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Is This Fat-Loss Solution Just Too Simple?

Mark Gilbert, BSc

Hitting your daily targets for macros, the idea behind IIFYM, may fall well short when trying to reduce body fat

In today’s world of vocabulary minimalism, IIFYM is OMG PANS. BTW, that translates to, “If it fits your macros,” a diet strategy designed to act as the most basic rule book for achieving your physique goals, “is oh my god, pretty awesome new stuff.”

IIFYM is actually fairly well known in fitness and bodybuilding circles. The five letters simply refer to eating the right amount and proportion of each macro (“macro” is short form for “macronutrient,” which includes protein, carbs, and fat) over the course of the day. Do that and the scale will keep moving in the direction you want, whether that means gaining muscle or losing body fat.

Initially, IIFYM seems almost elegant in its simplicity and logic. Since all carbs and proteins have about 4 calories per gram and all fats have about 9, if you eat the right amount of each you’ll get all of the protein and calories you need and you’ll be sure to get great results. It seems all too simple.

Well, while it’s important to broadly hit your macro targets when you’re trying to lose fat, which is the goal we’ll pursue for our purposes here, if it were that simple, everyone would be walking around ripped and jacked! Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complex than just macros. For one, IIFYM ignores a fourth macro entirely: alcohol. Obviously, booze isn’t an ideal source of nutrition when you’re trying to minimize body fat, but the reality is that some people drink, and if you do, you have to account for those macros too (to be exact, 7 calories per gram).

Over and above those extra macros that some people tend to consume on a Friday or Saturday night, there are several other reasons why it’s not just about hitting macros. First, each calorie from each macronutrient, even within the same category of macronutrient, isn’t equal. Second, the way each different macronutrient influences your hormones, eicosanoids, and metabolism is different. Third, IIFYM completely ignores micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. So you could end up with a diet that nails your macro targets but doesn’t hit the minimum requirement for virtually any of the essential micronutrients! Moreover, what about the phytochemicals, natural chemicals found in foods that have health and fat-loss effects? These are also ignored when you focus purely on macros. And last, what about supplements? Can you achieve the same results without creatine, beta-alanine, amino acids, your favourite pre-workout, whey protein, and so on? Science suggests otherwise.

Since we’re talking about macros, let’s look at each one in turn.

Start with Protein

A typical IIFYM dieter sets the desired level of protein intake. Ideally, it would be set at 2 grams of protein per kilo of body weight. (That converts to almost 1 gram per pound of body weight.) So a 180-pound man would want to consume almost 180 grams of protein daily. However, even if his other macros are chosen well, just because he’s getting the right amount of protein doesn’t guarantee he’s getting everything he needs from this macronutrient. For instance, to make a point (not that anyone would likely eat this way), a person could eat gelatin (which is almost pure protein) and legumes (often touted as the ideal source of plant protein) as his two main protein sources and could avoid bread and other grains (as many dieters do these days) and fill the rest of his diet with vegetables, fruits and healthy fats. In this way, he could easily hit all of his macro targets and yet all muscle growth would virtually cease on this diet. Eventually, his ability to recover from exercise would plummet and his immunity would suffer. This is because despite “hitting his macros” for protein, he’d be consuming only a tiny amount of the essential amino acids methionine or tryptophan, and others would also be quite low.

This somewhat extreme scenario demonstrates the potential risk of focusing exclusively on quantityof macros versus quality. To be sure, it’s well-known and has been shown in dozens of studies that high-quality proteins (such as whey protein, especially) outperform lower quality proteins.

But as most Muscle Insiderreaders know, protein isn’t just for building muscle. It also helps increase metabolic rate, decrease appetite, and reduce body fat. In this instance, protein quality seems just as important.

In a recent study, researchers looked at whether higher quality proteins had better effects on fat loss. They determined how often subjects ate meals high in quality protein and then measured their abdominal body-fat levels using the most sophisticated body-composition measurement equipment available (called DEXA—dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry). When all of the calculations were done, a very clear association was demonstrated; quite simply, the more meals people in the study ate that were high in quality protein and the more quality protein they ate, the lower the level of fat was around their waists. Quality protein was defined as a serving of protein that contained at least 10 grams of essential amino acids, which is about 20 grams of whey protein but more for other proteins. So while it may be true that people who eat higher protein diets don’t need as high a percentage of quality protein for muscle growth, there are still major advantages to body composition in choosing quality protein sources.

