Flexible Diet vs. Meal Planning: What Is The Best Way To Setup Your Diet?

Article Length: ~1600 words

Reading Time: 5 – 8 minutes

In this article I'm sharing my experience from applying flexible dieting and meal planning both as a practitioner and as a nutrition coach.

By the end of it you'll learn the benefits of both flexible and planned diets, and ultimately how to structure a diet you can easily follow without adding stress to your life.

The story and the marketing of flexible dieting is pretty much one-sided nowadays.

It seems that flexibility and IIFYM (If it fits your macros) wins 100% of the time over the traditional “bro” meal planning philosophy, at least that is what it looks like.

Anyways I don't want to go into a rant on the current state of the fitness industry.

I simply decided to reveal my approach that has practical applications of both flexible dieting and meal planning.

Coaching over 100 clients in the last 12 months polished my understanding on how to applying both in the right context that increases consistency — and ultimately better results.

I see many coaches and people out there that either religiously force flexible dieting or on the other side of the coin follow super strict meal plans with little or no flexibility.

All things considered I hope this article will reach both of those categories and improve their understanding.

Let's start…

Learn to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (Meal Plan) before you try Joe Satriani's Guitar solos (Flexible Diet)

As a nutrition coach my duty is help my clients manage their nutrition and teach them evidence based concepts such as:

  • Calories in/ Calories out as the key to changing body-weight
  • Determining your macros & Fiber IIFYM and the importance of protein
  • Figure out if you can tolerate higher or lower carbs
  • Setup tracking with tools like MyFitnessPal for maximum results
  • Eat real unprocessed food 80-90% of the time with 10-20% exceptions of whatever you want
  • Meal timing and frequency isn't that important
  • Supplements are useful only if you can't get a particular nutrient from food

While you may even be nodding your head in agreement right now as you read the list above the problem is that knowing these concepts for most people doesn't provide a clear place to start.

And what do humans do when they don't have a clear actionable idea? We procrastinate. Or self-justify that the diet is not good.

Instead of falling victim to this the logical first simple actionable step is to make a very simple meal plan that would ultimately fit your daily macro-nutrient needs.

Start Small With Habits

With this implemented, now you can start learning how to track your diet inside tools like MyFitnessPal, build discipline and slowly start mixing different foods after a few weeks.

Basically after you've learned to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” which is a metaphor for mastering the basics you can start improvising with your diet like Joe Satriani in his guitar solos to the point where you get amazing results by eating all your favorite foods.

Lesson: Simply start with a narrow list of foods and a basic meal plan to master tracking skill and then slowly over time start integrating different foods in your diet.

Realization: Why I Can't Apply Flexible Dieting Most Of The Time

The fact that I could eat whatever I want as long as it fits my macros and still get super lean & build muscle was a HUGE revelation for me.

I remember my diet being filled with chocolate, ice-cream and other goodies from the supermarket just weeks into discovering IIFYM.

But after a while things didn't look so good…

The new foods that I would mix-in the diet would often be very calorie dense palatable goodies, and eventually I would be craving for more.

This also made it would be very hard to stay under the calorie limit…

Basically I realized I couldn't keep going like this if I want to stay lean.

On top of that the huge list of new foods that I would be adding was draining my willpower because I had to put massive effort and time into tracking.

So.. I had a choice to make.

I just asked myself “Could I eat like this for the rest of my life?” – The answer was a clear “No.” and I decided to revert back to my old meal plan for a while.

Research Study: Is Your Diet Draining Your Willpower With Decision Fatigue?

In a research study published by the National Academy of Sciences researchers examined about 1100 rulings over a 10-month period. All of these were made by a parole board judge, who was determining whether or not to allow the criminal to be released from prison on parole.

Now, you might assume that the judges were influenced by factors like the type of crime committed or the particular laws that were broken.

Decision FatigueBut the researchers found exactly the opposite. The choices made by judges were impacted by all types of things that shouldn't have an effect in the courtroom. Most commonly, the time of the day the ruling had to be made.

