I had a wake up call. The call informed me of something that, on an intuitive level, I already knew. The problem was that I couldn’t articulate what it is that I knew.
What was this breakthrough? It so happens that Layne was doing a live Q&A and someone mentioned the “IIFYM diet.” Layne politely, but firmly, corrected this by saying that IIFYM isn’t a diet, but a method of tracking. And that was the light bulb for me. So let’s look at diets and tracking methods. And let’s find the similarities and the differences between some various systems.
What do you think of when you think of the word “diet?” If you’re like most people, you probably think of the following:
- starting point
- end point
- restricting foods
- “bad” foods
- “good” foods
Not all diets have all of these facets, but almost all of them do share the last three facets. Depending on the author you read, you’ll get different versions of the Paleo Diet. But no matter the author, they all agree that humans should not eat bread and legumes. If you are familiar with the Atkins diet, or the ketogenic diet, they both rely heavily on the exclusion of carbohydrates.
If you happen to be familiar with the Whole 30, they rely on restricting alcohol, dairy, grains, added sugar, and legumes among other things. In addition to that, there is a starting and end point for most people who opt for Whole 30.
But there is a more reasonable way to look at your diet. And it can include all or none of the above. A diet is simply the totality of what you ingest. Every day. Every year. That 12 pack of beer you and your friend crushed last weekend is part of it. That cheese covered fried chicken you got at the buffet seven months ago is also part of it. Not to mention the chicken breast, sweet potato, and broccoli you had four times during last week. It’s all there. It all affects you and it encompasses your diet.
Yes, They Work
That goes without saying. You’re no stranger here, so you know about thermodynamics and you know that fewer calories in and more calories out will get you to lose weight. That’s a given, right? That’s the promise of almost all the “diet programs.” And they work.
So what’s the problem? A lot of times—more so with diets on a timeline—you don’t get an exit interview, so to speak. Nobody is there to ask you what, if anything, you learned from your experience. Nobody is there to ask you what you plan on doing next. You’re left to fend for yourself with no new habits and behaviors to guide you.
Still, Some Aren’t That Bad
And while there are a lot of fad diets, it is possible to find some that aren’t as atrocious as others. Take the South Beach Diet, for instance. From the Mayo Clinic:
Here’s a look at what you might eat during a typical day in phase 1 of the South Beach Diet:
- Breakfast. Breakfast might be an omelet with smoked salmon or baked eggs with spinach and ham, along with a cup of coffee or tea.
- Lunch. Lunch might be a vegetable salad with scallops or shrimp, along with iced tea or sparkling water.
- Dinner. Dinner may feature grilled tuna or pork paired with grilled vegetables and a salad.
- Dessert. The diet encourages you to enjoy a dessert, such as a ricotta cheesecake or chilled espresso custard, even in phase 1.
- Snacks. You can enjoy snacks during the day, too, such as a Muenster cheese and turkey roll-up or roasted chickpeas.
Or, let’s have a look at the Mediterranean Diet. From the Mayo Clinic again:
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes:
- Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
- Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil
- Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
- Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
- Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
- Enjoying meals with family and friends
- Drinking red wine in moderation (optional)
- Getting plenty of exercise
In addition to that, the Mediterranean Diet doesn’t put restrictions on rice and other carbohydrates and it doesn’t label them as “bad” more importantly.
And you can put even more diets through your lens to find some commonalities. For our purposes, I’m going to leave out detoxes and juice cleanses, because I assume that since you are here, you know those are well nigh worthless. With that said, most of these diets focus on eating nutrient dense foods. They focus on eating more protein than the average person already does. And even if some of these diets eschew fruit, they still focus on eating vegetables, and for some people, that’s a great start.
IIFYM, the Process
Like I mentioned above, Layne stated that IIFYM is a method of tracking intake. And there aren’t a lot of rules to it, but there are some to follow:
- Get enough fiber. If you get enough fiber, you are regulating your diet so that it becomes more difficult to eat foods with little to no nutrient density.
- Get enough protein. Satiety, muscle building or retention, thermogenesis, and tissue repair are some of the benefits of eating enough protein.
- Stay compliant as often as possible.
That’s it. Within those guidelines, you have a lot of leeway.
But some cannot handle that. So while you likely have your diet in check (you are here reading this after all) you know someone who doesn’t. And you may have even tried to get them to count macros before only to have them frustrated. And this is where the Pop Tarts meet the fads.
IIFYM, the Umbrella*
The best thing about IIFYM is that you can do the math all you want to squeeze in as many Pop Tarts as you possibly can, or you can be the most hardcore, clean eating, chicken loving, and rice stealing bro out there and still track your intake this way. All that matters is that you hit your protein, carbohydrate, and fat targets. And your fiber. Don’t forget that.
But what if you believe in the restrictions and want to follow a template from another diet? You definitely can. For instance, if you believe that humans should not eat beans or bread, you can work the Paleo Diet into whatever your macronutrient targets are. You are still practicing flexible dieting. And your flexibility might not be as high as a Pop Tart bro’s flexibility, but it won’t also be as rigid as a clean eating bro’s flexibility.
If you happen to have come from a place where you diet hopped, and you are looking to count your macros, here are some simple steps you can follow to transition:
- Out of the diets you did, what did you like about them? Did you like that Atkins let you eat a ton of bacon? Do you like that the Paleo Diet tends to emphasize a lot of green vegetables? Do you like the Mediterranean Diet because it lets you have some bread? Note all of your likes.
- What did you hate? Were you on a diet that had you eating tilapia and chicken breasts all the time and it made you want to bash your head in a wall?
- What were you able to sustain the longest/what gave you what you believe to be the best results? This refers to compliance. The one you liked the best likely yielded more compliance.
Now, take all the things you liked about the diets. Make a list of the foods that you liked the best. After that, tweak the sizes to fit your target macros. It sounds simple. And it is. But it might not be easy, and it will take practice.
When learning something, it’s not about perfection, at first. It’s about progress. So one thing to ask yourself is “Am I doing better than before?” This is more valuable than asking yourself if you are perfect.
Furthermore, your goal is to start with where you currently are. That’s why there are intermediate steps. To go from a meal plan given to you, or one set of guidelines to one that can allow for more dietary autonomy can be a daunting task. And one of the best ways to achieve lasting results is to track your dietary intake. In real time. That’s where the fad diets meet the Pop Tarts. If you self-monitor your intake, yourself-awareness will increase. But if you start with what you know, you can expand those limits to get there. So ask yourself not what’s best, but ask “what’s next?”
- Hartwig, M. (n.d.). The Official Whole 30 Program Rules. This is a brief overview of the rule set of the Whole 30 based on the book going over the same.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017, April 20). South Beach Diet.
A simple overview of the South Beach Diet presented to us by the Mayo Clinic
- M. (2017, March 30). Mediterranean diet: A heart-healthy eating plan. A very short overview of the Mediterranean Diet
- Wang, J., Sereika, S. M., Chasens, E. R., Ewing, L. J., Matthews, J. T., & Burke, L. E. (2012). Effect of adherence to self-monitoring of diet and physical activity on weight loss in a technology-supported behavioral intervention. Patient Preference and Adherence,6, 221-226. doi:10.2147/PPA.S28889