Ask the Coaches: How to Effectively Modify Your Diet Plan

Can I modify my diet

One of the most common questions we get as coaches goes a little something like this:

“I’m trying to follow the ‘XXX’ Diet. Is it okay if I eat ‘Y’ and ‘Z’? What if I don’t like ‘P’ and ‘Q’? Do I have to eat them?”

Basically, the question is asking if you slightly modify a diet, will it still “work”?

Sure, the answer depends on the context. For instance, it’s probably not okay if you’re trying to follow a Ketogenic diet, and you want to eat a box of breakfast cereal every morning. Heck, that’s not okay any way you cut it. But, it’s probably okay if you love eggs to have an egg or two in the morning, even if you’re trying to follow a more Mediterranean-style diet.

It’s also probably okay if you’re following a time-restricted feeding diet and your feeding window is 15 minutes longer than it was supposed to be. It’s probably also okay if you add a little cream to your coffee. It’s probably also okay if you have dessert, a glass of wine, or a piece of pizza every once in a while—at least if you want to maintain your sanity.

It’s probably also okay to remove foods you don’t like or that make you sick. For instance, if you have a sensitivity to dairy, wheat, beans, or asparagus, cauliflower, onions, apples, pears, or any of the other FODMAP-containing foods, it’s okay if you don’t eat them. Otherwise, it’s probably okay if you have a piece of bread or even some ice cream every once in a while…

The point is that there’s no single diet that’s perfect for everyone. Don’t get me wrong. There are multiple well-formulated, effective diet plans—Keto, Mediterranean, Paleo, DASH, Intermittent Fasting, and more. Any diet may need to be tweaked to ensure it’s the best nutrition plan for you.

Of course, as sports nutritionist extraordinaire Dr. John Berardi has summarized, there are some key components that the healthiest, most effective nutrition plans have in common:

1. They increase your mindfulness and raise your awareness of what, when, how, and how much you’re eating.
2. They emphasize food quality while getting you to eat less ultra-processed, calorie-dense, nutrient-sparse junk food.
3. They increase your nutrient density, which means more water, vitamins, minerals, proteins, and essential fats.
4. They help you control your appetite and manage your food intake, preferably without having to count calories.
5. Even the best nutrition plans promote regular movement, activity, and exercise.

Speaking generally, as long as you stay true to those elements, the rest is up to you.

Say what?!

You see, in a way, a diet plan is more of a compass than a map. Sure, most people want a map with step-by-step directions, but that’s not how it works. You’re a unique individual with unique goals, needs, preferences, sensitivities, environment, genetic blueprint (epigenetics), social setting, and more.

There’s no possible way even the most experienced coach (who’s more like a guide than a dogmatic, hand-holding expert) could provide you with an equivalent set of directions you’d get from Google Maps if you wanted to take a road trip.

Another way to think about it: A map does you no good if you don’t have a compass to point you in the right direction. (And let’s be honest, sometimes even with Google Maps, you need a compass. I know it doesn’t always provide me with the most direct route.) In other words, a well-formulated diet acts as a compass, providing you direction (i.e., some guidelines) to help you make the best choices to get you from where you are (Point A) to where you want to be (Point B).

Sure, to establish a baseline, it’s a good idea to keep things simple and follow the plan as closely as possible. But after you’ve consistently done so for a period of time, think about what may be working well and maybe not so well. Think about the types of changes you might need to implement to get you to where you want to be over the long haul.

Then, experiment with tweaking your diet, putting your own personal touches on it. After all, the more you can do to increase your diet’s stick-to-it-ive-ness, the better. In other words, your long-term success is directly related to your adherence to the program.

If adding or subtracting something—within reason, of course—is going to help you stick to the plan, then the benefit is going to outweigh the cost. You see, one of the biggest reasons people fall off the wagon is a lack of compliance.

Having said that, it’s a good idea to make tweaks in the most scientific and systematic way possible, adding in one variable at a time. For instance, if you’ve ever followed an elimination diet, you know it’s best to add in one food (or one type of food) at a time to see how your body responds.

And as you do make these types of modifications, give yourself time to determine whether it’s “good” or “bad,” asking yourself the following question: How’s that working for you? Those five words, as simple as they may be, are incredibly powerful. And truth be told, I probably could have started this article off by saying that and saved you a bit of time.

I’d love to hear your feedback. Maybe you have a specific question or example. What “works” for you? How did you go about finding that “winning formula”?