This article is going to upset of a lot of people, as there is no clear definition for a meal plan or IIFYM as far as contest prep goes. So, I’m going to have to take certain liberties here and write this article based on my interpretation of each method.
The first step, is we need to strip these two methods back to their purest forms.
A meal plan: A planned set of meals associated with rigid dieting. It is important to note that this may include or exclude junk foods.
IIFYM Or Flexible Dieting: If It Fits Your Macros is a method of counting calories based on macronutrients (Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats). It is important to note that this may include or exclude junk foods.
Before we examine the pros and cons, we need to look at the hidden issues of both.
To quote an earlier article of mine:
“People think they know the difference between low GI and high GI. How many times have you sat in the gym and heard comments like “You want a high GI carb like a banana (52GI) after a workout and low GI like brown rice (55GI) later”.
A BIG ISSUE IS THE WAY GI IS MEASURED.
For example: GI tests are done in a fasted state (no food in system) and it’s only a single food source. So unless it’s overnight and you don’t combine any of these foods listed with anything else, it has little relevance to an athlete. One important note that is conveniently forgotten is protein is highly insulinogenic, (10) yet is touted as the macronutrient of most importance in the iron game. There has also been a study that shows some times high GI food outperforms low GI in fat loss (11)”.
Even little things people do not notice like brown and white rice are very close in GI as cooking exposes the high GI centre to digestive juices giving no real drastic difference in GI score same with brown and white breads.
Does a diet containing only whole food automatically mean healthy?
No not by a long shot. I will quote myself in 2013: “too many people are concentrating on micronutrient density and not enough on micro diversity”. In a nut shell, this means that although your diet may be loaded with micronutrients, it does not mean they are in the right ratios to meet optimal health or minimal RDAs. Another common issue, is people not knowing the unique benefits of certain foods and/or even what micros they contain.
Let’s look at a common ingredient that makes up the bulk of most meal preparation plans.
Take a common carbohydrate source: brown rice. Let’s stack it up against the white devil (I have heard it called in some forums) AKA the white potato!
On http://nutritiondata.self.com/ it lists the vitamin and mineral scores of thousands of foods. So we will use this to help gauge the value of the two foods listed.
First up is brown rice:
It scores 33 out of 100 for vitamin and mineral variety.
On satiety, it scores a fullness factor of 2.3 out of 5 for how filling the food is.
Now, the white devil (potato):
It scores 52 out of 100 for vitamin and mineral variety. (Win)
On satiety it scores a fullness factor of 2.5 out of 5 for how filling the food is. (Win)
Not looking at the bigger picture
Take a nutritional powerhouse like broccoli. It scores 93, but it is still low in certain vitamins and minerals (D, Niacin, B12 Calcium, Sodium, Zinc, Copper and Selenium). Notwithstanding, I see meal plan after meal plan only using 1 (if lucky, 2) sorts of vegetables. It is not hard to find a greater variety of vegetables. What about the overuse of certain meats, like chicken breast, which lacks essential fatty acid such as Omega-3 which the body can’t make? What about high level of easily absorbable zinc, carnitine and creatine found in certain red meats?
Why teach a man to fish if you’re selling him fish?
It’s worthwhile touching on the money motives around Meal Plans vs IIFYM. Charging for meal plan substitutions is a very profitable business. With IIFYM, it’s very simple. If you run out of broccoli, you simply have some spinach instead. This saves you having to spend an undetermined amount of money to be told you’re allowed to do so.
Common mistakes in most meal plans
It is problematic to issue an ultra-strict meal plan of 1200 calories, disappear for 16 weeks, and then blame a lack of commitment when the athlete binges. I have had reports of coaches meeting all their clients in a gym and each paying large sums of money for the same meal plan photocopied. There was no thought given to the individual differences; they were basically treated like cattle. I have seen this more than once. Sometimes I think it’s the same meal plan passed from coach to coach! Another massive issue is the legality of issuing meal plans. In most countries, ‘nutritionist’ is not a legally protected title (22) which means most can claim to be one. The big confusion in most countries, a nutritionist is not legally allowed to give a meal plan. Furthermore, most people think nutritionists are qualified, whereas in a lot of cases they are not. Personal trainers – in a recent statement by representatives- also show they are not allowed to either (21). This is not a universal approach, but I feel it should be covered for completeness.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled: convincing the world that macros don’t exist in his meal plan
If these guys who sell meal plans do not use macros, how come every professional bodybuilder, when interviewed, knows exactly how much protein, carbs and fat they are taking in? This makes no sense, even on the most basic of levels.
My personal favourite: “No pro has ever won a pro card while using flexible dieting or counting macros”
Even though IIFYM can be 100% whole foods, there’s a fair few junk foods examples used in preps. I can even name several Olympians.
