A close friend of mine decided to start a form of dieting pattern that has taken the world by storm in recent months, ‘Intermittent Fasting (IF)’.
Does it really burn fat and make you healthier?
In all simplicity, IF is the process of fasting from your last meal the previous day to your first meal the next, being closer to midday. So if your last meal was at 8pm on Sunday, your next meal will only come at around 12-noon on Monday, giving you a 16-hour fasting period. The goal here is not to starve yourself, but to split your day into longer ‘fasting’ and shorter ‘feeding’ periods.
With this longer fasting period, you are presented with a lot of benefits, according to studies:
- It helps reduce blood glucose and insulin resistance
- It increases fatty acid oxidation
- It helps preserve muscle tissue and lean mass
- It helps lower inflammation and blood pressure
- It increases our protection against neuro-degenerative diseases; and
- It keeps our metabolism strong and healthy
First thing is first; it goes against a fundamental rule that many fitness experts, doctors and gurus tell you, ‘never skip meals, especially breakfast’. We have been told from day one that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so why are fitness experts and doctors endorsing this new trend, is it really that effective, to the point where they are willing to break a rule that they have been preaching for years?
Is breakfast really important?
You see when we wake up; we have already fasted for about 12 hours. When you have your first meal of the day, you are breaking this fast, hence the term Breakfast.
Having breakfast notifies your body that you are fully awake and ready to start burning calories, activating your metabolism for the day and fuelling your brain for a productive day.
So, by adopting IF, are we skipping this meal altogether? The answer here is ‘no’, in fact what we are doing is simply moving our meal times, extending our fasting period. You see the rule of never skip breakfast was mainly formed due to insulin sensitivity, fitness fanatics believed that when you have a high carb breakfast, you are less likely to gain weight due to all that food being used to replenish your glycogen stores. This same principal can be restructured to fit into why IF works.
Insulin sensitivity is higher when glycogen levels are depleted. So, after waking, it doesn’t really matter when you have your first meal, be it at 7am or 12-noon. Either way, your body will adjust and do the necessary to fuel itself till it is fed, in other words by having a late breakfast, you are forcing your body to scavenge of fat stores to fuel itself, till you provide it with more fuel in the form of food. Through this we can argue that, yes, IF does work.
All in all, we are receiving the benefits of IF due to the fact that we are limiting food intake, as we only have a shorter period of time to feed. Furthermore, the longer fasting period has promoted the body’s responsiveness to insulin, regulating blood sugar levels, helping us to control feelings of hunger and cravings. Going back to our weight loss mantra of, calories in vs. calories out. This dieting pattern will only work if you stick to this mantra, you can fast 16, 18 or even 20 hours, but if you consume more than what your body needs, you will put on body fat, look at sumo wrestlers, they are strong followers of IF, having their first meal only at around 11am/12-noon, however they consume 10,000+ calories in this one sitting.
To ensure that you benefit from this new trend, you need to know your body and choose the right method. The method I recommend is the Leangains method:
Built for those who want to lose body fat and build muscle.
You are recommended to fast for 14 hours if you are female and 16 hours if you are male. During your fast, you are advised not to consume any calories whatsoever, however, black coffee, black/plain tea and water are permitted. Furthermore, you must ensure that you maintain a consistent feeding period; otherwise, your hormones can get distorted.
It is also advised that you follow a balanced diet plan, consisting of carbohydrates, protein and fat. On days you exercise, your carb intake should be higher than fat and on rest days, your fat intake higher than carbs. Protein intake should be fairly consistent throughout these days, I recommend keeping protein intake roughly inline with one gram of protein per pound of body weight.
However, if you feel that the Leangains method is not for you, there are other methods of IF that you can try, these include:
Eat-Stop-Eat Method – designed for those healthy eaters looking for that added boost. This fasting method involves a 24-hour fasting period, either once or twice per week. During your fast, you are advised not to consume any calories from foods, however, similar to the Leangains method, black coffee, black/plain tea and water are permitted.
