It can be pretty tempting to eat anything you want, so long as you stay in a state of caloric deficit - and this very idea has raged in debates among fitness communities for years.
The question of whether you should eat whatever you want while on a cutting diet is a hotly contested one.
Proponents on one end say that it is important to only eat healthy and nutrient-dense food so as to maintain a healthy diet, while those on the other end insist that as long as certain criteria are met, eating whatever you want is perfectly fine.
From a larger perspective, so long as you are eating enough protein and receiving proper nutrition, there should be no trouble with consuming a small amount of junk food within your calorie limits.
While this isn’t the puritan’s answer, it is nonetheless one that is the most sustainable in the long run - at least, for most individuals.
A caloric deficit is a metabolic state in which an individual is not consuming enough food to sustain their current bodily functions, forcing their organs to draw from their reserve energy stores (usually adipose tissue) in order to continue to operate.
From a dietary standpoint, this can appear to be someone eating less of the foods that they usually eat, or entirely different foods specifically chosen for their lower calorie content per serving - both of which are well-established methods of ensuring a caloric deficit takes place.
IIFYM or If It Fits Your Macros, is a dieting theory that puts forth the idea that any kind of food is permissible within a diet, so long as it fits within the macronutrient requirements (and calories) dictated by an individual’s body, goals and lifestyle.
This means that so long as the carbohydrates, fat and protein content of a certain food is within the daily limit of your diet, it is entirely fine to eat it - no matter what kind of food it is.
Rules like this create a more convenient and sustainable diet for the majority of individuals, who may not have time to pre-package an entire weeks worth of diet-friendly meals, or who do not wish to eat food that they may perceive as unenjoyable or boring.
While this is entirely fine in theory, the IIFYM theory of dieting begins to run into problems when one takes into account their health and the quality of the macronutrients that they intake.
Practitioners of IIFYM may accidentally consume too little of a certain vitamin or mineral, potentially affecting their health - alongside the fact that there are a multitude of different types of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, many of which are detrimental to one’s health as well.
Factors like incomplete amino acid consumption, poor vitamin B intake and even transient fat consumption can all occur when eating whatever you want within the rules of such a diet.
While this is not a very important issue for the average healthy adult, athletes or those wishing to maximize the capacity of their bodily functions will find that the IIFYM style of dieting is not as effective as a structured and highly targeted diet instead.
In the end, it is more a matter of convenience and preference against health and performance. Our advice is to pick the dieting methodology that is most sustainable for you in the long run.
Part of the reason why the debate on this particular topic has gone on for so long is that both sides equally present valid points, with all of these points demonstrating the fact that eating whatever you want in a caloric deficit is truly down to an individual’s circumstances.
The main advantage to eating whatever you want so long as you remain in a caloric deficit is the unparalleled convenience - without the need to cook for every meal or otherwise prepare meals in advance, practitioners can save time and money picking up already-cooked meals anywhere.
In addition to this, being able to eat whatever you want frees up your ability to engage in social meals that may otherwise have food that cannot fit in a more strict dieting regimen.
Furthermore, some individuals may find that dieting in such a manner allows them to stick to their diet for a longer period, increasing their chance of reaching their weight loss goals.
On the other side of these advantages, having a loosely planned or entirely unplanned diet can lead to poor nutrition and insufficient intake of certain macronutrients, with protein in particular being a major issue for those that participate in exercise as well.
Apart from poor nutrition and macronutrient intake, eating whatever you want in a caloric deficit is also more difficult to control over long periods of time - something that can easily slow down or stall your weight loss unless it is carefully monitored by counting every calorie you consume.
Finally, there is also the fact that dieting in this way will not build healthy habits, and can cause individuals to even develop poor nutritional habits in the long run.
At the start of this article, we rephrased the question from “can you eat whatever you want in a caloric deficit” to “should you eat whatever you want in a caloric deficit”.
This was because of the fact that you can indeed eat whatever you want in a caloric deficit - barring certain health conditions, it is unlikely that a short term diet of low quality packaged food products will detrimentally affect your health in a permanent fashion.
However, this is entirely an unadvisable course of action, as it will not only result in a loss of muscle mass and a rather unpleasant experience - but also build poor dieting habits that may result in your weight returning once the diet has been completed.
It comes down to the choice between convenience and health, where you must balance the convenience of eating whatever you want against the potential health effects of doing so. One or two potato chips in an otherwise nutrient-rich diet meant for fat loss will not hurt your progress or health at all.
So; should you eat whatever you want in a caloric deficit? The answer is yes - but as little as possible, and in a conscious manner.
One point that we neglected to mention is the importance of protein within a diet.
While it is common knowledge that protein intake is needed for proper muscular development, it is also quite important to maintain an adequate amount of protein in your diet while in the process of weight loss.
This is because the human body will tap into its muscle tissue for energy if it is not given sufficient reason to retain said muscle mass. In the long term, this can result in the dieter developing a body type known as being “skinny fat”, or having a low volume of muscle mass while also being of average or above-average body fat percentage.
In order to avoid such an occurrence, individuals performing a calorie-restricted diet should perform resistance exercise and consume enough protein per day to maintain their muscle mass.
While this is clearly more difficult for individuals eating whatever they want, structuring the diet in a manner that loosely includes sufficient protein is a strategy that many IIFYM practitioners swear by, as it still allows them to eat anything while also maintaining their muscle mass.
In conclusion, you can indeed eat whatever you want in a caloric deficit so long as you control for the more important factors like protein and actual total caloric intake.
However, if you’re the type who wants to watch out for their health or otherwise leave nothing to chance, then a strict and pre-planned diet is the best way to go.
Of course, just like IIFYM or other less restrictive diets, a pre-planned and structured diet also hosts its own list of advantages and disadvantages - once again leaving it up to individual circumstances to decide.
1. Fogelholm M, Anderssen S, Gunnarsdottir I, Lahti Koski M. Dietary macronutrients and food consumption as determinants of long term weight change in adult populations: a systematic literature review. Food Nutr Res. 2012;56. doi: 10.3402/fnr.v56i0.19103. Epub 2012 Aug 13. PMID: 22893781; PMCID: PMC3418611.
2. Conlin, L A , Aguilar, D T , Rogers, G.E. et al. Flexible vs. rigid dieting in resistance trained individuals seeking to optimize their physiques: A randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 18, 52 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-021-00452-2