Flexible dieting isn’t really dieting at all. It’s about meeting your nutritional needs on a daily basis while having the flexibility to choose your favorite foods from within the five food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. For those who find traditional dieting constraining and downright ineffective, flexible dieting might be just the thing that moves the scale.
What Is Flexible Dieting?
According to registered dietitian Catherine Gervacio from the E-Health Project, the diet provides a host of options. “There is no specific diet plan with this approach. That’s because it is more focused on tracking and managing calories and macronutrients by choosing the type and amount of foods appropriate to meet the requirements,” Gervacio said.
While it’s flexible, the diet can still have an important impact on the body if the “dieter” makes sure to meet their macronutrient goals on a daily basis.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), for my height and weight, I require two cups of fruit per day or 1/2 cup of dried fruit. I could choose any type of whole fruit as part of flexible dieting. I need 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, of which, again, I can choose any type. In the grain group, I can have one slice of bread or a 1/2 cup of cooked rice, pasta, or grains, 5 1/2 ounces of protein, and 3 cups of dairy, which includes milk, yogurt, or 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheese.
“In the long run, a flexible dieting lifestyle can potentially provide the necessary nutrients to achieve a health and fitness goal,” said Gervacio. “It helps an individual make informed choices by experience and be able to figure out which food and how much food to take in a day.”
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Why the Flexible Diet Works
Recent research has shown that when you look at restrictive traditional diets versus flexible dieting, flexible dieting is in line with long-term results.
“Those who followed flexible dieting were more successful at achieving weight loss and were able to maintain it,” says Lina Begdache, an associate professor in the Health and Wellness Studies Division at Binghamton University. She says that rigid dieting wasn’t as successful and came with a lot of anxiety and a pattern of stress.
The flexibility makes people feel like they have choices rather than having something taken away. For example, in the protein category, if you don’t like to eat meat, you can choose from plant-based varieties like tofu, edamame, peanut butter, or tempeh. And if you’re not a fan of milk as part of the dairy category, you can choose yogurt or cubed hard cheese. If you don’t like apples, you can choose bananas or a handful of dried cranberries. The choices are limitless as long as you stay within your recommended serving size.
Additionally, you don’t end up hungry because you’re eating enough fiber and protein, which both help to keep you fuller for a longer period of time, says Begdache.
The Impact of Flexible Dieting on the Brain
Part of the impact of flexible dieting comes from how it impacts the brain. Dieting can have a nasty effect on us because, from an evolutionary perspective, the body doesn’t like to lose weight. If you tell yourself that you shouldn’t be eating, your brain will constantly think about food. But if you eat healthy, go with the flow, and only eat when you’re hungry, you won’t think about it as much, says Begdache.
“Your brain is always making sure that enough food is consumed to avoid going into starvation mode,” says Begdache. “This is probably why restrictive diets are associated with more stress and anxious behavior, and they’re not as successful.”
Once the body goes into starvation mode, its metabolism slows down, increasing its cravings for food. “This can cause binge eating because cravings might be driven by nutrient deficiency,” says Begdache.
Flexible dieting works because you eat when you’re hungry. While making good food choices, such as choosing whole fruits and vegetables and lean proteins, is important, there’s less emphasis on counting calories and obsessing over your next meal.
It’s the way we should have been eating all along because, in the end, your brain controls whether or not you’ll be successful in meeting your weight loss and health goals. If you want to keep the scale in line, you need to keep your brain happy.
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