Discovering “Flexible Dieting” or If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) has been my saving grace since I got into health and fitness. IIFYM is a way of eating that gives target macro nutrients (Protein, Carbs & Fat) and let’s the dieter choose the foods to hit those numbers. Normally, there is some wiggle room but you want to be as accurate as possible whilst hitting your protein. An example target might be 300 Carbohydrate, 200 Protein and 100 Fat (using round numbers for simplicity). This can be spread apart into 10 meals of 30C, 20P &10F / 4 meals of 75 C, 50P & 25F / 2 meals of 150 C, 100P & 50F. Any combination of meals & macros, as long as at the end of day the target numbers are hit within a certain range, will keep your body composition goals in check (until of course you have to adjust based on your goal, metabolic adaptation, weight loss/gain, etc.). This means that no matter how you slice it meal timing wise, if your maintenance is 2500 calories and you eat 2500 calories, whether in 2 meals or 12 meals, you will not gain weight*.1(*It is important to note that if you have a high salt intake one day or eat a lot before bed where you normally do not, you might be a little heavier on the scale, but this is water weight. The same goes for if you weigh yourself a couple hours before you typically weigh-in.)
I realize I might be losing some people, so here’s an analogy. Who do you think is going to be more successful in saving money and budgeting for the future? The person who spends sensibly, indulges from time to time and just goes by intuition OR the person who has all their expenses tracked, knows what is being taken in/out of their accounts, knows where their expenses are going, knows which months or times of the year they spend the most/least money, knows their standard monthly income and know if a major event is coming up? I take option B all day long. It takes more effort and planning than option A, but in terms of getting closer to the goal it’s a no-brainer. Calories are like money. If you have $2500 (calories) to spend on food per day, it is at your discretion how and when you spend it to reach that goal. You can spend $2500 all at once, spread it out, etc. You can spend 2500 calories on whole, micro-nutrient dense foods that keep you satiated and digest well (smart investments). You can spend 2000 calories on whole foods and 500 calories or less whole foods that don’t necessarily fill you up but curb your cravings. You can spend 2500 calories on junk foods that leave you feeling sluggish, lethargic, bloated and hungry. Or you could blow all your money and spend more than you have, leading to fat gain. Unless your goal is to put on muscle mass, in this case you want to be in a caloric surplus and spend more than you need to maintain your weight, but not too much more.
Breakfast is NOT the most important meal of the day and it’s actually impossible to “skip breakfast” when you think about it. “Breakfast”= “Break Fast” which is what you do when at any point when you eat after your overnight fast (“sleep”). You CAN eat carbs past 6PM. In fact, a study done by the Journal of Obesity split participants into two groups. The two groups both consumed the same amount of calories and macro-nutrients, but one group consumed carbs throughout the day where the other consumed 80% of their carbs at night. The study showed greater weigh and body-fat loss, greater satiety, greater waist circumference loss, more stable insulin levels and higher leptin levels when the majority of carbohydrates are consumed at night.2
The concept of “eating 6x per day stokes your metabolism” is a myth. However, research has shown that for optimal muscle hypertrophy & maximizing muscle protein synthesis, 4-6 protein rich meals per day spread out 3-5 hours apart is the best way to go.3 For 95% of people, this doesn’t matter, but if you want to be optimal in terms of building muscle, this is what the research shows. A rough guide for a “protein feeding” is 20-30g of protein in a sitting, but this may change with different body weights, body compositions and the type/amino acid content of the protein.
It’s important to realize that this diet is weird. Most people do not track their food intake. We also have to remember “most people” in America fall into the category of overweight or obese and a vast majority of those who are not overweight or obese fall into the “skinny-fat” category (IE normal body weight but higher level of body fat – think David Spade, Jonah Hill). So if you want to “be normal”, think of what exactly “normal” means, and not just in terms of body composition. Does this mean you have to track and weigh your food forever? Absolutely not. However, it is what’s most optimal if you want to make the most progress in your muscle building or fat loss goals. My goal with this is to eventually be able to eyeball my food and not track calories. However, I personally struggle as a former fat boy. If I ate to my appetite every day, I would put on weight way too fast. You also have to know your body. If you are relatively sedentary & do not strength train often, you will not need as many carbohydrates as someone in the gym strength training 4-6 days per week & leading a more active lifestyle. Certain people are genetically more or less carbohydrate sensitive. I personally notice a huge difference when I’m eating 300-350 carbs per day vs anywhere sub 225 carbs. The difference is mostly in energy, pumps, muscle fullness and cognitive function. Similarly, if I eat too many fats, I notice I feel bloated & my food doesn’t digest as well. Add in that carbs are your body’s primary source of energy, tasty and provide a lot of volume.
