Black or White Pt 2 – Clean Eating vs. IIFYM

By Natural Pro Jeff Alberts

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

-Albert Einstein

Last year I wrote an article titled "Black or White?" that was inspired by a debate in a bodybuilding forum in regards to the best training method for producing muscle mass. In that heated debate it was very clear to me the individuals who were involved were eagerly defending their egos and methodology like it was the absolute Holy Grail in gaining size. Interestingly enough a new feverish debate has transpired in a few forums in recent days and once again this new controversial argument has inspired me to write the second part to my original article. What subject matter am I talking about? I am speaking of “clean eating vs. IIFYM (if it fits your macros)”. So, in going forward with this article I will re-post the beginnings of my original article with a few keywords (bolded below) added in as I feel it pertains to this new battle of opinions.

Excerpt from my article “Black or White?”

“Black or white? Short or tall? Small or big? Skinny or fat? The list goes on and on. This is how many people view things in life. Most people have no concept of the “in between” and for them it is a question of right vs. wrong. This is how so many of us get involved in countless debates. We all have our own opinions and for the most part only try to prove our point. We sometimes force our ideas on others, even though there are many other different ways of doing things. In the sport of bodybuilding it is no different. You will find in the muscle magazines, bodybuilding forums, and even in casual gym talk, bodybuilders engaged in passionate debates on which diet method is superior for contest preparation. This debate will go back and forth fiercely. The bodybuilders that are captivated will valiantly defend their beliefs and their egos to the very end. But wait! What about the in-between? What about the many shades of grey?”

To have a debate, it requires two completely different points of view and in many cases the goal is to prove one’s way of thinking as superior or as absolute truth over the opposition. In this particular case it’s “clean eating vs. IIFYM (if it fits your macros)”.  To give a brief background of the two sides let’s take a quick look into each side's methodology for contest preparation. Please keep in mind I am not claiming to be an expert nutritionist or a top level natural pro, just someone with many years of bodybuilding competition experience. It is just my viewpoint and understanding of the two sides in question.

Clean Eating

What exactly is the definition of clean eating? To keep it as simple and basic as possible, in my opinion, it is defined in some circles as consuming high nutrient dense food sources that are best used by the body for optimized training, superior conditioning and in attaining that grainy look most bodybuilder’s seek and desire. To list a few of these traditional nutrient dense bodybuilding food sources they include: sweet potatoes/yams, brown rice, oats, broccoli and many other veggies, chicken breast, turkey breast, egg whites, lean ground beef, healthy oils (olive, canola, flaxseed), walnuts, almonds and etc. Foods that are processed, sugar and fat laden are considered off limits because these foods have inefficient nutrient value. It is often looked upon as the equivalent to putting low octane gas in a sports car. It is something you would not do because your car would not run optimally. Also mentally, eating these so called bad foods would be considered undisciplined or a sign of weakness. The main argument with the “clean eating” side of the fence, is that if one seeks to attain elite levels of bodybuilding competition, then eating anything other than clean food would be short changing one’s progress and goals.

IIFYM (if it fits your macros)

What exactly is the definition of IIFYM (if it fits your macros)? In short, it can be defined as consuming almost any food source either high or low nutrient value within reason that will fit into a fixed macronutrient/caloric total. Some examples of food sources that would be considered taboo by the “clean eating” side include: low fat yogurt/ice cream (Skinny Cows, Ben & Jerry Fro-Yo’s), Baked Lays, candy bars, protein bars, white breads, processed foods, etc. It is true these foods are not as nutrient dense as foods that are organic in nature. The argument proposed by the IFFYM approach is that you can still meet your maconutrient/caloric goals, your micronutrient needs, and achieve low levels of bodyfat while including some "unclean foods" in your diet. Also having these food sources in one’s diet subdues psychological cravings and helps to eliminate possible binging that can be very detrimental during contest preparation.

Their Truth is Your Truth?

