Calorie counting is a real bitch.
Say you order a large hand-made pan pepperoni and bacon pizza (one of my college dietary staples for those wondering). Honestly, who wants to go through the arduous process of heading over to the Dominoes website and checking to see how many calories there are right before you commit carbocide.
But let’s say you decide to do it. Your brain’s thoughts immediately transition from hot, sweet lust for that pie in front of you to WTF.
Here you are all excited to eat this pizza that’ll probably leave you feeling better than any imaginary sex you’ll be having later on and there you go and induce a momentary onset of depression because it just hit you that you’re going to consume 2,000 calories in the time it takes you to watch one Family Guy episode. 1800 of which your vegan hipster girlfriend will remind you are satanic for your heart. The purported evils of saturated fat is a story for another time.
This all transpires because you’re trying out some sweet new eating philosophy called, “If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM for short)” whose sole maxim is that you can eat whatever you want throughout the day as long as your end totals equate to what they were supposed to.
The practice works because your body (at least over the short term) will respond to whatever stimuli you provide it with and won’t fight back with insulin insensitivity and low testosterone until you’re at least three kids deep with a miserable wife and then you try and get lean.
I’ve used IIFYM to get crazy lean (report me to the internet police for the selfie below). During that time I ate my fair share of ice cream, pizza, bread, candy, etc. All foods that have been deemed not only dangerous for your health but even worse for your abs that have been hibernating all your life. It’s just not the case if your macros were given to you by someone who is equally good-looking as he is intelligent…like me.
Before you start salivating uncontrollably over all the junk food I just described, let’s take a look at some of the ways IIFYM successfully goes about changing body composition:
1) Generates dietary flexibility
Besides now acknowledging that all diets will fail eventually (you are welcome), we are all well aware of the worst kinds of diets. They are the ones that eliminate your favorite foods FOREVER. Now with that last statement, I’m making one giant assumption that you are like every other human in that you crave foods that are both fatty and loaded with carbs. Call me crazy, but I can’t think of anyone that willingly will list a spinach salad without any croutons as their go to cheat meal.
So the resident guru from the latest Amazon best-seller says that if you eliminate chocolate for the next six months, fat loss will accelerate by 147%. Sure, for some time making that sacrifice is cake. And then a few weeks have passed and suddenly one day you think that Comcast is intentionally psychologically assaulting you because there have been ten chocolate commercials in the last three hours.
Eventually the intense urge passes until suddenly it doesn’t. You have created such a psychological vendetta against having chocolate that the craving becomes uncontrollable and next thing you know you are sitting there on the couch Dwight Goodman style exhausted because you just ate enough chocolate to feed several hundred trick or treaters. By telling yourself you cannot have said item, you make your body want it that much more.
IIFYM eliminates this problem because essentially there are no foods that are off limits. Have 200 calories left over after you just ate dinner? By all means, eat that chocolate or whatever other vice you’ve been thinking about all day being a cube monkey at work.
Flexible dieting (term created by Layne Norton?) is essential to adherence. A diet or lifestyle modification that says you can’t do X behavior or consume your favorite food will always fail because your psychological desire for that one thing you cannot have will always overpower your will power. In this sense, IIFYM is brilliant.
2) Instills order into chaos
You’ve heard of Martin Berkhan yes? If not, he and Brad Pilon are the men responsible for bringing fasting mainstream. More importantly, have you seen the kinds of meals that Berkhan’s clients eat while simultaneously getting outrageously lean? Take a look here and here. (don’t if you are already hungry).
Old school wisdom says that there is no way people should be able to get that lean eating what they do. Fat cells should hypertrophy at a rate greater than Barry Bond’s head following his visits to Balco.
But they don’t because through the implementation of specific macronutrients, Berkhan has instilled order into the typical chaos that is a refeed day. His clients may consume four boxes of Frosted Flakes and be in a caloric surplus of 20% but there is minimal fat gain because implemented into the macro totals is a deep understanding of human physiology and metabolism.
You see, human de novo lipogenesis (the conversion of carbs to fat) just doesn’t happen. It’s incredibly inefficient and doesn’t actually start happening at a meaningful rate until you consume enough carbs to exceed your total daily energy expenditure (Hellerstein 1999). It’s just never going to happen. I’ve had some legendary days of eating in my time but I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never come to close to that level of carb intake. The result? A refeed day of high protein, high carb, and minimal fat intake contributes insignificant amounts of added fat but instead serves to increase levels of leptin, thyroid, and testosterone and more importantly signal to your body a surplus of energy, spurning the body to burn more fat.
The typical refeed day prescription goes as follows: eat whatever you want. Not very scientific if you ask me. It’s fair to say that even if it’s unregulated, one day can only contribute so much to fat gain and it won’t set you back weeks or months in terms of losing body fat but if your goal is to get shredded, precision matters. For that reason, IIFYM instills order in a manner that free for all “cheat” days don’t.
