Extremism is rampant in the industry, and everyone is trying to sell their own product or brand of fitness as “the best” so that people will be more inclined to buy it. Diet is no different, and most dietary recommendations fall into one of either two camps: “clean” eating or “IIFYM”, (if it fits your macros).
I’ve written about clean eating before, when I talked about the Food Babe and her rampant misuse of the term. Clean eating generally pitches itself around the concept of good and bad foods, with good foods to be sought out and bad foods to be avoided. The problem is that what defines a “clean” or a “dirty” food is very nebulous, and different nutritionists will often give you very different answers on what should and shouldn’t be eaten, often based on faulty or reductionist science. I’ve heard things like “whey protein is bad for you because it’s a processed food” just as often as I’ve heard stuff like “avocadoes are a superfood”. It should be understood that this is often dogma related to various diets (paleo, vegetarian, etc.) more often than it has any real scientific merit.
In opposition to the rigidness of clean eating, we have the more “flexible” dieting style of IIFYM. IIFYM is based around macronutrient compositions, meaning that the diet plan recommends certain levels of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates per day, with the meeting of these targets being up to the dieter. You can get your protein just as equally from protein shakes or salmon, and you can get your carbs just as easily from soda pop as you can from potatoes. Of course, this leads to abuse, and IIFYM’ers certainly don’t advocate that you get a majority of your carbs from highly processed foods. One common charge is that IIFYM’ers eat nothing but protein and pop-tarts, and there can certainly be some truth to this. Some IIFYM’ers, a little too hung up on the freedom that IIFYM afford them, can end up missing the point. Good IIFYM’ers are also careful to include adequate amounts of protein, in the form of fruits and vegetables, in their diet.
You can see where conflicts start to form. Clean eaters are seen as being too rigid, following too many rules, being orthorexic by eliminating food groups and establishing an unhealthy and neurotic relationship with their food. On the other hand, IIFYM’ers are seen as having no rules, basically eating what they want, and as a result being just as unhealthy as people who aren’t on a diet at all. One common charge against clean eaters is that macronutrient ratios exist, whether you’re paying attention to them or not, which is designed to prove that macro-based diets are superior to clean eating diets. But here’s the problem: they’re the same damn thing.
A good diet looks the same no matter how you get to it: it will contain adequate amounts of protein to support muscle mass, it will contain adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables to provide the fiber your body needs, and it will contain enough fats and carbs to provide energy for your activity level (too much proteins, fats, or carbs, causing weight gain - too few causing weight loss - and in many cases, people wish to stabilize their weight while maximizing performance) while at the same time allowing you to have some of the psychologically relaxing comfort foods that you know and love. News flash: you can get to that point no matter what dietary style you’re using!
Good clean dieters understand that you can’t eat perfectly healthy all the time, and that occasionally a soda pop or piece of cake might be exactly what you need to thrive. Likewise, good IIFYM’ers realize that it’s not all pop tarts and protein shakes, and that there should be a focus on whole foods, which tend to have the best macronutrient compositions. Often we see numbers like 90/10 or 80/20 thrown around - recommending a diet that eats clean 90% of the time while allowing 10% to be used for comfort foods, for example. This is a pretty ideal ratio for IIFYM’ers too, and it’s the ratio that healthy people (in my experience) tend to gravitate towards.
All diets work generally on the same principle, by restricting food intake in some manner in order to maximize your health or performance benefits from the food that you eat. While bad clean eating and bad IIFYM both present their own issues, it’s important to understand that any diet, done right, tends to end up looking very similar to most other good diets. It’s not the path that matters - it’s the destination that you arrive at, and all roads lead to Rome.
Any diet can work or not work for you based on whether or not it leads you to this healthy ratio, and thus it’s important to recognize that the diet itself is rarely the important thing. Strict adherence to any diet is often unhealthy, and finding a diet that fits well with your psychological profile is more important than anything else. For that reason: clean eating and IIFYM are the same damn thing. Getting lost in dogma isn’t going to help anyone, and as always, these methods should be another tool in the toolbox rather than the be-all end-all of fitness.