8 February 2019
IS THERE A PLACE FOR RIGID DIETING?
We hear it all the time. Restrictive eating and elimination diets are unsustainable, unhealthy and create more problems than they solve. Adopt a flexible approach to dieting, eat inclusively and moderate your intake for long term weight management, right? In this article I explore restraint and whether or not flexibility is the best way to…
We hear it all the time.
Restrictive eating and elimination diets are unsustainable, unhealthy and create more problems than they solve. Adopt a flexible approach to dieting, eat inclusively and moderate your intake for long term weight management, right?
In this article I explore restraint and whether or not flexibility is the best way to teach restraint and question our common beliefs pertaining to IIFYM being the holy grail of dietary interventions.
Dieting and restraint, explained.
What many of us fail to realize, and often accept (myself included way back when), is that any form of dieting, involves restraint. Dieting by definition is “the intentional and sustained restriction of caloric intake for the purpose of reducing body weight or changing body shape, resulting in a significant negative/positive energy balance”. (1)
Restrained eating is broadly defined as the intention to restrict food intake to achieve or maintain a more desirable body weight (2).
Irrespective of the ‘method’ of dietary intervention, all forms of ‘dieting’ whether they be rigid or flexible, require a degree of restraint. The measurement of the type of restraint is complex, but can be boiled down to two types of restraint – flexible vs rigid.
A rigid diet can be defined as an “all or nothing” approach to dieting, such as creating food lists whereby only ‘healthy’ or ‘good’ foods are consumed, eliminating ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad. foods.
Whereas flexible dieting can be characterised by inclusive eating and a more moderated intake of food choices.
It’s also well established that restraint is not the issue, mores the type of restraint exhibited by the dieter.
There is a significant body of literature evaluating the relationship of dietary restraint variables with overeating, body mass, depression and anxiety and other physiological and psychological related restrained effects.
At first glance, the research appears to show an overwhelming amount of support for flexible dietary restraint:
- Improved weight loss success;
- Lower food focus;
- Lower BMI;
- Less overeating;
- Lower mood disturbances;
- Less binging
- Lower symptoms of ED; and
- Improved body image. (3)
However a question I have more recently found myself asking of flexible dieting is:
Is ‘flexibility’ the best way to teach restraint?
Many of you reading this will be flexible dieting advocates, no doubt.
However, the questions I want to ask of you are:
Did you stumble upon IIFYM after adopting a more rigid approach to dieting first?
Could this initial period of restrictive eating been the reason that you were able to succeed with a more moderated, inclusive diet?
Flexible dieting has been assumed by the fitness community to be the holy grail of dietary interventions. As it stands, there are now many coaches and athletes who have grabbed the scientific bull by the horns and advocate a ‘flexible’ approach to dietary restraint, all of whom have jumped on board the pop tart band wagon, bashing meal plans, restriction or other rigid methods, irrespective of context.
The scientific community shows plenty of disparagement towards the idea of ‘suffering’ whilst dieting – even though most flexible dieters adopt a rigid mentality towards their diet, they just don’t know it…
How Rigidity Helped My Moderation…
I’ll use my own personal experience with dieting to illustrate that, perhaps rigid diets do indeed have a time and place, and how rigid dieting may be a necessary first step in our diet journey before later transitioning towards a more flexible approach.
I first started out my dietary journey back in 2007 as a young 16-year-old wanting to look like Ben Cousins. Those of you who don’t know who he is, google him ASAP. Shredded, built and a weapon on the football field.
My approach was simple – serious restriction and deprivation.
My diet was rigid. I could count on one hand the foods I allowed myself to eat, and it was all or nothing.
It worked, that is, the diet served its purpose in reducing body fat and weight.
I got lean, peeled even and to the point where I somewhat resembled a skinny version of my then idol.
It wasn’t until I was fed up with all of the binging, elimination and anti social behavior that I searched for a better way.
5 years later at the age of 21, I started taking the high road of ‘flexibility’ and the early days of food lists, categorising foods as good or bad and the neurotic eating behaviours were long behind me.
No more binging.
A healthier relationship with body.
Improved weight management.
And freedom from ‘restriction’…
Another win for IIFYM, right?
Hindsight is always 20-20…
Hindsight is a beautiful thing. It’s so easy to look back on our failures, short comings and ‘suboptimal’ approached with regret and disdain, however these experiences often lead us down the right path…
What if, just maybe, all those years of restriction and elimination in fact served me well in developing the ability to abstain and restrain?
What if, if it weren’t for all that rigidity, flexible dieting wouldn’t have been a success?
Looking back, the days of rigidity quite possibly helped me develop an internal locus of control to successfully exhibit dietary restraint.
I can’t be sure that it was the only reason, but what I can tell you is that the all or nothing approach to dieting did teach me the importance of control when it came to my dietary choices.