The reality of natural bodybuilding is both of the above methodologies have been used by many different athletes to achieve high levels of success. I can easily understand why each side would strongly defend their beliefs because of the excellent results they attained using a certain type of method. The “black or white” rationale is certainly reinforced by some of the great champions on both sides of the fence due to many of them advocating their beliefs as the absolute truth in contest preparation. Because of these champions' achievements, many other aspiring athletes tend to idolize them and then buy into the protocols they use and preach. It is common for the upcoming bodybuilder to follow the line of thinking, “if it works for them then it will work for me”. In many but not all cases, this leads to the black or white extremism we see in the forums or in other public venues.  

One Size Fits All?

Let’s look at the West Coast offense in football for example, it was perfected by Head Coach Bill Walsh and executed brilliantly by Joe Montana and the rest of the 49er offense leading them to four Super Bowl victories in the 1980’s. Of course it was a proven method for them, but only because the players and free agents on those teams were carefully selected for the characteristics that fit into that specific offensive scheme. If the 49er’s coaching staff/management decided to choose players whose skill sets did not fit in the West Coast style of play, then their success more than likely would not have materialized. How many teams have you seen try to execute the same 49er West Coast offense and not win a Super Bowl or even make it to the playoffs? More have failed than have succeeded. My point is if a certain dieting method works for one athlete, it does not mean it is going to be suitable for another. Every bodybuilder has their own unique characteristics and skill sets and anyone who says one absolute method is the only truth for all, may be blinded by their own ego.

Personal Experience

In ’09, I achieved my best ever condition and 99% percent of my diet consisted of clean foods such as turkey, chicken, whey, brown rice, oats, shredded wheat, sweet potatoes, and a  variety of veggies. I do attribute part of my success to the nutrient dense foods I consumed, but there were other contributing factors that played a major role. For starters, I had a very long layoff from competition between 2006 until 2009. That allowed me to train for 3 years without having a caloric deficit and I believe that led to an increase in overall muscle size. I chose to diet longer in ’09 (28 weeks for my first show and 32 weeks in total), so I was less aggressive with my diet.  In return that helped to preserve lean muscle mass and to lose more overall body fat. I had a total of 24 years of training under my belt, I regulated my cardio, I had improved symmetry and posing, and this all played a major role along with my genetics in achieving my best condition to date. So to say clean eating is the sole reason for my success would be incomplete and would be very hard to prove. I am not saying clean eating is not a good way of prepping, because I truly do support and advocate healthy eating. I also do not advocate having your prep consist of Baked Lay’s for each meal just because you can fit it into your macros. My point is to be a highly successful bodybuilder there are also other very important areas to consider besides diet that attribute to the overall grand scheme of things.

So, you might be wandering, "Jeff you said 99% of your diet was clean, what about the other 1%?" Well, because my diet consisted of nothing but clean foods it really affected my psyche because I deprived myself of those foods labeled as bad. There were a couple of occasions where I caved in and binged on poor food choices, which set my progress back for a couple of days. At the time, that went against my belief in eating clean. I felt I was weak minded and I ended up beating myself up about it. Looking back on it now, I was probably running the wrong offensive scheme. Maybe if I would have combined both methodologies (clean eating and fitting in some non-traditional bodybuilding foods on occasion to prevent the binges) into my contest preparation I may have competed at an even higher level. My ’09 experience helped me to realize and better understand that one certain method is not superior to the other for me. I am not saying everyone would benefit in this way, but this is my observation with myself. This year I have studied my ’09 season, read the forums on both sides of the fence with an open mind and I already have been using both methodologies in my current prep. Although I am currently right smack in the middle of it, I am definitely feeling well balanced and I'm seeing the benefits of both formulas. The end product is still unknown, but I am excited to see where I land regardless if it ends in success or not. I know the experience alone will be a very valuable tool as I move forward in my bodybuilding career. It will more than likely help me to find my own personal truth for contest preparation.

In Closing

I will end exactly on the same note as my original “Black or White?” article, are you thinking solely in the black or white? Are you a student of the sport or is your ego eager to defend your methods and ideas? I challenge you to open your mind to other ideas. You just might stumble upon an idea or method that takes your physique to the next level. Only then maybe you will discover your own truth, whether it is clean eating, IIFYM, both, or maybe something completely different. Bodybuilding is not black or white, but the many shades of grey! 

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