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Rigid vs. Flexible Eaters

With the holidays looming, and all of the food and candy that that entails, I wanted to write a quick article post about a topic that I consider very important. In fact, it’s so important to the goal of long-term body composition changes that I wrote an entire book (A Guide to Flexible Dieting) about it.

Rigid vs. Flexible Eaters

Over the years, I’ve seen a particular pattern that is pretty endemic among the body obsessed: that is what dietary behavior researchers would call rigid dieting patterns (restrained dieting might be a little more accurate here but I don’t want to get into the distinction that deeply).

Rigid dieters are the folks who are, to some degree or another, always controlling their overall food intake. They never relax, they never allow themselves to “cheat” (a term I dislike for various reasons I’ll explain below).   But sort of like the goal oriented athlete, this type of eater may very well see superior short-term results.

The problem is that, if something happens and they go off their diet for whatever reason, they end up going completely off their diet. Contest bodybuilders have some of the worst problems with this, 12-16 weeks of total deprivation leads into a 4-6 week food orgy where weight and fat are both regained rapidly, no training is done, etc. The cycle repeats annually.

In research, extremely rigid dieters are often heavier (mainly because of the cheats and binges they undergo when they break their diets) and often have poorer long-term success than what are called flexible dieters.  At the extreme rigid dieting patterns can cause eating disorders.

Flexible dieters allow for, well, flexibility in their lives. They realize that a little bit of something that isn’t ‘on their diet’ is no big deal in the big scheme of things, they often weigh less, etc. In my experience, while the short-term results may not be as great, the long-term results are usually better.

Why is Rigid Eating a Problem?

This type of self-destructive rigid dieting behavior manifests in other ways as well. How many times have you (or someone you know) started a diet and things were going just fine. But then you had a little bit of something not on your diet, a cookie or whatever. The guilt sets in, clearly you blew your diet, might as well eat the whole bag, right?

But step back and think about it rationally.

Say you’ve been dieting well for 6 straight days and then, one day, you have a cookie or two. What is that, 100 calories, maybe 150? Can that 150 calories truly derail the previous 6 days? Hell, think about it more, if you were to adjust your daily caloric intake so that you took out 150 calories elsewhere to account for the cookies, have you done any harm at all? Of course not.

But if you decide that your diet is clearly blown and you then eat the entire bag, to the tune of 1000 calories. Well now you HAVE done yourself a ton of damage. But not through the eating of the first two cookies. Rather, through the psychological damage that can occur when you think in absolute terms. Either you are on your diet perfectly (100% adherence), or you’re not.

I’d note that some gurus actually seem to approach dieting, especially physique contest dieting, by promoting rigid behaviors. A very short list of acceptable foods is given and anything eaten that isn’t on the list means failure. At least that’s how it’s programmed into the dieter.

Of course, many diets (mine included) allow the dieter to go off of their diet for some period of time of some sort or another.  Now, used properly, these can be extremely useful. I’ve prepped bodybuilders to contest shape with diets that included 1-3 days of controlled overfeeding per week.

As above, I really encourage people to stop calling them “cheat” days.  Not only does this further that good/bad moral attitude towards food, it also seems to drive people to consume as much of the worst food that they can.  They aren’t just relaxing their diets for a bit.  People seem to go out of their way to shovel in enough junk to make themselves sick.

It also maintains the mentality of good and bad foods.   You cheat on your wife, you cheat on your taxes, you cheat on your schoolwork.  There is nothing but a negative connotation to the word.  And the point is to get away from that type of moralistic attitude to eating.

In contrast, I prefer to refer to “free” meals (normal meals that are a little less rigid than whatever diet you’re on) or ‘refeeds’ (high carb/high calorie days). I also program in full diet breaks, periods of 10-14 days when you go off your diet and eat at maintenance. This is all described in The Guide to Flexible Dieting.

But the way that many use them becomes an abuse. The goal of a free meal is a psychological break from your diet, refeeds exist to exert a specific physiological response (raising leptin and others), so do full diet breaks. The goal is to make your diet work better, not eliminate all of the progress of the previous week by eating three cheesecakes until you want to vomit.

So let my tie this in with holiday eating. At some point over the next six to eight weeks, you know you’ll find yourself at a holiday party with tons of junk food, sweets and such. If you consider yourself “hardcore”, you might even be obnoxious enough to take your Tupperware container of chicken breast, rice and broccoli with you.

And you’ll feel miserable watching everybody else eat the stuff you know you really want during it. God forbid you have a piece of candy, odds are that will lead into an orgy of food consumption.  This also doesn’t make you hardcore.  It just makes you an asshole.

So instead, how about going to that same party with a different mentality. Plan to allow yourself a bit of “junk food” (i.e. high calorie, tasty foods) and realize that, in the big scheme of things, it doesn’t make an ounce of difference.

