Flexible dieting doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
It’s arguably one of the most effective, simple, and easy methods for getting lean in a healthy and enjoyable way.
Flexible dieting is what helped me gain 73 pounds — from being in a hospital bed with a heart rate of 19 beats per minute to becoming a healthy, (mostly) sane person.
It’s what helped my dad go from being a chubby middle schooler to staying jacked for the last 40 years.
But what is flexible dieting, exactly?
In this podcast, you’ll learn the four essential laws of flexible dieting that prove why it’s the best system for getting lean. You’ll also learn some of the easiest ways to get started.
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**Armi Legge:** Let me tell you a story. It starts about 50 years ago with a man named Ray Legge, who was born in Maine. He also happens to be my dad. My dad was a chunky kid. Throughout middle school, he was overweight. He used to tell me stories about how he would eat a plate full of cheddar cheese, giant bowls of ice cream, and jars of peanut butter when he came home from school.
He still eats cheddar cheese, large bowls of ice cream, and goes through a new jar of peanut butter every one to two weeks. The difference is since high school, he has been about 10% body fat or less with abs on his stomach and veins popping out of his torso. The man is ripped.
What changed? How did this overweight kid turn into a man who is now considered “the fit guy” by everyone who knows him? It wasn’t an accident. He didn’t just grow out of it. My dad has great genetics, at least I’d like to think so since he is my dad, but that is not what helped him lose weight. He was already working out when he was overweight.
My dad became a flexible dieter. My dad used what is the simplest, easiest, and most effective system for losing weight and staying lean without even realizing it.
Now let’s fast forward about 40 years. My dad has two kids at this point and one of them has an eating disorder. This is where I enter the picture. My heart was beating 27 beats per minute. Little green letters flickered in the dark. My mom stared at the machine that was strapped to my finger. I had never seen her like this before. After a few more minutes of staring, she looked at me and said, “Honey, will you please just drink it?”
“No! It’s bad for you,” I said.
The nurse who had been standing in the doorway sighed and looked at my mom the same way you would look at an injured puppy. She had an open can of Red Bull in her hand. My mom gently grasped my hand and kept staring at me. “The caffeine should bring up your heart rate, sweetie.”
I saw her face harden as the green number dropped again. 26, 25, 24 . . .
When I woke up the next morning, my mom was still staring at me. She hadn’t slept all night. I learned years later that my heart rate had dropped to 19 beats per minute in the middle of the night. I was 5’7″ tall, 13 years old, and weighed 92 pounds.
When I arrived by helicopter at a new hospital the next day, I had to be carted around on a wheelchair. My leg muscles were so atrophied, I couldn’t stand. I spent the next night in an intensive care unit, sleeping next to a guy who died a few days later.
I hadn’t always struggled for an eating disorder, however. When I was little, I was your typical, hyperactive sports nut. I played soccer, rugby, lacrosse, football, basketball, volleyball, cycling, running, swimming, kayak racing, and indoor hockey. I grew up on a small farm in northern Virginia and spent probably 80% of my youth outside.
We had an organic garden. Our neighbors gave us deer meat they had killed themselves. We ate extremely healthily. My parents cooked my brother and I homemade meals every day. They even started teaching us how to cook literally before we could walk. They would put us on the counter and we would “help.”
They still let us have candy, doughnuts, ice cream, and other food whenever we wanted, in small amounts. Both my brother and I were and have always been thin and healthy. I had almost never gotten sick, I had never had a back checkup with a doctor. Something changed when I was 12 years old, though.
I became more serious about running and started winning every race I entered. I wanted to get even faster, so I read everything I could about exercise and nutrition. I would get up early and finish an eight mile run before most kids were even awake. I started preparing all of my own meals and cutting back on what I ate. By the end of 7th grade, I was about 8% body fat. I still ate everything I wanted in moderation.
That summer, I kept restricting what I ate. I kept reading about how saturated fat, sugar, red meat, and fast food were bad for me. I kept cutting my calories lower and lower. I had also started doing triathlons, so I was training more than ever. I finished my first 100 mile bike ride with my dad the first day of summer 2008, when I was 13.
It got to the point where I was afraid to eat almost anything. As a result, I ate almost nothing. How did a happy, healthy kid turn into an emaciated skeleton in a hospital? It took me six years, another visit to the hospital, thousands of dollars, an almost broken relationship with my dad, and months of feeling like a lonely outcast, but I finally found a solution to my problems.
