Erik Ledin 90 PercentRecently, I’ve been thinking a lot about free meals. As you probably know, I’m fairly strict when it comes to dietary adherence, as a rule. But the question always has to be–in my particular case, what’s the best way to achieve and maintain progress?

The number you hear me and other diet coaches throw around a lot is 90 percent. Generally speaking, 90 percent is the lowest level of dietary adherence you can maintain without compromising your results. The more you fall below this mark, the less likely you’ll see any of the results you’re looking for.

For example, say you’re on a 42 meals-per-week plan (that’s six meals a day, seven days a week). This means that 38 of those 42 meal have to be 100% perfect.  If you were on a 35 meals-per-week plan, that figure would change to about 32. Seems fairly simple, right?

However, take a moment to consider not just the number of cheat meals, but the size of them. If your free meals are on the order of, say, 1,500 calories, and you have two of them a week, it’s fairly obvious that this will be problematic, even though technically you’re still operating at 95% adherence.

See where I’m going with this? Instead of looking at this in terms of meals, look at it in terms of calories. If your plan allows a total of 11,200 weekly calories (that’s 1,600 calories a day), a 10% deviation would be 1,120 calories. So you basically have 1,120 calories of wiggle room a week if you want to stay at 90% adherence. And if your diet is under 11,200 weekly calories, your wiggle room will be even smaller.

Let’s turn it around. Say you’re on a 11,200 weekly calorie diet and you have two 1,300-calorie off plan meals. At 2,600 calories total, that equates to 76.8% adherence, far below the 90% cutoff point.

Until now, my advice for free meals have been rather vague: “be mindful of portions” or “eat responsibly.” I say this because I understand that the point of a free meal is to take a break and not stress about things so much. But without proper, specific guidelines, these free meals can undo progress and threaten your chance of success.

This isn’t set in stone and it’s not for everyone. But it is a new system I’ve devised for those who need a bit of concrete structure to help keep them reigned in with free meals. If you’re worried about your free meal discipline, just plug your caloric intake in, do the math, and see how much you can let yourself slide. Now, will all this math take some of the fun out of free meals? Perhaps. But they were never meant to be free-for-alls anyway.

Just some food for thought!

Happy dieting,