The best way to make any overweight woman sign up to a new diet is to promise her she will be able to eat anything she likes and still shed the pounds.
Of course, speaking from experience, it’s eating whatever you like that has led to that muffin top and chub rub in the first place. But as any serial dieter will tell you, we’d still like a miracle fix.
So when I started to see websites raving about ‘The dieting trend that leaves room for doughnuts’, ‘The diet that lets you eat pizza’ and, in esteemed Time magazine, just last week ‘Meet the incredibly fit guy who eats burritos every single day’, naturally I wanted to find out more.
My research led me to a curious acronym: IIFYM, billed as a new way of ‘flexible eating’ that seems to have taken over social media.
Search picture sharing website Instagram for the bafflingly-named IIFYM and you’ll find nearly six million pictures, a collection of toned abs, pert bottoms, pancakes, doughnuts, ice-cream and full English breakfasts. Whatever this diet was, I wanted in on it.
Of course, deep down, like all dieters, I know that eating less and moving more is the only way to effectively shed the blubber — but we still cling to the hope that, one day, some scientist will devise a method that means we can keep shovelling food in our mouths while the fat magically melts away.
As someone who’s spent the past 22 years yo-yo dieting, I should know better. I’ve been as petite as a size 8 and as big as an 18. I’ve weighed as little as 7 st 12 lb and as much as 12 st 7 lb.
With varying levels of success, I’ve been on the Cabbage Soup Diet, Weight Watchers, Dukan, 5:2 and my own plan: tea with sugar throughout the day then, when I was about to keel over, a meal in the evening. Sensible? No, but I shed 2 st.
And two years ago, I was the slimmest I’d been since my teens after accidentally stumbling upon the best ever diet — one that saw me drop 20 lb in just a week. The bad news was it involved a burst appendix and emergency surgery, so not that practical — and not one that can be repeated.
Today, I am a size 14, just over 11 st and desperate to slim down again. I’m also 50 years old, with an ever-slowing metabolism. Where once the pounds dropped off with relative ease, now they stubbornly refuse to budge.
could the IIFYM work for me, I wondered? I soon find out that IIFYM is short for If It Fits Your Macros. There’s no cutting out entire food groups — you can eat anything from pasta and potatoes to doughnuts and chips, with one proviso: that you stick to your personal calorie count, and your macros target.
‘Macros’ is short for macronutrients — these are the three main nutrient groups of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. An IIFYM plan suggests both a calorie allowance and a macro target. It seems that calorie-counting — a weight-loss technique that first became popular in the Twenties, and flourished in the Seventies with plans such as The Scarsdale Diet, but which has been painfully unpopular for at least 30 years — is back, albeit with a twist.
But, really, what could be simpler? After all, everything we buy packaged in supermarkets has a calorie count on the label, as well as details of the protein, carbohydrate and fat content.
However, when I logged on to the IIFYM website (iifym.com), I found it wasn’t quite so straightforward.
A photo posted by DOUGHNUT TIME (@doughnut_time) on
The brains behind IIFYM is Anthony Collova, an American bodybuilder, who says he devised the programme because: ‘With so much hype and confusion created around dieting, I wanted to launch a website that promoted a nutrition plan that is not only easy to comprehend but easy to implement as well. Something based on science, and intuition, rather than hyperbole and hope.’
He also says on his site that he wants to save people from ‘books, programs and scams promoting false promises, exaggerated claims and utter c**p, all designed to confuse you and make them money.’
All very noble, but I must question Anthony’s take on ‘easy to comprehend’ — because trying to make head or tail of IIFYM totally fried my brain.
The site’s online calculator asked me for my age, weight, height and daily level of activity, then calculated my TDEE (total daily energy expenditure — the amount of calories I burn) to be 1,682. It then asked if I wanted to ‘burn fat, lean out or get toned and shredded’. Getting ‘shredded’ didn’t sound like much fun, and I had no idea what ‘lean out’ meant, so I opted to ‘burn fat’.
The results were that I should aim to eat 1,430 calories per day. That I could have worked with.
But then it calculated my exact macronutrient targets: 35 per cent of my calories should come from eating 126g of protein — the equivalent of a chicken breast, a tin of tuna and a medium steak.
A photo posted by Vanessa Moreno (@_vannz) on
Forty per cent of my calories should be from eating 63g of fat — such as half an avocado and a handful of nuts. Finally, there should be 91g of carbohydrates — like two slices of toast.
I was lost. And hungry. And struggling to work out how the promised doughnuts, pizza and burritos would fit into the plan. When I asked dietitian Dr Sarah Schenker for her view, she told me: ‘Some diets go out of their way to sound scientific when they’re really not.
