Clean Eating vs IIFYM: Which Is REALLY Better?

The problem with articles like this which aim to compare any two things in the diet and fitness world is that the person doing the comparing is usually biased from the very beginning. So it’s usually less about a fair comparison and more about showing you why their way is right.

And by usually, I mean always.

Typically the people who are in favor of IIFYM are former clean-eaters who personally had issues when eating that way in the past (everything from mild annoyance to full blown eating disorders).

And typically the people who are in favor of clean eating are people who consider it the best (or possibly the one and only) way of eating despite never actually trying something like IIFYM. They just assume it, I assume.

And then there’s me. And I’m actually pretty rare. How so? Because I’ve spent a significant amount of time eating both ways. And – get this – doing equally well with both dietary approaches.

I shit you not. I ate my version of “clean” from around 2001 – 2007 and did just fine. I ate my version of “IIFYM” from 2008 to today and did/am doing just fine, too. I apparently swing both ways.

For this reason, I think I’m capable of bringing a somewhat unique and unbiased perspective to this annoying-as-hell debate. So, sit back and relax. It’s time to bring it.

What Is Clean Eating?

The hard part about trying to define “clean eating” is that its definition will vary based on who you ask.

I mean sure, avoiding “bad foods” like typical snack foods, foods high in sugar, foods high in “bad” fats/carbs, foods that are highly processed, etc. will be part of most people’s broader answers.

But things start to get a little wacky when you try to narrow those “bad foods” down into specifics.

For example, to one person, a white potato is a perfectly good, perfectly clean food. To someone else, a white potato is the devil and an army of sweet potatoes must descend from the heavens and murder it.

To someone else, only Paleo-approved foods are clean. To another, only vegan foods are clean. To another, only gluten-free, or sugar-free, or fructose-free, or artificial sweetener-free foods are clean.

To a clean eating bodybuilder, grains are a perfect carb source. To that same Paleo-dieter from a second ago, grains are the worst kind of carb you could possibly eat. And to a clean eating low carber? Carbs in and of themselves are bad just for being carbs!

Turns out “clean” is a very subjective term.

You could ask 1000 people what “eating clean” means to them and there’s a chance you’ll get 1000 different answers all involving a different set of dietary allowances and restrictions.

And at the heart of it, I think that’s probably the best way to define what this dietary approach is.

It’s a manner of eating that is a bit (or sometimes a lot) more strict rather than flexible (and “stricter eating” may be a better term for it than “clean eating”), has specific “good foods” you can/should eat and specific “bad foods” you must avoid, and really just has more rules that you must adhere to than the dietary approach we’re comparing it to in this article.

And sometimes those rules can extend beyond the foods themselves into how those foods are consumed.

For example, this dietary approach is commonly (but NOT always) associated with a stricter form of diet organization… stuff like the good old 6 small meals per day/eat every 2-3 hours recommendation. Or not eating after a certain time of the day. Or avoiding carbs at night. That sort of stuff.

Yes, I know, this part has become less common than it used to be. And yes, I know, there are plenty of people who fit into this category (especially of the Paleo variety) who are actually big into intermittent fasting (which is basically the complete opposite of this stuff).

So no, this part is definitely not a requirement of clean eating. It’s just something that is much more likely to be found there than anywhere else.

Common Misconceptions

The biggest misconceptions with clean eating aren’t so much misconceptions as they are misinformation or personal preferences/beliefs being regarded as proven facts.

What I mean is, the main reason a person chooses to use this stricter “clean” style of eating is because they think that, with all else being equal, there is something superior about it in terms of its effects on body composition (fat loss, muscle growth, preventing fat gain, preventing muscle loss, etc.).

Common examples include…

  • That eating clean foods will help you lose fat or build muscle better/faster.
  • That you can’t get fat eating clean foods.
  • That you won’t gain fat in a surplus as long as you’re only eating clean foods.
  • That you’ll at least stay a lot leaner while in a surplus if you’re eating clean.
  • That calories don’t matter as long as you’re eating clean.
  • That there’s no need to bother counting calories as long as you eat clean.
  • That you won’t lose fat in a deficit if you’re eating “dirty” foods.
  • That eating 6 small meals per day/every 2-3 hours will speed up your metabolism.
  • That not eating carbs at night will prevent you from gaining fat.
  • That eating the same calories/macronutrients worth of Food X will make you fatter than Food Y.

With all else being equal (which for this article will mean the same total calorie, macronutrient and micronutrient intake and the same consistency with which it is consumed), none of this is true.

