October 20th, 2012
The If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) Diet: Eat Anything You Want And Still Lose Fat?
There is a food philosophy making its way around the internet, called “If it fits your macros,” or IIFYM. There are some good reasons why this new trend is popular, and in some ways, I’m on the same page with this movement. But as with many trendy diet programs, this one in particular has a very high potential to be taken to an extreme. I’m also seeing it misinterpreted and misapplied in sometimes laughable and even harmful ways. Today’s Burn the Fat Blog reader Q & A explains…
Q: Hey Tom, I read your Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle book and dieted using those principles for my competition in 2009 with success. This year, I’m dieting with IIFYM or flexible dieting as they call it, and I’m only 4 pounds away from my 2009 stage weight, so this seems to be working too. What is your opinion of this approach?
A: As I have come to understand it (as it has been argued to me), if it fits your macros (IIFYM) means that as long as you hit your daily goals for calories and macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat), then the food choices and meal plan schedule are just the details and should be left up to personal preference. In IIFYM, calories count and macros matter. The rest should remain flexible.
I agree that a calorie deficit is a required condition for weight loss. Pick the foods you like and if you hit your daily calorie goal, you’ll lose weight. Practical evidence: people have lost weight successfully on all kinds of different diets varying as widely as vegan to ketogenic low carb. My preference is more balance and not leaning toward any extreme, but regardless, establish a calorie deficit and you will lose weight.
I’ve also seen people eat what is basically a traditional bodybuilding diet, with a little bit of “junk food” every day – a piece of chocolate, a pop tart, or whatever – with no absolutely difference in body composition results compared to when it was 100% “clean” (at the same calorie level).
I also agree that macronutrients matter. They have probably been overplayed in importance in many cases, so macronutrient micromanagement is not necessary and the idea that there is one perfect macro percentage for everyone is also clearly flawed. Customization is required. But yes, macros matter. For body composition and fat loss goals, it is particularly important to hit your protein goal every day.
I’m also in favor of flexible dieting. My fat loss program, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM) is bodybuilding-style nutrition, and yet it’s extremely flexible and highly customizable. I think there is a huge misunderstanding about bodybuilding and physique athlete nutrition today, where many people think it’s always overly restrictive.But on BFFM for example, relaxing the foods enough that you get to enjoy eating anything you want on occasion is not only allowed, it’s recommended (makes it more fun and easier to stick with).
It’s important to take your personal preferences into account when creating your own meal plan rather than letting a diet guru completely dictate what is allowed and what is forbidden. Even if the “guru” is right that one food has greater benefits than another, if you’re prescribed a meal plan you can’t stick with, on a practical level, what good does that do you?
So, in many ways I’m agreeing with IIFYM. I simply prefer to approach this question of food choice flexibility from the opposite angle: Instead of saying, “Just hit your macros and eat whatever you want”, I recommend as the default, making as much of your food as possible nutrient-dense and natural (aka “clean”), and then choosing a “compliance rate.”
What is a reasonable rate of compliance to natural, nutrient-dense foods – for you – to promote good health, top performance and optimal body composition, as well as make it a lifestyle that you can stick with?
For most people on my programs, it’s usually 90% compliance to the “clean” foods list. Too strict for you? No worries, relax a bit more (make it a bit more “flexible”) and have a compliance rate of 80% (or whatever), but be meticulous about tracking those calories and macros (because the more junk you eat ad libitum, the more likely you are to lose track and overshoot your calories).
For some of us in the bodybuilding and health food fields we prefer 95%+ and NO – it is NOT a hardship, it’s our preferred choice. Personally, I feel lousy both physically and psychologically when I eat a lot of junk food – and NO, the latter is not a ‘guilt’ thing nor is it orthorexia. It’s OUR preference – it’s our lifestyle (so readers who are tempted to comment about the “OCD bodybuilder” or “fitness fanatic” - please – go read my 2 part series on “clean eating” before you touch that keyboard).
I’m not going to argue that with an unusually low compliance rate, you can’t get results – at least weight loss (given a deficit). But I think a higher compliance rate gets optimal results, even if it’s just a slight edge from putting clean fuel in your body over a long period of time. After all, a car can run on 87 octane … but I have a high performance automobile, so I fill it with premium for high performance. I fuel my body the same way. Even if it were only psychological, I would do it anyway, because a psychological edge is still an edge.
My quibble with IIFYM is not against the overall concept- but that extreme followers of IIFYM have become victims of and promoters of dichotomous thinking (pot, meet kettle). They’ve excluded the (sensible) middle and become reductionists. “Just hit your calories and macros and NOTHING else matters.” Every time I hear that, it makes me LOL.
The pendulum effect in diet and fitness has hit us again. The great irony is that it has swung away from good health. I agree that calories and macros for each day are the top priority in the hierarchy of importance, at least when it comes to weight loss. But what about health?
Where the extreme IIFYM attitude (“Just hit your macros and calories – nothing else matters”) fails the most is by excluding micronutrition, food quality and good health. Don’t our food choices affect our health, energy, mental state and overall wellness too? Shouldn’t health be on top of our goals and values list, not just low body fat?
By the way, many of the followers of IIFYM seem to have some kind of vendetta against the phrase “clean eating.” Many on the IIFYM bandwagon go out of their way to say “clean eating is a myth.” I have no problem at all with saying, “eat clean.” I understand exactly what it means and I think most of my readers understand it too. It means eat mostly nutrient-dense, natural (unprocessed) foods. What’s the problem? (you go Tosca Reno!)
Depending on what cliques or communities of the diet world you participate in, you may not have even been exposed to the IIFYM philosophy yet (you may be thinking, “Well of course you should eat clean! I’ve never heard such nonsense as the food choices don’t matter”), but trust me, it’s out there and I’m hearing it more and more. It shows up on certain blogs, facebook pages and bodybuilding forums and proponents are often very vocal about it too.
It seems to me that some people are following IIFYM rather blindly and they don’t even understand the original (good) intentions behind IIFYM, and that has in my opinion, started to color this philosophy with a negative hue.
In summary, if by IIFYM someone is suggesting that all you need is a calorie deficit to lose weight, and that an intelligent macronutrient split is important for optimal body composition results, and that choosing foods that suit your personal preferences is important and that if you can’t stick with your diet, then what good is it… then we are on the same page. Thumbs up to that approach toward IIFYM.
On the other hand, if by IIFYM someone is thinking, “Just get your macros and calories right and nothing else matters,” well, that is beyond laughable – it’s stupid. Let’s see them eat one meal a day of Twinkies with protein powder (it could fit their macros!) and then check back with me next year so I can ask, “How’s that working out for ya?”
Eat Clean, Train Hard And Expect Success,
Tom Venuto, author of:
Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle
PS This discussion overlaps heavily with the “clean eating” debate, the “orthorexia” issue and the well publicized case studies about “eating anything” and still losing weight – such as the infamous “twinkie diet.” You can read more about that in the related articles links below.
Orthorexia and the New Rules of Clean Eating, Part 1:
Orthorexia and the New Rules of Clean Eating, Part 2:
Nutrition Professor Loses 27 Pounds on Twinkie Diet: What Should We Make of it?
Bodybuilding Nutrition: The World’s Most Balanced Diet Program?