A few weeks ago on my Facebook page, I asked what people would like to know more about in regards to nutrition. One of my very disciplined and fit friends threw out the topic of IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). As an excited and newly certified nutrition coach, I welcomed researching this topic and comparing it my current knowledge and practices.
As a disclaimer, I will say that I’m very much from the school of different nutrition plans work for different people. We all have different physiological traits, activity levels, lifestyles and food preferences/tolerances. How could I ever beat the drum on just one plan? With that being said, this piece is simply an opinion and overview of how this may or may not work for certain people.
For those not familiar with IIFYM, this nutrition plan works within a certain number of calories per person each day based on BMR (basal metabolic rate) and activity level. It then takes those calories and gives a universal guideline of breaking down each macronutrient into grams (or calories), factoring in no nutrient timing or micronutrients. Macronutrients (macros) are your proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
Once you have your calorie total, you break into macro categories in the form of grams. The IIFYM’s calculator helps you figure all of this out (link to calculator found in next section).
The appeal of this plan is giving you a basic guideline but allowing for FLEXIBLE food choices. And flexible here means choosing ANYTHING you want to eat…if it fits into YOUR macros. The theory is that less restriction and stress, usually leads to success when it comes to sticking with a long-term diet plan. Because let’s face it, it’s ridiculously hard to adhere to a strict food choice guideline when you are on vacation, have a pot-luck lunch day at work, go to the movies or attend holiday gatherings. IIFYM planning allows for eating basically whatever you want in those settings.
Okay, so what are YOUR macros?
Great question, right? I asked the same one — so to figure it out, I used two different IIFYM calculators (one very basic and one more customized). The first result is what I would call irresponsible recommendations (www.dailyburn.com’s version). It does a strict breakdown of 40% carbs, 40% proteins and 20% fats. This yielded the following macro requirements, based on my current activity level of moderate and at 35 years old, 5’4″ and 138 pounds (I don’t weigh myself, so this is a guestimate on my weight):
- Total Daily Calories: 2088
- Protein: 208.8 grams
- Carbohydrates: 208.8 grams
- Fats: 46.4 grams
My first thought – Cool! I can eat over 2000 calories everyday, that’s new (according to everything I’ve ever calculated in the recent past).
My second thought – Holy protein and carbohydrates, that can’t be right. And that fat recommendation seems a bit low.
I did then go back and use the IIFYM calculator on the iifym.com site (http://iifym.com/iifym-calculator/). This has better customization settings, brought my protein requirements down but had my carbohydrates still quite high, at first glance. However, I then realized that carbohydrates are not necessarily only the stereotypical “starchy carbs” — vegetables and fruits are technically carbohydrates. So perhaps the carbohydrate recommendation isn’t so terrible.
IFFYM.com Results for a Goal of Fat Loss:
|GRAMS per day||195.2||110.4||55.2||28 – 35||1719|
How It Applies and Why People Kinda Sorta Love It
Now that I know my macros, I can feel wild and free — no more stressful food options, just keep those macros at the forefront………………
Protein – so this one is hard to really “mess up” — there are few “bad” protein options out there. For me though, lunch meat vs. steak — steak wins that nutritional battle. But according to this plan, you can eat the fattier protein types (because you just calculate the fat into your daily macro-fat category). So if you eat 8 oz. of pulled pork that will take up 11 grams of the fat your are “allowed” each day — but it’s okay, it’s part of your protein/fats choice. And choices is what this is all about.
Fats – IIFYM encourages eating healthy fats but doesn’t make this a strict guideline. Therefore, if you really wanted to, all of your fat can be saturated or trans fat. Which makes me cringe. Your body needs all fat types and specifically needs omega-3 fats, which we get less easily from our everyday food sources.
Carbohydrates – oh this is where it gets a wee bit tricky. On this plan, I can eat sweet potatoes, french fries, donuts, rice, ice cream, quinoa, lentils, cake, brocoli, licorice, fruit……………………..and the list goes on and on. Does that list seem to make total sense? To me, as a nutrition coach, it does not. Primarily because I find micronutrients to be very, very important to the overall balance and health of our bodies. Your body is an amazing machine that constantly seeks balance in it’s energy and PH levels, as well as needs maximum cellular health. To achieve this, we must feed it the proper energy amounts (calories) and also proper nutrition (micronutrients). So often you hear of people that have deficiencies that affect their overall health and they are asked to take supplements or eat more of certain nutrient dense foods. And for those of you interested in “keeping your metabolism high”, your body needs to be in balance. IIFYM really doesn’t encourage this, but does leave room to incorporate it, if you make solid choices.
What I Like About IIFYM
- Flexibilty. (gasp) Yes, the whole premise is what I like. Where I see myself incorporating the IIFYM plan into my daily life is what I already do now…if I know it’s “popcorn night” with my boyfriend, I am mindful of my caloric intake leading up to this. I also know that on a day I eat my dark chocolate bar or eat my weekly post-volleyball ice cream, that I need to account for that into my daily intake — they aren’t “freebies” and I don’t do “cheat meals.” So in this case, IIFYM works for me on those days I have extra foods that aren’t part of my normal nutritional intake.
