Somewhat of a worrying trend I’ve noticed recently with not only other athletes on social media, but also with myself is the sheer amount of emotion and identity placed on a certain method of eating or a way of dieting.
I’m certainly not the first to say this and I won’t be the last, but it’s akin to the extremist forms of religion! You’d honestly believe that people are ready to die for their dietary beliefs as they cling on for dear life during a gruelling battle of words on their favoured social media platform. You can see these mini-wars being waged all over the internet on an almost daily basis.
Am I absolved of any guilt? Ha, absolutely not – I’ve certainly had a heated discussion or three when my method of getting in the best shape of my life is attacked. It’s always something you are regretful about afterwards (at least I am) because most of us are all on the same team, just trying to take our fitness journeys along differing paths.
Whatever though, it is what it is..but one of the most disturbing things that being so emotionally tied to a diet is that it can turn what is meant to be a healthy hobby into something more unhealthy and sinister – An eating disorder.
One thing I want to make perfectly clear from the get-go is that I’m no expert on diagnosing a disorder, nor am I qualified to do so. This article isn’t meant to judge or anything of the sort – It’s a subject that doesn’t get much air time simply because it’s a difficult one to talk about so I am going to come from a place of personal experience and the evidence I’ve seen.
Let’s first, without going into too much detail about the individual diets, talk about the two types we are discussing in this article and what traits their followers typically have :
“Clean eating” means different things to different sets of people. There is no universal definition of “clean eating” and therefore it’s nigh on impossible to explain it accurately but here are some traits I’ve noticed that you may say belong to “clean eaters”. Of course, because there is no universal definition to this type of eating, a lot of the points below are stereotypical and may not apply to one and all :
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- Eat only “unprocessed” foods that are in their whole form
- Gluten/Dairy/Wheat/Sugar/Sweetener Free diets
- Belief that “bad” foods are damaging to their health and physique regardless of quantity. These foods can NOT in any form be included in most clean eaters diets.
- An exclusive and limited number of foods that they have deemed suitable to eat.
- “Clean Eaters” tend to be more worried about the micronutrient (vitamins/minerals) rather than the macronutrients of food.
- An unfounded notion that they are more “hardcore” or “sacrificing to win” because they are doing all that they can in order to attain their best physique. (I see these types of superiority complex for BOTH diet types)
- The tendency to think of “bad foods” as “cheating” on their diet. When they do eat these so-called bad foods, it tends to become a binge or an entire “cheat day” due to their extremely restrictive eating habits during the week.
IIFYM – If It Fits Your Macros
This famous acronym was created years ago on the Bodybuilding.com forums when, due to the sheer volume of posts that were asked in relation to “is it ok to eat xyz on a diet? Is it ok to eat *insert a food here* in my diet?”, somebody simply replied with the now famous one-liner, “If it fits your macro’s” – Which is actually the perfect short answer to a question as vague as that. Fast forward now and this poster has unexpectedly had this simple response attached to this calculated way of eating.
IIFYM, or the preferable term, “Flexible Dieting” is a lot more loose in terms of what you can fit into your diet – There are literally NO food restrictions as long as you hit your protein,carbs,fats, fiber, fruit and veg targets for the day. Some traits of IIFYM’ers are :
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- Track their macronutrients consistently each day
- No food restrictions
- Tend not to worry about the little OCD details such as nutrient timing, eating on the clock etc
- Misinterpreters of the diet can tend to try and cram as much “junk” into their diet as possible
- Can be cocky on social media, posting pictures of junk food as a means of how they got shredded. (Without painting the bigger picture of their day)
Both Ways of Eating Seem Innocent Enough – So, how do disorders form?
Well, there are pros and cons to both ways of eating, that much is for sure.
“Clean eaters” will usually eat more single ingredient whole foods which provide more satiety and foods that aren’t so calorie dense. This certainly can make it easier not to over consume on a calorie restricted diet if your goal is fat loss.
On the flip side, what IIFYM’ers correctly understand is that the most important thing for achieving body composition related goals are consistently tracking your macronutrients to ensure that they are optimal for your body and the goal that you want to achieve. So this group focuses on the things that matter most whilst knowing that filling up some of their macronutrient target with foods that they enjoy will not hamper their results if tracking is consistent and accurate.
