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. There are varying degrees of clean eating, with the most strict only eating meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and fruit. Some people will only eat paleo foods, whereas some will eat vegan, gluten-free or sugar-free. Other ‘clean eaters’ eat packaged foods, provided all the ingredients listed are all ‘clean’.
- 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, which are toxic to the human body.
- 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 word 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 – you really need to analyse the ingredients list of what you’re eating. 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’ packaged foods will help you reach your goal – Clean eaters love their date based bars, fruit and nut bars bound with honey, clean muesli bars etc. but these foods are often high in sugar, 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.
- It restricts the food groups you can eat – Most people find it challenging to cut out all the junk food from their diet. Some can also become fixated on the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, which can lead to an unhealthy obsessive mindset. If you choose to eat clean, it’s okay to have a cheat meal each week where you indulge in ‘dirty’ foods and don’t feel guilty about it.
IIFYM allows you to eat anything, provided it fits within your daily macronutrient requirements, as pre-determined by a ‘macro-nutrient calculator’. Some people also track micronutrients and dietary fibre.
- There is freedom of food choice – You can literally eat anything (including a whole block of chocolate), as long as you don’t exceed or fall below your macros for the day.
- 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. Then you need to work out how much of those things is in everything you eat for that 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, every day will be focused around counting. It’s a time consuming process.
- It’s not necessarily healthy – Just because you can eat chocolate bars 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, which is not a good thing to have when you’re on a diet where you can technically eat anything. 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 because you already used up your macros is not healthy physically or mentally.
What works for me?
I personally prefer the clean eating approach. I care a lot about eating highly nutritious food and avoiding toxins in my lifestyle, especially in what I eat. Eating clean is an effective way to minimize exposure to toxins and maximize intake of vitamins and minerals. I love healthy food because it makes me feel more energized and happy. Junk food always makes me feel sick or groggy. I’m human and get cravings that I occasionally succumb to, but because eating clean makes me function so much better it motivates me to ignore my cravings and eat well. I like having foods I can and can’t eat, and having rules to adhere to. For me, that kind of structure is easier to follow than an IIFYM approach, where I would be tempted by the wide variety of foods I could eat and get slack on my meal prep. I also hate the idea of counting my food and working out my macros every day – I’ve always hated maths! I still have my cheat meal once a week, filled with ‘dirty’ foods. I do think that it’s important to have a cheat meal to keep you balanced, enjoy a meal out with friends, or just to keep you sane. We are all human and there is a lot of temptation, so it’s nice to be able to give in to them sometimes. But overall, I love eating healthy foods and clean eating works well for me.
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.