Hands Tied Diet

Flexibility and Rigidity in Dieting

Flexible thinking is a skill that helps in all areas of life. Flexibility gives us room to adapt, learn, make transitions, and succeed in spite of change or setbacks. That’s what I love about flexible dieting. Instead of a concrete set of rules about what we can or can’t eat, flexible dieting allows us to remain fluid and encourages us to prioritize the big rocks instead of stressing over minutiae.

Having said that, where a lot of people get into trouble is that they apply rigid thinking to their diet rather than embracing a more flexible, big-picture perspective. Even people using a flexible dieting approach can fall victim to rigid thinking — at which point, the diet ceases to be flexible.

The trouble with rigid thinking

Arbitrary rules and restrictions around food, as well as unwarranted dietary rigidity, can lead to some pretty undesirable behavior. It’s only natural that when you restrict people to eating the same five foods repeatedly for months on end, they’re going to come unglued at some point, and might even develop some unhealthy eating behaviors.

This sort of recoil isn’t a phenomenon that is exclusive to dieting, either. It happens with a lot of extreme behaviors. When you pull a pendulum too far in one direction, what’s going to happen when you release it? It’s going to initially swing too far back in the opposite direction before it finally settles in the middle. We can expect some degree of this response after almost any extreme behavior.

But a troubled response doesn’t necessarily indicate that the previously-used approach was fundamentally wrong, ineffective, disordered, or damaging. It certainly can indicate those things, and sometimes does. But also, that same approach might be wonderfully effective and work fantastic for a lot of people. Sometimes it’s not the diet that’s problematic, it’s our perception.

The diet often isn’t the problem

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to adhere to a certain number of prepared meals consisting of nutrient-dense whole (or “clean”) foods that meet certain calorie and macronutrient criteria and are consumed at routine times during the day.

In fact, that kind of structure, diligence, earnest preparation, and attention to detail makes it way more likely that you’ll achieve your goal. Not to mention that you’ll reap health, performance, and satiety benefits from eating high-quality foods on a regular schedule that supports your training.

What is a bad thing, however, is if you start to become inflexible in your perception of the diet. That’s when the wheels start to come off. Here’s what inflexibility looks like:

  • You believe you can eat only eat from your meal plan without exception
  • You experience crippling anxiety when you can’t eat exactly on time
  • You get derailed when you don’t have access to your approved foods
  • You won’t eat when you don’t have access to a food scale

In each of the examples above, the bad guy isn’t structure — nor is it meal plans, clean eating, or macro counting. Rigidity in itself isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it is downright non-negotiable for certain goals where the magnitude of rigidity called for increases proportionally in relationship to how aggressive the goal is.

Rigid plans aren’t the problem
Rigid thinking is the problem

You can follow a strict plan, but still think about it flexibly. Rather than freak out and think the sky is falling when something encroaches on your sense of control, you can instead go with the flow while still getting the job done by prioritizing the things that actually matter.

Structure and flexibility can coexist

When we’re flexible, we establish trust in ourselves and in the process. We know that as long as we pay attention to the big rocks and make the best choices we can in whatever situation presents itself, everything will ultimately work out just fine.

This type of big-picture approach allows us to navigate unexpected situations while still mostly adhering to a plan. And it enables us to do so without piling on a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Anxiety is a bigger detriment to your health, and to your physique, than any single dietary deviation in isolation.

It’s fantastic to be disciplined, intrinsically driven, detail-oriented, well-prepared, thoughtful, and diligent — as long as you’re also adaptable. If you find yourself getting stuck on trivial details, locked into black-and-white thinking, or riding the downward spiral down into panic when you aren’t in complete control, you’d probably benefit greatly from working on flexibility.

Learning to think flexibly

Just thinking about the way you see nutrition, how often have you: overgeneralized, over-focused on one negative or positive detail while ignoring the big picture, disqualified the positive, jumped to conclusions, magnified or minimized, labeled, used emotional reasoning, or catastrophized?

If you’re human and you have a pulse, you’ve probably done a lot of these. We all do. Our brains quickly and subconsciously simplify complex and nuanced information so we can more easily make decisions. But these simplifications, called heuristics, can lead to mistakes in how we perceive things.

The resulting errors in thinking are called cognitive biases. The list of cognitive biases is enormous and beyond the scope of this article. But many of them apply to how we think about diet and training.