The dark side of “clean eating” is where disorders can start to form – The tendency can be to restrict foods so much in the name of health, that they are ironically achieving the opposite due to having such little variety in their diet. I’ve seen extremes where foods all the way up to fruits are forbidden and the only foods allowed? Well, you can count them on one hand. This type of paranoia towards “dirty” food simply isn’t healthy – Both physically and psychologically. It’s not a sustainable way of eating in my opinion and achieving balance in your life. I’ve been there before..In fact, this type of disorder has been coined Orthorexia Nervosa – Obsession with healthy eating. (The term doesn’t mean “don’t be health conscious”, it simply means that when it becomes an unwarranted OBSESSION that leads to things like social isolation etc, it is then a problem)
The dark side of “IIFYM” is pretty much the opposite and can also lead to disorders – The tendency here by people who misinterpret the diet can be to try and cram as much junk food as possible into your macronutrient range which means you then potentially miss micronutrient and fiber targets. Also, being so meticulous about each and every thing you eat to the point that it can affect your relationships in life. Spending 2 hours on a supermarket trip that would normally last 15 minutes going through every food’s nutritional information with a fine tooth comb. Being held hostage by numbers every single day isn’t fun at all. I’ve been there too..
IIFYCEM – The Ultimate Fitness Eating Disorder
So, let’s not make any qualms about it – While the two sides of “clean eating” and IIFYM fight amongst each other, the two, in my humble opinion having experienced both methods of eating, can work. However, when both ways of eating are so badly misinterpreted? That’s what can breed unhealthy eating behaviours.
The trend I’ve noticed recently, though, and I’m sure this has been happening for way longer than I’ve noticed, is that people are combining the two ways of eating and giving birth to a whole new disorder.
I personally call it IIFYCEM disorder – the “If it Fits Your Clean Eating Macros” disorder.
It’s not something that I noticed until becoming more entrenched in the fitness industry by turning Pro with the WBFF earlier this year but it’s been catching my eye a lot recently, especially with competitive athletes.
It’s all “Eat Clean, Train Dirty” for months, sometimes years while they are in competition season..Timing their meals with a timer to ensure they eat every 2.5 hours on the dot (yes, I’ve seen this), eliminating everything apart from fish and vegetables from their diet (and yes, I’ve seen this) – You get the picture anyway.
It’s a very “Sacrifice to win” attitude (ironically they’re actually putting themselves at a DISADVANTAGE by doing this) but guess what else they’re doing as well as eating “Squeaky clean”? Yeah, you guessed it : They’re also tracking their macronutrient intake to the very last gram. A combination of “clean eating” and IIFYM. Though a “clean eater” would never ever admit that they follow IIFYM but the truth is that if you have a macronutrient target and track them? You are following IIFYM but just filling your macros with “clean food”. That’s the irony of the whole situation.
This is the fast-track train to disorder town, seriously, and I’ve been witnessing it a lot lately with my own eyes especially in the post-contest season.
Some athletes/people who have been dieting for 3,6,12 or even 24 months you can see are really struggling with the balance of life. Relationships with food, gym, family and friends starts to suffer because of the extremes that we’re putting ourselves through. Most of it is down to this IIFYCEM method of unsustainable eating! Is it really worth it?
What I’m also finding though, is that people are going from one extreme to the other in order to find the solution to their disorder – It’s the proverbial “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater” type of reactions :
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- I’m fed up of being ruled by numbers so I’m not tracking my food intake anymore
- Life is good! *Posts picture of epic binge at restaurant/bar*
- I’m taking a complete break from training/eating clean *Proceed to binge for a prolonged period of time undoing most of their hard work*
- My contest is done! Time to visit all my favourite restaurants!
- My stomach has stopped talking to me and telling me when to eat. I need to fix my body.
- Tracking is a fad..I’m just going to listen to my body.
These are just a fraction of the things I hear and see on social media from many competitors post competition.
The above reactions are also how I’ve reacted after certain shows and even as recently as after the World Championships, I didn’t handle myself as well as I could have post-competition.
So, What’s the Solution and How Can we Achieve Balance?
The truth? I don’t fully know – I’m working on this constantly myself and finding new ways too..but something that has made it easier for me personally is that I was never under a totally restrictive diet, even in the very depths of my contest prep.
Here are the factors that I think are important to achieving your goal but also the most likely things to cause a disorder. Under each factor is a proposed solution.
