I’d noticed a hashtag floating around on social media, and I was curious what it stood for. IIFYM is short for ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (macronutrients), also known as flexible dieting. The concept is you have daily targets for fat, protein and carbohydrate intake based on your goal – whether it be weight loss, weight gain or muscle gain. There’s less focus on the actual food you eat (hence the flexible part) as long as you strictly adhere to those numbers, and an overall daily calorie intake.
The diet was appealing for a few reasons. I’d been influenced by programs like Eat to Perform, which has a philosophy of ‘Athletes don’t starve themselves – neither should you.’ I’m not an athlete but I’m active, and in particular I wanted adequate fuel for my weekly 10K run. While I’d gotten great weight loss results with the 5:2 Diet (a form of intermittent fasting), it was a struggle to lift weights or run the next morning – essentially leaving me with indoor cycling. Combined with the busy Christmas period, it became near impossible to schedule a fast day that fit with my gym routine and end of year commitments.
In all honesty, the photos of athletic women talking about 1800 calorie a day diets were pretty influential too. Having largely restricted myself to 1200 cals/day for the past five years or so (a number I pulled from Michelle Bridges’ 12 Week Body Transformation, without ever doing the program), I was curious whether I too could eat that much and still lose weight.
My guiding principles for any diet are you should be eating a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, quality protein, whole grains, nuts and seeds (unless allergy prevents you). I’m lactose intolerant but dairy is also good source of nutrients. In that sense, flexible eating seemed to tick a lot of boxes. I could eat whatever I wanted and enjoy a higher calorie intake, provided I balanced the carbohydrates, fats and protein in my foods. In mid-January this year, I decided to give IIFYM a go!
calculating my macros
Typically I’d see a professional before embarking on a new diet, but IIFYM was hardly drastic – I was just going to increase how much I ate and ramp up the protein. After spending some time researching macronutrient calculators, I decided on this one from HealthyEater because it factored in age, gender, height, weight and different goals with a good amount of detail. There are some scholarly references below it, but the website is essentially one guy.
My data of 31 years old, female, 162cm (5′ 3″), 63kg (138 pounds) in “lose” mode (20% calorie deficit) resulted in this:
- Sedentary (basic day): 1250 cals, 124g carbs, 114g protein, 35g fat
- Light Activity (200-400 calories female): 1450 cals, 158g C, 114g P, 40g F
- Moderate Activity (400-650 cals): 1650 cals, 193g C, 114g P, 46g F
- Very active (650 cals +): 1800 cals, 228g C, 114g P, 51g F
I typically burn 130 calories in a yoga class, 250 in BodyPump (weights class), 350 in RPM (indoor cycling), 400 in BodyAttack (cardio) and 650 cals on a 10K run. I burn an extra 200 daily walking to and from the gym. In essence, most days are ‘moderate activity’ but running or my Super Saturday of BodyAttack and BodyBalance were ‘very active.’ Explains why I was always ravenous on a Saturday evening!
I was already tracking my calories using MyFitnessPal, so that was nothing knew although anyone trying this diet who hasn’t kept a food diary before might find the task onerous at first. Below are my notes from from day one to today, two months later.
I struggled to hit 100g of protein as my leftovers of stuffed capsicums only had 8g protein in total. I ate half a Clif Builder’s Bar (10g protein), four tablespoons of PB2 (10g), and a protein shake (22g). Made it to 105g for the day, when I rarely have more than 80g! I was very full. I couldn’t believe how much I was eating. Today’s exercise: BodyPump and yoga, plus walking (approx. 500 cals).
I’d logged my food for the day the night before to ensure I’d hit my targets. Unfortunately, I woke up feeling constipated and I had a breakfast date to go to. It was a hot day too. I skipped my usual mushrooms on sourdough and matcha latte for the smoothie bowl. While I had to guess the calories and macros, ingredients included avocado and peanut butter which used almost my entire daily fat allowance.
