Flexible dieting doesn’t work for a lot of people.
Neither do meal plans.
A trend that Coach Andrea (the other half of our coaching team) and I have noticed over the years…
Even though the fitness industry is constantly pushing flexible dieting harder and harder… many people who set out to lose fat with a “flexible dieting” approach see very little progress, and give up after a few weeks.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have meal plans.
Most people who follow meal plans see very quick initial progress… but then a large rebound in weight post-diet (or as soon as they deviate from the meal plan).
Here’s the problem with each:
→ FLEXIBLE DIETING: Usually fails because there’s not enough structure. People take it as “if it fits your macros”, just eat whatever through the day and hope it works out, and chaos ensues.
But really, once a client understands flexible dieting, it allows for long-term sustainability.
→ MEAL PLANS: Work great in the short-term because they provide tons of structure, and remove a lot of thinking from the fat loss process. You simply eat your foods, hit your steps, and lose fat.
Meal plans fail people long-term (and often set up some nasty body fat rebounds) because they don’t traditionally allow for much flexibility.
If you don’t know what to do when that ½ bottle of wine you want to split with your significant other isn’t on your plan… or have no idea what to eat after the diet is over, you’ll probably regain the weight.
We’re obsessed with giving our online clients the best results possible (and the knowledge to keep their results on their own).
So after some time pondering the problems we typically see within the nutrition industry, we created our own unique solution we’ve found to be effective with more and more online clients…
Basically, we’re teaching you as an online client how to combine the structure and easily repeatable nature of a meal plan for most of your week… while also taking advantage of the freedom and sustainability that flexible dieting provides when needed.
When we combine the best elements of both flexible dieting and meal plans, we have a fat loss method that is much more effective for the majority of people trying to get lean.
Let’s dig in to how we've started building this for clients.
For many new online clients, we’ve started helping create structure around building their own example meal plans.
[ *It's important to note that these are not specific prescriptions for exact portion-sizes/foods that must be consumed. Clients typically find the example structure helpful, and then put their own spin on things from there OR create their own structure and then ask for our input.]
This is because flexible dieting fails when people interpret it as…
“I go into my days with no structure to my food/meals, and just hope I hit my macros when I plug them in at the end of the day.”
This rarely goes as planned. Usually...
a.) You plug your macros in at the end of the day and realize you’re well over your targets.
b.) The constant variety and randomness of your food choices leave a lot of room for measurement error (they’re hard to track accurately, and it’s easy to forget a few foods you ate through the day) - it looks like you’re hitting your macros in your tracking app, but you’re actually eating many more calories than you estimate.
...but either way, you’re not losing fat.
And this is where the example meal plan is most helpful.
If you really consider the meals you eat throughout the week, most of us aren’t extremely present for the majority of them.
Most of our meals Monday - Thursday are simply a box to check before moving on to the next important task of the day.
So for these meals, most people are best of making them as mindless & easy to repeat as possible.
This is where we help our online clients create a “meal template” for most of your meals through the week (i.e. most weekday breakfasts, lunches, and many dinners).
→ STEP 1: The template
We’ll usually start by chatting with clients how much diversity and flexibility they need within their weekday meals.
The majority of online clients seem to prefer just having 1-2 template days that they can easily repeat.
Say we’re working with a 150 pound woman, who’s fat loss macros are: 1800 Calories / 150g Pro / 165g Carb / 60g Fat
We’d work together to create two sample days, that could look something like…
She’s planning to eat this mon/wed/fri this week, all of these foods she’s cooking herself, but once to have a glass of wine 3x/week with her husband.
Her office caters in Chipotle 2x/week, and she prefers a bit of variety with her dinners.
So already, you can see that while this is an “example meal plan” we’ve helped the client create... it’s not just chicken and broccoli.
There’s already flexibility planned in with the wine and meals out.
It's key that your planning ahead for the week is done over the weekend, so that you know what your upcoming week needs to look like.
Also, it’s ok to keep things the same week-to-week. Most clients will find that one meal is getting a bit old, and will swap it out for another option, but all meals don’t have to change weekly.
→ STEP 2: Meal prep as needed.
We have an entire blog devoted to helping you achieve meal prep mastery. Check out The Meal Prep Guide here.
Now, if you’re not working with our coaching team but still want to create your own “meal template” for the week, here’s the gist of it:
1. CHOOSE HOW MANY DIFFERENT “TEMPLATE DAYS” YOU’LL NEED FOR THE WEEK: Again, usually 1-2. From here, you’ll simply be plugging foods into MyFitnessPal (or your macro tracking app of choice) to create a plan for these days that aligns with your macros.