I do recommend that you ease yourself into this diet, maybe starting with Leangains and then moving slowly into the 24-hour fast. I have previously done this fast for religious reasons and it is not easy, you will always start off great, but as it gets closer to dinner, you will become ravenously hungry. During these times, some strict self-discipline is of great importance.
On your reefed days, it is extremely important to eat a balanced and normal diet, which does not mean eat for two days.
Warrior Method – crafted for those who like following rules (you know who you are). This method involves a minimal feeding period, followed by a large meal at dinner. Many have defined this method as ‘fast all day and feast at night’, however this is incorrect. You are advised to eat small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables during the day, and one large meal at night (dinner time). However, your intake of fruits and vegetable should only be done when you are exceedingly hungry, don’t think you can eat fruits and vegetables every minute of the day and then feast like a king/queen at night.
Be advised, that like all dieting, your meals should be well balanced, and the great thing with the warrior method, you can indulge on some delicious cheats like cake, chocolate, ice cream, cookies (drool, drool, drool…)
Alternating Day Method – one especially for those disciplined dieters. This involves in all simplicity fasting every other day, something similar to the eat-stop-eat method. However, I have noticed many different definitions for this method during my research. Further digging in forums, I have found that the most popular version for this method is eating normal one day and less than 500 calories the next (or during the fasting days).
All in all, this method is a little harder to understand. I would recommend that you infuse the eat-stop-eat method with this, however rather than fasting with no food, I would suggest you eat up to 500 calories. Might also help in getting you trained towards adopting the eat-stop-eat method.
5:2 Method – designed for those who just love food too much. This is the most popular method that has been adopted. It basically involves eating normally for 5 days and then restricting your calories to within 500-600 on the remaining 2 days.
It is recommended that women eat around 500 calories, and men 600 calories on the 2 days.
Results with this form of dieting have come back with mixed outcomes, where many deemed it a success and other, well failed miserably. Like many other dieting methods, this all comes down to what you eat during the 5 days of normal eating. I recommend that your meals are well balanced and that you keep to the calories in vs. calories out ruling.
Spur-of-the-moment Method – constructed for those busy people, who have no time to stick to an eating plan. Within this method, you are simply advised to skip meals from time to time, either when you are not hungry or are just too busy to eat.
In summary, does IF work?
Yes, it does…
…but is it necessary?
In all honesty, the best diet is the one you can stick to in a long term. At the end of the day, if you are eating more calories than needed, you will put on weight/body fat, these diets are just here to help you structure your eating patterns to reduce any excess calorie consumption.
Now I personally have tried the leangains and eat-stop-eat methods, but which one do I follow on a daily basis?
The diet I follow is simply this, three large meals with two small snacks. I eat a well-balanced breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a fruit, some nuts or a protein shake to satiate me between meals. Every morning I wake up and quickly plan what I will have for the day and on one day of the week, I have a carb-reefed day with maybe a cheat meal/snack, depending on whether I am craving something sweet. Furthermore, all this is done within my weekly calories needs.
So, it all comes down to this, follow what best suits you and what you feel most comfortable with.
Keep in mind that results and goals vary from person to person and if one person can lose 15 pounds following a strict fasting plan, it does not mean that it will also have the same outcome on you. Every single individual will have different insulin resistance, body composition, lifestyle, eating habits, macronutrient ratios, recovery times, intensity etc., therefore don’t focus on following a diet just because it worked on your mum, dad or friend, listen more to what your body wants and what you know is best for you, most importantly a diet you can stick to in the long term.
I designed my diet around my lifestyle and ensured that my focus in more on eating natural, whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean meat… and do all this whilst still being able to enjoy time out with friends and have a cheat meal every now and then. Furthermore, I learnt to listen to what my body is telling me, tweaking my diet to my mood, rather than forcing something upon myself, which I might give up or fail on.
There you have it, follow a diet that suits you or simply design your own, and if you still feel the need to start IF, be cautious, starting slowly maybe with a shorter fast and gradually increasing it as you go, and if you don’t like it, try something different, just don’t give up completely. This journey will take time, but if you persevere, you will achieve it.