2. Food Guilt Destroyer – IIFYM can lessen that evil “food guilt” feeling, as well. So many of us suffer from feeling food guilt and IIFYM basically tells us that there is no such thing. #winning
3. Psychology with Fat Loss Clients – may have a place for a person who is overweight and seeking fat loss as the major first goal towards a healthy lifestyle. From a psychological standpoint, in the first phase of coaching someone that has a lack of will power with food choices — namely in difficult settings (weddings, parties, restaurants), this can work for them. AT FIRST. As a coach, I’d phase them into making overall nutrient dense food choices, as opposed to just any food choices that fit their macros.
What I Don’t Like About IIFYM
- Assumes all calories are equal. Okay, so a calorie is simply a unit of energy, but the make up of that energy does matter in the long run. IIFYM does not incorporate micronutrients to the level that I would prefer. On the iifym.com website, they encourage healthy choices in some of the forum/FAQ sections but definitely don’t embrace it. This is to keep that “flexibility” that is so popular about their plan.
- Carbohydrates are in one big box. Ahhhhh, maybe the worst thing of this plan in my opinion. Yes, again, calories are simply an energy source and if you don’t put more calories into your body than your body needs, you should either maintain body composition or lose fat. However, there is a big difference in digesting a high fiber, nutrient dense vegetable versus a plate of pasta. That pasta is pure fuel for either an intense work out/endurance event or it’s assisting in fueling the body’s muscle repair after a heavy workout session. Otherwise, that amount of pure starchy carb energy entering the body on a daily basis can end up being stored as fat. Unless you are that controlled with calorie/macro counting and hit your activity level/intensity entered into the IIFYM calculator with such precision…….which leads me to my next “dislike.”
- Activity Intensity/Timeframe & Nutrient Timing – activity type is not taken into account, which may be a bit more minor, but in my experience, it matters. An endurance athlete has a much more different nutrition protocol surrounding their activity as opposed to a weight lifter. For example, I often do my strength workouts on a fast (have not eaten for past 12-16 hours). My workouts are typically a total of 45-60 minutes. I do not feel faint or weak and my body has a long caloric burn period post-workout. A person running a 10K will definitely need to eat proper energy prior to setting out on their run, which may take them 40 – 60 minutes. They would likely feel faint at some point had they set out on that run on a 16 hour fast; they will also not continue to burn as many calories post-run as I would post-lifting. So when you calculate activity level AND nutrient timing – activity type can be very indicative of calories used and needed.
- Macro/Calorie Tracking. Personally, this is where I can’t be bothered in my real life in the long run. A diet should be maintained for the long term. Tracking calories is not something I see myself doing everyday for the next 20 years of my life. However, I am VERY mindful of the basic caloric value of what I’m eating. I do not calculate or count. It’s merely impossible to know. Especially at work events — you go to lunch with a client, do you ask the waiter for the caloric breakdown of your meal? No, no you do not. And unless you are in the state of New York, where they are required to put calories on the menu……you may be out of luck. Oh but wait, the calories alone don’t help you understand the macro breakdown of your food, anyhow. Nonetheless, I do get the feeling that IIFYM plan assumes that the person has a basic overall knowledge of food composition. Which now leads me to my last point…….
- Lack of Knowledge. IF you have a solid knowledge base of foods/macros, you can probably be very successful with IIFYM. You can adjust on weeks you miss some workouts and have a basic idea of the macro breakdown of most foods. However, if you don’t fall into the aforementioned category, you do not have a nutrition coach, do not have a background in nutrition/exercise education and are getting your advice from magazines and your friends (that are not educated)……this plan can go very wrong for you. It encourages food choices being a free-for-all when that is just simply dangerous, in my opinion.
IIFYM can be a successful diet to follow if you are educated in the field of nutrition, have a nutrition coach or have the basic understanding that the carbohydrate portion of IIFYM is not a daily eat cake/pizza/french fries plan.
The “original” IIFYM experiment might just be the 2004 documentary “Super Size Me”. This is the experiment where a science teacher only ate McDonald’s for 90 days and loses 37 pounds. However, he actually ate oatmeal, salads and one value meal everyday. He made smart choices within the many poor menu options he was faced with.
The official IIFYM macros website is a source of SOME information but withholds a lot of guidance in an attempt to have you sign up for their coaching. Which hey, that’s a good business move, I’m not hating — and that could help with navigating some of my above “dislikes” of the plan.
In conclusion, if YOU are comfortable with what you know about nutrition and/or have someone to help coach and guide you — then go with IIFYM. It truly is a guilt-free plan, which is pretty awesome. Life is too short to be restricted and stressed about food. Food is fuel AND a source of essential nutrition — but it is also supposed to be enjoyed!
Cheers to a great week!
Precision Nutrition: The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition: Certification Manual, 2nd Ed.