You’re not going to put on three pounds of fat because you had a couple of piece of chocolate, your muscles aren’t going to fall off because you only got 25 grams of protein from ham instead of your ideal mix of whey, casein and gemma protein.

However, you might find that you enjoyed the holidays a whole lot more without feeling deprived OR falling into the trap of eating like a maniac out of guilt.

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7 thoughts on “Rigid vs. Flexible Eaters

  1. Great message and exactly what I did at our Easter dinner Saturday night. I got to have small amounts of stuffing, gravy & mashed potatoes with my dinner without feeling guilty. I even had a Lindt chocolate egg. Heaven! And still kept my average calorie count for the week within my goal.

  2. Hey Lyle,

    I love the look of the new site, very clean and modern – looks great.

    You’re so right with the flexible approach to dieting. I have a little bit of an obsessive nature and can fall into that rigid trap. Since I’ve been following your information I’ve learned to look at the bigger picture and realize that one day does not blow 12 weeks of work.

    I now use your refeed concept and find it so much easier and healthier too. As well as giving you the mental break it provides a lot of physical benefits too, making it a healthier approach to dieting all round.

    Look forward to more articles!!!!! 🙂

  3. Hey Lyle,
    Great post. I agree with your sentiment of the term “cheat”. One, I don’t advise planning cheats. Just let them happen and keep them to less than 10% of your eating and you’re there. Second, “cheating” is just such a failure-oriented word. “I cheated on my diet.” Blah…as you said, in small doses, it’s not going to make a lick of difference. If someone is sticking to real foods the rest of their life, a bit of sugar and processed grains here and there won’t make a dent in their health or body composition.

    Scott Kustes
    Modern Forager

  4. Cheats are the motivation killers. have a big salad instead. I see so many wrecked failures on the NS sites who say “I’m going to go party, it’s a bridal shower” and then they can’t get back into weight loss mode afterwards and wander around for years not getting it done.

  5. Out of the 15 months of my transformation (and still going, last mile left), I am ashamed of how I became a ‘Rigid’ dieter for a good 9 months of it. I started off relaxed in which progress was actually real good, but was stupid enough not to remind myself of that time and somewhat turned into an OCD’ing calorie idiot. I’ve recently started experiencing some psychological (negative) changes (commonly evident at this stage after some reading) since hitting 7% bodyfat and just about a week or two ago, have slapped myself to wake myself up. I’m now back on track and was brave enough to admit to the problem which I would like to think as me intercepting that brick wall, the wall that have many days and months of hard work thrown out the window.

    Thank you again for this post, it’s just enforced a good thing into my once stubborn head.

  6. I am a former anorexic and bulemic who has run the gamut of ED in the last 20 years since my recovery. I say recovery because I am alive, but have lived thru many, many, many cycles of recidivist behavior in those 20 years.

    At 40 years old I have finally made up my mind to be a free dieter. No, I will never not keep track of my food intake. But, what I will not do is allow my state of mind or emotions to be dictated either by what I have eaten, what I weigh, or what size I am. Here’s why.

    I was to a point, folks, where I could not lose weight unless I ate below 1000 calories a day. And I would live like this for long periods of time. Lose 15lbs, gain 20. Lose 20, gain 25.

    I finally realized why. I was circumventing my natural metabolic proceses, completely catabolic, completely overtrained, adrenally fatigued, and I looked awful. Dry hair, bad skin, skinnyfat. All in the name of “losing weight”. Having self control, discipline, motivation. Positive words, that for someone with a control issue with calories, times of stress ratchet that up to where I feel great when I am able to control my body’s natural processes with my will, and horrible when that does not pay off in being a certain weight , size, or measurement, but results in a tired, dull minded, depressed, unresponsive individual.

    Last year I lost my job, my car broke down, my SO and I decided to take break from living together, and my teenager just refused to get her life together in any way. All at one time.
    I was riding a bike, living on 1/3 what I had made, and my response to all this stress? Diet FTW! count those calories baby. 800 I had a good day. 1200 and I did 2 hours in the gym, rode my bike both ways. For about 8 months.


    I’m done y’all. I am done with that bullshit. When I don’t like what i see in the mirror, or if I feel like depriving myself, I talk to someone about it. I talk to my SO (who I finally opened up to when I decided I needed to face reality) and just talk my way thru it till the urge to hide out and starve passes. Do it, is what I am saying. Tell someone, hey, i feel like my self worth is tied to my food intake, and I’m gonna need to talk aobut this when it comes on. Do it. get better. Love yourself, be well. YOU WILL STOP BINGING WHEN YOU STOP STARVING. It is a cycle, one thing completes the other.

    The first step is admitting you are indulging in these behaviors, they are not healthy no matter what the image of health is you hide behind, and it is mental, as in, you’d do it even if you were magically perfect in every way, cause it is how you cope with life.

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