What do Pro Fighters and Religious Monks have in common? They both believe that different forms of fasting can produce fantastic changes in the body both physically and mentally.
Intermittent fasting or (IF) has gained a lot of momentum and popularity in the past few years, with many internet Utube celebrities in the fitness industry proclaiming its fantastic results or apposing it and making every effort to derail and debunk it as a FAD. Question is have we seen it all before? Is it just another nutrition protocol that’s been given a revamp and a glossy new title?
The concept of fasting is surely nothing new. Scientific studies on its benefits of fasting have been around since the 1940’s, it’s found in every major religion’s texts around the world, and surely goes all the way back to the beginning of human existence when food wasn’t available 24 hours a day like it is now.
What I will say is that the rise of IF has actually debunked a few popular myths that were commonly preached as gospel over the past few decades:
One of the most significant of these being meal frequency: This myth that dominated the 80’s and 90’s where smaller, more frequent meals as in anything from 5 to 12 meals a day were supposed to keep your metabolism more active and burning a greater number of calories but the main issue with this concept was that with greater meal frequency one tends to eat more calories as a consequence which is fine if your trying to add weight, but it’s not so great for those people trying to lose it.
Another of these myths was the thermogenic effect of one single meal at 1,000 calories is the same as 5 meals at a combined 1,000 calories. So this “keeping your metabolism working” or as some trainers liked to compare it to “keeping a fire stocked” is a myth. The metabolic effect of a meal doesn’t change if that same caloric amount is spread out over the day into separate meals.
So what are the benefits of Intermittent Fasting that people are willing to significantly alter their eating patterns to achieve?
The main concept is that as the body has to spend less time and resources on high energy tasks like digestion. It’s similar to the concept of detoxing therefore the belief is the body has a better capacity to focus on other activities that benefit our health. Including allowing the body to concentrate more on ridding itself of toxins as well as repairing and rebuilding damaged tissues. In addition to this it also claims to be a smart approach to putting the body in an ideal state to lose weight. All of these things have significant potential to increase wellness and our ability to avoid disease.
The effects of Intermittent Fasting
The effects of fasting on hormones are multi-faceted. Intermittent fasting has also been proven to help increase Growth Hormone levels over the fasting period. Increased HGH in the body results in greater endurance which encourages faster muscle repair and growth as well as a significant improvement in the slowing down of the aging process. One study showed that interval training similar to (HIIT) combined with a weight training program while implementing an intermittent fasting nutrition protocol increased HGH by 1300% in women and 2000% in men.
IF and its effect on insulin levels is also very interesting. Insulin resistance is basically when cells in your body reject insulin from delivering its energy which is in the form of glucose. Insulin resistance is a prime contributor to type 1 and 2 diabetes and other associated chronic diseases. IF type fasting combined with regular training, is one of the most effective non medical ways to normalizing insulin sensitivity. This doesn’t mean people out there that are diagnosed with pre diabetics or worse should just start fasting and going to the gym, it’s never that simple and you should always consult a professional like a Dietitian and or Doctor before embarking of such a big lifestyle change.
While one should consider the many benefits fasting has to offer you should be aware that fasting can become a source of stress which is never good for the body. If you become fixated on hunger pangs or clock watching until it’s time to eat again then like other elongated stressful situations, cortisol rises and the adrenal glands can become overworked. The result can be fatigue, anxiety, stress, depression and irregular periods for women due to the hormone disruption.
This is because the effects of stress hormones react faster in the female body. Fasting sends a stress signal of “famine” to the body. For men, reproducing during famine would be a slight inconvenience. For women, the risks of reproducing during famine are much more severe, thus the more dramatic physical/hormonal response. That being said, both sexes who show symptoms of being chronically stressed or who are dealing with irregular cortisol levels should carefully consider their health and all their options before implementing a fasting protocol.
Another interesting effect is that the hormone Leptin which is the one that regulates fat storage and controls hunger signals, and ghrelin, the hormone that signals the brain that the body is hungry, are also normalized by routine fasting. Leptin is produced by fat cells and tells the brain to turn off hunger signals when body fat levels are at a satisfactory level. Fat is necessary for our survival and this is why leptin is part of the reason low-fat diets NEVER work and usually only result in the person being hungry and retaining or gaining weight most of the time.
It’s been proven that overweight people have really high levels of leptin and although they really struggle with their weight they rarely feel hungry. Basically, because the relationship between these hormones and the brain are not functioning properly their bodies are screaming at the brain to stop eating but the brain has become deaf to the signals. This happens by the same process that leads to insulin resistance, consistent overexposure to high levels of the hormone. A form of fasting combined with lowered sugar consumption can benefit the brain allowing it to clearly hear leptin calling.
So how does IF work?
well, typically it works with a fast followed by an eating window, an eating window being an allotted amount of time to consume the kcals your body requires. This helps you not only eat overall fewer calories, which is a benefit for those seeking fat loss, but the benefits we mentioned about GH levels and how it coincides with the effect protein synthesis without reducing its effectiveness is where most find the biggest benefits to coinciding with their training.
Dr. Michael Eades, a doctor who has tried various forms of Intermittent Fasting sums it up really well
“Diets are easy in the contemplation, difficult in the execution. Intermittent fasting is just the opposite — it’s difficult in the contemplation but easy in the execution.
Most of us have contemplated going on a diet. When we find a diet that appeals to us, it seems as if it will be a breeze to do. But when we get into the nitty gritty of it, it becomes tough. For example, I stay on a low–carb diet almost all the time. But if I think about going on a low–fat diet, it looks easy. I think about bagels, whole wheat bread and jelly, mashed potatoes, corn, bananas by the dozen, etc. — all of which sound appealing. But were I to embark on such a low–fat diet I would soon tire of it and wish I could have meat and eggs. So a diet is easy in contemplation, but not so easy in the long–term execution.
Intermittent fasting is hard in the contemplation, of that there is no doubt. “You go without food for 24 hours?” people would ask, incredulously when we explained what we were doing. “I could never do that.” But once started, it’s a snap. No worries about what and where to eat for one or two out of the three meals per day. It’s a great liberation. Your food expenditures plummet. And you’re not particularly hungry. … Although it’s tough to overcome the idea of going without food, once you begin the regimen, nothing could be easier.”
— Dr. Michael Eades
My work and training schedule continuously vary, so my nutrition schedule is to be honest sometimes all over the place. I tend to try eat 3-4 meals a day with one sometimes being a shake. But then I also regard food as fuel, an energy source, it should have nothing to do with my mood this again is a personal thing. I’m also naturally prone to gaining muscle and strength fast but as a consequence I tend to gain weight and retain water quicker than most, so I need to consume a few less calories than most others to maintain muscle or to gain more. I find it tough to get all those Kcals in just a few meals so I tend to spread them out a bit and make my eating window a bit broader. Again, this is completely personal, so do what works for you. I also regard IF as a short term “kick start” like the way most people would say detox leading to a more sustainable long term nutrition plan, so I tend to cycle it in and out of my diet depending on my current goals.
Regarding those who find it hard to gain weight or those who consider themselves “hardgainers”, I wouldn’t recommend doing IF. Merely because your bodies natural response to fasting and an eating window would cause you to consume fewer kcals and I believe that there are much better protocols that will produce better results faster for your unique set of circumstances.
Look as we all know by now there is no one magic solution, but that being said, Intermittent Fasting can be something that you can easily implement into your lifestyle without too much disruption and it may help you maintain a nutritional path to your goal and if so great, if not well nothing lost.