In fact, it’s flat out false, and there’s more than enough science and real world experience out there to prove it. The Truth About Fat Loss is a good place to start. The Best Superfoods List, How To Choose The Best Foods For Your Diet and When And How Often Should You Eat are others.

But the truth is…

In terms of your diet, changes in body composition happen as a result of your total calorie, protein, carb and fat intake. They don’t happen as a result of the specific food sources that provide those calories and macronutrients, nor do they happen as a result of the specific manner they are consumed in.

What does this mean? It means that, with all else being equal:

  • It doesn’t matter if you eat every 2-3 hours, every 4-6 hours, do something like Martin Berkhan’s 16/8 version of intermittent fasting, or anything in between.
  • It doesn’t matter if you eat 5-8 small meals per day or 2-4 huge meals.
  • It doesn’t matter if you eat a significant percentage of your daily calorie/carb intake earlier in the day or later at night.
  • It doesn’t matter if you eat white rice or brown rice.
  • It doesn’t matter if you eat white potatoes or sweet potatoes.
  • It doesn’t matter if you eat egg whites or whole eggs (with the yolk).
  • It doesn’t matter if you eat Paleo approved foods or non-Paleo approved foods. (Or vegan foods, or raw foods, or whatever other kind of “special” foods you can come up with.)
  • It doesn’t matter if you eat 100% clean foods 100% of the time, or eat those same clean foods maybe 90% of the time and various supposed dirty foods the other 10% of the time.

It also means that, with all else being equal:

  • You’ll gain fat just the same eating clean foods as you will eating dirty foods.
  • You’ll lose fat just the same eating dirty foods as you will eating clean foods.

So basically, from a body composition standpoint (and with all else being equal), all of the reasons you might have heard for why clean eating is superior just aren’t true.

What’s The Biggest Problem(s) With Clean Eating?

The major downside to this approach is that the dietary strictness/rules/allowances it comes with won’t suit everyone equally.

In fact, many people just can’t stand it and find it to be everything from inconvenient, to annoying, to pure torture. And forcing themselves to eat in a manner they’d describe this way will clearly make their diet significantly harder to sustain.

And trying to anyway (even if successful) will just make their life suck in general.

And the side-kick problem that often goes along with this is that many of the people eating this way and hating it are doing so because they believe some/all of those misconceptions we just covered. So they’re forcing themselves to eat in a manner they don’t truly like because they think they’re getting benefits that don’t actually exist.

How lovely.

So on one hand the problem with clean eating is that it’s too strict for many people’s preferences. On the other hand, those people are willing to sacrifice those preferences for a collection of myths and assorted bullshit. That combination is the biggest problem with this dietary approach.

Although… I should mention that the placebo effect can be an amazing thing sometimes. So if a person thinks they’re getting benefits from something they’re doing, and that’s part of what keeps them doing it… maybe it’s not such a terrible thing after all? Assuming of course it doesn’t get taken to a point where it negatively affects other aspects of their life.

Speaking of which…

Another potentially big problem with being so strict all the time, completely avoiding certain foods/food groups and only eating in a manner that fits a specific definition of “clean” and “healthy” is that this sort of thing can turn into an unhealthy obsession. An obsession that can not only ruin your social life (having strict dietary rules makes it hard to be social with people who don’t follow those same rules), but also turn into a full blown eating disorder.

Both of these scenarios happen quite a bit.

However, I should also mention that contrary to what many IIFYM people think, it’s NOT something that happens 100% of the time. Plenty of people (myself included) can eat this way without feeling deprived, annoyed, tortured or inconvenienced, and without it turning into an unhealthy obsession or eating disorder. Turns out people are different. Who knew?

What’s The Best Part(s) About Clean Eating?

This might surprise you at this point, but there’s actually quite a lot that’s good about this style of eating.

The biggest and most obvious is that it encourages people to eat higher quality foods.

I know, “higher quality” is another subjective term (just like “clean” or “healthy”), but I think you know what I mean. Foods that have a better macronutrient and micronutrient profile than other, lower quality foods. Foods that are more natural than processed. Foods that are more filling and satisfying.

That’s how I’d define “higher quality.”

And eating higher quality foods is a big part of what clean eating is all about. And that’s definitely a good thing. I mean, encouraging the average person whose diet is primarily made up of stuff that has a cartoon character as its spokesperson to eat less lower quality foods in favor of more higher quality foods can only be viewed as a good thing.

You can’t really argue with that, and I won’t.

(Although you can certainly argue with the reasoning behind some of these recommendations, as many are based on myths and/or the personal preferences, needs and beliefs of a tiny fraction of the population (e.g. people with a legit gluten intolerance)… but we’ll ignore that.)