We often evaluate things based on what has worked in the past, or what we believe should work right now based on what we’ve learned from external sources. Whether the thing we believe actually works doesn’t matter. We invest in our beliefs anyway.

That’s awesome in some ways, but it can also stifle our ability to think flexibly. As a result, we can find ourselves resisting change, stuck in rigid thinking, attached to beliefs that may or may not be true, or doing things that are causing more problems than they’re fixing. 

The good news is that flexible thinking is a skill that you can develop and strengthen. The more you challenge yourself to use it, the stronger it gets. While there’s no one surefire way to learn to think more flexibly, the tips below may help get you started.

Get educated

Education is probably a good first step, because it’s hard to know what principles to prioritize until you learn how nutrition impacts your body. Once you understand that most of your results come from nailing a few key principles, it becomes a lot easier to discern what things deserve your energy versus what things aren’t worth stressing over.

Get uncomfortable

You may need to challenge your inflexibility by getting out of your comfort zone. When I say this, I do not mean that you should do anything extreme. Getting uncomfortable does not mean going to BJ’s and eating five Pizookies, then coming home and cleaning out the cabinets, and waking up the next morning covered in Snickers wrappers. (Not to mention that a kickback of that magnitude is probably a hint that you need more flexibility in your day-to-day life and/or thinking.)

Challenging your inflexibility might mean going out to a restaurant and estimating your macros instead of turning down an invitation to eat out. Maybe it means cooking a meal at home and not tracking it, but instead using the skills you’ve learned from tracking to gauge your portion sizes. Maybe it even means taking an untracked day occasionally, and using that time to get acquainted with eating in accordance with your hunger and satiety signals.

These are just ideas. They aren’t mandatory, nor will they work for everyone — but that’s fine. See if you can find something that will. The point is to challenge a rigid belief system, take a risk, and establish trust. Often, the unknown is far scarier than reality. But we never know that everything’s going to work out just fine unless we get uncomfortable once in a while.

Get in touch

Simply recognizing when you’re being inflexible or making choices that are based in anxiety can go a long way. Ask yourself, are you reacting to fact or to a belief? Often, our strongest reactions are to not to facts, but to beliefs — and beliefs aren’t necessarily true.

If the belief sounds something like, “I can’t do [insert reasonable thing that involves giving yourself a break, enjoying life, or bonding with others here] or [insert dramatic immediate result here] will happen,” it’s probably not true.

When you find yourself thinking inflexibly, challenge it. Or don’t. Maybe you’re not ready to change it, and that’s fine. But whether you’re ready to change or not, awareness is a powerful first step. You can start by acknowledging when you feel stuck, rigid, or anxious, then asking yourself why.

When flexibility isn’t possible

Now that I’ve extolled the virtues of flexibility, I also want to acknowledge that context matters. As I mentioned before, the rigidity of your goal determines how strict your dietary restraint needs to be. Flexibility is often called for, but not always.

A person who is simply looking to lose some weight, establish better eating habits, and get into shape so they can play with their kids without getting winded doesn’t need an overly exacting approach. That’s a flexible goal with a pliable timeline, so a flexible plan will likely do just fine.

But sometimes rigidity is an appropriate tool. For example, a pre-contest bodybuilder needs a more rigid approach, as there’s a concrete date upon which they’re going to have to get on a stage in their underwear. This doesn’t leave much room for flexibility.

If you’ve got a very specific goal, you can still employ flexibility in your approach to some degree, but only to the extent that it doesn’t compromise the result. The bottom line is that you’ll have to buckle down and make sacrifices at some point — that’s just par for the course. But rigidity might help.

I say that because concrete approaches can reduce stress. On top of all the normal life stress we all experience, big life events — even ones we’re excited about — are stressful. Not only that, but dieting is stressful, training is stressful, goals with a long timeline are stressful, and the fear of whether you’re going to make a mistake and blow the whole thing is stressful.

I don’t care how motivated and diligent you are, you’re only human, and stress is stress. You already have to make so many decisions in a day that it’s a short path to a total meltdown when you add in a hundred additional decisions about what you should be doing with your diet and training.

This is where a rigid plan can be a gift. It relieves you of the burden of getting bogged down by unnecessary decisions. All you need to do is follow the plan. You don’t have to think about it, analyze it, ruminate about it, or wonder whether you’re doing the right thing. You can just put your nose down, follow the plan, and focus on what you need to do every day.

Freedom can be found in structure, as long as it is approached it with the right mindset.

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