Intermittent fasting is a dirty set of words, often scoffed at in many fitness, health, and bodybuilding circles. However, it’s gained some popularity over the last few years, albeit slowly as a means to better health, improved performance and most importantly a healthier, more laid-back lifestyle.
I’ll never forget when I first heard that four letter blasphemy: fast. I was 14-15 years old sitting in a biology class whilst discussing what the word breakfast actually meant and how the body primarily used stored fat for energy during these fasted periods (particularly when we sleep).
The only thought in my head at the time was “so when’s lunch time, I’m starving!” and I don’t recall anything other than being briefly introduced to intermittent fasting. Naturally, it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 when I stumbled across the term again.
This was also the same time I discovered the internet, all the fancy forums and the associated acronyms such as lol, brb, wtf and stfu. Simultaneously, I was also making a slushy attempt to figure this training and dieting stuff out. I experimented with bro training, single-set HIT training and other various methods.
Being a year out of high school, surprisingly, I was very open to new ideas; a giant sponge I was. I read about and researched many different subjects that summer and intermittent fasting happened to be one of them.
It first started with learning about Martin Berkhan at Leangains and then some other research which eventually led to Brad Pilon, Ori Hofmekler, Fitness Spotlight (formerly known as TheIFLife) and more general information on the subject. Fast forward about a year and the data slowly began to take root.
While I feel intermittent fasting is generally accepted as both safe and healthy among a small group of folks on the internet (that’s you!) it’s still very misunderstood and often discounted altogether by the masses. It’s something I’m rather passionate about because it saved my relationship with food and I’ve seen it help so many others. Therefore, I feel it’s important we discuss the subject in more detail.
Intermittent Fasting – Some History
First of all, for any of you completely new to this concept, intermittent means to start and stop at different intervals of time. To fast means to abstain from something; in this case, that something is food.
Intermittent fasting, as far as I’ve read, has never been too popular among the masses directly. Normally, it’s reserved for the religious and in most groups, it’s often done for a short period of time (1-2 days of no food) followed by normal eating. In Islam, there’s a specific period called Ramadan in which the faithful practice complete abstinence of food, drink and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset for an entire month.
In the Christian faith, it’s common for followers to fast for certain periods of time from something they’ve grown accustomed to such as hobbies, leisurely activities, certain foods, etc. In this case, one might dedicate a specific period of time to abstain from something as a sacrifice for a higher cause.
An example is Lent, in which a follower gives up something they enjoy or find comfort in for around 40 days. It’s a simple practice of self-denial and some common items people try to give up are soda, swearing, certain foods, media usage, etc.
Another common use of intermittent fasting is a means to life extension. Some believe that long-term fasting is the key to a longer life and I’ve read that prolonged calorie restriction is the key to living a very long time. There is literature out there suggesting calorie restriction of 15-40% will improve health markers, and increase insulin sensitivity. Not only is there information about life extension but also the effects it may have on cognitive function granted one decides to restrict calories for the rest of their life.
While I think life extension is great, I’m not going to continually under eat in hopes of a prolonging my life. I’d rather find a vampire, get bit and then live forever. Contact me if you know any.
Furthermore, you must remember that intermittent fasting is hardly discussed or even known outside of the small talk generated on the internet. When people approach me for diet or fat loss advice, I rarely bring up intermittent fasting; initially, at least.
I always let them lead the conversation – if they’ve read my articles or my experience with meal frequency and are open to the idea, sure, I love to discuss the benefits with them. But if inclination leads me to believe they’re reserved and not ready to be blasted with research dispelling the 6 meals per day myth, I just let them do the talking and wait until they’re ready.
Popular Intermittent Fasting Approaches
One aspect I consistently chuckle about in the health and fitness industry is the sense of urgency one is often burdened with through text, images and advertising. Everywhere you look, it seems there’s only one way to do perform a squat or construct an adequate diet.
In reality though, there’s never just one way to do something. Well, there is one way to eat cheesecake (all of it), but that’s for another article.
All humorous failings aside, there’s 101 ways to skin a cat. In knowing this, it’s best to take a look from multiple angles, enjoy the process of increasing ones knowledge objectively, and then make an educated decision.
The Warrior Diet – Due to the popularity of the author, you’ve likely heard of this book and the concept. Ori Hofmekler is well known in the fasting community, however his diet is not exactly fasting per say. It’s more of a controlled period of deliberate underfeeding (20 hours total) followed by 4 hours of overfeeding. During the underfeeding phase, nuts, fruits and veggies are allowed while the bulk of calories are consumed in the evening, usually 2-3 hours before bed.
