The latest fitness fad may be called flexible dieting, but it’s extremely rigid.
The downfall of all diets is the food they force you to avoid. Sooner or later, carb-cutters will crave cakes, the fat-avoiders will be unable to resist the cheese board and fasters will just feel too hungry to carry on. Which is why “flexible dieting” is such an attractive proposition. It promises weight loss and tight abs with no restrictions on the foods you eat. Pretty much anything goes — from pasta and potatoes to cookies and ice cream — as long as it doesn’t exceed your daily requirement for macronutrients (that’s fat, protein and sugar).
Flexible dieting has millions of advocates on social media. Among models, athletes, the #fitfam and #strongnotskinny brigade, the hashtag #IIFYM (if it fits your macros) — coined by bodybuilders who first used the method — has been used more than five million times.
Joe Wicks, the diet darling of the moment, whose Instagram account @thebodycoach has 1.2 million followers, is among those to use elements of macro-counting in his food plans. “What matters is balancing your macronutrients and eating the right thing at the right time,” he says.
What constitutes “the right thing” is a moot point. If “clean eating”, that other popular diet fad, obsesses over the quality of food, flexible dieting blatantly ignores it. Twitter and Instagram abound with images of newly hardened stomachs accompanied by claims they’ve been achieved via means that would once have been considered nutritionally dubious.
“Ate 2 donuts last night and woke up to a new weight this morning,” tweeted @t_bush_, a glamorous-looking blonde from Michigan. “I ate 10 biscottis today,” claimed @elle_bfitbody, pictured baring her hard-worked abs, last week.
Really, who could fail to be lured into such nutritional nirvana? If you want to get your macros in kilter, there is no end of apps and online trackers, essentially offering the same service: to track your food intake and steer you towards that balance with fat shredding in mind.
It sounds irresistibly straightforward and yet the reality, I discover, is somewhat more mundane. I plumped for the website IIFYM.com, which asked for my height, weight, age, activity levels and exercise habits before spewing out data that included my basal metabolic rate and my total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) of 2,023 calories a day. From a range of outcomes, I opted for fat loss (who wouldn’t?) and was provided with yet more figures, a 15-20 per cent reduction of my TDEE (1,720 calories) which would be my daily limit and my macronutrient targets: 96g of protein, 42g of fat and 214g of carbs.
Keeping up? I know, and it doesn’t end there. The next step is to download a macro-tracker (I used a free one, Fitocracy Macros, that seemed as good as any) and to begin weighing and recording every morsel, every drop you consume, so as not to veer more than 3g away from your daily target.
I’ve been tracking my macros for a year but it has become a stress
There was a novelty factor to it in the first few days. I remembered to record everything. Then I got busy with work, became less attentive towards it and occasionally found that I’d reached one of my macro upper limits before mid-afternoon. It gradually became a drag, and being able to eat anything became a source of stress in itself.
There’s almost too much choice. And the idea that you can eat anything is a smokescreen as you become fixated with a food’s constituents instead.
I found the macro-limits constricting. I was constantly cross-referencing the vast library of flexible dieting data on the internet to find out the nutritional content of various foodstuffs, from the protein in a sweet potato (2g, to save you the bother), to the fat in small handful of walnuts (18g). As @jadestabler wrote on Twitter last week: “Do you know the struggle of eating 1/8th of a cookie just because that’s all you have left to hit your macros?”
I suspect this is why the internet is rife with questions, and why #IIFYM evolved as a hashtag in answering them. I can see how it might work if you were fully committed to it. There is evidence that keeping track of what you eat does help you to lose weight, although this holds true for food diaries in general and for calorie counting as much as it might for macro-totting.
For example, when overweight people were asked to follow a healthy diet and write down their food intake for a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, they dropped 13lb on average in six months. Yet the most powerful predictor for weight loss was how many days per week they kept their food diary — those who jotted everything down daily lost about twice as much as those who forgot several times a week. And while it’s not evidence-based, body builders have manipulated their macros for years to get lean. However, they do this in conjunction with tailored exercise, and advocates stress that it’s not just macro ratios you need to look at, but when you eat them and how you combine them with different workouts.
“Protein intake is important for muscle growth, recovery and satiety,” says Wicks. “But on a hard training day, you need a greater ratio of carbs, and less fat, to fuel your efforts. On a rest day you should drop the level of carbs and slightly increase the level of healthy fats.”
Your basic tracker won’t tell you any of this. It might ask, as mine did, whether you are on a training or rest day each morning and tweak your macro-goals accordingly, but unless you subscribe to a bespoke package, such as Wicks’s 90-day Shift, Shape & Sustain plan, you are left to muddle along.
“For it to work, your diet should change in relation to what, if any, training you’re doing but most macro counters don’t allow for this, and certainly won’t account for variation that can occur through a person’s food intake, muscle mass, fitness level and age,” says Russell Best, a nutrition researcher at Teesside University. “They simply see you’ve logged activity and lump a few hundred more calories on to your daily allowance.”
It’s not just macro ratios you need to look at, but when you eat them and how you combine them with different workouts
Is it worth the effort? Best says that, “if done correctly, manipulating your fuel at a certain point in a training phase can deliver someone to the leanest possible condition” in the short term. There’s also a risk that people see it as permission to eat junk food. In the US, there’s a trend for #IIFYM hashtaggers to boast that they can eat Doritos and Twinkies (a frighteningly processed sponge cake with creamy filling). “It can create enormous freedom within the diet for some,” Best says. “But the flipside is people believe they can eat rubbish and as long as ‘it fits my macros’ they’re still going to get to where they want to be.”
There is a more sinister side to it. By its nature — the spreadsheets, the data and tracking — it appeals to those who like extreme control over their food intake and, as such, can quickly develop into an unhealthy obsession. One “macroadvocate” described last week why she had quit the regimen: “I’ve been tracking my macros for over a year now (most of when I was dieting) but it has become a stress in my life causing me to become unhappy if I go over my calories or if a certain meal doesn’t meet my required macronutrient intake.”
An unusually high proportion of flexible dieters proudly proclaim on social media that they are using it to recover from eating disorders, the reverse-dieting approach appealing because it allows them to reintroduce macros supposedly in a controlled way. It’s a recipe for disaster. “With eating disorders, there’s an acute focus on what’s put in the body,” says Alana MacDonald, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association. “Someone recovering from one might get fixated on the detailed meal planning this kind of approach advocates, which is not at all what they need.”
For the majority of us who just want to shed a few fat-pounds, it’s unlikely to be something we could stick at long-term. “I would say it’s more detrimental than beneficial in terms of mental health,” says MacDonald. “With so much focus on what’s in your food, you start to resent it. Eating and shopping for food become a chore and it all backfires.”
My trial was, admittedly, short (six days), but by the end I was fired up with frustration. And my weight hadn’t shifted. For all the promise of freedom from dietary shackles, macro-counting was as much of a bind as any other weight-loss plan.
“I wouldn’t like to think anyone lived on this kind of diet, but people do and some become incredibly skilled at counting macros,” says Best. “It is taxing, time consuming and often restrictive in its own way. And when does the counting stop?”