Well, it looks like it might be Summer(?).
For me, Spring and Summer mean new beginnings and fresh starts. For the last few years, I’ve used this time as an opportunity for experimentation on myself. As a fitness and nutrition professional, I feel a responsibility to try things that may be of use to my clients or me as a tool or lifestyle change. After all, if I'm not comfortable trying it myself, I don't think I should be telling you to either.
Last year it was The Master Cleanse, which you can read about here. Long story short, I found the week long fast to be an interesting personal challenge filled with lots of naps and disdain for others, but other than that was less than enthused by my experience, and have so far recommended it to exactly zero clients.
This year, I’m trying Intermittent Fasting. IF has become en-vogue lately, and like most new practices, has experienced an avalanche of purported benefits from experts, celebrities and anyone who likes to believe they’ve found the newest, latest and greatest thing and/or just want to sell books and magazines.
Despite the tone of cynicism in the above, I believe that Intermittent Fasting can and probably does have benefits. HOWEVER, the vast majority of people I talk to, meet or hear about doing a form of Intermittent Fasting are not necessarily great candidates for such a plan. More on that later.
So, what is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting is a loose term that can apply to a variety of protocols. These protocols have a window of “feeding” and a window of “fasting”. (I bet you could sell a lot of books if you were just able to change the name from "feed window" to something more sexy and less equine sounding). The feeding windows can be as much as 6 days with one day of fasting, or as little as 6-8 hours with 16-18 hours of fasting. Typically, a workout is performed during this fast, preferably at the very end, when the most amount of readily available energy sources have been depleted, and the increased metabolic load must rely on stored fat for fuel.
I’m going to skip the science and nitty gritty because a. There are better resources and smarter people out there than me (one such resource can be found here), b. because quite frankly, IF is quite new in the field of research, and realistically, we aren’t going to have any major conclusions or reliable bodies of factual information for many, many years. Most conclusions are based on opinion and anecdotes rather than actual research. And c. because "who gives a shit? If it makes my ass look good in a swimsuit, I'll do it, right?!"
My Initial, Knee Jerk Reaction to Intermittent Fasting
IF is not rocket science, but, like most nutritional dogmas, it can and will be abused by those who look only at one piece of the overall puzzle. Just like the Paleo junkie hitting the almond flour brownie buffet with the justification that “it’s Paleo!”, the newly Christened Intermittent Faster can 8 hours of complete crap, but not eat anything for the other 16 hours and technically still be Intermittently Fasting.
Before embarking on any advanced form of nutritional intake, like Intermittent Fasting, you should be very comfortable with all 12 of the steps that I outline here.
It’s important to get the Fundamentals down before you skip ahead. Going in reverse is not a good plan, as you may have some major logjams in your profile that could easily be cleared up with the basics before you go turning your life upside down. I really like Renaissance Periodization’s “Diet and Health Pyramid” shown here.
Why am I doing this?
Well, as a nutrition professional, I like not only knowing about different protocols and approaches, but I like trying them myself as well. I think it’s important to have had the experience to know if something is effective and/or feasible, as well as to be able to identify with the potential pitfalls of those who are experiencing something while I’m working with them. Additionally, with all of the benefits and claims that I’m hearing about this type of nutritional practice, I’m certainly intrigued. Who wouldn’t want to improve all of those things? Lastly, of course there are aspirations of vanity as well. Again, who wouldn’t want to be leaner and look better in a pair of swim trunks?
So, aside from the aesthetic benefits of being effective at dropping body fat and being able to increase muscle mass at the same time, what are these supposed benefits of Intermittent Fasting?
Abbreviated List of Potential Health Benefits:
Improved blood profiles (including decreased LDL cholesterol and triglycerides)
Increased cellular turnover (old cells dying off and being replaced by new cells more frequently)
Body composition (this is beneficial health-wise in addition to aesthetically due to the reduced stress and strain on your body with extra fat)
Blood sugar regulation
Improved Gut Health
What I’m Doing for my Experimentation
I’m doing the 8 hour feed, 16 hour fast. This is a pretty common protocol as it fits well into normal life and doesn’t completely interfere with the fact that people are bound to have social events in the evening that revolve around eating. Attending a dinner with friends and declining all food because “I’m doing this thing” is something I am determined to avoid except for extreme circumstances. Let’s be honest, we all hate that person, regardless of how many abs they have.
