IIFYm vs. clean eating… Time to take off the ‘holier than thou’ crown and eat some humble pie (provided it fits my macros).
I am fully aware of the multitude of sites and blogs available providing information and opinions on the concept of ‘if it fits your macros’, or IIFYM. I’m not going trudge through old stuff that you can google and read for yourselves, but as someone who has implemented both IIFYM and traditional ‘clean eating’ in to my diet, I want to offer my opinion and experiences so you can make up your own mind if you’re currently unsure what to do, or are struggling to maintain your current diet as is. As a self confessed foodie and someone who started out the bikini journey as unbelievably regimented, I hope this will offer those new to the competing life (and anyone else on a dietary or health goal) some insight as to your options to make it a sustainable and, most importantly, enjoyable journey.
What is IIFYM?
Anyone that monitors their nutrition is aware of the concept of macronutrients, specifically protein, carbohydrates and fats. If you’ve been given / have planned any sort of real nutrition plan (excluding all pyramid schemes and weight watchers types from this given the use of ‘real’ here) they’ll be based to some extent on meeting macronutrient intakes. These will be set at a certain number (g per day) according to your individual goals set by yourself or your coach, so it isn’t something that I’m going to write about on this post. IIFYM is a process by which you can basically eat whatever you want as long as it fits your daily macros. Because at the end of the day, a carb’s a carb. Sounds good, right?
This way of dieting (and I use the term dieting in relation to any structured nutrition plan here, not specifically relating to fat loss) offers an alternative to the traditional concept of ‘clean eating’, where people only eat so called ‘clean foods’. This is where you see the standard chicken, broccoli and rice diet come in (give or take a sweet potato or two). It allows you to eat whatever you want, and I mean anything, as long as it fits your macros. Provided you do this correctly, you will see the results you’re aiming for.
What are the benefits of IIFYM?
Obviously, the first benefit of IIFYM is the choice you have. You’re not stuck to eating the same foods day in, day out, making yourself sick of chicken within weeks and dreaming of sweet potatoes nightly. It allows you to be far more sociable, going out for dinner can usually be worked in to your diet so you don’t have to exclude it all together, or write the meal off as a cheat meal instead. I mean, why waste your planned pizza cheat for a bog standard restaurant meal? Just don’t go… And there lies the beginnings of your diet getting in the way of your social life, which you want to avoid where possible. I’ve been known to bring turkey chilli to work buffets, and sweet potatoes and nut butter to baby showers. I’m not saying don’t do it, but the choice to eat that free buffet instead of asking staff to microwave your Tupperware lunch is nice… And some may not have quite as understanding friends and colleagues as me (a lot of whom require endless persuasion, when you all want to do is eat your perfectly weighed out food in peace). Advocates of ‘clean eating’ brag about the health benefits compared to the ‘junk’ that they see some IIFYM users eating, and yet come Saturday will binge on dominos pizza and ice cream until they explode. IIFYM allows you to have treats where you want them and may remove the requirement for that 3000kcal overeat every weekend. I say may, some of us may like both…
What could possibly be bad about this?
