There’s a pretty intense rivalry going on right now in the fitness/bodybuilding world over two styles of eating.
The first is so-called “clean eating,” meaning you eat mostly whole foods (fresh fruits, veggies, lean meats and legumes) and very little if any processed foods.
The other is something called “If it Fits Your Macros” or IIFYM for short. That refers to a more relaxed style of eating, in which the emphasis is more on total intake of carbs, protein and fat. As long as a person eats the appropriate amount of each macronutrient, the type of food doesn’t matter. (For example, eating Pop Tarts after a workout instead of a so-called “clean carb” like banana, oats, rice etc.
Some people have been very vocal on either side of the debate, arguing against any other way of thinking.
I personally consider myself a “clean” eater. My diet is mostly vegetables, a little fruit, lean protein sources and very little packaged or processed food. I believe nutrition is vital to overall health and I feel and perform my best when I eat as healthy as possible.
This is what works for me, and it isn’t for me to judge what works for someone else.
That said, the larger issue up for debate here is what matters more: the quality and overall quantity of what you eat, or the macronutrient distribution?
For decades Americans have been told weight loss and weight gain are directly tied to energy intake versus expenditure. You eat more than you burn off, you gain weight. If you eat less and exercise more, you will lose weight.
This is somewhat true and many people can attest to losing weight by eating less and exercising. But over time, how many of those people will gain back all, some, or even more than they lost? And if eating more than you burn causes weight gain, why don’t individuals keep getting larger and larger and larger infinitely?
These are questions experts have struggled to explain. But it is clear to anyone who has even a basic understanding of digestion and metabolism there is more to it than simple energy balance.
There are a number of hormones, enzymes and proteins that play a role in breaking down what we eat and distributing the vitamins, minerals and nutrients to various parts on the body.
The type of foods you eat, how much, your genetics, hormonal imbalances, insulin sensitivity and overall body composition all affect the way your body metabolizes food.
Two people could eat the same diet and do the same exact level of activity, and have very different results. It’s a very individualized process.
So what does that mean to the average person, and how is one supposed to figure out what will work for them?
What I advise clients is to focus on eating for optimal health. This means eating whole, fresh nutrient-dense foods as much as possible, drinking lots of water and avoiding high-fat, high-calorie fast-food and packaged and processed foods. I also believe sugar is something to be regulated in extreme moderation.
Tracking calories can be beneficial in a way, because it gives you a good idea of what and how you’re eating, but knowing how many calories you need is pretty much a guessing game. Even if you know your Resting Metabolic Rate, wear a Heart Rate monitor and do the math, you still need to account for things like activities of daily living, thermic effect of food, etc. which are impossible to measure outside of a lab.
Calories in versus calories out is a very simple idea that can be easily understood by the mass public. In truth, it’s not an very good guide and causes many people, especially women, to underestimate their calorie needs, which ends up causing their bodies to hold onto fat.
A more sustainable long-term solution is to try to eat healthy as much as possible, enjoy treats in moderation, and pay attention to how you look and feel after eating certain foods. Some people gain weight easily when they eat a higher carb diet, others metabolize those carbs quickly and well and won’t gain adipose tissue (body fat) from a higher intake.
Counting calories can drive you crazy. Listen to your body and think of food as fuel that keeps your body running at its best. The better the fuel, the better the function.
Whether you eat clean or adhere IIFYM, the important thing is a healthy relationship with food that allows you to live a balanced and fulfilling life.