Featured photo courtesy of twelvephoto.com.
NOTE BEFORE READING: I am someone with a history of eating a LOT, and not someone who’s ever struggled with an official eating disorder. My conclusions are based off of my experiences as a male weight-lifting enthusiast who aims to take his health to the highest possible level while still being flexible enough to truly enjoy life, and deal with random and continuing stressors as they arise.
Please take this context into consideration whilst reading.
My Introduction to Intermittent Fasting:
Intermittent fasting. When I first encountered the term many years ago, it freaked me right out. At the time, I was training heavily almost every day, had a gargantuan appetite almost all the time, and was locked into the mantra of 5-6 small meals per day, and never letting myself go more than three waking hours without a meal (and sometimes woke up hungry in the night and ate). Breakfast was absolutely necessary, ridiculously high-protein, and had to be within the first half hour of waking. All my ‘health’ resources at the time (Men’s Health, bodybuilding mags, internet articles) preached this approach. I saw this paradigm wherever I looked. During this period, it seemed indisputable to me that every other way to eat was inferior.
I came across a new resource for health information in late 2007. It was NaturalNews.com. Mike Adams is a super-duper health freak (also a bit nutty, but his intentions are good), so I started learning from some of his articles. I didn’t agree with his raw-vegan ways since I had tried and failed with vegetarianism, but he did know a lot about other facets of human health, and it was very different from everything else I’d ever seen on the subject. His articles mostly focused on the dangers of chemical exposure, how we should get lots of sunlight, and how bad meat and excess sugar is (the sugar part, I agreed with, and nobody likes factory farms…). I took it all with a grain of salt, but learned a lot of things that I still practice (I love Soap Nuts, something he introduced me to). My distrust of pharmaceutical companies and ditching of most scented hygiene products came directly from this guy, but that’s another article. Also, I got really into taking ‘algae pills’ (spirulina and chlorella) based on this guy’s advice, which I later ditched after a few vomit sessions immediately after ingestion (I must say, I can’t recommend that stuff, AT ALL), but again that’s another story.
He also ate lots of small meals, and preached the law of eating every 2-3 hours. In the summer of 2008; however, guest posts on his website started featuring “The Benefits of Fasting”. I can’t find the old articles now, but the benefits were all the typical stuff like:
- Your body gets ‘cleansed’
- You clear your mind/chi
- ‘Toxins’ are released
- It’s nature’s detox
The type of fasting the articles were suggesting was a fast 36 hours in length, where only calorie-free liquids were consumed, and since these were fairly intense hippie-types, of course it included all sorts of special herbal teas (dandelion root if I recall correctly), and the consumption of bentonite clay to ‘aid in detoxification’.
I was weirded out, and thought that it was something for non-athletes only. “Everyone” knew that you had to slam back protein of some kind every 2-3 hours, or your muscles would deflate! Muscles need those amino acids constantly, right?
Eventually, after reading a few more articles, curiousity got the best of me. I have always loved self-experimentation, and trying things that ‘regular’ people would immediately dismiss, so I gave it a try. I figured one day of fasting wouldn’t destroy six years of building muscle in the gym, and if there were any benefits, it was worth the tradeoff. I had some gastro-intestinal issues were flaring up from time to time during this period, and my mentality was “I’m going to give my gut a day off, and see if it heals up”. This mode of thinking lead to my first fast. Herbal teas, clay and all.
My First Attempts at Intermittent Fasting:
It was Labour Day long weekend 2008, and my roommate at the time (hey buddy!) was out of town, so I figured I could be weird and no one would know (not that I really care, but being alone made it easier to not eat). I decided on the 36-hour fast approach I read about on NaturalNews (which I now realize is a little too aggressive for a first-timer, but I digress). Basically, it was taking a full day off eating. I ate dinner one night, went to bed early, and made it the whole next day with only calorie-free beverages (water, herbal teas, bentonite clay suspension), and ate breakfast the next day.
