By Eric Trexler, CSCS, CISSN

Former Director of Research and Education, INOV8 Elite Performance

I was hanging out in the hotel lobby after prejudging of my most recent bodybuilding competition in August. “Hanging out” doesn’t quite do it justice— I was mainly trying to stay in an upright position and shielded from the suffocating humidity. I was once a 195-pound Ohio guy, who had recently weighed in under 150 and relocated to Carolina days prior. My prep diet wasn’t too arduous, but energy levels will always be a concern when you cut 25% of your heaviest bodyweight, relocate to the surface of the sun, and flex every muscle in your body under hot stage lights for 20 minutes.

I was confident that I had won my weight class, but my chances of taking the overall were a long shot (to put it nicely). As I was sitting around, a fellow competitor approached me and introduced himself. He had recognized me from some of my work with INOV8, and we chatted for a bit. He eventually asked me, “Do you do that whole ‘IIFYM’ kind of diet?”

My initial response was simply, “Yes.” In the offseason I’d been known to eat fairly generic “bodybuilder” meals for most of the day, but have a pretty wild meal to end the day— chocolate pudding, cinnamon toast crunch, peanut butter, etc. Accordingly, I had always lumped myself into that “IIFYM/flexible dieting” category, even though most of my meals typically consisted of micronutrient-dense foods that are commonly considered “clean.”

But then I thought a little bit deeper about my prep. As a bantamweight with a general distaste for cardio, my “discretionary” calories had virtually disappeared. For the last 8-10 weeks, my primary carbohydrate sources were spinach, broccoli, blueberries, cauliflower, and bell peppers. My fats were down around 45-50 grams per day, so I certainly wasn’t getting too adventurous with my fat sources either. I suppose it was a “flexible diet,” but it certainly didn’t feel that flexible at the time.

An objective analysis of my prep diet looked fairly “clean,” if I can use that term. I wasn’t eating the typical “bodybuilding foods” that were somehow set in stone years back (chicken, tilapia, sweet potato, etc.), but my food sources were relatively high in micronutrient density and low in energy density nonetheless. For the most part, my diet consisted of egg whites, whey, fat-free Greek yogurt, lean turkey, a bunch of vegetables, and some minimal fat here and there. In no way did this resemble the elaborate meals commonly (and somewhat incorrectly) associated with flexible dieting.

Let’s be honest: The whole IIFYM vs. “clean” debate is tired, beaten to death, and downright annoying. Many flexible dieters think they’ve identified the most “intelligent” way to diet, and for some, that mindset is accompanied by a sense of smugness. Many clean eaters think that the IIFYM crowd is lazy and lacks the dedication required to complete a true prep diet consisting of tilapia and cardboard. Both extremes are pretty wrong, and really annoying.

Assuming that dietary adherence is not an issue, flexible dieting is not a more effective way to diet— it is simply aseffective, with more options. The benefits are more related to convenience and psychological factors than the on-stage product. After all, whether you drop carbs by “X” grams or remove “X” ounces of sweet potato from your diet, you’re doing the exact same thing— one is just quantified in more translational units. Sure, the less flexible method of dieting may impose some unnecessary restrictions and inconveniences, but if you’re healthy, happy with your diet, and consistently produce on stage, does it really matter? Although some people love having flexibility in their diet, others seem to really enjoy the structure of a rigid diet, and feel less compelled to overeat or deviate from the plan with somewhat bland food sources.

This argument also goes the other way— flexible dieting is not less effective, either. It seems that many clean eaterssee the debate as some fallacious, “hardcore vs. lazy” dichotomy. Assuming that you are tracking your intakes correctly, the more flexible diet is no less effective than the traditional approach. The more traditional approach is a viable option, but if restricting myself to an excessively short food list doesn’t produce better results, why would I do it? I’m all about making necessary sacrifices, but I’ll never make sacrifices for sacrifices’ sake. Contest prep is hard enough— no need to make it harder.

In many cases, the discussion is really a moot point anyway. The distinction between IIFYM and eating “clean” becomes fairly blurred as competition day approaches for many competitors. Regardless of your approach, your diet late into contest prep is likely to consist (mostly) of fairly lean (and complete) protein sources, some vegetables, fairly minimal extraneous fat, and as many carbs as you can get away with. We can pretend the two approaches are vastly different, but in reality, there is a lot of common ground.

Much of the criticism regarding flexible dieting has been perpetuated, somewhat unintentionally, by flexible dieters. They bombard social media outlets with their biggest meal of the day (a Poptart-peanut butter-ice cream sandwich, or something like that). But from the outside looking in, people fail to realize the context of that meal. Maybe that person barely ate all day, and that meal constitutes 60% of their calories for the day. Maybe it’s a massive, knee-jerk refeed that doesn’t reflect their normal intake. And what you rarely (almost never) see is the IIFYM bantamweight posting a picture of their “regular” meal 4 weeks out. Because no one is interested in a picture of ground turkey and cauliflower.

The bottom line is that dieting kind of sucks no matter how you do it; you just need to “pick your poison” so to speak. Flexible dieting is fine— just make sure you are being accurate with your tracking, and understand that constantly switching up meals can be a pain when it comes to calculating macros. Exclusively eating the classic “bodybuilding foods” is cool too— just make sure you’re getting in a diverse array of micronutrients in sufficient quantities. You’ll both do fine. Now we can bury the hatchet and quit bickering about whose method is superior. Flexible dieters can stop acting like they’ve revolutionized the entire concept of dieting. And clean eaters” can stop acting like they’re more dedicated or hardcore than everyone else.

Really want to prove to people that you’re knowledgeable about nutrition, dedicated, “hardcore,” and awesome, all at the same time? Show up to competitions in good health, good spirits, and great shape. How you get there is a matter of preference.

Eric Trexler is not a doctor or registered dietitian. Eric holds no certification or licensure in the practice of nutrition or dietetics. The contents of this article should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health problem – nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician. Always consult your physician or qualified health professional on any matters regarding your health.