What is Flexible Dieting? Here’s How to Get Started

My experience with many diets led me to believe some foods are good for you and some foods are bad for you. The way you lost weight was determined by the foods you cut out of your diet and so on.

Chicken + Rice = Good. Ice Cream + Lollies = Bad.

“Eat clean” used to be my mantra. Until now.

Flexible dieting has been recently gaining momentum as a revolutionary new way of eating.

Flexible Dieting Google Search

Flexible Dieting Google Search

What is Flexible Dieting?

Flexible Dieting (also known as If It Fits Your Macros or simply Counting Macros) is simply the counting and tracking of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat) to achieve a body composition goal.

In a nutshell, Flexible Dieting can be summed up in three steps:

Step 1: Calculate your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) based on your current weight and exercise.

Step 2: Calculate your macros in ratios that help you reach your desired goal.

Step 3: Track your food intake and try to meet your TDEE and macro limits each day.

Counting Macros
Macronutrients or Macros make up the majority of our diets.

There are three main macros: Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrate. One gram of each macro has a calorie value.

  • 1 Gram of Protein = 4 Calories
  • 1 Gram of Carbohydrate = 4 Calories
  • 1 Gram of Fat = 9 Calories

Rather than typical calorie counting (e.g. Eating 2000 cals a day) Flexible Dieters track macronutrients (e.g. Eating 150g Protein, 80g Fat, 170g Carbohydrate = 2000 cals) which more effectively influences body composition rather than just weight loss or gain.

Flexible Dieting follows the belief that there are no miracle weight loss foods. No good or bad foods, just macro ratios.

For example:

McGrilled Chicken Burger:

  • 25g Protein
  • 33g Carbohydrate
  • 15g Fat

OR

Brown Rice and Tuna 

  • 25g Protein
  • 33g Carbohydrate
  • 15g Fat

Both are the same macros and so both will achieve the same results in your body composition.

When food enters your stomach your body isn’t thinking “Healthy or unhealthy?” it is simply breaking down the food and processing the macronutrients.

Essentially, to change your body you can eat whatever you want so long as you hit your macro goals. This was demonstrated in the twinkie diet.

To maintain and improve overall health, although not necessary to change your body, I’d recommended tracking your fiber intake as well. This will ensure that you are getting enough micronutrients as well. For overall better health, 80-85% of your diet should come from nutritious whole foods

The American Heart Association recommends eating 14g of fiber per 1,000 calories consumed.

iifym

What Are the Benefits?

As I’ve mentioned before I’ve experimented with a wide range of different diets. All of them have their merits but Flexible Dieting is by far my favorite (and one I continue to follow today).

Below I’ll give three reasons why:

1. Effective

The most important tool in weight loss is understanding that a calorie deficit is necessary for losing weight.

Although quality is still important, quantity is the greater determining factor in weight loss or gain. If you’re not in a calorie deficit you can eat all the “good foods” you want and go nowhere.

By tracking everything that enters your mouth you stop the guess-work and take control over how & when you reach your goals. Tracking, whether it’s your macros or calories, is hands down the most effective way to change your body. (Read about how Jim lost 88 pounds by doing this)

2. Flexible (Duh)

Flexible dieting is just that: Flexible.

By focusing on your macronutrient intake rather than eating certain foods you can still achieve your goals while enjoying life with everyone else. You can have your cake and eat it too! 

One of the challenges I’ve always found around dieting was the awkward social element. There’s only so many dinners you can bring Tupperware containers full of rice and chicken to without feeling like a complete a-hole. Research shows that a more flexible approach leads to less anxiety and more successful weight management.

By allowing yourself flexibility you can join in on meals with families and friends, so long as you keep track of what you’re eating.

3. Sustainable

For years my cycle would look the same. I’d set myself a super restrictive way of eating and then “Diet, Diet, Diet, Binge…Diet, Diet, Diet, Binge”.

I had such an unhealthy view of eating and because of that I never really stuck to anything long enough to get results.

I didn’t realize that food is not just physical it’s also psychological.

Flexible Dieting is the first thing that I’ve been stick to consistently over a long period of time. From my research and experience, it seems to kill the “Diet, Binge” cycle many of us have found ourselves on.

Because you can eat whatever you want (in moderation) it’s more mentally & emotionally sustainable. 

How to Get Started Counting Macros

1. Calculate your Macros

If you are a do-it-yourself kind of person and want to understand the process, then check our 130-page book: The Macro Solution or read the guide on setting your macros.

2. Count Your Macros

This way of eating is all about tracking and measuring your macro intake.