I was shocked at how it really wasn’t that bad! Hunger came and went, and at times I felt a bit spaced-out, but really, I was not starving! My energy levels were actually okay and I didn’t feel as weak as I thought I would. The liquids kept that feeling of hunger in my stomach at bay, and I was surprisingly productive. If I recall correctly, I did two layers of paint (it was blue!) in my room, no problem. My roommate even called me to come pick him up from his camping trip (they biked out there, then ditched the idea of biking back due to the brutality of it all), and I was totally on-the-ball. I’m not sure what the herbal teas and clay did specifically, but it was nice to have something. I had a little trouble getting to sleep that night (pizza kept popping into my mind…), but woke up normally the next day, and was in no rush for breakfast. I ate my typical bacon and eggs, and then carried on like normal. My GI-issues were hugely suppressed for a short time after that, but then returned after a few days.
I got back into my old habits of eating at all times soon after that (it was, after all, ‘optimal’), and my normal GI issues continued. I had a stressful year of school that fall/winter, and was young and partying on the weekends (and the odd weeknight), so fasting was the furthest thing from my mind, despite my mostly positive experience.
In the fall of 2009, a full year after my first fast, I was frustrated with my GI issues, and was annoyed at how much work I was putting into making sure I had six meals a day prepped every day. I did some ‘Google’ research on meal timing and noticed that some people who were in fantastic shape and quite lean would talk about fasting like it was some source of super powers! These men and women (mostly men) would fast well into the day, lift heavy, and then eat like crazy and were reportedly throwing on muscle while losing fat at an amazing rate. They would only eat within specified “eating windows”. This was all done with little to no supplementation and very basic (yet still intense) strength training routines. They called it ‘intermittent fasting’: short periods (generally 16-36 hours) of fasting interspersed with periods of free-feeding. It was so against what I used to believe about needing a constant intake of nutrition that I initially rejected it. For a while, I thought these guys were masochistic, anorexic bozos.
I noticed Mark Sisson (my new guru, author and blogger at Mark’s Daily Apple) had written some articles about short-term fasts and the potential benefits, and talked about how to go about it. It fits in with the Primal ideology, as our ancestors would have routinely gone without food for a day here and there (food scarcity, failed-hunt, etc). My trust in Mark was high (still is!), so I figured I’d give it a try. Having already fasted once, and being no worse for wear from it, I was less skeptical going in this time. My appetite had been significantly reduced after going primal (more fat, way less carbs), and the fasts that Mark was suggesting were less intense than the 36 hours I had previously done, so I got back into it.
Mark suggested an approach that was much more random than a formal 36-hour fast. It was more of a ‘meal-skipping’ paradigm, where he simply suggested that if you weren’t hungry for a meal, skip it! Initially, I just ditched all snacks between meals, and ate the standard breakfast (~7 am), lunch (~12 pm), dinner (~6 pm). So, I was now going 5-6 hours without eating between meals, plus the overnight fast of about 11 hours. I must say, my GI issues were dramatically reduced (PLUS – I was now eating only Primal foods, which really cut my appetite down, and was low in irritating anti-nutrients). I would even skip a meal entirely here and there, but wasn’t strict about it. I was strength-training about 2-3x a week during this period as well, and getting stronger! My feelings of well-being were higher than they’d been in years (and stably so!), and I was sleeping great. GI issues were seemingly a thing of the past. Granted, at this point I had also given up on spirulina/chlorella, and was taking probiotics. The sum effect of it all brought my gut-health and energy levels back to what they were during my youth. It was working, and I was hooked!
