You’ve heard these words before: clean, dirty, healthy, unhealthy, detox, and cheat. They may have various meanings in their original contexts, but if we’re talking about health and fitness, they all pertain to food and their qualifications of how beneficial for the body they are. However, all of these blanket terms have so much room for error due to differences in interpretation. So, where do we draw the line?
For the most part, everybody follows some kind of diet, even if they’re not really aware of it. You do, I do, your family does, and your friends do. Think about it: you usually eat breakfast in the morning, lunch in the afternoon or middle of the day, dinner in the evening, and once in a while, a late-night snack or dessert to tide you over before bed. You like certain foods, you don’t like other foods, and there are some foods you may have to evade due to allergies or dietary preferences. Though there are some people who will just eat whatever they feel like whenever they want, they still consume a diet, and that is intuitively eating based on their bodily cues.
Alternatively, we have more health-conscious individuals who like to choose their food based on certain principles or calculations. Those with principles generally center most of their diet around certain food groups or certain types of food, or tries to avoid these groups or foods–you can see this through the Paleo diet, Atkins, GMO and pesticide-free, sugar free, keto, low fat, any plant-based diet, or even just those who focus on wholesome food. People who abide by numbers are more notable for counting calories, tracking their food, and even sometimes weighing out ingredients or meals for utmost precision. The individuals within this populace can differ in habits and regulations, but we’ll get to that in a second.
Now that we’ve gotten that covered, what are the benefits, consequences, and overall guidelines of each lifestyle, and which one is the most optimal for a healthy lifestyle? Before we derive a conclusion, we have to break down the three most common dietary lifestyles that almost any person on this planet can relate to. I’m most certain that you will find that your diet may fit into one of these categories.
***Note that I have not included any specific diets that have been established (i.e. gluten free, Paleo, keto, Atkins, organic, plant-based, low fat, etc.), because they still fall into one of the four categories.
- Intuitive eating/Just eating whatever you feel like: I would say that a big portion of people follow this lifestyle. They may gloss over calories, nutrients, types of food, and portion sizes, but they don’t necessarily stress on either one. As long as they feel satisfied or even feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth, then everything has been said and done. Most know that vegetables are important and that it’s not ideal to consume a ton of sugar and salt, but they don’t panic if they don’t get in their five-a-day or maybe have one too many cookies if they’re extra hungry. Meal timing and spacing usually abides by hunger cues or any physiological symptoms (lightheadedness, brain fog, fatigue, etc.), not around specific hours. How do intuitive eaters splurge? Simply to put it, they just do it when they feel like it. Intuitive eaters rarely ever label any foods as “good” or “bad”, “clean” versus “dirty”, and “healthy” versus “unhealthy”. No second thoughts are involved when starting any days off with a salad and ending the night with pizza.
- Pros: most “in tune” with the body, is extremely flexible, and often requires little to no effort in selecting food
- Cons: may not always focus on wholesome food (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc.) and may overdo more refined foods (pre-packaged snacks, fast food, desserts, soda, etc.)
- Convenience eating: Now I know that I said that many people on this planet follow an intuitive eating approach, but if we’re talking about the working class, students, or those who lead extremely busy lives (generally in developed countries where time is limited and resources are plentiful), then convenience is king. The difference between convenience eating and intuitive eating is simple: convenience eating does not necessarily encompass physical signals. Some people have to eat earlier or later than when they usually feel hungry depending on their schedules. Some people have to eat less or more at a certain time period if lunch breaks are short or extensive. More importantly, if these people did not meal prep or at least pack some food the night before, then they often purchase something from the place most nearby. As for splurging, sometimes busy folks don’t have a lot of healthy options at inconvenient times. Oh, and don’t forget about those pastries in the break room or those late-night events with free pizza. Hard to pass up, right?
- Pros: easy to follow, takes almost no effort in decision-making, and eating rarely ever interferes with one’s schedule
- Cons: may take some effort in meal-prepping, is inflexible, can be out of sync with physical hunger and satiety cues, can be expensive if spending too much money on eating out, and sometimes healthy options are not available at work or school (or not-so-healthy options are too widely available to resist)
- Flexible dieting (if it fits your macros): Most commonly found on mediums like YouTube and Instagram, many fitness influencers follow a flexible dieting approach where they eat based on a certain plan that includes a caloric quantity and specifically calculated numbers for carbohydrates, fats, and protein (micros usually remain as general RDIs) based on activity level, gender, age, and height. What makes flexible dieting distinctively different from calorie counting is a stronger focus on hitting the macros rather than just sufficing a caloric measurement, and, contrary to popular belief, a stronger focus on real foods with treats and junk foods integrated into the weekly regimen, sometimes on a daily basis.
- Pros: provides good estimates for caloric maintenance and for weight loss/gain, is more flexible than calorie counting, focuses on wholesome foods while allowing some more refined foods, meal timing and spacing does not matter, recommends incorporating a fitness routine into the lifestyle, and emphasizes on diet awareness
- Cons: numbers may not always be accurate, takes away from physical hunger and satiety cues, can be time-consuming to calculate everything, may be restrictive, IIFYM-ers cannot follow others’ numbers due to biochemical individuality, and individuals can become obsessed with tracking and maintaining a specific regimen
- Calorie counting: Similar to flexible dieting, standard calorie counting involves eating based on measurements of calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, and sometimes even a recommended water intake. General habits are the same as IIFYM, such as following a tracker and portioning out food. However, there is more emphasis on the overall caloric intake rather than hitting macronutrients and micronutrients, hence what you eat may not matter as much, though most calorie databases still advocate for consuming mostly healthy foods. Most people focus mainly on calories when choosing what food products to buy, when cooking recipes, and just consuming food in general. Exercise is not as important in calorie counting as IIFYM, but most people do adopt a fitness routine to accelerate progress. For the most part, as long as calories are sufficed, then meal timing and spacing does not matter too much.
