8 February 2019


by Ian McCarthy 0

Traditionally, the fitness industry has regarded individual foods as either “clean” or “dirty”, with “clean” foods being acceptable to eat in sometimes-unlimited quantities, and “dirty” foods to be avoided as much as possible

Traditionally, the fitness industry has regarded individual foods as either “clean” or “dirty”, with “clean” foods being acceptable to eat in sometimes-unlimited quantities, and “dirty” foods to be avoided as much as possible, except in the context of “cheat” meals. This “clean”/”dirty” was further reinforced in the context of bodybuilders preparing for contest, as oftentimes their entire diet was intended to consist only of the aforementioned “clean” foods. Although such a rigid approach can undoubtedly be effective (even highly effective) if adhered to, human psychology is complex, and it’s well-understood that instructing someone to *not* do something can increase their desire to do it. This phenomenon is exacerbated in the context of weight loss, both as a result of increased hunger and, potentially, impaired rationality (to illustrate this point, consider the quality of your decision-making when you’re well-fed versus chronically underfed). Indeed, rigid dieting based around a restrictive set of acceptable foods is notorious for causing binge eating episodes (in which the subject loses control of their eating, and often eats to the point of physical discomfort and/or simply running out of the binge-on food), and these episodes can slow (or even halt, or reverse) physical progress, and, more concerningly, open the door to a binge/restrict cycle which can evolve into a full-blown eating disorder.

Fortunately, this paradigm has been forcefully changed over the past decade, with the emergence of the acronym “IIFYM” and its perceived implications, as well as the rise of flexible dieting more generally. Fundamentally, these new approaches (it’s worth noting that the concepts which underlie flexible dieting have existing for decades, but seemed essentially unknown in the fitness industry until recently) propose that individuals foods are not either “clean” or “dirty”, “good” or “bad”, “healthy” or “unhealthy” – but rather are akin to puzzle pieces, each with its own characteristics, sometimes fitting into the puzzle (your diet), and sometimes not. Although this approach can itself become extreme (for example, the reduction of the qualitative assessment of one’s diet to protein intake, carbohydrate intake, and fat intake undoubtedly fails to account for a wide variety of body composition and health-related nutrition variables), I do think that in its totality it does a better job of accounting for context and the fact that consumption of a given food is not always unequivocally conducive to or destructive of good health.


However, flexible dieting is not without its flaws – at least not in the form which has been popularized. Specifically, I think that in the clamor to underline the fact it is possible to eat “dirty” foods while remaining healthy and making good body composition progress, what’s been overlooked is the fact that truly flexible dieting – in other words, an approach which genuinely accounts for an individual’s wants and needs, without arbitrary exclusion or rigidity – includes the ability to not be flexible.

If this seems like a contradiction, consider the following: the right to vote gives citizens the ability to freely choose who to vote for, often going so far as to allow the writing in of candidates (in other words, if you wish to vote for Jason Genova for President – which I’ve considered – you can). However, this right is not a mandate to vote; you’re not forced to do anything, and you’re free to choose to stay home and watch reruns of House while others vote. But here’s the real kicker: choosing to not vote is not the same as not having the right to vote. By the same token, accepting that you can eat junk food (in fairly significant quantities, too – at least in principle) while still being healthy and making the progress you desire – in other words, accepting the central principle which underlies flexible dieting – does not mandate that you each such foods. And indeed (and this is where we finally get to the core of this piece), I think that for some people it is actually best they restrict their consumption of these foods as much as possible.

At the risk of beginning with too basic a fact, humans diverge in their response to almost anything: different amounts of sleep, different levels of stress, etc. In most cases, at the population level we land on a bell curve, with most of us clustered in the middle; most people do best with around 8 hours of sleep per night, but some find 6 hours equally restful, and others need 10 hours. In the case of diet, however, folks largely seem to fall into one of two opposing camps: the moderators, and the restrictors – and the ideal dietary approach for someone in one camp is significantly different to the ideal approach for someone in the other.


The Moderator

I’m going to try to keep this section somewhat brief, as I think this is the ground most thoroughly covered in the existing discourse around flexible dieting.

Simply put, the moderator is someone who thrives when they consume junk food in moderate quantities, typically on a regular basis. The moderator, in (correctly) believing this to be okay, feels freed psychologically, and finds that junk food has less power over them, as a function of it no longer being a forbidden fruit. This moderate consumption of junk has the overall effect of reducing the moderator’s interest in, and cravings for, such food, and indeed, they might get to the point of finding it largely uninteresting (if you’re thinking “LOL, yeah right.” – trust me, I’ve seen it happen). Overall, the moderator’s, well, moderate consumption of junk food has the effect of simultaneously improving dietary satisfaction and dietary adherence, yielding a happier, more effective dieter.

On the other hand, when the moderator is told they can’t eat certain foods (or, conversely, that they can eat only a restricted set of foods), they tend to feel suffocated, stressed, and find that their desire for the forbidden foods increases. Interestingly, this can even apply to foods the moderator doesn’t particularly like; more than once I’ve read stories of individuals, usually selective in their food choices even when indulging, binging on pretty much any high-sugar, high-fat food available, in response to an overly-restrictive diet.