What some people might try to argue with (and be completely wrong about if they did) is the second potentially good aspect of clean eating. And that is, whether you like it or not, the fact that SOME PEOPLE actually benefit from, do better with, or just flat out require a more strict and structured approach to their diet.

Holy crap, did I just say that?!? Yes, I did. And I know this fact is hard for a lot of IIFYM/anti-clean eating people to handle.

But whether you believe it or not, like it or not, or have become so enraged by the thought of it being possible that your head has exploded and you’re now just a headless body sitting there trying to read this… it doesn’t matter. It remains true nonetheless. And clean eating provides it.

So while some people view this strictness and these rules as torture and everything that’s wrong with the concept of “clean eating,” it’s exactly what will allow certain other people to actually stick to their diet and consistently eat the way they need to be eating for their goal.

The Superior State Of Mind

Another fun aspect of clean eating that I think is worth mentioning is the mindset that often comes with it.

Some (but NOT all) of the people who eat this way view themselves as being better than the people who don’t eat like they do. There’s sort of this mindset of…

“Look at you people eating the way you eat. It’s pathetic. Look at how strict and disciplined I am and how weak minded you all are.”

“Look at these fat losers having a piece of birthday cake while I ignore it because I’m so damn awesome. You know what? I’m not even going to sing the “happy birthday” song as a sign of my utter lack of respect for the ingredients in this cake and as a symbol of my overall hardcore mental strength.”

“What? Go out to eat with you guys tonight? Sorry, but they don’t have plain grilled chicken breast and oatmeal at that restaurant… and I’m just too in control of my diet to eat anything else.”

“Haha! This guy is sitting there eating foods that cavemen would have NEVER eaten! What an idiot!”

Sure, that might be a little exaggerated. But trust me, as someone who “ate clean” for years, I can tell you first-hand that it’s not quite as exaggerated as you might think (or hope). I will fully admit to having thoughts like these (or at least kinda like these) at times.

In some small way I did feel like I was better than other people because I (supposedly) ate better than other people. Many (but not all) clean eaters have similar thoughts, too.

They just might not actually tell you about it. Then again, telling you about it may in fact be one of their favorite things to do.

What Is IIFYM?

IIFYM stands for If It Fits Your Macros. “Macros” is short for macronutrients, which in this context refers to proteinfat and carbs. And even though calories are not a macronutrient (rather, it’s your macros that provide your calories), calorie intake is included in this as well. (Details here: How To Calculate Your Macros)

And what If It Fits Your Macros is, is something a bit different than clean eating. Different how? There is no list of specific foods/food groups you must eat or avoid. There are no specific dietary rules, restrictions, and allowances you must adhere to. There’s no strictness and structure that must be followed.

What there is however is the freedom and flexibility to do what suits your personal dietary preferences.

Can you eat this food? Sure… if it fits your macros.

Simple as that.

As long as your total daily calorie, protein, fat and carb intake is what it needs to be for your goal, you can get those calories and macronutrients from whatever food sources you want (good, bad, clean, dirty,  etc.) and consume them in whatever manner (food combinations, meal timing, meal schedules, diet organization, etc.) you want.

Common Misconceptions

There’s primarily only one major misconception about IIFYM (and it’s why I’d much rather refer to this approach as “flexible eating” rather than “If It Fits Your Macros”), but there are two different points of view it comes from.

The misconception itself is simply that IIFYM = eating shit all day.

That IIFYM supposedly entails avoiding stuff like fruits and vegetables or really just whole, natural, nutrient dense, higher quality foods in general. Or, to put it another way, avoiding the types of foods most people consider “good” and “clean” and “healthy” in favor of the types of foods most people consider “bad” and “dirty” and “unhealthy.”

You supposedly just eat whatever you want with reckless abandon so long as you end up at the right calorie and macronutrient totals at the end of the day.

Now from the clean eating side, this is the misconception they base most (if not all) of their opinions on. “IIFYM? Ha! Good luck eating nothing but candy, cookies and Pop-Tarts all day.”

The other point of view is actually from the IIFYM side in that there are people who somehow came to this style of eating expecting this misconception to be true. And so they make sure their calorie, protein, fat and carb intake is what it needs to be, and they proceed to get those calories/macronutrients primarily (or entirely) from junky “low quality” garbage… often with no attention given to stuff like fiber, omega-3’s, calcium or micronutrients in general.

The misconception is basically that IIFYM is all one big 24/7/365 cheat day.

This of course is 100% wrong. And 100% stupid.

It’s not something any non-dumbass proponent of If It Fits Your Macros would ever actually do or recommend.