Length of time spent in a diet can really affect how you feel about food, especially if you’re a competitor in a contest prep diet. I was pretty much fine after 5 months of dieting to turn Pro with the WBFF. I reverse dieted perfectly and healthily in order not to put on excess fat but after 9 months of total dieting for my Pro debut at the World Championships?? Different story – I just wanted to throw my diet out of the window and stop tracking what I was eating. (Which you should do once in a while but in a measured way – That is one of my points further down)
At the same time, being consistent with your diet over time is also the way to achieve the results you want..so what do you do to stay consistent and live a fairly balanced lifestyle?
SOLUTION : Have a break from competition/dieting. Some people compete at almost every opportunity! This simply isn’t healthy for the body or mind especially if you want to make improvements to your physique as a natural athlete. My coach and I discussed our options after the World Championships and logically decided it best to take a year out from competition. I was sad, but guess what? I haven’t had a proper off-season for 2 years since I’ve been competing from 2012 onwards. Now I can finally make some great progression in my physique as well as not be contest-strict about my diet which will be good for me psychologically too.
Your hormones will need time to reset and return to baseline after a competition or an extreme diet so don’t stay in the competition or “I need to stay super lean all year round” mindset – Some may find it easier than others due to genetics but it’s about being realistic with your own body type. For example, my midsection at 12% bodyfat looks very different to somebody else midsection with the same bodyfat levels because my fat distribution is very “stomach” dominant. However, I guarantee my legs will stay shredded longer than most. Understand this and don’t compare yourself to others. Take TIME out with your friends and family too. Relationships are more important and aren’t worth straining just to look a certain unrealistic way all year-round.
Tracking your food intake, calories and macronutrients is the number one way to influence changes in your body composition (gaining muscle/burning fat) – The problem that some people end up with is that they track so meticulously that it can become a disorder. I don’t know what this disorder would be labelled exactly but put it this way..it’s not fun to have your life ruled by numbers.
An extreme solution that some competitors take is that they turn their back on tracking completely, saying that they’re tired of it or that their body has stopped “talking” to them (more on that later).
It’s a catch 22, though..If tracking is the best way to control and influence progression towards your aesthetic goals, then throwing the baby out with the bathwater and refusing to track altogether is not the greatest idea I’ve ever heard.
I hear these athletes saying that they will now “Listen to their body” in order to determine what it needs and when it needs it. Well..here’s the conflict with that approach :
Your goal of burning fat/getting stronger/bigger is in DIRECT CONFLICT with what your body wants to do!
Let me break it down :- If you “listen to your body” then your body will ALWAYS keep you as you are – Why? Because your bodies goal is to achieve homeostasis i.e Not get too lean and not get any bigger/stronger than you have to!
So “listening to your body” and using it as a guideline as to when you have to eat is probably the worst thing to do if you have aspirations of progressing from where you are now, whether that goal is fat loss or getting bigger. The body has ways of trying to regulate what you are trying to do.
FAT LOSS :- To stop fat loss, the body will trigger your hunger response by increasing your levels of the hormone Ghrelin. Why do you think you get so hungry when you’re losing more and more fat? Well, you won’t be surprised to find out that Ghrelin is a hormone responsible for the feeling of hunger. It’s certainly not just because you’re eating slightly less food – That’s your body trying to get you to eat because it’s at an uncomfortable bodyfat level. If you “listened to your body” here, you’d simply eat more and put on bodyfat again.
MUSCLE GAIN :- One of the many mechanisms used by the body to stop too much muscle/weight gain is a decrease of the hormone Ghrelin. This will do the opposite of the above example for fat loss – This time, our appetite will be suppressed which isn’t ideal when we need to be in a calorie surplus!
These examples are, of course, over simplifying things but I hope that demonstrates that “listening to your body” is the worst thing you can do in terms of hunger signals etc because your goal is in direct conflict with your bodies wants! To get results, you’re battling against your body.
I’m feeling this at the moment. My appetite isn’t as great as it was during contest prep. During contest prep I could have easily put away 3000+ calories. Now, I feel very content getting approximately 2800 calories in. If I listen to my bodies hunger signals here, I’ll simply remain the same in homeostasis just as the body wants. If I want to progress? I need to do the opposite of listen to my body!
SOLUTION :- So tracking is a pain? Sure, I get that but as you’ve hopefully understood, it’s also the best way to consistently get results! So what to do?
