What is IIFYM?
IIFYM stands for If It Fits Your Macros, a dieting strategy that's both very popular and extremely polarizing right now.
Some see it as the ultimate diet hack. Others loathe it as the antithesis of healthy living.
Basically, the premise of this eating plan is that as long as you're consuming the correct amount of protein, fat, and carbs, the source is irrelevant.
So that means the carbs from bananas, white rice, and sugary breakfast cereal are all created equal as far as muscle mass and body fat levels are concerned.
Hoards of former “clean eaters” have jumped ship on the notion that the occasional donut will cause them to lose their chiseled physique.
Others are clinging to their Tupperware of steamed rice and boiled chicken for dear life.
But once a guy puts the supposed clean eating dogma to rest and steps over to the dark side of IIFYM, is it really all french fries and rock solid abs?
It's human nature to push boundaries, and in the bodybuilding world, these limits really get explored.
Thinking in black and white
I've said it a million times, the fitness industry is just like politics.
If one group follows a certain belief, then another group must disagree completely and go to the opposite extreme to prove them wrong.
Since bodybuilders like to train with moderate to high reps, strength trainers may refuse to go over 3 even though they could benefit from 6 to 8.
You get the idea.
Likewise, to prove that macronutrient source doesn't matter, loads of dieters are pushing the limits and eating more junk food (even Frankenstein-ing sweet monstrosities) than lifters of previous decades ever thought possible.
Just search #IIFYM on Instagram to see over 3 million photos of abs and desserts to see what I mean.
But the real question is: does it work?
Well, I've been following a version of IIFYM for around eight months now.
I've found that some aspects are great and others are a hindrance.
Here's a logical breakdown of the pros and cons of IIFYM.
Where IIFYM falls short
You didn't think a diet plan that allows chocolate bars and pizza was going to be without flaws did you?
IIFYM leads to a “cheating” mindset
If you aren't familiar with the law of attraction, it's the belief that what you spend your time thinking about will be attracted to you.
If you spend all of your time worrying about the things you don't want to happen, they usually do.
If you keep a positive mindset and think about what you do want, those things will be yours.
I don't believe that my thoughts can somehow change the happenings of the universe, but the patterns do appear to be accurate nonetheless.
And similar principles apply to your diet.
With traditional clean eating diets, all of your mental power goes to selecting and consuming whole, nutrient dense foods.
But with IIFYM, the focus falls away from seeking out healthy options to constantly thinking about what you can get away with.
I've frequently found myself thinking, “I have 30g of carbs left for today. Should I eat an apple or gummy bears?”
When your entire eating philosophy is based on the notion that all carbs are created equal, which would you choose?
One of the major benefits of following a flexible diet is that it gives you the freedom to eat out more frequently than traditional clean diets.
But all of these meals out can come with a price.
When pizza from popular chain restaurants was analyzed for macronutrient and caloric content, it showed the numbers reported by the restaurants were consistently underestimated.
When asking for mayo at Subway, do they really only add one serving?
From where I'm standing, it looks as if they add about 8 tablespoons, even though I only record 2 like the website says.
Even if tracking calories diligently, these flawed entries can add up to big, unintentional caloric surpluses, impending weight loss or resulting in “unexplained” weight gain.
Not every restaurant has their nutritional info available and you're often left playing a guessing game.
Portion sizes are usually enormous, as are the dishes they're served on. Good luck eyeballing a cup of this and an ounce of that.
Excessive cooking oil is used in dishes you wouldn't expect and everything seems to have a sugar glaze on it.
When I order pancakes from my neighborhood diner and record them in My fitness Pal, do I select a comparable option from Denny's or IHOP?
One has 10g of fat for five pancakes and the other has 22g for the same number.
If my willpower isn't particularly high that day (remember the cheating mentality?), you can guess which one I choose.
All of this adds up to substantial underestimations, which isn't a big deal every once in a while, but will surely slow progress if done multiple times per week.
I wouldn't be surprised if a meal I estimated to be around 1,200 calories actually turned out to be well over 2,000 calories, despite honest efforts to accurately record it.
Just the tip?
When you get further and further into a fat loss phase, your macros naturally get lower and lower.
I've consumed 4,000 calories plus for long periods, feel comfortable maintaining at around 3,200, but have gotten down to around 2,500 at the end of my current cut.
This doesn't leave much room for proper indulgences.
Even if they do fit, they can feel more like a tease than a reward or dietary freedom.
Being able to eat only two slices of pizza when you really want the whole damn thing can feel like bringing a woman home from the bar and having her say, “okay, but just the tip.”
It could be absolutely maddening in either scenario.
