When people set out to alter their body composition or put on muscle, many may wonder, “Is there a best way to eat?”
While there are certainly more strategic approaches to nutrition, there is no one diet or way to eat to have the best nutrition plan. There is, however, a way of eating that will feel best for you and allow for the best implementation into your life. To make nutrition decisions as easy as possible, apply the right eating pattern for you and incorporate your food preferences.
A “flexible dieting” approach is proven effective in the literature and lived practice at Stronger U. This approach emphasizes the overall pattern of food consumption rather than focusing on eliminating food groups or types. It prioritizes balance, moderation, and personal preferences for how someone likes to eat. Unsurprisingly, autonomy and preferences are a crucial part of how we eat. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position on healthy eating helps explain the flexible total diet approach. It includes eating within energy needs rather than any type of food or meal. Classifying foods as good or bad is “overly simplistic and can foster unhealthy eating behaviors.” (Freeland-Graves JH, Nitzke S, 2013)
One of the reasons our members are so successful on Stronger U is that we don’t ask you to eliminate any foods or tell you what to eat through specific meal plans. Instead, we use a principle we call Structured Flexibility, which means we give you guidelines (structure) for eating and help you discover what, when, and how to eat to support your goals, lifestyle, and food preferences (flexibility).
Our flexible approach is rooted in the science of nutrition and energy balance – the key factors in making body composition and performance changes. You get to pick and choose your foods within specific guidelines based on your goals and preferences. We then teach you how to plan those foods into your day adequately. There is no good or bad food, no right or wrong times to eat, and no strict rules that universally apply to food.
Below, we’ll break down this concept further.
Structure refers to knowing what energy needs (total calories) and distribution (macros) you should stick to daily. Structure also includes learning and discovering what foods and eating patterns work best for you. Once you have some ideas of what you prefer, set guidelines to support those choices and create a food environment that encourages that approach to eating.
- Do you struggle with late-night eating? Setting guidelines to not eat after 8 pm might work well for you.
- Do you reach for snacks, even if you aren’t hungry? You might want to try to remove snacking and instead eat three larger meals per day.
- Do you have low energy during your morning workout? Of course, sleep is very important, and also adding in more food prior to working out might be exactly what you need.
Our coaches work to determine what strategy and structure are needed for you to optimize short and long-term results.
Flexibility means that no single approach works best for everyone, and let’s be honest, no single approach works for everyone every single day, either. We empower you to learn how to make the best decisions to support your daily goals in a reasonable, sustainable, and responsive way to any curveballs that life throws at you.
While we encourage members to eat as many meals as they can at home because it’s easier to control their food choices and preparation, we recognize people enjoy dining out, and that’s completely fine. We never want you to feel like you can’t enjoy a dinner at a restaurant, a slice of birthday cake, or special meals while on vacation. Our coaches work with members to find a flexible approach to situations like these. For example, a flexible approach to eating at a restaurant is making a conscious choice to enjoy an appetizer, a glass of wine, or a dessert (whichever is most important to you) instead of all three. Or you could choose wine and dessert but eat light the rest of the day leading up to that meal.
We are not creating robots who follow strict meal plans and food rules; we are developing well-informed, strong decision-makers! Our program and coaches arm you with tools and knowledge to feel empowered, confident, and in control while never feeling deprived.
Methods to Implement Structured Flexibility
The first place to start when creating a nutrition plan if you are aiming for body composition changes or performance improvements is by gaining an understanding of your overall energy and macronutrient needs that will help you achieve your goals. Refer to this blog to help you establish your personal goals. Once you know your energy and macronutrient targets for each day, the methods and patterns below will help you hit those targets or remain as close as possible when tracking food. Here are some of the most impactful methods we use within our Structured Flexibility approach to allow members to enjoy the freedom to eat foods they love. The below methods can be used together or implemented on their own.
1. 3-3-3 Method
One great reason to add some structure to your diet is to help reduce decision fatigue, simplify your food prep processes, and make it easy to hit your macros. The number of food choices available is limitless; complex meals can get expensive and take a lot of time to prepare. One structure-based technique that works well for our member is what we refer to as the 3-3-3 Method.
