If you’re wondering if flexible dieting is for you and want to learn how to begin, then you want to read this article. The beginning of the article sets up everything for you (calories, macros, etc.). Towards the end, there will be a sample meal plan you can copy and make into your own.
This is a guest post by Chris Pinedo from LeanWithStyle.com. Chris was one of the first people to enroll in ShredSmart back in 2016 (that’s how we first talked) and over the years he has specialized in teaching flexible dieting. His book now ranks #1 organically for the keyword “IIFYM” on Amazon and he also has a video course online (44 lessons) that goes in-depth into tracking macros. I’m glad he offered to write this guest post because there was no step-by-step guide to tracking macros freely available on the site. If you like this guide, make sure to check out his website and products. – Radu
What is Flexible Dieting?
Flexible Dieting: a method, or style, of dieting used to improve body composition by tracking your macronutrients (Macros), instead of eating based on “good” and “bad” foods.
With flexible dieting, you have a set number of macronutrients to hit every single day. You have a pre-determined set of Protein, Fats, and Carbs to eat every day.
Think of it as a budget, but for your food intake.
It is up to YOU to determine how you use up your budget, and that is why it is called flexible dieting.
- Some use up their macro budget intelligently:
- Low-calorie, high volume, foods.
- Filling Foods
- Nutritious Foods
- High-Protein Foods
- Some treats here and there
- Some use up their macro budget horribly:
- Drinking their calories
- High-calorie, low-volume, foods
- Un-filling Foods
- Treats all the time
And this brings me to the point of where Flexible Dieting and IIFYM cross their proverbial line.
You may have heard flexible dieting referred to as IIFYM: If It Fits Your Macros. They both essentially mean the same thing, just IIFYM has gotten a bad rep due to Instagram.
If you do a quick search of the hashtag #flexibledieting or #iifym on Instagram, you’re bound to see endless pictures of brownies, pizza, burgers, etc.
I don’t see IIFYM and Flexible dieting in this way. These people are missing the point of flexible dieting.
While, yes, the option to eat “junk” exists, it should not be the MAJORITY of what your diet consists of.
You simply have the FLEXIBILITY to eat those foods, so long as it fits your macros (IIFYM).
Note: I’ve heard flexible dieting also be referred to as flex dieting, macros dieting or macro dieting. Regardless, for this article, I will be calling it “Flexible Dieting.”
How do I Start Flexible Dieting?
You’re going to need a couple of things to start flexible dieting.
That being said, like with any diet, you CANNOT begin without setting up your calories and macronutrients for your specific fitness goal.
For this article, we’ll be using a fat loss example.
We’ll use Chris, who is 200 lbs. and is barely active. We’ll talk more about what this means in a bit.
Where it all Starts – A Calorie Deficit
At the end of the day, it’s all about if the amount of calories you eat is below your daily energy expenditure.
Weight loss only occurs when one is in a calorie deficit. There is no debate about this.
It is a fact.
So, to find your calories for weight loss, we first need to find your TDEE.
Note: You can use the ShredSmart calculator here to calculate your calories and macros, however, there is some benefit in doing it by hand if you’re a beginner!
Step 1: Calculating Your TDEE:
To lose weight and find your calorie deficit, you need to know how many calories you are burning each day at rest, to maintain your weight.
This is called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). Some refer to it as your Maintenance Calories.
Here’s the formula:
Current Body Weight (in lbs.)
a # between 14-16
How do you determine what number between 14-16 to use?
You must assess your daily activity level.
Here’s a quick table for reference:
|Activity Level||Body Weight in lbs.||Multiplier Based on Activity Level||TDEE|
|Sedentary||200 lbs.||x||14||=||2800 Calories|
|Barely Active||200 lbs.||x||14.5||=||2900 Calories|
|Lightly Active||200 lbs.||x||15.5||=||3100 Calories|
|Very Active||200 lbs.||x||16||=||3200 Calories|
This table doesn’t cover every scenario and that is okay.
Don’t get stuck on this part.
Just pick a number and go.
