Right up there with fasted vs fed cardio, there’s few more polarizing debates than the IIFYM vs. Clean Eating debate argued endlessly over the last 5-6 years within the fitness industry. Broccoli versus brownies, pasta versus pastries- choose a side and prepare to fight for it to the bitter (or sweet if you chose IIFYM) end. Although fun to joke about, the misconception that total macronutrient intake and food quality are mutually exclusive has gotten seriously out of hand.
Don’t feel comfortable choosing between fruit and fro-yo just yet? Good news for you, you never had to go without either to reach your fitness goals and correctly applying IIFYM (here’s the IIFYM calculator to start the process) is much more reasonable than many extremists would have you believe.
Pull out your microscope and take a look at the real IIFYM approach, and prepare to see why balance and moderation can be much more beneficial than extremism and restriction for gaining more muscle, losing body fat more effectively, and enjoying life- broccoli in one hand, brownie in the other!
IIFYM Application vs. Intent
For coaches such as myself and the coaching staff for IIFYM.com, it can be frustrating seeing how often those in the fitness industry lead others to believe that food groups should be severely restricted, or that food choice itself is completely irrelevant. IIFYM was never developed with the intent of encouraging Pop Tarts and Protein Powder to be the bulk of a diet and provide optimal body composition results.
Instead, IIFYM (otherwise termed Flexible Dieting), was meant to allow flexibility within an otherwise nutrient-dense diet during situations such as traveling, social events or merely the periodic family night out at the favorite restaurant. IIFYM was about, and still is for educated coaches, allowing people the flexibility to choose the foods they prefer, that fit their budget, and are easy to access in their area to fit their daily macronutrient needs. All while still making sure to consume a variety of macro and micronutrients that support overall health and performance.
How to Actually Use IIFYM
IIFYM is about going to eat with the family at the local steakhouse without smuggling in your food scale or shirking all responsibility and falling off the wagon. IIFYM is about having the freedom to enjoy a few servings of homemade cake after a day of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. It’s not for cramming as much “fun food” as possible into a diet and simply keeping within a given macronutrient total.
Suggesting that clients restrict certain food groups, limit themselves to specific “health foods” or swinging the other direction by encouraging a “no holds bar” on any fun food the client can fit are not only all unnecessary but also downright unethical.
IIFYM isn’t about sacrificing health and performance focused intake goals for fun foods, it’s about knowing how to balance the needs of the body with the enjoyment of everyday life.
Coaches like those on the IIFYM.com staff and myself want both athletes and non-competitors to eat for health and performance, but also know when to treat themselves as dietary “budgets” allow once certain goals are met such as fiber, hydration, whole grain, and fruit & vegetable intake.
Gone are the days (if they aren’t, find a new coach ASAP) of encouraging clients to follow restrictive diets, or suggesting that food selection itself doesn’t matter at all. Instead, science is continuing to show us that although total caloric intake is a major factor in improving body composition, food choice does matter when making long-term improvements in muscle growth, training performance, and body fat reduction. How exactly does it matter? Well, I’m glad you asked!
Appropriate Fuel for Proper Performance
The first proclamation by IIFYM extremists in a keyboard dispute will be something like, “total caloric intake is the only factor that matters in weight loss.” The irony is although their statement is technically correct, it’s short sighted.
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Thermodynamics, which in terms of nutrition is the rule of energy balance (calories consumed versus expended), does, in fact, dictate changes in total body weight. More calories consumed than expended leads to weight gain, and the opposite holds true for weight loss.
The often-overlooked factor by many is that of body composition when it comes to muscle tissue versus fat tissue, as well as optimizing gym performance. Take, for instance, just a few roles some vitamins & minerals play in performance.
Performance Boosting Micros
Magnesium supports proper muscle function, protein synthesis, energy production and plays a role in over 300 enzyme systems. Found in mushrooms, dark leafy vegetables, bananas and other nutrient dense foods.
Vitamin E is a collection of compounds that serve as antioxidants within the body which maintain and repair various types of cells and also support a healthy immune system. Vitamin E can be found in various foods including almonds, spinach, and sweet potatoes.
Vitamin B6 is a soluble, versatile vitamin that plays many roles including the metabolism of carbohydrate and fats for energy as well as supporting cognitive function. You can find Vitamin B6 in foods such as wild-caught tuna, bananas, beef and hazelnuts.1
These are three of countless examples in which vitamin and mineral intake ultimately affects physical performance, recovery, nutrient usage and long term health. If you’re sick less, recover faster, and able to exert greater force and total work output from workout to workout. It’s clear that over the course of months and years in the gym, you can experience greater overall muscle growth and/or body composition changes. Compared to someone chronically under eating nutrient dense foods, the athlete consuming a balanced diet is much more capable of maximizing their physical potential.
It’s clear that over the course of months and years in the gym, you can experience greater overall muscle growth and/or body composition changes. Compared to someone chronically under eating nutrient dense foods, the athlete consuming a balanced diet is much more capable of maximizing their physical potential.
More isn’t Better
Before you conclude that endlessly eating “clean” is the best idea for maximizing results, keeping in mind that more isn’t always better will go a long way in helping you find the right balance for yourself. Although it’s important to consume a sufficient intake of micronutrients, there comes a point of diminishing returns where excess micronutrient intake won’t lead to better performance or body composition changes.