- Pros: provides good estimates for calories and other nutrients, stresses the importance of portion sizes, recommends wholesome foods as low calorie alternatives to junk food,
- Cons: can be restrictive, is often time-consuming, requires planning, people often choose low calorie alternatives that are not necessarily healthier than wholesome food that may be slightly or significantly higher in calories, and followers can become unhealthily obsessed with knowing and counting calories
With the breakdown and explanations of each blanket lifestyle, which one is the most ideal to follow? In a perfect world, intuitive eating would be the end-all-be-all and work for everybody. As quick as some people are ready to jump to the conclusion that intuitive eating is the best dieting approach, the answer is a bit more complex than that.
People with eating disorders, whether anorexia, binge-eating, bulimia, or any other EDNOS where physical bodily cues have been severely distorted, may abuse intuitive eating by consuming an insufficient amount or an excessive amount of macros and micros. So, they may need to start off with either IIFYM or calorie counting to figure out caloric maintenance, but should gradually transition into intuitive eating. Convenience eaters have more of a struggle with intuitive eating, but with planning, effort, and making time to listen to their bodies, anything can be done. Flexible dieters and calorie counters may find themselves eye-balling portions after an extensive amount of time tracking, so they can mentally calculate anything without an external device. Alternatively, they may realize that their intuition balances out their bodies and they reach their ideal weights simply by eating food based on their physical signals.
But, say that you genuinely do like having numbers as a guideline or you really need to work around your schedule. What do you do to give yourself the freedom to eat whatever you feel like? There are several ways you can do this without having to abandon your routine completely. A few suggestions are listed below.
- Reserve some time to treat yourself. Whether you want to have a cheat day or one or two cheat meals a week is up to you. This could be incorporated into your working or school schedule, but it’s most common for folks to splurge on unhealthier food over the weekend, especially when hanging out with friends or date nights when they have more time. There’s no right or wrong frequency, though you shouldn’t restrict the amount of cheat days/meals or go overboard.
- For convenience eaters, take some time to prepare healthy and tasty food on-the-go. Given that paychecks and meal plans may not always allow enough money to spend on eating out, it may be suitable to take advantage of creating your own food where you know what and how much of each ingredient is included. Cooking large batches of vegetables, beans, grains, or anything else in bulk is so helpful for those who have limited time in the kitchen and don’t like spending a lot of effort cooking. To spice things up, add a little something different to each day of the week, such as changing up the types of sides, the sauces, the snacks, or the flavors of any meal (i.e. peanut butter oatmeal on Monday, chocolate oatmeal on Tuesday, you get the idea). I mean, you can only eat so many pre-packaged sandwiches.
- For calorie counters and flexible dieters, plan out one or two cheat meals/days during the week. If you struggle with the uncertainty of what goes into your food and how many calories/carbohydrates/fats/sugars/protein/salts are in your meals, then maybe pre-tracking some meals that are not super healthy but can be taken advantage of in your routine may help. Choose some time out of the week to enjoy a couple of donuts, cookies, ice cream, Chinese takeout, a giant bowl of pasta, pizza, or even something as simple as consuming an entire jar of peanut butter (to tell the truth, that sounds amazing to me any day). If anything, cheat days and cheat meals can optimize training performance due to extra glycogen and stored energy. Rather than trying to offset cheat meals and cheat days, try to adopt the idea that these splurges can actually benefit you when working out to gain muscle and strength.
- Alternatively, take one or more days off of tracking. Say you find it exhausting to constantly look at your fitness tracker every single day. Well, you really don’t have to. To be fair, I completely empathize and have experienced the emotional and cognitive attachment to relying on numerical guidelines as supreme when it comes to dieting and working out. At the end of the day, caloric measurements on trackers and databases, as well as your caloric needs for growth and development, vary so much that it’s challenging to pinpoint a 100% accurate measurement. Understand that most of the numbers you see are rough estimates (unless you are using fancy equipment to measure your RMR, BMR, TDEE, etc.), not precise calculations. So, it may do you some good to give tracking a break a few times a week, or even when on vacation. You don’t even have to do it on a cheat day, though it’s very common to do so. If that means deleting the app off your phone every now and then because it’s so tempting to open it and start calculating, then that works as well.
- Lift the labels. Repeat after me: food is NOT worth obsessing over. One day, you will realize that those three or more hours you’ve spent thinking about your next meal(s) were completely wasteful. After years of maintaining such a strict regimen where spontaneity was limited, I now know that missing opportunities to try new foods is not worth it, and crying over a bite of white bread, a extra slice of veggie pizza, and even a half-empty jar of peanut butter did not take as huge of a toll on my body as I believed. At the end of the day, food is merely a composition of water, carbohydrates, protein, lipids, colorants, enzymes, additives, minerals, vitamins, and other trace constituents that is made for human consumption (as quoted by my current Food Science professor), not a determinant of your beauty, self-worth, and capacity to love the environment and the people around you. Learn to love yourself outside of the health and fitness world. Attractive people can eat Oreos, too. ❤
What blanket dieting approach do you follow? Any tips to maintain sanity on any of these lifestyles?