"I lost 10kg, and I got to eat whatever I wanted!" This is the siren call drawing thousands of people to the nutrition approach known as If It Fits Your Macros, or IIFYM. What started as a way for bodybuilders to cut weight for competition has taken off in the fitness community and beyond. If freedom of choice is important to you, this may be a good fit. But first, release yourself from the delusion that the road to cut abs is paved with waffle fries. It's not quite that easy.
There are three macronutrients, or macros: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. In the IIFYM approach, you count those instead of calories. (Alcohol is a fourth macronutrient, but it's not part of the program. Sorry.) You're probably more familiar with what nutritionists call micronutrients, which are the various vitamins and minerals. You need micronutrients in small amounts, while the large amounts of macronutrients are what make up the bulk of our food. And we need all three — even the fats.
If you've ever experimented with food tracking, you probably know that it's really easy to track the kilojoules and nutritional macros in a can of chicken noodle soup or a box of chocolate chip cookies — the information is right there on the package and it's often pre-loaded into apps like Fitbit and MyFitnessPal — but it's a lot harder to track kilojoules and macros in the soup and cookies you make at home.
Your body metabolises each of the macros in a different way, hence the idea of calibrating the amount of each to hopefully burn more fat and build more muscle. Your program — what one site calls your "Custom Macro Blueprint" — may be calculated based on your gender, age, height, weight, muscle mass, energy level, and goals. This dictates how many grams of carbs, protein, and fats to eat each day in order to meet your goals.
So let's say your daily macros are 90 grams of protein, 140 grams of carbohydrates, and 60 grams of fat. You get to choose what foods you eat as long as they fit within your macros. (This is also known as "flexible dieting.") For example, you could meet your protein requirements with steak, urad dal, refried beans, hummus, string cheese — just about any amino acid-having food you like.
IIFYM can be a helpful way to give people the autonomy they need to reach their nutritional goals, says trainer and nutritional coach Amanda Thebe. "Removing restrictions around foods adds an element of ease which we all can appreciate juggling our hectic lifestyles. Having the ability to pick our preferred food choices also helps people to stick to the plan." So you can be vegan, palaeo, gluten free, or avocado-obsessed; whatever you eat, there's a way to make it fit.
"The plan is often misunderstood when we see people filling up on their daily quota with junk food," says Thebe. You may have heard you can eat whatever you want! on IIFYM, but wedging vanilla slices into your macros is not a smart strategy. "The way to make this protocol successful is to stick with whole, nutrient-dense foods for the majority of the time with a little bit of leeway for the treats."
"Filling your macros with pizza and cookies isn't the intention of the lifestyle," says Sandra MacDonald, head coach at CrossFit Westchester. She guides clients through the IIFYM program and says all that freedom can actually be one of the biggest challenges people face.
"I like to give my clients structure at first, so they have an idea of what foods they should be eating to hit their target numbers," says MacDonald. "I also give them a list of the best foods to fill their macros with so the micronutrients aren't being neglected." Keep in mind, IIFYM started as a weight management tool. For optimum health overall you need a wide range of micronutrients, too.
That's why it's helpful to work with a coach or nutritionist who can help you figure out what to eat, MacDonald says.
Another challenge is getting into the habit of carefully monitoring your macros. "IIFYM requires an element of due diligence to understand what your exact macros are," says Thebe. "This will require a few weeks of weighing and measuring to understand food portions, which eyeballing alone can't always do." She says this kind of precision is key to getting the results you want.
"There is definitely a learning curve, as far as figuring out how much to eat in order to actually hit your target numbers for the day," MacDonald agrees, though she says she tells clients to shoot for 85 per cent accuracy.
Still, MacDonald says once you get into the swing of the program you can go about your life more or less normally. You can still eat out, for example. But she recommends checking out the menu ahead of time, deciding what to order, and then planning the rest of your day's meals around that.
One more thing to keep in mind: many IIFYM plans prioritise protein over carbohydrates, and eating more protein can help a lot of people feel more satisfied after a meal. But while a high-protein diet will help athletes build more lean muscle mass, a 2016 study shows it won't help preserve muscle mass (let alone build it) for inactive adults. So if that's your goal, plan to do some strength training as well.
Does it work? Well, we don't yet have sufficient peer-reviewed, replicated studies proving IIFYM helps people lose the weight and keep it off. We do have piles and piles of research showing that short-term diets fail to lead to long-term results, regardless of what that diet is. Did you notice MacDonald refer to IIFYM as a lifestyle, not a diet? That's an important distinction.
If you're looking for a nutritional plan that will help you eat healthy food in quantities that work best for you, this could fit the bill. People tend to do well any time they're being more mindful of what they eat.