3) Eliminates the Feel of Dieting
I’ve never been leaner than I was in those pictures above. Technically, to get to that point, if you want to put a label on what I was doing, I was “dieting,” yet I certainly didn’t feel that way.
Now, I wasn’t nor have I ever been bodybuilder stage ready lean where more than likely you feel like crap before/during/after the show. My training sessions were still high octane and I felt like I had at minimum maintained my strength levels despite the overall caloric deficit. Further, and most importantly, I felt I still had the same sex drive as my baby fawn 16 year old self, meaning my testosterone levels hadn’t taken a nose dive the moment I transitioned from lean to shredded.
These are all important considerations given what typically happens metabolically as you progressively lose more and more body fat. Sure, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. My rest day macros (high protein, moderate fat, low carb) forced me to be strict in what I ate. There were definitely some minor hunger pangs and yes I had to make some sacrifices in what I ate meaning I couldn’t scarf down the post-game pizza like the rest of my teammates. But this was all manageable because I knew tomorrow was a training day and I could eat like a glutton if I so choose. On these days, I regularly consumed 500+ grams of carbs. There wasn’t a food choice off limits and subsequently my cut was a piece of cake.
Contrast this scenario when my former inexperienced self tried to take on the Paleo Diet in an effort to stay lean following a surgery where my training would be somewhat limited. My meals consisted of nothing but dining hall chicken breasts (cardboard tastes better), hamburgers without the bun, and salads. I became a carb nazi because I had read Robb Wolf’s “The Paleo Solution” and thought that carbs were basically the devil.
I WAS MISERABLE.
My training went through the shitter, I got sick, and I honestly don’t think I got any leaner then when I had started. My experiment with the Paleo Diet concluded with an all out binge I had at dinner one night with the dining hall bread. I swear it looked like I had never seen bread before with the ferocious manner in which I attacked it.
Of course, I could have structured my plan a bit better but I remain convinced that it would have always felt like dieting to me even if Robb Wolf himself wrote my meal plan. There is no dietary flexibility and it was far too restrictive with the elimination of carbohydrates (for the most part) from everyday living.
I’m convinced IIFYM coupled with intelligent carb cycling eliminates the feeling of dieting altogether. I have too much anecdotal evidence from myself and clients to think otherwise.
Who I’d Program It For
I think there are specific target populations that IIFYM works best for. Just like you wouldn’t program tabata front squats for a pregnant woman approaching labor, in my opinion IIFYM is best served given specific demands or when certain conditions are present.
1) If You Want To Get Shredded
Let’s define as anything under 10% body fat. I say 10% because it’s a heck of a lot leaner than most people think it is and you’ve probably never been 10% body fat. In general, to get shredded, unless you’re a genetic freak, will require some sort of calorie and macro counting. From previous posts you know that your body has a multitude of reasons evolutionarily for fighting you while trying to get lean. Getting lean is tough but losing stubborn body fat is even tougher. It’s stubborn for a reason, as your brain is smarter than your limbic desires.
You will encounter fat loss plateaus on your journey to magazine cover lean. Fact. Pushing past such plateaus will necessitate a subtle adjustment in either your caloric intake, macronutrient make-up, or both. It’s surely a pain in the ass but it’s the only way you can be scientific about what your next step is.
But let’s examine the other situation (don’t track macros) just because I like writing obnoxiously long blog posts and having you read them…
Putting it mildly, chasing that 8th ab (which doesn’t exist) without tracking macros and calories is like asking for a unicorn for your birthday.
Given that you have some reasonable idea on what you’re doing, fat loss will happen. Assuming that your body doesn’t churn out levels of HGH like Andre the Giant, fat loss plateaus will occur and then the broscience takes over.
Say you make a seemingly reasonable educated adjustment to eliminate carbs at dinner time. Fat loss begins again and everything is all sunshine and rainbows. But what you didn’t realize is that by cutting carbs at dinner time you just eliminated 400-500 calories from your diet putting you at 1300 calories, which is too low even for my grandfather who God bless him does nothing but watch soccer and ask for more cookies all day.
Boom, another plateau happens sooner than the last one did. Cutting calories worked once so let’s do it again. Yet, the scale doesn’t budge and you start looking the exact same week to week no matter how much HIIT you start to program in. Instead of incrementally dropping calories in an intelligent manner that will allow you to “fool” your body to give up it’s fat stores, you cut calories too low too fast and your body is chucking up a big middle finger at you. It senses an extreme energy deficit and thinks your starving to a point where no reckless all weekend carb binges are going to fix your now defunct metabolism.
Be content with the 12% body fat you’re at because you ain’t getting any lower. Not this time around, at least not anytime soon.