Where are the highs and lows?
Before I began tracking my macros, I would have some days where I would pig out, and others where I wasn't very hungry.
But my weight remained relatively constant, unless I was making a conscious effort to gain or lose.
Maybe I would consume 5,000 calories on Saturday and only 1,000 on Sunday if I was hungover. But the average was maintenance.
With IIFYM, there will inevitably be days when you overeat, but the next day, it's right back to your target macros. The high days never get averaged out.
You could, of course, only concern yourself with weekly averages and ignore day-to-day slip ups, but that can lead to more extreme, bad eating habits.
When I tried that approach, I would “save up my chips” throughout the week and then have to resort to booze and fast food to make up the calories on the weekend.
It was fun as hell, but not the best approach for building a lean, muscular physique.
A broken self-motivation process
There isn't a single diet or workout on the planet that will be effective if you don't WANT to go through with it.
I know my most productive fat loss periods have come immediately following longer periods of indulgences.
After a week-long vacation of eating mostly pancakes, cheeseburgers, and ice cream, I'm chomping at the bit for a chicken salad.
When I return home, I eat like a new-age fitness guru for at least a month. No white rice for me!
But since IIFYM allows all of these minor indulgences, big cheats just don't happen as often and the small ones don't lead to feelings of guilt, thus taking something away from the self-motivation cycle.
A vicious cycle
Junk food stimulates your appetite, which is great for skinny guys.
Macros being equal, body composition changes may not be affected by choosing one food source over another, but the story doesn't stop there.
You also have to consider the human element. And that's the fact that we tend to want more of a good thing.
I've been thoroughly enjoying frozen yogurt on my high carb days during this eating experiment.
And with a reasonable 16 oz serving coming in at 136g of carbs, 0g fat, and 16g of protein, it's well within my macros.
But when I finish this little treat, all I want is more frozen yogurt! It's actually more like an uncontrollable craving, an insatiable ravenous desire for more frozen yogurt.
And from there it goes one of two ways.
I either give in and “spend” additional carbs on more junk food, or I stay strong, but obsess over sweets for the rest of the day.
If I were to consume the same macros from a massive serving of rice or a giant baked potato, I hardly think I'd be foaming at the mouth and find myself disoriented after a wicked potato binge.
Sometimes it's better to just skip the sweet stuff, even if it does fit.
Anyone concerned with their long-term health?
Optimal body composition is one of the biggest determinants of overall health, and IIFYM does support favorable outcomes in that department.
But what about everything else?
Is hydrogenated soybean oil really the same as olive oil? How about fresh blueberries versus jelly beans?
I can say, without a doubt, I feel much better when consistently eating traditional healthy foods.
I don't take any study as gospel (because it's so easy to find scientific evidence to support any point you're trying to make), but there's an overwhelming amount of evidence out there supporting the benefits of micronutrient dense, whole foods.
So I'm not going to argue with that.
Where IIFYM shines
Now that I've seemingly drug IIFYM through the mud, it's time for the good.
IIFYM can be clean eating in disguise
On the surface, it may seem as if it's a free-for-all indulgence fest, but an intelligently designed diet has a lot of control built in.
The eating strategy is, of course, hinged upon the stipulation that you actually use some established method to calculate your macronutrient goals and diligently track and meet the numbers each day.
It's impossible to stay within your fat and carb limits and hit a reasonably high protein goal from junk food alone.
For most guys' metabolisms, it's entirely possible to eat a whole pizza and stay within fat and carb goals, but the meal won't contribute much to your protein goals.
Now you're left with the daunting task of eating another 150g of protein for the rest of the day, but the sources will all have to be fat and carb free.
Chicken breast and egg white omelette anyone?
Don't forget about fiber
Any reasonably well laid out plan will also have a fiber minimum in place.
Aiming for 30 to 40 grams of fiber will ensure that the majority of your carbs come from whole grains, fruits, and veggies.
Once you hit the protein and fiber requirements, anything else is fair game as long as it fits!
IIFYM puts your mind at ease
As a historically “clean eater”, I can remember the guilt that would set in after I caved and ate a donut or a high glycemic carb like popcorn (gasp!).
Not the best feeling to have when your progress in the gym is hinged on having a positive mindset.
But with IIFYM, eating enjoyable food becomes normal, without actually deviating from your diet.
This has immense psychological benefits. You stop feeling guilty about food and learn to budget for it.
On IIFYM, you can enjoy your favorite foods and they don't weigh on your conscience as a “cheat meal” or “cheat day” would.
Epic binges are always fun while they're happening, but even if they're planned, they can lead to regret with the realization that your entire week's efforts have been negated.