Mike Mentzer talking about macros/flexible dieting in 1979!
Here’s 1988 Rich Gaspari – Battle for the Gold (2) was counting his macros. He was one of the first to bring shredded glutes to the stage.
Not forgetting NABBA Pro Marc Lobliner.
Dorian Yates reportedly liked a chocolate bar in prep as an occasional treat.
There’s a video of big Ron himself eating French fries, chicken and BBQ sauce 5 weeks before a show, saying: “Food for champs”. (1)
In more recent years, Jay Cutler in a Bios3 video (Jerry Ward) admitted to using candy corn and full sugar coke with whey – granted, this was post workout (3).
Does it work in drug-tested athletes?
There are numerous names in this category also. One of the leanest examples has to be Pro Card achiever in PNBA, NGA and WNBF Pro Alberto Nunez, who often uses Pop Tarts and other goodies in contest prep.
Another good example is Pro Jeff Alberts, who likes his ice-cream nightly.
Other examples include Evan Godbee (Pro), Brad J. Loomis (Pro), and also Researcher Eric Helms (Pro).
I am often told it is only the genetic elite that can get results IIFYM. Is this true?
Genetics do play a big factor in the look of an athlete. But what am I supposed to do here? Find some that looks awful on purpose? I can find hundreds of people who look awful in gyms on meal plans as well as IIFYM. It is a pointless and baseless argument. It is funny that coaches only use genetics as an excuse when something works which they don’t agree with, but if an athlete places on a poor diet and program, that’s referenced as coaching skill. I have never seen a coach thanking the athlete’s parents for breeding a fine specimen.
To quote Lyle McDonald when he posted his opinion on diet and training and diet: “You can’t argue that periodization is superior because the winners used it. The losers used it too. And they are statistically in the majority.”
Cheat days and free meals vs junk evenly spread: which is more efficient?
I will posit two theoretical examples below.
Flexible dieter – Mr IIFYM for simplicity- has a 2000 calorie daily target to hit over 7 days. So, he eats 14,000 in calories per week. The caveat: he eats 2 small slices of pizza daily.
Total calories: 14,000.
Mr Rigid has a 2000 calorie diet also. Caveat: on day 7 he earns a free meal or cheat day. I have seen one of these days go over 14k calories, but let’s make this fairer. He has the same14 small slices of pizza, making that day 4000 calories. Another way of doing this is lowering calories all week to make room for the cheat meal.
Total calories: 14,000 – 16,000.
Does anyone really think that eating the entire pizza over the course of one day will turn you into a fat burning machine, as opposed to spreading it out?
If Mr Rigid cut back the extra calories during the week to allow them to match 14,000, how can an organised cheat in a single day do less health damage than spreading it out over the week?
Yet option 2 in the Bodybuilding community is far more accepted as strategy than option 1. To me, if they match calories the outcome may be very similar – especially in a bulk.
On a side note, I have seen cheat days way beyond this number and destroy more than a week’s progress in 24 hours.
Water weight: the confusion begins
Quick note: water drops are common after an increase in calories (7). You did not burn an extra 3500 calories in 24 hours by eating a pizza, so play fair. I could have had the flexible dieter just consume 1 slice a day and the rest of the pizza on Day 7 for a reefed. It would have a similar effect. I can’t put every possible scenario for every person’s individual perception of a diet above.
What about hormones when eating junk more regularly?
Dave Palumbo said, in an interview with Ian McCarthy, that 99% of women cannot eat 1 Pop Tart (around 200 calories) and lose weight. In fact, most will actually gain weight due to a hormonal response. However he could not answer what ingredient caused this response. If this were true, we have just solved the hunger crisis. However what I will say, is that Dave has some fantastic looking clients and a good physique (9). Bray GA et. Al examined this in a study and the conclusion was that the pattern of nutrient and hormonal response was similar for a given subject to each of the 3 meals. (4)
What about hormones vs macronutrient ratios?
I see a lot of issues with carbohydrates and fats that are not adjusted to the right ratios. Thus, they do not support intense workouts and optimal hormonal profiles. This is not an exclusive problem with one or the other, but rigid dieting seems very anti-fat in quite a few cases. The ratio of macro nutrients can be correlated directly to T3, Test and body composition (30,31,32,33,34,35). The chances are, if the plan is from the 80s it will have fat fear. If it is from the 90s: a carb fear. But generally, in moderation, these fears seems unfounded for most healthy individuals according to recent data (29,36).
What about eating disorders?
Contest prep itself and dieting in general does open the possibility of eating disorders. However, according to research it seems that rigid diet does seem to have a higher relative chance. I will link 2 papers examining this topic (5, 6).
