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Discipline is important in your diet but it doesn't mean you need to live like a monk

In his first column, nutrition expert Danny Lennon explains why he would recommend flexible dieting.

You don't need to stick to a rigid diet, says our nutrition expert.
You don't need to stick to a rigid diet, says our nutrition expert.
Image: Shutterstock/Subbotina Anna

IS THERE ANY other goal that has such a poor track record of success than losing body fat and sustaining the results?

There are a number of issues that can contribute to the failure to sustain a target body fat level. But one that doesn’t get enough attention is the concept of how discipline should be viewed in relation to diet and nutrition.

In conventional circles, for a long time now the use of the word “diet” has almost become synonymous with restriction, elimination or sacrifice. Often with the assumption that the stricter you remain, the better.

How strict or restrictive a diet is, is NOT an indicator of how effective it will be. However, there is an equally misleading viewpoint being pushed that is the complete opposite.

In recent years there has been a surge in popularity of “flexible dieting”. If you’re unfamiliar, an easy way to think of it is as an approach that essentially puts no restrictions on what foods can be included in the diet, once calorie and macronutrient targets are in line with your goal.

I like flexible dieting as a philosophy as it does a good job of not outright banning foods or naming foods as inherently “bad”, which is generally a downside of many other popular dieting approaches.

However, you will undoubtedly find “gurus” who take things too far and mislead you with messages that make it sound like they’ve found the holy grail of dieting. They preach that you can diet by eating whatever you want, drink alcohol regularly and keep your current lifestyle.

All technically true, but it’s misleading to hear those messages in isolation.

I believe that there is no reason to ban foods, completely eliminate certain food groups or take an approach that requires huge amounts of willpower.

If you’re stressed and anxious all day from having to engage lots of willpower to stick to a depressing diet, it’s not going to work. I don’t care how much you “want it”, you are going to fail.

However I am not one of those people who is going to tell you that this dieting thing is going to be easy, that fat loss can be effortless or that you won’t have to make any trade-offs.

Sure, it’s cool to be told that no specific foods need to be eliminated from your life. You can have some chocolate, you can drink a beer or two, and you can eat often vilified foods. You can keep them all!

But you can only do so when you consider the overall context of your diet. Only when these foods can fit within the framework of a diet that is conducive to your goals.
Discipline is still required.

That’s right. Eating to lose body fat over an extended period of time is not easy, it’s not something that you can do without exerting some degree of discipline and sacrifice.
But there is a difference between healthy discipline and obsessive, counter-productive restriction.

So it’s not a question of whether discipline is needed or not. It’s rather a matter of where you focus that discipline.

When you focus it in the right areas, it affords you flexibility and freedom in other areas, making it much more likely you can sustain this new dietary approach and actually maintain your new bodyweight.

For example, don’t use discipline to try to stick to a specific supplement schedule or to try to force yourself to eat foods you absolutely hate.

Instead use discipline to put time aside to cook and prepare some meals in advance. This will create freedom in both time and decision-anxiety later in the week. Not to mention making it easier to stick to your new habit and creating less reliance on willpower.

Use discipline to choose sensible portion sizes, not to completely omit things.

Use discipline to avoid that extra 2 hours of Netflix at night, instead get some extra sleep. That will make your nutrition decisions better the next day.

Remember, it’s not a question of whether discipline is needed or not. It’s rather a matter of focusing that discipline in specific places and relax about the rest.

As Navy Seal Jocko Willink put’s it in his book Extreme Ownership: Discipline Equals Freedom.

Danny Lennon is the CEO and founder of Sigma Nutrition. He is a nutrition coach and educator. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

You can read his nutrition blog on The42 every Tuesday morning.

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