If you’ve been a fitness enthusiast for long enough, there’s a good chance that you’re already quite familiar with that acronym. (And if you’re not familiar with IIFYM, it basically means “If It Fits Your Macros”).
The other phrase that’s commonly interchanged with IIFYM is “flexible dieting”. With its popularity continuously growing — and for good reason — I’m sure you’re familiar with that term, right?
For decades we’ve been told that in order to lose fat, we have to avoid the “bad” foods. Ice cream, cake, cookies, candy bars, french fries, white bread, etc…. you know, all the things smacked with a “foods to avoid” label. Wherever you go, the media, fitness professionals, bloggers, and even everyone’s grandmas are telling you to stay away from all the foods that you love.
What if I said that it’s still very possible for you to reach your fitness goals, while being able to eat all your favorite foods like ice cream? Or cake. Or cookies. Or your mother’s delicious homemade brownies.
And I’m not talking about occasional consumption through the implementation of one-time-a-week cheat days or refeed days by the way. I’m talking about frequent consumption — as in like, every day.
Enter Flexible Dieting/IIFYM
I’m a man of simplicity, so let me explain flexible dieting in as few words as possible…
Essentially, flexible dieting/IIFYM is a way of eating that allows you to eat whatever you want, just as long as it aligns within your nutritional goals (more on that later). It’s a more sustainable way of eating than a traditional diet because it doesn’t revolve around a certain set of rules. There are zero food restrictions. All the dogmatic rules you find in a typical diet are put aside (carbs, sugar, processed foods, wheat, and dairy are all “allowed”).
Basically, flexible dieting is completely personalized to you and your lifestyle.
Sounds simple, right?
Here’s the thing you need to know though — flexible dieting is subjective depending on who you ask.
There is no clear-cut definition as to what it is exactly. And because of that, it’s important to understand the fundamental concepts behind flexible dieting and why it works. People have different interpretations of what it is, but here are the key concepts that are true across the board:
- After determining your daily calorie and macronutrient targets based on your goals, you eat accordingly in order to hit those targets.
- No food is off-limits. If you’re taking into consideration the nutritional hierarchy of importance, you can eat your favorite foods (“clean” or “dirty”) just as long as you’re staying within your calories and hitting your macro numbers.
That’s the main premise.
As long as the foods you eat fit your daily macros, your diet can be composed of a multitude of foods that you enjoy eating. Hence the name “if it fits your macros”.
What foods you eat, how frequently you eat, and when you’re eating are all dependent on personal preference. If it sounds a lot like intermittent fasting, that’s because they have very similar concepts that basically go against everything you’ve learned about nutrition.
Which brings me to the next point…
The Big Misconception On “Clean Eating”
Before I move on, let’s talk a little about “clean eating” so I can make sure that we’re on the same page with all this.
Just like flexible dieting, “clean eating” is subjective. It’s a nutritional concept that has no concrete meaning. Ask one fitness professional what the term means and they will tell you that clean eating is a diet that only consists of whole foods and zero processed foods. They’ll tell you that stuff like bread and greek yogurt are out-of-bounds because they’re, well, processed.
Ask another fitness expert how they define clean eating and they’ll tell you that bread and greek yogurt are okay (despite the fact that they processed) simply because they are not “junk” food.
Another example: some people will tell you to limit your fruit intake because most fruits have sugar. In other words, eating fruits equate to fat gain. Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum, some clean eaters have no problem with fruit because they are whole foods that are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc.
See where I’m trying to get at here?
So what exactly is clean eating then? Well, that’s exactly the point. The term has a different meaning for everyone. There is no clear answer as to what it is.
Just like clean eating, though, flexible dieting is also subjective. It’s not the end of the world if you didn’t know that, but it’s something I want to drill in your head from the very start so you’re not confused with what it is.
Next: let me go over what it’s not.
Myths About IIFYM
Let’s dig deep into the myths behind flexible dieting/IIFYM so you can better understand how it works — or in this case, how it doesn’t work.
Myth #1: You can eat however much you want with whatever foods you want to eat.
You might be wondering by now, “How the hell does this work, Von? Does this mean I can eat burgers and cake and ice cream all day as long as I hit my macros?”
Yes and no.
As you probably already know, the main determinant of weight loss is calories in vs. calories out. You will lose weight as long as you’re in a calorie deficit. This is an absolute indisputable fact. BUT with that said, being in a calorie surplus means that you’ll gain weight. If you’re eating more food than your caloric maintenance, you will put on weight no matter what diet you’re on.
Now when we’re talking about body composition and health, that’s a whole ‘nother story.
If you want to lose weight while still maintaining your lean body mass, then you have to make sure you’re consuming enough protein and not just going on a calorie deficit. The same thing applies to carbs and fat. If you train very intensely or you’re just a very active person, you must consume enough carbs to keep your glycogen stores up. Your fat intake, meanwhile, plays a huge role in hormonal balance.
This is why it’s important to still be mindful of what you’re putting in your body. Sure you can have your favorite treats here and there, but you have to make sure that you’re still getting enough nutrients to keep your body in check. You don’t want to just eat a bunch of shit and expect to feel great. Eating 2,000 calories worth of whole foods and ice cream with a total macronutrient breakdown of about 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fats, for example, will do your body a lot more good than eating 2,000 calories worth of burgers and fries.
Myth #2: Flexible dieting is unhealthy.
As mentioned earlier, flexible dieting isn’t a diet but a way of eating. You can choose to eat however you want as long as the key guidelines are followed.
