I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you probably ate a ****load of food last night while watching the Super Bowl (Google definitely had the best ad, by the way).
You’re thinking to yourself, “I put on five pounds last night, how the hell do I get back on track?” I’m going to introduce a seemingly ridiculous concept to you, one that I hadn’t ever considered until doing the research:
Sounds like the worst thing ever, right? Starving yourself on purpose? “TOTALLY LAME,” as Awesome-O would say.
Well, if you’ve been unsuccessful at losing weight, if you’ve lost weight but you’ve hit a plateau, or if you just want to try something new, this might be the jump start you need.
Disclaimer: this is just my opinion based on my research and reading. This is less of a recommendation article rather than an eye-opener and call for discussion. I do present my opinion at the end though, and I’d love to hear yours.
Diets – Six Meals For the Win?
For years, the concept of lots of small meals throughout the day really clicked with me.
If you space out your meals evenly, keep your calorie count low, you’ll lose weight, right? I’ve even talked about how breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Lots of people follow the “eat multiple meals a day” ideology and lose weight, so it works. Less calories, more meals, evenly spread out. It makes sense.
However, I’ve recently done some research and reading on IF…which also makes a lot of sense to me. By not eating every once a while, your body has to burn the fat in your system for energy, which would lead to weight loss. Also, by not eating for twenty four hours, you’re pushing your body into a calorie deficit, which also leads to weight loss. It makes sense.
So, how can these two seemingly conflicting ideologies both make sense? Simple – they both allow your body to burn more calories than you consume. And, if other research on the body’s physiology while fasting is to be believed, there are multiple other benefits as well.
Let’s get down to business.
What the Hell is Intermittent Fasting?
IF is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: you purposely avoid eating for a twenty-four hour period (or two) during the week. Why? Because recent studies have shown that your metabolism operates more on a marathon basis (how many calories consumed over a long period of time) than on a sprint basis (what you ate yesterday). Prior to this research, I was giving way too much credit to my stomach – it’s not nearly as intelligent as I thought. Think long term when it comes to calories consumed and burned, not short term.
Mark over at Mark’s Daily Apple has a great write-up on the evolutionary science behind fasting. Mark runs one of the most thorough and successful paleo diet blogs out there, and I highly value his opinion. I love looking into the evolutionary aspects of diet and fitness, and I’m often very weary of any new “breakthrough” that requires a pill or drink or anything. We’ve survived as a species for tens of thousands of years with diet, exercise, and intelligence.
Fasting is one of those evolutionary aspects that makes complete sense to me.
How Does it Work?
Our bodies are genetically engineered to deal with feast or famine. 10,000 years ago, surprisingly there was no free All-Star Slam Breakfast from Denny’s! Our bodies need fuel to operate, and if there isn’t any food in the stomach to pull from, it uses the fat stored within the body for energy. The fat gets burned for energy, the body keeps moving, and thus becomes leaner.
Secondly, because of these skipped meals, you are putting your body into a calorie deficit (averaged out for the week). Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so start thinking of your calories more in terms of weekly units rather than daily amounts, if that helps. More calories burned compared to calories consumed = weight loss!
Here’s a video from Brad over at Eat Stop Eat (which reads like an infomercial, ugh…but it’s legit) explaining the similarities between fasting and exercise. He also wrote a guest post over on Fitness Black Book. I considered setting up an affiliate link for Brad’s e-book in case you’re interested in purchasing it, but I didn’t want you to think I wrote this article to get affiliate money. Instead, you can form your own opinion, and then buy Brad’s book if you’re interested.
How Do You Do It?
Simple: pick a day (or two) per week and purposely skip breakfast and lunch, and then eat a normal dinner. Brad over at Eat Stop Eat recommends doing this type of fasting once or twice a week – for example, a fast on Monday, and then another one on Thursday. Liquids are okay on fasting days, just not ones with calories. Heyoooo H2O!
If you’re used to eating a LOT of food, and you normally eat a big breakfast, this is going to be a pretty big drastic change. Start by skipping breakfast and see how your body reacts to it. If you can handle that, work your way up to skipping breakfast and lunch. Notice that I’m not saying you should skip breakfast and lunch every day. Eat normally five days a week, try a fast one of the other days for a few weeks and see how your body reacts.