A Step Further: Eat, Stop, Eat
I did a little more research (as I always do), and eventually came across Brad Pilon’s eBook “Eat, Stop, Eat” during January of 2010. This book honestly changed my life. This is Brad Pilon’s flagship book, and does a great job of explaining human metabolism, and what happens when you are fed vs. fasted. I devoured it. I learned that “starvation mode”, and the slowing of your metabolism by going without food for a time, only exists in extremely long periods of fasting (>72 hours). He recommended one or two 24-hour fasts a week, and then eating like normal when you are not fasting. This had to be combined with a resistance-training program (i.e. working out with weights or bodyweight). Lifting weights produces hormones that tell your body to cling to muscle and burn fat during a fast. It was a flexible approach. You stop eating at some point, and simply resume eating 24 hours later. Resistance training (working out with weights, or bodyweight) is an integral part of this program. In short, Brad explains by citing numerous scientific studies that resistance training combined with intermittent fasting can produce the following benefits:
- Muscle is spared during a fast, while body fat is accessed for energy
- Improved insulin sensitivity (this can reverse type-2 diabetes)
- Improved growth hormone levels (the same some people pay thousands for to have injected in them; a fat-burning, anti-aging hormone)
- Decreased blood glucose levels (a healthy level)
- Decreased chronic inflammation
- Increased cellular autophagy (scientists are beginning to believe that this can prevent a ton of disease later in life)
- Improved nutrient partitioning (using nutrients more effectively, since they aren’t coming in 24/7)
I jumped on board after reading this book, as I finally had a great scientifically-based explanation for why fasting can be healthy, and started fasting once a week for 24 hours. Initially, I remained flexible, and just did it whenever it was most convenient. It worked! I definitely lost fat while keeping all my muscle, and even gained some strength during this time. Some fasts were kinda lame (got hungry and grumpy here and there…), but other fasts I barely noticed it at all! It was usually when I was stressed or sleep deprived that fasting was harder. When I did eat, which was most of the time, I ate as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted (mostly sticking to a Primal list of foods – meats, veggies, fruits, nuts, etc.). Sleeping, when I wasn’t stressed, was all too easy during this time. I remember this period fondly. This approach lasted until about January of 2011, when I switched it up again.
If you’re interested in the Eat, Stop, Eat approach, you can check out the forum at http://www.eatstopeat.org/forums/forum/intermittent-fasting/.
A Fasting and Training Regimen: Leangains
Upon further Internet research, I found Leangains. Martin Berkhan is awesome and hilarious, straight up, and a great nutritionist, trainer, and scientist who thoroughly explained all of his theories and practices. He also combines resistance training with intermittent fasting, but in a daily 16-hour fast, followed by an 8-hour feeding window (10-hour feeding window for women, who don’t respond as well to fasting). Typically, the window is from 1-9 pm for men, or 11 am-9pm for women, but it was flexible enough to move to whatever suited the individual. He was so confident and strong, and his articles were so well researched and written, that I switched to this approach. Breakfast became a thing of the past, and intense barbell training combined with 2-3 huge meals within the 8-hour window became my life. On training days, a high-carb, lower-fat, high-protein diet was followed, while on rest days it was lower in carbs and higher in fat with protein being roughly equal. Also, on training days, 50%+ or your calories come post-workout, whereas on rest days your biggest meal is your first one. A calorie deficit was employed on rest days, along with a slight surplus on training days. I learned a ton about weight-training from Martin Berkhan, and to this day I still use his approach to strength. I made big gains on my lifts while getting leaner, just like I saw people doing online a couple years before that.
Leangains is an incredibly time-efficient and effective approach to building muscle and losing fat. There is no doubt that I owe a lot to Leangains, and I definitely see how it works brilliantly for a lot of people (at times, myself included). Below is a picture of me during the fall of 2011. To give some context to this picture, I was training Leangains style for the winter of 2011, but then in the summer my master’s degree research got extremely intense (grad school…), and I took a three-month break from any formal training or eating style. I just ate as best as I could, when I could, and tried to get enough sleep to keep my life together. I got through that period, and got back into Leangains for a couple of months, and then took this picture:
Taking It Too Far: The Downsides to the Regimen
With this approach I started to notice some negative effects on my life-style. Whereas before I was eating freely and intuitively (when I was hungry or it was convenient, and mostly primal foods, not worrying about how many carbs or fat or the amount of calories), I became locked into the Leangains regimented eating and training style, and started becoming more neurotic about it. I had to avoid carbs on rest days, and fat on training days. Even if I were hungry in the morning, I would pound coffee to force myself through into my specified eating window. My meal sizes had to be so big all the time, that if I ever ate out, I was spending $50 just to get enough food (all-you-can-eat sushi was very helpful here). It would sometimes take an entire hour to eat enough, then I’d be crazy stuffed and lazy. That was cool sometimes (I do like to eat large meals), but a real at other times when I was busy. Whenever I was in a position where I didn’t have access to enough food during the day, I would end up binging really late at night. I did this for a long time, and only a few months ago I realized that I had come full-circle. I had ditched my 5-6 meal a day regimen, became more flexible and incorporated occasional short-term fasts, only to get locked into a new regimen of fasting and overfeeding with specific macronutrient ratios every single day!
