The “Let Loose / Buckle Down” Cycle
A familiar pattern that I see in my clients is the “let loose / buckle down” cycle.
It usually starts over a weekend, when things get a little… loose.
Maybe a few meals out got a little bigger than expected, and a few more drinks were imbibed than initially planned.
Then Monday, the “buckle down” phase promptly begins – calories get jammed down as low as possible, with intentions to “really stick with it this week.”
And then I think you can guess what’s coming.
By Wednesday or Thursday, treats are getting re-introduced, and things start falling apart a little bit again. Things get busy, food gets disorganized, then the weekend hits… and it starts all over again on Monday.
Clients who get locked in this cycle don’t make very much progress, but here’s the secret that I impart to them:
The problem isn’t the “going off the rails” part… the problem was the restrictive part.
Look – there’s nothing wrong with having tupperwares lined up full of chicken breasts, sweet potato, and broccoli. But here’s the important caveat:
What often tanks the diet is not the food itself, but the mindset behind the food.
When someone starts a buckle-down Monday with an attitude of rigidity, they don’t realize that they are essentially pulling back a pendulum to its extreme end, which means that as soon as it’s released (and it inevitably will be), it’s going to swing quickly back to the other extreme side.
If the only version of dieting is a rigid one, then departing from the plan often means going waaaaaayyyy off the plan.
We have to budget in the ups and downs and be honest with ourselves about our relationships with food and exercise, or we get stuck in this cycle that doesn’t move us forward.
We have to create a flexible mindset that smooths out the highs and lows – making the “loose” a little tighter and the “buckle” a little looser. Even on a strict diet that is oriented towards faster fat loss, we still need to be honest with ourselves and plan breaks and treats.
Here are three real-life examples of how flexible dieting can play out in a healthy way in someone’s weight loss journey.
Scenario #1: Crafting Your Monday Mindset
When we meal prep over the weekend using the portion control approaches that I’ve discussed in the past, it’s easy to start the week with a rigid attitude.
And this makes sense. It’s easy to feel virtuous when you see your rows of chicken breast and broccoli laid out perfectly in neat rows of containers.
But I would invite all of us to be mindful of what track is running through our minds as we start the week on the high note. What message is playing in your head? What beliefs are you unconsciously imposing on yourself?
Replace any voices that sound like…
- “I have to stick with this perfectly this week.”
- “I was so bad this weekend, now I have to be really on my game.”
- “I have to make up for last week.”
… With phrases like…
- “I am so glad I took the time to prepare.”
- “This makes life so easy.”
- “I feel so much better when I eat well.”
As corny as it may sound, these messages that we replay over and over again in our heads are really important! They determine what our attitude toward ourselves will be later in the week, when we need to negotiate unexpectedly dining out or missing a workout. We’ll talk more about re-framing “failure” in Scenario #3, but for now, let’s take the pressure off of perfection.
Secondly, use your beginning-of-the-week fervor and freshness to take in your week at a glance. Do you have any work lunches? Special dinners? Happy hours? By planning ahead, you prevent these occasions from sneaking up on you and throwing you off your game.
Crafting your Monday mindset is not about orienting ourselves towards perfection. It’s about giving ourselves the gift of preparation, mindfulness, and order, so that we can focus less on food and more on life at the start of the week.
Scenario #2: Planning for Interruptions
Many people see special events like holidays, graduations, weekend barbecues, and travel as obstacles to progress – times when we have to take a break from our “good” habits to really enjoy ourselves.
But if we frame these natural (and wonderful) life events in this way, we end up seeing all of life as a sort of steeplechase of potential setbacks.
Instead, we can do some powerful re-framing and decide in advance that we’re not flipping the on/off switch. It is a decision, not a necessity.
What if you could go to a barbecue, eat delicious food without overeating, genuinely enjoy yourself, not feel deprived, feel physically and emotionally great, and still see progress on your weight loss goals?
Does that sound impossible?
It all depends on how we orient ourselves in our relationship with food. If we have a contract with eating that says, “I cannot have fun unless I overeat,” and/or, “I cannot make progress unless I only eat ‘clean’/’healthy’ foods,” then events like barbecues and parties and happy hours are very tough.
But if our contract with eating says instead, “I enjoy food and life more when I eat and drink moderately,” then we’re dealing with an entirely different scenario. It’s truly magical when clients realize that they enjoy any food just as much if they stop eating when they’re satisfied.
When your eating plays by those rules instead of rigid rules that make specific foods off-limits, this flexible mindset allows you to enjoy special occasions without either depriving yourself or sabotaging your goals.