It’s the same solution that helped my dad lose weight when he was a kid. It’s the same solution that will help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, whether that means getting lighter or heavier, without constantly thinking about it. This system is called “flexible dieting.”
My name is Armi Legge, and you are listening to Evidence Radio, the podcast that helps you automate your health and fitness so you can move on with your life. Today, you are going to learn about a concept called “flexible dieting.” I have alluded to it a few times on the show and some of our guests have mentioned it before, including Eric Helms and Layne Norton, but we haven’t talked about it in detail.
Flexible dieting hasn’t been discussed much at all online, which is a shame. I consider flexible dieting to be perhaps the single most important skill to build both a better body and, more importantly, maintain your new body.
In this podcast, I am going to cover the four fundamental laws, or principles, of flexible dieting. They are (in this order):
1. Modify your diet based on your preferences, goals, and tolerances.
2. Let yourself enjoy your favorite foods in moderation without feeling guilty or deprived.
3. Stay calm and stick to your diet if you do overeat or have something that’s “not on your diet.”
4. Focus just as much on maintaining fat loss as on achieving it.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these principles and why they work.
Number 1. “Modify your diet based on your preferences, goals, and tolerances.” The basic premise here is that you should eat foods that you enjoy. You should enjoy both “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods, if you want to call them that. There are no specific foods you need to eat to be healthy and lose fat. Food isn’t good, bad, or really healthy or unhealthy, or super, or anything else. It’s just food.
You should eat a well-rounded, overall balanced diet, but you should also enjoy all of the foods you eat within that diet.
Your diet should also support your goals. If you’re trying to lose fat, you need to eat fewer calories. If you’re trying to gain weight, you need to eat more calories. If you’re training hard, you might need to eat more carbohydrates and/or protein. That said, it’s fine to place restrictions on yourself to make it easier to reach your goals.
If you enjoy higher fat foods and it’s easier for you to control your calorie intake by eating a low-carb diet, then do it. If eating paleo, or avoiding grains, legumes, dairy, and other stuff (depending on who you ask) helps you eat less, then go for it. If you want to use Tim Ferriss’ approach like in the Four Hour Body or what he calls the Slow Carb Diet, then do it. It doesn’t matter.
Just remember why you’re eating that way and why you’re placing restrictions on yourself. Your diet isn’t magical. There is no reason you need to stick to it forever. It’s just easier for you to follow right now.
Finally, you should also consider any medical reasons for avoiding certain foods. If you’re less insulin sensitive, you may need to eat fewer carbs. If you have celiac disease, well, you can’t eat gluten.
Base your diet on personal preference first. Modify your diet to suit your goals second. Then take into account any potential restrictions you may need to place on yourself.
Most popular diets do the exact opposite of this approach. They tell you to avoid certain foods or food groups based on pseudoscience and anecdote regardless of your goals. Flexible dieting is the opposite. You get to decide what you do and don’t eat to reach your goals. Now let’s talk about the second law of dieting.
“Let yourself enjoy your favorite foods without feeling guilty or deprived.” Unless you have a specific medical condition like celiac disease, there is no reason you need to avoid any food forever. There is also no reason you need to eat the exact same diet every single day for the rest of your life.
You should let yourself enjoy your favorite foods throughout your diet. When you do, you shouldn’t have to feel guilty. Some people prefer to take a binary approach to dieting. They eliminate all desserts, sugar, added fat, or certain food groups. There is nothing wrong with this approach as long as you let yourself enjoy these foods later, in moderation, when you’ve reached your goal.
Most people don’t. They deprive themselves of their favorite foods and end up miserable or, more likely, binging on them later. This also usually happens before they’ve gotten as lean as they want to be, which makes them even more depressed.
With flexible dieting, you let yourself eat and enjoy your favorite foods, whether it’s cake, brownies, bagels, ice cream, cereal, pizza, pasta, French fries, or steak throughout your diet. You don’t dam up your cravings and then let them break through later on, when you can’t control them. In most cases, it’s actually best if your fat loss diet is essentially the same as your regular diet. The only difference would be your calorie intake and maybe your macronutrient ratios as well.
Law #3: “Stay calm and stick to your diet if you do overeat or have something that wasn’t on your diet plan.” Whether accidentally or intentionally, you are going to eat more calories than you need to, or you’re going to eat a food that isn’t on your diet at some point. It’s going to happen. The only thing that separates successful dieters from unsuccessful ones is how they react.
If you’ve been depriving yourself of your favorite foods and forcing yourself to stick to a diet that you don’t enjoy, you won’t react well. You’ll either hate yourself for failing to stick to your diet, or binge and hate yourself later even more.