You will have to adjust eventually anyways. Once you’ve found yours, keep it. You will need it for step 2.
Step 2: Calculating Your Calorie Deficit Based on Your TDEE
For our example, Chris weighs 200 lbs. and is barely active.
His TDEE is 2900 calories. He wants to get down to 175 lbs.
Now, to find Chris’s calorie deficit, you want to subtract anywhere from 10%-25% from it.
Here’s the formula:
How much you subtract from your TDEE depends on:
- How much of a hurry you are in to lose weight
- How much weight you have to lose
Here are some examples of each option:
|TDEE||Deficit Amount||Calorie Deficit|
|2900 Calories||–||10%||=||2610 Calories|
|2900 Calories||–||15%||=||2465 Calories|
|2900 Calories||–||20%||=||2320 Calories|
|2900 Calories||–||25%||=||2175 Calories|
Who Should Use a 10% Calorie Deficit
You should only use a 10% deficit (or even 5%), in my opinion, if you want to SLOWLY lose weight, while potentially gaining muscle.
This usually only occurs in a couple of scenarios:
- If you are a beginner to lifting weights
- If you are coming back from a long break from weights
- If you have never taken your training program seriously
I only recommend this approach if you know what you’re doing in the gym and have a solid workout program. Also, only if you track everything correctly to a “T.”
If you have a lot of weight to lose weight, I wouldn’t recommend this small of a deficit at the start.
Who Should Use a 15% Calorie Deficit
For the same reasons as a 10% deficit, I’d only recommend this for people who:
- know what they’re doing,
- want to lose weight slowly,
- and are not expecting to build muscle.
Who Should Use a 20% Calorie Deficit
For most people, this is a good place to start.
It’s a big enough deficit for weight loss and you can expect to lose .5-1 lb. per week depending on how much weight you have to lose.
If you have 5-15 lbs. to lose, this is where I would recommend you start.
Who Should Use a 25% Calorie Deficit
If you have more than 15 lbs. to lose and you want to lose it at an aggressive, but safe, pace, then you should choose a 25% deficit.
This is what Chris, from our earlier example, will use to lose weight.
2900 – 25% = 2175 calories.
Therefore, every day, Chris would eat 2175 calories, while tracking macros on a daily basis.
Speaking of dieting with macros, let’s calculate those for Chris.
Flexible Dieting Macros and Recommendations
We are going to determine a Macro Split, based on our calories from the previous section (2175).
A Macro Split means splitting up your calories into percentages and then turning those percentages into macronutrients.
Before you can do this, you have to know the following information:
- There are 4 calories per gram of Protein
- There are 4 calories per gram of Carbohydrates
- There are 9 calories per gram of Fat
Now that we know the calorie-per-gram make up of each macro, we can use percentages.
The following are very popular macro splits (Protein / Carbs / Fat):
- 40 / 40 / 20
- 40 / 35 / 25
- 35 / 40 / 25
These usually work for most people, however, you are free to customize it to your liking.
Let’s go over an example:
40 / 40 / 20
You take your calories for weight loss (2175) and multiply it by each percentage for each macro that you chose.
In this case, it’s 40% protein, 40% carbs, and 20% fat.
|Calorie Deficit||Macro Split||Calories From Each Macro||Calorie-Per-Gram Make-Up||Macros in Grams|
|2175 Calories||x||Protein (40%)||=||870 Calories||/||4||=||218g P|
|2175 Calories||x||Carbs (40%)||=||870 Calories||/||4||=||218 C|
|=||435 Calories||/||9||=||48 F|
With this 40 / 40 / 20 example, Chris has the following calories and macros:
- 2175 calories to eat everyday
- 218g Protein
- 218g Carbs
- 48g Fat
Again, you could customize your macros and the percentages to your preferences.
Just remember, protein is very important while cutting.
Make sure you get at least 0.8g – 1g of protein per lb. of body weight (in lbs.) and you should be fine.
This usually equates to a minimum of 30% of your calories coming from protein.
