diet problem

Your Diet Isn’t The Problem – You Are: How Human Nature Causes Smart Nutrition to Fail

“It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle.”
Is it, though? I rarely hear this statement coupled with practices that don’t look and feel like a diet.


Let’s scrap all of the differences between very restrictive diet plans and those that give us looser guidelines for a moment. Despite there being enormous differences between sketchy, quick-fix diets like “the cabbage diet” (a staple of the 1980s) and doctor-approved, habits-based ideologies, something happens as every single approach becomes popular. We happen to it. The human component has always been the biggest challenge of diets. For argument’s sake, let’s first agree that we’ll call a diet any manner of eating that implies conscious choice about what we put into our mouths. There’s likely a desired result implied in our practice as well. We may be mitigating risk for certain diseases like heart disease or diabetes. We may be dieting to lose or gain weight. For athletes, dieting is a means of maximizing performance. So there. We get what dieting is. Now on to how we screw it up.

Dry Chicken of Sadness and Bodybuilding Forums

Bodybuilders train and eat to maximize their physiques.

If you want to learn about how to get insanely lean, go find a jacked-to-hell-and-back bodybuilder. These guys (or ladies) will be able to rattle off about a dozen things to do.

diet problem

For years, bodybuilders getting ready for a show would eat “clean”. Is there magic to the “clean” diet? Image courtesy of Healthy and Stylish.

Are all of them healthy or necessary for aesthetic goals? No, but that’s not the point. They know how to lose fat. The trouble is, many of them are misguided about what exactly about their eating habits brought them success. For years, bodybuilders getting ready for a show would eat “clean”. Now don’t get your panties in knots, I know there’s no such thing as “clean” eating. But we all know what they mean by it: eating only whole foods with little processing. Is there magic to the “clean” diet? The knee-jerk reaction for most of the evidence-based nutrition community would be a resounding no. But still, most will point out that eating mostly minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods makes it a hell of a lot easier. Here’s why: competitors leaning out for shows need to cut calories. Eating “clean” typically reduces calorie intake by eliminating the delicious calorie bombs that people tend to overeat. However, somewhere along the way (probably with the sort of calorie-deprived delirium that provokes fantasies about cheeseburgers and giant cinnamon rolls), people began to ask if it was necessary.

Enter the Internet

The Internet’s ability to bring large groups of people together for discussion has indelibly transformed our society.

We can now instantly access unbelievable amounts of information, as well as connect with others who share our interests. The stage was set (pun intended) for bodybuilders to utilize these platforms. And in doing so, they began to change the mindset of how the community approached nutrition.


Alan Aragon, my favorite bro-genius of nutrition, also knows a good bit about the friction between traditional bodybuilding meal plans and emergent approaches.

Legend has it that Aragon encountered bodybuilders asking him if it was okay to eat various foods during their competition prep. He is said to have answered “yes, if it fits your macros”. Meaning, sure – if you can still meet your overall nutrition goals, eat the freaking food.

I asked Aragon to confirm the story, and he pointed back to 2009 in the forums as the origin of what we now call “flexible dieting” and the acronym ‘IIFYM’. (A. Aragon, Personal Conversation, November 5, 2015). He recalled endless threads posted by newbies questioning if they could have various foods while cutting. They asked about any food you could think of, even whole foods that didn’t fit into the typical contest prep meal plans. Aragon confirmed that his answer to them was indeed “if it fits your macro targets, then go ahead and have it”. You can imagine that people’s patience began to wear thin. Erick Koenreich (user ErickStevens on the forum) began posting the acronym IIFYM instead of explaining this yet again. It became a default response to newbie questions.

“IIFYM, bro.”

diet problem

photo courtesy of Alan Aragon

And so began a movement.

Unfortunately, as I’ll explain, it also went way off track. Not because of what those advocating IIFYM said – they actually inferred the opposite. But rather, IIFYM went awry because people screw things up.

Becoming more flexible with our intake while attempting to get sufficient macronutrients (fat, carbs, and protein) is not a diet.

It’s a strategy. Looking at this as a strategy for both building muscle and losing fat has a sound basis of evidence from the scientific community.    

As people tried this approach, they found success. Holy crap, we can be lean and mean while eating cheeseburgers and maybe some cookies? And so they rejoiced, as well as started Facebook forums, online message boards, and websites that ran like the wind. People advocating IIFYM-based strategies nailed the basics down well:

  • Calories in and calories out matter. if you eat more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight, regardless of what you ate.
  • Protein plays an important role in body composition. For losing weight, protein helps by encouraging the retention of muscle during fat loss phases. It also provides satiety to dieters and aids in building muscle. There are other possible, smaller benefits, which internet warriors bicker about endlessly. I won’t address those here.
  • Eating enough fat helps maintain hormonal health. It also helps us absorb fat-soluble vitamins and helps regulate inflammation. We don’t produce all the fatty acids our body needs to survive and thrive, so we have to eat them. They don’t make you fat.  

Carbs give you energy. The amount you need is dictated by your activity level and how many calories you’re able to consume each day. Image courtesy of Aqua4Balance.

