Getting Dirty Diet: If It Fits Your Macros

Clean eating versus counting calories—this is a debate that will last for centuries to come. Proponents of “eating clean” believe that calories are far from the be all and end all. They also contend that where your calories come from matters more in terms of body composition and performance than the precise quantity you consume or your protein, carb, and fat ratios.

On the other hand, you’ve got the guys who are all about the numbers. A calorie is a calorie and it doesn’t matter whether you have sweet potatoes or Pop Tarts after your workout. They’re both carbs, right? How can two such polar opposites exist and who is right?

In truth, they’re both right to some degree and both methods can work very well. While the former clean eating method is the one most commonly associated with bodybuilders and athletes,  the second method, known as “if it fits your macros” or the catchy acronym “IIFYM” is rapidly gaining popularity in training and nutrition circles.

On the face of it, IIFYM seems slightly bizarre and flies in the face of many things we’ve all been told—choose brown rice over white, minimize processed food consumption, only eat lean meat, and so on. How is it possible to build muscle, strip fat, and get stronger and fitter on a diet that includes chips, pancakes, and ice cream on a daily basis?

The fact is though, IIFYM can work and work just as well as clean eating. You just have to know how to play it.

What is “clean eating?”

You hear this phrase “clean eating” all the time, but what does it mean? I suppose the most general definition is a diet comprised of unprocessed, natural, nutrient dense foods. So meat, fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and so on are "good" foods. Some take it even further and omit things like dairy products, condiments, and grains, adhering to more of a Paleo style diet.

In theory, with a diet like this, there isn't any need to count calories obsessively. Chances are if you’re only eating foods from your approved list, your calorie intake won’t be too high anyway, so you’ll do fine with losing fat. If you’re bulking, all you need to do is switch to fattier meat and fish; add olive oil, butter, and nuts to your meals; choose root vegetables and grains over green vegetables; and eat a bit more in general. There isn't anything wrong with this type of diet. It suits many people, and you can get great results with it.

In fact, it’s probably the best type of diet for someone new to training to follow or for the general public looking to lose weight or just get healthier because it doesn’t require lots of planning. Once you’ve decided on what foods you can eat and what’s off limits, it’s easy to buy your food, cook your meals, and eat out at restaurants.

What is IIFYM?

To put it in general terms, IIFYM simply means that if a food falls in line with your daily protein, carb, fat, and calorie guidelines, you can eat it whether it’s a typical bodybuilding meal of chicken and rice or the same bucket of fried chicken and super size shake that the fat spotty kid over the street eats for dinner every night.

The main thing with eating like this is that you need to know exactly what macros you're shooting for every day. This will vary depending on your size, goals, training experience, body type, and genetics. However, once you’ve decided what to do, you need to stick to it. This means you’ll have to have a way of accurately tracking calories every single day. The best way to do this is to use an online calorie calculator. There are lots of them out there that are free, easy to use, and contain thousands upon thousands of different foods from a variety of stores and brands. But doing this does take planning.

Every night, you’ll need to plan your food for the next day and every item of food needs to be weighed and measured (with the possible exception of green vegetables—but when dieting, even those should be subjected to the same guidelines). It isn't any good just eyeballing. Your new best friends will be your digital scale and measuring cup.

This can create problems. For a start, just planning your meals can take a good 10 to 15 minutes every day, and you’ll have to know what you’re eating well in advance. So if you’re going out for a meal, you’ll either have to check the menu beforehand or leave plenty of calories to spare so that you don’t overshoot your targets. Then if you come in under, you’ll need to make them up with other foods when you get home. All of a sudden the idea of following a diet that lets you eat whatever you like doesn’t sound so appealing!

You can forget all out cheat meals, too. “Clean dieters” will often reward themselves for a week or fortnight of 100 percent diet compliance with a big cheat meal where they eat unlimited quantities of whatever they like. When following IIFYM, this isn’t allowed. The diet is flexible enough to allow you small amounts of “cheat” food every single day while still hitting your desired macros. Be prepared to wave bye bye to huge Christmas and Thanksgiving feasts. If you’re still interested in IIFYM after all that, read on.

IIFYM myths

It’s junk food all the time: From an outsider’s perspective, IIFYM dieters just eat crap, day in and day out. But this certainly isn’t the case.

It’s actually incredibly difficult to eat only junk food on your diet and hit your macros. Try getting 250 grams of protein every day while limiting your fat and carb consumption by only eating stuff out of packets, microwave boxes, and from diners. You’ll see that it’s pretty much impossible. You’ve got to eat clean at least some of the time.

There isn't any focus on healthy foods: That’s just plain wrong. First, see the above point. Second, even the staunchest macro dieter will admit that micronutrients matter, too. Many macro based diets also include a minimum fiber intake. Again, getting enough fiber in the form of Twinkies, burgers, and candy isn’t going to happen. You need vegetables, grains, or worst case scenario—a fiber supplement to hit your numbers.

