I had a bit of an idea the other day about comparing what is “recommended” vs what is “good enough to get the job done” in terms of approaches and adherence to dieting. What is recommended varies wildly from one source to another.
What probably should be recommended is something a bit better than simply “good enough to get the job done” in terms of weight loss or conditioning goals. There should be some attention on good health, as well. With that said, what is often recommended by certain elements of the health and fitness is so extreme that you end up with the somewhat paradoxical situation of being unhealthy due to an unhealthy level of obsession with avoiding anything that is unhealthy, at all times and at all costs. When you lift the bar on what counts as “healthy” to an unrealistic level, well… it’s really not good, is it?
I had the idea to try to create a graphical representation of this, and here’s what I have come up with.
It isn’t so much a scale from “unhealthiest to healthiest”, so much as a scale of the level of attention to detail that someone might pay to their diet; from reckless indifference to extreme and unhealthy obsessiveness.
Now, anywhere within that black range towards the centre of the graphic is about what I would consider “good enough to get the job done” in terms of your body condition and composition goals. The range there is from “absolute bare minimum” to more fine tuned plans for the highly motivated and enthusiastic advanced level athletes who may require them. Anything in the red represents what is inappropriate through to what is actually unhealthy or destructive at the extreme ends of the scale.
Either extreme is unhealthy and not recommended, that’s the real take home point here.
Let’s take a look at all the points on the scale and I’ll give you my impression of each label. Cut me some slack if my interpretation is not precisely and exactly what you associate with each label, you can still get the point I’m trying to make, I am sure.
The obvious example would be just no attention to diet at all, vastly excessive over all intake, while still being low on important nutritional resources such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. One could arrive at this state of vastly excessive total intake either just through consistent over eating, or perhaps by “forgetting” to eat at some times and massively over eating later.
This label probably applies to the majority of people. Their eating habits are not really so unhealthy as you’d actually expect serious health complications or reduced life expectancy, but they’re certainly not conducive to any weight management, sports performance or body composition goals, either.
You know. Think of the most ridiculous negative stereotype of some IIFYM gym bro deliberately making a point of choosing all the most highly processed, least wholesome, nutrient sparse foods, somehow managing to squeeze them into a plan that meets suitable total energy and macronutrient ratios, and in an obnoxious voice proclaims to anyone within ear shot “I don’t give a fuck bro! IIFYM bro! I’m getting shredded bro!”
I don’t think anyone in real life actually does that. It’s certainly not what anyone recommends, as far as I’m aware anyway.
You know what though? As much as I would not, can not, and do not recommend it, this approach actually is “good enough to get the job done” at least a good portion of the way.
Flexible Dieting is something of an upgraded, more “responsible adult” version of what IIFYM was supposed to be. You need to hit your appropriate total energy intake and have a suitable balance of macronutrients, but not while neglecting other important nutritional resources such as … well… you know, vitamins and minerals and fibre.
Now, different people may have a different take on this but for the sake of differentiating from the next point, let’s assume here that we’re not terribly concerned about avoiding processed foods and so on… and it’s more like “appropriate macros + enough fruit and veg”.
That’s actually how I do it, anyway. “Do better if you can but appropriate macros + enough fruit and veg is more than enough to get the job done”.
What Real Dietitians Recommend
I happen to follow, be followed by, collaborate with, and try to learn from some highly qualified “real” dietitians via social media. My observation of their recommendations tends to quite similar to Flexible Dieting, but with less emphasis on the numbers (as in macronutrient percentages and so on, which is more of a “sports nutrition” thing), and more of an emphasis on “a variety of foods, less (but not a total avoidance of) processed foods, more fruit and veg, and to a total intake that is neither excessive nor insufficient”.
Quite sensible and not terribly unrealistic really, isn’t it?
So quite appropriately, those two previous classifications fall nicely into the middle of my graphic, and there’s a reason why those are the recommended approaches of responsible and qualified professionals. It’s what is suitable to promote good health within an appropriate weight range, while enabling performance and results from training (where applicable), while still being non restrictive, flexible, and relatively simple to adhere to so long as you are being mindful and paying a little attention.
