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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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