It also taught me a lot of valuable lessons:
- The importance of a high protein diet;
- How to contract meals and eat foods that improved my satiation; and
- That meal timing and frequency could undermine my adherence
By no means is my story the case for everyone, and I am definitely not advocating an excessively restrictive or rigid approach to dieting for those who may not require it…
However, I’m confident many of you can resonate and will see value in my experience to think a little more critically about your beliefs of what is ‘optimal’ when it comes to nutrition and again be more judicious about praising IIFYM as everyones knight in shining armour…
I’m going to throw in my two cents here and add that in coaching over 500 individuals over the past 8 years, I’ve seen a lot of trends, anecdote and gained insight into the successfulness of dieting strategies, again leading me me to demand more of what I believe to be the ‘best way’ to diet and how we implement flexibility into ones food choices.
Pre-Requisites for Flexibility…
In a previous article I wrote, “Nutrition 101: What I’ve learnt in 8 years”, I discussed Researcher and author Eric Helms’ model of implementing a flexible diet, whereby he proposed a stepwise approach to adopting a more flexible, moderated diet. I paraphrased Eric’s original presentation for a graphic I made and broke down this model into 4 distinct phases:
PHASE 1: Dietary Awareness & Education
PHASE 2: Rigid Diet Control;
PHASE 3: Flexibility Dieting; and
PHASE 4: Behaviour Based Eating.
As evident in the above model of dieting success, awareness, education and learning how to control intake via positive eating behaviours and habits whilst emphasising self awareness is indeed a critical first step before transitioning to a flexible diet.
Whilst the evidence based community and those who are in tune with the scientific literature are quick to jump the gun and embrace whatever the research proposes is ‘optimal’, we can sometimes neglect the importance of ‘learning’, give context to when we apply a methodology and fail to recognise the importance of practicality.
When we couple this with the dissemination of information from influential fitness professionals who advocate the adoption of ‘flexible dieting’ to the struggling, uninformed, desperate, vulnerable and eager dieting enthusiast the success of flexible dieting are varied at best.
Flexible dieting is indeed what has been scientifically founded to be ‘optimal’ for long term weight management, its appealing, seemingly ‘pain free’ and attractive to anyone looking to diet for body composition improvements.
But, surely this isn’t the answer for all…
The importance of context…
Moderating dietary intake isn’t an easy task for the uneducated, unpracticed and somewhat troubled dieter…
- Poor dietary awareness.
- Lack of nutritional knowledge.
- Dietary disinhibition.
- Body image disorders.
- Eating disorders.
These are but a few of the very real, and common, issues many fitness enthusiasts face, and I would argue that ‘flexibility’ is likely to cause more harm than good in these situations. Simply advising to hit your calories and macros to anyone who fits within the aforementioned categories is a fruitless and somewhat dangerous endeavour.
Furthermore, some prevalent issues many people face that are less ‘dire’ and extreme in nature are being time poor, that is they are ridiculously busy and their priorities simply do not lie with their ‘macros’, bro…
Surely a more rigid approach that takes out the thinking and guess work for these individuals would be a more suitable approach, at least in the short term. I would argue that it may even improve their compliance by reducing the likelihood of decision fatigue, a very common issue when the world is your oyster as a macro tracker…
I know that when I first stumbled into the macro crowd, I thought everyone needs to hear about this and be more ‘moderated’ in their dietary choices. It was like when I found out that Santa wasn’t real, every kid on the block had to know!
I even prescribed calorie and macro tracking to seriously overweight clients, busy corporates, those with underlying eating issues you name it and they were a Myfitnesspal warrior…
And guess what?
It failed, miserably…
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I now know better. But thinking back to when I first started tracking calories and macros freely each day, without ‘restriction’ (besides the numbers of course), it was a daunting and somewhat overbearing venture.
Did I fully understand the intricacies of weighing food raw vs cooked, the error in calorie tracking apps and how to stop at just one cookie?
Hell no, and there was a lot of time that was invested both in researching and trialling different diet set ups before I got my shit together…
So why is it then, that we expect those new to the dieting game to be able to simply figure their shit out and eradicate decades of poor nutritional choices, habits and perceptions related to food and body weight management?
I have more questions than I do answers, and this piece isn’t designed to propose solutions to yours or your clients dieting dilemmas.
Instead, I hope to demonstrate firstly that all forms of dieting require some level of restraint, and that in teaching the skill of abstaining, perhaps we should reevaluate our hasty approval and implementation of flexible dieting to those who have not yet learned the foundational habits of saying ‘no’.
There are an abundance of things to consider, questions to seek explanations for and further trial, error and research to explore before I cement my beliefs on what is the ‘best’ dieting strategy for weight managements.
But what I do know is that rigidity has a time and place. It may even be what is ‘optimal’ for some.
1. Yanovski S.. Dieting and the development of eating disorders in overweight and obese adults. (2000)
2. Lowe MR, Thomas JG. Measures of restrained eating: conceptual evolution and psychometric update. (2009).
3. Westenhoefer J, Validation of the flexible and rigid control dimensions of dietary restraint (1999).