This feed/fast window works great in regards to workout timing for me as well. I typically work out with our noon CrossFit class 3-5 times per week and dabble in other recreation on most if not all days of the week.
I should comment that CrossFit is probably not the best protocol of exercise after a fast. It’s too intense and relies too heavily on burning quick burning carbohydrates for fuel to be feasible to do while fasted. In a perfect world, the exercise protocol would be lots of high repetition weight training and very moderate intensity aerobic work.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but if someone claims they can go very low carbohydrate and operate at a high intensity, they are either grossly underestimating their carbohydrate intake, or are grossly overestimating their intensity.
My Results and Experience
After 8 weeks, I can say that I’ve been 95% committed to Intermittently Fasting. I’ve had a few days where I ate early and I’m sure there are a few where I ate late. Outside of that, I’ve stayed on track for only eating between 1:15pm and 9:15pm. Additionally, I have made no other changes to my daily diet. I’ve tried to stick with the exact same macronutrient plan that I’ve used for the last few years, I’ve just fit it into a smaller window. This macronutrient profile is roughly 35% protein, 35% fat, 30% carbohydrate. It's what keeps me feeling the best, at a reasonable (but not exactly bikini ready) physique, and allows me to perform quite well (if I don't say so myself).
I eat pretty darn "normally". I drink alcohol a couple of nights a week, mostly on the weekends. When I have a cheeseburger, it comes with a gluten-rich bun. I like tacos. I'll have a legit dessert once a week or so. And I probably have a minor addiction to apples and a good quality, freshly ground peanut butter.
All in all, after these 8 or 9 weeks, I have only lost 3-4 pounds, which I’m happy about for reasons other than that I actually like to fill out my clothes. I’m happy about that because I have lost about 2% in overall body fat according to caliper measurements, and I have gotten a wee bit leaner.
However, I don’t necessarily contribute this to Intermittent Fasting in particular. I’m of the opinion that the vast majority of people, myself included, who are seeing results with Intermittent Fasting are seeing those results not due to some revelation of science and nutrition, but because they are accidentally skipping ⅓ of their meals, they are incidentally cycling their carbohydrates, and because they are cutting out other opportunities to eat that they had previously been indulging in (raiding the pantry after dark after an eensy-weensy bottle of wine or two).
In other words, I don’t know that Intermittent Fasting is any more effective than intentionally modifying caloric intake and nutrient timing (eating a majority of your carbohydrates after your workout).
In fact, I'm absolutely 100% positive that I could achieve the results that I did by just eating less peanut butter, only eating tacos for lunch on days that I workout instead of most days, and resisting all of those yard-work beers that are so damn tasty in the summer. To emphasize that point, I was actually leaner about 4 weeks into this process than I am currently, for which I blame the onset of that dastardly social misfit named Summer.
However, outside of that opinion, I have experienced and formed the following opinions regarding pros and cons of Intermittent Fasting:
It’s extremely black and white. If it’s not after 1:15pm or before 9:15pm, don’t eat. No, blurred lines of whether or not something is technically “paleo”, no measuring portions, counting calories, etc.
Effective Aesthetically. I have lost body fat. My numbers, pictures, and comments from those around me echo that truth. I'm certainly not about to grace the cover of Muscle and Fitness, but with a week of gnarly restriction, a serious spray tan and some Photoshop, I could probably be ready for a local radio calendar or something.
Socially viable (for the most part). So far, I haven’t had to be the person at dinner who has to be vegan, dairy free, gluten free, and only eating Kosher. No one has rolled their eyes at me at dinner, and I'm still getting invited places, so I can only guess that no one hates me yet. On occasions that I’ve had a social breakfast or meeting situation where others were eating outside of my window, I just tell them I already ate, that I don’t eat breakfast, or explain what I’m doing and just have black coffee, which I love. Again, no blurred lines or maybe sorta kinda.
Understanding hunger. I used to be very prone to the effects of “hanger” whenever I hadn’t eaten in too long. It’s great to have developed the "skill" and ability to function without food for a period of time and not want to kill anyone/everyone. Additionally, I think that it’s important to recognize that being hungry isn’t an emergency. In the beginning, I was pretty hungry during those morning periods where I had typically eaten breakfast. As I got more comfortable, I was not, and have gotten to the point where skipping meals isn’t all that big of a deal.