While I’ve never done this type of diet deliberately, I’ve had my share of busy days where 6 p.m. approaches very quickly and I realize all I’ve had was a protein shake, some coffee and a piece of fruit between waking and my evening training. Making up for all the calories in such a small timeframe is a real struggle – even more so if I try to get my daily minimum of fruit and veggies in.
Eat Stop Eat – Just as the name implies, you eat a little bit, you stop, then you eat again. Eat Stop Eat is similar to alternate day fasting, but instead of fasting every other day, you fast for 24 hours only 1-2 times per week depending on your goals.
Now by this point, if you’re discussing fasting with the layman, the idea of a slowing metabolism will typically come up in conversation. But then we have some research that shows resting metabolic rate increasing after the 36 hour mark (here’s another study). Now, I’d never recommend someone fast for that long, but it’s neat nonetheless.
Brad’s diet is more lifestyle-focused and not necessarily targeted for the athlete or bodybuilder looking to drop body fat and build or maintain the most muscle mass possible. However, I know of many who’ve had much success losing body fat and keeping it off with such an approach.
Leangains – Martin Berkhan has done a phenomenal job with his methods. In short, his approach consists of a 14-16 hour fast (primarily in the morning-mid afternoon) followed by an 8-10 hour feeding window. As far as I can tell, if you’re solely interested in intermittent fasting whilst maintaining or improving athletic ability, this is the most optimal approach to date.
I’ve incorporated his methods many times with much success and find myself reverting back to the fasting lifestyle as of late due to my constant yearning for simplicity and practicality.
Intermittent Fasting and Fat Loss
If you’ve been reading here for a while, you’re certainly familiar with the equation for fat loss. An energy deficit + time + adequate protein intake + resistance training will yield the most optimal ratio for fat loss and lean body mass retention.
When you combine intermittent fasting with fat loss, a plethora of benefits are in store.
First, as we all know, a restricted intake will eventually leave a person tired, cranky and performance will sometimes diminish if the proper precautions aren’t taken. Secondly, it’s common for the average dieter, who attempts to lose body fat, to perform too much exercise, and burn out rather quickly.
With intermittent fasting, contrary to popular belief, energy levels may actually increase during the fasting period due to catecholamine production and other increases in hormones such as noradrenaline. I’ve found a definite improvement in my ability to study and focus in the final hours of my fast (hours 14-18) and it seems to be my current fix (I refuse to take drugs) for this blasted ADD of mine.
However, while energy balance is what truly matters when trying to drop body fat, one of the biggest advantages intermittent fasting poses is the satiety factor. When most discuss dieting and it’s many woes, the multiple meal issue is one that comes up most frequently. For the majority of all informed fitness enthusiasts, it’s common to divide your daily intake into 5-6 small servings throughout the day.
The problem lies in the fact that many can’t stick to such a regimen for 2 reasons.
- It sucks to prepare that many meals – time constraints.
- Most of these meals are fit for a bird, which creates a compliance/satiety issue, especially for small females.
In my experience, as well as those I’ve worked with, feeling full is of utmost important in terms of adherence. If you cannot stick with the calorie guidelines to drop body fat, you won’t reach your goals.
In saying that, I find it most satisfying to eat only 2-3 meals per day when on a diet and to place them in a 6-8 hour window. This allows a person the time to prepare real, tasty food and it helps one to achieve a fed feeling that comforts the majority.
Who likes to be hungry all the time?
Intermittent Fasting and Muscle Gain
Another misconception that falls in line with the old weight loss ideals, is that in order to gain muscle, one must consistently be feeding their muscles with protein and carbohydrate, which often calls for an increase in meal frequency.
Then we also have the old idea whereas protein can only be digested in small amounts, therefore servings of more than 30 grams at one sitting are often wasteful. Thankfully, Alan Aragon discusses the protein digestion myth over at WannaBeBig and puts it to rest.
How does a muscle building plan utilizing fasting differ from a regular muscle building plan?
Meal frequency; that’s about it.
Within the feeding window, you’ll structure your meals with a pre and post workout intake just as you might on a more traditional muscle hypertrophy diet. Many tend to freak out about protein synthesis and fear being in a protein deficit for too long after their last meal. However, if one consumes a meal post workout and then one more a few hours later (usually a late dinner) and then breaks their fast at a similar time as the day before, there’s no need to worry about the perfect timing of your intake.
If you look at this study, you’ll notice that protein synthesis is elevated at about 4 hours post heavy lifting as well as peaking at 24 hours post training.
