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Is flexible dieting right for you?

Brad Loomis is a pro natural bodybuilder, a coach at 3D Muscle Journey and a RKC qualified kettlebell instructor. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

Few nutrition subjects have divided opinion as much as the clean eating versus flexible dieting debate. On one side you have the clean team, who follow strict meal plans with occasional cheat days. On the other side, those with a flexible approach will eat what they like as long as they hit their macronutrient targets. IronLife grilled flexible dieting advocate Brad Loomis about the benefits of not keeping it clean.

What was your diet like when you started bodybuilding?
I’m no different to a lot of people. The assumption is, when you don’t know any better, that you have to eat really clean food all the time. It’s the typical chicken and broccoli and rice and protein powder and fruit. That works fine and it gets you in good shape but the problem is that it’s an on off switch. When I was on I was disciplined. But when I was off and the competition was over I wouldn’t know what calories I was taking in and pretty soon I was just eating whatever looked good.

What prompted the switch to flexible dieting?
I followed that back and forth way of eating for probably a good six years. And then I met Alberto Nunez and Eric Helms [his colleagues at 3D Muscle Journey] and I started learning about the flexible dieting approach where you make sure you hit your correct macronutrients. There was a transition period but pretty soon I found that there was no longer an on off switch. And I was always about 15-20lbs within my competition weight, whereas when I had an on off switch I was at one time almost 50lbs above competition weight.

When you made the switch did you expect it to work?
I was skeptical. When I made the switch I was getting ready for a competition and I would follow my menu for a day and then the next day I would do flexible dieting. When little pitfalls would happen – I’d miss something or miscalculate something – your mindset when you’re a bodybuilder is that it’s the end of the world. But of course the reality is that it isn’t. It’s one day, it’s an isolated incident and it happened rarely. And, most importantly, I got in just as good competition shape as I had always done.

How long did you alternate for?
I did that for a few months as I was getting ready for my competition and then I ultimately made the full transition after the competition, moving into the off season.

What was the difference between that initial off-season period compared with previous years?
The first and probably the most obvious difference was that I didn’t put on a whole load of weight. I stayed pretty lean for a good period of time – about three or four months. And I never really got as heavy as I had in the past.

How did it affect the way you trained?
I don’t think it affected it at all. There was no real difference in performance or strength. I never even thought about that, to be honest.

What was the psychological impact?
I wasn’t so stressed over making sure that I prepped my food. I wasn’t so stressed about putting pressure on myself to only eat clean foods. I felt like a burden had been lifted off of me. I didn’t have to watch the clock. I didn’t have to spend a chunk of my weekend cooking, preparing, weighing and boxing up food. But the biggest thing was that the temptation was gone. My family didn’t adhere to strict eating so they’ve got treats in the house and they want to go out to dinner. No longer did I have this temptation to have that cookie. If I wanted it, I would have it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t.

Did you get any blood work done?
I always get blood work done prior to dieting for a competition. So I had my blood work done prior to the 2009 season when I started making that transition. And I had it done in 2011 when I had made the full switch. They weren’t that close together but for the most part the blood work was good on both occasions. However, on that note, I will say that in the past I ate a lot of protein using the clean eating approach because that’s what I thought I needed to do. I thought I needed 300-400g of protein per day and every time my tests would come back my liver function would be high. But the doctors would always say, ‘yes it’s elevated, but you eat a lot of protein and you’re working out’. When I dropped my protein intake down, that went away and I no longer have excess protein in my blood.

How do you think a flexible approach would affect the way someone thinks about food?
The whole on off switch is something that is prevalent. And it’s easy when you have that situation to get out of control. You can’t get back on your clean menu and before you know it you’ve gained a bunch of weight. When that happens your confidence drops and you’re beating yourself up because you’re no longer looking like a bodybuilder.

Is that something you’ve seen with your own clients?
Usually we see the aftermath of that when they’ve hit rock bottom and they come to us saying, ‘I need to fix this because this is not working’. But I have worked with clients who were the most hardcore clean eaters and when they transition into the off-season the most dedicated clean eater almost always goes off the wagon. And then they beat themselves up, tell themselves that they were weak. That’s when we like to intervene and say, we need a different approach.

What are the biggest objections to flexible dieting that you encounter?
The biggest objection is that your body can’t perform optimally with a flexible approach and you could get better results had you followed a clean eating approach. While that may be the case, I haven’t seen any definitive proof. That’s always the objection – you have to have good food all the time to be your best. But on the flip side, flexible dieters think the clean eaters are unhealthy because they have cheat days where they binge.

Why do you think there’s such a divide between the two camps?
Some of the flexible dieters have abused the flexible dieting approach. They are almost showing off and saying, ‘look at me, I can eat chocolate and cake and I can get just as shredded as someone who eats chicken and broccoli’. So that has fuelled the divide. The flexible dieting approach was never intended to be ’look at me, I can get lean on cake’. It’s more about being human and staying on track with your programme.

What about someone who can’t handle the flexibility?
I think it would be naïve of me to say that it fits everyone and it doesn’t matter who you are but I haven’t encountered that yet. I think a lot of people when they’re transitioning may go through periods of time when they can’t handle the flexibility but usually they come around. But there may be folks out there who may not be able to handle that variety.

What would you say to someone who said, ‘you’re only following a flexible approach because you don’t have the discipline to eat clean’?
Probably my response would be, you’re right. What person out there is perfect in their approach to clean eating 365 days a year? Basically we are all human and nobody is perfect. Flexible dieting is a way of meeting the human element half way. You don’t have to be perfect but at the same time you can be imperfect and focus on the parts that matter.

What’s your view on micronutrient intake?
My view is that the science is showing that it is not as critical as we once thought. It’s not that we have to have precise levels of micronutrients. They have to be there but it’s not quite as finite as we once thought. So I’m becoming a little bit more relaxed in those areas, which is a relief on the mind and the stress levels. It’s important but it’s not going to make or break your programme.

What’s your overall assessment of what the latest science says about flexible dieting?
I don’t think that’s been revealed yet. I don’t think there’s enough science data between the two approaches. When you do a study trying to find a particular result, you can’t use a flexible approach because you need to make sure your variables are in place.

If someone said, I use a clean eating approach, I think it works and I don’t want to change. What would you say to them?
I’d say, okay. That’s great. Stick to your approach but if you have any trouble down the road, get hold of me. Because the true determinant of whether something is working is whether or not it will work a year from now or two years from now or three years from now. I think that’s the biggest reason why I’m sold on flexible dieting. It has worked for me better than clean eating for five years now and that’s what I believe to be the true measure of success.

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