It’s just something misinformed people assume it is, partly because they’re misinformed, and partly because “If It Fits Your Macros” is a stupid name for it.

The truth is, the IIFYM style of eating usually works out to be more like 90/10 or 80/20 rather than the 0/100 people incorrectly assume it is. In fact, the majority of the people who eat in this more flexible manner actually end up eating what most people would consider to be “clean” the majority of the time.

I mean, if you look at the breakdown of the diet of someone correctly eating IIFYM style, you might be surprised to find that it really just looks like a more free and flexible version of a typical “clean” type of diet… just with more variety because that specific list of foods/food groups that must be eaten or avoided isn’t there.

It’s typically a lot of the exact same foods (vegetables, fruits, chicken breast, turkey breast, fish, whey protein, almonds, olive oil, oats, potatoes, rice, etc.). But again, without all of the major and minor restrictions and allowances that clean eating forces along with them.

And of course, the addition of some (which I’ll define simply as the minority, not the majority) of the “lower quality” stuff that keeps people sane and happy while also making it easier for them to function in society (e.g. you don’t have to disappoint your grandma by being the only person refusing to have cake at her 100th birthday party).

So basically, if you take “clean eating” and replace the allowances and restrictions with freedom and flexibility… you get IIFYM.

What’s The Biggest Problem(s) With IIFYM?

There are two that come to mind. The first is based on the misconception we just covered, which is that people will take IIFYM very literally and eat almost nothing but crap. But again… this is wrong and stupid.

The other problem is that while the freedom and flexibility of this IIFYM approach is what makes it ideal and sustainable for some, it’s exactly what makes it unsustainable for others.

What?!?! How?!?! Why?!?!?

Because again, whether you believe it or not or like it or not, there ARE people who may fail to eat the way they need to be eating when being given this much freedom and flexibility in their diet. They NEED to be restricted to some degree. They NEED a list of foods they should/shouldn’t eat. They NEED a list of rules to adhere to.

Basically, they just NEED a more strict and structured approach to succeed. IIFYM doesn’t provide that.

What’s The Best Part(s) About IIFYM?

That’s easy. The freedom and flexibility. The lack of rules and restrictions. The ability to eat in a manner that fits your specific personal preferences rather than those of whichever random person happened to make up the rules for you.

The ability to eat the foods you truly enjoy eating while avoiding the foods you don’t. The ability to have a meal without first looking over your list of allowed/restricted foods. The ability to eat when you want and how you want. The ability to never have to completely avoid a food you love because someone deemed it “dirty” or “bad.”

I can go on and on here, but I’m really just repeating the same underlying benefit: dietary freedom and flexibility.

The Superior State Of Mind

Sorry IIFYM people, but the clean eating people aren’t the only ones who think they’re better than everyone else based on the way they eat.

Some (but again, not all) of you guys/girls are just as guilty of it as they are. And the ironic part is, it’s those very same clean eating people who you feel the superiority over.

“Look at this loser coming to work with Tupperware containers of grilled chicken breast, broccoli and brown rice. I’m just gonna go out for lunch and look up the macros on my phone. Enjoy your brown rice, stupid!”

“I can eat ice cream and you can’t! Haha! IIFYM ftw!”

“Look at me, I’m eating gluten and fructose and white rice and it hasn’t instantly killed me. It’s a miracle!”

“I can’t believe this dude is going to sit here and watch the rest of us eat birthday cake because it’s not on his list of “clean” foods. Oh well, I’ll just work it into my macros and have his piece myself.”

Which One Is Better: Clean Eating or IIFYM?

So now that we’ve defined both styles of eating and looked at the pros and cons of each, it’s time to answer the ultimate question. Which is better?

That’s easy…

In general, with all else being equal, they’re exactly the same.

In general, with all else being equal, you’ll lose fat and/or build muscle exactly the same.

In general, with all else being equal, you’ll maintain muscle and/or prevent fat from being gained exactly the same.

In general, with all else being equal, none of this shit matters.

As I explained before, it’s your total calorie, macronutrient and micronutrient intake that dictates what happens to body composition and really overall health in general. And those calorie, macronutrient and micronutrient needs can be met just the same with both clean eating and IIFYM.

Which means, in general, with all else being equal… it’s a tie. They work equally well and your results will be exactly the same with both dietary approaches.

The problem of course is the “in general, with all else being equal” part that I keep repeating. Because in the real world, this just isn’t how things work. Which is why there is a much more important question we need to answer here.

The REAL Question: Which One Is Better For YOU?

THIS is what matters. THIS is what you need to care about. THIS is the one and only thing that should determine how you approach your diet.