I changed my planned meals to stay on track and went to work. I felt really drowsy but it may have been the humidity than overdosing on protein. I got home, had dinner then before bed realised I hadn’t had my textured vegetable protein (TVP) snack or protein shake! I consumed 46g of protein at 10pm, and my fat intake for the day was 55g, 20g over! I was missing chocolate, nuts and oatmeal. And it was only day two! I cooked lupin flakes to add to tomorrow’s lunch. I was starting to realise why body builders eat all the time.
My first day of IIFYM without any events or leftovers to use up, yay! I had a great night’s sleep and felt challenged but strong at my 6am gym class. I was still only eating when I was hungry, but my tummy was rumbling much less than I was used too. A side effect so far? A bit of unpleasant gas.
Today was going to be challenging. I had already booked into a beer event that night and would be likely having dinner out. I allowed for a burger and two pints, then built the rest of my day’s meals around that. Lupin oatmeal with apple and walnuts, Asian tofu salad, a protein shake – and I’m hitting 105g protein! My first estimate for fat came in 30g too, the first time it was below my goal. The beer event turned out to be a brilliant night, and while I consumed too many overall calories – I met my macros. I drank more than I’d planned for and couldn’t resist the beer nuts, but it was somewhat offset by an extra 20 minutes walking on top of that day’s workout (RPM and CXWorx), putting me into the ‘very active’ allowance of a bonus 200 calories! I could get used to this.
My biggest challenge yet… a daytime house party. I definitely felt like drinking. I had sour beer and a bunch of snacks, but somehow I didn’t blow my macros too badly. I didn’t quite meet my protein goal and I was over my calories limit by 200 or so. But in the scheme of a day’s drinking – it was minimal damage! It helped the hostess had vegetable sticks and low calorie dips like salsa, and the crackers were healthy, wholegrain ones too.
This was the first day I couldn’t eat enough. I felt so full. I almost wished for a fast day, just to give my stomach a rest and feel empty for a while. I managed to eat 1400 cals when aiming for 1600 as I’d done BodyPump, yoga and 60 minutes of walking. I was drinking a lot of water but still felt thirsty all day. I drank more than three litres (100 fl. oz) plus tea that day. I was worried about what would happen when I stepped on the scales.
It was rest day! This was definitely the most challenging day to hit my protein goal without blowing other macros, and stay under my 1250 calorie limit. It took careful calculations, but as long as I prepared in advance and all my favourite high protein, low carb foods, I could do it. I had to keep urinating today – I wondered if body was holding onto fluid yesterday for some reason? My stomach and body were feeling much better, I wasn’t as full as previous days. I decided I’d weigh myself the next morning, as try to avoid the scales when I’m feeling down. I’d almost gone through an entire bag of lupin flakes in a week! Being rest day, I finally had some time to do solid meal preparation too – I made a warm broccoli salad (there’s 5g of protein in half a broccoli head!) and a tempeh vegetable curry. I’ve been missing big, vegetable packed dishes.
I put my gym clothes on and prepared to weigh myself. My pants felt tight around the waistband and I wasn’t feeling optimistic. I’d been eating so much more than normal. I felt this had been a bad idea. I waited for the numbers to show… I’d dropped 0.5kg! I was 62.2kg! I couldn’t believe it! I was eating so much food, I was never hungry and I’d lost weight. Hallelujah, church of IIFYM!
That day, I even balanced my macros in anticipation of eating gnocchi at an Italian restaurant that night. Except the restaurant messed up my dish, telling me the white sauce was ‘definitely’ vegan. A few mouthfuls, and I knew it was cheese. I felt sick. I was worried about the effects. I didn’t feel like eating afterwards and for the first time in 10 days, I didn’t hit my protein goal (only 78g). I decided to persist with flexible dieting for two straight weeks.