Almost everyone I talk to who's fallen off the fitness wagon has a similar story.
“I was doing really great, eating right and going to the gym, but I binged a couple weeks ago and ruined my whole diet. I've been slacking ever since.”
How insane is that?
It's terrible how hard we can be on ourselves. If anything, periods of overeating should motivate us to work harder, not give up.
Regardless, on IIFYM, you don't have to experience those demoralizing feelings if you just do a little planning.
Live a normal life
I started bodybuilding at a time when it was believed your muscles were wasting away if you didn't eat every 2.5 hours, but if any of those calories were “dirty”, they would instantly be converted to fat.
I started thinking, “what's the point of getting jacked if I can never have a few drinks at the beach or eat a cheeseburger at a cookout?”
Even today, most clean eaters have a very regimented meal schedule.
A typical plan will look something like egg whites and oatmeal for breakfast, chicken and rice three times throughout the day, a post workout shake, and cottage cheese with a side of peanut butter before bed.
That's fine and dandy, but what if the boss asks you to join him for lunch to discuss your future with the company?
Maybe you score a date with the woman from the marketing department.
Are you going to order a salad and drink a protein shake in the bathroom on the sly?
With IIFYM, you can order almost whatever you want when you're out and then make up for it by eating two cans of tuna for your last meal of the day.
The most common alternatives to IIFYM are excluding a macronutrient (i.e., low-carb) or simply eating “clean”.
Both of these eating plans can severely limit the diversity of your diet, leading to less than optimal micronutrient intake or the need for supplementation.
It isn't uncommon for “clean” eaters to prep a week's worth of meals consisting of just a few foods.
I've known guys to carry around the same four Tupperware meals of chicken and rice, day after day, week after week.
Deciding to go very low carb or low fat can also severely decrease your food choices, which is largely responsible for their successfulness, but isn't the best long term strategy.
But if you're more flexible with your diet, you can enjoy a pasta dish while getting the benefits of eating tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and whole wheat.
Maybe a few days later you have a mushroom swiss burger and sweet potato fries.
How many guys actually eat mushrooms on a typical bodybuilding diet?
It's all of these little variations that add up to a diverse diet, and since the macros are compensated for, it shouldn't derail your progress.
Teaches discipline and delayed gratification
It becomes like a fun game to plan for indulgences later in the day.
When I know I have an event that will lead to enjoying large quantities of less-than-healthy foods, I like to start my day by having BCAAs (this is my favorite) for breakfast, hitting the gym, and then eating mainly protein and veggies until the big pig out.
It can be pretty motivating to see just how strict you can be, and it isn't very difficult because it's for an extremely short period of time. Also there is quite the carrot (ok, pizza) on a stick keeping you going.
If you have a decent amount of muscle mass, are active, and haven't wrecked your metabolism through overly strict dieting, you'll likely be able to consume between 2,500 and 3,500 calories per day and maintain weight.
That's plenty to work with, and will allow you to enjoy almost any social situation.
My results with IIFYM
I previously followed a very loose version of IIFYM to get from 175 up to 200 lbs.
Basically the only numbers I concerned myself with were total calories and total protein.
For protein, I just focused on getting 1g per lb of body weight. For calories, I was aiming for 300 above maintenance. And even those numbers were averaged over the week.
It was a VERY forgiving diet method.
I made great progress, but I did gain a little more fat than I wanted, even though the weight was gained very slowly.
When I decided to lean out this summer, I followed a much stricter version where I attempted to hit intelligently calculated macros on the head every single day.
I had much better results with the strict version of IIFYM, though that should go without saying.
I was able to come down from 200 lbs to 185 lbs without losing much noticeable muscle mass.
I ate a bag of popcorn almost every single night, the occasional Five Guys Burger and Fries, lots of cereal, and even ice cream, all while sporting vascular abs and quads!
It's all about balance.
The above mentioned indulgences weren't “and then some”.
They were cleverly incorporated into an otherwise healthy diet.
I followed pretty close to an 80/20 ratio of clean bodybuilding foods and junk food.
It's not perfect, but I love it
When you break it down, IIFYM itself isn't flawed. Rather, we are.
Flexible dieting takes a certain amount of discipline to be effective.
So if you're the type of guy who likes to think, “it was only one bite, no one will know,” a more rigid plan might be better for you.
It can be a hell of a lot easier to follow black and white rules such as low fat than it is to accurately document every bite you take and get the quantities exactly right every day.
But the freedom and flexibility allowed by this eating strategy simply cannot be ignored.
With a little discipline and intelligent application, IIFYM may very well be the dieting answer sent from the muscle gods you've been waiting for.
All the best,