If you like this content and want to learn more from me, check out Fitness Fundamentals – a website providing the most up to date, applicable fitness information, run by my colleague Luke Tulloch and with content written by me.
Yet another article on If It Fits Your Macros (hereafter IIFYM). I know these have been done to death, but I’m hoping to give a slightly novel perspective of flexible dieting for longer-term success. Those who are experienced dieters will almost certainly consider this not news, but if you’re somebody using a macro-tracking approach (or coaching others) then hopefully this will be of use to you in how you frame your decisions.
But first, WHAT is IIFYM? WAAAY back in the day on bodybuilding.com’s nutrition forum there were astonishingly regular threads asking questions like “if I have 500 calories left in my day, can I eat some ice cream and still lose weight” (or iterations of the same). A few users began responding with “If it fits your macros”, which somebody (I think ErikTheElectric or something) began abbreviating to IIFYM.
The whole concept of IIFYM came to be in reaction to the idea that certain foods might sabotage body composition progress, and was basically the exasperated reaction of people that understood that provided overall daily caloric and macronutrient intake was in line, people were at liberty to consume any food under the sun.
What IIFYM isn’t
Whilst the above means that, yes, you can eat ice cream, or burgers, or pizza, or any other food and still lose weight IIFYM was never meant to justify or advocate for eating MOSTLY junk food to lose weight. Sure, people have done it (remember that Twinkie diet guy) and it’s cool from a proof-of-concept point of view, but that’s moronic for a thousand reasons and plenty of other people have written about why so I won’t blather on about it.
So this article is in no way attempting to argue that minimising junk food has any great physiological advantage for losing weight. I’ll note that certain unprocessed foods (eg nuts) may yield less calories than predicted by bomb calorimetry because the actual biological structures of the food reduce the availability for digestion/absorption of energy-containing molecules. However I doubt that that would make a meaningful difference outside of going from an ultra-processed to ultra non-processed diet.
The reasons we advocate for MOSTLY unprocessed food are to improve satiety, make hitting macros easier and improve the micronutrient profile of the diet.
But what isn’t discussed as often is the psychological/behavioural aspect of food choice while dieting and so that’s what I want to address today.
So firstly – for LEAN individuals
While I’m loathe to spend too long criticising what is essentially a caricature IIFYM approach, rather than the rational/intelligent way many people go about it, if everybody was rational/intelligent in their approach to dieting these articles wouldn’t be necessary so entertain me.
IIFYM is marketed (yes, marketed, because every fitness professional and their designer dog (shoutout to Digby – ILY) sells coaching plans/ebooks based around flexible dieting principles) as a reactionary anti-restrictiveness, anti-disordered approach to pursuing improved body composition and health. Personally, I think that’s great.
However, aspects of this image are both disingenuous and sabotaging.
Images of “dieters” consuming whole tubs of ice cream or frequently having calorie-dense bombs of meals are commonplace, usually accompanied with captions about how “just because you’re dieting doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy xyz”.
The problem with this is simple – when dieters spend all day juggling their macros to justify having large servings of treats while still fitting their macros (and without sacrificing #progress towards their #goals), they by definition spend 23 hours of their day in a dietary pattern that is JUST as restrictive as the “bro-dieting” they are railing against.
What’s more, fetishizing treats and attempting to hoard calories/macros for a meal late in the day serves as a double-headed beast of unhealthy behaviour.
I believe (sans research basis, I’ll admit) that overemphasis on the importance of treats serves to distract from how enjoyable the meat and potatoes (literally) of your diet is. Enjoyment of food isn’t determined by how insta-worthy it is, and if every meal to you is merely a means to one glorious meal’s end, you’re making dieting harder and less enjoyable than it needs to be and setting yourself up for overconsumption of the highly-valued “treat” foods post-diet.
So the first unhealthy behaviour is an obsessiveness with “sometimes” foods (exactly the foods that the concept of IIFYM was meant to remove the aura of taboo from).
The second unhealthy behaviour is an undue obsessiveness over the macronutrient content of the other foods that you eat. Where every spare gram of carbohydrate and fat counts to you, food choices become WAY more important than they really ought to be. Remember, IIFYM was meant to liberalise food choice, not make you neurotic about choosing the MOST macro-friendly option at every meal.
So essentially, trying to juggle macros to justify a big treat at the end of the day sets you up for a cycle between orthorexic and bulimic behaviours (I say that not intending to misappropriate the terms, but at the extremes that what it resembles).
When you are lean, dieting is by definition a temporary behaviour. If you start at 12-15% bodyfat as a man (or 25% as a woman), you are already in good shape and presumably have a base of behaviours that allow you to maintain that condition. (By the way, I think nearly everybody should work towards a minimally invasive dietary approach during maintenance and gaining phases, which means less strict tracking, using calorie/macro ranges and using food choices intelligently and so on, but that’s a separate article).
If dieting is a short-term endeavour, being able to temporarily shelve a few foods (not THAT type of shelving, although presumably you’d lose weight if that’s how you ate) shouldn’t be a huge ask.
I love a pizza and froyo as much as the next bloke, but the first things that you SHOULD reduce your consumption of when losing weight are the “sometimes” foods.
