Ad Libitum Dieting vs Tracking to get & stay lean

Ad Libitum Dieting vs Tracking to get & stay lean

Most of you who read my posts will be familiar with tracking macros & the benefits of doing this in order to get lean effectively but what is ad libitum dieting?

Ad libitum dieting is just dieting without tracking your macronutrients. Can you do this & get contest/photoshoot lean?

Good question.

There are well known & respected figures in the fitness industry such as Menno Henselmans who have managed to successfully apply ad libitum dieting to get down to around 7% body fat (for men) but I’d say for the most part competitors/ body builders, etc. partake in macro tracking in order to get there successfully & certainly towards the latter most crucial part of their prep.

It’s important to apply some level of control to your food intake in order to create an energy deficit. There are several ways of doing this and the method that works best for you will depend on a number of factors. For me, tracking works a treat and give me the peace of mind and consistency I desire.

Unlike the previous years in which I have studiously tracked macros during an entire prep- this year I have been doing a combination of both. I have also had the more flexibility in my diet than ever before. Am I as lean as previous years? Not quite is the answer, but that’s because I have different goals. However I can say that I have successfully managed to lose the desired amount of weight, get to the level of leanness that I wanted to & am only about a kilo away from being photoshoot ready.

What if I’m not competing or looking to get shredded but just want to get a great lean physique for the summer you say?

Certainly you can get into great shape by just dieting ad libitum & by that I’m talking about Brad Pitt/ Fight Club levels of leanness here for men & my own kind of condition for ladies.

Let’s start off with discussing the benefits of dieting Ad Libitum.

  • It’s great when you’re on holiday or travelling. One of the things I help every client with is how to stay on track when they are travelling or away from home which is when a lot of people can easily lose their way.
  • It’s great when you have to go out for dinner or to a social event
  • It’s a method you can adhere to for months on end or indefinitely.

Here are the key points of AL dieting to utilise both when embarking on a weight/ fat loss plan & also when considering it for maintaining a lean physique:


Studies have shown (1) that drinking water prior to eating meals can help with weight loss. Pre-loading water before eating a meal is a common way to prevent over eating & also in cases of required weight loss. Being well hydrated in general is preferable as often being under-hydration can be mistaken for hunger- however to help with ad libitum dieting- drinking around 500ml before a meal is a method easily implemented. Also drinking in between meals can help stave off any cravings of hunger for a duration of time. Like anything- just get into the habit of doing it & suddenly you won’t even realise you’re doing it naturally.

Eating foods with a lower caloric value per gram of weight

The strategy of eating certain foods that fill you up for minimal energy intake is a method used commonly by those in contest prep & any sort of prep. It’s probably the one singular thing to take note of if you don’t do anything else.

Green vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, cucumber & celery have little caloric value & the body also expends around a similar value digesting them. Of course you can STILL over eat these foods but as they are less palatable you are less likely to overeat on a plate of cucumber slices than you are a chocolate Lindt Bunny for example.

Meal timings & Frequency

Often in the fitness industry we are encouraged to eat little & often with anything up to 7-8 smaller sized meals being consumed within a typical day. I myself in fact used to at one stage eat around 6 meals. Some studies have shown (2) that eating more often can increase appetite contrary to the belief that it will supress it. In my own experience I found this to be true. Having 3 or 4 larger meals aids satiety & if the overall calories being burnt are the same then surely if this help reduce further cravings it makes sense to do.

Increasing fibre intake

A similar protocol to volumising food- eating a larger volume of fibre containing foods – predominantly foods such as plant matter, beans etc helps with satiety as they tend to have a high-water content.


Lack of sleep or having a night of poor quality sleep can trigger the release of hormones which increase hunger the following day. How many of you are familiar with feeling ravenous the day after a late night out or if you have had to pull an all-nighter at work? Poor sleep is known to increase snacking & more than that- usually high carb snacking. (3)

Researchers at University of California, Berkeley investigated (link is external) the effects of sleep deprivation on brain functions related to food choices. Using MRI scans, scientists observed the neurological activity of sleep-deprived and well-rested people as they viewed pictures of a range of healthful and unhealthful foods. The scans revealed that the reward center of the brain responded more strongly to images of high-calorie foods among the sleep-deprived group than the well-rested group. The MRI scans also showed that sleep deprivation decreased activity in the area of the brain that regulates behavior control. This study suggests that insufficient sleep has a two-fold effect on eating—not sleeping enough makes us more inclined to eat poorly, and at the same time less able to exert control over our impulses to eat those not-good-for-us foods.

Abstract from Psychology Today

I would say that points above are the most important ones to take heed of first & foremost. Further points below can also be used but are less important & less effective that those above.

there is never solely one solution

Plate sizing

This method can be used to trick your brain as it is when your brain subconsciously perceives the amount of food being more than what it actually is because you have put your food onto a smaller plate. Alternatively you could try using a plate that has a different coloured border or rim around it & limiting your food to the inner area of the plate. Sound ridiculous I know but it has been proven to work for some.

Digesting appetite supressing quality foods

Some food increase appetite & some supress it. Foods such as herb, vinegars, mustard, lemon juice, etc. are known to have appetite supressing qualities to them & therefore by including these in your meal it can often help.

Selecting food for their texture

Studies have shown that foods in soup form tend to be more satiating than their wholefood version. So for instance a large bowl of chicken broth with vegetables might be most satisfying to you that having a chicken breast with the vegetables loosely. Again this comes down to the psychological aspect in that the brain may perceive a large bowl of liquid which also contain whole foods to be more filling than the same foods in whole form. & again- the additional water content comes into play here.

It’s important to note that I am not advocating that this is an easy way of flexible dieting to get lean or saying that its easier than tracking macros in any way- just that its another way of effective dieting that can be applied to those who have a good base knowledge of foods & nutrition & want to give it a go.

The reason why you have to have a solid foundation of knowledge & preferably have experience in tracking your macros at some point or another- is because it simply helps to know which foods are going to fill you up more than others i.e low kcal per gram foods & when it gets down to the nitty gritty- what foods you can replace with others. It also helps to know what the approximate caloric content is the foods you are eating so that you can eyeball a plate of food which has a regular sized chicken breast on it & say – well that’s roughly about 30-40g protein in that portion. Therefore its generally recommended to those who have some form of previous experience with tracking their food.

This is also important to stress that this is not a form of IIFYM.

Tracking can be restricting for many people. It can also have negative psychological effects- therefore this type of dieting can be helpful in order to get away from the slightly obsessive behaviour & also from calorie counting. Ab Libitum dieting can be the solution in such cases.

It’s also great for clients once they have gotten to their desired levels of body fat/ weight/ leanness to allow them to come off tracking & its constraints & to maintain their physique indefinitely.

Like myself you can easily do a combination of both ab lib dieting & tracking- there is never solely one solution when it comes to successful dieting- find the method that suits you the best, the one that you can adhere to & the one that fits easiest into your lifestyle- always the recipe for success!


  • Efficacy of water preloading before main meals as a strategy for weight loss in primary care patients with obesity: RCT Helen M. Parret et Al august 2015
  • The effects of consuming frequent, higher protein meals on appetite and satiety during weight loss. Leidy HJ1, Tang M, Armstrong CL, Martin CB, Campbell WW.
  • The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on food desire in the human brain. 06 August 2013 Stephanie Greer et Al

Last modified on

Are you an ambitious PT or Coach that wants more knowledge & better results with clients?

Click here

Are you someone who wants a leaner, more healthy & higher performing body…?

Click here

Follow the BTN blog with Bloglovin