  • Carbohydrates don’t make you fat either. Carbs give you energy. The amount you need is dictated by your activity level and how many calories you’re able to consume each day. Typically, after you meet your protein and fat requirements, your remaining calories will be filled with carbs.
  • Unlike what the old-guard bros (bro-guard?) preached, there is no list of magic foods that make you swole/lean/jacked. You can achieve your physique goals with any food, as long as you’re eating in a way that provides your body with appropriate amounts of macronutrients (plus micronutrients for overall health).

Flexible dieting, a term sometimes used interchangeably with IIFYM, is simply a nutritional strategy. In spirit, it is inherently flexible. People can count calories and macronutrients if they want to make sure they’re on track, but it’s not absolutely necessary. IIFYM has enormous potential to guide people to long term success. This is primarily because it falls in line with a critical truth of weight management. The manner of eating that you can adhere to is the one that will bring you long term success.7 In other words, if you’re miserable using a diet to lose weight, the chances are slim that you’ll be able to use that method to keep the weight off. Flexible dieting allows people to still eat their favorite foods. For this reason, it has a huge advantage over other popular dieting strategies.

IIFYM: You’re Doing it Wrong

IIFYM as a strategy went off the rails because people turned it into something it was never intended to be: a diet.

Unfortunately, as with many things, people muck it up. In essence, people took a nutritional principle of meeting your macronutrient guidelines for health and body composition and turned it into a very specific set of rules.

When that happens, things get hairy all over again. The ideas governing macronutrient regulation aren’t off base. However, the devil is in the details, and people screw them up. IIFYM adherents began bragging about all the Pop-Tarts they could eat. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow this classic boxed pastry became a sort of mascot to the IIFYM diet. Pop-Tarts aren’t even that delicious – I’m partial to donuts or pie if I’m going to indulge, but whatever. But yes, most people can fit in a Pop-Tart and still meet their nutritional goals. This flew in the face of the “just eat clean, bruh” mantra of bodybuilding. I believe people posted pictures of the “unclean” foods they could now enjoy largely because they felt excitement over their new-found freedom. It’s like my freshman year of college, when I found myself able to eat whatever I felt like for breakfast from the campus cafeteria. It had a giant dispenser of Lucky Charms and I let it flow abundantly into my bowl each day. Freedom is sweet! (Until I gained 15 pounds, of course.) The problem wasn’t the Lucky Charms – it was too many calories, both from too many bowls of cereal and all the other things I overate. And drank. *Ahem*. I also missed out on eating food that would keep me healthy. IIFYM dieters who get all of their fats and carbohydrates from “fun foods” are missing out. They’re missing the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that they’d get from more nutrient-rich choices. Aragon, like many nutritionists, advocates eating most of our calories from foods that are nutritional powerhouses. He advises getting 90% of our diet from minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods. The other 10% can be the Pop-Tarts, potato chips, or whatever floats your boat. (A. Aragon, presentation at the Fitness Summit, May 2,2015.)

diet problem

We should get 95% of our diet from minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods. The other 5% can be the Pop-Tarts, potato chips, or whatever floats your boat. Image courtesy of Serious Eats.

The Other Side of the Diet Fence – Restriction, Disordered Thinking, and Religion

At the same time that IIFYM began to garner a reputation for advocating a junk-food diet 24/7, another issue emerged that is just as troubling.

IIFYM became a magnet for people with disordered thinking about food. I witness forum discussions on a regular basis with conversations like this:

Q: “I only have fat macros left today. What should I do?”

A: “Coconut oil! Olive oil? Take a swig!”

Hold the phone. No, just no. What kind of screwy life are we living if we feel like we have to chug oil to meet our nutritional goals?

Q:“I only have protein left. I’m so sad. No carbs or fats. What should I eat?”

A: “Dry chicken!”

That last one sounds suspiciously like a classic bodybuilder meal, doesn’t it? How ironic.

This isn’t necessary or psychologically healthy. Remember how we mentioned that enjoying your diet is a big component of long term success? Nobody is going to enjoy doing this for the long haul. Additionally, your body doesn’t flip out if you go 5 grams under your protein target or 10 grams over your carbs. You won’t lose all your sweet gainz. Our body’s biochemistry is complex. And calorie calculations and macronutrient calculations are all estimates anyway.

So why do we do this? I liken our attraction to diets to religion: we crave structure and order, and church gives us that. Religion makes sense of the world for us. Diets make sense of nutrition for us. Even if we say we don’t enjoy rules, we often thrive with at least some kind of method to the madness. Often dietary practices come with communities too. Weight Watchers meetings, paleo message boards, and “30 Day Challenge” groups at work continue to be popular. It helps us to connect to other people who share a common practice. The problem is, a lot of diets don’t teach us how to live when we’re unable to exactly follow the plan. Additionally, they’re often so restrictive that we end up miserable and throw in the towel. But still, we’ve lived in a diet-focused world of nutrition for so long. It’s difficult to imagine what it would look like to drive the bus without a lot of rules. A certain amount of structure feels comfortable and safe to many. Hence why we keep going back to diets.

