One of the most common false dichotomies that physique athletes believe is they are “ either on their diet” or “off their diet”. Many believe they are being “good” or “bad” depending on their nutritional choices at any given meal during any time of year.
This binary approach might be easier to follow if their daily aim was to maintain a certain weight or intake year-round.
But the existing dietary gray area that is often missed and overlooked can be a huge advantage if only athletes understood how to manage it better.
This is by no means an easy task and I empathize with those who are lost. It took me years to survive efficiently in the “in between” areas of athletic life, and I continue to work at it every day.
That said, now that I’ve been coaching bodybuilders for quite some time, it seems that the trickiness of physique sports stems from the seasonal waves — the nutritional and mental ups and downs that come as a side effect of our extreme (and often unhealthy) endeavors.
Being forever-lean logistically would be much easier than asking someone to gain and lose weight on purpose every few years. But, since this simple solution is not maintainable for a slew of medical and anabolic reasons, we make ourselves crazy trying to manage the transitions between in- and off-season periods.
For the entirety of a multi-month contest prep, we ask competitors to be robots, to stick the course, and not to waver from their responsibilities to achieve the leanest stage physique possible.
After many months of utmost dietary compliance, how can we expect them to simply fall out of this ingrained pattern without some amount of difficulty and stress?
How should athletes approach their off-season nutritional habits in a manner that allows for rest and recovery, while keeping their goals in the long view?
While there is no right or wrong answer, I want to share one of my favorite explanations of how to make decisions considering the gray area between perfect and satisfactory.
As Eric, Andy, and myself have put it, here is “Accuracy, Flexibility, and Consistency” from The Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramid:
ACCURACY, FLEXIBILITY, AND CONSISTENCY
The implementation of The Pyramid is all about balancing these three qualities. If you become overly focused and accurate, you’re going to lose some of your flexibility, you’re going to lose your sanity, and inevitably you’re going to make the diet very difficult to follow.
We only have so many things that we can focus on at a time, and our willpower and ability to juggle and handle multiple stresses is not infinite. You can’t expect to chase down every grain of rice that falls off the food scale every time, 3 to 5 times a day, while hitting your macros with exactly perfect accuracy and expect for that to be a sustainable plan. That will stress you out eventually or at the very least take your time and energy away from more important things in life.
What will stress you out even more than the process of trying to be overly detailed and accurate is what happens once you run out of energy to do this, and you can’t do it consistently anymore. Then, you start to bounce back between the extremes of losing control completely and over eating, and rigidly tracking until you lose it again. Living in the two extremes is something to avoid, and to do so we really want to make sure that we have a balance of these three factors.
We want to be as accurate as we need to be in order to be consistent enough that we can get to our goals. And different goals are going to require different levels of accuracy, but they all require consistency, which means adapting your flexibility to your goal. In research, dietary restraint is highly associated with folks who can lose weight, but flexible dietary restraint is associated with those who lose weight and keep it off, and stay sane while doing so . So determining the appropriate amount of flexibility for your situation is very important.
For example, a bodybuilder who is in the final stages of prep trying to get shredded glutes is going to need more accuracy than someone who has an undetermined time limit to lose 100 lbs. Likewise, a bodybuilder in the off-season trying to put on muscle mass is going to have different accuracy requirements from a bodybuilder during contest prep, or from someone who is trying to get lean but isn’t a bodybuilder just doing a cut.
The more accurate you are, perhaps the more consistent you will be in hitting your targets and achieving your goals. However, you might also be more stressed depending on how rigid you are in your pursuit of accuracy, which could negatively impact long term consistency. The less accurate you are, the more flexible you might be. But if you are too inaccurate, and way too flexible to the point where you’re not consistent, you won’t get to your goals.
As you can see, this is a balancing act that must always be appreciated at any stage in your dieting process. It’s important that we discuss different ways to align your dietary approach with your lifestyle and goals.
YOUR PERSONAL NUTRITIONAL ADHERENCE STRATEGY
In accordance with these three aforementioned variables, how do you decide which amount of each is appropriate for you at any given point in your athletic career?
Here are some example questions to start you off:
1. Are you in a contest prep phase? If so, accuracy and consistency are EXTREMELY important for you. (NOTE: This is the only one of these questions that I am comfortable answering for obvious reasons.)
2. Do you need to lose, gain, or maintain your body weight over the next six months?
3. If you need to lose or gain, what is an appropriate rate for this change?
4. Does your current diet serve you well in accordance with these body weight goals?
5. If your current dietary behaviors need to change, how significantly must they be altered? Do you need to increase consistency or accuracy in order to make these changes? How will you monitor these changes?
6. Do you feel like your diet has enough flexibility for you to continue a satisfying life outside of your sport?
I could probably list a dozen more examples, but these are just some of the ways to question your behaviors so you can better navigate the gray area.
Everybody’s answers will differ, as every person’s priorities are different. Not just in their order of importance, but also in how much emotional weight each priority carries for that specific person.
As much as our viewers and followers hate it, this one of those “it depends” situations that can only be decided on an individualized basis. That said, I really hope the principles in this article shed some light and deliver thinking points on how you can juggle the ratio between accuracy, flexibility and consistency to help you attain happiness while reaching your goals.
1. Stewart, T.M., D.A. Williamson, and M.A. White, Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 2002. 38(1): p. 39-44.