My Food Diary is a great app for beginners. For more advanced users, MyFitnessPal (iOS or Android)  is an option (although can be tricky to setup).

3. Buy a Food Scale

A lot of nutritional information is available on food packaging, however, a scale will ensure you accurately track what you eat.

Without overstating it, I feel flexible dieting has completely revolutionized what and how I eat. I love having the ability to eat with family and friends, I’m seeing great results and I can see myself doing this for years to come.

MORE: See how Ted dropped to 8.6 percent body fat by using flexible dieting.

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    Scientific Reference:

  • Smith, C. F., Williamson, D. A., Bray, G. A., & Ryan, D. H. (1999). Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 32(3), 295-305. URL

299 Comments

  1. Mallison Brincat

    great article!!! Do vegetables count and you have to keep a record as well as the other food or eating vegetables is unlimited? thank you

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Mallison, Yes they do, there are no “free foods” with flexible dieting. Veggies have macros, so we include them.

      Reply
  2. lopez2017

    Hi, so if my initial calorie intake given to me by the calculator tool was 1,687 (221C, 95P, 47F) and I’m readjusting it to lose weight (1,345 calories), wouldn’t/shouldn’t my macros be adjusted, too? Or do they stay the same?

    Reply
  3. Rafael B.

    Hello, very well explained, thank you!

    What happen if I dont respect the macros but I still reach my calorie goal?

    For example, what if I need to eat 1600 calories to lose weight, but I eat less grams of carbs and more grams of fat, but I still reach the same goal??

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Rafael, macro levels are more for fine tuning your results. i.e. more carbs help fuel your workouts and help you progress, adequate protein helps maintain and build muscle etc.

      Reply
  4. Bob

    “Flexible Dieters would track macronutrients (e.g. Eating 150g Protein, 80g Fat, 170g Carbohydrate = 2000 cals) which more effectively influences body composition rather than just weight loss or gain.”

    You are incorrect. Macronutrient composition does not effect body composition. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22258266

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Bob, the study you pointed out was looking at the goal of fat loss and focused on diet alone and you’re right there wasn’t much difference. This study showed that more protein did preserve lean body mass during weight loss. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/133/2/411.full Also, adjusting macros added with the correct exercise can change body composition. i.e. increasing protein coupled with a weight training program helps increase muscle mass.

      Reply
  5. Sarah Ginsberg

    Hi! My macros are 1610 cal, 200g carbs, 90grams, protein, and 50 grams fat. At what point in my macro calculations during the day do I have the flexibility to incorporate the “unhealthy” type foods?

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Sarah, at any time as long as the food fits your remaining macros.

      Reply
      • Sarah Ginsberg

        Sorry, I’m just a little confused. What are considered “remaining macros?” Meaning, how many grams of healthy, nutritious food should I be consuming in each macro category before I decide to designate the rest as “remaining”?

        Reply
        • Ted

          It’s totally up to you, hence the word “flexible” but I recommend that people choose healthy foods 85% of the time. But if you have a day where only 50% of your macros are from whole food sources, it’s not going to stop your progress. Just don’t make flexible dieting rigid like other plans or it ruins the freedom this type of eating offers.

          Reply
          • Sarah Ginsberg

            Awesome, thanks so much!

  6. Tara Hancock

    Hi there! I’m stuck right now and could really use some help. I’ve used your calculator (which I think is one of the best ones out there) and my TDEE is 1326. I’m recovering from a difficult back injury at the moment and am not able to work out except for some of my physical therapy stuff. I’d consider myself sedentary even with doing PT strengthening 3x week – definitely not breaking that 200 calorie benchmark for “light activity” group. Since I’m not working out, I chose the lower protein option: 100 protein, 149 carb, and 37 fat. I do really good about getting close to these numbers, but I’ve been stuck for about 2-3 weeks now. I’m just not sure what I’m doing wrong. Any advice?

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Tara, sorry to hear about your injury. I would switch up the protein and perhaps eat a little more on your PT days. Your body is in the process of healing so resources are needed for this, especially protein.

      Reply
      • Tara Hancock

        Thanks for your reply! I’ll give that a shot.

        Reply
  7. Kelsey

    Hi! My TDEE is 1225 cals per day. You say you recommend subtracting 500 to lose weight?? With the 1225 cals my macro goals are 119g carbs, protein 111g, and 34g fat per day…If I subtract 500 from 1225, what are my macro goals then?? Do they stay the same?? Please help?!

