Written by: Sarah Strange
So you’re looking to lose a little weight, tone up, and see some abs or lose a handful of dimples. You do what most of us do nowadays- you fire up the Google machine and try to find someone with an answer.
If you know a little bit about diet, hopefully you won’t fall prey to the landslide of gimmicks, tricks, and pills. You’ll keep looking until you find a more sensible approach. Various Clean Eating approaches dominate the search. Some are essentially the same thing with different names- and most go with their own branding, like Paleo. Some of these groups leave each other alone, or link arms, while others fight great battles over single food items or groups and define themselves along these differences. All of them seem to have strong opinions, come across as well informed, have great before & afters, and pages of health turn-around testimonials.
Your head starts spinning.
Then you may stumble upon the growing movement of Flexible Dieting/IIFYM (If it Fits Your Macros) proponents- especially if you got there via web stalking figure competitors. Their concept seems pretty legit too- same make-up of opinions, education, pictures, and stories. You might also notice that they rather vocally disagree with the practice of Clean Eating.
Now you start to get frustrated that this endeavor will likely take way longer than you had hoped. Who is right? You realize that you may need to consult with Google several more times before this diet you had hoped to find in an hour will make itself known to you. Tomorrow’s diet becomes next week’s diet.
(Ok, is she going to give me an answer here or what? – It’s coming, hold on.)
So Which is Better for Weight Loss and Why: Clean Eating or Flexible Dieting?
Most of us won’t bother to spend two to five years weeding through Pub Med to get to the bottom of it, so it all comes down to the diets’ closing arguments. The arguments for these diets can seem so strong on both sides, there’s lots of good information and linked research (which you probably won’t read beyond an abstract at best, but hey- it makes you feel a whole lot better knowing it’s there).
Unfortunately the arguments against tend to say, “Pick me!! The other guy’s an idiot”. These statements are often generated by misinformation and lack of fundamental understanding of the opponent. Many times, simple comments like “show me the research” or “there are no studies showing ___” really mean this person has just not bothered to look for- or read, the volumes of supportive research that do indeed exist.
The saddest part of the bickering is that we seem to lose sight of the bigger picture mid argument: that we clinicians, nutritionists, and trainers are here to help people. Helping people requires that we take a look at the individual and find them an appropriate solution they can run with successfully.
Which of the two are best depends on the individual, and can only be answered on an individual basis. Why this is even an argument for the entire population as a whole totally perplexes me.
When considering which to go with, the answer to the question depends on the individual’s personality, health status, current lifestyle, history, and goals. The answer must solve the problem in both short and long term: which protocol will both produce results and be sustainable enough to make lifelong changes and keep them off the diet yo-yo wagon?
These variables differ significantly person to person, so why would the answer be the same for everyone, regardless of these factors?
Your personal answer to this either/or dilemma should seem easy, once you strip away the complicated layers of fluff from both arguments and get to the basic root of each.
Flexible Dieting = FOOD TRACKING that allows the flexible incorporation of anything you could ever hope to eat or drink in whatever amounts your fixed macro tally allows
Clean Eating = NOT TRACKING, just avoid shitty food in favor of real food (as defined by your chosen sect), up quality protein, plant, and real-food fats- worry more about what you’re eating and how your body feels than precisely how much
In case those synopses didn’t clear the fog…
Flexible Dieting IS food tracking: you will weigh, measure, plan, and track every single thing you put in your mouth. Theoretically forever, since the only way to know whether or not something “fits” is with math, and to do math you need numbers.
It is flexible with irony, because what you eat is relatively flexible, but the counting system itself is rigid as F@#$. But that may be a great, great thing for people who are willing to keep their eyes on the details but hate the notion of having to eliminate entire food groups from their diets in order to succeed. If food tracking won’t bug you but eliminating foods or food groups WILL, then boy let me tell you, THIS IS YOUR SHIT!