Nutritional choices for lean people with athletic goals, especially during weight loss, need to address imperatives of sufficiency (get ENOUGH calories, protein, micronutrients and so on) and performance (carbohydrates to support training, meals timed to facilitate training hard and recovering). This needs to be done whilst maximising satiety and making adherence easiest and the BEST way to do that is to consume a diet of MOSTLY unprocessed foods, with any periworkout strategies necessary to maintain performance, with treats as incidental (ie, when you have a few hundred calories to spare) and to keep you sane.
To reiterate – I’m NOT saying don’t include treats in your diet plan, or that you should just eat a “bro diet” and track macros. What I AM saying is that structuring your WHOLE dietary approach to include large portions of foods that SHOULD be discretionary is self defeating psychologically and likely detrimental from a performance standpoint and if the whole appeal of a dietary philosophy is that you can eat lots of naughty foods, you’re missing the point.
So don’t be dumb – if you’re lean, use flexible dieting appropriately to
– Liberate food choice
– Impose a structure that helps manage hunger and facilitate performance
– Allow treats on a rational basis (rather than as a priority)
– Keeps you sane (by allowing you to enjoy varied meals of nice foods whilst doing the above, without letting you get obsessive over the macro content of everything you eat).
And yes, sometimes that means finding something more interesting than your thickshake to post to Instagram. Maybe your new abs.
As a final note – I’ve spoken specifically in the context of weight loss dieting up until now. During maintenance and/or gaining periods there shouldn’t NEED to be reactionary restrictive behaviour for you to include reasonable portions of “sometimes” foods. If there is, you’re probably doing something wrong. During those periods it might sometimes even be helpful to include more “treats” just to facilitate higher intake provided your baseline diet is in line.
But what about for those who are after PERMANENT/LIFESTYLE changes?
Firstly, I’ve had the chance to chat to plenty of Joe Averages about their diet and I can tell you that MOST people who come to you needing to lose 30+kg have problems with food choice and general eating patterns.
In fact, the FIRST point of call for most people who are really overweight is to begin imposing some structure and encouraging healthier food choices. Well before you have to worry about macros, just getting people to substitute in some vegetables in their meals and addressing the environmental drivers of their food consumption will do a huge lot of good.
Given that, if we have a population presenting to us with an inappropriate consumption of “sometimes” foods and a need for lasting habitual changes to their intake, making the key selling point of a diet that it can preserve intake of the same foods that are ACTUALLY the problem for them is dumb. Furthermore, these people are NOT necessarily the types who want to spend their life tracking macros.
Appropriate interventions in these populations involve helping foster habits where, longer-term, ad-libitum intake will help them maintain weight loss and health. We can help reduce ad libitum intake of food by decreasing the caloric density of diets (more fruit and vegetables, wholegrains) and providing adequate protein. That means substituting “healthy” foods in for the energy dense/processed foods and finding ways to make it enjoyable.
You get where I’m going with this – the selling point of a diet for long-term weight loss and maintenance cannot be that it allows the preservation of problematic habits. If you’re going to have clients tracking their intake to facilitate long-term weight loss, you still want a behavioural focus where they are emphasising selecting appropriate portions of the foods that will be the foundations of their maintenance diet (NOT emphasising the opportunity to eat crap on the way).
And no, that doesn’t mean that from day one people should be eating NO treats, but it does mean that the general trajectory of the diet should be towards reducing their consumption in lieu of other foods.
Beyond the above, of course, these people are still at risk of the psychological traps that I mentioned for lean individuals, it’s just that this population both get MORE marginal benefit from “just cleaning up their diet” than lean people typically do and require more changes to their baseline behaviours for maintenance of weight loss.
So, is flexible dieting an INAPPROPRIATE diet strategy for these populations? Not at all (in fact, flexible dieting is almost certainly your BEST approach), but don’t be dumb in its application. Remember, flexible dieting and IIFYM aren’t synonymous, and if the core of the problem for a given population is food choice and daily eating structure, working to impose improvements on them whilst preserving some dietary autonomy is hitting closer to the mark, and still flexible.
– Use IIFYM to help educate on weight loss/maintenance concepts and remove guilt around food, or reduce bingeing
– Use IIFYM concepts to help address appropriate portion sizes
– Begin interventions with an emphasis on fostering “good”/healthy behaviours as substitutes for behaviours we want to see less often
– Use flexible dieting to liberalise food choice and preserve the social/cultural aspects of eating that are important to regular people.
– PROBABLY (this is a hunch/personal preference) hold off on tracking macros/calories in lieu of just improving food choices, reducing the frequency of “sometimes” food intake and consuming appropriate portions. Establish the baseline behaviours before you impose deliberately restrictive/temporary dieting behaviours.
So to conclude – flexible dieting approaches are very very much the way to go for your body composition goals. All foods can be implemented in weight loss diets and ought to be on a rational basis. However, while this knowledge is liberating, overemphasising the opportunity to consume “sometimes foods” is a mistake.
There is no need to put particular foods on a pedestal during weight loss phases and there is every reason to simply adopt a largely “healthy” dietary pattern during weight loss subject to your preferences. If you want to make long-term changes to your physique you likely need to make long-term changes to your eating habits too, so having an understanding that you CAN include a variety of foods and succeed is great, but not if it means you attempt to preserve problematic behaviours for (dubious) short term comfort in your diet.
So there, don’t be dumb.