You see, clean eating and IIFYM can and will both produce the EXACT same results for you… with all else being equal. But, the fact that we’re all different people with different needs and different preferences means that all else will NOT be equal.

So one person might find one approach to be more enjoyable, manageable, convenient, preferable and (therefore) sustainable for them. Another person won’t. And vice-versa.

If you’re that first person, awesome! But if you’re that second person, you will be significantly less likely to consistently stick to your diet. And the ability to consistently stick to your diet may very well be the most important aspect of it.

So what does all of this mean to you? Here’s my advice…

Are You Eating Clean?

  • If you’re doing some version of “clean eating” and found that you don’t really like it, it’s too strict, it’s too inconvenient, it doesn’t suit your needs or preferences, you don’t like the rules and restrictions it places on you, you don’t like being forced to eat certain foods or avoid certain foods, or find that eating this way is causing you to cross over into “unhealthy obsession” territory… and this is all making it harder for you to consistently stick to your diet (or lowering your overall quality of life in general), then I’d highly recommend experimenting with a more flexible approach.
  • If however you’re doing some version of “clean eating” and you love it, find it suits your needs and preferences perfectly, and are doing well with it… then by all means definitely feel free to keep eating this way.

Are You Doing IIFYM?

  • If you’re doing it IIFYM style and found that all of the flexibility that drew you to it in the first place has ended up doing more harm than good, or the freedom it provides you is maybe a bit too freeing and tempting, or you lack the will power to eat this way without going overboard, or that a more structured approach might suit you better… and this is all making it harder for you to consistently stick to your diet, then I’d highly recommend experimenting with a stricter approach.
  • If however you’re doing it IIFYM style and you love it, find it suits your needs and preferences perfectly, and are doing well with it… then by all means definitely feel free to keep eating this way.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Here’s My Opinion, And I’m Always Right

The person who tells you that you MUST be strict with your diet and eat 5-6 small meals every 2-3 hours comprised only of “clean” foods is wrong.

But here’s the thing. The person who tells you that you MUST do the opposite of this and be more “flexible” with your diet is wrong, too.

Why? Because both approaches can work. This is a fact. With all else being equal, your results will be the same regardless of which dietary approach you go with. And this means you’re not required to do it one way instead of the other. Neither approach is an approach you MUST use.

Which means, everyone telling you that option A or option B is the way you need to do it is equally wrong and equally guilty of trying to force their preferred approach onto everyone else.

But that’s all you ever see. Someone telling you that your diet needs to be strict, or it needs to be flexible. You need to eat frequently, or you need to use intermittent fasting. You need to eat clean, or you need to do it IIFYM style.

None of this is true, because none of this is “needed.”

The only thing you NEED to do is make sure your diet provides the total amount of calories, macronutrients and micronutrients you need for your goal and overall health in general. This “need” can be met with both dietary approaches.

From there, it’s really just a matter of picking the specific approach that will best allow you to consistently sustain that diet and meet that need.

For some people, for whatever reason, that approach is option A. For others, for whatever reason, it’s option B. For some, it might even be a combination of the two. Who knows. And better yet, who cares? You might, but you shouldn’t.

Whether you like it or not or agree with it or not, people are different. They have different needs and preferences, and they do better doing things a certain way than someone else might. Each person should approach their diet in whatever way that is for them, even if that “way” isn’t the way you happen to like.

That’s why I try to avoid making statements for or against any “style” of eating. Even though I have my own preference for one over the other because it’s what I like best and do best with (flexible over strict), I try not to make it seem like that’s how it needs to be done, or that’s how it should be done, or anyone doing it the other way is wrong and stupid.

You know, like everyone else loves to do.

What I much prefer to do instead is point out that these different options exist and will work just fine with all else being equal… and the one and only factor that should influence which approach you choose should be your own personal preferences and simply doing what suits you best.

Anyone who tells you otherwise, regardless of which option they’re in support of… is wrong.

Yes, even if it’s the option I personally happen to think is better.

Still wrong just the same.

So, What’s The Point?

And now for the TL;DR…

The goal with your diet is to consume a total amount of calories, macronutrients and micronutrients that supports your goals (fat loss, muscle growth, etc.) and your overall health.

The goal with how you approach your diet is to do whatever is most ideal for you in terms of personal preferences, needs, convenience, sustainability and really just whatever will keep you most sane, healthy and happy while reaching those goals.

Whether that ends up being a more strict approach (like whatever your definition of “clean eating” is) or a more flexible approach (like IIFYM) honestly won’t matter with all else being equal, and it’s entirely up to you to determine which approach suits you best.

And everyone else? They should shut up and let you eat in whatever manner that way is.

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