If you’ve never tracked your food before, you should give it a shot. It is, hands down, the only way you’ll ever really know what’s going on… or should I say going in? It greatly simplifies your clinician’s life too because they have hard data to work with, as do you- if you know what you’re doing. It can be an extremely eye-opening tool for those of us struggling with excess weight and failed diet attempts. You might be surprised to find how much, or how little, you actually eat.
Food tracking can also provide a layer of self-monitored accountability that some people do really well with.
Food tracking may be the only simple way one could hope to successfully embark on a metabolic rebuild post diet without gaining your weight back. By “metabolic rebuild”, I’m talking about getting your metabolism back up to speed after you slow it down with dieting. This is a very slow process of incrementally adding back very tiny amounts of calories that is next to impossible to do without tracking. That is one massive bonus touted by IIFYM/Flexible Dieting.
Please keep in mind, the figure competitors who most likely led you to Flexible Dieting make their bodies their #1 job. If you are THAT committed to making your shit look THAT nice, you’re probably more than ok with food tracking for a few decades on end because data simplifies the perfecting process. A pound of water will cost these people titles. Just be realistic with yourself before embarking on this process- can you easily plan, weigh, measure, and track every single one of your meals for any reasonable length of time?
To Track, or Not to Track- That is the Question.
As great and effective as food tracking can be, it’s not necessarily something everyone is willing or able to do, especially long term. Therefore recommending a Flexible Dieting approach is completely useless concerning anyone who can’t or won’t food track, regardless of how good it looks on paper.
As a personal trainer working with a largely “regular dude/dudette” population, I have to say that less than 10% of the clients I see are willing to track their food. It sounds extreme to normal folks. If they think it’s a bad idea but give it try, they often fail and may never come back. And then some of these people do well for a while but then wind up getting neurotic and obsessive and it becomes an unhealthy recommendation for them. People who have had eating disorders usually don’t do well with this level of control and you’re likely to send them into a tailspin that you’ll both feel terrible about.
Is it worth it when there’s a better option for these people?
Despite this very low buy-in rate, I still promote it to my clients if they’re game, (and I REALLY make sure they’re game) because like I said- it works and it makes my job of monitoring and adjusting SO much easier than trying to figure out what’s not working with general descriptions as data. Regardless of my efforts, most people say “no thank you” to food tracking. Actually they usually just make a funny little sound with their mouths and throw me a look that questions my connection to reality.
So food tracking is the #1 landmine for Flexible Dieting.
And “trigger foods” are landmine #2 for Flexible Dieting.
Not everybody has trigger foods or can even really relate to the concept. Some of us are “Moderators”, a term coined by Gretchen Rubin. Moderators don’t really get triggered. They can buy a bag of chips or box of donuts or pint of ice cream and have their sanctioned bit, and put the rest away. Let it get freezer burn even. Natural born Flexible Dieters. These folks look at those of us that have wiped out entire food groups for years as unhappy zealots worshiping a false God.
Because they just don’t understand those of us that make up the other category (which I fall into), known as the “Abstainers”. Abstainers get triggered. Abstainers are all or nothing. They actually do well with abstinence. Trigger foods lead to binges and guilt. Binges and guilt lead to the collapse of Hope Dam and a flood of F@#K IT, which can be really hard to reign back in. One exposure to a trigger can derail months of progress. Abstainers all know who they are. Why, in a million years, would you insist that this person would do better with Flexible Dieting when they self-admittedly do better in culinary quarantine?
It may be hard for you well-meaning Moderators to acknowledge our existence, but keep us in mind when recommending your shtick. We want people to succeed without feeling tortured, right, which is kind of the whole basis of your argument? Recommending a tiny dose of a trigger food to an Abstainer is like asking Tyrone Biggums to hold your crack rock for you while you go run some errands. Having 1 goddamn scoop of ice cream or a paltry 4oz pour of wine is legitimate torture for an Abstainer. I shudder at the thought.
If you’re an Abstainer type, plus or minus control issues, or an average Joe that won’t ever use a food scale and get really good at using My Fitness Pal, Flexible Dieting can be a rigid and possibly daunting cage, and food tracking can be a one way ticket to Cuckoosville.
