Flexibility. But I’m not talking about joint flexibility here, but the kind of flexibility that allows one to handle life’s challenges with aplomb– a coveted quality necessary for many aspects of life. Flexibility is what allows us to manage stress, think deeper, accomplish goals, and – in general – meet the demands of daily life. We desire flexibility. We need flexibility. But how flexible should or can we be when it comes to dietary goals and habits? A new buzz phrase, “flexible dieting”, has entered the world of nutritional theories and practices. What does it mean for our clients and is it a valid and useful approach?

Here’s what you need to know to help guide your clients appropriately.

What is Flexible Dieting?

Flexible dieting, otherwise referred to as “If It Fits Your Macros” is an eating style that focuses on macronutrient percentages and calories. The basic premise is individuals can eat the foods they want as long as the total consumption aligns with a previously calculated macronutrient profile. It’s easy to track macro and calorie intake via an app, such as MyFitness Pal. However, as with all eating styles, fad diets, and dietary concepts, there’s no one-size-fits-all-forks ideal.

Considerations of Flexible Dieting

It’s important to know that there are different approaches and schools of thought related to food consumption based on percentages of the three macronutrients. In other words, not all macro plans are created equal. It’s important to do your own research when it comes to the philosophy and ideals behind a macro diet. If you do have a client interested in trying this approach to dieting or suggesting it to a client, be sure to consult with a registered dietitian and refer based on need and scope of practice.

The Upsides

  1. One benefit is advertised right in the name – flexibility. Individuals need flexibility when it comes to nutrition in order to be successful in the long run. In fact, current dietary guidelines encourage consumers to eat a variety of foods. The caveat is that the foods consumed come from a variety of high-quality options, and minimizes overly processed foods.
  2. This approach also requires that clients track their intake. Tracking food intake is an accountability measure that helps clients build better habits and be honest with themselves (and their trainers) about what they are taking in to fuel their bodies. Many fitness professionals encourage food journaling.
  3. Finally, it is easy to follow in terms of calculating macronutrient profiles. This gives clients a roadmap and set of specific parameters to stay within. This can be positive for those who struggle with meal planning and balance.

 The Potential Downsides

As with any approach, flexible diet can’t be 100% right for everyone, everytime. Here are some things that can compromise success:

  1. A downside with a macro diet is that it may focus on quantity versus quality. In general, this approach is about counting total calories versus calories coming from high-quality foods. This doesn’t mean an individual couldn’t or wouldn’t choose high-quality caloric sources, but this doesn’t always happen. If a person eats 1200 calories worth of processed, calorie-dense (versus nutrient dense) foods, weight loss is still possible if the consumption is less than the total expenditure. This isn’t an ideal or recommended approach. However, some will take liberties with the word “flexible”. This is important to keep in mind when educating your clients about food consumption.
  2. Another potential negative to be aware of is the possibility that a basic skillset may be undeveloped. Deciding to follow a flexible diet may not immediately result in a client developing the skills necessary to choose wisely. Think about it this way. A client calculates a macronutrient profile that is 40% carbohydrates, 30% fat, and 30% protein. Just because the client has a “prescribed” macronutrient intake formula doesn’t mean that the client has the self-efficacy, confidence, or competence to shop for foods that will fuel him/her for performance. In this case, A doesn’t directly lead to B. Eating style or dietary approach aside, it’s crucial that fitness professionals still help their clients develop shopping and cooking skills.

Lastly, some of the macronutrient dietary approaches tend to demonize carbohydrates. It’s true, some individuals function better physically with a lower carbohydrate intake, but this isn’t the case for every person or client. Carbs are not the enemy nor do they “make people fat”. Again, here, education is crucial.

The Take Home

You can and should encourage flexibility for your clients and not just when it comes to diet. Clients need to be able to eat foods they enjoy and dive into a “sweet treat” periodically. The key here is periodically – not daily. Instead, teach your clients to avoid labeling foods as “bad” or “sinful” and guide them toward balanced eating choices.

Again, if a client wants to try flexible eating, it is not your job to dissuade them; it’s your job to educate them with facts so that he or she can make a more informed decision. If you don’t, it’s likely clients will turn to other sources that may or may not be reputable and that may or may not have their best interests at the forefront. Lastly, consult with a registered dietitian who can better guide clients toward specific eating plans so that you can remain within your professional scope of practice.

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Erin Nitschke

Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at belivestaywell.com