Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to choose between abs or enjoying food? With intermittent fasting you get exactly that. Using it, I eat what I want and stay very lean. It also has some major potential benefits for health, including anti-cancer and anti-aging effects.
- Background: Years of Yo-Yo Dieting
- Physical Culture’s Fear of Not Eating (No, Your Muscles Won’t Fall Off)
- What Is Intermittent Fasting?
- The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Background: Years of Yo-Yo Dieting
Being lean always used to mean lots of tiny meals and constantly fighting the urge to eat nice food. So much for the saying nothing tastes as good as lean and mean feels. Sure, being in shape was nice, but the dietary restriction wasn’t. I eventually broke every time, binging my way back to fatness.
The truth is I’m a foodie, which is why I can’t maintain low body fat on a traditional eating pattern of many small meals per day. The meals just aren’t big enough to fit decent servings of the food I want to eat, and I end up feeling resentful and deprived.
Physical Culture’s Fear of Not Eating (No, Your Muscles Won’t Fall Off)
It took a long time to even entertain the idea of intermittent fasting. I was steeped in the bodybuilding magazine mythology that says you need to eat many meals every day, both to grow muscle and “keep the metabolism stoked” so as not to get fat.
I was paranoid that less frequent eating would cause strength and performance loss, immediate obesity, as well as severe muscular atrophy.
I eventually opened my mind enough to give intermittent fasting a try. My muscles didn’t fall off, quite the opposite actually. I’ve substantially increased muscle mass and strength since starting intermittent fasting, and many others have reported the same. (See Is Intermittent Fasting Bad for Muscle? for more.)
Not only that, but I enjoy the lifestyle so much that I don’t see myself ever going back to a more conventional way of structuring diet.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
The simplicity of intermittent fasting belies it’s power. After all, it’s just going without food for a given period, then eating within a certain time frame.
Some people theorize that spending more time not eating is closer to how our ancestors ate (because of food scarcity), therefore a more optimal match for how we’ve evolved.
The body’s system of clearing out damaged cells and regenerating is reported to be better able to operate with a longer period of not eating—these maintenance processes don’t seem to function as well with a constant influx of food.
The Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
There are many benefits to intermittent fasting, ranging from sheer practicality to potential life-extension. Health benefits aside, from a body composition perspective there are two huge advantages of intermittent fasting over how most people eat.
Although I’m no longer an obese foodie on the outside, I am at heart, which is why I’m so tickled at this. It’s like finding one of life’s cheat modes.
Less frequent eating means more calories per meal.
That’s profound if you’re a fellow foodie. It enables ultimate flexibility in food choice, which means you can choose to eat really good amounts of high caloric density food—chocolate, fast food, whatever. Have your fill without exceeding an intake that will cause fat gain.
True, you can still choose to have treats and remain within your caloric limits with regular eating. But unless your maintenance energy intake is unusually high, servings have to be minuscule because you’re splitting your calories over more meals. For me that always felt like a mere taste, and resulted in binging—I’d either immediately lose control and stuff my face, or more often just deny myself until the desire built up to a point that ended the same way.
Counterintuitively, my hunger was never more pronounced and hard to resist than when I had eight meals per day.
Equally counterintuitively, hunger is almost non-existent with intermittent fasting.
This is an incredible advantage for fat loss phases and goes a long way towards guaranteeing success—irresistible hunger being one of the main reasons diets fail.
Honestly, for me those aspects of intermittent fasting are worth it on their own, and I’d probably do it even just for being able to eat dessert every day.
But there’s even more besides.
Two More Practical Advantages
Fewer meals means far less food preparation and more time for other things.
Enhanced focus and productivity. Fasting has a nootropic effect.
This from an NCBI article:
Fasting has been practiced for millennia, but only recently studies have shed light on its role in adaptive cellular responses that reduce oxidative damage and inflammation, optimize energy metabolism and bolster cellular protection. In lower eukaryotes, chronic fasting extends longevity in part by reprogramming metabolic and stress resistance pathways. In rodents intermittent or periodic fasting protects against diabetes, cancers, heart disease and neurodegeneration, while in humans it helps reduce obesity, hypertension, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Thus, fasting has the potential to delay aging and help prevent and treat diseases while minimizing the side effects caused by chronic dietary interventions.
