If you lift weights and use any form of social media, you might, kind of, maybe, know what IIFYM is. My guess is that you probably see a picture of ice cream with a Pop-Tart® and #IIFYM at least 15 times a day. What does it all mean? Because it’s ambiguous in nature, everyone seems to have his own interpretation of IIFYM. Yet IIFYM is nota specific diet. It’s just a method for tracking and hitting your intake, so please shut up about it now.
If it fits your macros (macronutrients)…let’s not make this complicated. Find the daily calories you want to hit. Determine the amount of protein, carbohydrates, fats and fiber that you want each day. Now go eat, hit your numbers and you’re done. That’s all IIFYM technically is.
Whatever you do after that is your own plan. You can use fasting, carb cycling or a ketogenic diet…whatever the hell you like. You set the macronutrient/caloric intake appropriate to your current metabolic state and then you fill them in with certain foods. The foods that you choose should be based on your goals and your individual preferences.
The only difference is that IIFYM people dedicate a small percentage of their daily calories/macros to food that is normally considered “non-diet” food. Nothing novel here. It’s called practicing moderation. It really isn’t much different than the typical refeed or cheat meal that bodybuilders use except that this is technically more controlled. Most cheat meals turn into an all-out gorge fest.
What if you calculated out your cheat meal, divided it by seven and divvied it out throughout the week? What if your total calories, fats, protein, carbohydrates and fiber ended up being identical for both weeks? What would happen? As long as you stayed within your caloric and macronutrient guidelines for the days/week, I don’t imagine that there would be much of a difference, if any at all. But don’t take my word for it. The only way to know how something will work for you is to actually try it.
For whatever reason, this leads to arguments between the respective internet soldiers of each ideology. However, they haven’t quite realized that they pretty much all agree that natural whole foods should make up the majority of one’s diet. They also agree that some form of “cheating” or breaking the diet can be beneficial psychologically and possibly physiologically. Yet they continue to argue about the 1 percent they disagree on. At the end of the day, if the food isn’t harming you and you continue to progress, who cares?
How did it start?
For the last forty odd some years, people have been looking to bodybuilders for ideas on how to get really lean. Most tend to eat the same things—chicken, broccoli, tilapia, oats, and the like. For some reason, people like to call this “clean food.” Nothing wrong with that approach at all, but given how limited and monotonous it is, people started looking for other ways. Can you follow a more flexible approach and achieve the same results as a “clean” approach? This is where it gets messy.
The “clean” eating crowd has to fight against this. They can’t admit that the restrictive, bland torture they have been placing themselves under wasn’t necessary. It would be devastating. That’s like a Christian agreeing with an atheist that Jesus doesn’t exist. They believe in clean eating and they should. That is what works best for them. That is what helped them achieve their goals, so how can you possibly convince them that they are wrong? You can’t, so stop trying.
On the other end of the spectrum, IIFYM has built sort of a cult following of 17-year-old Facebook gurus with a few PubMed bookmarks. These are the ones who give it a bad name because they try to call out successful bodybuilders and “save them” from clean eating. They eat 90–95 percent of their calories from calorically dense whole food sources but only make it a point to show off the 5–10 percent of “bad foods” that they eat. This is their attempt to say, “Look, I’m smarter than you.”
So bodybuilders feel offended that skinny, snobby gurus think they have outsmarted their years of experience while the IIFYM camp thinks they know it all because they’ve figured out how to eat normal food and not be fat. Nobody is wrong in this moronic argument, but both are certainly annoying.
Clean eating versus flexible dieting
Clean eating, albeit a stupid term, isn’t necessarily a bad thing to promote. Focusing on natural whole food sources is great. Everyone agrees there. The dogma that surrounds clean eating is another story. It isn’t necessary to demonize certain foods or act like GMOs are killing people. Personal preference is great but personal bias isn’t.
Flexible eating isn’t a bad thing to promote either. I believe that teaching people how to balance life with nutrition is important for long-term success. However, just like the clean eaters, there are IIFYM extremists. They generally believe that all macronutrient sources are the same and that nutrient timing is useless. To me, they grossly underestimate the complexity of human metabolism.
The first issue is context. Saying that a carbohydrate is a carbohydrate might not be the best advice for a diabetic, but it may not be bad for a skinny 16-year-old trying to put on weight. It’s important to understand the audience. There are nuances that IIFYM people overlook because it isn’t necessarily important for their goal.
So the clean versus dirty debate comes down to one’s definition of these terms. Is it based on foods being processed versus unprocessed? GMO versus non-GMO? Organic versus conventional? To me, you should consume lean, quality protein; fiber; omega-3s; and complex carbohydrates and limit foods with an overwhelming amount of carbohydrates and fat. Ice cream is a good example. The fact that it’s processed isn’t why it’s a poor choice for body composition. Neither is the fact that it isn’t organic. The large fat and sugar content makes it high calorie and impairs the body’s ability to feel full. In turn, this makes it very easy to overeat and go past your allotted calories/carbohydrates/fat for the day.
I agree with the premise of IIFYM, but I’m not a proponent of it per se. I don’t like the elitist and know-it-all attitude that accompanies those who “follow” IIFYM. I do believe that things like nutrient timing, specifically peri-workout nutrition, can enhance or detract from your program. I do believe that certain food choices are more nutritious than others. I do believe that different macronutrients produce profoundly different hormonal reactions. Yet, I also believe that you can include flexibility in your food choices and still make great progress.
Now that we have established that IIFYM isn’t a diet, just like clean eating isn’t a diet, what should you use? My advice—avoid extremes. Too much restriction or too much indulgence will produce sub-par results. Find a balance.In my previous article, I wrote about what I personally follow. This is based off my life, goals and trial and error. That doesn’t mean that I believe everyone should eat like I do. I don’t like the obsessive counting and tracking that comes along with IIFYM. However, this is only because I have been doing this for a long time and I really understand my body. Those prepping for shows, those looking for serious body composition changes and those just starting out can certainly benefit from periods of tracking intake.
In the meantime, stop looking for the latest and greatest fad diet or training system. No perfect program exists and it never will. If you have hit a plateau and are serious about improving, put the ego aside and hire someone to help. There is a reason why some people have been able to turn this into a career. It’s because they are great at what they do.