So let’s say the day before, one broke their fast at 1 p.m., trained at 3:30, had a post workout meal at 5 p.m. and then had their final meal around 9-10 p.m. They’ve taken advantage of the 4 hour mark and when they break their fast with a nice sized, protein-heavy meal at 1-2 p.m. the following day, there will be plenty of nutrients floating around in their blood stream during the 24 hour, post-training mark.
Since fasting improves insulin sensitivity, partitioning may be more favorable for those looking to adopt a fasting lifestyle and build muscle as the same time. This is also promising for the Former Fat Boy’s who’ve procrastinated embarking on a muscle building program due to fear of returning to their previous state of fluffiness.
Intermittent Fasting – A Healthy Lifestyle Approach
This is, by far, my favorite aspect of intermittent fasting. And in my opinion, I don’t believe there is an easier approach for the individual looking to maintain their physique, performance and conditioning.
For many, maintenance is often a very grey area. In our world as fitness enthusiasts, coaches, and competitors, it’s very rare to find oneself in a place where there are no set, definable goals. I don’t mean one has no goals to speak of, but when the usual goals like gaining weight, building muscle or losing body fat are far from top priority, finding a life balance renders difficult.
After all, it can be very arduous psychologically for the person so accustomed to pursuing specific physique-related goals to flip their focus to maintenance mode. If one has been at it for more than a minute, it’s common for old neuroses to flare up – worrying about training, getting enough calories, what’s happening to their physique despite no real training goals, etc.
With the often common worries shared among many individuals, I think it’s important to place focus on an approach that will
- Provide psychological benefits in terms of physical activity
- Set them up for success with as little extra effort as possible.
The psychological benefits I speak of are those related to physical activity and our desire to be active and healthy. For many of us, if one were to take our privileges of exercising away, it would likely equal our ruin – it would be completely devastating.
Therefore, even with a lifestyle approach to diet, maintaining a similar exercise plan a person is accustomed is of utmost value. However, it’s important to adjust some variables since the main focus is maintenance and preservation as opposed to an explicit goal of building muscle, strength or ridding yourself of adiposity. Ideally, one would periodize their training and do something they enjoy such as hiking and biking opposed to running on the boring treadmill.
The other side of the coin is having an approach that is easy to follow and requires very little micromanagement. After all, spending so much time on a specific goal, while a very rewarding experience, can become stressful and monotonous over the long haul.
Maintaining a worry-free, lifestyle approach should never be tedious or difficult to execute. It should be simple, effective and allow for ones focus on be on goals other than physique development via diet or training.
And this is why intermittent fasting can be an incredibly beneficial means to maintaining your physique with relative ease. Some of the benefits include
- Lower meal frequency which often correlates to more time spent doing important tasks other than meal preparation. Improved satiety is also important here, too.
- Mental clarity that is often present during the fasted state. I find whenever I am fasting until 1-2 p.m., I can focus much better on my work in the morning rather than trying to get it done in the evening.
- No more social anxieties when it comes to eating out. It’s often common for the fitness enthusiast to skip out on social functions when diet and exercise is constantly on the mind. However, coupling intermittent fasting with some sound approaches to social drinking, and you’re much more able to indulge a bit without any negative consequences.
- Makes for an easy vacation diet – Intermittent fasting makes it a lot easier to maintain your weight when going out on business trips, family outings or random traveling shenanigans.
Intermittent fasting is not the magic bullet you’ll find on late night television – but it’s pretty darn close.
It won’t take out your trash, wash your car, feed the dogs or pay your mortgage. It won’t make an already sub-par diet any better nor will it improve your strength or muscle gains by itself.
It can, however, help you lose fat and build muscle, assuming you adjust your intake accordingly. It can also serve as an extremely useful approach to maintaining your weight. Heck, it can even help you break your bad eating habits if you’re addicted to snacking and sugar pastries.
Since it’s impossible to cover everything, here are a few more sources to get you started in the right direction if you’re interested in educating yourself about the benefits of intermittent fasting.
- Leangains – I’ve linked to Martin a million times. His information is rock solid and backed by research. Check out his post on Fitness Black Book – Scorch Through Your Fat Loss Plateau.
- Mark’s Daily Apple – Is Intermittent Fasting Healthy? Mark has a ton of solid information as well on the subject of fasting. Be sure to check him out. The recipes on his site are also pretty awesome, too.
- Stop Eating Breakfast – check out this article a dear friend of mine wrote on the subject. Why You Should Be Skipping Breakfast.
So what about you? Have you ever incorporated intermittent fasting into your lifestyle? Regardless of whether you have or haven not, share your story in the comments.