Extreme examples of junk food abuse to prove a point: fat loss is about using stored energy
The issue here is that weight loss is mainly about using stored energy. So, fat loss can happen on nearly junk food only diets. This has been proven many times by people such as Professor Haub. Even then, blood indicators are a lot to do with getting into a safe body fat percentage. Haub’s blood indicators improved dramatically. The composition of his diet is below, as well as some more information.
“Two-thirds of his total intake came from junk food. He also took a multivitamin pill and drank a protein shake daily. And he ate vegetables, typically a can of green beans or three to four celery stalks”.
“Haub’s “bad” cholesterol, or LDL, dropped 20 percent and his “good” cholesterol, or HDL, increased by 20 percent. He reduced the level of triglycerides, which are a form of fat, by 39 percent.” Haub lost 27lb in 10 weeks (12).
Another example is Science teacher John Cisna, who lost 37lb from 280lb on McDonald’s food in 3 months. His cholesterol also came down 79 points. (13).
Chazz Weaver did a documentary called ‘Down Size Me’, where he went from a very lean 222 lb to a diced 214lb (-8lb) in 30 days. His good cholesterol went up and his bad cholesterol went down. (14)
Am I saying a diet primarily made up of junk food is healthy? No, I’m not.
What about optimal composition and long term issues with junk in diets?
A lot of health benefits are about going from obese to normal weight. However, we have to be really narrow-minded here to believe that micronutrients do not matter. Deficiencies can be common in athletes, even on good diets. Shortages of D3, zinc and magnesium (to name a few common) occur even with decent diets (15,16). Another big issue is fibre, which has many positive effects from anti-cancer (17) to satiety in contest prep. That is why most sensible dieters will use an 80% whole food to 20% non-whole food ratio. Maybe implement an even higher whole food ratio – up to 100% in the late stages of contest prep. And no, I do not believe a multivitamin will cover all bases. Sure it will help as a backup plan, but there are new compounds all the time being discovered in whole foods, with possible natural synergistic effects.
To quote all-star published researcher and Pro athlete, Eric Helms:
“You don’t get extra credit for going over you micronutrient needs.”
Can Bodybuilding diets with a poor micronutrient profile still bring success?
Danny won Mr Cumbria at the age of 17. He also came 4th in the junior’s class in Mr Universe. His diet is as follows. (8)
8AM: fish, rice cake
12PM: fish, rice cake
Pre-workout: fish, rice cake
Later: fish, rice cake
Then, to mix things up before bed: fish
I’m pretty sure by anyone’s standard this is not a balanced diet for micronutrients. If anything, it is a testimony to genetics and commitment.
Volume: the great micronutrient equaliser, baby!
After examining and speaking to elite level athletes, you realise how much junk they have in their diet. But if you examine the reasons why they are still healthy, it make complete sense. Let’s look at 2 examples.
A physique athlete 180lb in the last stages of contest prep. For simplicity’s sake: he’s on 1900 calories.
A physique athlete 180lb in the last stages of prep. Caveat: he is also an endurance cyclist. For simplicity’s sake: he’s on 3600 calories.
Both require roughly the same amount of micro nutrients; give or take 20%. Junk food is not totally devoid of nutrients. Think of tomatoes on pizza, for example. Even white flour will have some micronutrients. The athlete on 3600 calories, due to the sheer volume of food, can use less nutrient dense foods to score the same amount of micronutrients. Michael Phelps is a very good example of this. He basically eats 12,000 calories of junk. If he ate 100% whole food, he literally couldn’t take in enough calories to support training. Yet he is the pinnacle of health.
Benefits of junk (refined foods)
There will be benefits in junk food. I, for one, do not like to eat a ton of vegetables before training. However, some simple carbohydrates do the trick without me feeling bloated and they stop me from wanting to pass out. If you are doing multiple bouts of exercise or a triathlon, you might not have time to sit down and a have a slow-digesting meal. When peaking after a weigh in, I like to use a simple carbohydrate in a liquid and have it absorbed as quickly as possible. I may be working out over, say, 2 hours and need a bit of cheeky intra-workout to stop me crashing. Whey protein and other refined foods have been shown to have countless benefits and health properties; including composition (23,24,25,26). BCAAs are also an extremely refined food, with possible benefits if protein intake is low (19,20).
Bodybuilding demands a lot of time, commitment, and patience. If you have a family, you will know the stress it puts on them. Being a little flexible so you can take them out as a family for something to eat, or the fact you can sit and have a normal evening with them is very precious, let alone birthdays, weddings, and other special events.
Negatives of flexible dieting
Towards the end of contest prep, brain fog is a real issue. It’s hard to count macros accurately. You may genuinely loose a few hundred calories and forget to enter them. This causes people a lot of stress. How many calories do I have left? Did I eat too much this morning? This really opens up a possibility of binging due to a lack of structure.