It’s easy to go “off” and “on” if need be. If I take a trip, go on vacation, or am otherwise not able to follow my IF protocol, it’s not a big deal to take a few days off, then go back on when I need to. It’s not recommended to go off and on all the time, but it certainly is possible and feasible.
It makes mornings easier to get rolling! I’m typically up at 5am for our morning classes at 6am. Skipping breakfast means I get to sleep an extra half hour, which is nice.
Self control. It’s a great exercise in self control to have things be put under your nose or temptations during your daily fast. The black and whiteness of eating window vs. non eating windows makes it easy to say no and know for sure that no, you cannot in fact have _____. This makes it easier and I believe trains you to be able to say no in other situations.
My eating schedule is all messed up. The point of this is not to skip a meal, it’s to fit all your normal meals into a smaller window. This is difficult to do, and means that I’m eating full meals at 115, 345 and 845, with snacks at 230 and 645. I have a fairly flexible schedule, where I can be away from the gym for a short of time and run home, so it works for me.
Chronological Anorexia is not a recommended way to eat or live. As I mentioned above, I would hazard a guess at this that would believe that a lot of the weight loss benefits that people see are due to them actually skipping these meals instead of moving them backwards.
I love breakfast. I just do, it’s my favorite meal. Now I eat it at 345, which is ok, but it’s a little weird. Not everywhere serves breakfast all day, which, at this point would be a part of my developing political platform, along with getting rid of daylight savings and having the Super Bowl on Saturday instead of Sunday (seriously, it's a good idea).
Workouts/Performance Suck. Working out at noon means that I haven’t eaten anything in 15 hours before my workout. This means that I’ve got no fuel to run off of, and doing CrossFit on no fuel is damn near impossible, and probably somewhat dumb. Doing intense shit requires carbohydrates/sugars for fuel. Not having those means your exhausting your immediately available stores, which are not long lasting. Your body is then forced to metabolize other fuels (ideally body fat), which takes longer to produce. Therefore, going full bore for a period of time means that you’re suffering after about only a minute or two of hard work if you aren’t careful with your pacing. There are way, way, way better ways to approach fasted exercise than CrossFit style workouts. I just happen to enjoy CrossFit, and I like working out at the noon class, so that’s what I do.
It can lead itself to binging type behavior. When someone suffers for a while food wise, often times they feel like they’ve “earned” the right to eat an abnormal amount of crappy foods that would normally be off the menu or protocol. This can lead to a dangerous cycle of binging and fasting. To continue to beat the dead horse, it is absolutely imperative that someone develop quality food habits before embarking on this advanced prescription.
We really don’t know what we’re doing or the long term results of this will be. It’ll be years from now until we figure out the facts on what this means for our bodies and health. People can say all they want about history and make anecdotal statements of how this is good or not good, but the truth is, we really just don’t know. I might be taking years off my life every hour of this fast. Everyone wants to talk about ancestral nutrition, but no one remembers that those losers died at like 30.
So, with those things in mind, who would I recommend this to?
Who this is for:
Advanced, nutritionally savvy people who eat mostly whole foods, have a great relationship with food (“relationship” doesn’t mean snuggling with ice cream cartons, it means you’ve maintained a solid program of daily nutrition habits for years and years), who are looking to take it to another level in hopes of further lowering body fat and/or experimenting with how something works for them.
Aesthetically interested fitness participants. Your performance will probably suffer, but especially in any intense type work or any sprint type work.
Who this is for not:
Basically the opposite of the above. This is not a “get lean quick” strategy for someone who is constantly jumping from program to program hoping “this is the one” or that eating whole foods and getting in a routine is too hard. This is getting very high up the pyramid of nutritional strategies and techniques, not the baseline for everything else to be modeled from.
Performance minded athletes. I’m sure there is a way to tweak this to make this more feasible for someone in a performance setting, but I just don’t see it as beneficial if performance is your utmost priority. It’s just not the right tool for the job.
Think Intermittent Fasting is right for you? Or, been trying Intermittent Fasting to no avail, and want some real answers? Shoot me an email and I'll set you straight.