Blog : If it fits your macros, bro …

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Whatever, right ? Same difference. No matter. Don’t sweat it. No biggie. On your own time. Slogans and exclamations I’m sure you’ve heard a lot. But I’m willing to bet they aren’t the ones you typically associate with gym life. And yet of late a very similar disturbing acronym seems to be contaminating various parts of the fitness community like a viral epidemic : IIFYM. If it fits your macros. Fancy nutritional slang for “you know, whatever, bro”. When I hear it, it really sounds no different than every teenager on facebook putting stuff like YOLO under pictures of binge drinking and other lude behavior.

There was a time, not so long ago, that a healthy lifestyle was associated with lean poultry and cruciferous vegetables. In fact, I think that image alone was responsible for scaring a lot of people away from this lifestyle. Although common sense should have dictated it, science had to come along and say “it doesn’t work that way”. Your body doesn’t make these kinds of narrow distinctions, and a few million years of evolution certainly didn’t shape us in such a fashion that we could only eat such a small amount of different foods to perform at our best. The problem is when you try and extrapolate the biochemistry of this to lay people : it doesn’t translate that well. Especially in today’s environment of everybody-wants-in-on-the-fitness-hype there’s a lot of people out there looking to take every scrap of information and sell it to you, even if it’s available for free elsewhere. And there’s a lot of people, eager to stand out anyway they can, who tend to interpret any piece of actual data showing something isn’t black and white, and screaming “if it isn’t black and white it must be white and black !”. So when data shows that you shouldn’t be limiting yourself to tasteless chicken and broccoli, that you really can have a very tasty and varied diet without compromising your progress in muscle gain or fat loss, there’s a select group of people who tend to translate that as “dude, just eat whatever you like, AS LONG AS IT FITS YOUR MACROS”. And then there’s a much larger group who likes shiny objects and controversial bro-science that ends up spreading this information globally. And then you get to a point, like today, where you go on web boards to discuss nutrition topics, and every other thread has some smartass telling off some kid who is new to this sport that he is a moron for wanting to eat right, that “science” and “studies” show that as long as he is meeting his macros, he shouldn’t sweat it. And then you have kids eating snickers all day every day, because you know, they have protein and carbs and fats right, with all them nuts in there ?

IIFYM isn’t a new concept either. I recently read Phil Learney’s blog, and as he aptly demonstrated there that the concept is really no different from the Weight Watchers pro points plan. And as he poignantly points out, how many Weight Watchers’ aficionados do you see at the beach strutting their abs every year ? So when one goes to these web boards that seem to infinitely disseminate bad information (because even good information tends to become a hazardous object in the hands of people bullying newer folk into absolutes) and points this out, there’s some board guru, usually the one that started the trend on that particular web board, who comes in and says “well you know, that’s cuz people don’t understands IIFYM. It’s like lookin’ at macros and then eating 90% clean food and 10% dirty food”.

Ah, so it’s not IIFYM then ? It’s IIFYMAENPFFAALTSADCCF (If it fits your macros and eating ninety percent foods from an arbitrary list that some arbitrary dude calls clean food). Because I’ve never come across peer-reviewed evidence speaking of dirty and clean foods. And the minute you make any distinction aside from macros, you really shouldn’t be calling it IIFYM, because that’s just inviting trouble in. There are no dirty and clean foods. There is a balanced diet and an imbalanced one. We know that there needs to be a balance between saturated and unsaturated fat, between omega-6 and omega-3 PUFA and so on. We know of the different qualities of protein based on digestion rate and amino acid content. And yet there are people out there saying a carb is a carb ? Sorry, doesn’t work that way. Carbohydrates are a term that encompasses mono-, di-, oligo- and polysaccharides consisting of among others  galactose, glucose, fructose, ribose etc. So if in all that all you can see is that a carb is a carb, then why make that distinction at all ? Let’s call a macro a macro and be done with it right ? A calorie is a calorie after all.

There is a ton of research out there showing that IIFYM is nothing but bro-science. One of the last studies I read was on apple polyphenols preventing fructose induced metabolic problems, demonstrating that fruit contains compounds that prevent the negatives of over-consumption of fructose. But if you believe in IIFYM, how can an apple be different from the equivalent in high fructose corn syrup ? Oh yes, I forgot, the apple is “clean”. That’s not confusing at all. So how is it that people of above average intelligence are disseminating this information in this way ?

Simplification is important. We can’t expect all our conversational partners to be top level scientists. So when I teach someone new to the game how to construct their diet, I start with calories, then with macros and tell them that they will be ok as long as they avoid certain refined products, get a healthy balance in their fats and focus on keeping their protein high, the rest will eventually take care of itself. And yes, I tell them if they go with fresh or fresh frozen products, that makes it even easier to avoid over-consuming those refined products. Notice that at no point did I use the term clean or dirty, or tell them that as long as it fits their macros they will be ok. I’m simplifying for a beginner, so they can get their feet wet before I bore them to death with details they don’t need yet, but I’m not selling them a fix-all phrase and saying that will get them where they ultimately want to go.