Here’s how it works:
Choose three foods you enjoy from each of the macronutrient categories to have in your regular meal rotation. This approach takes the pressure off you to create an elaborate recipe or a huge variety for every meal. Nailing this basic method will help you with results, regardless of your prior nutrition knowledge.
- Choose three different protein sources
- Choose three fat sources
- Choose three carb sources
Below is an example day using the 3-3-3 Method; read more on this topic here.
For those who want more variety, remember there are endless options of spices and cooking techniques to make thousands of combinations. It makes perfect sense why someone would be concerned about getting bored. Adding flavor and changing the cooking method or food pairings can help with more creativity in the kitchen. One way to do this is to consider the flavor profiles you want to enjoy and base your meal on that. Here’s an example of how to do this using our Meal Assembly Guide.
3-3-3 also makes it really easy to hit your macros each day. Why? If you have simple meals planned with single-macro foods, eating a little bit more or a little bit less of one food to increase or decrease the amount you eat of one macro is easy. For example, let’s say you plan your meals for the day, and find you are low on protein. With this simple 3-3-3 approach, you can easily increase the amount of chicken you planned for dinner to get more protein without impacting the other macros. When you have more complex recipes combining multiple ingredients, you must eat more of the complex dish if you need more protein. This means you’ll also increase fat and carbs. 3-3-3 makes eating easy and super flexible!
2. Meal Patterns
Determining elements of a meal pattern that work best for you is another approach to adding some structure to your diet. Meal patterns refer to options, such as how often you are eating, how many meals or snacks you eat, and the timing of your meals. There is a lot of flexibility in what meal pattern can work for you based on your lifestyle and personal preferences, and it helps to set some guidelines to follow when trying to stick to a nutrition plan.
Here are a few ways to think about meal patterns and consider what style feels right for you.
3 Meals / 2 Snacks
While people eat in many ways, the most typical eating pattern for adults in the U.S. currently includes eating three meals per day with two snacks. This meal pattern typically fits well with most people’s work and life schedules, so it is a great option.
3 Meals / NO Snacks
Some people may do better following a plan where they stick to three meals per day without any snacks. The benefits of this type of eating pattern include:
Three larger, more satiating meals, so you’re exposed to food less often and have fewer opportunities to overeat.
By setting a hard “no” on snacking, you give yourself guidelines that leave no room for interpretation. If it’s not scheduled for you to eat in a meal, then you aren’t eating it.
If you transition from tracking to mindful eating, breaking the habit of snacking can help maintain your long-term success. Snacks are usually higher in macros/calories and provide less satiety, so it’s easier to overeat them.
6+ Small Meals and Snacks
Some individuals find their eating preference leans towards more frequent small meals and snacks throughout the day. A few benefits of this eating pattern are:
- A Shorter window of time between meals or snacks, so if you are feeling hungry, it may help you to handle it knowing that another meal or snack is coming soon.
- Eating smaller meals and snacks better distributes food intake to help prevent excessive fullness if you are someone who struggles to consume the recommended amount of food.
- Eating more meals throughout the day may be beneficial if you find eating the recommended amount in fewer meals challenging, especially when trying to gain weight.
Intermittent Fasting or Time Blocks
There are many different methods of “intermittent fasting.” One of the most common includes selecting a set period when you will eat. For example, eating all your macros between 12 and 8 pm may be helpful if you enjoy fewer but larger meals.
Hear Dr. Jessica Bachman Break Down Structured Flexibility
As you can see, there are various ways to approach nutrition and structure your meals without being too restrictive. Structured Flexibility allows you to pick and choose your foods within specific guidelines based on your goals and preferences. There are many ways to approach your structure and knowing that you have options puts the power in your hands.
Watch this short video where Stronger U Director of Operations, Dr. Jessica Bachman, summarizes ways to structure your meals and snacks. Remember that there’s no right or wrong method, so choose the style that most aligns with you.
Stronger U Coaches equip members with actionable guidance and empower them to embrace a new way of eating, leading to lasting change. They can partner with you to help determine the best way to plan and strategize your day, provide guidance based on your specific goals, and offer accountability to support your long-term success. Register for our two free Orangetheory member-exclusive live group webinars to learn more about what it’s like to be a Stronger U member, and walk away with applicable tips from Stronger U Registered Dietitians to help you crush your Transformation Challenge.