I’d been hungry on day 10, probably because I didn’t eat much after my dinner time dairy encounter. I was craving salads and I made a huge one – three quarters of a can of lentils contains 12g of protein for only 150 cals. Add some roast pumpkin, leafy greens and cherry tomatoes – it was huge! But my lunch made up only a fraction of my overall food intake. Crisis struck when I forgot to take protein bar to work (Clif’s Builders Bar contains 22g!). Soy yogurt and peaches kept me full until dinner time but again, I had to eat 20g of protein before bed to reach my target. I’ve stopped waking up hungry. In fact, I’m rarely hungry in the truly empty way I’d felt during fasting or after a big morning workout. I still miss my daily handful of nuts, but it’s been impossible to include those without blowing my fat or overall calorie limit. Need to work on my macros better to incorporate them – they’re too healthy to exclude in your diet!
I FELT SO STRONG! I thought I’d picked up the wrong weights in my Pump class, I was lifting them so easily! Don’t get me wrong, I was cooked by the end of it. But wow, I felt good! I was beginning to think this ‘eat to perform’ and ‘fuel your workout’ thing was a winner.
I wanted chocolate. I wanted nuts! But a 1/4 cup serve of almonds contains 14g of fat when my daily allowance was about 40g. Even 1tbsp of flaxmeal contains 3g of fat! And who knew my nightly square of 90% Lindt dark chocolate had 6g? Sure, they were all healthy fats. But avocado, nuts and chocolate were not going to happen in the same day on this diet.
I blew my calorie limit at an function. I was having so much fun, I stuck around for an extra glass of wine… and when I found out the gelato was chocolate AND vegan, I wasn’t going to miss that chance! Again, I wasn’t drastically over my calories. It’s scary how gelato is only 90 cals or so, low-ish fat and then just pure sugar.
I was missing fats so much! I wanted a big avocado fix and a raw ball – I planned to have both in the morning (pre and post-workout) and have a low-fat, high-protein tofu quiche for lunch. I was lovely my afternoon tea of soy yogurt (with 2tbsp of lupin flakes!). Just 80 cals and 8g of protein, and lots of healthy bacteria.
I had another event that night, but I was grateful for a vegetarian protein option of Indian chickpea curry. Between my RPM class, CX Worx (core work) and walking, I’d burnt more than 650 cals so I increased my daily calorie intake to 1800. Normally I would’ve freaked out at eating so much, but I felt reassured knowing I was on target. My weight had unfortunately gone back up to 62.6kg, making me think the precious half a kilo loss was a fluke. I considered returning to fasting, but I want to see what results I could get after a month. I was eating so much, it was impressive I hadn’t gained any weigh!
A day later, my weight back was back to 62.2kg. Thank goodness! I may have been imaging, but I thought my arms looks just ever so slightly more toned. My skin, however, had broken out. I made a note to eat more vegetables, even though my stomach was full from protein all the time!
I was still aiming for 114g protein each day and mostly reaching it, now that I’d figured out my rough daily eating plan (lots of tofu, legumes, greens, daily protein powder and lupin flakes). I figured my breakout must’ve been caused by the desserts (refined sugar) which I never normally have. However, I thought my stomach may be showing the slightest hint of definition, despite drinking on the weekend and a bit of late night snacking (thanks shift work) – but all within my macro and calorie limits.
Maybe it was the previous day’s stand up paddle board yoga class, but I swore my abs were changing, very very slightly. I felt incredibly strong during my BodyPump class, and have sustained my heavier weights for triceps. I wasn’t being as strict with my macros as the first fortnight where I gave myself just 2-5g leeway. Today I was 20g over for carbs but still achieving about 110g protein daily. I decided to give IIFYM a full month.
one month in
After four weeks of trying IIFYM, I was largely enjoying it. I was hungry before meals but not constantly feeling underfed like I was with a 1200 calorie limit. I used to eat lunch then grab my afternoon snack 90 minutes later. Not so with IIFYM! I wasn’t sure if it was the protein or simply eating more. I’d had some slight weight loss (0.5kg/1 lb) but gained a little bit of definition on my quads, arms and abs. I took some photos but it’s so slight, I’ll keep them on my own camera reel. I figured I’d stick with IIFYM for another month, despite going through protein powder and protein bars like crazy.