Let’s continue though. I am building up to an important point here, believe it or not.
Advanced and Elite Level Athletes
Obviously, when you get to advanced levels of human physical ability, you need a more advanced fueling strategy. Greater total energy intake, perhaps more precise macronutrient percentages, you may find that a particular schedule and particular foods before or after training benefit your performance or recovery. Some athletes increased total energy requirements mean that they can indulge on more of the less nutrient dense foods, others perhaps not so much.
Exactly what is required varies from one athlete to the next. It is not unreasonable to say that what is required is a little (or a lot) more attention to detail than would be necessary for the rest of us.
Contest prep is an interesting one! I do know there are at least a handful of a really good contest prep coaches who achieve tremendous results through healthy and flexible methods. Obviously though, the high level of attention to detail and adherence is still necessary.
More typically though, contest prep is strict and inflexible, and extremely demanding physically and psychologically. I read an excellent blog entry the other day giving people the heads up of what is really required in contest prep, and that really it is the ultimate in extreme and restrictive dieting, and people need to really be honest with themselves as to whether it would be a rewarding or disastrous experience.
What is important to note with contest preparation is that it is ultra fine tuned dieting for a period leading up to a specific date where the contestant wants to arrive in an unsustainable condition in terms of low body fat and high lean mass. This is not a level of dietary adherence OR physical condition that people are attempting to maintain permanently.
That is so important to realise.
As a side note, people are always suggesting or asking me why I don’t do a contest myself. Let me make this clear first, I have nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for the athletes who put in the work and pull that off. For me though? Screw that! You’d need to want it really badly to put enough pressure upon yourself to adhere to such a strict protocol with so much discipline, and I’m not even entertaining the notion of deluding myself about how well I would hold up under such pressure and how much discipline I would be able to maintain.
Backing up 3 or 4 levels on our scale here, that “Flexible Dieting” level along with some consistent and effective training is really all that is required to get into a shape you’ll be more than happy with. So that is all I ask of myself, and all I ask of my clients as well.
The Next Level
We talked about contest preparation being in many cases an extreme, restrictive and not particularly healthy process. We emphasised that this is a temporary situation, to come in on one particular, specific day in peak shape as far as the judging criteria goes. The well advised contestant will also have an exit strategy in order to recover physically and mentally from such a taxing experience.
What if people really did think such an extreme and restrictive approach was required at all times though, with 100% adherence? And not just to be in contest shape, either; but simply to avoid being obese and unhealthy?
Unfortunately… scandalously, really, that is the message and the recommendation of many aspects of the health and fitness community. Certainly it is good advice to encourage people to include more healthy, nutrient dense and naturally produced foods on a regular basis. When people are told that their health, their results in weight loss or conditioning from training, and even their worth as a human being are all dependant on the strictest of adherence to the highest possible levels of “healthy eating”, there is a big problem. When people are taught that even fruit, for example is “not healthy enough”, there is a huge problem.
Ironically in these situations, the diets actually become so restrictive that there can be issues with deficiencies in certain micronutrients, as the list of “allowable” foods because so short. Deficiency in total energy intake is also a potentially serious problem.
So. There is the “rough and dirty version” of what will get the job done, there is “what responsible professionals might recommend” as the most balanced, flexible and sensible way to get the job done, and then there is the extreme, restrictive, impractical and unhealthy bordering on the obsessive and disordered approaches that certain aspects of the health and fitness community endorse, and use scare mongering, guilt and shame to encourage.
Looking back at my chart, you can see there is a wide area there representing various approaches to diet and nutrition that will “get the job done”. Contrary to what many would try to scare you into believing, there is not just one acceptable or effective set of eating habits that will allow you to achieve good health and goal condition, with any even slight variance spelling doom.
You most certainly can achieve your goals, be healthy and happy with your physical condition through whatever approach best suits you, providing the focus is on appropriate total energy intake, adequate protein, and enough fruit and vegetables.
If you’re interested in my approach to flexible dieting and the tremendous results you can achieve through effective training without restrictive or disordered eating, head through and sign up to the VIP Flexible Fueling Pre-Program. It’s free.