Before I write this blog I would like to provide a disclaimer. First of all, I am about to share with you some things that I have read and that I hold to be true… but be aware… had I read the blog I am about to write, even 6 months ago, I would have thought it to be all hogwash myself. So I have no doubt that many of you will feel the same way. But from what I have learned so far, I think that weight-loss and fitness are far less complicated than we make them… and fasting is potentially one piece of that puzzle for me, and for many others, that can help simplify the process.
Much of what I will share with you has come from Brad Pilon’s book Eat Stop Eat, Rob Wolff’s Paleo Diet Solution, and the Lean Gains website & lifestyle by Martin Berkhan. I am definitely NOT claiming this information or research as my own, but I can share my experiences….
What is Fasting?
It may be obvious to you… but fasting is the act of going without food for a period of time, and in the case of intermittent fasting, we will consider it to be 12+ hours. Intermittent, of course, means not long term, and for short periods. In other words, not for more than 24 hours at a time.
I can honestly say that fasting is completely foreign to me. My ENTIRE life has been lived in a “fed” state. And, once I started to live a life of “health” or “weightloss” and learned that eating 6+ times per day was good for you and kept the fire burning, I knew I had a reason to eat all the time, and I loved it. So, even while losing 100+ lbs, I would go into a complete panic if I didn’t know where my next meal would be, or if I had to go more than 3 hours without food.
The truth is, we as humans/animals, are either in a “fed” state, or a “fasted” state…. and this is the natural yin and yang of our lives. In the paleolithic, hunter/gatherer times… there was space between feast & famine. No doubt our bodies haven’t evolved quite as much as we think in the last 5000 years to the point where we can’t handle a little famine?? From what I have read, we are DESIGNED to handle a little famine and this is why we can so easily retain body fat.
My first fast, & why fasting?
For me, this is an easy one, now that I have completed my first fast…. I withheld from eating for 24 hours and I WAS NOT HUNGRY. Obviously I did not need food if I didn’t get the normal hunger cues… right? No headaches, light headedness, no grouchiness, no growling tummy. I even completed a very intense Crossfit workout and felt GREAT. I would argue that I felt better than I would have had I eaten…. which is honestly BIZARRE to me! But now that I have experienced this phenomenon, I don’t see why I would continually need to be in a fed state….
I will admit, at the start of my 24 hours I got anxious. But it was a psychological type of anxiety…. it was more like “uh oh, I am not going to be able to eat…” and when I was doing things like school work (grading, planning etc.) that are not fun, I really wanted to eat. But I was NOT HUNGRY. It was obvious that in that moment food had become a source of stress relief. And obviously that is not a healthy thing…. so I am thankful that the fast so blatently points that out to me. But I kept plugging away and got my work done, drank lots of water, had some coffee, and I was fine.
It was FREE-ING to know that I didn’t have to think about how much food or what food to eat for 24 hours. I almost typed “didn’t have to think about food” LOL but boy was I thinking about it! I was hyper aware of not eating for my first fast and I think that is probably normal. I also had way more energy than normal and was awake much earlier without an alarm the morning after my first 12 hours had passed.
Here is what the research says about the main health benefits of fasting for an otherwise “healthy” person:
- Decreased Insulin Levels & Increased Insulin Sensitivity
- Decreased Blood Glucose Levels
- Increased Lipolysis and Fat Burning
- Increased Glucagon Levels
- Increased Epinephrine and Norepinephrine levels
- Increased Growth Hormone Levels
- Increased Weight Loss and Increased Fat Loss
- Decreased Chronic Inflammation
What about slower metabolism? Muscle loss? Starvation mode?
Because these topics are all in reality very complex, I will let you read the books rather than attempt to truly debate with you whether or not these things actually happen. BUT I will tell you that from what I have gathered, from several sources, all three of these things are either myths or can easily be avoided.
Your metabolism is related to the normal function of your body to maintain life. Exercise and food choices can play a role in increasing your calorie expenditure, but really your BMR (basal metabolic rate) is set. The amount your body burns to keep itself alive varies with age, weight, body fat, lean tissue, and height…. but for the most part on a day to day basis this does not drastically change. Therefore, you can withhold food for up to 24 hours once or twice per week without majorly changing this. In fact, research has shown that your metabolism is hardly affected even when you fast for up to 3 days. (But for weightloss/health purposes this length of a fast is no more beneficial than 24 hours…)
Furthermore, when you fast for up to 24 hours, your body does NOT use muscle for fuel. Research has shown that as long as you USE THOSE MUSCLES REGULARLY during resistance training 2-3 times per week, those muscles will not be used for fuel. In fact, growth hormone (which helps build & maintain muscles) INCREASES as a result of fasting for as little as 16 hours. And finally, the longer you fast, the more your body will turn to fat for fuel rather than carbohydrates.