The first two weeks were filled with birthday celebrations and visitors, and my macros largely went off the rail. I still exercised daily and hit my protein target, but I exceeded calorie and fat limits. The following two weeks were messy too – I worked long and irregular hours before taking a five day holiday interstate to Sydney and didn’t log my food at all (nor the cocktails). But I defaulted to my usual vacation strategy – be active, eat only when hungry and enjoy yourself – with minimal damage (I came back weighing 62.5kg). I returned to the gym and resumed eating my prescribed macros. And now, here I am after eights weeks of very flexible dieting. Here are my reflections:
- I thought I’d have to give up bread and banish all other carbs from my diet. But the HealthyEater formula above was actually quite generous, and I realised I’d unknowingly been following a low carb diet for years already. I was relieved I could still enjoy oatmeal and my post-workout weekend brunch of avocado on toast!
- I was rarely hungry. As mentioned, I wouldn’t eat lunch or dinner until my tummy rumbled. But I felt satiated for hours and could often forgo my afternoon snack of fruit and yogurt, because I was still so full. I did often eat later at night though, which I didn’t like.
- There were several workouts, weight training especially, where I felt stronger. I could push myself harder. Running wasn’t easy, but it was at times easier than I was used to.
- I never felt socially deprived, as I could attend dinners or events and not limit myself to salads or other low-carb options.
- I could still drink alcohol (this may be a con!). While I don’t drink often, the nights where I wanted a glass or two of wine or drank a few pints of cider at an event – it was no problem if I’d met the activity level!
- The changes to my diet weren’t drastic, in that I still bought the same foods at the grocery store and farmers market. However I did buy a lot more protein and protein products each week (see cons, below).
- I lost a little bit of weight (0.5kg/1.1 lbs) and saw some very slight improvements in toning in my arms, abs and legs. Whether this can be attributed specifically to my macro formula, eating 50% more protein or simply eating more calories, I’m not sure. I certainly feel like a larger but stronger person overall, compared to the peak of my fasting days.
- You need to keep a meticulous food diary, and pre-planning my meals was essential on lower activity days. It was frustrating when I couldn’t balance my macros for the day, but for example I had high-carb leftovers that needed eating or a brunch date with limited options.
- It was a daily struggle to get enough protein and keep my fats down. I had to eliminate my daily treat of dark chocolate in order to have a tablespoon of nuts or seeds, and my paper thin slices of avocado were depressing. I eventually managed to balance these better, but restricting such healthy foods didn’t feel right.
- Similarly, I was determined to eat real, whole foods wherever possible but it was tough. My occasional Clif Builder’s Bar became an almost daily snack on top of a protein shake. I attempted to make a TVP porridge (it was vile) and if it wasn’t for lupin flakes, I would’ve struggled to meet the targets on a mostly vegan diet. This wouldn’t be an issue for anyone eating eggs or meat, as even a small can of tuna would get you 17g of protein for under 100 calories, with zero carbs and little fat too.
- I also felt my fruit and vegetable intake was lower because there simply wasn’t room in my stomach. On 1200 cals/day, I’d become skilled at eating high volume, low calorie foods (hello zucchini) to feel full. I just couldn’t fit an entire carrot, tomato and roast pumpkin as well as 200g of tofu or a can of beans – so the vegetables were cut back.
- I ate all the time. I packed snacks and often realised I’d forgotten to have that protein shake or yogurt as I’d gotten busy and my tummy didn’t rumble. Not a bad thing, but at times I actually longed to feel that hollow, deep sense of hunger I got during fasting.