    Reply
  8. Edward

    Checkout macroflex from ultimate food essentials they are really doing great job with flex dieting and Marco calculations

    Reply
  9. Dptodd

    a lot of people at my crossfit gym eat by macros, but I’m a little unsure of this. I’ve always been taught that counting calories is not the best approach because the body does not process food the same way even if the calorie count is the same. my main concern is dropping body fat and trying to lose 10% BF. On this type of plan would I have to follow the same calorie deficit that other calorie counting plans follow? ie- lose 2 lbs per week= 7000 deficit?

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi There, No, it’s more individualized than that. You would calculate your personal TDEE for maintaining your current weight, then you would create a calorie deficit of 20% per day. This would vary person to person. I think what you’ve been taught isn’t really accurate. The majority of research shows that being aware of calories and reducing calories is a trusted method of weight loss and flexible dieting teaches you to do so in a healthy way that is designed to keep the metabolism from slowing down as happens with many really low-calorie diets. Please check out my book for a comprehensive step by step approach to getting started. https://healthyeater.com/ebook

      Reply
    • Edward

      Hi dptodd
      You can flex and your macros it is a lot more effective than calorie counting .

      Reply
    • Tyler Rambo

      Dptodd you are absolutely right that calories from one food compared to another are utilized much differently. Nutrition textbooks love to dock vegetables of all kinds because they don’t ‘absorb’ as well as animal products. What they don’t highlight is the fact that with all that extra fiber, water and phytochemicals they have, sends a slice of their calorie pie to the toilet instead of your waistline all the while reducing risk of chronic disease. So you could realistically eat your recommended TDEE for maintaining your current weight, while actually LOSING weight if you are eating from whole food sources!

      Reply
  10. Mayra

    Hi, I’m 31, mom of two. Lift weights 3 to 4 times a week. Have been not over 108-110lb for so long and I felt skinny I ate a lot food but then I realized it wasn’t enough to gain . So decided to eat a more caloric dense and I’m finally at 116lb my goal is 120lb. My only concern is that I seem to be putting on fat on my belly and inner tights. That’s is the reason I want to try IIFYM but first want to know if teaches you how to put on weight!

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Mayra and great job on your gains, Yes IIFYM is perfect for gaining lean muscle mass and it’s all about finding your macro sweet spot. This can take a bit of adjusting but what you are striving for is enough calories to gain muscle but not too much that you also gain fat.

      Reply
    • Marco Sanchez

      Mayra, i am sure you look beautiful just the way you are.

      Reply
  11. Robin Hubbard

    My name is Robin I am 33 years old and I have been yo-yo dieting since I graduated high school I was at my heaviest in at 263 pounds and I am currently 159 pounds. I have gone back and forth with intermittentfasting only to get into a vicious cycle of a eating disorder and I don’t want to continue down this path I did purchase the muscle for Life workbook to kind of help me get a custom workout plan however i am staying under 1400 calories a day but I was starving I really try to eat as clean as possible when I make my family dinner I usually eat a separate meal from them I eat salad and maybe a boiled egg and some tuna my breakfast is usually a piece of fruit or boiled eggs lunch is usually fruit and boiled eggs I don’t eat a whole lot it’s really frustrating I am currently doing the workout plan through fitnessblender and I also I run on my lunch break for 20 minutes and then I walk with my husband in the evenings when I can I try to work out as much as possible but I feel like the struggle is horrible and I’m constantly working out and I don’t feel like I’m losing any weight I’m not getting leaner and I’m really frustrated my question is I just want to know what is the best way to do this what is a good workout plan in a regimen and I’m scared to up my calories because I don’t want to gain weight.
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Robin, So sorry for your frustration and you’re right, that’s no way to live. Give this article a read and then let me know your thoughts. https://healthyeater.com/eat-to-lose-weight

      Reply
      • Robin Hubbard

        Very interesting..so do you in a way think i have metabolic damage?
        Im 5″11
        159 lbs
        6 day week workout

        To lose macros are putting me between 1800 and 1900 cals

        Reply
        • Ted

          It’s a highly possible explanation. You could gradually increase your calories and perhaps cut back on your exercise some. Either way you need to get to a healthy deficit that allows your body to function properly while still supporting your exercise calorie burn. If you would like some coaching, I’d be happy to help. In your case, our 3rd option would probably be the best. See here: https://healthyeater.com/ebook All the best and I wish you all the best.

          Reply
        • Robin Hubbard

          I am really just confued about my macros.
          Im 33 female
          5″ 10
          159 lbs
          I do weightlifting 5 days a week and 4 days hiit cardio
          What or how much should i be eating. I do have an office job in which i stand all day and im a busy mom.
          Any one can you help me???