Another defining characteristic of the moderator that I need not overlook is the fact that they’re able to consume as little as a single serving of junk food and feel satisfied. Indeed, this might be the most straightforward litmus test for whether or not you fit into this category; if you need to eat at least five donuts to feel like you’ve had a decent treat, you’re not a moderator, period.

The Restrictor

Between the name and the assumed contrast with the previous section, you can probably guess at what a restrictor is: someone who does best radically restricting their intake of junk food, if not fully removing them from their diet. The reasons for this are simple, and essentially inversions of what characterizes moderators: restrictors, when allowed to consume junk food in moderation, find themselves unsatisfied after moderately-sized portions of suchs foods, find their cravings generally increased, and tend to binge. In the absence of drastic changes to their overall approach, this pattern of subjective experiences and outward behavior can easily degenerate into the sort of binge/restrict pattern for which stereotypically “clean” diets are so notorious.

Interestingly, extreme restriction can feel freeing for the restrictor, given they might be able to place “dirty” foods in sort of a mental box with the knowledge they don’t eat them, thus making them largely irrelevant in practice. I acknowledge this explanation is inadequate, but I find the phenomenon usually difficult to describe; perhaps, as an analogy, you could consider the case of someone who doesn’t drink, ever – when offered alcohol, they need not go through a reasoning process which leads them to a conclusion like “No, I drank last night, so I’ll pass.” – they simply default to “I don’t drink.” In other words, if the *emotional* significance of junk food can be subdued, a disciplined restrictor can get to the point of viewing such foods as essentially uninteresting – whereas if they were to eat them even in moderation, once again the door would suddenly be open to extreme cravings and even binging.

Sadly, the incessant flexible dieting-related rhetoric one now sees on social media (which, admittedly, has died down considerably since 2013-2015) seems to completely overlook the restrictor; while the predominant narrative perfectly suits the moderator, it’s really only partially true. To be clear, I say this not to simply complain about the quality of social media content, but rather to emphasize that the bulk of discourse on this topic isn’t reflective of the experience of what it at least a sizeable minority of the population, and folks who fall into this group need not feel the odd man out.

The Actual Odd Man Out

For the sake of accuracy and completeness, I do feel I should state explicitly that not everyone fits cleanly into one of the above two categories. The clearest example of this lies in the fact that folks who are generally moderators find themselves unable to control their consumption of a particular food, or foods – generating the concept of the ‘trigger food’, so named because it seems to be consumption of the food itself, rather than the individual’s general tendencies or, say, a psychologically traumatic event, which reliably triggers a binge (shameless plug: I have a whole chapter on trigger foods in my upcoming book on overcoming binge eating).

In addition, there exists a very small but, in my experience, significant minority of folks who seem to truly regard food as almost entirely a biological necessity. These individuals (again, in my experience) often eat anything at all almost begrudgingly, rarely experience cravings, and, perhaps as a function of not finding eating enjoyable to begin with, don’t binge. When it comes to practical recommendations, I think people in this category are best advised to reduce their diet decisions to questions of nutritional value, convenience, and cost; this article is overwhelmingly irrelevant to this group, but I wanted to mention them, again, because I don’t want to act as if they simply don’t exist.

Okay, so which am I?

I had originally intended to lay out a set of questions through which you’d be able to work in order to answer this question, but in the light of the detail of the above sections, I began to feel doing so would be somewhat condescending. However, if you would like to approach this issue in that way, take a look at the infographic accompanying this article.

Fundamentally, I think this is a matter of self-awareness and honesty. If it’s not immediately clear to you whether you’re a moderator or restrictor (in my experience, folks usually know right away; that’s not to say you should feel bad if you don’t), you need to scrutinize your own behavior as thoroughly and objectively as possible. As I’ve said before, there is no genuine advantage to lying to yourself here, as you’ll ultimately be setting yourself up for failure – even if being somewhat dishonest might play to your favor in the short term. For example, someone who, in truth, does best almost wholly avoiding junk food, might, frankly, bullshit themselves and those around them, claiming to have no issue with eating in moderation. There’s a very straightforward explanation for this: they just like eating junk, so they’ll say whatever justifies that behavior. To be clear, I don’t say this with the intention of shaming anyone, but rather to draw attention to a pattern of statements (both within your own mind, and made explicitly to others) and behaviors which are ultimately not in our best interest.

The Punchline

Although the flexible dieting community (which, I’ll happily acknowledge, is not one contiguous entity) gets a lot – indeed, probably most things – right, it’s human nature for nuance to be abandoned, deliberately or through a lack of scrutiny, in favor of forceful promotion of The Truth. In this case, what I fear has largely been lost is an understanding that psychology is enormously complex, and results in profound variance in how each of us responds to any given nutritional approach – even if there is, in fact, an approach which is ideal for most people. The solution to this problem is sincere skepticism (which means questioning your own beliefs, not just everyone else’s!), open-mindedness, and an acceptance of the fact there is an exception – indeed, often many – to every rule.

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