Eat, don’t eat, and then eat. Got it?
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
A recent article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition gives a great overview of these benefits which include decreases in blood pressure, reduction in oxidative damage to lipids, protein and DNA, improvement in insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake, as well as decreases in fat mass.” This study discusses studies done with humans (not mice) specifically.
From the LA times: Mark P. Mattson, chief of the laboratory of neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging: “In normal health subjects, moderate fasting — maybe one day a week or cutting back on calories a couple of days a week — will have health benefits for most anybody.”
I’d like to see more studies, with better controls done for more solid proof of these benefits, but I expect that to happen soon.
Risks of Intermittent Fasting
So, all we see so far are GOOD things about not eating for a full day. What the hell is BAD about it? First off, I can see myself getting extremely hungry to the point of annoyance when starting out this process. This is echoed by Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian in Burbank and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn: “You’re hungry, fatigued, irritable. Fasting is not very comfortable. People try to cut back one day and the next day they’re starving and they overeat.”
I imagine there is quite the learning curve for your body when it has to switch from using readily accessible carbs for energy to using your body’s fat stores, so I can see the first few fasting days being extremely difficult. NF Reader Matt makes a great point in the comments that I’m reposting here for all to see:
“One thing I think people who are considering this should ask themselves – how are you at controling your hunger at the moment? Losing weight is all about consuming less calories than you burn. The biggest obstacle to this is hunger. That is, uncontrollable hunger. If you are starving yourself on 800 calories a day, then you will be much more likely to binge and go way over your calorie goal. So it becomes important to eat when you are hungry, not when you are starving.”
Moral of the story? Don’t overdo it – if you feel light headed and you can’t function, EAT SOMETHING. Listen to your body, and find a way to make it work for you. We only get one chance on this planet, so make it count.
Have I tried It Yet?
Honestly, I haven’t. Well, not on purpose anyway. The idea of skipping a meal or two goes against everything I’ve done for the past seven years. If you’re a person who is used to eating a lot of food all day long, this probably scares the crap out of you too. However, considering the fitness gurus and researchers that I read all highly recommend this type of “diet,” I’d be stupid if I didn’t give it a shot. After all, if I can’t practice what I preach then I’m being dishonest to myself and to you all.
My biggest concern was losing more weight and muscle mass. Then I saw that Craig Ballantyne, another fitness dude whose opinion I really respect, gained 13 pounds, most of which was muscle, while doing IF. If he can do it, so can I.
Lastly, I was worried I wouldn’t have enough energy to get through a workout if I didn’t eat beforehand. However, after doing my research on IF, I did a test-workout this past Saturday in a fasted state and had zero problem getting through the routine. That was a big boost for me to move forward with writing this article and planning to try it out myself.
I’m going to try this one day this week, I’ll let everybody know how it goes. I still expect to build muscle and put on some pounds, even when skipping the first two meals of the day occasionally.
Do I Recommend It?
This is tough for me. Because I haven’t done it yet, I’m cautious about throwing my whole support behind the concept. However, I do believe that this is another system that will definitely work for many people (but not all). It’s just like every other successful diet: eat good foods, and don’t eat too much.
This is my recommendation:
- Is your current plan working? Good! Don’t change it!
- Is your current plan NOT working? Give this a shot.
If you only get ONE thing from this whole article, it’s this: there is more than one way to lose weight, so don’t worry about your method being the best. The best diet is the one that makes you lose weight and keeps you healthy. If you’re already losing weight, keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re not, maybe do a little bit more reading on IF and give it a shot.
My advice? Do it the day after you’ve stuffed yourself, and balance things out. In terms of losing the most weight the quickest, I’d probably recommend the Paleo Diet and intermittent fasting with weight training in the gym.
So what are your thoughts? Have you tried fasting before? Successful or miserable failure? Will you give a shot? If so, please post your stories, thoughts, successes, concerns in the comments and we’ll see if this is something we can all wrap our heads around.
PS- Message Board Update – The message boards are still in ‘beta testing,’ but I would love to add some more readers to the mix to help me test it out. We have about 20 readers contributing already , keeping track of their workouts, encouraging each other, etc, and I want some more! If you’re interested in helping kick start the NF message boards, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get you an invite.
picture – Undronotto