If you’re looking to get shredded, you got to count or at least have a fairly good handle on what you’re intaking every day.
2) The Skinny Fat Guy
The easy answer would be a traditional bulk. You know… the “See-Food” diet where you eat anything and everything in the attempt to finally gain some muscle and look like you’ve lifted everyday for the past 10 years of your life.
For reasons I discussed in my previous article, this gentlemen’s insulin doesn’t listen to what he wants so it is damn near impossible for him to partition nutrients adequately. All this means is that a traditional bulk will be an utter failure. Sure, our test subject will get bigger but it’ll be like transforming a clementine into an orange. Bigger size, same shape.
A better approach is a to either get lean first or to make physiology your bitch and undergo a body recomposition where you mix signals of anabolism and catabolism to your body within a mesocycle.
Sorry, I made that sound a lot more complex than it actually is. Basically, on days you train, eat in a caloric surplus (an anabolic signal) and on days you rest, you maintain a caloric deficit (a catabolic signal hopefully targeted at your fat cells). While I maintain that getting lean first will give you better results, our skinny fat brethen is in a unique position where a macro structure like this would serve him wonders.
A macro based approach can take your skinny fat body to the next level. We can’t just tell him to follow a general carb cycling approach because he could easily create a caloric surplus when he’s giving free reign to go ham on some bacon all day. Maybe he’s a stressed out New York City executive who enjoys a bulletproof coffee or six throughout the day. Well, that added grass-fed butter and coconut oil is going to equate to about 1000 calories of fat and that’s not even counting the grass fed filet mignon (if those exist), he’s about to crush for dinner. Instilling order into chaos is necessary when what we signal to our body needs to be handled with precision.
Anthony Mychal has some great information on transforming the skinny-fat syndrome. I encourage you to check him out.
3) The Advanced Trainee
I’m of the opinion that we need to look past someone’e physique in making the determination on whether or not someone can be considered advanced. If you’re a bodybuilder, figure competitor, or anything of the sorts, yeah we get it, you know what you’re doing. But for everyone else…
Some people have just won the genetic lottery. You know, it’s the same old story of someone that eats like shit, never trains, and yet still has a better body than you will probably ever attain.
Take a quick peek over on Instagram and see whose considered a fitness expert these days. I’m not one to make sweeping generalizations but if you’re very attractive, have a kick ass body, and post pictures of yourself working out, chances are you got about a million times more followers than me (go follow me right now). I’m not naïve enough not to get it but does that mean these individuals should be handing out diet and supplement advice because they got a sweet body? Sure, some are qualified. But the majority? I think not.
It’s quite possible to be in excellent physical condition and yet health wise be an utter disaster. You got abs? Cool, it just sucks you got bowling ball sized LDL particles floating through your blood vessels.
Habits and in turn behaviors that stem from habits are the key to unlocking an individuals apparent readiness for IIFYM implementation. I can recall having a conversation with the brillant Pat Davidson earlier this year and he asked how my nutrition was. I told him that I typically started out my day with some Bulletproof coffee. He didn’t need to ask another question because he knows that people who are keen enough to add in coconut oil and grass fed butter first thing in the morning probably have their shit together the rest of the day.
Here’s by no means a definitive all-encompassing checklist, but it’s a start to where I would begin:
Do you try and get some serving of protein, preferably animal sourced, at every meal?
What’s your vegetable intake like? If you know you aren’t the best with getting an adequate amount, do you supplement with greens, either Athletic Greens or Amazing Grass (just like Bulletproof coffee, if you’re intaking something like Athletic Greens, you more than likely have your act together
What’s your saturated fat intake look like?
Do you earn your carbs by training or practice some form of intuitive carb cycling
And most importantly, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings… who ya got? There’s one right answer here.
If there’s some reasonable understanding and adherence to some variation of the above checklist, particularly the right answer to numero cinco, then IIFYM can do wonders for whatever specific goal you’re targeting by dialing in the precise macronutrients.
IIFYM is not rocket science. If you did well in second grade math, you can handle the calculations once you start reading the labels on everything you eat except that pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that accomplishes nothing but making you feel bad.
Yet, if your habits suck, I don’t care that your double bicep pose is the best at your local Planet Fitness. In my book, health and vitality come before aesthetics. Generate good habits first and subsequently “healthy” behaviors and then you can worry about hitting your macros.
The Wrap Up
There are a lot of benefits to IIFYM and the flexible dieting movement in general. I like it a lot and for that reason I have personally used it myself and with a fair amount of clients.
Despite the glaring benefits, IIFYM is not a perfect system and I don’t think it’s appropriate for everyone. In my next installment, I’ll explore the subsets of the population who I think IIFYM is contraindicated for along with issues that arise with lifestyle design, transitioning to maintenance, and long term considerations.
Until next time,
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