Part one of a two part series on The Evolution of IIFYM, through Flexible Dieting and beyond. Part two will focus on best and worst practices in IIFYM Coaching.
If. It. Fits. Your. Macros.
You all know the back story already, I presume?
It all started on body building forums, where questions would be asked to the effect of for example “I’m bored of eating such n such, is it ok if I eat such n such instead while trying to lose fat and gain muscle?”. And the answer would be that it was fine, so long as total energy intake was still appropriate and macronutrient ratios were not negatively impacted. In other words, whatever you have a hankering for is fine, “if it fits your macros”.
They eventually changed it to “flexible dieting” because idiots would make strawman style “so you’re saying vitamins and minerals aren’t important? just macros?” arguments and so forth.
Obviously you do need to meet ALL of your requirements. However, it is neither necessary nor helpful to start obsessing over tracking and basing your food choices on micronutrient content. If you get a good mix of fruit, veg and other choices in accordance with the official Healthy Eating Guidelines you’re unlikely to be deficient in anything.
I don’t think anyone was really ever advocating tracking micronutrients per se, but it was a common argument of a “false dichotomy” nature with the inference that if one pays attention to their energy and macronutrient intake, they must by definition also be going out of their way to neglect their micronutrient requirements. Clearly, a ridiculous argument… although we’ll come back to this point briefly in the next installment.
So, certainly it is still important to ensure appropriate micronutrient provision in accordance with the Healthy Eating Guidelines, as discussed already. Strictly speaking though, for “results from training” including weight loss, total energy and macronutrient ratios are what makes the difference. Not “clean eating” or whatever arbitrary labels you want to slap on to individual food choices that mean they’re “bad” or “good” for weight loss, muscle gain or health in general.
For my own system I changed it one step further, from “flexible dieting” to “Flexible Fueling” because my people aren’t on a damn diet. We are fueling UP for best results and we know that means we have minimum requirements that we need to exceed… rather than trying to restrict to low levels of energy. I really wanted to emphasise the rejection of that “dieting” mentality, because what we do is the opposite.
Now you can do this macronutrient thing by percentage of total energy or by the gram. Most people seem to talk about percentages of total energy and that’s how I used to do it too, but as activity level and level of performance goes up, so too does total energy requirement. As this total energy requirement goes up, it becomes both unrealistic and unnecessary to expect a large percentage of this to come from protein.
As a side note at this point, to talk only about macronutrient percentages without also establishing an appropriate or optimal total energy intake is entirely pointless, as well.
For this reason… well, I decide on a case by case basis but increasingly I am basing my recommendations on a “by the gram” basis for what is an adequate protein provision, although my prediction of what might be optimal may be a higher target based on percentage of total energy. Again… experience and intuition starts to come into this and I wouldn’t say there is a hard rule on how best to interpret the numbers and work them into practical targets in every individual case.
Now here’s the trick though.
It comes down to calories, for the most part. But failing to see progress, fat loss or weight loss does not automatically translate to “not in calorific deficit” aka “still eating too much”.
People with a poor understanding still jump to the seemingly obvious “whatever you’re eating now, slash 500 calories as you’re not in deficit” line whenever someone reports a plateau or lack of progress. That isn’t “IIFYM” though, it is just “calorie counting” and energy restriction, and it is no better than any other form of crash dieting.
What IIFYM should mean and what Flexible Fueling certainly does mean is running the numbers to determine what this particular individual’s requirements are in total energy, protein, fats and carbs respectively to ensure results from training. What should be adequate, and what should be optimal. Cutting below what the maths and good sense tells us is “adequate” is quite literally “less than adequate” and therefore not conducive to ongoing results.
Beyond Calories In / Calories Out.
Don’t get me wrong. CI/CO is a valid rule and no one with a shred of sense should really dispute this. However, the way this rule is often applied in real life leaves a lot to be desired. I would suggest more people move away from the “calorific deficit” model in favour of pushing upper, maximum usable calorie targets for optimal performance, recovery and results from training.
To facilitate improvements in performance at training requires MORE fuel, not less. To recover from more intense, more productive and more effective training sessions requires MORE fuel, not less. To build lean mass and change your body composition requires MORE fuel and in particular, adequate provision of protein. Not less. More.
Now, this is something to be built up to strategically as often referred to as “Reverse Dieting” elsewhere. What people fear when you start talking about increasing towards maximum usable intake is something to the tune of “but don’t I need to be in deficit to lose fat?”, and the answer is… technically yes, but let’s think about it a little differently.
Assuming you have any fat whatsover to lose. It becomes complicated to explain because every situation is different and there will be a time to dial in a more significant but still strategic deficit after having established and maintained maximum usable intake for a suitable duration of time. In this case we’d still be looking at a reasonably high energy intake, suitable for performance and recovery, but it will be somewhat less than we’ve gotten used to, encouraging the body to draw even more from fat stores to make up the difference. Certainly our targets at this stage would still be higher than many other people would be restricting to in similar circumstances with the other approach.
But that all comes later. Assuming we’re still in the “Reverse Dieting” stage though, we are building up towards the maximum, most optimal level of energy we can put to good use in fueling our lifestyle, performing at training, recovering, and adapting with creation and maintenance of lean mass at the expense of body fat. Clearly, however high this amount is, by definition it is still less than the amount it would take to fail to see improvement in condition and reduction in body fat at that level of activity.
Only in surplus, or excessive total energy intake would we fail to lose body fat. Maximum usable intake is by definition not “excessive”, as excessive would mean “more than we have a use for”. So while technically we are in deficit of what would be required to fail to see improvements in body composition, our focus is not on “being in deficit” which usually translates loosely to “under fueled and trying to force the body to burn fat to compensate”.
A note on maintenance calories real quick, too.
A lot of people are under the impression that if for example you are currently maintaining weight and not really seeing any changes in body composition on 2500 calories per day, increasing intake beyond 2500 would result in fat gain due to being “in excess of maintenance calories”. However, this may not be correct.
If 2500 calories per day is a sub-optimal energy provision relative to your needs, increasing towards the optimal amount would mean more energy being made available and being utilised to perform, recover and adapt to training. This should not result in weight gain (unless that was your aim) and should in fact result in more energy being drawn from fat stores to fuel non exercise activity. It is for this reason that it is sometimes possible to actually lose weight after increasing energy intake.
Again, Calories In / Calories out is the rule… but it is about the most appropriate, most optimal energy intake relative to your needs, and not about just slashing calories ever lower to starve weight off.
In tomorrow’s entry we will discuss the best and worst practices in IIFYM & Flexible Dieting Coaching. Stay tuned for that!