Fasting for Fat Loss?
Last month I wrote an article called “Nutrition Easy as 1, 2, 3”, talking about nutrition’s “Big 3”:
- What to Eat
- How Much to Eat
- When to Eat
The importance of the Big 3 is in that order: what and how much you eat carry much more weight than when you eat. But if you live on earth, you have likely heard of Intermittent Fasting by now. While this style of eating has been around for a while, it’s getting more and more attention all the time. Solid research on this topic is still relatively new, and the internet is full of experts who claim their way is the only way. The truth is, there are a variety of ways to approach IF, and there are several pros and cons to eating this way. For some people longer periods of fasting is very beneficial, for some it’s just an added layer of complication that isn’t necessary to reach their goals, and for others it’s downright disastrous.
So, what is intermittent fasting? Essentially IF is just a prescribed “window” of time where you eat, and a prescribed “window” of fasting, and there are several ways to do it. Some protocols call for eating on a “normal” schedule for 6 days of the week, and a fast on 1 day of the week. Others shorten the eating window and extend the fasting window anywhere from a 20 hour fast and 4 hour eating window, to a 16 hour fast and 8 hour eating window.
Intermittent fasting has been shown to help regulate blood glucose, control blood lipids, help regulate hormones, help your body burn fat, and help control your appetite. HOWEVER, current research reveals these benefits only happen after a fast of around 20 to 24 hours… BUT there is a lot of strong data to suggest that people who exercise can experience these benefits in a shorter fast of around 16 hours, especially if they train fasted, and eat their first big meal immediately following training.
Is IF the magical fat melting secret that will suddenly transform your body? Not all on its own. Being in this field for over a decade I’ve looked at hundreds of food journals of people who are eating within an IF window and not losing weight. For example, take someone who eats their last meal of the day at 8pm, skips breakfast the next morning and eats lunch at 12pm. That’s a 16 hour fast and an 8 hour eating window. There are probably quite a few of you reading this thinking, “Hey, that sounds like me… so why am I not losing weight?” The answer lies in numbers 1 and 2 of the Big 3 – what and how much, and those really need to be mastered first. IF is an advanced nutritional strategy, not something for nutrition “beginners”.
Before you try an IF program:
- You should be experienced with following a nutrition program, and have a very good understanding of healthy eating. You should understand how much of each macronutrient you need at each meal… not sure what a macronutrient is? You’re not ready for IF 🙂
- You should be experienced with and willing to commit to food tracking. This isn’t something you will have to do forever necessarily, but at the beginning you will need to keep a close eye on not only your food, but how IF is affecting you.
- You should be making about 90% of your meals at home and have a good meal prep routine.
- You should check in with your doctor and do a full blood panel to make sure there are no health concerns with trying IF. You should also do a blood panel 3 months after starting IF so make sure there are no negative changes.
- Assuming your doctor gives you the go ahead, you should then check in with a nutrition coach to develop a plan that will take your lifestyle and goals into consideration.
- Be aware that there will be an adjustment period where you will likely be uncomfortable. You will probably feel very hungry during your fasts, you may have a hard time concentrating, and you may find you are more irritable. It’s a good idea to have a support system and let your friends and co-workers know you are trying something new.
- You should be an experienced exerciser. Remember the benefits of IF really only happen if you are training as well.
So, if all of the above checks out for you, IF can be a great way to lose fat. It can also help people better understand their own appetite, learning to distinguish between actual physical hunger, and psychological hunger. Some people I’ve coached have said that intermittent fasting actually improved their relationship to food. They are no longer panicking when they feel hungry or constantly obsessing about when their next meal is. However, exactly the opposite is true for some other people, especially if they have a history of disordered eating.
Intermittent Fasting might NOT be a good choice for you if:
- You become food obsessed and start “binging” and making unhealthy choices during your food window, or you become rigid about restricting calories and find you are eating less and less. IF is not a method to help you make up for poor food choices, or to justify an eating disorder.
- You have a goal to add muscle mass. IF tends to work best for those who want to lean out or maintain a fairly lean physique.
- You have a very unpredictable schedule or a schedule that doesn’t allow you to get enough food in a feeding window (more on this with Caleb’s story).
- You have a stressful lifestyle… whether you have a demanding job, an intense travel schedule, a lot of family responsibilities, or stress from lots of physical training. Yes, exercise is a “good stress” but it still requires you to recover and repair afterward.
- Speaking of recovery, if you have a hard time getting quality sleep and recovery from training, IF might make this even more challenging. If you are noticing you don’t bounce back well from training sessions, you are experiencing plateaus, or you are experiencing lots of minor aches and pains for no real reason, you may not be getting enough nutrients at the right time.
- If you start noticing hormonal changes, IF may not be for you. While IF can help certain hormonal issues (some ladies with PCOS for example have found improvement in their symptoms) it can actually have negative consequences for some people. Some ladies end up having irregular periods, or having them stop altogether. In fact, ladies tend to have more negative symptoms with IF than men do, and may find that they need a longer food window, or a more relaxed version of IF (more on this in my story)
- You are pregnant or have certain medical conditions (like me as a Type 1 Diabetic) that would make going for long stretches without food a dangerous proposition. (As a side note, some people with Type 2 Diabetes have great results in lowering their blood sugar with IF… always check with your doctor first!)
