Ever look at that pint of ice cream in the freezer only to walk away telling yourself you can’t have it because you’re on a diet? Or just go for it and then feel guilty after? We get it. If today’s popular diets, including Keto, Paleo and low-carb, are too restrictive for you, it may be time to look into flexible dieting, a less-rigid way of maintaining your weight.
It involves eating in a calorie deficit, so your body burns more calories than it is taking in. Seems simple, right? You can eat your favorite foods and treats here and there as long as you are taking in and burning the right amount of calories — you just have to figure that out.
“The only way to lose weight is to create a calorie deficit through diet, exercise or a combination of both,” says Alix Turoff, MS, RD, CDN, CPT. “There is literally no other way to lose weight. Every weight-loss diet is just a different way of creating a calorie deficit. Most people don't know how many calories they're eating and when trying to lose weight, they just rely on a plan that tells them what foods to cut out or what foods and how much they're ‘allowed.’ By counting calories, you're creating awareness.”
How To Calculate Your Calorie Burn
To do this, you need to figure out your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). “Your TDEE is the number of calories you need to maintain your current weight,” says Turoff. “To lose weight, you'll need to subtract a number of calories to create a deficit.”
In calculating your TDEE you will take into account your height and weight, and how active you are each week. Then you’ll subtract a number of calories — typically 250 to 500 — from that total to get to your deficit.
That might sound like a lot, but think of it this way: If you walk a brisk three miles each morning, you can expect to burn about 100 calories per mile. Skip your afternoon Frappuccino and you’ve cut about 500 calories from your day. Multiply that by seven and that’s a pound lost per week.
On the other hand, it’s better to start slow — walk three days a week and treat yourself to your Frappuccino on Fridays — so you can better stick with it. “I suggest a moderate deficit to make it easier to adhere to,” says Turoff.
What Are Macros?
Sometimes folks count their calories religiously and still don’t see the weight loss they expect. In these cases, it might not be the sheer number of calories eaten, but the kinds of calories.
Macronutrients, or macros for short, make up the calorie content of a food, and are divided into carbohydrates (four calories per gram), proteins (four calories per gram) and fats (nine calories per gram). Counting macros allows one to hone in more distinctly on the types of foods being eaten, which often results in a healthier diet and more weight loss.
For example, if you’re aiming for 1200 calories a day and eat a banana for breakfast, a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup for lunch, and an energy bar for dinner, you may be hitting your calorie goal, but your body might not be getting the quality of calories it needs, and your weight loss might stagnate as a result.
What’s recommended are diets containing 45 to 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 to 35 percent fats, and the rest from protein. Of course, Turoff explains this varies from person to person and will depend on activity level, and health status. For example, are there any factors that might require a specific macronutrient target such as insulin resistance or epilepsy? Consulting with a Registered Dietician who can help you set a macronutrient goal that takes into account your personal needs is always a great idea.
Other RDs say macros don’t need to be considered if the overall diet is a healthy one.
“If one chooses healthy, low calorie, nutrient dense, plant-based whole foods, then the macronutrient dilemma disappears,” says Brenda Rea, MD, DrPH, PT, RD, family and preventive medicine physician at Loma Linda University Health. “This seems to be a more reasonable and sustainable means of eating.”
Where Does Flexibility Come In?
“Focusing 80 percent of the time on healthy options while allowing indulgences 20 percent of the time seems reasonable,” says Dr. Rea. Of course, just because you have the option to eat pizza, donuts, or whatever you desire doesn’t mean you should do so without limits.
“While creating a calorie deficit is the most crucial factor for weight loss, that doesn't mean you should eat a bunch of crap to get there,” says Turoff. “If you fill your day with low-nutrient density food such as candy, sweets, for example, it'll be very hard to stay in a calorie deficit.”
If you fill up on foods that promote satiety such as lean protein and those rich in fiber, you'll be better able to sustain your calorie deficit. “It's also important to include foods that you love, even if they're not as nutrient dense," she says."By incorporating foods that you enjoy, you'll be able to sustain your deficit long enough to lose weight, but also to keep it off.”