‘ “Macronutrients” are just food types, but it’s not an expression widely known or used by people outside the nutrition industry.
‘The problem with calorie-counting in the past is that people have made bad choices. A dieter on 1,200 calories a day might choose to take 800 of those calories from chocolate and fries, which isn’t healthy.
‘In telling the dieter to take 75 per cent of their calories from proteins and fats, this plan automatically restricts the amount of bad foods you can eat. However, the more complicated a plan, the more likely the dieter is to fail.’
Basically, IIFYM is Twenties calorie-counting — but with extra complication. In my case, I would only be able to use 357 calories for ‘naughty’ items. Barely enough for a bar of chocolate and a glass of wine.
After entering my details into the website, a video message from Anthony pops up congratulating me on my ‘awesome decision’.
But he isn’t done. Anthony, who was so angry at people being scammed, wanted me to buy a ‘personalised blueprint’ for $47 (around £36) which I did. No sooner had I made the purchase then he suggested I upgrade to a fully customised meal plan for $297 (£227).
‘I’ve sold a bunch of ’em. It’s awesome and we won’t just load you up with chicken and asparagus,’ says Anthony of the thick neck and rippling pecs.
When my ‘personalised blueprint’ — explaining exactly what I can and can’t eat — doesn’t arrive, I decide to go it alone.
(When what was clearly a cut-and-paste email eventually arrived a week later, it left me none the wiser.)
IIFYM requires dieters to weigh everything they eat and recommends purchasing a digital food scale. I decided to overlook that and to just use my regular bathroom scales instead.
So it was that on day one, I found myself weighing hard-boiled eggs and a slice of toast. It’s not good enough to simply Google things for rough nutritional values because, according to Anthony, if you go more than 3g off course, it will affect weight loss. So much for ‘flexible eating’.
I managed to work out that my two eggs and one slice of toast amounted to 370 calories, and I had used half of my carbohydrate allowance and 21 per cent of my protein allowance.
What I couldn’t work out was how I could diet and still eat doughnuts, so I decided to consult a more numerate pal.
She told me it was true that I could eat a doughnut, a pizza or pretty much anything else — but that it required a lot of number crunching. Here’s, apparently, how it works . . . Say I scoff a Tesco jam doughnut, which contains 225 calories, 7.6g fat, 34.4g carbohydrate and 3.9g protein.
That then leaves me with an allowance of 1,205 calories, 55.4g fat, 56.6g carbohydrate and 122.1g protein for the rest of the day.
My friend calculated that I could ‘spend’ this on a breakfast of a slice of buttered toast with two boiled eggs and two grilled bacon medallions; a chicken salad (no dressing) for lunch; and a dinner of grilled tuna steak with two heaped tablespoons of potato salad and half a packet of steamed green beans, followed by a fat-free yoghurt with a handful of strawberries.
Which all sounds great, until you realise it took an A-level in Further Maths, an hour and a spreadsheet to work out. All those Instagrammers must be maths — and Excel — geniuses with a lot of time on their hands.
I am none of the above and, within less than 24 hours, I’d had enough. Just as Shirley Conran once said life was too short to stuff a mushroom, I believe it’s also too short to weigh a Jaffa Cake on your bathroom scales.
For the next four days, I decide to count calories — making sure I don’t go over 1,400 — but to not even attempt to wrap my brain around the complicated macro-counting.
It made my life a lot easier but also meant that, although I was eating less, I wasn’t doing the programme properly — even if I did shed a measly two pounds.
As Dr Schenker pointed out, there’s also another big problem with calories — they don’t make much nutritional sense and the listed amount on your food label could be inaccurate.
She explains: ‘Calorie counts were calculated back in the 19th century. It’s called the Atwater system and it’s the same formula used today. High-protein foods burn many calories in the digestive process and no allowance is made for that.
‘So while almonds may be high in calories, you can really discount a third of that, thanks to the energy you use in consuming them.’
A photo posted by Vickie Liu 🙊 (@vickiee_yo) on
Three years ago, a study by Harvard University discovered that the calorie count given on some food labels, especially ready meals, was up to 50 per cent inaccurate, as no consideration had been given to preparation techniques or cooking methods.
So while IIFYM may be popular — and if you’re a numbers whizz, you might find it an effective way to shift the pounds — it certainly isn’t right for people like me who got a U in their maths O-level.
For me, this latest diet plan was more a case of ICCLAMM (I Couldn’t Care Less About My Macros).Daily Mail