in my humble opinion, should be the goal of every coach. (It’s not.) My clients’ learn the basics of nutrition, understand how to manipulate their nutrition for future goals, and develop a healthy mentality about food.
When clients rely on a coach for a meal plan they are bound to that coach or meal plan forever. When they “fall off” the meal plan there is shame and guilt involved. Epic binge meals followed by restrictive eating ensue. Repeat.
Welcome to diet hell.
So, two roads diverge in the woods…
No one gets a gold star for struggling or “pushing through” a terrible diet plan or competition prep. It’s not “impressive” to only eat 900 calories, 5 foods, and perform fasted cardio 2x a day. No one finds it inspiring (okay, I’m sure some people find it inspiring) that you starved yourself, dined on unseasoned tilapia and spinach, lived on the stepper for 60 minutes every day, and didn’t drink water for 48 hours.
Why do we feel like we need to suffer to make progress? If there are two paths to the exact same outcome, why on earth would anyone choose the ridiculous and less-healthy option.
That is a question in which I have yet to hear an answer.