What if you could start your day with a pastry, eat a slice of pizza around lunchtime, finish your day off with a burger and still lose weight? Well, some people may actually be able to do that but... is it wise?
The If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) approach to macronutrient (macro) tracking gives you the freedom to eat pretty much whatever you want, so long as you stay within your daily macros. But just because you're given free rein in the kitchen, that doesn't necessarily mean you should go ham (pun intended).
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What Is IIFYM?
IIFYM is a variation of macro tracking that is sometimes thought of as an unhealthy eating style. And in some cases, it certainly can be. Stereotypically, IIFYM involves meeting your daily macro goals in any way, shape or form. In other words, if a food fits your macros, it's safe to include in your diet.
Because macro tracking doesn't specify which foods you can and can't eat, it's on you to craft your day-to-day meal plan. Technically, highly processed foods like candy bars or chips can fit your macros (all foods contain one or more of the three macros) and still result in weight loss, so long as you are in a caloric deficit (when you burn more calories than you take in).
But that's where tracking can become unhealthy.
Because your goal is to meet a daily carb, fat and protein count, it becomes easy to disregard or forget about micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) with IIFYM, explains dietitian Leah Forristall, RD.
Eating whole food-based meals with plenty of vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins is still crucial — the usual rules of healthy eating should still apply with IIFYM.
How to Follow IIFYM the Healthy Way
If you want to follow IIFYM the healthy way, don't take advantage of the free-for-all diet. Macro tracking in general can actually be a great learning opportunity.
"IIFYM can be a healthy and liberating diet for people who are focused on nourishing themselves as a whole, not just making numbers fit," says dietitian Alesa Latour, RD.
The easiest way to craft a healthy IIFYM regimen is to prioritize nutritious, whole foods in your daily meal plan. So, whether you're tracking using an app or food diary, make sure you get the majority of your macros from veggies and fruits, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. This ensures you're getting all the micronutrients your body needs.
The beauty of macro tracking or IIFYM eating is its flexibility (that's why it's also known as flexible dieting). While you should base a majority of your intake on nutritious food sources, you can make sweets and treats each day, too, Forristall says. "Have a treat, but remember to eat foods like vegetables as well!"
How to Track Your Macros
Macro tracking isn't exactly a diet but rather an eating strategy. This technique involves tracking both calories and macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat) to meet your activity, weight or lifestyle goals, says dietitian Shena Jaramillo, RD.
Every macronutrient has its own calorie count:
- Carbs: 4 calories per gram
- Protein: 4 calories per gram
- Fats: 9 calories per gram
- Alcohol: 7 calories per gram
When you track your macros, you adjust the number of carbs, protein and fat to meet a certain calorie total each day. And the ratios you choose depend on your activities or preferences, Jaramillo says.
If you're a very active person, you'll probably prefer more of your calories come from carbs. On the other hand, some feel more satiated by devoting more of their macros to protein or healthy fats. If you're an athlete or just generally looking to build muscle, macro tracking can help you tweak your daily diet to find which macro ratios work best for your body and promote the best performance.
Getting started is the hardest part if you're doing this by yourself. Here's what you need to do:
1. Estimate your calories. There are plenty of apps you can download for a quick estimate of how many calories you should be eating in a day based on your height and weight — it does all the math for you.
2. Figure out your macros. Each macronutrient should comprise a percentage of your calories. This is where you "move around" your macros, or diet personalization, if you will. If you're doing this in the MyPlate app, you can choose your own percentages, but use these ranges as a guide:
- Carbohydrates: 45 to 65 percent of your calories
- Protein: 10 to 30 percent of your calories
- Fat: 20 to 35 percent of your calories
3. Start tracking. Use an app to enter your foods and help you track or keep a journal of this information.
A Real-Life IIFYM Example
Susie is a 31-year-old working mom. She is 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 160 pounds. Her job requires her to be moving a few hours of the day but she also has periods where she sits at a desk for hours. She works out about three times a week but is also active with her kids at home. She considers herself moderately active on most days of the week. She'd like to lose 5 pounds in a sustainable way.
Susie's macros should reflect her goals of steady weight loss, which means she needs to preserve muscle mass (protein), but also have enough energy for work and for her kids (carbs) while maintaining hormone balance (dietary fats).
Susie's calories should be right at 2,000 each day, and her macronutrient intake should be tailored to keep her fueled, support her goals and maintain her muscle mass.
