Featured story June 10, 2014
It doesn’t sound like fun, I know. And it isn’t for everyone, I acknowledge that. I had the same thoughts when I first learned about it. I thought, there’s no way I can go beyond 3 hours without a meal. I’ll just be too cranky and irritable.
But in the Spring of 2013, I decided to experiment with it but simply pushing back my first meal of the day. So, instead of eating breakfast at 8 AM, I would eat at 10 AM, try that for a few days, assess and then push it back a bit further until eventually I was fasting for 16 hours extended overnight. It became so easy because I was well adapted to this style of eating 3 big meals within an 8 hour window starting at 3 PM post-workout. Yes, I train fasted, sort of… I do take a BCAA and dextrose concoction I make throughout the workout to stave off muscle breakdown and give my glucose levels a boost for energy.
Meal 1 begins at 3 PM. Last meal ends at 11 PM. Repeat.
For over a year now I have followed this exact protocol without failure. I have used it successfully for fat loss and for muscle gains. I’ll be totally honest by saying that I was first attracted to trying intermittent fasting due to the fat loss benefits, without later realizing the cogent evidence in the scientific literature suggesting its health benefits.
That was a secondary reason. Now, it’s the first.
Before I delve into the most commonly used intermittent fasting protocols, let’s look at why it’s worthwhile to consider. It has been shown to increase longevity and prevent disease by slowing down cellular aging. Specifically speaking, caloric restriction and fasting activates the SIRTUIN genes that control cell death when needed, promote DNA repair and cellular longevity – all things we want (1).
Furthermore, intermittent fasting has cardio protective benefits, decreases inflammation, decreases fasting glucose levels, improves insulin sensitivity, reduces oxidative stress and reduces body fat (2, 4). Perhaps even more compelling fastings ability to induce autophagy, which is the cells own self-destructive mechanism that involves the degeneration and recycling of cellular dysfunctional components to synthesize new ones. This is favorable because if a damaged cell sticks around, it becomes a malignant neoplasm, aka cancer. Thus, fasting prevents cellular aging and enhances cellular repair (6).
A quick word on the opposite of intermittent fasting. The 5-6 meal pattern.
Part of the issue I have with the popular small, frequent 6 meal protocol is that insulin is constantly being pumped out by the pancreas and we know that fat burning (lipolysis) becomes quite difficult when this occurs. Even more worrisome is the constant blood sugar fluctuations are unfavorable to say the least, despite what magazines and the media tell you.
The common justifications you hear to eating every 3 hours:
“I want to avoid low blood sugar”
“I will go into starvation mode and stop losing weight”
“I don’t want to be nutrient deficient”
“My performance will suffer”
All of these excuses are poor at least with no validity. With regard to starvation mode, this is simply not true unless you’ve fasted for 60+ hours…then metabolism begins to decline and chew up muscle for energy. But under 60 hours, you reap the benefits of fasting, plus, guess what… metabolism actually increases (3). Fasting periodically allows you to be more metabolically flexible so you can use fat for energy more efficiently.
Putting aside adversity of burning fat with frequent (carb dense) meals, elevated blood sugar poses a problem for all sorts of perilous conditions like AGEs (advanced glycation end products), free radical damage induced oxidative stress which leads to insulin resistance, diabetes and potentially metabolic diseases. I mentioned in my last blog post how a high sugar diet is detrimental to the body. Well, carbs are sugar too. 6 meals a day with carbs in each meal may not be a problem for everyone and I’m not saying it is. There are many variables including individuality that need to be considered, but you will be facing an uphill battle with fat loss, eventually if you’re strive for ultimate leanness.
The one thing all people who live long, prosperous lives have in common is blood glucose control.
Fair warning. Intermittent fasting is best reserved for those who exercise often, can control food intake, have a flexible lifestyle and have low stress.
So now you’ve seen the fat loss and real life health benefits of intermittent fasting and here’s some of the popular protocols you can explore.
The 24-Hour Fast (Eat-Stop-Eat) Model
Plain and simple. Fast for 24 hours. This is basically a once a week type of thing, maybe two if you’re ambitious and have much fat to lose, but your brain will probably hate you. I don’t imagine many people using this model because it’s suited for those who want to reap the health benefits more so than the body composition benefits. Because insulin is suppressed for so long, your body burns through all the stored carbs in muscle and liver glycogen and eventually switches to fat tissue. When low insulin is combined with an acute rise in growth hormone during fasting and sleep, your body becomes a fat incinerator.
Water, tea, greens supplements and possibly BCAA are fair game. Training is probably going to be avoided since food is not available, so schedule a rest day on this day. This is a tough protocol and takes some practice working up to if you feel so inclined.
The 16/8 Model
This is the protocol I follow because it’s more realistic, easier and can be done daily. Just push back your first meal a few hours until you’ve reached a total fast of 16 hours and then eat your allotted calories within an 8-hour window. If it’s too difficult ladies, you can try to shorten it to a 14-hour fast with a 10-hour feeding window. This is a great model if you want to achieve ultimate leanness, which I imagine many of us do. It’s easier for men who are under 15% body fat and want to achieve single % body and for women who are under 22% and strive for near competition status leanness.
Train fasted and take in an intra-workout drink of 5-10g of BCAA and I’ll say 5g of glutamine too if you have it. If your goal is to lose fat, have your first AND largest meal post-workout containing most of your daily allotted starchy carbs. You’ll be looking at 2-3 big meals during your 8-hour window. This approach can be used for muscle gains as I can attest to that.
36 Hour Fast - Alternate Day Fasting
I think it’s brutally clear that this is the most intense and self-disciplined protocol. It’s a very long time without eating that I personally have not tried, nor am I interested in, but hey, if you want to give it a shot, go for it. I think the enormous health benefits are here for people who have health complications and have a dire need for improved glucose and insulin control. Evidence supports that this protocol reduces oxidative stress, DNA damage, improves insulin sensitivity and increases fat loss (5).
Now, certainly you could virtually make up any fasting protocol. 18, 26, 33.5 hour fast. Whatever you desire. The goal here is to just lengthen your non-eating time. If you think about it, say we stop eating at 9 PM and we eat breakfast around 7 or 8 AM, that’s only 10-11 hours of fasting when you’re asleep for most of it.
I’m not saying everyone must adopt intermittent fasting. I’m simply just presenting the science and proven therapeutic benefits allowing you to make your own informed decision. It’s just ONE approach to a goal. Not the only one. But when I see the longevity and disease prevention benefits, intermittent fasting becomes instantly captivating to me. So, wouldn’t you say it’s worthy of reflection and consideration?
I sure think so.