So what do you do with all of these people that can’t hang with food tracking or having regular exposure to trigger foods? Clean Eating and a little education. You work with them on eliminating the classically offending and easy to overeat foods, stuff like processed food, sugar, booze, packaged snack food, and foods made from flours. You have them avoid any other foods that tend to cause them to overeat or binge or go off the rails and completely give up on their diet. You bump up their protein and other satiating foods. You teach them to be mindful of the extra calorie load that comes from eating fat in high quantities. You bump up the veggie consumption. You steer them towards nutrient density (which everyone should be doing, regardless). You run them through Robb’s 7 day carb test and make recommendations to suit the individual.
I know this is about weight loss, but sometimes un-wellness inhibits weight loss, so unfortunately the #3 landmine for Flexible Dieting is that it will not help many of the SICK by just paying attention to macros and calorie load. A perfect calorie deficit just simply won’t work 100% of the time. If you have an individual with immune, autoimmune, or gut issues- whether they track or not, pulling out inflammatory foods, gut irritating foods and substances is a must. Even if they are willing to track and follow macros, they will need to do so in a hyper clean eating fashion if they would like to start feeling better and eventually lose some weight.
Although I’m not really getting into it here, the winner from a health based standpoint is definitely Clean Eating… unless the flexible team is willing to change their slogan to: If it Fits Your Macros, If it Over-Performs on Your Micros, and Doesn’t Bug You Gut or Immune System. Definitely not as enticing, nor does it roll off the tongue quite so easily as Flexible Dieting.
There are 2 potential weight loss landmines for Clean Eating and #1 touches on what I mentioned before with client monitoring: Clean Eating does not automatically solve the problem of excess or insufficient calorie intake.
I know, I know, it’s not all super straightforward calories in, calories out. I get it. I too have taken a beating by that very stick. But at the end of the day, if you are simply overeating, you will also be simply not losing any weight. Maybe a 5-pound water teaser in the beginning, if you’re lucky.
It’s generally harder to overeat when you pull out hyper-palatable foods… unless you so happen to have a thing for nuts by the feedbag full and recipes featuring cans of coconut milk. Yet it’s not anywhere close to impossible to consume huge amounts of protein, carbs, and fat (which all equate to calories) on a Clean Eating plan. And as such, people that post memes about not being able to get “jacked” on a Clean Eating protocol are very well steeped… in horseshit.
So yes, Clean Eating food can be delicious and very high calorie. There are a bevy of wonderful cookbooks out there with delicious recipes to keep you happy on your Clean Eating quest, but a good number of those recipes are outright disasters for weight loss. Sorry guys. Sometimes, when left on your own to make this Clean Eating thing work, it can wind up NOT working, and if you’re not down with simple, lower calorie foods, and have not been blessed in the creative cooking department, it can wind up feeling rather Spartan. Let’s be honest, sweet potatoes can get boring with the quickness if you live in an area that doesn’t stock the more exotic clean carbs.
On the unsuspecting flip side of that coin, kind of like the dark side of the moon, is the group that has stopped losing weight because they are too low calorie. It’s also a lot easier to do than you would think, especially when you pull out those hyper-palatable items. Some people naturally opt for smaller portions of lean meats, large portions of low calorie vegetables, and a cute little amount of healthy fats. They might not give much thought to carbs. Maybe they skip meals here and there? Maybe a decent dinner portion to them is my idea of a waste of time? They start off with a sub-1000 calorie/ day diet and can’t imagine eating more and don’t have much of an appetite. They lose weight initially, but then everything grinds to a halt. You can’t continue to eat less to lose weight at this point. You’re stuck. This is a bummer and takes some work- maybe even some help, to get out of.
Landmine #2 is that is does have to potential to torture the Moderators who really like to have regular exposure to their controlled “substances”.