          Reply
          • Ted

            Hi Robin, I’m trying to help you, did you not see my response?

          • Robin Hubbard

            Yes…will your book give me exact calories i need

          • Ted

            Yes, the book teaches you how to calculate your macros, but as I explained previously, you may need to gradually get to your recommended calorie amount because you’ve possibly damaged your metabolism from being in too much of a calorie deficit for too long.

          • LaVel

            Greetings Robin, I am 5’10 and was 248 pounds…I get it. Perhaps you can try Ted’s book…seems that it has helped some people but if you want someone to tell you exactly how many calories you need to achieve your goals you should consider weight watchers. It is really affordable, a supportive community and it uses science/tactics very similar to the “flexible dieting.” I have lost over 90 pounds with them and am able to enjoy food and life without feeling like a slave to the gym or meals that the rest of my family wouldn’t touch. Wish you the best!

  12. Jennifer

    Hi – I saw your article online when looking at information about Flexible Dieting. I have been struggling to lose weight forever. I joined a crossfit box 2 months ago and go 3 to 4 times a week, leave there exhausted. I feel like I am exercising much more than I ever have, yet I have failed to lose a pound. Actually, I have gained 3. I am a 41 year old female and weigh 233 lbs. I am 5’7″ and need to lose fat terribly. I took suggestions of my coach at crossfit and now actively track my eating with myfitnesspal and seem to be doing the right things (increased protein, more carbs than before, less sugar, etc.), but still seem to be struggling. I used your online calculator and it has suggested I eat even more calories (2178 is what your calculator suggests), more protein (192 suggested by the calculator), etc than I currently am. I think myfitnesspal suggests 1680 calories for me right now. Could you offer any help here? I’m a bit concerned that adding in more calories will cause more weight gain and I also struggle to get in the protein goal I currently have (130 grams a day). I just can’t see how I could add so many more calories and how I would ever get in 192 grams of protein in a day.

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Jennifer, So sorry to hear about your frustration, especially since you are working so hard. For those with 75+ of fat to lose it’s a bit more complicated when it comes to figuring out your macros and protein requirements. Excess fat skews the results of calculators such as ours. I would be happy to coach you and help you nutritionally to start losing. Check out the options for that here: https://healthyeater.com/ebook

      Reply
  13. TAnja

    What about micronutrients like vitamins and minerals that are essential to healthy bodily function? Just because a donut has the same macronutrient composition as say oatmeal, for example, does not mean you should choose the donut over the oatmeal! Oatmeal is dense in fiber, is a low sugar food and does not contain processed, refined sugars. Donuts contain virtually no fiber and are very high on the glycemic index. This causes insulin production to spike and inhibits production of good bacteria (probiotics) in our gut. The importance of fiber and low-sugar foods cannot be emphasized enough! I get the macronutrient principle, but micronutrients are equally as important here. Eating “clean” — aka Plant-based, whole foods, low surgar and minimally processed — is JUST as important as macronutrient indicators.

    Reply
    • Ted

      You’re right, and this is why I advocate that people consume 85% of their TDEE and macros as whole foods consisting of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins. This ensures people are getting those micronutrients. 15% can be treats and indulgences. I accept the fact that there are very few people, including myself, that have the will power to can eat “clean” all of the time. Life is short and donuts are delicious, so I’ll have one from time to time but just not every day.

      Reply
      • Adam

        Why do you compare Mc chicken sandwiches to brown rice and tuna and tell people they can eat “normal” ? Shouldn’t processed foods vs whole foods be a ridiculous way to sway people into setting themselves up for a harsh failure. Also, you said that people can damage their metabolism? Can you please elaborate on this? Slow it down yes, damage I am kind of confused. Thank you 🙂

        Reply
        • Ted

          Hey Adam, Dan was just making the point that macro-wise the foods are similar, but of course micronutrient-wise they are different. Also, flexible dieting teaches that it is ok to eat some fast food and treats and still achieve your weight loss/fitness goals. While we advocate that your diet should be 85% whole foods, we also understand that we live in a world with a lot of delicious food choices. Flexible dieting teaches people to not deprive themselves but have “treat” foods as long as it fits their macros. Lastly, by “damage” we mean slow down and this slow down can take some time to recover so in a way the metabolism has been damaged but can be repaired by eating at more normal calorie levels. I wrote in in-depth article about that here: https://healthyeater.com/eat-to-lose-weight

          Reply
  14. Lu Cí

    Hi, I was wondering, if it works for everybody, because I’m a bit sceptical about this. It’s probably just, because of the stereotype of ,,healthy eating”. Does it depends on your metabolism or not? To be honest, I think the only problem is my mind, cause I think about every thing too much, but please let me know.