Myfitnesspal, for example, utilizes user-added data. The issue is, a lot of people enter wrong figures. This can really screw you if you’re not careful. As a coach, it is very hard to pinpoint these mistakes. There are also FDA loopholes. For example, non-complete protein calories (BCAAs) aren’t accounted for. Fibre is also a tricky issue. Some products count fibre calories as 0, which is untrue depending on sources (27,28).
So, let’s quickly summarize both positions.
Pros of Meal Plans/Rigid dieting:
Easy to give to a client and know exactly what they’re eating
Knowing where exactly you should be that day
Not open to as much temptation i.e. replacing whole food with a treat, with the possibility of being hungry later
Linked to a higher rate of eating disorders versus flexible dieting
Legality of issuing plans without having a registered dietician certification, as the label ‘nutritionist’ in many countries does not cut it
Less social mobility with family and friends
Possibility for being charged for substitutions (depends on coach)
Not very adjustable (N.B. better coaches will adjust meal plans, yet some issue you one a very low calorie one and say ‘See you in 16 weeks!’)
Relies on a lot of trust that the coach knows what they are doing.
Pros of IIFYM/Flexible Dieting:
Being able to enjoy social events and eating with the family is easier
Linked to fewer eating disorders (N.B. fewer, not none)
Easier to adjust without rewriting plan
Not needing a RD certification to give general guidance (pro for coaches is that this might keep costs down)
Having more information at hand, so you can adjust macronutrient ratios based on performance
You can make your own substitutions e.g. spinach for broccoli and you won’t receive a possible charge
Requires a lot of thought, which is very hard towards the end of contest prep
Some clients may over-consume without realising or eat too much and think ‘I’ll just have less later’, which leaves them starving (N.B. this is a person-specific problem)
Tempting to eat more junk food
As a coach, it is hard to pinpoint issues with diet especially as some programs and companies do not count calories correctly (N.B. this is a person specific problem)
What to look for in a meal plan
If choosing a meal plan, make sure all your needs are met and ask your coach the right questions. When I’m sent a meal plan I always check for these issues:
Fat less than 0.33g per lb of weight (this can change nearing the end of cut).
Protein below 0.83g per lb (normally I would expect 1g/ lb+ in a cut if lean) unless there are medical reasons.
On average less than 5-8 portions of fruit and veg per day.
No fibre minimums like 10g per 1000 calories.
Fat and carbohydrate ratio not based on your feedback, and is set in stone from Day 1.
No high variation of food. It will be nicer to see 2 meal plans versus 1. Set one to get large micronutrients and subcategory of fat variations (monos/sats/polys/omegas).
No 10-15% discretionary calories.
No sufficient dairy for calcium.
Use of magical protocols for “alpha protected fat” or “GH timing”.
Use of alcohol in peak weeks.
Singling out large food groups or a single macro group as “bad”.
Inadequate use of Omega-3 EFA through oily fish or fish oil 1.5-3g EPA/DHA per day.
Ultra-low calories from Day 1.
Lack of flexibility, or being charged for tiny adjustments like 1 vegetable for another vegetable.
Semi flexible dieting: a non-considered monster?
As we can tell from the first paragraph, rigid dieting and IIFYM are not exclusive concepts. If both sides put down their elitist torches and call off the witch hunt just for one second, it would become clear that there are more options available. One Frankenstein-like creation I thought about is what would happen if these 2 concepts came together in a union and produced a third concept?
Enter the Semi-Flexible dieting or Semi-Rigid dieting. Sorry about the name; I had to come with up on the spot. Sounds like a sexual dysfunction more than a diet, but stay with me. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say we have 5 meals a day at 2500 calories. The first 4 meals or 2000 calories (80%) are whole “clean meals” and the 5th meal is a 500 calorie (20%) semi-clean meal. You could, for example, eat with the family. This could really get the family behind your goals and solve a lot of issues. It requires no brain power for 80% of the meals that day. Too much stress is the number one killer of contest prep.
Conclusion: which is superior?
Neither is superior. It will depend on how the individual reacts to either. And then: does the person writing the plan or issuing macros have and advanced level of knowledge when it comes to nutrition, and is s/he willing to adapt either method based on real world results?
I cannot cover all the aspects here, but I’d recommend people to read:
The Dirt on Clean Eating by Alan Aragon & insulin…an Undeserved Bad Reputation by James Kreiger .
About the author
Russell Taylor He got into coaching professionally in 2014. Since that time Russell Taylor’s evidence based approach has had a string of top placing client male and female finishers in everything from physique to figure, and even competitive powerlifting. He has also been published many articles and routines for high profile webzines. His ultimate goal is unify the industry by combining academic evidence together with practical experience.