I’m not saying IIFYM is the only way to go, and as with any diet strategy there are some drawbacks. First off, it can become quite tedious relatively fast, inputting every mouthful you eat in to your phone. It can also become obsessive for some, so it isn’t for everyone in that sense. I know last year I wouldn’t have been able able to cope with the constant tracking as I tried to write my PhD, apply for jobs and train all at the same time. With this might come a tendency to eat pre-packaged foods rather than fresh home cooking, purely for ease of inputting. However, aside from the clever barcode scanning function of my fitness pal, it also lets you input your own recipes and reuse them whenever you need. Something that those dieting to lose body fat need to consider is the satiating effect of food. Are the 400 kcal you get from a pop tart going to be as filling as a giant bowl of oats and fruit? Possibly not. This may not matter so much to those on a hypercaloric intake, but I know when I was dieting that I made every meal last as long as possible and would not have wasted so many calories so carelessly. You also need to consider your micronutrients. Although you’re tracking your macros, this doesn’t mean that you’re getting everything you need in your diet. Micronutrients play a huge role in your overall health, and you’re hardly going to meet your micro needs from consuming protein powder, cereal and peanut butter for every meal. Supplements should only add to your diet, they shouldn’t be giving you every vitamin and mineral your body needs because you can’t be bothered to meet them in your diet. There’s no research out there to back it up, but I imagine that long term, eating junk food consistently despite it meeting your macros probably isn’t going to have the best outcome aesthetically either. One final thing to consider is your meal timings. Although the whole ‘I need to eat within two minutes of finishing my last set or I’ll lose my gains’ chat is a tad overdone, it is suggested that for maximum protein synthesis (muscle building) that you consume approximately 25g protein relatively soon after your workout (within 1-2 hours). If you’ve built up all your macros in to one meal, you’re going to start making that a little hard. Likewise, it probably isn’t ideal to be consuming all of your carbs in one meal, and your fats in another. Common sense would hopefully prevail here…
When I was building for my first show, I struggled initially to gain any mass. By the time I started my prep, I was guzzling down a couple of maltodextrin shakes per training session. Maltodextrin is basically a sugar. I was adding what was effectively 112g carbs (456kcal) to my intra- and post-workout shake daily. It didn’t taste great and wasn’t particularly satisfying, but I ‘needed’ my fast acting, convenient source of carbs straight after my session or I’d lose my gains (obviously). Today, I might have 50g of frosted shredded wheat (I’m a cereal fiend) or, if I’m craving, a handful of Candy King with my whey. Now because I’m reverse dieting after my show, I’m on a lower intake right now. But, should I want to consume the same amount of post workout carbs in my cereal that I did before as maltodextrin, I’d need to consume 140g (over 4 standard portions, although if anyone has ever eaten a standard cereal portion I salute you) of frosted wheats for 115g carbs (582). Yes, there are more calories and 3g fat in this, but that’s the beauty of IIFYM, I can make this up elsewhere. Four portions of cereal or a sugary drink, which would you prefer?
Ironically, I had friends at the time who told me to just ‘eat cake’, or hounded me to explain why I could eat a cheat meal but not have a slice of cake during our weekly bake off Friday. Of course, I supplied textbook responses: “if I have one bite I’ll eat it all” and “girls need to clean bulk or we’ll gain excess fat’. Well, that humble pie fits nicely in to my macros, thanks.
How can you do it for yourself?
Ultimately, as much as you’ve heard ‘a calorie isn’t calorie’, it sort of is… It’s useful to know your required intake before you can figure out your macros composition. Firstly, you should know the calories that your macros contain: 1g protein = 4kcal; 1g carbohydrate = 4kcal; 1g fat = 9kcal.
Like I mentioned, I can’t tell you what your individual goals should be. What I would suggest though, is always start with protein. In any sort of diet, whether you’re maintaining or looking to lose fat, the key is to maintain lean body mass (anything that isn’t fat in your body weight). To do this, you need to consume adequate protein. Although the recommended intake for protein in the UK is ~0.8g per kg body mass, this differs greatly depending on your individual goals. A recent review by Murphy and colleagues (2015) highlights the benefits of increasing your intake when aiming to reduce fat, whilst resistance training individuals may benefit from twice the recommended intake. Once you’ve worked out how many grams of protein you’re aiming for, you can work out the calorie intake from this using the values above.
Carbohydrate and fat intake will (sorry to repeat myself) really depend not only on your goals, but your preferences. These can be pretty flexible for some with the remaining calories, but you can work these out based on your remaining calorie allowance and kcal/g values above.
Apps like ‘my fitness pal’ are an IIFYM users best friend. These let you input your own goals for the day and log what you eat. It seems tedious at first, but you’ll get used to the excitement of discovering your macro allowance for your final meal of the day. Imagine, having a bad day and knowing you can go home to 25g of fats… Do you know how much nut butter that is?!
How I do it
So what do I do now? It’s simple. I know my macros and I meet them, every day, ensuring this by using my fitness pal. I still meal prep, 5 lunches and 5 dinners of so-called ‘clean’ meals, usually turkey and rice or some sort of variation. I like to keep the balance of wholesome foods in there. But then I’m free. Yes I usually eat the same meals, but I love my quark and protein mug cakes. But at the end of every day, I use my free macros to make a supper of dreams, usually consisting of pop tarts, potato scones or Nutella. Because why not? IIFYM bro.