I actually started having thoughts like “Oh no! I’m hungry and it’s only 8 am! I screwed this up”. Or, I would have exact amounts of food and timing planned out, and when things got in the way, I would get really frustrated. Sometimes life would pop up, and I wouldn’t get enough sleep, or work would have me stressed out, and fasting would be detrimental, but I would still force myself through it believing in ‘the system’ over my own body’s signals. This is when fasting stops being healthy, and starts to become extra stress on your body. As I’ve talked about before on stress, an acute amount that is short-lived followed by recovery leads to the body adapting and getting stronger. Chronic stress, and adding stressors upon stressors without sufficient recovery, will mess you right up. The context of fasting is extremely important, as I will outline in the conclusions section below.
Don’t get me wrong, when properly executed, Leangains works, and works fast. Martin Berkhan has helped a lot of people achieve their goals. Unfortunately, in my experience, your life starts to revolve around it (which at times is OK, but not sustainable long-term). Not everyone has had this experience with it, and lots of smart people rave about it, and I have been one of those people. At this point in time, I now hesitate to point people towards this approach, and prefer that people just eat good food when they are hungry (and learn what ‘hunger’ really is), and lift weights at times that are convenient for them, and sleep well. If they can fit some fasting in here and there are no significant negative effects, then AWESOME. There are definitely health benefits.
Personally, I can now reflect on five years of experimenting with intermittent fasting, and draw some insightful conclusions. They are:
- Fasting in the right context combined with resistance training will indeed lead to less fat and more muscle along with a myriad of other health benefits
- Fasting is stressful on the body, and should be treated as a stressor
- Fasting should only be incorporated once your diet, exercise, and sleeping habits are dialed in, and you already feel good on a regular basis
- Fasting can be loosely planned, but is ideally intuitive (go by appetite)
- Fasts should not be forced; listen to your body. If you feel awful, end the fast.
- Fasting over 24 hours, while safe in the right context, has diminishing returns (See Eat, Stop, Eat)
- Fasting is the last box to tick off when you are getting healthier, as it’s something of an advanced manoeuvre
The most helpful thing I’ve really learned is that it’s very OK to skip a meal here and there if you’re not hungry or don’t have access to good food or out of convenience. It can actually be the healthiest choice sometimes! However, if it starts to become a dominant source of thought and stress, then the practicality of it disappears. That is when things get weird.
There is no “optimal” meal schedule, so stop looking for it. Listening to your body is the most important thing. I’ve stopped thinking about how many carbs vs. fat vs. protein I’m consuming, or how many calories. I still skip breakfast a lot of days (not every day), but only because sometimes it feels good and frees up time. I rarely go a full 24 hours anymore, and certainly not every week, but when I really do have no appetite, and no social obligation to eat, 18+hours does still happen, and quite frankly I enjoy it. I’ve just stopped specifying eating windows, and have gone back to a more random, intuitive approach. If occasional fasting is intuitive and easy and leads to less stress and neuroticism, then it is definitely healthy. If fasting turns into a stressful regimen, then it has to be re-evaluated.
You don’t have to eat any particular meal, in the same way that you don’t have to fast. You just have to get enough food, which varies day-to-day. It’s all good.
In the words of Brad Pilon:
Eat when you are hungry, and sleep when you are tired.
Until next time, my friends. I hope you learned something from this post! Basically, intermittent fasting is great. Just don’t over do it.