Strict versus flexible approach to eating and dieting

Most people that are overweight don't manage to permanently get their weight down. They follow a diet, then let go of the diet and gain all the weight back and often more. A diet works because it is strict. On the other hand, it's living a lifestyle that is too flexible that leads to many people being overweight. However, strict eating or flexible eating isn't a binary choice: it's a spectrum. I think more people would be better off not going for a strict diet (ever!), but taking a slightly flexible approach to reach their goals. A mix of both, if you will. Let's explore this concept. At the end of this article you will have an idea where you currently are on the spectrum and whether you should change your position.

flexible to strict spectrum


On the flexible side of things, life is easy. You don't give much thought to what you eat and you don't weigh yourself. This isn't inherently bad. Your appetite is ruled by hormones and for a long time in human history this worked well enough for most. The problem is that in modern Western society highly caloric food is everywhere. It's too easy to overeat and this is why so many people struggle with their weight. There is a group of people that have never been overweight and don't have issues with the overabundance of food. They are lucky that their hormones work very well so they cannot eat a ton before their body signals that it's full, or their parents gave them healthy foods when growing up, or they are very active, or....there can be tons of reasons!

If that is not you, and living a very flexible lifestyle around food has made you overweight, then I have good and bad news for you. The bad: You should not be on the very end of the flexible side of the spectrum. You need to learn behaviors that bring you more to the middle of the spectrum. The good: this is doable and you can and should not fall into the "strict and then flexible"-trap. It's that yoyo-cycle that will not teach you anything. Even if you want to lose weight, life still happens and you deserve to enjoy it while you lose weight.

Yes, there is a minimum amount of things that you need to do in order to successfully lose weight (or cut, or bulk), but you don't need to be very strict for the rest of your life either. Think of it as going to the middle part of the spectrum.

What is required behavior at the middle of the spectrum? Let's talk about the strict side of the spectrum first and then explore the middle ground between the two.


I fear this is what people think what it's like to "be healthy": eating boring, tasteless food, following a plan very strictly, no room for fun. I'm here to tell you: no. This is what dieting is about, this is not what a sustainable healthy lifestyle is about.

Paradoxically, there might be periods in your life when following a plan strictly is the best idea. But, big but: always temporarily! This is no way to live your life forever.

Being on the strict side of the spectrum has upsides, but also a lot of downsides.

The upside of a strict approach is that whatever your goal is (lose weight, gain muscle), this is the fast track to that goal. The stricter you follow a plan and the more you gather the required data, the more you will know whether you are on the right track.

With required data I mean: weigh yourself every day, log all your food (correctly, by using a kitchen scale), measure your waist of various other body parts every week, keep a diary of other data like sleep quality, emotions, stress, diet adherence, hunger levels, fatigue, progress photo's every month. I'm sure many people are exhausted just reading this list of things to do. I get it. As a nutrition coach this data is lovely to have! Based on this data I can confidently tell whether you are going in the right direction or if changes are in order. But you don't need all of it in order to know whether you are progressing (more about that when we discuss the middle ground).

There are also downsides to following a strict plan. It is rigid. You have to plan your food ahead, say no to parties or eating out, there's almost no food just for fun (unless your are bulking, then strangely it can feel like a chore to eat more than you would like).

There's a category of people who can be very strict around their food choices or diet in general and have no problems. They just like living this way and feel fine. To those people I'd say: carry on.

But for some people, following a strict diet can lead to mental challenges. OCD, disordered eating, perfectionism. Those are real risks for some! If, after a period of dieting, you struggle with eating more food again, or you have labeled foods as "good" or "bad" in your mind....those can be signs of disordered eating. Maybe you got addicted to seeing the scale go down and anytime the number goes up your day is ruined.

