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A different angle to IIFYM (if it fits your macros) versus “clean” eating.

January 22, 2013

There is something that has been bothering me about the ongoing debate between IIFYM/calorie counters versus the clean eaters. I have been a trainer for awhile now and with personal training being my full time job for over 6 years, I am sure you can imagine I have had my fair amount of clients. And while I’ve trained a few bodybuilders, a couple figure athletes, some fitness fanatics and I’ve had a few sports-specific clients, triathletes etc., the majority of my clients have been average people who just want better quality of life. Clients who want to lose a few kilos, build some muscle, get their fitness up, and maybe rehab a few old injuries. Not many of them want to spend a lot of time or energy on tracking calories, nor do they want to be dictated by their diet.

Which is where my beef with IIFYM (if it fits your macros) comes into place. (Well it's not really my beef with IIFYM, more my beef with the IIFYM zealots/diehard promoters of it.) IIFYM is often called “flexible dieting”. It simply means that if a food falls in line with your daily protein, carb, fat, and calorie guidelines, you can eat it, no matter what the food is. A lot of bodybuilders and fitness trainers are saying it’s the best way to go about dieting. But what they don’t seem to realise is that it’s not necessarily feasible for the general public looking to lose weight. It is awesome for those who are very interested in fitness and nutrition. It’s great for bodybuilders, trainers, those with OCD tendencies, or those with very specific body composition goals. But for your average person, (i.e. a middle aged person who works long hours, has a business to run, and a family with young kids to look after) IIFYM may not suit them, because they may not want to have to track their macros.

The general public most likely can’t be bothered counting calories. It might be a nice idea for them and I’ve even gotten a few of my clients to do it for a few weeks (I even got a 42 year old businessman who was a complete exercise newbie to count calories!!), but it didn’t last. In cases like those, if it fits your macros, is not a good, sustainable, long-term option for them. They need a much simpler to follow dieting approach.

I find it a little unfair of the people who are really interested in all this stuff (i.e. bodybuilders, figure athletes, personal trainers, coaches or people who spend a lot of time studying or online on bodybuilding forums, fitness forums, etc. and who understand the intricacies of nutrition, macros and calories) to feel that everyone should be like them; that everyone should follow IIFYM, that everyone should track their calories and macros just like them. They even go so far as to belittle anyone else who is taking a different diet approach for weightloss, like those who choose to stick to eating unprocessed whole foods the majority of the time instead of counting calories. It’s as if they feel there is something wrong with making healthy food choices?

It especially surprises me when fitness coaches and personal trainers react like this when anyone suggests anything other than counting calories and macros. What happened to the basic principles of health and nutrition? When I tell someone to ditch the fast food, start eating whole unprocessed foods, limit their sugar intake, eat plenty of vegetables and up their protein intake, suddenly now it’s looked on as “broscience” or silly advice in the fitness and bodybuilding world? Have we lost every last bit of common sense that we had?

I feel like a lot of trainers and coaches just aren’t keeping it real anymore. Am I the only one who has clients who are just normal people who aren’t obsessed with calories or bodybuilding? They aren't planning to go on bulking and cutting cycles, to cycle their carbs or track their macros? For example: busy salespeople, executives, nurses, business owners, parents or teachers? People who train with me 2 or 3 times a week and who just want a simple, straightforward dietary plan to follow? Nothing that involves tracking, or having to care much about the calorie content of everything they eat.

The best results my clients have gotten time and again always comes from a diet plan that they can actually adhere to, not some macro percentages they can’t be bothered with. Just getting people to eat more fruit and vegetables, to up their protein intake, to make home cooked meals for dinner instead of buying takeaway every night; to save their treats for the weekend; replace their 10 cokes a day with water; just these straightforward changes have given them good results. The simple A-B-C’s of good health and nutrition is enough for a lot of people and holds more value than we're often willing to admit.

