#3 Strict dieting vs flexible dieting – which is better?


Today I’m looking at strict dieting vs flexible dieting – which is better for the general population?

The key to unlocking this question comes by looking at the long term effects on both psychology and physiology.

The exclusion (of food groups, social occasions etc…) in strict diet is best placed to get short term aesthetic results but the psychological risk is huge. Most people become trapped in dichotomous thinking which contributes to interpersonal problems and emotional and behavioural instability. Strict dieting has also been a breeding ground for long term eating disorders, something I have personally experienced.

As an example think of the friend that won’t come for dinner because they’re dieting for bikini contest (short term). Or because the restaurant isn’t vegan (long term). Or even the friend you didn’t realise you had – throwing up in the toilet of a restaurant because they ate a brownie when they need to be “summer ready” (potentially life-long).

Flexible dieting on the other hand supports meals out with friends, social drinking and actually living. This leads to more relativistic thinking or the capacity to critically reflect on multiple perspectives and determine the most suitable answer to the given situation. In other words just because you have the ability to eat a pizza every night doesn’t mean you will, especially when you’re working towards a goal.

Time and time again research (cited below) has consistently shown more favourable effects to flexible dieting:

Just remember:

“Good” diets can still contain a minor proportion of “bad” foods. In fact plenty of research has shown this can support the long term sustainability (and sanity) of a diet.

Flexible dietary control does NOT mean disregarding overall diet quality or quantity. Keep 80-90% of the diet whole & minimally refined with a calorie target for fat loss, muscle gain or maintenance.

Flexible dieting simply means not limiting your intake to a narrow list of morally embellished “good” foods and completely avoiding so-called “bad” foods without a legitimate clinical reason.

If your trainer, coach or friend tries to prompt you into a strict ‘exclusion’ diet first think,

1. Is this relevant to me?
2 Is it towards a short term goal?
3. Am I psychologically ready?

So, strict dieting vs flexible dieting – which is better for the general population?

Humans are complex creatures, physiologically & psychologically and for most people a strict exclusion diet is not worth the risk for anything other than a short term, goal focused plan, and even then there are better ways to do it.

Have an awesome day!

Liked this? Check out episode #2 in the 1000 interesting things series, “Are All Macros Created Equal For Fat Loss?”

➤ Smith CF, et al. Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite. 1999 Jun;32(3):295-305.
➤ Stewart TM, et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite. 2002 Feb;38(1):39-44.
➤ Palascha A, et al. How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain? J Health Psychol. 2015 May;20(5):638-48.


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