If you’re choosing high-quality protein, can you just hit your carb and fat macros and expect to get great results? My answer is not necessarily. In my opinion, when it comes to effective dieting, you need everypossible advantage; making one or two minor changes won’t make that big a difference, but if you use most or all of the little strategies as well, then you’ll better optimize results.

Remember, most people never achieve the level of leanness they desire. So it’s important to incorporate as many large and small, intelligent, evidence-based changes to diet and supplementation as possible. All of these little changes culminate in easier, healthier, more effective loss of body fat and maintenance of lean mass!

Next Up: Carbs

Different carbs can have vastly different effects on the body’s metabolism. The most obvious outlier is fibre; fibre contributes very little energy to the diet. As the glycemic index measures, different carb sources have variable effects on how much sugar enters the bloodstream, therefore dictating the body’s insulin response. Some carbs such as sugars jack up blood sugar and insulin very quickly, while complex carbs that are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules that take longer to digest and hence don’t cause a rapid rise in blood sugar or insulin. High insulin levels are counterproductive to your fat-loss efforts.

Blood-sugar responses, while they’re highly important to diabetics, aren’t as important to people who are trying to shed body fat. Your main concern is with insulin and the insulin response to mixed-food meals, which are directly correlated to the amount and type of carbs in that meal. Eating too much sugar or easily digested starch is bad news, even if you eat mostly high-fibre carbs.

And Then There Are Dietary Fats

Books have been written on how different dietary fats can differently affect metabolism and body-fat levels. To start, there are good fats, bad fats, and those in-between.

For health, eating too many hydrogenated (aka trans) fats and too few omega-3s from fish, flax, etc., you’d likely lose muscle and be in poorer health. Research shows that polyunsaturated fats (the ones mostly found in non-animal sources) cause a higher resting metabolic rate than mono- and saturated fats. Another example of unique metabolic effects of different fats is that monounsaturates, such as those found in olive oil, not only help preserve insulin function but in one study, the mono fat oleic acid oxidized (burned) 14 times greater than the saturated fat stearic acid. So again, the composition of fats used to “hit your macros” could have profound implications on how much dietary fat gets burned versus how much gets stored on your belly!

Does Meal Timing Matter?

Another concept that IIFYM doesn’t address is meal timing. Of course, whenyou eat isn’t as important aswhatyou eat, but it also isn’t irrelevant. Several studies have shown that not only eating more of your carbs but also eating more protein and calories in the morning is more effective for controlling fat loss and hunger than eating the same amount of daily calories from these foods but later in the day.

 Also, it’s well known that insulin function is more efficient in the morning and glycogen stores are lower, and therefore carbs eaten in the morning are less likely to cause excess insulin secretion and more likely to be directed into muscle glycogen, where they can be of most benefit. Whoever said, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper,” was apparently aware of these fat-storing mechanisms.

Studies also show that spacing out your protein intake too much or not enough detracts from its anabolic, nutritive potential, and that consuming protein before, during, and after exercise confers better results than eating the same protein at other times of the day.

Getting Down to Micronutrients

Vitamins and minerals are the essential micronutrients that your body needs for proper metabolic function and are essential to good health and life itself. National nutrition surveys and published research have demonstrated again and again that most people don’t get their minimum requirement. My experience of conducting and being involved in thousands of dietary consultations (including those with athletes and bodybuilders) confirms this, and it seems to me that recommending that guys just go out and “hit their macros” takes the emphasis off this problem when nutrition professionals should be doing exactly the opposite!

What About Supplements and Phytochemicals?

This is an obvious area that demonstrates the folly of IIFYM. If you strive to simply hit your macros, you ignore such beneficial and proven compounds as creatine, beta-alanine, and natural polyphenols and other phytochemicals from foods. So the health, performance, and body-compositional benefits of hundreds of beneficial nutrients wouldn’t even be factored in.

So while it’s difficult to argue that setting and hitting your macros is the most important consideration when it comes to hitting your fat-loss goals, it’s also pretty clear that’s just a starting place. By all means, make sure you hit those macro targets, but did you ever think dieting would be easy?


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