Application: Implementing this strategy into your lifestyle
The first step is to calculate your maintenance calories that will keep your weight stable. It is important to realize that weight changes day-to-day due to things such as sodium intake, meal timing, GI weight, glycogen levels, carbohydrate intake, bathroom regularity, weigh-in time, stress and many other factors. The smart thing to do is to stick to a calorie goal for two weeks to determine maintenance. There are many methods and no one size fits all. In my opinion, the best thing to do is use an online calculator which will take into accounts things such as your body fat, height, activity level, training style, etc. Go with a number it spits out if you deem it reasonable and eat that every day for two weeks. Weigh yourself every day, at as close of a time as feasible and under the same conditions (IE: in the morning, after using the bathroom, before food/water and in your boxers/underwear) and take the 7-day average. If in the 2 weeks that you weighed and tracked accurately, the 7-day averages match or are very close (IE +/- 0.2 or so), you have roughly found your maintenance. If you have gained weight, you are over your maintenance and if you have lost weight, you are under your maintenance. A body weight gain of 1-pound results in a 3500-calorie surplus for the week. This does not take into accounts things such as glycogen levels (which increase with training + higher carb intake), water retention, increased GI weight, etc. It is important to realize that there are many nuances in determining the partitioning of the weight gain (nutrient partitioning = how much went to fat vs. muscle vs. water vs. glycogen), but to gain 1 pound we can make the assumption of a 3500 calorie weekly surplus, which results in a daily surplus of 500 calories. You can get a little more complicated and eat more on a training day or rest-day, but unless you are close to your genetic potential, it most likely isn’t going to make a difference. Add in the fact that it complicates things and you are growing on your “rest days”, it is best to stick with the same macros & calories every day and realize that the weekly energy balance is king.
When setting up your calories and macros, you want to do the following:
- Determine your maintenance calories depending on your goals
- Set protein intake between 0.8g/lb – 1.2g/lb
- Set fat intake between 20-30% OR .25 g/lb
- Fill the rest with carbs & or more fat depending on preference, body type, lifestyle
- Get at least 25g/fiber per day or 10% of total carbs (this can go lower or higher depending on your carb intake and GI system)
- Get at least 2-3 servings of vegetables per day
- Get at least 2-3 servings of fruit per day (depending on your carb intake)
- Eat foods that digest well for you & that you enjoy!
What this looks like (Example):
- Male, 6’1 – 170 lbs , 24 years old
- Estimated Maintenance : 2500 Calories
- 5-6 strength training sessions of 60 minutes per week
- Moderate activity outside of the gym
- Healthy metabolic rate
- 170 lbs * 1g (per lb bodyweight) = 170 grams of protein
- 2500 cals * 25% = 625 calories / 9 (calories per gram of fat)
- 70 grams of fat
- (170 * 4) + (70 * 9) = 1,310 calories
- 2500 calories – 1,310 calories = 1,190 calories remaining
- 1,190 calories / 4 (calories per gram of carb)
- 298 grams of carbs (300 to simplify things)
- 2,500 calories
- 300G Carb , 170G Protein, 70G Fat
- Preferred meals = 4 meals
- Meal 1 = 30G Protein, 20G Carb, 10G Fat
- Meal 2 (Pre-workout) = 40G Protein, 75G Carb, 10-15G Fat
- Meal 3 (Post-workout shake + banana) = 35G Protein, 20G Carb, 5G Fat
- Meal 4 (Dinner) = 65G Protein, 185G Carb, 35-40G Fat
- 2,500 calories
This is almost exactly how I prefer to eat. I like to keep it light in the morning because I’m not so hungry, get a good amount of carbs in pre-workout, get a protein feeding right after I workout and feast for dinner because there is nothing worse than going to bed hungry. Some days i eat 5 meals, some days I eat 3. Some days I have a dessert like ice cream or cookies. If I want to eat a pint of ice cream one day per week ill just make sure I put it in my day & work my other meals around it (this usually means lower fat throughout the day). I do not do this when I’m dieting as it would rob my body of getting the proper nutrients I need due to being on limited calories. 80-90% of my calories come from lean protein sources, fish, potatoes, oats, green vegetables, greek yogurt, nut butters, cheese, sushi, blueberries, bananas, and avocados. One of the steps in my fitness journey was when I was given a “food list” of what to eat and told to “eat like a horse”. The list was essentially paleo with an 1100 calorie weight gainer shake tossed in there. The results were about 16 pounds of weight gain in a little over 5 weeks with the majority of it being fat and very minimal strength increase. I have the pictures and I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever looked worse. I rarely have cheat meals because quite frankly this way of dieting allows me to eat the foods I enjoy & make me feel good regardless of my goal. I don’t track or worry about it if theres a holiday or special occasion. The important thing to remember is that its’ what you do 95% of the time makes that defines your body composition, not 5%.
If anyone has any questions about any of the contents of this article or wants to reach out, please do!
- Buchholz AC, Schoeller DA. Is a calorie a calorie?. Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 79(5): 899S-906S.
- Sofer S, Eliraz A, Kaplan S, Voet H, Fink G, Kima T, Madar Z. Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Oct;19(10):2006-14.
- Norton, Layne E., and Gabriel J. Wilson. “Optimal Protein Intake to Maximize Muscle Protein Synthesis.” Optimal Protein Intake to Maximize Muscle Protein Synthesis 2 (2009): 54-57.Bio Layne. Agrofood Industry Hi-tech, Mar.-Apr. 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.