Since my ‘10-Week Transformation‘ post, I’ve gotten quite a few questions offline that all boil down to the same thing: “How do you do it?” For some, it was a question of curiosity: they’d never followed a flexible dieting plan and they couldn’t imagine complicating food that much. A few had tried counting macros in the past and found they just couldn’t do it long-term. Thus, today’s post.
Flexible Dieting in General
First off, definitions: flexible dieting is the practice of tracking and meeting certain macronutrient numbers (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats), each day. Flexible dieting isn’t for everyone, but it does have a few advantages for competitive-minded athletes:
- It offers more precision than ‘eyeballing’ foods
- It’s flexible (at least, it’s supposed to be). Worried about food quality? Set a baseline whole-food fiber target. Eating Paleo? No problem so long as you meet your macro targets. Get hungry at night? Just shift things around.
- It gets around the stigma of ‘clean’ vice ‘dirty’ foods. If it fits your macros, you can have an occasional treat without being neurotic with guilt or dropping your diet entirely.
- For many people, tracking macros builds a mindfulness and awareness of their eating habits that they don’t get by cutting out whole categories of food or going on ‘cleanses.’ I’ve known several people lose some weight simply by tracking their food (and it’s a known phenomena in the research literature).
The challenge, of course, is that it requires extra work. Diet and training have similar progression: the smaller the change you’re looking for and the earlier you are in your journey, the simpler the program you need to see improvement. The higher your goals or the more advanced you are, the more complex you need to get to make the same progress.
At the start of my experiment, I was looking to gain strength while losing weight and prepare for a weight-class powerlifting meet, so macro-tracking seemed like the way to go.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Macros
Ask someone to track their workouts, follow complex periodization schemes, or cut out whole food groups and they’ll nod their heads. Ask them to pick up an app and measure their food… and they look at you like you told them to jump across the Grand Canyon.
A few months into my own experiment, I understood why. Instead of abiding, I felt like I was being beaten by a group of angry nihilists.
I was trying hard to meal prep and plan, my grocery lists looked like hieroglyphs, and I still wasn’t really ‘making it work.’ If I went on a training trip with the Navy, was invited out to eat with my work group, or food went bad in the fridge, the plan was shot to hell and I had to scramble to readjust the rest of the days’ meals.
It was just too much work, and after months of getting it not-quite-right, I ‘gave in.’ I stopped meal planning, food prepping, and cooking as often. I quit eating foods that I didn’t like. I still tried to hit my macros, though at the time it was more because I didn’t want to seem like a complete failure to my coach. Mysteriously, though, I noticed a change…
In ‘letting go,’ I was hitting my targets more often. My weight loss was more consistent. Restaurant visits weren’t throwing me off. I was abiding! On even less effort, I got to the point where I was getting it right 70% of the time, then 80%, then 90+%. To a bodybuilder, I knew I looked like a lazy bum… but I was OK with that. If being a lazy bum got me good-enough results… I could live with being a lazy bum.
This is just a summary of how my approach changed over time during this N=1 experiment- but I hope that anyone following a flexible diet/IIFYM scheme can get something out of this series. In fact, some of these principles should apply to everyone, flexible dieter or not.
One caveat: if you’re the kind of person who sweats the glycemic index of carrots and insists that everything that goes into your body must be organic-fair-trade-gluten-free-range-made-with-real-panther, much of this won’t apply.
The Way of the Lazy Bum:
There are only five general principles to being a lazy bum macro-tracker.
- The lazy bum finds the easiest way to get the job done. There’s no virtue in working harder to get less.
- The lazy bum is lazy for life. The lazy bum can take breaks, but they could follow their diet forever if they chose.
- The lazy bum abides. Knowing that most of their results come from consistency over time, they don’t panic over small mistakes or sweat minutiae.
- The lazy bum accepts reality. They understand that the ‘easiest’ diet for an Olympian may not be easy at all, and they accept whatever changes they need to make to achieve their goals… or they don’t, understanding that their life priorities won’t allow them to be both an Olympian and happy.
- The lazy bum is not emotionally invested in their diet. It’s a means to an end, not a way to prove their self-worth, find happiness, or validate a dogma. If something else works better or they can’t follow the plan without getting worked up about it, they find a better way.
The Lazy Bum Lifestyle:
A flexible diet framework is a guideline-based diet (eat this) rather than restriction-based (don’t eat that): eat X grams of protein, fat, or carbohydrates a day with a 5ish gram margin of error. To find out what those macros should be, check out resources like these.
With that as the base, I found that these general tips made it surprisingly easy to meet these targets (these will eventually be expanded on in future posts in the series):
- Build your diet around staple foods. Lazy bum staples should be:
- Easy to macro-track. This means having single-macros, two-macro combinations, and full meals at the ready. This also means (potentially) biasing towards items with serving sizes in ‘units’ (1 packet, 1 banana) rather than measures.
- Easy to prepare, keep, and if necessary, to carry (the microwave and blender are your friend).
- Tasty. If you’re not going to eat them, what’s the point?
- Find the easiest way to track macros that you can. I was way too lazy for paper diet logs (I tried it for a while… no good juju). I personally use MyFitnessPal, but there are numerous apps that can handle the job.
- Match your diet to your schedule in the easiest way possible.
- Find the nutrition facts for restaurants where you eat out often and pick one or two go-to items with favorable macros.
- Liquid macros are the office workers’ friend. A meal replacement shake (I make mine at home) gives you a lot of flexibility.
- Don’t blow most of one macro early in the day if you can help it. This dramatically limits your later options and your flexibility.
- Make your final meal of the day a ‘clean-up’ meal or bedtime snack that ‘scoops up’ the leftover macros you didn’t hit during the day.
- Add additional guidelines as necessary to meet your goals.
- Stick to the lazy bum principles: make the changes as easy as possible.
- Don’t add guidelines without a good reason.
- If you’re just starting, make one change at a time.
- Watch for artifacts- when one change affects other choices.
- Only track what matters to you. Tracking is important, but we’re all about minimal effort for maximal return. Is your goal aesthetic? Take photos. Is your goal making a weight class? Weigh yourself regularly under the same conditions. Is your goal to increase your training volume over time (and you need your diet to support that)? Then track it. But don’t sweat what you don’t care about.
The Lazy Bum Champion
One thing I found after adopting these habits is that I was not only able to meet my initial macro targets, but it became easier and easier to layer more and better guidelines onto my diet. I loaded higher-glycemic carbs towards my workouts and pushed my fats towards breakfast and my pre-bed meal. I adjusted my carb intake to my training schedule. I actually met my coach’s fiber target. I spaced my protein out evenly and met a supplement schedule…
And before I knew it, the diet had grown to meet my goals. As a powerlifter, I’m nowhere near a ‘champion’ yet, but my diet’s working with me now, predictable, and stress-free. Not simple, easy, or mindless, mind you, but not something I’m getting (more) gray hair over, either. Need to cut? I’m confident I can make it happen slowly, methodically and intentionally. Time to gain muscle mass? Same thing.
I still feel like a lazy bum, of course- that much hasn’t changed- but I’m eating with consistency and intention, my diet is actually flexible, and I’m seeing results… and for the relatively small amount of effort it’s taken, I’d call that a win for lazy bums the world over.
I hope you got something out of this post and that it gave you ideas for your own eating habits. In later posts, I’ll be sharing more specifics on how this particular lazy bum handles grocery shopping (90% of the effort), restaurants, traveling, and program adjustments.
Fare forward, voyagers!