Why You Need a Junk Food Budget

“You’re eating that junk again? Don’t you know that stuff’s bad for you?”
I looked up, smiled at her, then went on eating my tub of cookie dough ice cream.
Annoyed, she persisted –
“You’re a trainer, you shouldn’t be eating that, it sets such a bad example. Anyway, it’s not fair, you obviously have a fast metabolism – if I ate that I’d get fat.”


I’ve had conversations and heard accusations like this so much over the years, it’s water off a duck’s back, but it’s still something I find funny.

Despite the industry’s rapid evolution in recent years, and our developing knowledge of calories and macronutrients, there are still those who can’t wrap their heads around the fact that one “bad” meal or “bad” food doesn’t make for a bad or unhealthy diet.

The Concept of IIFYM

IIFYM stands for “If It Fits Your Macros” and is gaining popularity in the fitness, bodybuilding, and nutrition world.

The concept is that you can eat any food you want, provided you hit your desired amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat each day.

Within this system, those who follow IIFYM properly will also aim to consume a minimum amount of fiber, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats each day, thus leading to an overall balanced diet.

More commonly, this approach of hitting macros while ensuring that your diet is balanced is referred to as flexible dieting.

Unlike strict guideline diets such as Paleo or Atkins, flexible dieting doesn’t impose any rules on food choices, and has no banned or restricted foods.

This means that while all those flexible dieters who employ the methods successfully do eat mainly clean foods, most will also include smaller amount of what you might deem “junk food”.

That could mean a few cookies before bed, a bag of pretzels as a snack, or a big bowl of kids cereal post workout.

Does this do them any harm?

Absolutely not.

In fact, it probably makes your diet MORE EFFECTIVE

How Being Less Strict Improves Your Diet

As a race, humans are terrible at sticking to diets.

How many people do you know who’ve tried to lose weight, maybe dropping a few pounds, moving down a dress size or two, only to pile it all back on? I’d guess it’s quite a few.

This isn’t a case of the diet not working – it’s a simple matter of the person not sticking to it.

It doesn’t matter what diet a person follows – The Zone, the cabbage soup diet, low-carb, a juice diet – all of them “work” in the sense that they create a calorie deficit, which results in weight loss.

Where the diets fail, however, is adherence.

By being so strict and imposing rules on what you can and can’t eat, it means that no one, no matter how great their willpower, can stick to them 100% for the rest of their life.

And the result when said person stops following the diet?

Weight regain.

The solution is to find a way to eat that you CAN stick to indefinitely. To quote Eric Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health –

“There’s no perfect diet. Adherence to the diet one selects rules the day,” (1)

And that’s where IIFYM comes in.

Building Your Calorie Budget

Because IIFYM revolves around numbers (ie. grams of protein, carbs, and fat, as well as total calories) you can fit any food into your diet without breaking the rules.

Therefore, if you do want a burger and fries, a milkshake, or a PB & J sandwich on white bread, you can totally have it, provided you stick within your macros.

To many, that makes it sound like IIFYM-ers go completely out of their way to eat junk, spending all day living off sugar and trans fats, but this is not the case in the slightest.

See, your calorie intake is much like a budget. Here’s an analogy I like –

We’ve got two people – one is the CEO of a high-performing Wall Street company, the other works in KFC.

The main difference between the two (leaving aside the fact one goes to work in a suit while the other occasionally has to don a chicken costume) – the salary.

Despite the huge difference in the amount of money these two guys make, both could probably afford a vacation in the Bahamas once a year.

The Wall Street VP though, he doesn’t have to think twice about this – the several thousands of dollars the holiday costs is probably small change to him. He’ll go for all the added extras on top too, paying for upgrades and not even thinking about money the whole trip.

The fast food worker?

He’ll have to scrimp and save every single week of the year to get the cash together to go on the same vacation. That means no meals out, no trips, no shopping sprees – aside from work, he won’t be able to do much for the other 51 weeks of the year.

We can use the same theory when it comes to calories and dieting.

Think of the Bahamas jaunt as a junk food. Sticking with the IIFYM theme, let’s take the poster-child of IIFYM – the Pop Tart.

A pack of Pop Tarts has around 75 grams of carbohydrate.

That’s 75 grams of nutrient-deficient, sugary carbohydrate too.

Now let’s look at two dieters –

One is the equivalent of our Wall Street VP. He’s been training a decade, has a high degree of muscle mass, has worked hard to bring his metabolism up, and can cut fat while eating 400 grams of carbs per day.

Our KFC worker here has transformed into a lightweight female dieter. Perhaps not training too long, and without much muscle mass at the moment, this poor girl has to cut her carbs to 120 grams per day to lose weight.

Just like the first analogy, both these dieters COULD fit a pack of Pop Tarts into their diet, but what would the difference be?

Our guy on 400 grams of carbs could easily eat the Pop Tarts. He’d still have 325 grams of carbs left over for the day. That’s enough to get plenty of fruits and veggies, a load of fiber, some whole-grains – hell, he probably needs the sugary carbs from the Pop Tarts, otherwise he’d get bloated from eating so much clean food.

Our girl on 120 grams of carbs?

She could just about get Pop Tarts into her diet, but would she want to? It would leave her with only 45 remaining grams of carbs for the day. She’d be unlikely to feel full, and would be missing out massively on other healthier, more satiating foods.

Fitting these into her day would mean eating virtually nothing but chicken breast and spinach the rest of the day.