- What I really disliked what that this diet doesn’t provide any guidance on sugar (in fact, on any actual nutrition). I try to limit my sugar intake to naturally occurring ones such as fruit, and rarely use honey or maple syrup. But unfortunately, sugar is a low fat ingredient, and I found myself using it as a shortcut in some recipes (such as honey in my lupin mug cake) as it didn’t blow my fat content. Dried fruit too was an easy but risky way of meeting my carb intake – although it was usually limited to sprinkling raisins on my oatmeal (and I’d forgo them on a low activity days).
- This diet also became quite expensive. I was eating more than double my usual amounts of yogurt and tofu, plus going through protein powder like crazy. Protein bars weren’t cheap either, but maybe I’d been previously underspending on groceries.
- Did I mention I had to restrict avocado, nuts and dark chocolate but wine and gelato weren’t macro-speaking a problem?
As a vegetarian (and dairy-free), the biggest struggle was hitting my protein target without blowing my carb or fat limit. Here are a few things that helped me get over the line:
- Protein powder: For 100 calories, I get 22g of pure pea protein. My favourite brand is The Healthy Chef’s vanilla protein powder with nothing nasty or stomach upsetting. I had it in smoothies, added it to turmeric lattes and made the occasional late night protein mug cake.
- Lupin flakes: Possibly my favourite health food discovery of 2017! Lupins, from the legume family, are high protein, low carb, low fat and packed with fibre! Four tablespoons contains 16g of protein for 130 calories. It’s affordable too! Read more in Five Ways with Lupin Flakes.
- PB2: I’ve been a fan of this low fat, low calorie peanut butter substitute for years. It’s great on toast or crackers, in a satay sauce or (confession) just off the spoon. A 2 tbsp serve contains 50 calories and 5g of protein. Read more in My Favourite Protein Products.
- TVP: Textured vegetable protein may not sound attractive, but it’s a very affordable and easy meat substitute. It works well in any dish that uses mince meat, such as lasagna, burritos, spaghetti or meatballs. A 1/4 cup serve contains 80 calories, 12g of protein and almost zero fat or carbs. It’s only about $5/kg too from bulk food stores and still good value from iHerb!
- Nutritional yeast: The most unappealing name for a food item, but give your dishes a cheesy but vegan flavour with 1tbsp of this (20 calories, 2g protein and a host of vitamins, including 40% of your vitamin B12 intake). The small amounts of protein add up!
will i continue?
There are some aspects of IIFYM I want to continue. It’s helped me to eat more so I have the energy to work harder at the gym, and therefore get better results. But I disliked my reliance on processed protein to hit my daily quota, and I longed to just have a rich pumpkin soup for lunch with (gasp) no added protein. If you read last week’s post 15 Ways to Measure Your Health, you’ll know I planned to have a body composition test to analyse my slightly heavier, tighter clothed self. And guess what? Since my last assessment at the naturopath about 15 months ago, I’ve gained 2.5kg (5.5lbs) of weight overall but wait for it – I’ve lost 2.8kg (5.2lbs) of body fat and gained 5.5kg (12lbs) of muscle! I’m going to be still hitting the gym at 90, hoorah!
But the main reason I’m hitting pause on flexible dieting? My naturopath, who I’ve seen for years and is continually studying, cautioned me against a high protein diet. He said the latest evidence in tests of worms, rats and other animals is that while a high protein diet makes you leaner – it can cut your life expectancy by 30 per cent (which equates to 30 years for humans!). You may look better, but you won’t live as long. It’s the last thing I want my healthy, active life to achieve. So for now, avocado and nuts are back on the menu and I’ll stick with my daily protein shake. I’m even going to eat a bit more each day (1400 cals), and I’ll eat a lot more when I run 10K (1600 – 1800 cals). But the processed bars and late night lupin mug cakes can go. It’s timely, as I’m about to have surgery on my finger that will unfortunately keep me away from the gym for a few weeks. Rather than worry about weight gain, losing fitness or counting carbs – I’m simply going to give my mind and body the best recovery it can get. Sleep, vitamins and glorious walks by the beach!
QUESTION: Tell me about a diet strategy you tried – what was it, and what were the results?