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Lu, Nothing works for everyone because of all the factors involved in success. But flexible dieting works if you are dedicated to the process and stick with it. People of all body types can be successful and the best thing about it is that it allows people to eat “normally” and still get results. I hope you’ll give it a try.

      Reply
      • Lu Cí

        Thank you. I’ll probably give it a chance. 🙂

        Reply
  15. Katie

    Hi, I am 130 pounds and 5’5 and my goal is to lose fat as well as build muscle the macro calculator says 180 carbs, 130 protein and 45 fats which just seems like a lot of fat to me but would this be correct? I have currently been doing 140, 140, 31 which keeps me around 1100-1200 calories a day.

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Katie, The fat is correct and eating fat doesn’t make you fat as long as it is in relation to your TDEE. I assume your doing some weight training and 1200 calories is not enough to support muscle growth and a healthy metabolism, your likely breaking down muscle tissue for energy. I’m glad you found flexible dieting! Be sure to look around our site and please consider getting by book.

      Reply
  16. Mel

    First time flexible eater here! Question: I entered my macros on Fitness Pal and have been tracking for 4 days now. When I enter my food and then look at my macros under the Nutrition tab – they don’t add up (which I’m sure is my misreading) but for example, I’m allowed 41g or 25% Fat; I’ve had 13g and it’s showing my total is 43% already….. What am I not reading right here?? Thanks!! Mel

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Mel, welcome and I’m glad you’ve started. MFP is showing your percentages at that current time. In this case, 43% is how much fat you have consumed in relation to the others at that point in time. You want to aim to see 25% at the end of the day. Does that make sense?

      Reply
  17. mohammed elsayyed

    Hi Ted
    so I was just wondering I used the marco calculator that you provided in the website say that it gave me carbs 264g, protein 123g, fat 57g but I want to make it 86g of carbs and 115g of protein and 166 g of fat to fit a 2300 calorie goal would that still be alright or would you think to stick to what the marco calculator gave me ? hope you understood what I mean
    thanks

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Mohammed, If you adjust your macros as suggested it would be considered low carb dieting. Flexible Dieting advocates eating a more normal or balanced set of macros.

      Reply
  18. Kara Caulfield

    Hi Ted,
    I was wondering if there is a best time to eat fat and carbs, I’ve heard to eat the majority of my carbs in my workout window, 2-3 hours before and right after. Do you think this is best for fat loss? I crossfit at 4:30 pm monday through friday and struggle trying to figure out when the best time is to get my macros.

    Thanks for your help!
    Kara

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Kara, carbs before a workout helps with the workout and protein after the workout helps with building muscle but other than that just spread your macros out among you meals. It doesn’t make any difference as far as fat loss is concerned.

      Reply
  19. Jana Prindle

    Hey Ted,
    Got another question for you, but first thank you so much for answering back on all our questions! So impressed!
    My question is, even though the macro calculator breaks down the macros for each meal, is the program still effective if you just make it your goal to reach your macros by the end of the day, however you get them in, whether it be 3 meals or 5 and all perfectly proportioned with your macro percentages? Is the ultimate goal to just get your macros in however that looks like for you?

    Thanks again!
    Jana

    Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Jana, You’re so welcome, happy to help! It doesn’t matter, just do what works with your schedule. I sometimes do 3 meals and a snack or 3 meals and 2 snacks, but sometimes just 2 big meals and a snack. It all works! Please share our site and my book with your friends 🙂

      Reply
      • Jana Prindle

        Awesome thanks again! I sure will share!

        Jana

        Reply
  20. Abril Helena

    Hi Ted, I’m very intrigued although I’m somewhat confused. the calculator says I should be having 30 grams of carbs in about 27 grams of protein. I’m trying to gain muscle but this goes against what I think should be, I selected the lose 10% option and I feel as though It should have me with a higher intake of protein and a lower intake of carbs I am 4 foot 10 and 108 pounds and I’m trying to get in shape by strength training and therefore building muscle.

    Reply
    • Abril Helena

      By the way the 30g carbs and 27g protein was suggested per meal with 4 meals per day.

      Reply
    • Ted

      Hi Abril, Did you use the high protein setting? This would give you a total of 108 grams of protein a day or 36 grams per meal.

      Reply