So Is There Hope for IIFYM?

The philosophy of the original edict of “IIFYM” is nutritionally and psychologically sound.

And it works. I incorporated IIFYM to drop my weight from 155 to 125 slowly but steadily while continuing to get stronger.

My online coaching client, Angie, PRed her deadlift and dropped 12 pounds in 12 weeks in my 1-on-1 coaching program. How? For starters, she increased her protein intake, tracked her calories, and strength trained 4 days per week. She also did light cardio like walking on her off days. So yes, it works. But what made Angie a success story wasn’t just her macro intake. It was a few changes to the typical macro protocol as well as a shift in mindset. Like my other online coaching clients, Angie incorporated some “hacks” that shift the IIFYM from diet back to strategy. The results have been outstanding. My online coaching clients consistently gain strength while losing body fat and still feel like they can go out on the weekend and have a life. I see very little program abandonment because people don’t experience the typical cycle that dieters go through. That cycle feels terrible, and it looks something like this:


diet problem


Does that sound familiar? If you want to manage your macros with a healthier mindset and easier life management, try a few of my favorite tricks.

How to Implement Flexible Dieting Without Losing Your Mind

  1. Consider tracking solely with a calorie target and a protein range.

When it comes to body composition, your calorie intake matters most. By giving yourself a ballpark range of protein grams to shoot for each day, you’re less anxious about getting a perfect number. It eliminates the headache of trying to find foods that exactly match a single number. Most folks usually get enough fat in their diet for overall health and satiety without having to work at it. Carb calories and fat calories will fall into place when you’re meeting your protein target. Of course, people who have specific athletic goals may need to tweak their macro targets, especially carbohydrates, to maximize performance and recovery.

  1.  Eat like a grown-up.

Choose nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods… most of the time. This is the happy, sane middle ground between very restrictive “clean” eating and a non-stop bonanza of junk food. In essence, choose mostly things that support healthy nutrition, but leave a little room for your favorite treats. You’ll be able to sustain healthy eating for the long run.

diet problem

Choose nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods… most of the time. Image courtesy of FeedOurHeadBlog.

  1. You don’t have to always track calories and macros. Or ever track them.

Tracking is incredibly useful as data, especially when looking at where you might fall short on your daily eating habits. If you’re attempting to get a sense of how many calories you typically eat, tracking can help you out there too. However, the strategy of IIFYM just supports making sure you’re adequately fueling your body. Alternate habits that don’t require tracking will help you stay on track:

– Use the “one plate” rule if you’re cutting calories, avoiding seconds.

– Aim for a portion of lean protein, plenty of green vegetables, and a small portion of starch at your meals.

-Choose protein-rich snacks and meals over ones that are comprised of fat and carbohydrates.

-On days when you’re going to have dinner and a cocktail (or two), focus on getting protein and veggies earlier in the day. You’ll head into dinner with a solid nutritional foundation.  You also won’t be ravenous and overeat the rich stuff.

  1. The world doesn’t end when you don’t meet your macro goal.

Your fitness and nutrition should enhance your life, not overtake it. People who successfully maintain their physiques over a long period of time understand this truth. One day of eating on point won’t get you to your goals, just like one day of falling way short won’t derail you. We just wake up the next day and get back to what we were doing. The less guilt and shame we put on ourselves, the more likely we are able to stay on track for life.

Developing these skills will help you succeed with your body comp goals without making you nuts (or too full of Pop-Tarts). Wipe away the diet mentality and use macro tracking as a tool, not a ball and chain.

P.S. Eat your vegetables!

About the Author

amy dix - diet problemAmy Dix specializes in helping men and women who want to improve strength, athletic performance, and/or body composition. She works with clients via group and 1-on-1 online programs as well as in Des Moines, Iowa, where she does personal training, group strength training, and health coaching. In addition to coaching, Amy is a fitness writer at who specializes in educating fitness fans of all levels about fat loss, strength training, and behavior change. When Amy isn’t coaching, she trains to compete in powerlifting, jams to 80s hip hop, and knits sweaters.

  • Halton, T., & Hu, F. (2004). The Effects of High Protein Diets on Thermogenesis, Satiety and Weight Loss: A Critical Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 23(5), 373-385.
  • Layman, D. (2004). Protein Quantity and Quality at Levels above the RDA Improves Adult Weight Loss. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 23(6 Supp), 631S-636S.
  • Rebello, C., Liu, A., Greenway, F., & Dhurandhar, N. (2013). Dietary Strategies to Increase Satiety. Advances in Food and Nutrition Research, 105-182.
  • Bray, G., Smith, S., & De Jonge, L. (2012). Effect of Dietary Protein Content on Weight Gain, Energy Expenditure, and Body Composition During Overeating: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA, 307(1), 47-55.
  • Kris-Etherton, P. (2003). Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 23(2), 20-30.
  • Alhassan, S., Kim, S., Bersamin, A., King, A., & Gardner, C. (2008). Dietary adherence and weight loss success among overweight women: Results from the A TO Z weight loss study. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord International Journal of Obesity, 32(6), 985-991.