Some of us just CANNOT succeed without a regular, albeit small, dose of comfort food and drink. Really committed flexible dieters who have gone through a really successful round or two of metabolic rebuilds love to post pictures of their allowable naughty food feasts to Instagram. You too can have this pleasure and brag about it, if the flexible thing really works for you… after a number of cycles. But you have to be a Moderator who is totally fine with food tracking long term in order for flexible dieting to even be a viable option. Don’t be fooled- if you’re considering Flexible Dieting for weight loss today, you most likely won’t be posting pictures of sanctioned donut castles and kitchen sink sundaes for a few years at best. Unless your name is The Mountain.
It’s also important to note that by embarking on a Clean Eating protocol, you are not marked by a sniper if you incorporate some comfort food and drink… some “dirty” food. We just usually call it “cheating”- or whatever safe word we feel comfortable with, rather than writing ourselves a prescription for daily donut micro dosing.
Both Clean Eating and Flexible Dieting can and will produce weight loss. There are perks and downsides to both, depending on your personality, goals, and history. You can find foolproof meal plans and shopping lists for either approach. You can receive expert counsel in either system. But ease of strict adherence to either depends completely on the individual. How these approaches translate to long term success and lifestyle changes depends on the individual. Which one feels freeing, which one feels rigid, which one causes guilty binges, which one feels flexible, which one feels do-able, and which one addresses potential underlying health issues- totally depends on the person.
This has to stop being carried out as an argument as to which weight loss diet of the two reigns supreme for all humans- there is no possible way to answer that. We need to put the argument to bed and turn it back into a question for the individual so that we can make the best call for the person in front of us or in the mirror.
The only legitimate answer to the question, which is better for weight loss- Clean Eating or Flexible Dieting, is “it depends”. And when we have the details, for most of us the answer is easy.
Afterward: More About Me
If it helps anybody make further choices, I lost 25 pounds using a mash-up of Clean Eating and IIFYM and it was simple, straightforward, and worry free. I plugged in the numbers, stuck to my plan, and watched the weight move consistently in the right direction until I wanted to stop losing weight. I tried tracking because things weren’t working initially and I wanted data. I decided to mix it with clean eating because of the trigger foods you’re “allowed” in a flexible approach. Those items will throw me off my course 100% of the time in disappointing micro doses, so I always do better without them because I AM an Abstainer and as such, I can’t really be too flexible with any success.
However, prior to that, my personal history NEEDED clean eating- specifically the Paleo diet, to make it even possible for me to try food tracking. I was a ballet dancer for 13 years and while I won’t say I had a full-blown eating disorder, I was definitely not well with eating at the time. I needed to institute such a high level of control with my diet to stay in line with “the look” they were going for, which took a ton of effort. Dancing 3-6 hours a day will tend to make a person hungry. The control eventually broke me mentally and for years I couldn’t even think about a diet. The very thought process would trigger bingeing, it was like the anti-diet. I had completely written off ever being able to embark on a weight loss plan again.
The focus of Clean Eating for me was to get healthy and be my best. I felt better than I ever had, my appetite found its way out of the 3 hour roller coaster for the first time in my life. My body composition saw huge improvements although that was not my primary goal. Focusing on eating for health in this way for a few years, even with trigger food indulgences here and there, brought me to a good place with it all. It kind of freed me up and I’m good now!
That 25 pound weight loss story was a huge success for me, not because of the goal attainment, but because I was able to do it without spinning out whatsoever, for the first time in nearly 20 years. Before even trying it, I just knew I was in a place that it wouldn’t bother me whatsoever or I never would have tried it.
I’ve given up all hope of ever becoming a Moderator personality type, but having the freedom to make choices for myself again without the psychological backlash, I owe all to the primary focus of Clean Eating- adopting a healthy lifestyle. If you look at Clean Eating from my perspective, it is inherently and ironically flexible- you can do it for looks, for performance, for wellness, or for feels. It doesn’t have to feel like a diet whereas food tracking- to me, kind of always does.
Sarah is the director of programming at Norcal Strength & Conditioning. Her athletic and coaching background includes Olympic Weightlifting, CrossFit, Pilates, martial arts, yoga, triathlon, and a pretty long stint as a ballet dancer.