WTF is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting seems to have become very popular over the last month. Tim Ferriss must have written a blog post about it or something because it’s all over my Instagram feed.
I have been a practitioner of Intermittent Fasting for years. Now that it’s trending I thought I would give some background, benefits, and advice.
The first thing to know about Intermittent Fasting, or any nutrition protocol, is that it is a tool. It is not a magic bullet that will fix all your physical and dietary needs. You need to know why you are applying the tool, and what the tool does. Our over-saturated, social media fitness culture does not explain this. There are no miracle workers in health and fitness, if someone tells you otherwise they are trying to sell you a bullshit product.
Intermittent Fasting has many benefits. It helps your body control cortisol production, increases HGH and Testosterone production. It helps control daily caloric intake, and it makes your mornings much easier.
Any diet or nutrition advice is beholden to a ton of personal factors, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. Your hormone profile, skeletal structure, metabolism and mental reaction to food is unique. You can take advice and should research a lot but ultimately your diet needs to be crafted in an individual manner to ensure both your optimal health and happiness. There is no one perfect diet plan for everyone.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting is alternating periods of not eating (fasting) with times where you are allowed to eat. Essentially you will break your day into a “feeding window” and a “fasting window”. The most popular time split is a 16 hour fasting window with an 8 hour feeding window. There are more extreme options like a 23 hour fast and a 1 hour feeding window. It’s eminently customizable.
A 16 hour fast sounds a lot more extreme than it is. This fasted period includes the time you spend sleeping. If you’re on a healthy sleep schedule that knocks 6-8 hours off right there. After you wake up you essentially skip breakfast and eat your first meal of the day at lunchtime.
I thought breakfast was the most important meal of the day?
That’s really individual. For some people, it might be. For others, it might not matter at all. Recent studies have had contradictory findings when it comes to breakfast.
Some have shown people lose more weight when consuming a large caloric breakfast.
I get it, we’ve been told by our mothers, doctors and TV talk show hosts that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Their argument is that it provides energy for the rest of the day. That could be true, but for most people, your body is still converting energy from your previous night’s dinner.
Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. There is no most important meal of the day. Our metabolism is adaptable to nearly any situation, or feeding period. The most important factor is daily caloric consumption.
The rationale behind skipping breakfast is two-fold.
The first is hormonal.
Your body’s production of both testosterone and HGH is highest after a full night’s sleep. It will continue to produce these hormones at a high level until it is forced to digest food. Once that happens the testosterone and HGH levels drop and your body instead produces Cortisol.
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” because it spikes during times of mental and physical stress. While Testosterone (in males and females) and HGH are muscle building hormones, responsible for strength, size, and recovery, Cortisol is a fat storage hormone. It signals to your body that it needs to store fat as a response to stress. This fat mostly gets stored in your "trouble areas"- the side thigh for women and the love handles for men.
Fasting increases Insulin Sensitivity. In a nutshell- the more sensitive you are to Insulin the less likely your body is to store excess calories as fat. Insulin sensitivity is highest after an 8-10 hour fast because glycogen levels are depleted. Strength training also helps increase insulin sensitivity. The combination of IF and heavy lifting is a very potent cocktail that leads to burnt fat and more muscle.
Fasting assists in cellular repair. Despite the popularity of bullshit products like Detox Teas and Detox Enemas (probably) the only way for your body to truly cleanse itself is a process called autophagy, which is only triggered when the body is in a fasted state. To read more about this process click here.
The second reason for skipping breakfast is calorie control.
If you skip breakfast and don’t eat until lunchtime you are severely limiting your calories for the day. Your body’s composition is ONLY determined by your caloric intake. If you eat less frequently you tend to consume fewer calories. The fewer calories you consume the more fat you will lose.
What about the small, frequent meals that keep my metabolism burning?
This has never been scientifically valid. It's true that your metabolism will work harder by eating small meals throughout the day but studies have shown that it does not contribute to weight or fat loss.
When you eat your body expends energy in order to break down the food. This is refered to as the Thermic Effect of Food or TEF. Your body will be expending energy every time you eat, but it is not dependant on the number of meals you eat- it is dependant on the number of calories.
In the end, there will be no metabolic difference between eating 6-8 small meals per day or 2 gigantic meals as long as the total calories are the same.
Practical Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Fasting makes my morning very easy. My “breakfast” is a cup of black coffee. I savor it much more and I can get out the door very quickly. This is a huge benefit when you wake up at 4:00 AM. This lack of food does not hinder my energy level at all, mentally or physically. Working out in a fasted state is enjoyable. I feel lighter and less bogged down by my digestion. I have never had a performance or strength issue.
When you only eat 2 large meals per day you don’t need to prepare or buy as much food. This saves time whether you meal prep or buy your lunch.
Eating less frequently also tends to result in eating fewer calories. Let me repeat that. Eating less frequently tends to result in eating fewer calories. This is a simple truth, but it is extremely important for people trying to lose weight. If overeating is a problem, limiting the time you are able to eat will provide a humongous benefit.
Another benefit is a more positive relationship with food. The smaller feeding window gives less of a chance to overeat, and allows you to enjoy larger meals than normal. I love being able to eat a large dinner without having to worry about overeating and affecting my performance or digestion.
Advice for New Fasters
Don’t overthink it. If you want to try it, try it but don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect. Truth be told your body doesn’t know the difference between a 16 hour fast and a 15 ½ hour fast. Be practical and smart.
Calculate your fasting window based on your dinner time. If you finish dinner at 8:00 every night and are aiming for a 16 hour fast, you will eat your first meal at noon the following day. If you eat later then your feeding window will start a bit later the following day.
My feeding window is 1:00-9:00. My wife's is 2:00-10:00 because she likes to eat later than I do. Yours might be Noon to 8:00 or even 11:00-7:00. It all depends on your schedule and the times you like to eat.
Invest in a greens powder to have first thing in the morning. Take this drink instead of a multivitamin, it will provide pretty darn close to your daily requirements of many vitamins and nutrients.
Take BCAAs pre-workout, whether on their own or as part of a pre-workout drink. These will provide a little bit extra energy during your workout.
Learn to enjoy black coffee. Coffee additives are fasting death. They will quickly break your body out of its fasted state. Caffeine also acts as an appetite suppresant, it will make the first few days of fasting smooth.
Make sure your nutrition is on point. Here’s a macronutrient calculator to personalize your diet. And here’s how to track your calories.
Save your biggest meal for dinner. It’s much more enjoyable to sit down after your day is over and savor your food, instead of shoveling it down so you can rush out to your next appointment. It’ll help build muscle and increase your ability to recover from a hard workout. Flexible dieting will also help this.
IF is not an excuse to eat junk in your feeding window, you still need to maintain an effective macronutrient split and your meals should still be centered around whole, unprocessed foods. The combination of fasting and a smaller feeding window will not work magic, like some on Instagram claim.
There is scientific validity to a daily fast, but it needs to be applied correctly. The worst reason to try a diet or workout protocol is because it is momentarily “cool”. There is no sense in challenging yourself if it is going to result in a negative experience.
Intermittent fasting is not a diet, it is a way of eating. If you practice intermittent fasting but still eat like crap you will not see any benefits. To reap the full set of rewards from this nutritional lifestyle you need to have your diet dialed in.
Since this is just a tool, you can apply it in many different ways. If you are trying to gain weight you can use IF in conjunction with a caloric surplus in order to build muscle and minimize fat. If you are trying to lose weight you can use the practicality of less time to eat in conjunction with a caloric deficit in order to strip away the pounds.
Intermittent Fasting is not for everyone, but is a great tool to have in your arsenal. As long as you apply it correctly.
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