Well, I would loosen the reigns a little, especially if you’re a competitor transitioning into an off season or just the average Joe wanting to get in shape. Give yourself calorie or macronutrient ranges instead of absolutes.
For example if you go over/under your carb target by 25 grams either side? Shit happens. It’s your off season so relax a little more. Chances are that these little mishaps will not make a real world difference anyway if you’re in that ball park.
If you are adamant that you don’t want to track – Well, then you should at least understand what your calorie/macronutrient requirements are for your body and goal. Then you can split that into however many meals that you regularly like to eat on a daily basis and stick to that schedule with similar portion sizes of food. It’s not going to be the most accurate way but as long as you’re consistent with portions, it should yield results while keeping you happy.
You are probably aware by now of the importance of nutrition in achieving your fat loss and/or muscle building goals. The problems can arise when we are on such a strict diet for such a long time. This is why bodybuilders/physique competitors can struggle with eating habits the most. It can become an obsession and even a source of paranoia. i.e. One pop tart is going to cannibalise my muscle gains, make me put on weight and give me cancer. (If you think this is extreme, I’ve heard far worse!)
SOLUTION :- Be flexible with your diet! In the context of a good diet, one pop tart or ANY food for that matter will not damage your health OR your journey for aesthetics. Science has proven this over and over.
Once in a while, also take a complete break from dieting altogether – Not only is this good for you psychologically, it’s likely to have some benefit too in terms of resetting hormones to more optimal levels for your goal – The concept of a complete diet break for 10-14 days is discussed by Lyle Mcdonald HERE. It’s an extremely interesting article because it looks at a study where people who were instructed to take a complete break from their diets DIDN’T regain the weight that they had lost and were also able to jump back on their diets with no ill psychological effect.
WAY healthier for the mind and body than “clean eating” and tracking 365 days a year. Doing this every so often means that you don’t have to push yourself into insane, year-round dietary commitments and borderline obsessive dieting habits – As is the topic of this article, not taking a break of any kind from dieting often pushes people into a knee-jerk reaction, dropping their diet altogether and/or developing a disorder. This break allows you to relax and still achieve your physique goals.
Are you realistic with yourself and at what bodyfat level your OWN body is healthy and functional? Let’s keep it real – being competition shredded looks amazing but isn’t optimal for the body to run at all year round..and if you’ve truly dug in to the very last depths of your fat stores, you’ll understand what I’m talking about – It doesn’t actually feel very nice walking around so lean. You’re lethargic, unproductive and have no desire for much amongst other things.
Some people try to hold on to contest bodyfat levels and that simply isn’t healthy for both the mind and body. This is a big reason why disorders happen in my opinion. Social media doesn’t help with this when you are constantly seeing pictures of people who look shredded all year round and only post good pictures of themselves lean. This industry can be just as bad as Hollywood or TV at giving people body image probelms.
SOLUTION :- Be totally honest with yourself. Forget other people. We’re all different and our body works in different ways. The perfect example of this is I know somebody shorter in stature than me who put on 20lbs within days of his contest where as I have only put on 15lbs after 3 months of my contest date. He still has abs where as mine are long gone – But I still have shredded legs, delts and arms.
My point being that individual body types will distribute fat differently and some bodies will have a higher bodyfat set point than others. (A bodyfat level that the body is comfortable operating at) – My body stores fat quite well around my abs and lower back. If I had to stay super lean year-round with abs, I’d feel like crap because I’d need to get so low in bodyfat. It used to get to me when I saw these magazine models but now I’m totally comfortable with the fact that my body is different and constant photoshoots are not one of my aspirations now. I prefer to feel healthy and make progress with my physique so I will stay lean but to the point where my body is happy functioning. You should do the same.
I hope that this post has given you some tips on how to try and achieve some kind of balance in your life while still progressing towards your goals. The truth is that I am still trying out these techniques myself and mastering them – I could well discover new ways to healthily balance this lifestyle and if that happens, I’ll certainly come back and update this post.
My aim with this post was to also hopefully make you come to the realisation that “health” is NOT just physiological. All I ever hear from people in this industry is “Health first!” but all they are referring to is physiological health when true health must also include psychological health.
Please LIKE/SHARE/COMMENT on this article because I’d love to hear your experiences and what you did in order to overcome any disorders or near-disorderly eating behaviours.