I would never give absolute diet prescriptions to my clients, like telling them they *have* to go on a high fat diet, ditch all sugar, start intermittent fasting, or follow a strict low carb diet to get results. There are so many different ways to skin a cat. Lots of different things work. All I can do is offer helpful advice and tailor their programs to suit their individual preferences and needs. A lot of them prefer to not have to worry about tracking their macros and calories, so I give them food choice suggestions and portion size guidelines. And these things have worked well time and again. Yes, I realise the fat loss is happening because at the end of the day the client is consuming less calories than he/she was before, but there is also a lot to be said for making good food choices, picking quality over processed and getting all the micronutrients we need from whole foods.

I feel like these principles of good health nutrition have been belittled a bit in the fitness world, in an effort to promote flexible dieting. In my opinion, the general public needs less processed, shit food and more real whole food. A little less "moderation" and flexible dieting in their lives and a little more awareness about what they are putting into their bodies every day.

Physique goals and health goals don’t have to be separate from each other. You can improve your health and your physique at the same time. I have done it. Many of my clients have done it as well. Some of them have gone from being overweight, sickly looking, diabetic, with bad skin, to lean, healthy, glowing and energetic. All from making better dietary choices.

I have written about my top tips for losing body fat (for those not necessarily wanting to track macros and count calories) in this post and this post. I covered some weight loss tips like adding more protein to one's diet (as higher protein has been demonstrated to be effective at increasing satiety and aiding in the retention of lean body mass). Another weight loss tip I give clients is to feed their body more nutrients with fewer calories. Which means to drop the low-quality/higher-calorie food choices (i.e. fast food, pastas, cakes and pastries etc.) and replace them with nutrient rich whole foods (i.e. fish, eggs, berries, vegetables, meats). Another one is to try to stick to eating single ingredient foods, to help keep their portion sizes in check. These things have worked. They have also helped my clients learn about good eating habits, learn about what “real” food is and what a healthy, balanced diet is.

Of course I think occasional treats are fine and everyone should have treats and indulge now and again. I have nothing against that! But I also having nothing against telling my clients to stop eating sugary or processed foods every day if they want to build a lean, strong, healthy body. I am not going to water down my stance on this either, no matter how many people argue about clean eating vs. IIFYM. I can't tell you what diet approach is perfect for everyone or what will fit everyone's lifestyles. But what I can tell you is that sometimes my clients need tough love, and they need to be taken back to the very basics with their diet and overeating issues and learn about proper nutrition. Just like a newby who is just starting to train would need to learn the basic exercises and proper movements.

I agree that anything that is forcing someone to completely abstain from a particular food is going to set them up for failure in the long run, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t suggest that they limit certain foods and stick to healthier options. Even if just for the reason that I care about their health as well as their body composition goals. I care about their inside AND their outside.

It annoys me that some personal trainers and coaches who are supposed to be upholding a good example of health, fitness and nutrition are now going to the extreme with IIFYM and don’t promote the value of good nutrition and eating whole, unprocessed foods anymore. Are we so concerned with “not demonizing foods” and remaining moderate with everything that we are now watering down the advice we give to our clients when it comes to the nutritional benefits of eating quality foods? Sure, if total calories are controlled, you can lose body fat by eating m&ms and mars bars, but what is that doing to your internal health?  Are we really going to start promoting this concept and way of life over maintaining a healthy balanced diet?

IIFYM and flexible dieting is what some people need and prefer doing, and if someone is interested in this diet approach or is keen on going further with their aesthetic/body composition goals, I always teach them about this and help them learn to track everything properly. Of course calories in/calories out has everything to do with weight loss and learning about it has its place, but teaching people about proper food choices also has its place. It is the health impact of foods that matter in the long term, and I feel strongly that making healthy food choices should remain at the core of any dietary approach.

(Nate Miyaki is one of my favourite fitness/nutrition coaches and bloggers at the moment. He recently did an article which I was so excited to read as I was just starting to put my thoughts and ideas into words to write this blog post when he posted the article above. I am happy to announce that I am on the same page as him with his views on health and nutrition.)



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