Percentage of Calories
Grams of Macro/Day
2,000 calories x .50 = 1,000 calories/4 cal/g = 250 g
250 g carbs
2,000 calories x .25 = 500 calories/9 cal/g = 56 g
56 g fat
2,000 calories x .25 = 500 calories/4 cal/g = 125 g
125 g protein
A Sample Meal Plan
Sticking with Susie's numbers, she has to reach about 250 grams of carbs, 56 grams of fat and 125 grams of protein and clock in around 2,000 calories each day.
Remember, macros are a guide — don't obsess about hitting your exact numbers. Look for progress with your diet, not perfection.
- Breakfast: 60 g carbs, 15 g fat, 25 g protein
- Snack: 35 g carbs, 10 g fat, 20 g protein
- Lunch: 60 g carbs, 10 g fat, 30 g protein
- Snack: 35 g carbs, 5 g fat, 10 g protein
- Dinner: 50 g carbs, 16 g fat, 40 g protein
- Snack: 10 g carbs
A One-Day Meal Plan
2 eggs + 1 English muffin + 1T jam + 1 cup strawberries + 1 cup 2% milk
2% Greek yogurt + 1 apple
Salad with 2 cups greens + 3 oz. tuna + 1 cup cherry tomatoes + 2T vinaigrette. One banana + 1 bottle kombucha
1 cup carrots + 1/4 cup hummus + 1 cup raspberries
4 oz. roast chicken + 1 cup cooked broccoli + 1T olive oil + 1/2 cup cooked quinoa + 1 glass red wine
2 cups air-popped popcorn
Foods to Focus On
You may think you've hit the diet freedom jackpot, but make no mistake — IIFYM is still considered dieting. Because it's not a free-for-all, and you still have health goals in mind, here's what you should be focusing on to come close to your numbers.
- Lean meat: chicken, beef, pork
- Seafood: tuna, salmon, halibut, tilapia, shrimp
- Dairy or non-dairy milk: cow's milk and soy milk have the most protein
- Beans: black, pinto, white, kidney
- Nuts and seeds
- Fruits: melons, citrus, apples, avocado, berries, bananas, grapes
- Non-starchy vegetables: greens, cucumbers, mushrooms, peppers, cauliflower, asparagus, tomatoes
- Starchy vegetables: peas, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes
- Dairy: milk and yogurts
- Whole grains: breads, cereals, pasta, oatmeal, popcorn, crackers
- Oils: canola, olive, avocado, grapeseed
- Nut butters
It's still important to focus on the quality of your diet, keeping in mind that all foods fit in the IIFYM diet.
Foods to Limit
One of the biggest benefits of the IIFYM diet is the ability to have the freedom to eat the foods you love — there is little formal restriction. The foods you should eat in moderation and keep to a minimum in your diet are pretty consistent across all balanced eating patterns.
- Processed meat: hot dogs, deli meat, canned meat
- Foods high in added sugar: candy, syrups, baked goods
- Sugar-sweetened beverages: sodas, coffee drinks, teas, fruit juice cocktails, punch
Pros and Cons of IIFYM
- Removes trial and error and ensures you eat a specific amount of each macro each day
- Builds awareness of portion control
- Provides flexibility
- No foods are off-limits
- Keeping track of daily meals can be challenging
- Sustainability may be an issue
- Requires a fair amount of planning
- Potential for risk of disordered eating
Should You Try IIFYM?
Following an IIFYM eating pattern can help you learn more about calories and how different nutrients play into your daily calorie count, Jaramillo says. IIFYM can also remove some of the trial and error that comes with many diet plans.
"The biggest win with IIFYM is that participants of the plan are tracking their food and building awareness," Jaramillo says. "IIFYM can also help to increase variety in foods, as some individuals can get in a vicious cycle of snacking mostly on one macro choice for convenience or out of habit."
As it's a personalized method, macro tracking can work with just about everybody. But it may not necessarily fit everyone's lifestyle. Success with this strategy requires commitment, planning, preparation and, in some cases, close measurement of the food you're eating.
"IIFYM also makes it challenging to eat intuitively as we are constantly looking at how these numbers fit into our macro plan," Jaramillo says. "This may make it difficult to achieve long-term success with the plan."
At the end of the day, your success with flexible dieting is entirely personal. While some people love the structure and versatility of the strategy, others may not have the time or resources IIFYM demands. It's all about finding what works for your lifestyle.