I have a dirty little diet secret. I used to be ashamed to talk about it, until recently. Conventional diet beliefs denounce this method and here I am, an accredited health and fitness expert, trainer and health coach practicing something I would never preach (until now). The secret I’ve been hiding is intermittent fasting, an eating pattern that flies in the face of accepted norms.
Why come out now? Because in recent years books espousing various versions of the “diet” make it an emerging trend. Although evangelists have proclaimed miraculous results, The Canadian Medical Association Journal concurs that there is a large body of research supporting the health benefits of fasting and, “the results have been promising.”
When I started doing it, there was no name for it. It was something my lifestyle dictated when I started training at 6 a.m. most days of the week and 7 a.m. on weekends. I was not about to start getting up earlier than 5 to make some oatmeal. Coffee was all I could manage. I also noticed that on days when I did have breakfast, it would spark my appetite and I’d wind up eating more over the course of the day. It’s commonly known that breakfast eaters tend to be healthier and weigh less than their meal skipping counterparts, so I was embarrassed to tell people I didn’t eat breakfast and that I’d workout on a stomach containing only caffeine and some supplement infused water. I just felt better working out in a fasted state then, eating a big meal after. Turns out, my instincts, according to intermittent fasting proponents, may be spot on. Who knew?
Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern where you increase the window of time in a day that you fast (water, tea and coffee — not mocha lattes — are fine) and decrease the number of hours you can eat. For example, fasting from dinner until lunch the next day. It is the opposite of the highly touted “frequent, small meal” plan which always reminds me of Nancy Reagan. If you’re old enough to remember, that’s the program she lauded for keeping her trim and weighing about as much as a Border Collie. When you think about our ancestors, they ate very irregularly and didn’t have Tupperware to store their five or six meals for the day. Even today, food insecurity is a problem in both the U.S. and the world. It’s logical to assume our bodies were designed to not need food every few hours.
Human clinical trails on IF are still in their infancy. Most of the relevant studies have been done on lab animals. But that hasn’t stopped the architects and advocates of the most popular IF diets from extolling its miracles. Some evidence suggests that, when done correctly, IF can:
No wonder health and fitness fanatics along with those in search of a fantastic physique are giving it a go. But which version? When I saw Dr. John Berardi, chief science officer of Precision Nutrition, was giving a lecture on intermittent fasting at the IDEA World Conference recently, I asked if we could meet to discuss his ebook, “Experiments With Intermittent Fasting.” In this book, Dr. Berardi tries out five different methods on himself, chronicling his experience. Here’s a primer on the different techniques he tested.
1.One full-day fast per week similar to Brad Pilon’s book, “Eat Stop Eat.”
2. Two full-day fasts per weeks similar to Dr. Michael Mosley’s “5:2 Fast Diet,” which he did a documentary about on the BBC. This plan is not quite as radical as “The Every Other Day Diet” which is fasting every other day, but eating as much as you want on alternating days. On both plans, you are allowed to eat 500 or 600 calories on the fasting days.
4. Daily 16-hour fast / 8-hour feed with one full day fast.
5. Daily 16-hour fast / 8-hour feed with two days of 20 hour-fast / 4-hour feed. The 20 / 4 plan is similar to Ori Hofmeklr’s “Warrior Diet.”
All protocols worked to get him to his goal of losing 20 pounds and shredding up although there were some ups and downs. His key takeaways:
A. Trial fasting is a great way to practice managing hunger. Anyone trying to lose weight and stay fit knows they’re no fun to be around when they’re hangry.
B. The IF experiments (bigger meals, less frequently) worked well for losing fat and maintaining or gaining muscle. But, it isn’t objectively better for losing fat than more conventional diets (smaller meals, more frequently).
C. More regular fasting made it easier to maintain a lower body weight and body fat percentage vs. conventional diets. But IF isn’t easy.
D. IF can work but it’s not for everyone, and is just one of many effective approaches, for improving health, performance, and body composition.
- Controlling calories.
- Focusing on high quality, fresh, unprocessed, nutrient dense food.
- Stressing regular exercise.
What all IF protocols share is expanding the window of time you go without food (i.e., 16, 24 or 36 hours) and shrinking the amount of time you can eat (i.e., 4, 8, or 12 hours). Since maintaining muscle mass is a key attribute, fasting for longer than 36 hours is not advised. Fasting for longer than normal and working out in a fasted state forces the body to burn fat once it runs out of glycogen stores. But going too long without food will backfire and cause the body to start breaking down muscle. Also, there’s a good chance you won’t get enough nutrients, so proper supplementation may be needed.
Of course there are certain people who should not try IF. Pregnant women, people with eating disorders, diabetes, hypoglycemia, etc. Discuss it with your doctor if you have any health conditions or concerns. Hormones will be affected. And, you also have to consider whether it will fit comfortably into your lifestyle — it does take some time to get used to. As for me, someone who’s been doing it by accident for many years, because I’m too lazy to prepare a bunch of small meals or wake up extra early to make breakfast, it works well. I’ve also noticed that after 16 hours of fasting, food tastes a lot better!