Also, it isn't a challenge to eat as much rubbish as you can. Just because the main focus isn’t traditional bodybuilding foods doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a lean steak, baked chicken breast, broccoli, or a bowl of plain oatmeal.

Vegetable consumption is also encouraged. They’re just included in a slightly different way. While your average clean eater might steam or boil all their vegetables and choke it down plain, IIFYM dieters will have their vegetables with some pasta and sauce, in a burger, or on top of a pizza.

The results aren't as good: This one’s impossible to determine. People have gotten in great shape eating clean, and people have gotten in great shape by counting calories. IIFYM isn’t better, but it isn't any worse or less effective either.

It's for people who lack discipline: In many ways, you actually need more discipline. Seeing as your calorie intake is regulated very strictly, you’ve got to be pretty careful with what you eat. Sure, you can have some ice cream or a few slices of pizza, but you can’t let these turn into all out binges where you end the night in a sugar coma or curled up on the couch in the fetal position wondering if you’ll ever be able to face food again. Going round a friend's house for beer and chips to watch the football game? You’d better take your scales with you and make sure you don’t get coerced into having more than you’re allowed. Now tell me that that doesn’t take some serious discipline.

It's like putting budget gasoline in a Ferrari: Those who don’t like the macro dieting approach often use this analogy to support their reasoning against it. I look at it like this though—anyone who’s ever seriously dieted for a prolonged period of time and had to drastically restrict calories will know that workouts suffer, your strength goes down, you get irritable, and you feel like crap. This is the case whether you’re eating clean or eating dirty. Likewise, on a bulk, when your calories, carbs, and fats are all up, you perform better, get stronger, and feel far more alert and positive. I’m not an expert on hormones when dieting, so I won’t try to argue which approach is better with regards to that. But what I will say is that if you’re eating well, training, and generally living a healthy lifestyle, the negative impact on hormones, metabolism, and health from including some non-clean foods in your diet will be negligible.

Who is IIFYM for?

Anyone can follow an IIFYM diet regardless of goals, experience, and body shape, but it definitely suits some more than others. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, eat out a lot, or just enjoy your food, this approach to dieting could be ideal for you. But you’ve got to have discipline and self-control.

It’s not the answer for you if:

  • You like to proudly announce that you follow a “hardcore” bodybuilding lifestyle and take pleasure from telling people how you endured sixteen weeks on a diet containing nothing but chicken breast, egg whites, rice, and spinach.
  • You can’t stop at just a couple scoops of ice cream or one piece of pie.
  • You’re very new to training and dieting and don’t really understand calories and macronutrients.
  • You’re on the road a lot and can’t always plan ahead. In this scenario, you’re much better off deciding to just eat healthy and adjust portion sizes as needed.

How to set up your IIFYM diet

If you still like the sound of eating dirty, here’s how to go about setting up your plan:

  • Find your calorie, protein, carb, and fat intake. How you do this is up to you. If you know your body quite well, you can probably have a fairly decent guess at the numbers yourself. Otherwise, use some sort of calorie calculator to work out your daily energy expenditure and go from there. Shoot for at least one gram of protein per pound of body weight when bulking and slightly more when cutting. Carb and fat intakes are very individual.
  • Get used to counting calories. You can do this with a pen and paper, but a calorie counting app or website is much quicker and easier and more accurate.
  • Include a minimum daily fiber intake, too. At least 25 grams is preferable.
  • Make sure you hit your protein, carb, and fat numbers every day or at least get within 5 grams on either side of each.
  • Place your focus on nutrient dense foods and don’t deliberately go out of your way to eat junk, but feel free to include whatever you like provided you hit your numbers.

So what is best?

You’re going to hate this, but the answer depends. When it comes to diet, the best approach is always the one that gets you the best results and the one that you can adhere to the closest and that you feel is sustainable.

Personally, I've always preferred clean eating. I loved the idea of sticking to bodybuilder friendly foods for 99 percent of the time, but I also had a huge appetite and loved junk food. For me, there wasn't any pleasure in having the odd bag of chips or a few cookies after a workout. I liked to keep super strict and then have a massive blowout once every couple weeks.

That seemed to work for a while. Thinking of my monster cheat meal got me through plates of boring, dry, same old food, but over time, I found that I started to crave junk food more and just found that eating from such a restrictive group of foods all the time simply wasn’t sustainable.

The answer was IIFYM. I still make sure I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, pick fresh produce where I can, and get my protein from meat, eggs, and shakes. However, I don’t sweat it if I hit the Ben and Jerry’s after a hard leg session or grab a Subway for lunch instead of carrying round my Tupperware all day. So for me, IIFYM is definitely the way to go. It allows me to be flexible with my diet. I like the planning aspect of it, and I can include small amounts of food that the non-training general public would consider “normal.”

As for you, well you might be exactly the same as me or you might be the complete opposite. I recommend trying both approaches and seeing what works for you.