- You are a competitive athlete or do very intense types of training. Endurance athletes or other people who are doing several training sessions in one day typically aren’t the best fit for IF. Neither are people who train in a way that requires regular explosive power, like olympic lifters or certain types of martial artists.
- If you already have dietary limitations, whether by choice or due to food allergies or medical requirements, IF can add an additional layer of complication to an already challenging food situation.
In case you were wondering, both Caleb and I have personally tried IF, and the approach we took was based on Ori Hofmekler’s Warrior Diet. We first tried intermittent fasting about 8 years ago, and had very different experiences. Caleb really thrived on IF for about 4 years, while I… not so much…
“I began experimenting with intermittent fasting simply because it seemed like a good nutritional solution for my very busy lifestyle and schedule at the time. I was coaching Thai Boxing and Kettlebell classes most days of the week, starting at 7am with about an hour of commuting time. I was also training clients privately in their homes, at my home or in various gyms for much of the rest of the day which meant a lot of driving around between appointments. All of this usually wrapped up each day in the afternoon, and I resumed coaching clients again at my home later in the evening. As such, every day had a very dependable window during which I was able to do my own training (late afternoon) and begin my eating window immediately afterwards (because I was already home). As daunting as it seemed, I resolved to stick to a 20 hour fast and a 4 hour eating window. Much to my elated surprise, it worked for me like a charm! I was able to run around all over town coaching clients all day without having to stop and eat. I noticed that I had a surge of energy when I trained, and could count on healthy, home-prepared meals (usually two fairly huge ones) each night. At the time I was suffering from chronic acid reflux problems and was taking prescription medication for it twice a day. This was a big concern for me at first because I thought that the long fast every day was going to exacerbate this problem. Instead, it actually cured me! An unforeseen benefit of completely extinguishing my metabolic fire for so many hours each day was that I basically reset my digestive system. Yup, no more flux.
Of course, adapting to eating this way was not without it’s challenges, however. It was uncomfortable for about a week or two as I adapted to my new understanding of hunger. I learned that the feeling of hunger wasn’t unlike the discomfort of training hard. Something you get used to. There were a few other aspects which were much more difficult, actually. For one thing, the eating window becomes VERY important and if one needs to eat immediately after training, one is pretty tied down to that schedule every day. It was not easy to roll with the punches from any unexpected changes to the timetable. It was also very socially awkward. Going out to dinner with friends and family often meant that they had to sit and watch me consume an entire second meal while they were long finished eating, or if I didn’t subject them to that, I would have to find a “second dinner” somehow within an hour or two of eating the first one. Meeting someone for lunch meant that I watched them eat while I drank copious amounts of black coffee. Oh, did I mention the coffee? Yeah, my coffee addiction (pretty infamous around the Breakthrough Gym these days I’m afraid) began with IF. I found it a very valuable boost / appetite suppressant throughout the day, and it was necessary to the point of religious observation for me. Another essential component of my personal IF success was that I stayed well supplied with high quality protein supplementation every day. This was consumed at midday and immediately after training every day. Running out of Warrior Whey would have been a crisis at the time. Like all of the most successful nutritional programs, the secret was really in accepting the challenges of planning, preparedness and sticking to a routine.
When we opened Breakthrough Strength and Fitness, the routine had to change. With days that start even earlier now and end even later, IF just no longer works for me. With far less commuting and far more hours of active coaching (my sweet spot) and all the added stresses of programming for a larger clientele and operating a business, it’s much better for me to eat in the opposite way; keeping the metabolic fire burning hot by throwing a fresh log on it every few hours throughout the day. With all that said, on both nutrition programs I was able to gain muscle when I wanted to and lose fat when I wanted to. Not to sound pedantic, but it really does simply relate back to what I was eating, and how much (the big 2 of the big 3) as Kati described above!”
For starters, our IF experiment began several years before I was T1D, and is not an experiment that would be safe for me now. That said, at the time I had a healthy, fully functioning pancreas and I thought why not see what happens since Caleb was interested in trying this? We had done some research of course and knew that most ladies were reporting that a 20 hour fast was a bit too aggressive for them, so I planned to start with a 14 hour fast and gradually move up to a 16 hour fast if I wanted to.
As Caleb mentioned, the first several weeks were very challenging. I felt hungry, headachy, grouchy, and brain foggy. I didn’t ever feel that great training fasted, and I found that while I eventually adapted to be able to focus on more detail oriented tasks, I wasn’t easily able to think creatively. I never really seemed to come out of the headachy, foggy phase like Caleb did. And I felt as thought I was starting to look semi-skeletal… stringy hair, sunken cheeks… not my best foot forward. After a couple of months I decided to transition back to a more traditional eating schedule, but I would eat light during the day, and save my biggest meal for after training in the afternoon so Caleb and I could coordinate a big meal together.
At the end of the day, what’s best for one person and their goals might not be best for another. Intermittent fasting works well for some, and frequent smaller meals work well for others – or for the same person at different periods in their life. Any good nutrition program should help you not only achieve your fat loss goals, but also help you preserve muscle mass, improve your physical performance, and positively impact your general health and well being. So when assessing what’s right for you, you should see not only the numbers on the scale changing, but your body fat numbers decreasing, your athletic ability improving according your goals, and your blood panels and overall (mental and physical) health improving.
Strength & Love, Kati