How Strict Should You Be On Your Diet?

Diets can be hard to follow when they’re not lenient. Some of the most common questions my clients ask are:

“How strict do I need to be on my diet?”
“Can I have a cheat day? And, if so, how often?”
“Can I drink alcohol?”

And it’s easy to understand why. You just want to find a balance between getting results from your diet and living your life.

Another reason these questions come up is that the answers are not obvious. But over the years, I’ve discovered that the solution is actually quite simple.

In this article, I’ll teach you a basic rule for how strict you need to be. And give you some pointers to help you adhere to your diet.

How Strict Do You Need To Be On A Diet

Dieting Mistakes

First, let’s talk about what doesn’t work when it comes to sticking to your diet. Like many things, you could think of diet adherence as a spectrum.

Too Lenient

One end of the spectrum is not being strict enough. This could be in the form of bad snacking habits or falling off the wagon on the weekend.

It’s sort of like following your diet 75-80% of the time. It seems like you’re doing a good job, but you just won’t see much, if any, progress.

Too Strict

On the other end of the spectrum is being too strict. This is where you don’t deviate from your diet for any reason and expect >99% adherence.

While this rigor gets results at first, it’s not sustainable in the long run. And this perception of super strict dieting is what prevents some people from even trying.

Diet Adherence Spectrum

How Strict Do You Need To Be On A Diet?

As a general rule, it’s best to stick to your diet 90% of the time in order to see results. Also called the 90/10 rule.

This rule applies to the amount of healthy food you eat compared to the amount of “junk food” you eat. Often, eating junk food is referred to as a “cheat meal” or “cheat day”.

Cheat Meals

A cheat meal is any meal that isn’t part of your regular healthy meal plan. It could be obvious junk foods like cookies or ice cream. Or just eating out at a restaurant.

While there’s nothing wrong with cheat meals in moderation, just make sure they don’t account for more than 10% of your calories on a given day. For example, if your target is 2,000 calories per day, then the cheat meal should not be more than 200 calories.

When you start getting over the 10% threshold, it’s better to consider it a cheat day.

Cheat Days

A cheat day is any day where you eat multiple meals that aren’t part of your regular meal plan. Usually, you’re not tracking calories or macros on a cheat day. It’s more like a day off from your diet.

As with cheat meals, cheat days are totally fine in moderation. In fact, it’s necessary to take a break from dieting once in a while. However, the same 90/10 rule applies to cheat days.

In this case, for every cheat day you have, you should stick to your diet for 9 days in order to get back on track. Yes, this means you can’t have cheat days every weekend!

Cheat Day vs Refeed Day

A cheat day is when you indulge in junk foods that aren’t part of your diet. Whereas a refeed day is a strategic high-calorie day with mostly healthy foods.

Therefore, a refeed day is not considered a cheat day. Unless you go overboard or include too many foods that aren’t on your meal plan.

Alcohol

While it’s possible for alcohol to derail your diet, it doesn’t have to be off-limits. Again, the key is moderation.

The reason is that the calories in alcohol can’t be used as healthy building blocks for your body. And when you consume alcohol, any other calories you eat are more likely to be stored as fat.

So you should treat alcohol the same way you would junk food. Typically, a drink or two won’t account for more than 10% of your daily calories. But any more than that, and you should consider it a cheat day.

bodybuilding meal plan

Custom Meal Plan

Get a personalized meal plan designed specifically for your body and lifestyle. Including custom recipes formulated to fit your macros and calories – no counting required!

All this for just $13.99/mo! Click here to choose your plan.

Tracking Calories And Macros

If you’re following a meal plan from Nutritioneering, you’ll have accurate calorie and macro targets. And as long as you eat the recipes provided, you don’t have to track anything.

But if you’re following your own plan, you’ll need to count calories and macros. So how strict do you need to be about hitting those targets?

When it comes to macros, I recommend getting within +/- 10% of your target. For example, if your target is 200 grams of carbs per day, that’s +/- 20 grams. Or 180 to 220 grams per day.

As for calories, you need to be a bit more accurate because being off even a little can make or break your results. That means you should get within +/- 5% on calories.

So if your target is 2,000 calories per day, that means +/- 100 calories. Or 1,900 to 2,100.

How to Adhere to Your Diet And Make It Sustainable

Now that you know the 90/10 rule, how do you make sure you stick with your diet 90% of the time? Here are 6 easy things you can do to make your diet more sustainable.

1. Don’t Skip Your Refeeds

As mentioned above, a refeed day is a planned high-calorie break in your diet. And it’s designed to boost your metabolism while keeping hunger and cravings in check. 

So skipping a refeed is more likely to make you fall off the wagon and cheat more often.

refeed day

2. Schedule Your Cheat Meals or Cheat Days

The best way to manage your cheat meals and cheat days is to schedule them into your diet. That way you can make sure you’re following the 90/10 rule.

In addition, this allows you to adhere to your diet while still participating in social events or family dinners. When you know you have an event coming, mark it on your calendar.

Then make sure you stick to your diet leading up to the event as well as after the event.

3. Get Back On Track The Next Day

Whether a cheat day is planned or not, it’s imperative to get back to your diet the next day. The reason is that you don’t want to break the good habits you built.

And if you do have back to back cheat days, remember the 90/10 rule. You should now expect to be consistent for 18 days of dieting in order to get back on track with your results!

4. Minimize Junk Food In The House

One of the easiest ways to stay on track with your diet is simply to remove temptations. Toss out or donate junk food instead of having to stare at it every time you open the fridge or cupboard.

If you can’t get rid of junk food, put it somewhere you’re less likely to come across. Out of sight, out of mind!

5. Find Healthy Recipes You Actually Like

Another way to cope with a bad food habit is to find the healthy recipes you actually like. If you have a sweet tooth, opt for the natural sugars of a fruit smoothie.

Or help yourself feel more full with a high protein, low carb meal. You’ll be surprised how quickly the cravings will subside.

6. Remind Yourself Why You’re Dieting

When a craving does arrive, simply pause for a minute before reacting. Ask yourself – is the temporary pleasure of indulging worth a setback in your fitness goals?

Often, you’ll find that just by pausing, the craving moves on. And you’ll increase your will power by picturing how happy you’ll be when you reach your goal.

Conclusion

When it comes to how strict you need to be on your diet, just remember the 90/10 rule. As long as you stick to that, you’ll make sustainable progress towards your goal.

Once you master your diet 90% of the time, you can push the envelope a little further to transform your body even faster. Just don’t overdo it to the point where you get too restrictive.

For more information on how to simplify your diet, check out some of my popular articles below.

Bodybuilding Nutrition Simplified

Bodybuilding nutrition doesn't have to be complicated. Learn how to get 80% of the results with 20% of the effort using a simple framework you can start today.

Share with your community and get the conversation started!