IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) has become popular within the training world over the last few years. Although this type of eating has always existed within the fitness community, it was never formalised or given a specific name, but there have been many bodybuilders and athletes over the years that have eaten anything and only moderated amounts eaten, not food choices.
The diet has recently been popularised by a guy who is funded by the meat and dairy industry and also believes the latest World Health Organisation study linking cancer to processed meat (& probably red meat) is wrong (he also shows his complete misunderstanding of what that study actually says and what it is not saying...but that is another story I may write later as many people seem confused by the research).
What are ‘macros’?
Macros is short for the word ‘macronutrients ‘. Macros are the amount if protein, carbohydrates and fats in food. It does not take into account, vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants or other nutrients in foods.
Let’s look at a few ways to put a diet together
For clarity let’s look at a few examples to make a point. Suppose I wanted 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% carbs (don’t worry about those numbers, exchange them for your preferred ratios if you like). Now I will offer a few scenarios and see which makes sense:
- Scenario 1: Get protein powder, glucose powder and some fat. I measure out the correct amounts of each of these macronutrients and have these throughout the day. My macros are spot of man!
- Scenario 2: Eat completely processed foods. I can eat whatever I like, but all the grains must be highly refined, all the food is highly processed (what we’d call ‘junk’ food). However, I fit the macros so they fit my goals. Again, I end up fairly close to my goal (there may be a little variation as real foods means a little tweaking to fit exact goals...).
- Scenario 3: Eat only what are generally accepted as healthy food. You never deviate from this. Weigh all food exactly and every meal is carefully measured. You get close to your goal, you are hardcore!
- Scenario 4: You eat mainly whole foods. You aim at around 80% of your diet being what is considered healthy food, the other 20% you can go a little wild, have something you want that may not be ideal. You get close to your ideal intake, but there will be some small variations day to day.
Which of the above will be the best scenario for most people? Let’s look through the results of the scenarios above.
- Scenario 1: This will get you closest to your planned macros intake. Unfortunately, you will be losing out on fibre and many phytonutrients found only in whole plants. You may well lose fat, you could even look good eating like this over the short term. Eventually though, nutrient deficiency and lack of fibre will lead to ill health, if this is continued an early death will almost certainly follow. So, we know immediately that simply fitting a diet to your ‘macro needs’ are not enough to get all the nutrients you need to achieve a healthy condition, even if you can lose fat on this diet.
- Scenario 2 : Processed food can make you lose weight. Take a look at the Twinkie diet[i]. In this diet a professor lost 27lbs eating twinkies and other junk foods, but kept the calories lower than he needed to maintain his weight, so you can lose weight by simply cutting calories. A lot of fad diets use the cutting out of certain foods or classes of macronutrients to make you eat less calories, so you lose weight, but in reality it is not usually the food or macronutrient itself that is the cause of the weight loss, but the lowering of calories. So, if you cut carbohydrates or fat from your diet you lose weight, not because you cut that macronutrient out, but because you lowered your daily calorie intake. The issue with eating only processed food is again the lack of fibre and the lack of vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients in the foods you are eating. You could lose fat, but you are setting yourself up for disease as you get older eating only processed food.
- Scenario 3: In this scenario you are only ever eating what we call ‘healthy food’ (I will leave you to define healthy food). This sort of eating should allow the body to get all the nutrients it needs. There would be enough fibre, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. You will lose fat. In fact if you are dieting for a bodybuilding contest or to compete in a specific weight class you may need to do this sort of diet for a specified amount of time. However, if you follow this diet for prolonged periods of time several issues could develop. Foremost could be the development of the eating disorder like Orthorexia, this is not a recognised condition yet, but many of us in the fitness world have experience with this condition[ii]. Becoming obsessed all the time about only eating exact foods, in exact amounts, can lead to all sorts of problems and many people are left with the options of becoming super-obsessive about food or feeling failure as they fail to be 100% ‘clean’ with their diet. This can cause mental stress and leads to issues like binge eating or other eating disorders.
- Scenario 4: Is my preferred choice. You generally eat healthy whole foods, but you allow yourself some leeway. You are not super strict on exact calorie intake or food choices. You can have potato if you can’t find rice. After you have that salad you can allow yourself that small dessert. Allowing yourself the option to eat mainly healthy, but also giving yourself some permission to stray in moderation allows for cravings to be satisfied while also reaching very close to your ideal intake of calories. Some days you may feel like being a little stricter, sometimes a little more slack, but generally hovering around the 80:20 with 80% being whole foods and 20% being other foods of your choice seems to be a happy medium where you can achieve your goals with very little stress.
Consider your situation and the options
I believe that ideally you do need a little control over what you eat. The obesity epidemic in society suggests that some control is needed[iii]. However, just picking on one aspect (in this case your macro intake) and suggesting that this, and ONLY this, is the important factor suggests that a person is somewhat naive about the longer term effects of food on health and well being. What is needed is balance. You need to include control into your diet, but you must also allow some leeway to explore new foods and enjoy some variety in your diet. If you aim at eating mainly whole foods, then allow yourself the option of a few foods that may not be especially healthy I believe you will achieve a better result than just focussing upon the exact intake of protein, carbohydrates and fats.
With IIFYM I consider it like this. If I was to build my dream home, I employ the best construction workers and the best designers to create the perfect building for me. Then I pull out a pile of straw and say “OK, build me that building using this”. Just like the fairy story, no matter how well my designers design & my construction workers construct, the building will still fall down as soon as the big, bad wolf starts blowing it down! Similarly, if you have a great, training programme, fantastic recovery & plan the ideal calorie and macro intake. All this will mean nothing if you do not have all the other food factors in place, like phytonutrients, antioxidants, fibre and other factors that can only be found in whole foods. You will have built your own body from ‘straw’ and when it is stressed by hard training, disease, stress or aging it will fail you. Consider your food not just as fuel, consider your food as health. One of the major factors in your long term health are the food choices you make, so consider including generous amounts of whole foods into your diet for the best results.
If you want more about how to plan your diet or more indepth looks into dietary ideas or planning, then let me know by posting below and I will start researching your question.
[iii] James PT, et al. The obesity epidemic, metabolic syndrome and future prevention strategies. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology February 2004 vol. 11 no. 1 3-8. http://cpr.sagepub.com/content/11/1/3.short