For most people my advice is to follow a strict diet for a maximum of 3 months and then take a period "off", so to speak. In this period you go back to maintenance calories, you relax a bit, you make sure that you can still move back on the spectrum. Make avoiding mental mishaps around your food choices and weight a priority. You have to keep eating food your whole life, and it's important that you develop healthy habits around it. For a lot of people this is the core of their problem, and it's nothing to be ashamed about! You can break this cycle by being aware that always being super strict about your food isn't the way to go.

If you want to avoid being too strict, but you still want results, I think a mix of both flexible and strict approaches can help. There's a minimum of stuff that you need to do, but you still get to enjoy life as well. The tradeoff is of course that it will take longer to get results, but, and I cannot stress this enough, if you go slower chances are the results will stick.

The glorious middle

The mistake that many people make when they follow a very strict diet is that they choose an extreme caloric deficit. They start eating 1200 calories a day so the diet is over as quickly as possible. Unless you are a very short person (in which case: I'm sorry because dieting sucks if you're short), this is not a good choice for most.

The reasonable choice is to go for a smaller calorie deficit. Choose to go for 300-500 calories below your energy balance. When you make good food choices (lots of veggies, lean proteins, fruits, whole grains) you can lose weight and not be hungry all the time. If you plan it well this approach can also leave room for a cookie or a bit of ice cream. You don't need to forego all fun foods entirely. That's the flexible part of it.

You don't have to say no to eating out or birthday parties. Again: plan ahead. Look at the menu of the restaurant, ask your friend to also provide healthy snacks at their party or just enjoy the party and accept that for one day you ate (or drank) a bit more.

However, whatever you choose to do on the middle of the spectrum, it's important that you are honest with yourself. The basics of weight loss and keeping the weight off is that you can't ever completely let go again. There is a minimum of control you have to have over your eating habits. But in the middle of the spectrum you can and should focus on learning about yourself: what are your pitfalls? Focus on learning what portion sizes look like for you, which healthy recipes you like making, how to plan your food, maybe use some meal prep, etc.

If you are losing weight with the mixed approach, these are the things from the strict side of the spectrum I would use: weigh yourself at least 3x per week and use the weekly average to gauge if you're going in the right direction, measure your waist once a week and use a food diary to learn how much you can eat and what portion sizes look like (and then let go of it). If the weight starts trending up again you know that you need to be stricter with logging food for a while.

Losing weight only works if you are structurally eating less than your energy balance. If you vary a lot with what your eating throughout different days of the week you might not see success. This can happen because your work is busy and/or your weekend is busy. In this case you might have to go for the strict approach for a bit. Another tip I can give you is: keep a couple of meals the same. If you have a couple of go-to meals you don't constantly have to reinvent the wheel.

A personal example

I have just successfully finished a bulking phase. I gained 6 kilograms over 4 months time. At first, I tried the mixed approach. I did weigh myself everyday (strict), but I did not log my food. I just tried to eat a little more than what I normally did. After 6 weeks I noticed that this approach wasn't working anymore, I had not gained weight for a month. I stepped on the gas and decided to go for a strict approach until I reached my goal. I started logging my food and learned that I simply wasn't eating enough. I added some high calorie foods to my diet and found success. I also measured some body parts so I could tell if the weight was only going to my waist. In a bulking phase, you want to gain muscle over fat. This is tough to do, don't get me wrong. My waist grew by 4-5 centimeters, but my muscles also grew. After I had reached my target weight, I let go of the strict approach again because I'm just maintaining the weight now. I lost 1kg again, but I'm steadily maintaining this without tracking my food. Good enough for me! I will maintain this weight until my next powerlifting competition and decide what to do from there. I feel slightly chubby around the waist area, so I'll probably do a fat loss phase after the competition. Until that time I'm enjoying the amount of food I can eat and I try to eat as much as possible without gaining weight.


I hope this model made sense for you and gave you a new perspective. Where are you on the strict to flexible spectrum right now? Do you think it would be wise to change your position? Please get in touch if something is unclear or if you want some advice. E-mail me on if you need help.



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