Dieting is like a pendulum. Unfortunately, when the pendulum swings away from one extreme, it doesn’t simply stop at an appropriate middle ground – it goes all the way to the opposite extreme. So goes popular dieting, with the flavor of flexible dieting now ubiquitous on social media representing an extreme simplification, and even distortion, of the evidence-based principles which underlie flexible dieting at its best. Frankly, flexible dieting seems to have been largely replaced with something far closer to a justification for a lack of dietary discipline. Worse even than the reductionist approach to IIFYM which controls only for daily macronutrient intake, we’ve now seen the rise of supposed “intuitive” eating perhaps best characterized as “eating whatever you want.”

While such extreme dietary flexibility may be an attractive ideal, it actually tends toward impracticality and increased stress. Specifically, it fails to account for the role played by decision fatigue – literally the fatigue resulting from making decisions. All of us have to make innumerable decisions every single day, from the micro (“Do you want sugar in your coffee?”) to the macro (“What classes are you going to take this semester?”) to the really macro (“Do you want to get married?”). Each of these decisions, regardless of scale and significance, requires some level of cognitive resources, and mental fatigue eventually results.

Now, when you exacerbate this fatigue by constantly varying your diet, and combine that fatigue with even a normal level of hunger, you increase stress and the likelihood of making unwise nutrition-related decisions. Best case scenario, you simply endure this stress and make the right decision anyway (there is certainly something to be said for sheer willpower, but relying on it can be exhausting and thus unsustainable); worst case scenario, you slip up as a sort of nutritional triage – you just need to eat something. Worth emphasizing is the fact that even if you make the right call – even if you choose something which fits into your nutritional goals and requirements – you will have done so despite your extremely flexible nutritional approach, rather than as a natural extension of it.

On the other hand, a more rigid – but, to be clear, not entirely rigid – approach allows one to largely, or even completely, sidestep this issue, by simply having a plan in place ahead of time. Hungry? No problem! You already know what you’re going to eat, so you don’t have to figure it out while gnawing on your lower lip and pondering robbery of the closest Dunkin’ Donuts. Instead, you’re free to make nutritional decisions whenever you can do so most effectively (notice the irony here – a relatively restrictive, pre-planned diet actually allows more cognitive freedom).

Is this perhaps a less interesting or exciting methodology? Absolutely! But it’s one which generally works better, precisely because it (generally) generates the desired outcome – dietary adherence – with the least amount of stress.

To be sure, there is a role for flexibility in maximizing dietary adherence and, ultimately, fitness success – and it’s not my intention to claim otherwise. Rather, I want to argue for a level of flexibility which remains, at least ideally, entirely beneficial – an aspect of one’s diet which exclusively makes adherence easier. And, I think, this level of flexibility is closer to being 80% planned and consistent than mostly unplanned and on-the-fly. Again, I think the stereotypical flexible dieter will find such an approach liberating, in that it frees up time and energy which would otherwise be spent making food decisions. After all, if most of your diet is consistent, most of your diet doesn’t have to be critically analyzed on a daily basis, freeing up those cognitive resources to be used for literally anything else.


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