One thing to keep in mind is that obsessing over your calorie intake can sometimes be as destructive as obsessing over your food choices. The whole “if it fits your macros” approach to dieting can sometimes be just as bad as being absorbed in the whole clean eating phase.
When you break the rigid and unrealistic rules you’ve set for yourself, you feel like there’s no point in even trying. Five Oreos turns into an entire box. One scoop of ice cream turns into the whole carton.
On the other hand, a flexible dieter stays calm in these kinds of situations. Flexible dieters put the magnitude of their mistake into perspective. They realize that one scoop of ice cream or one Oreo has literally delayed their progress by about 100 calories, the equivalent of maybe one hour or two. Flexible dieters don’t feel like they’ve failed, cheated themselves, or broken any rules, because they set reasonable expectations from the very beginning. They expected to overeat on some days and eat some foods that weren’t on their diets. It’s all just part of the plan to them.
Rigid dieters do not. They expect to eat exactly the right foods in exactly the right amounts every day, and when they can’t, they give up or hate themselves for not being able to reach their unreachable expectations.
Law #4: “Focus just as much on maintaining fat loss as on achieving it.” If you are a rigid dieter, you think in the short term for two reasons:
1. You want results as fast as possible, so you set up a diet you hate because you rationalized it won’t last that long.
2. After you’ve set up a diet you don’t like, you become even more focused on the short term because that’s the only way you can make your diet bearable.
When you don’t enjoy your diet and set impossible standards, the only way to have any hope is to focus on the short term. You adopt an “it will all be over soon mentally.”
In some cases, you might reach your goal. However, losing fat isn’t really the hard part. It’s maintaining fat loss that’s really hard. This is where rigid dieting almost always fails. The behaviors that help you lose fat are the same ones that will help you stay lean. If you can’t maintain the diet and exercise habits that you used to lose fat, you probably won’t be able to stay lean in the long term.
For instance, studies have consistently shown that meal replacements and weight loss shakes help people lose a lot of weight. It helps them control their portion sizes and calorie intake. The problem is that these people never learn to control calories without shakes and the meal replacements. They never learn how to maintain fat loss with sustainable and enjoyable behaviors. That is why longer studies have generally shown that meal replacement diets aren’t great at helping people maintain much weight loss.
With flexible dieting, your fat loss diet is almost identical to your habitual diet. There is no abrupt transition from your fat loss diet to your regular diet because the only real difference is your calorie and macronutrient intake. Instead of seeing your diet as an obstacle you can forget about once you’ve gotten lean, think of it as a healthier transition to healthier behaviors that will help you stay lean for the rest of your life.
A flexible diet is one that helps you get the most enjoyment from your food while keeping the body you want. My dad is a perfect example. You want to know how he actually lost weight and kept it off? He started exercising slightly more, ate a little more healthily, and starting eating slightly smaller portions of junk food. That’s it.
He has never counted calories in his life. He has never been on a diet like Atkins, South Beach, or paleo. He has exercised consistently and eaten an overall healthy diet with occasional moderate treats. He doesn’t have any set rules for what he’s allowed and not allowed to eat. If you could sum up his diet, here is what it would look like:
Eat at least 80% – 90% of your calories from whole, minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and dairy. Enjoy a moderate amount of treats like ice cream, restaurant foods, cereal, chocolate, and butterscotch bars. If you’re really nice, I’ll post the recipe on my website for those. When my dad has a craving, he satisfies it, moves on, and doesn’t worry about it anymore.
Prepare 90% of your the food you eat at home. In general, eat until you’re satisfied and then stop. He still makes exceptions for this rule at times like Thanksgiving.
Stay active. Do some kind of exercise every day. That’s pretty much it.
It took me a little longer than my dad, but I use a very similar system and it’s the same system that hundreds or thousands of people use to stay lean without the same anxiety and stress of normal dieting. Right now, I weigh 165 pounds and am 10% body fat at 5’9″. Compare that to where I was in 2008. I rarely think about my diet and eat pretty much whatever I want. It’s all thanks to flexible dieting.
The true beauty of flexible dieting is that it allows you to pick a diet that suits your preferences.
In the next podcast, you will learn how all diets work in the short-term, why most diets fail in the long-term, and finally, how to use these principles to create a diet that works for you. If you enjoyed this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes. It’s actually not easy talking about some of this stuff and it takes awhile to put these episodes together. The best way you can support this show is to leave a review on iTunes. I will talk to you next week.