Scenario #3: Bouncing Back from Overeating
Finally, we have to acknowledge that even with the best preparation and the most flexible mindset, we’re going to have moments of over-indulgence.
So let’s talk about re-framing what we think of as “failure.”
This is incredibly important, because this is where flexibility lives – the ability to shrug off an episode of poor eating and immediately bounce back to a balanced approach.
If we approach dieting with a perfectionistic approach, what often happens is that a “slip” turns into a four-day disappearance into abject hedonism. There’s a shroud of shame, avoidance, and procrastination that floats around these missing days. In the meantime, the shroud hides the fact that the diet has been epically abandoned.
But if we approach weight loss with a flexible dieting approach, small departures from the plan stay small. They’re not a big deal, because they’re recognized for what they are – normal ups and downs in eating, not shameful transgressions.
If you look at it from a mathematical point of view (which I do!), an extra few slices of pizza with your friends is perhaps 800-1000 calories, one time. Sure, it raises your overall daily average intake slightly higher, but just slightly. Let’s compare.
Let’s say your maintenance calorie level is 1900 – meaning, if you eat 1900 calories per day, you’ll maintain (but not gain) weight. Let’s say your calorie goal is 1450 per day for fat loss, with some planned flexibility for eating out. You eat 1450 per day, but then have an 1800-calorie day (planned happy hour) and a 2250-calorie day (unexpected party) thanks to 800 calories of pizza, but immediately have 1450-calorie days afterwards and are back to “normal” without a self-punishing lower day following… your daily caloric average is slightly over 1600. In other words, you’re still in a caloric deficit. You’re still losing fat.
On the other hand, let’s say your goal is to eat 1450 every day of the week without exception. If you perfectly eat 1450 per day until Thursday, when you have those extra slices of pizza… and then disappear for four days Thursday through Sunday (waiting to start over on Monday, and all-over-the-place with your diet at 2250+ for four straight days)… then your daily average is over 1900. In other words, you’re maintaining your weight every week, and maybe even gaining. You get the super fun experience of working really hard to lose weight and never seeing any progress.
Just by bouncing back faster, you’re shaving 300 calories off your average every day in this example. And you still had pizza. No big deal.
To make flexible dieting easier, here are some tips for imperfect but very consistent adherence (which equals results!):
Tip #1: Meal. Prep. Every. Week. You know the saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? This is what meal prep does for you – it makes food a no-brainer so you can focus on life more. Plus, meal prep doesn’t mean constantly eating out of Tupperware. It just means that your food is ready.
Tip #2: Exercise consistently, because it transforms your health and your mindset. It changes you on a chemical level. It’s not just about fat loss.
Tip #3: Pre-track. Even if you don’t want to track every single piece of food that goes into your mouth, it’s still a fantastic idea to plan “example days” every week. Put a full day of eating into MyFitnessPal just to see what a specific calorie goal actually looks like, and to check how much protein you’re getting at a glance. This can help greatly with better planning and more skillful course-corrections.
Tip #4: Budget in treats you like. This is so important. Don’t swear off something just because you don’t think it’s “healthy.” For many foods, context is important. Maybe if a food is hard for you to control intake, you shouldn’t eat it in front of the TV at night. But maybe splitting it at a restaurant with friends allows you to eat it in a controlled and enjoyable way.
Tip #5: Get comfortable with not being full. One of the keys of flexible dieting is learning how not to stuff yourself. Remember the pendulum analogy? Overconsumption often follows restriction. You’ll find that if you eat foods you like without overeating, you will lose the “buckle down” impulse. And the less you “buckle down,” the less you will “let loose.” But that starts with learning to respect your body’s hunger and fullness cues, and developing the ability to stop before you’re full.
A Final Caveat
Finally, just to be painfully, absolutely clear, “flexible dieting” is not synonymous with eating tons of junk food. People who are successful flexible dieters will end up with a menu that looks – ironically – pretty “clean,” because it’s the best interests of both health and appetites to be nutritiously well-fed.
What makes it flexible isn’t that it’s packed with candy and pizza – it’s that it budgets for the realities of life, and doesn’t make any particular food (or food group) off-limits. What makes it resilient is that it’s comfortable with 80-90% adherence, and can rebalance itself quickly.
This is why flexibility works – even with the treats planned in, the great likelihood is that the approach will be overall healthier (in reality) than constantly falling off the “clean eating” wagon.
And it’s better for you mentally, too!
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