At the beginning of the day, a judge was likely to give a favorable ruling about 65 percent of the time. However, as the morning wore on and the judge became drained from making more and more decisions, the likelihood of a criminal getting a favorable ruling dropped to zero.

This was true for more than 1,100 cases. It didn't matter what the crime was: murder, rape, theft, embezzlement — a criminal was much more likely to get a favorable response if their parole hearing was scheduled in the morning than if it was scheduled near the end of a long judging session.

After reading this study I asked myself, how could I structure my diet so I have to make less decisions on a daily basis. The answer was simple, use a default meal plan.

My Current Diet Approach: 80-90% Pre-Planned Meals With 10-20% Exceptions

After going full circle what I ended up with today is simply having the same foods most of the time with a few exceptions on a weekly basis.

Basically instead of figuring out how I'm going to fit a candy bar into my daily macros or breaking down some homemade cookie in MyFitnessPal I decided to use that valuable time for more productive things. (Such as writing this article :D)

Given these points I stock the fridge with the same great foods that I love to eat every week.

In essence this gives me a lot of free time since I don't have to shop multiple times a week or wait in restaurants to have food.

The end goal was that it's a lot easier to stick to my productive daily routine with work and training.

Mindset: Is Food Fuel or Entertainment?

You might think it's boring and lame to eat the same food over and over again. And you're right — for some people this is a huge problem.

Conversely a lot of people see food purely as fuel and don't have a problem with sticking to a very narrow list of foods on a regular basis.

How about you? Do you look at food as fuel or entertainment? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

In addition you asked me 6-7 years ago I'd be the first person to jump on the entertainment word, because I love food and I still do.

It's not that I don't enjoy food now, but I'm just not giving it as much entertainment value as I used to.

Food as Entertainment

After all the mindset of thinking of food as entertainment or fuel can be changed, and if you find yourself on the either extreme you'd want to dial it down a bit.

For example, if i'm traveling somewhere even though I think of food as fuel I still want to try out some delicious local foods.

In that case those meals fall into the 20% rule of whatever I want, 80% of the time I'll still be sticking to the plan.

The key is to figure out what ratio work for you.

For me 80-90% of the time having my fuel (food) on a scheduled plan means I have an easy default choice to fall back to, and I can comfortably reach my daily nutrition goals without much thought.

The 10-20% of the remaining time I can take advantage of flexible dieting with social gatherings, weddings or dinner dates without having stress.

Under those circumstances all I need to do is track the nutrients, adjust the rest of the day and I'll still be on track with my nutrition.

Flexible Diet vs. Meal Planning: Conclusion

Let's face it, the one thing our beloved fitness industry is really good at is taking things to the extreme.

After all it was not that long ago that the general advice on losing fat was eating 6-7 “clean” meals (usually chicken, rice and broccoli),  drink your casein shake in the middle of the night, and carrying almonds in your pockets in case you go catabolic when you're out with your friends in a bar (and god forbid if you had a drink, all those gains from months of training would be lost).

Maybe you can't relate to the above gym bro extreme and you were lucky to miss the bandwagon on that one but today I'm seeing a lot of people fall into the trap of thinking that flexible dieting is the best all in one diet approach that everyone should be religiously following.

Common sense is often difficult to find, especially on the internet. You'll see “internet bros” diet-shaming people daily for doing meal preps and spamming the acronym “iifym”.

Alan Aragan made a great video about clearing up the IIFYM confusion which unfortunately only got about 2000 views.

I hope this articles at least helps you, the reader to become more resilient when it comes to judging and shortsighted thinking.

Reality is complex – there's a place and time for every approach, and there's a learning curve for every new habit.

Bottom-line: Start small, gradually build up a working system that you can comfortably sustain for a long period of time (years) and don't be so fast to you jump on the next popular thing.

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  • Phill

    Very true, I have also found myself in this trap lately. I have been trying to fit foods that are usually considered ‘junk’ into my macros and find that I just crave more of them. It never really occurred to me to blend a mix of a meal plan with iifym as a special occasion. I shall be trying this out.

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