Some people tout what they know about glycogen stores in your muscles. Research has shown that your muscle glycogen is for those specific muscles ONLY and cannot be accessed for general energy use. Your brain and liver are other sources for “sugar” and have their own processes as well.
For me, I have found that eating enough protein and fat, I feel completely satisfied most of the time and I think this helped my first fast go much smoother than it would have had I still been primarily a sugar burner.
Interestingly enough, if the body doesn’t burn muscle for fuel, and your metabolism doesn’t stall to a halt, then starvation mode seems to be all but true. As Brad Pilon says in his book, if hormones and starvation mode mattered so much, then why does lap band surgery work? The simple things those patients are doing as a result of their surgery, is eating less, and with less frequency. Technically this is called “starving” but that’s what we are doing when we lose weight…. right? We eat less than we burn so that our body burns our FAT instead of our FOOD. DUH. Why do we make it so complicated?
But after reading all of this, listening to audio books, and feeling quite enlightened….. I still had one question on my mind…
Why, have I and several others who I have coached, experienced a stand still in their loss when it seems they have done literally everything right? Brad Pilon has a great audio file on this, and I listened intently…. It’s all about WATER.
Apparently, when your body is in this so-called starvation mode (weightloss mode for extended periods), your body replaces the lost fat with water. This can be cured, with a “cheat” meal or “re feed,” which will get your body out of this famine-induced water-retention mode.
The Fast Solution
Fasting 1-2 times per week for 18-24 hours seems to be a solution that includes the “best of both worlds.” While many solutions out there may work, what matters is whether or not you can manage your personal solution long-term… as this is what will determine your success.
So much nutrition and weight-loss research focuses on what you CAN eat, or what you SHOULD eat, or how OFTEN to eat…. but the plain truth, is that it really IS calories in and calories out. Your diet (intake) really IS what makes or breaks you. Long-term calorie restriction needs to be hit with an occasional calorie surge… OR fasting 1-2 times per week with moderate healthy choices the rest of the week can help you maintain a steady weight loss.
I have done it all…
I have tried it all. What helped me lose over 100 lbs was the traditional 5-6 meals a day, long-term calorie reduction, and healthy eating with more movement. This just makes sense. But what I found was that over time I started to become obsessive about my eating. I was always wondering about my next meal, what I would have, when I would have it, etc. And I couldn’t wait for it…. it truly was feeding my life-long food addiction. And I was always left wanting more food, after consuming my 300-400 calorie mini meal. Finally, this fasting solution, seems to be something I can live with! And it calms my mind to not worry about food 24-7.
Eating higher protein and higher fat, following the Paleo lifestyle, fasting occasionally, and varying my workouts between running, weightlifting, and cross fit seems to be a good solution for me now.
If you are a cynic as I am (or once was) about fasting, try it out.
How to start…
I started eating higher protein, higher fat, and ridding my diet of all man-made refined carbohydrates. Then, after about 4 weeks of this, I started spacing my meals from every 3 hours to every 4-5 hours, then every 6 hours. My first fast was from 8pm dinner/snack to lunch the following day at 11am. It was about 16 hours. This followed an over indulgence (Super Bowl) and was easy as I didn’t even want to think about food.
Finally, after doing much reading and thorough searching on the fasting research, I set my plan to do my first 24-hour fast. I started my fast after lunch, and held the fast until lunch the next day. If you think about it, that’s just eating two meals one day, and two meals the next…. but the hours between are important. While your body is NOT digesting, it is spending time doing other things (cellular repair, muscular repair, GH production, etc.)… and I had SO MUCH energy. I got almost a high feeling especially towards the end…. I kinda can’t wait to do my next one.
I would recommend doing your own research, and thinking about what would work for you. But if you only take away one thing from this blog, take away that you cannot believe everything you hear and read. Much of the weight loss industry is a result of political agendas and biased research. It really is NOT about what you SHOULD eat to lose weight, but about what you should NOT eat, and the timing of it all….