Why the IIFYM Approach to Dieting Isn’t Enough

Posted February 24, 2017 by

It’s human nature to appeal to labels and neat packaging of ideas. In the fitness and nutrition industry, this is readily apparent.

If you look at most workout programs, they have a name, a brand: Body Pump. Jazzercize. CrossFit. P90x.

The same thing is true with nutrition: the Paleo Diet. Atkins Diet. Clean Eating. IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros).

Labels are convenient because we can wrap said labels around a bunch of ideas and make the ideas appear more cohesive than if we had to track each idea individually. It allows us to understand relatively complex concepts more easily.

In competition prep, nutrition has primarily focused around two pre-packaged ideas: clean eating and IIFYM.

Let’s take a historical trip together down competition prep’s “memory lane.”

A War of Paradigms: Clean Eating vs. IIFYM

First, we had “clean eating.” The idea that “dirty foods” are not conducive to fat loss was eagerly adopted by health nuts everywhere.

Everyone from top bikini prep team coaches to your vegan, next-door neighbor was able to justify their evidence-sparse nutritional approach of promoting a restrictive, exclusive dietary approach (with a nose-raised air of superiority as an added bonus)–because hey, gotta “eat clean” if you want those abs, right?

Over time, top nutritionists in the field and science-friendly fitness professionals began fighting back against this misinformation by explaining that food type has relatively little, if anything, to do with fat loss/muscle gain, and that calories and the macros that make up those calories are much more relevant.

Like most things, this message was misinterpreted and overly-simplified into the next fad–IIFYM, or “If It Fits Your Macros.” The message was clear: eat whatever you want, no matter how crappy the quality of food is, as long as you hit your macro targets for the day, and you will get into optimal shape.

IIFYM is Only Part of the Puzzle

The message was clear, but misplaced. At the end of the day, most people define “in shape” to mean both external AND internal health. Being in shape means that not only is your body composition favorable, but you are also functioning optimally on the inside.

The thing is, IIFYM misses the mark when it comes to internal health. It’s true that you can cut body fat while eating a large amount of junk foods. If you meet your carbohydrate needs by drinking bottles of Mountain Dew, your protein needs by eating gelatin and fats by putting butter in your coffee, then technically you can drop body fat by ensuring that your total calories are within range.

You won’t have any semblance of internal health however. This is because two crucial elements are missing from the IIFYM equation–micronutrients and fiber.

The Missing Pieces: Micronutrients

Micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals) are very abundant in certain foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables, whole grains) and pretty much nonexistent in other foods (e.g. gelatin, Mountain Dew). Basic logic would help one deduce that eating nothing but foods that lack micronutrients will result in a diet that is devoid of said nutrients.

These nutrients are crucial to optimal functioning. Many preventable diseases are caused in part or completely by micronutrient deficiency, such as scurvy, certain forms of anemia, osteoporosis and several birth defects.

There are other subclasses of nutrients that don’t quite fit into the categories of vitamins or minerals (such as phytonutrients and specific fatty acids) that are important for health.

For instance, you need fats to maintain your hormone function, but the types of fats (and the fatty acids that make up those fats) you consume can have different effects on your blood panel. One type of fatty acid–omega-3 fatty acids–have been clinically proven to lower LDL and raise HDL in the bloodstream, which is a positive marker for heart health.

If you only got your fat from putting butter in your coffee, not only would you be missing out on getting enough of these fatty acids, but you’d also be boosting LDL and reducing levels of HDL–the exact opposite of what we want for optimal health.

What’s the point of being lean if you have a heart attack?

The Missing Pieces: Fiber

Fiber is the other piece that is completely ignored by the IIFYM crowd. The issue is that fiber has several significant roles in the body.

Insoluble fiber helps prevent constipation by adding bulk to your diet (and thus, your stool) and pulling water into your intestines to prevent it from drying into a rock hard mass in your gut. The added bulk also helps increase feelings of fullness, which allows you to eat less and remain satisfied.

Soluble fiber, because it turns into a gel when combined with water, acts as a sort of mop in the body, trapping substances that would otherwise be harmful as it moves through the intestines. You then expel these toxic elements from your body when you go #2.

There’s several other benefits to fiber, including it’s critical role in the creation of short-chain fatty acids and effects on cholesterol, so as you can see, a diet without fiber is going to cause a lot of issues.

A New Term for a Better Approach

While it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well, IIFYMMAF (If It Fits Your Macros, Micros and Fiber) is a better diet label than IIFYM.

This new represents a successful marriage of the two warring paradigms of Clean Eating and IIFYM. Instead of insisting on taking an extreme approach in either direction–either through massive restriction via Clean Eating, or through complete lack of discipline via IIFYM–like most things in life, what works best is a moderate approach.

I also like to refer to this style of eating as “Flexible Dieting.” It’s flexible because you have the freedom to include foods that you enjoy eating, and to exclude foods that you’re not crazy about.

This allows you to stick to the dietary approach much longer than Clean Eating, where dieting becomes a depressing chore that you grow to loath because you’re forcing yourself to eat the same bland food day after day.

At the same time, you also focus on getting enough fiber-rich, nutrient-dense foods in your diet like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes so that you’re meeting your health needs in addition to your overall calorie and macro targets.

Next time you’re gearing up to prep for a competition, allow yourself to include foods that you might otherwise cut out, like chocolate, cookies, etc. Just ensure that you’re not doing so at the exclusion of foods that are nutritious, and that everything still falls within your calorie and macro needs.

This way, you get the best of both worlds–optimal results, and an enjoyable experience!

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