How to Get Started With Intermittent Fasting

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:

Intermittent Fasting.

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.  10,00 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, iif 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.


Brad Pilon – Eat Stop Eat

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.

-Steve

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 [email protected] and I’ll get you an invite.

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picture – Undronotto

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  • Aniruddh Naidu

    Yes you are right. And, various cultures have different rules for fasting. But what I want to say is every species someway or other have developed themselves to not to eat for a long period of time. The modern human calls it fasting, the earlyman called it not availability of food, and many creatures can stay hungry if food is not available. It is a part of evolution. I mean the species which cannot live without food for sometime ( I mean in acceptable limits) will not survive. So, I think fasting for us is natural. I accept that we cannot start fasting on a regular basis all of a sudden, but we can teach our body to stay without food for a certain period of duration.

  • katonge

    There are several fasting methods that have many ardent followers. I’ve tried Fast Five – only eat during a 5 hour period each day, Alternate Day Fasting or Up Day Down Day – 500 calories on the Fast Day & eat normally on the alternate day. I did lose weight with both methods and I certainly felt better overall, but I think the biggest lesson I learned was to not be afraid of hunger. In my experience the hunger isn’t steady, it comes in waves and goes again, so you learn to expect it and know that it won’t stay around for long. Before long your stomach shrinks and the hunger lessens and is even easier to deal with.

  • christeena

    My family naturally does intermittent fasting. We simply do not eat throughout the day, except for dinner. The only exception we really make is over the weekend. This is mostly due to lack of time and money …

    However, our family is all obese! I don’t think this diet works on it’s own: we need to eat the right foods, (which are unfortunately also very expensive), and supplement with exercise. These are the more difficult habits to maintain (due to lack of time and money), but necessary if we want to be more healthy.

  • Anonymous

    So I just so I make this clear it’s a Monday and you don’t eat at all for a whole day then the rest of the week you eat normally then repeat?

  • Ahmad

    Hello There,
    Stumbled upon this article and wanted to put my two cents in.
    I practice Ramadan once a year, I am not Muslim but was raised by a Muslim father.
    I used to hate the idea of not eating from dawn to dusk for 30 days.
    This last year in 2013, I did Ramadan and I was working out in the gym 5 day a week. I was afraid of energy levels and motivation to workout would decrease. So I started reading about Intermittent Fasting, and it looked safe to fast and workout.
    My results were amazing, I had more energy then before, I was losing fat at a fast rate.
    I would recommend doing Intermittent Fasting for the day(drinking lots of water) and breaking the fast around 7pm. Eat lots of healthy carbs, and protein and fats to energize your body for the next day.
    Ramadan is 30 days, and I survived with great results. Doing it one or two days a week should be easy. Just remember that you just have to be patient your mind and body are not use to not eating, but after a while you will learn how to control your mind and its an amazing feeling.
    I wish you the best of luck.

  • Vince Costanzo

    Fasting is not something to do daily. Our bodies are highly complex organisms that will adapt to the amount of calories we take in, “high” or “low”. It comes down to the quality of food that you eat which will determine the level of fat you carry. If you are obese, DO NOT CONCERN YOURSELF WITH FASTING. If you truly care to lose weight and feel better about yourself, try to space out your meals throughout the day and focus on healthy habits. Also, a pound of apples at the grocery store typically costs the same as a 6oz box of frozen pizza snacks and 1lb > 6 oz. In other words, DON’T GIVE ME THAT BULLSHIT THAT IT’S TOO EXPENSIVE TO EAT HEALTHY!

    I’m sorry for yelling. It’s going to take hard work and if you have the desire to do so, please go into it slowly. Exercise is great, but diet is most important when it comes to weight loss. I may not know you, but if you really want it, I know you can do it!

    Sincerely,
    A former chubby fella

  • rami boom boom hurricane

    “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”
    with this said, do you think if you binged on purely paleo food after IF, would you be alright? I have a problem with binging after long periods of not eating. If after 24hrs of not eating, i had a massive bowl of veggies and a big ol steak, would that be ok?

  • Lottie

    So I have just sat and read through every single comment left on this article (which is great by the way) and have noticed that the majority are all people who have pretty active lifestyles – doing workouts at least once a week for a lengthy amount of time. I myself have gained a lot of weight (90lbs) in the last two years for a few reasons, the main one due to not being very active (I work in an office and by the time I get home it’s usually quite late) I wouldn’t say I have a bad diet, I generally have 3 staple meals a day or at least lunch and dinner. Currently I am not gaining any weight but I’m not losing anything either. What I really want to know is would IF be something that would work for someone who doesn’t have the capabilities to spend a lot of time working out and exercising? I’d love to give this a go but am slightly concerned that my body will just store the meals I do eat as I’m not actively burning anything off.

  • laurel sheldon

    I’ve done this for a while without realizing it was IF just because I noticed I feel better. If I’ve eaten too much the day before, I notice I’m not that hungry the next day so I skip breakfast and lunch and have a light dinner. I don’t do a strenuous workout but go for a nice long walk. I also know a woman that told me her aunt who was overweight, had diabetes , high blood pressure and a few other health problems started totally fasting every other day and within a short while ALL of her medical problems were gone! Really! She has kept it up just because she feels so good. So I would recommend anyone to try it. Also a friend told me he lost a lot of weight once just eating HALF of what he normally would (1/2 instead of a whole hamburger, etc). That’s a great plan too if you want to eat the foods you like and still lose weight. Hope this helps someone.