2. CHOOSE YOUR PREFERRED NUMBER OF MEALS: 3-5 meals/snacks daily works best for most. Choose times you can consistently eat each meal, and stick to those - this helps prevent cycles of under/overeating, or playing “macro tetris” too often.
3. PLAN YOUR PROTEINS: Choose a primary protein source for each of your meals, & adjust the serving size until it gives you 25-50g protein, OR add another protein source to reach the 25-50g range. (We want to divide protein evenly between meals, most will hit their goal with 25-50g at each meal.) ⠀
4. PLAN YOUR CARBS: Now you'll know what carb sources will pair well with your proteins - choose 1-2 carb sources for each meal, and adjust serving sizes to fit your macros. (Making the meals around your workouts more carb heavy is more optimal.) ⠀
5. PLAN YOUR FATS: Your protein (and some carb) sources will have fat, so we're waiting until last to add fats as needed to meals. (Timing these further from your workouts is more optimal.)
...and you now have a template day planned out. Figure out how many times you’ll be repeating it this week, so you know how much food to get while prepping.
Even though our clients following this strategy do usually have an example meal plan... they’re still tracking their macros.
On days you do stick to the plan, it’s as easy as hitting “copy from date” in MyFitnessPal, and pasting yesterday's meals over to today.
But here’s the thing… you won’t always want to stick to a meal plan exactly (again, that’s why meal plans usually fail).
Maybe it’s a surprise date night, or donut… when opportunities like that come up, continuing to track your macros allows you to still say “yes” instead of “it doesn’t fit my meal plan”.
To make sure you fully understand how to use flexible dieting to your advantage, let’s say that it’s Wednesday.
You had planned on sticking to your meal template today.
But at 1pm, your significant other texts you…
“Hey babe, let’s go to that winery tonight for dinner.”
…here’s what to do:
1. Make sure you plug in the meals you’ve already eaten for the day. This will show you how many macros you have left to work with in your evening at the winery.
2. Plug in your best estimate of what you’ll eat & drink at the winery. This doesn't have to be perfect, but we need a rough estimate so you know how to adjust the rest of your day so you can have both the date night and keep progressing towards your fat loss goals.
I would plug in here what you’d like to have… even if it’ll push you over your macros as they are now.
3. Adjust the rest of your day. From here, you’ll need to adjust (or cut out) your pre-planned meal template meals to make the winery trip work.
The most important things here:
a.) You still need to hit your protein goal by the end of the day. This means you’ll likely still need to eat a few servings of protein before going to the winery.
Protein is very important for building a great physique, so this is always a priority for our online clients.
b.) You don’t want to be absolutely starving when you go to the winery (so again, it’s probably a good idea to eat beforehand). When you’re hungry, inhibition is lower. When you’re drinking, inhibition is also lower.
The combination of these two things means it’s a lot more likely that you’ll say “screw it” to your macros once you get to the winery and have a few drinks in you.
Now, to "save up" more calories for later, we basically want to focus on eating leaner protein sources (ones that are primarily protein), while trying to keep fats & carbs low to “save” more calories for later.
Say you'd planned to have four rice cakes, a banana, some peanut butter, and a protein shake as a pre-workout snack before your afternoon workout, and a chicken stir-fry on a bed of rice for your final meal of the day.
Instead, you could do something like...
→ PRE-WORKOUT SNACK: 2-3 rice cakes and the protein shake only (and eat a bit closer to your workout as this will digest much quicker than your typical pre-workout meal).
→ MEAL: Keep the chicken & stir-fry veggies, drop the rice - the lean protein and veggies will fill you up and push you towards your protein targets. Dropping the rice gives you more calories to play with later.
With these two simple tweaks, you’re still adequately fueling your physique goals, but also have a lot more calories to work with later in the evening.
4. Adjust your winery food/drink. Now that you’ve adjusted the rest of your day around the boxes you need to tick to continue to make good progress with your body composition goals, go back and adjust the food/drink you have planned at the winery until it fits your macro goals.
This might mean that although you initially wanted 4 glasses of wine, you’ll have to drop it to 3... or maybe cut that charcuterie board in half.
But you now know exactly what you need to do to continue to be successful with your fat loss goals and enjoy your date night.
Again, this is where the “flexible dieting” and tracking macros side of this system we've created is so important.