Turning Macros Into Meals
Now that we have our macros, we can divide them into the number of meals we want to have per day.
|Macros and Cals||# of Meals||Macros and Cal Per Meal (4 Meals)|
|2175 Calories||/||4||=||544 Calories|
|218g P||/||4||=||55g P|
|218g C||/||4||=||55g C|
|48g F||/||4||=||12g F|
This doesn’t have to be exact, but it could give you some ideas.
For some, this is helpful, and for others, it isn’t.
The only issue with creating flexible meal plans is in the flexibility of it.
There is no one CORRECT meal plan.
Therefore, the above calculations, again, are only to give you ideas.
Don’t think of it as a template.
For example, let’s say you follow intermittent fasting (HL to radu article). What happens then?
Turning Your Meals Fit for an Intermittent Fasting Schedule
If you follow intermittent fasting, then you know you usually have:
- 1 small snack
- 2-3 medium-sized meals
- 1 big Feast
Therefore, your macros and calories should reflect this type of meal plan:
Now that you have a couple of options of how to spread out your meals, let’s talk about food choices for each macronutrient.
Food Choices While Flexible Dieting
As you can see above, there are many options (and overlap) when it comes to food choices.
When it comes to picking which, I suggest sticking to 3-4 from each Macro Source and sticking to it during your fat loss phase.
For example, for protein, I usually stick to:
- Greek Yogurt
- Whey Protein
That’s where I get the majority of my protein from. Note that Radu doesn’t approve of eating animal products anymore and instead recommends getting the majority or all of your daily protein from plants in order to reduce animal suffering. He also recommends a lower protein intake (~150g per day) which doesn’t work as well for promoting satiety but makes it easier to achieve in the context of a vegan diet.
For carbs, it’s usually:
- Potatoes & Sweet Potatoes
- Fruits (bananas, apples, etc.)
Fats usually come from:
- Peanut butter
- Olive oil
- Snacks and treats I have (protein ice cream, kodiak cakes, etc.)
With that being said, any flexible meal plan will have some spontaneity to its plan.
For example, on some days, you will be having different snacks here and there such as:
- Protein bars
- The occasional Poptart
- The occasional chocolate bar
- The occasional [any food you like]
I say occasional because you shouldn’t have these high calorie, low-filling, treats everyday.
Everything in moderation.
Again, the whole point of a flexible meal plan is to allow anything in your plan, so long as it fits your weight loss calories and macros.
Now, let’s look at an example flexible meal plan for weight loss:
Sample Flexible Dieting Meal Plan
Some notes on this flexible meal plan:
Produce/Veggies – I used MyFitnessPal (MFP) to calculate these calories and macros, specifically the USDA version (if you use the food search method in MFP). Your calories and macros may vary slightly. We’ll go over how to use MyFitnessPal in a bit.
Intermittent Fasting (IF) – Whether you follow IF or not, you can still follow this meal plan. If you DO follow IF, then your first meal is the one that breaks your fast. Your fasting window can be whatever you want.
Oils – You can use whatever oil you’d like, I just use olive oil. You can use coconut oil, avocado oil, etc., just be aware of the calories.
Sauces, Seasonings, and Sweeteners – You may use sweeteners like stevia and vanilla extract if you wish. Sauces are fine too (i.e., bbq sauce, teriyaki sauce, ranch, etc.) however, take into account their calories and macros as they are usually packed with them. Also, if you want some nice zero calories syrups, Walden Farms has some good ones (i.e., chocolate, blueberry, and regular syrup). Lastly, seasonings are fine to use and not necessary to track unless your seasoning has a substantial amount of calories (i.e., more than 30 calories per serving).
Making Changes – Don’t think you have to follow this to the “T.” For example, you could take from one meal and add it to another (i.e., removing 100g of bananas from a yogurt meal and using those calories for something else). Nothing is set in stone.
Creatine – I always take creatine while cutting. It helps with recovery and performance in the gym. You can just mix it in with water or any protein shake, etc.