Although it’s important to consume a sufficient intake of micronutrients, there comes a point of diminishing returns where excess micronutrient intake won’t lead to better performance or body composition changes.
…even if macronutrient goals aren’t listed in the diet plan, they are still consuming a certain amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat each day.
Just as Jerry Seinfeld would argue a “towel can’t be more wet, once it’s wet;” after intake is sufficient, you can’t eat cleaner and see more progress. Although it can’t necessarily cause harm to consume greater than adequate intake of most nutrients, it’s unlikely to pose a greater benefit to performance or body composition.
Instead once your bases are covered, this can be a great time to incorporate IIFYM principles and enjoy some of your favorite “fun” foods to meet your daily food intake goals for the day, without the fear of negatively impacting performance.
IIFYM isn’t about sacrificing health and performance focused intake goals for fun foods, it’s about knowing how to balance the needs of the body with the enjoyment of everyday life. Eating carrots consistently for health, and cake occasionally for the enjoyment.
Your Diet Plan is Still IIFYM!
I’ve always found it funny how distinct the separation of clean eating and IIFYM is deemed to be in online debates, but how impossible one is without the other in reality. For anyone following a given meal plan based on clean eating (whatever that actually is, Windex seasoning maybe?), even if macronutrient goals aren’t listed in the diet plan, they are still consuming a certain amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat each day. As the meal plan is changed each week, so are the set macronutrient goals as a consequence.
By “clean eating” or following a set meal plan, dieters are simply fitting pre-determined macros with very nutrient dense food choices. Sorry self-proclaimed “clean eaters,” you’ve actually been following IIFYM this entire time.
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By choosing to follow IIFYM in its originally intended strategy, you simply have the option to choose both nutrient dense and occasional “fun” foods of your choice rather than being the slave to a “coach” demanding certain foods are necessary for success and others are to be avoided at all costs.
Want to eat 15 grams of carbohydrate worth of strawberries instead of raspberries today? Already have 2-4 servings of fruit and vegetables and would like to use some remaining carb and fat macros for a bit of chocolate after dinner?
Believe it or not, you won’t spontaneously combust, and can actually reach your fitness goals all the same by simply practicing moderation and tracking your total daily intake along with meeting your micro-nutrient intake goals.
Flexible Macros, Sustainable Future
There’s nothing wrong with routine and efficiency. Some people simply prefer to eat set meals each day to help with scheduling during the workweek. That being said, eating a set group of meals from day to day, then making a point to swap out different fruits, vegetables, and other foods periodically is much more manageable than feeling obligated to only eat specific foods, or totally restrict foods for an extended period of time.
Although certain crash or fad diets may work in the short-term if a caloric balance is adjusted, it’s imperative that people realize the long-term implications that must be considered. IIFYM not only allows for more enjoyment in food selection but simply provides a much more sustainable approach to lifelong nutrition.
You won’t always have a full kitchen to prep and pack every meal, you, of course, don’t want to miss out on social events the rest of your life for the sake of accurate food tracking, and you surely can’t imagine a life where certain foods are continually avoided at all cost.
For many, it’s common to be encouraged to severely restrict foods then have “cheat meals.” By doing so, those cheat meals full of otherwise restricted foods, lead to immediate regret for having consumed so much they become sick, which doesn’t only increase the chance for rebound fat gain but also creates a risk of poor long-term relationships with food; or even outright eating disorders.
Cleaning up the Restriction
Just recently I had a client sign on with me that had suffered from working with an extremist Clean Eating minded coach. She was several months post show yet still eating incredibly low calories, performing a lot of cardio, but most importantly, absolutely terrified to eat anything but a few select foods.
Fruit intake was nearly non-existent, the thought of carbs after 5 pm was absolutely terrifying, and the idea of including anything fun through the use of IIFYM was absolutely out of the question.
As we began working together, it was a gradual transition as I helped her find a balance between eating for health & performance and still finding time to enjoy favorites foods while keeping within a daily intake goal.
It was important not just to get food intake up and aerobic activity down to improve health markers, but to also create a positive mindset that allowed her to apply IIFYM while enjoying little things like the occasional cupcake, or eating a meal out with friends.
Progressively, through calculated adjustments, her food intake rose, energy in the gym improved, carbohydrates were no longer an object of fear, and body composition improved. Also not to be forgotten, her body weight has remained essentially the same as when we started through improved macronutrient distribution, improvements in adherence and more efficient training performance.
During the IIFYM transition, my client went from eating a stressful, restrictive meal plan, to eating a more, nutrient dense balanced diet but also including foods such as tortilla chips, homemade Mexican food, and baking with chocolate chips and other pleasant items.
She once again enjoys date nights with her boyfriend, and progress in the gym is better than ever. All of these amazing changes have occurred in just over 4 weeks time, and show no signs of letting up.
Actual Client Highlight
|Client Weight (lbs.)||131||132|
Enjoying different foods in moderation through IIFYM doesn’t have to be an excuse to have a poor diet, and isn’t you being “weak.” It’s a sustainable approach that can allow you to have fun at events, periodically eat the foods you enjoy, and still follow a diet conducive to your health and fitness goals… not for 30 days, not for a contest prep, but for a lifetime. Now when putting it this way, IIFYM doesn’t sound bad eh?
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