With that said, flexible dieting can be as “healthy” (I put that word in quotes because just like “clean eating”, “healthy eating” is also a subjective term) as you want it to be.
I usually tell people to follow the 80/20 rule: 80% of the foods you eat should be composed of nutritious whole foods, while 20% can be whatever you want. This gives you just enough room to enjoy your favorite foods while still hitting your calorie and macronutrient targets.
Want to go above and beyond the 80/20 rule? Make it 90/10. Or go for 95/5 if you mainly eat whole foods to begin with.
Remember, there aren’t any specific rules. Everything boils down to personal preference. Flexible dieting works for those who follow any style of eating like Paleo, low-carb, intermittent fasting, or even vegan.
Myth #3: You can eat junk food anytime you want.
This is one of the biggest things people get wrong about flexible dieting.
Repeat after me: just because I can, doesn’t mean I will.
Nowadays our social media feeds are saturated with pictures of Pop Tarts, cookies, and milkshakes with hashtag #flexibledieting attached to them. Keep in mind that that’s not what flexible dieting is about. It isn’t an excuse for you to eat junk. If that was the case, that’s actually the opposite of what flexible dieting should be (mindful eating vs. mindless eating).
The idea is to be able to stay sane by mainly eating minimally-processed foods, while having the extra room to add other stuff into our diets. Not the other way around.
To put it simply, if you’re eating shitty processed foods all day long then you’re doing it wrong. If you ever see someone praise flexible dieting and eat nothing but crap, please do all of us a favor and slap them in the face. Thank you.
Myth #4: Flexible dieters obsessively count/track their calories and macros.
When I teach clients the concept of flexible dieting, I give them some nutritional guidelines to follow. The main thing being their calorie and macronutrient targets.
I tell them to try and hit their macros as best as possible, but to never strive for perfection. I tell them this ahead of time for one simple reason: trying to be perfect with hitting those numbers ruins the whole point of flexible dieting. They’re nutritional guidelines for a reason. It’s almost impossible to hit your macros perfectly on a daily basis, so whenever they go over or under by a few digits, I make sure they know it’s no big deal.
How To Get Started With Flexible Dieting
Getting started with flexible dieting is easy and doesn’t require much brain power. Because it revolves around fundamental guidelines instead of a strict set of rules, you just have to make sure that your diet is aligned with those guidelines.
Here’s a quick 4-step rundown.
Step 1: The first thing you need to do is to figure out your required calorie and macronutrient requirements based on your goals.
If you’re not familiar with how to do that, give this a quick read.
Step 2: Figure out the most optimal number of meals you’ll eat on a daily basis.
Breakfast not for you? No problem. Plan on eating most your calories during the rest of the day, and/or start doing intermittent fasting.
Don’t have time to eat smaller portioned meals? Ok, then you’ll have two or three big meals instead.
Everyone has different lifestyles and eating preferences. The last thing you want to do is copy a meal plan out of a fitness magazine that will only last you a couple days. Figure out a meal frequency that works for you, and divide up your calories and macros based on the number of meals you’ll eat.
Here’s a real life example. Let’s take one of my clients, Liina, who has the following calorie and macro breakdown for her workout days.
If she decides that 3 meals a day works for her, all she would have to do is divide up all those numbers above by three. Therefore, each meal would be roughly 560 calories, 49g of protein, 15g of fat, and 57g of carbs.
One thing to note about this: each meal doesn’t necessarily have to consist of those numbers. Why? Because what matters is the total numbers at the end of the day. If, for instance, Liina misses meal #2 for whatever reason, then all she’d have to do is have a bigger meal for meal #3 so she can come close (or even hit) her calorie and macro goals for the day.
Ice cream for dessert, anyone?
Step 3: Get the majority of your calories from minimally processed foods (80-90%), while including other foods that you love (10-20%).
Do this until you get accustomed to hitting your macronutrient goals, and feel free to fill in the macro gaps with anything you want.
An example: you’ve logged your last meal of the day but notice that you still have 400 calories left over. Great, have a serving of the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream that’s sitting in your freezer. Or a Snickers bar (a regular size bar is 250 calories). Or a piece of fruit. Basically, feel free to eat whatever that’s 400 calories or lower.
See where this is going? Now that’s what you call guilt-free eating.
[Sidenote: The other option, by the way, is to not even eat anything for those left-over calories.]
Step 4: Lastly, use a macro tracking app like MyFitnessPal, MyNetDiary, or MyMacros+ to track your food intake.
The one I have clients use is MyFitnessPal, but give other ones a try to see which one you like best.
So why track? Well, it simply allows you to get a bird’s eye view of your diet with actual data.
Think you’re eating enough protein? Or maybe healthy fats? Unfortunately, the reality is that a lot of people are actually under-eating these essential macronutrients (in addition to the under consumption of micronutrients).
You’ll also realize in the first couple weeks just how much you’re overeating or even under-eating when it comes to calories. Tracking for a short amount of time allows you to see what’s really going on with your current eating habits.
Lastly, the biggest thing to remember about flexible dieting is that it should help to simplify your nutrition, not make it more complicated. If it’s causing you to be more overwhelmed and confused, you’re doing it wrong.
Take some time to learn basic nutrition concepts first, and then give it another try.
If you’re sick and tired of getting nowhere with the diets you’ve been trying, give flexible dieting a try. Free yourself from all the strict rules that only cause further hunger and cravings.
Don’t ever forget that the best diet out there is the that you can stick to without going insane. Follow the 80/20 rule and you’ll never have to restrict yourself from your favorite foods.
Better yet, you’ll never have to use the words “I’m on a diet” ever again.
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