- These meal plans are based on MY calories and macros and based on MY preferences. You may or may not have different tastes and preferences. Don’t think you have to follow this exact plan. This is to give you ideas for your own meal plan.
- Lastly, you may notice that some of the calories/macros don’t add up exactly if you “do the math” with the daily total. This is due to some rounding in MFP.
Creating Your Own Flexible Dieting Meal Plan
How to Meal Plan for Macros
Have you ever been to chipotle?
It’s a Mexican-American Grill Chain in the U.S.
Their ”Burrito Bowl” (pictured above) is a great example of a meal plan template.
Here’s how they do it:
- Pick Your Carbs:
- Brown Rice
- White Rice
- Pick Your Protein
- (Optional) Add Vegetables/Sauces:
- Fajita Vegetables
- Salsa (hot/medium/mild/corn)
- Pick Your Fat:
And that’s it.
Easy as that.
I recommend you follow the same type of template when creating your meals for your meal plan.
If you look at from a “plate” view, your plate should look like this for 75-95% of your meals:
That remaining meals (calories and macros) you have left for the day should be left to your liking.
Whether that be ice cream, pizza, or a doughnut is up to you.
Just make sure that they fit your macros and calories as described earlier in this post!
How to Track Your Calorie and Macronutrient Intake
You need two things:
- Food Scale
Let’s go over each.
MyFitnessPal Tutorial for Tracking Macros:
MyFitnessPal is a free tool that you will use to ensure you hit your calories and macros accurately.
Don’t eyeball portions or your cup measurements.
Too often people over-measure or just simply don’t measure correctly.
User error can add an extra 100 calories to your meal and without you even being aware of it!
That is why we use MyFitnessPal.
Is it perfect? No.
But it is better than guessing.
With that being said, let’s get to it.
Note: When you download MyFitnessPal, it will ask you for your information and “stats” and give you their calorie and macro recommendations. Please IGNORE these recommendations and use the ones in this article].
Step 1: Input Your Calories and Macros into MFP
Go to More >> Goals >> Calories, Carbs, Protein and Fat Goals.
You should see the following screen:
Add your calories and macros you calculated earlier and input them here.
Notice that you have to put the exact percentage for each macronutrient.
This is your macro split.
Step 2: Input Your Calories and Macros into MFP (2 ways)
You have two ways to start tracking foods with MFP.
The first way is by searching for the food:
This is for foods that don’t have a barcode label or if you’re out to eat at a restaurant.
The second method is by scanning nutrition label barcodes which is the easiest of the two methods:
And so essentially, you would do this for every food that goes into your mouth.
The cool thing is that, if you eat the same meals every day, MFP keeps a history for you so you don’t have to scan it every time.
You can just add it back normally.
The next step, to make this accurate, would be to weigh the foods with a food scale:
Food Scale Tutorial for Tracking Macros:
This part may seem complicated, but it just takes some practice.
After a week, you’ll get used to it and it becomes easy.
Based on the nutrition label of the food you are weighing, there will be a certain serving size with a weight attached to it:
Here, you see that 228g is the serving size.
That means, if you were only to have 1 serving, you would ONLY weigh out 228g on your food scale and use ONLY that amount.
That is how you get accurate!
It would look something like this:
And that is all there is to it.
You would do this for everything:
- Peanut Butter
- Protein Powder
- Ice Cream
For other things, such as oils, and smaller things, you can use measuring cups, just try to be accurate.
Again, this may take some time getting used to, but it will become natural after a week or two.
How to Make Sure You Lose Weight With Flexible Dieting
If you want to lose weight, regardless if you’re following flexible dieting, keto, or a low-carb diet, you must consume fewer calories than you are burning.
To make 99.99% sure you are in a calorie deficit, you must track calories.
To make sure you are gaining, or maintaining muscle and strength, you need to have an adequate amount of protein.
To make sure you have enough energy to get through those workouts, you must have a decent amount of carbs.
For better hormonal function, you must have a decent amount of fats.
You track these macros with MFP.
This is how you make sure you lose weight with flexible dieting.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment below!