There are a few different common scenarios here…
Steps to make this work with your macros:
1. Plug your estimate of the total calories you think you'll eat and/or drink at the event into MyFitnessPal first.
This doesn't have to be perfect, but we need a rough estimate so you know how to be smart with the rest of your day.
2. From here, plan out what protein sources you need throughout your other meals of the day to hit your protein goal.
Basically, just choose a protein source for each meal, and adjust the portion-sizes as needed OR add another protein source as needed to get 30-50g at each meal.
3. From there, you'll see "Ok, now that I've for sure hit my protein goal, I have ____ calories to fill with carbs and fats."
Add in carb sources and fat sources as desired with each meal, and adjust portion sizes as needed to make it work with your calorie goal.
And that's how you plan ahead for an event like this.
Now here, to "save up" more calories for later, we basically want to focus on eating leaner protein sources (ones that are primarily protein), so you'll notice we drop a lot of the fats, and reduce carb source sizes as well in the example day below.
→ MEAL 1: Here I would opt for something like an egg white omelet (no fat) with spinach & salsa, paired with a non-fat greek yogurt + protein with a bit of fruit mixed in. This will still give you your protein goal, but you're saving a lot of calories via fat, and eating less overall carbs.
→ MEAL 2: Here, I would do something like a chicken or ground turkey stir-fry. The protein source is obviously your meat. Lots of stir fry veggies will help keep you full, and you can realistically add in a smaller serving of a carb source and be fine here.
→ SNACK: Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, jerky, deli meat, tuna salad, etc. Low-fat cottage cheese + tuna pouches are money in situations like this, super easy way to get lots of protein and little else.
→ MEAL 3: This is your meal out - using our strategy, you have lots of calories saved up from the rest of the day, but also shouldn’t be absolutely starving going into the evening.
We’re following pretty similar guidelines to the above, but with a bit less planning, because you’re basically just taking it meal by meal here.
For example, let’s say that most Saturdays you know you’re going to eat/drink at a restaurant at some point during the day… but typically won’t know where until 30-60 minutes before.
Here, you simply want to be proactive about keep calories lower, while getting in plenty of protein, filling fruits & veggies, and adequate fuel for your training.
Say your breakfast/pre-workout meal on Saturdays is typically…
- Greek yogurt
- Peanut butter
- Whey protein
...you could swap it for just the whey, greek yogurt, and berries. You’ll still be getting in the protein + some of the carbs you need to fuel a solid training session, but also saving calories.
If your post-workout meal is typically...
- Sweet potato
- Ground beef or chicken
...you could swap it for another 1-2 scoops of whey and a piece of fruit. Or you could use the ground beef or chicken on a bed of greens to make a salad instead.
Again, you’re still getting the protein you need for recovery, and plenty of fullness to keep your appetite low from the meal, but are also saving lots of calories.
The examples we used from your trip to the winery could also apply here.
Now, at some point you’ll know where the restaurant or bar is you’ll be eating/drinking at...
1. Scan the menu upon arrival and look for my best options. These are usually in the "entrees" section - a big chunk of meat/fish/poultry with a carb source like veggie, a potato, or rice
2. Do your best to estimate those calories and plug them into MyFitnessPal before eating. You can usually do this right after you order.
3. From there, you can rework the rest of your macros for the day and determine something like...
"Ok, I can eat ~3/4ths of the food I ordered here, and still hit my macros for the day".
In total, this only takes ~3-5 minutes to do, and allows you to enjoy your meal while also hitting your goals.
For most of our online clients following this diet protocol (who are also currently in a fat loss phase), this is a perfect example of what 1-2 days of their week typically look like.
We’ll also typically program these as “flex days” for online clients. Whereas normally our clients are focused on hitting macro goals (protein, carb, and fat targets) to optimize their body composition, on flex days you’re simply going to focus on hitting your protein and calorie targets, and let carbs and fats fall where they may.
Doing this 1-2x/week won’t negatively impact your results, but will give you a lot more dietary flexibility.
And that’s how our online clients bridge the gap between flexible diet and meal plans in a system that does allow you to have the best of both worlds - structure/fat loss results & a flexible, sustainable nutrition approach.
If you’ve been trying to transform your physique, but have been stuck in the same frustrating place for years... it’s time to ask for help.
Click here now to apply for online coaching with our team. Our individualized coaching helps you transform your body (and keep your results for a lifetime) through science-based methods, non-stop education, and real human connection.
Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram for more educational content.
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