Stricter is Not Better for Long-Term Weight Loss
There are many ‘diets’ out there these days that claim effective and quick results by adhering to very strict rules: drink a gallon of water; eat 6 meals with vegetables at all meals; no more than X amount of calories per meal; don’t go longer than 3 waking hours between meals; eat half a grapefruit within 30 minutes of waking up; no added sugars; no artificial sweeteners; no trans fats… All sound a little too familiar? Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m actually impressed by someone who can adhere to all of those self-made rules.
I, like many others, have mistakenly believed for many years that eating perfectly ‘clean’ and being extremely strict on myself were the secrets to getting lean. Months and years of this mindset had passed without the results I was looking for, yet I persistently continued along this same worn path. It never crossed my mind that anything other than this strict approach would provide the results that I was after. As it turns out, rigid dieting is actually not a realistic long-term strategy, and it’s definitely far from the most effective way to get and stay lean all year around.
Rigid versus Flexible Dieting
Westenhoefer (1991) defines rigid eating as adopting an “all or nothing” approach to eating, dieting, and bodyweight. Some examples of this include deeming some foods “good” and others “bad,” having a forbidden foods list (or conversely, a very short approved foods list), thinking of yourself as a failure if you exceed a given bodyweight, and crash dieting, starving, and binge eating.
Flexible dieting—which we know really isn’t dieting at all—entails a much more graduated mentality towards eating, dieting, and bodyweight. Instead of the “good food/bad food” mindset, we can prioritize foods that should be consumed more frequently than others.
A 2002 study by Stewart, Williamson, and White titled, “Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women,” compared the differences in eating disorder symptoms, mood disturbances, and body mass index (BMI) between rigid and flexible dieters.
They used 188 recruits for this study, and assessed the following via questionnaires:
degree of rigid vs. flexible control of eating
eating attitudes (to measure eating disorder symptoms)
The results showed that those who engaged in rigid eating habits had a higher BMI, more anxiety, and experienced greater mood disturbances and eating disorder symptoms, including binge eating. One interesting point was that most of the recruits used a mix of both rigid and flexible dieting strategies.
We also learned that:
Rigid control of eating behaviors in men and women is associated with more eating disorder symptoms and greater mood disturbances than was flexible control of eating behaviors (Timkho and Perone, 2005).
A monotonous diet (such as one with little variety due to elimination of “forbidden” foods) triggers food cravings (Pelchat and Schaeffer, 2000), which has found to be associated with higher BMI and binge eating behaviors (Abilés et al., 2010; Moreno, Warren, Rodríguez, Fernández, & Cepeda-Benito, 2009).
Rigid dieting control strategies have been found to be inversely correlated with dieting success, while flexible dieting control strategies has been found to be positively correlated with dieting success (Meule, Westenhöfer, and Kübler, 2011).
So what does this mean?
More strict or rigid eating habits are not an effective strategy for long-term weight loss. Through personal experience as well as with the vast majority of my clients, I have found great success from switching from a strict diet mindset to a flexible approach, not only with total body mass, but body composition (fat mass versus lean mass), mindset, and overall relationship to food. I went from eating only clean, organic, and raw foods to now frequently eating burgers, fries, ice cream and chips; all guilt-, gain-, and gluttony-free.
How to Approach Flexible Dieting
Flexible dieting is not a pass to eat whatever you want and get shredded abs, as most people tend to think. The word “flexible” implies that there is still some degree of structure to your eating. Namely, here’s what should form the backbone of your diet:
Approximately 1g protein per 1lb bodyweight per day
Majority of calories coming from nutrient-dense foods
Carbs and fats tailored to suit your personal preferences while providing sufficient energy
As well, there should be no feelings of guilt associated with food consumption, including the more nutrient-devoid treats. Calorie intake should never get out of hand (not too high or too low) and portion control should be exercised at all times. And the rest of the details? Well, that’s for the coach and client to decide together.
Now there does happen to be a small group of people who genuinely enjoy eating nutrient-dense foods more often than not and don’t really care for junk food or have big cravings (I’m one of them!) For these people, the lack of junk food in their diets is due to the fact that they don’t care for them, not that they are forbidden themselves from consuming the treats. In their case, they are still practicing flexible eating strategies because they are not “violating” any of their own food rules.
If you’ve found that many of the nutrition rules you’ve implemented for yourself haven’t been working so well, I urge you to loosen the reins on your eating.
Find a nutrition strategy that you enjoy and can adhere to long-term.
Nip cravings in the bud before they spiral out of control.
Enjoy your food guilt-free.
Become a master of nutrition moderation.
Maintain your weight loss results for good.
When you're ready to take the guesswork out of your nutrition and training, we're here for you. Our coaches at Courtney For Life meet you where you are in life and help you find your magic protocols to meet your goals. See our coaching options and complete the inquiry form at courtneyforlife.com/coaching
Inspired by Sohee Lee.
Abilés, V., Rodríguez-Ruiz, S., Abilés, J., Mellado, C., García, A., de la Cruz, A. P., & Fernández-Santaella, M. C. (2010). Psychological characteristics of morbidly obese candidates for bariatric surgery. Obesity Surgery, 20(2), 161-167.
Meule, A., Westenhöfer, J., & Kübler, A. (2011). Food cravings mediate the relationship between rigid, but not flexible control of eating behavior and dieting success. Appetite, 57(3), 582-584.
Moreno, S., Warren, C. S., Rodríguez, S., Fernández, M. C., & Cepeda-Benito, A. (2009). Food cravings discriminate between anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Implications for “success” versus “failure” in dietary restriction. Appetite, 52(3), 588-594.
Pelchat, M. L., & Schaefer, S. (2000). Dietary monotony and food cravings in young and elderly adults. Physiology & behavior, 68(3), 353-359.
Stewart, T. M., Williamson, D. A., & White, M. A. (2002). Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 38(1), 39-44.
Timko, C. A., & Perone, J. (2005). Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior in a college population. Eating behaviors, 6(2), 119-125
Westenhoefer, J. (1991). Dietary restraint and disinhibition: is restraint a homogeneous construct?. Appetite, 16(1), 45-55.