Summed up by Harriet Hall at Science Based Medicine:
Basically, intermittent fasting has potential benefits for anti-aging, cancer, cognitive function, inflammation, hypertension, and the metabolic syndrome …
Although she notes that current evidence is insufficient to justify making clinical recommendations.
From a Psychiatry Research review:
Many clinical observations relate an early (between day 2 and day 7) effect of fasting on depressive symptoms with an improvement in mood, alertness and a sense of tranquility reported by patients.
This study showed a regenerative effect on the immune systems of mice fasted for three days.
Relevant for our purposes here? Possibly not, but anecdotally I’ve noticed a marked decrease in my incidence of sickness. Indeed, over roughly the last year my girlfriend has had four colds, all of which I resisted.
I haven’t been sick for going on two years now. Take that for what it’s worth—it could be coincidence, and obviously isn’t proof of anything, but I suspect my fasting might have something to do with it.
Summary of Potential Health Effects
The science isn’t yet definitive, but intermittent fasting potentially:
- Has anti-aging effects.
- Has anti-cancer effects.
- Improves cognitive function.
- Reduces inflammation.
- Reduces hypertension.
- Improves symptoms of metabolic syndrome.
- Reduces symptoms of depression.
- Improves immune system function.
There are two main intermittent fasting protocols people use:
- Within day fasting, popularized most recently through Leangains by Martin Berkhan. This is a daily 16 hour fast followed by an eating window of 8 hours.
- Whole day fasting, popularized most recently through Eat Stop Eat by Brad Pilon. One or two 20-24 hour fasts per week. Normal eating for the rest of the time.
There’s no singular best way to incorporate fasting into your life. If you decide to try it, preferences and lifestyle should steer your course of action, and in time experimentation will reveal what’s right for you.
How I Do It
I’ve never done Eat Stop Eat—it doesn’t appeal at all because I like daily eating too much. I also like the nootropic effect of fasting every day.
I started with Leangains, but have adapted it a bit. Instead of the 16/8 approach, it’s closer to 20/4, ie, a 20 hour fast followed by two or three meals split over four hours. However, length of fast and meal size are subject to change, depending on overall calorie intake, preferences, and other life circumstances.
My first one or two meals are normally low-calorie, comprising lean protein and lots of vegetables.
My last meal is much bigger, and that’s the one in which I indulge my foodie-ism, and eat whatever treats I feel like (although I still include vegetables and protein).
Fasting protocols often involve timing workouts around meals and the use of branch-chained amino acid supplements, both of which I think fall into the category of sweating the small stuff.
I workout whenever, mid-fast or not, my first meal is often many hours later, and I’ve never touched a BCAA supplement in my life. Research shows that as long as you eat enough overall and provide a sufficient training stimulus, you’ll grow muscle just fine. Meal timing and supplementation account for very little.
It’s important to know that Intermittent fasting involves an adaptation period. If you leap straight into it, chances are you’ll feel absolutely awful—shaky, ravenous, and foggy-headed.
As such, it’s recommended that you gradually increase the fasting time till you meet the guidelines of your chosen protocol.
Patience isn’t a strong suit of mine, and I can attest that diving into it does indeed lead to feeling pretty rough. However, I adapted such that I can go very long periods without food and not even notice. It’s not unusual for me to glance at the clock and realize it’s 6 PM, I’ve had nothing to eat all day, but I feel great.
Few things in life are one-size-fits-all, and diet is no different. Intermittent fasting would be completely inappropriate for a person who needs to eat 10,000 Calories per day while they trek through the wilderness, or a drug-using bodybuilder who needs a lot of food to put on weight, for instance.
Others simply don’t like it. Adherence is one of the main considerations for diet and staying lean and healthy, which means enjoyment and preferences are critical. There’s no sense forcing yourself to fast if you simply don’t like it, regardless of the theoretical benefits.
I admit I’m a bit of an intermittent fasting evangelist. At the same time, I recognize it’s not for everyone; for various reasons people find it unsuitable.
But when it clicks, boy does it click. Being a foodie with a history of obesity, if you told me when I first got into fitness and nutrition I could be lean and muscular at the same time as eating plenty of “junk food”, I’d simply not have believed you.
All feedback and questions welcome, I’d love to hear from you—just use the comments box below or send me an email.