Two of the biggest eating trends for improving body composition are ‘Clean Eating’ and ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM).
They are two very conflicting ideals, yet they have both helped people to achieve their weight loss, fat loss and muscle growth goals. In this post I explore the advantages and disadvantages of both lifestyles, so you can determine which will best suit YOU.
The idea behind clean eating is to eat as close to nature as possible. This means eliminating processed and refined foods, and only eating foods that are free from artificial additives and preservatives. Essentially, you won’t buy anything that comes in a packet – it has to be able to be farmed or caught in nature. Unless, of course, you have analysed the ingredient list and determined the product to be free of anything that isn’t ‘naturally occurring’, or anything that you can’t pronounce.
It focuses on eating healthy, natural foods. We all know that eating natural, unprocessed foods is better for our health. Eating clean is a way of eliminating processed foods, which are generally high in sugar, fat, and/or artificial additives/sweeteners/preservatives which have been found to be linked to diseases and cancers.
There is no calorie restriction – You can eat as much food as you like, provided it’s all ‘clean’. This means no starving yourself – you simply eat when you’re hungry. It’s structured and simple – it’s clear what foods are off-limits and easy to follow without the need to count everything.
You need to be moderately savvy with food labels – Reading food labels will be a must. You need to look at the ingredients list on the back of the packet (if you choose to include packet foods) to ensure that all the ingredients are clean. You will need to be able to recognize trick words like “Natural Flavouring”, which is generally not natural at all. You can’t fall for the “all natural” claim on the front of the packaging either. A good rule of thumb to follow is if you can’t recognize all the ingredients, and if you can’t go and buy each individual ingredient in the supermarket yourself, then you shouldn’t buy it. Where can you buy a bottle of Natural Flavouring? You can’t.
Not all ‘clean’ foods are conducive to your body composition goals – Clean eaters love their date based bars, fruit and nut bars bound with honey, raw desserts, and abundance of fruits etc. But these foods are often high in sugar and/or fats despite boasting a ‘clean’ ingredient list. If your goal is weight loss or fat loss, then you need to watch the amount of sugar you are consuming in these kind of products. Whether it’s natural or not, sugar is sugar and having too much of it won’t help you lose weight.
It restricts the food groups you can eat and can breed obsession – Some people can become fixated on the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, which can lead to an unhealthy and obsessive mindset. You know those friends who pick at their meal when they’re out for dinner and claim to not be hungry? The friends who are all of a sudden a gluten-free, dairy-free, refined-sugar-free, soy-free vegan? There has been a rise in a new eating disorder known as “orthorexia”, where people refuse to eat any food that isn’t classified as healthy. Although I promote eating clean the majority of the time in the interests of your overall health and disease prevention, it’s important to have balance and not completely deprive yourself in a world where we are surrounded by so many beautiful, delicious and unique foods to try!
IIFYM allows you to eat anything, provided it fits within your daily macronutrient requirements, as pre-determined by a coach or a macro-nutrient calculator. Some people also track micronutrients and dietary fibre.
There is freedom of food choice – You can literally eat anything, as long as you can fit it within your macros for the day. Hello, ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
Flexibility can make it easier to adhere to – eating out is easier, because you can account for it in your macros for the day. You can still eat foods you enjoy like the odd chocolate, protein bar, or ice cream. The benefit of eating in this way is that long-term adherence is easier when your eating is less restricted.
You have to calculate everything – Firstly you need to work out how many grams of protein, fats and carbs you need per day to achieve your goal (I recommend having an experienced coach do that for you, as some of the calculators online can give out questionable results!). Then you need to work out how you want to fill those macros each day. Although it sounds easy, 100g of chicken is not 100g of protein. It contains about 31g of protein and 4g of fat. You need to work this out for everything you put in your mouth, which involves a lot of weighing, counting and research.
Although this gets easier as you go and start to learn the macronutrient content of your regular foods, unless you want to eat the same meals every day, then you will spend a lot of time counting your food on My Fitness Pal. It’s a time consuming process.
It’s not necessarily healthy – Just because you can eat ice-cream all day and still hit your macros doesn’t mean you should! They are still highly processed, full of sugar and fat, and contain toxic additives. Using IIFYM as an excuse to eat junk fund while ‘getting shredded’ will still have consequences on your health. It’s so important to get enough vitamins and minerals from fruit and vegetables. If you fill up your macros with junk food, you’re missing out on certain nutrients vital to your health. Some people will track their micronutrients as well, but again that is a time consuming process.
It can be overly tempting – Although the norm is not to fill your macros with junk, when the options are open, some people struggle to resist temptation. Eating foods high in sugar causes your blood sugar level to spike and then drop, which results in you craving ANOTHER sugar hit to give you energy again. This can become a vicious cycle of cravings and sugar hits, leading to poor food choice after poor food choice. Another problem people may have is if they indulge too much early in the day, forcing them to ration their macros for the rest of the day. Leaving yourself to go hungry and eat a dinner of pure lettuce leaves because you already used up your macros is not healthy physically or mentally.
What works for me?
I personally prefer a HYBRID approach. I care a lot about eating highly nutritious food and avoiding too many toxins in my lifestyle, especially in what I eat. Eating clean is an effective way to minimize exposure to artificial additives/sweeteners/preservatives that can contribute to disease and maximize intake of vitamins and minerals. I also love healthy food because it makes me feel more energized and happy! Junk food always makes me feel sick or groggy.
However, I’m human and get cravings and enjoy the occasional pizza or ice-cream. But because I fuel my body well and can see the benefits in how well I function and feel, it motivates me to eat well the majority of the time. I still track my macros, but I usually repeat the same meals each day for a week so I don’t have to obsessively track every single day or stress out that I have no carbs or proteins left and have to eat a tub of coconut oil for dinner (gross hey!). I’ll plan out what I feel like for the week, and generally adhere to that until the following week where I’ll change any meals that I’m getting bored of.
This is the approach I use for my clients too- I provide them with macros, but I also give them an easy to follow meal plan with the best way to fill those macros for best results and overall health. If they don’t want to track, they don’t have to; they can just follow the meal plan which includes multiple switches so they can design and create healthy meals they still enjoy! That way, the individual can work out what method is easiest for them to stick to long term and therefore achieve the best result possible!
What will work for you?
You need to work out which approach will be most convenient, manageable and thus sustainable for you and your lifestyle. What will allow you to stick to your eating plan? Do you like to have rules about what foods to eat and what to avoid? Do you feel better eating clean foods? Perhaps you have food intolerances and clean eating is the best way to manage them. Or do you enjoy having flexibility in your diet to have some treats? Do you love eating out a few times a week, and are not willing to sacrifice that? If you had flexibility in your diet, would you have the willpower to still eat healthy foods the majority of the time? The reality is both methods can help you achieve weight loss, fat loss, or muscle gain – you just have to find the one that best suits you. No two people are the same, and thus no diet will work for everyone. Experiment, work out what you find sustainable, and stick to that, because it is consistency that is more important than which lifestyle you choose to follow.
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