It’s important that people realize that a good diet does not mean starving or eating bland foods. One of my favorite topics is food and recipes. I cook with protein powders because just drinking shakes with a certain flavor is still drinking shakes. I have a spice cabinet that’s filled to the brim, because I can cook a few kilos of chicken and pork strips with various veggies for a whole week, but with a little help turn that into 5 different meals with some spices and additives. It’s crucial to know that we all have lives and no one expects you to shop and cook every day to get where you are going. What it doesn’t mean is telling them falsehoods that lead them to believe they can get away with the same mistakes they have been making all along, but you know, with a little more protein. People who are new to this game have to make a lifestyle change. That’s one of the most important things they need to learn. And one of the best things you can do is pointing out that this isn’t so drastic or difficult. But please, please, don’t tell them they don’t have to make this change. That’s not helping them. That’s sabotaging them …

Now, i’m off to eat some chicken and veggie wraps in a delicious coriander and cumin salsa.

And not a macro was fitted that day …

 

3 thoughts on “Blog : If it fits your macros, bro …

  • Jorit says:

    I think you’re missing the point here. Iifym means that you can eat foods you can enjoy as long as they fall within your macros for the day. If that means eating a snickers bar a day why not?

    Iifym – as I understand it – has to do with body composition, it isn’t about being healthy or eating healthy. Again as I understand it, when it comes to body composition a carb is a carb. Of course there are differences in carbs but body composition wise they don’t make a ton of difference.

    And by saying that there is a ton of research showing that Iifym is a ton of bro science you’re saying that there is science that proves that macros aren’t important and that to lose weight you need a caloric deficit.

    Btw, my reply is based on my current level of knowledge and I’m not under the impression that I know all. So please don’t regard this as an attack (as so easily happens on the internet).

    • thebodypolitic says:

      I fear you are missing the point. Of course there isn’t a problem with the occasional snickers bar. But that’s not IIFYM, that’s just common sense. Most commercial foodstuffs are ok in moderation provided you have an overall healthy diet. The minute you say “if it fits your macros” you are basically saying that if you divvy up your macros to 40/40/20 that anything that fits that will be fine and your diet will be ok. Meaning if you had a candybar with 2/3ds sugar and 1/3d fat, you could just eat that and whey shakes all day and be fine. That’s not the case.

      You see we don’t need a term to say “hey, if you follow all the rules, you can relax and have something like a snickers bar once in a while”. That’s just called nuance. IIFYM, as I thought I aptly explained here, doesn’t cover anything, it just condones not making the necessary dietary effort, breeding lazy people and making excuses not to do do the work to be healthy and succesful. Because the minute you try and add arbitrary definitions, it not only doesn’t become IIFYM anymore, it still doesn’t become a proper diet, because your definitions are just that : arbitrary. Who decides what’s clean and what’s not ?

      The simple fact is we can define the confines of a healthy, nutritious diet, so there is no need for hazy terminology like IIFYM. We know the importance of a balanced fat intake : there is nothing wrong with saturated fats in a hefty dose, provided you get ample MUFA’s. You need to make sure you get enough omega-3’s and the right omega-6’s. There is no IIFYM here. If you eat 20% fat, you need to factor in all the above. Meaning less overall omega-6, more relative arachidonic acid, more DHA, EPA, enough MUFA’s from oils and nuts, and then, AFTER all that, you can eat whatever fats you want, but you’ll find that already covers most of them, so there really isn’t as much leeway as you think. The same applies for carbohydrates, and the importance of Glycemic Load (not so much glycemic index). The balance there will already largely determine how much of some carbs you can eat. And yes, chances are good that leaves room for a snickers bar, but I fail to see how you can define x amount of brown rice, oatmeal, veggies, quinoa etc, and then a snickers bar once every two days as IIFYM.

      Having said that, you also seem to think this is tantamount to saying there is information that macros aren’t important. That’s not true, since we know the importance of protein in everything, but now that you mention it, 20+ years of research does show there is very little if any difference between high fat and high carb diets in terms of weight loss. So it’s probably not as important as you make it out to be. The basis of “weight” loss is simply cals in and cals out. A healthy diet and successful body management requires some degree of macro manipulation, but also a ton of other factors, and cannot be reduced to concepts like IIFYM. It really is that simple.

      And that’s what I attempted to show here. It’s ok to nuance. We have to nuance. A healthy diet isn’t chicken and broccoli every day. That’s bland and makes people crazy. A healthy lifestyle can and should be varied, and one should have the room to enjoy life, and of course, maybe eat a snickers bar or enjoy a bag of chips with a friend. But that sort of nuance shouldn’t lead people to underestimate the importance of dietary efforts either.

  • James D says:

    Regardless of the debate on iifym vs clean eating vs etc etc,

    Macro counting IS the way to go.
    As an ecto, I have struggled to gain lean muscle with ‘clean eating’ approach at high calories.
    I have either eaten way too many calories and gained too much bodyfat (eating nothing but veggies, lean chicken/turkey, rice, wholegrains). Or I get to a certain weight and find it too hard to increase beyond 4500 eating purely ‘clean’ foods.

    I now make sure I get a correct amount of fiber in my diet, protein, balance of fats, carbs and follow the iifym approach.

    THe key is just tracking my macros allows me to stay lean and make gains.. even if I am throwing in a skinny cow ice cream bar and pop tart in my diet.

    Before IIFYM, back around 2006-2007, I made my best gains because I tracked my calories and made sure I was eating the correct amount of nutrients and calories I needed to make tiny adjustments in my weight and muscle mass as a natural.

    I now have the ability to go beyond the 195-200lb mark that I always hit when I had not followed ‘iifym’ because I couldn’t cram or cook 5000 calories of chicken, asparagus and rice.

    I do think a balanced approach is needed. We need to be healthy, not just look it from the outside.
    Just make sure to follow the macros.

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