Determining Your Budget

It’s virtually impossible to set an exact calorie number as the holy grail to use for junk food.

As you can see in the above example, while 400 calories of junk can seem like virtually nothing to some “macronators” on high calories, those on “poverty macros” wouldn’t even want that many discretionary calories to play with. It would make managing the rest of their nutrition so much more difficult.

The solution?

A percentage.

By setting your number of junk calories by a percentage of total caloric intake rather than a set number, you make it much more personal to you.

So what’s the magic number?


I’m a big fan of the 80:20 ratio.

To me, someone eating 80% of their calories from nutrient-dense, minimally-processed whole foods is on the right track.

80% of 2,000 calories is 1,600. You can do a lot of good stuff with that 1,600 calories. Most people can more than meet their protein requirements, hit a decent amount of healthy fat and fiber, and get their fruits and veggies in on that.

Then we have those who might be on 3,000 calories – now you’ve got a whopping 2,400 calories per day of “good stuff.”

Getting 20% of your calories from nutrient-deficient food certainly isn’t overkill, but it’s enough to ensure you can satisfy cravings. Even for someone only eating 1,500 calories per day, 300 calories (20%) from crap could be one of –

–          A 6” subway club

–          A tall caramel Frappuccino with whipped cream

–          4 Oreos

–          2 cups of Reese’s Puffs

–          Medium fries from McDonalds

–          1 ½ cups Edy’s slow churned coffee flavour

Not bad for a “diet”


A ratio of 90% “clean” 10% “junk” does work better for certain folks.

I’ve found this creates better results for clients who have come to me after following restrictive, low-calorie, or rules-based diets for a long time. They do better with less junk food.

This is from both a physiological and psychological standpoint.

They can feel a little bloated and lethargic after eating higher amounts of sugar, so cutting their budget to 10% works well.

(Note: You might wonder why anyone would want to eat junk if it makes them feel bad after clean eating for so long. By being so restrictive with their diets, these guys and girls do stick to clean food most of the time. The trouble is this, they have denied themselves for so long that when they’re “off” their diet, they’re really off! We’re talking massive binges and creating a disordered relationship with food. This is why I like to reintroduce their favourite cheat foods in moderation.)

They’re also reluctant to eat too much junk after following years of dieting dogma. 20% can be overwhelming, so 10% works better.

90:10 also works best for those doing more of an extreme fat loss diet – think a protein sparing modified fast, such as Rapid Fat Loss.

There’s no way you can hit the macros of such a diet eating more than 10% junk. In fact, this would almost be a zero junk diet!


This is, by far, the best ratio for hardgainers.

Hardgainers aren’t really genetically inferior to anyone else – they simply have higher metabolic rates and struggle to eat enough. Therefore, junk food is a lifesaver.

My first piece of advice to a hardgainer client struggling to gain mass?

Drink chocolate milk post-workout.

It’s hardly your uber-scientific whey hydrolysate and waxy maize combo, but in terms of easy calories, chocolate milk rules.

A typical hardgainer just cannot get in enough calories eating clean. They absolutely do need fruits and veggies, along side good quality protein and fiber (hence the 70% clean foods). These foods simply do not have enough calories, so any less than 30% junk, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to stomach enough food to grow.

The aforementioned chocolate milk, along with candy, ice cream and chips are fantastic for hardgainers.

I also like this approach for athletes, particularly those who are carb loading.

Have you ever tried to eat 700 grams of carbs from brown rice, sweet potatoes and oats?

Me neither, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Add some sugary cereals, fruit juice, the odd soda and some gelato into the mix however, and you’ve got one happy, not too bloated, carbed up athlete ready to go and kick ass.

The Importance of Budgeting

By not budgeting, you’re setting yourself up for failure in two ways –

  1.      You buy into the clean eating mind-set, and tell yourself you’ll eat no junk whatsoever.

Good luck following through with that.

With a zero junk budget, you will eventually cave and eat some junk, and when you do, it’ll be virtually impossible to stop. Say hello to binge eating.

  1.      If you give yourself too high of a budget, and focus purely on hitting macros, you’re screwing with the whole concept of IIFYM and flexible dieting.

By the letter of the law, you are hitting macros, but by not bothering with fiber and micronutrients, you’re really not going to feel too great.

So, what defines “clean” and “junk”?

I don’t particularly like these terms, but for argument’s sake, we’ll say –

Clean Food

–          Single/ minimal ingredients

–          Grown in the ground, or from the land, air or sea

–          Your grandma would know what it is

–          Relatively unprocessed

Junk Food

–          Has LOTS of ingredients

–          Has been highly processed

–          Man-made, or a natural food that’s been messed around with

–          Contains ingredients you don’t understand

The terms “junk” and “clean” are pretty ambiguous, and people will argue the semantics, but overall, everyone knows what a “healthy” food is.

As much as I preach IIFYM and flexible dieting, I do believe in eating mainly clean, while employing a junk food budget. That budget depends on your diet as a whole, your relationship with food, and your goals, so make sure it suits you.

And don’t be the KFC worker taking vacations in the Bahamas.

About the Author

junk food budgetMike Samuels is an online coach and personal trainer based in the UK, specialising in fat loss and strength performance. As a competitive powerlifter and former fat boy, Mike knows what it takes to get lean while gaining


The best diet? One you can follow. (n.d.). Retrieved July 29, 2014, from http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/nutrition-obesity-hot-topics-diet-rimm/