In my last blog article, The Default Diet, I talked about (among other things) how large behavioral dissimilarities between offseason and prep can make transitions between the two more difficult. In this article, I want to discuss that in more detail, specifically as it relates to tracking your nutrition.
I have talked in depth about the potential pitfalls of nutrition tracking (this podcast episode is a good example), specifically how tracking can in some cases cause additional mental stress, in some cases may contribute to existing eating disorders, and inherently, is an external cue to guide eating, which can shift your focus and awareness away from internal cues (hunger, satiety) which can degrade your ability to “eat normally”or rather, auto regulate your energy intake and “naturally” control portion sizes. I am not saying “tracking is bad” and indeed tracking in combination with internal cue awareness, and other biofeedback and data, to inform a flexible, but tracked and weighed eating plan, can be great for certain goals. Additionally, at certain times, like deep in prep, it may be better to track and hit specific targets and numbers, because your internal signals are only going to tell you one thing (which is unfortunately counter to the goal of getting shredded): “eat!”
Weighing and tracking your food, calories and/or macros certainly has its place, but there are facilitative and debilitative ways of (and times for) doing so. While the “If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) movement” takes many iterations, there is one common form which has potential to stunt the development of long-term nutritional habits. The iteration I am referring to is what I describe as the “freestyle IIFYM” approach, in which there is little to no structure to the day of eating, little day-to-day consistency in food selection, an emphasis on flavor and hedonistic enjoyment of food, and the only constant, rule or structure, is that certain numbers for macronutrients are adhered to.
Now before I start pointing to the problems with this approach, let me acknowledge its good aspects. For one, it doesn’t place limits on what you’re “allowed” to eat in terms of food source, and more importantly doesn’t demonize any foods or leverage fear as a motivator to change your diet. Psychologically that’s a great thing, as fear-driven dietary decisions are in general pathways to unhealthy relationships with food. It also pays respect to physiology, as indeed, controlling energy balance and having a goal-specific macronutrient profile are the factors that far and away have the largest impact on performance, body composition and health, assuming all else is equal and nothing way out of the norm is occurring with other variables.
However, I need to point out the problems with this form of IIFYM. I followed this approach in my offseasons from 2007-2011, and it was only during my preps when I had more consistent habits on a day-to-day basis. Meaning, in the offseason I’d eat out all the time, eyeball and estimate portion sizes when doing so and track those meals, and I’d also track food at home. But when I ate at home, I’d pretty much take a trip to the fridge when I was hungry and spend a good chunk of time figuring out what I wanted to eat each time (unless I was on the go), and then I’d weigh it out, track it and prepare it. So, in most cases, many of my days were unique animals, following no structural pattern, outside of a similar energy and macronutrient profile.
On the other hand, during prep I’d eat consistently, stick to similar meal patterns, and eat in a robotic fashion. This contrast made sense to me at the time, I generally have to diet on pretty low calories (at least on non-refeed days), and I have to pay attention to make sure I get adequate fruits, fiber, veggies, and a decent micronutrient spread when consuming low calories, and I also have to pay attention to timing so I don’t feel fatigued during training. In the offseason though, I always felt fine in training (yay body fat, stable glucose, blood pressure and glycogen stores!), and the sheer volume of food meant I had no issue hitting my fruit, vegetable, fiber and micronutrient needs. What I failed to realize, was that when contest prep rolled around, it was like relearning a language. I’d have to get into the swing of things, change my habits, restructure my day, and initially I’d have to think a lot about what food decisions I had to make.
This caused problems on the back end of prep too. When it came time to transition back to “normal life” I saw the structure of prep as something “unnatural”, it felt limiting, and added a sense of restriction I wanted to get rid of. So, when it came time to go back to the offseason, I’d relish in food variety, flavor, unstructured eating, and try to use calorie or macro goals to prevent binge-episodes and overshooting my planned surplus. This didn’t work in 2007…at all. In fact, I gained 48lbs in two months, getting up to 226lbs in July after competing at 178lbs in May! I was out of control and obsessed with food and unable to stop myself from eating everything. At that point in my lifting career, with my level of muscular development at that time, I had no business being over 200lbs. After my 2009 season it was a little bit better. I did my last show in September 2009, and I hit 220lbs at the highest, around June 2010. This was still heavier than I needed or wanted to reach though. I had gained more muscle, as my stage weight was a few pounds heavier and I was leaner, but realistically, 205-210 should have been my top end offseason weight.
It wasn’t until after my 2011 season that I really got a handle on the post-competition transition. Part of this was experience, but another aspect was my busy schedule. I was a full time student for my first masters, online coaching full time, part time in person personal training, part time teaching, and preparing my proposal for my graduate work at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), and also preparing to move our entire life to New Zealand (where AUT is located). I was so busy that I had to eat in a robotic manner on a day-to-day basis, offseason and prep. My 2011 prep was easier than 2007 or 2009, because I didn’t have time to think about being hungry, to screw around with meals, or to wallow in my hunger. Likewise, when it came time to switch to the offseason, I didn’t have time to linger in front of the fridge for twenty minutes and then meal prep for another twenty. As a side effect, I avoided the decision fatigue of “freestyle IIFYM” and found myself more productive during this period (and still to this day).
The freestyle approach I was following prior to this point was ironically the exact opposite of what I was telling my personal training clients and personal training students. I realized at this point in my career that tracking macros was bad advice in most cases for general population clients initially, instead I kept that as a tool for athletes. So, when I was teaching personal trainers in class, and mentoring clients in-person, I’d recommend qualitative changes like increasing intake of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, mindful eating with structured feeding schedules, eating out less, replacing calorie containing beverages with calorie free beverages, basic nutrition knowledge and literacy, and other “habit-based” lessons and structures to help people achieve success. But at home, during the offseason, I was still eating like a teenager. In fact, the whole reason I was still eating like a teenager was because I was using a freestyle IIFYM approach as a crutch. By doing this I’d made preps initially harder, more mentally stressful, and set myself up for a world of hurt after prep ended when I returned to this approach in the offseason.
Fast forward to today, where behaviorally my prep and offseason diets are quite similar, even though the calories and macros are quite different, and the benefits are enormous. This prep has by far been the easiest, and most successful mentally and physically, and I stay leaner in the offseason without sacrificing progress physically or feeling mentally restricted.
So, in closing, I’m not saying all iterations of IIFYM are problematic. Indeed, some people have always followed a structured, day-to-day eating plan, while still eating “like bros” even once they became aware of the value of tracking calories and/or macros. But in my personal experience as an athlete, and experience as a coach, there are plenty of us who never adopted (or let go of) structured eating to our own detriment. So, ask yourself, is your approach to tracking stunting your nutritional growth?