Intermittent fasting: the definitive guide
True or False?
1. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
2. I need to eat five to six smaller meals throughout the day if I want to lose weight.
3. I need to ingest protein every three to four hours to avoid muscle breakdown.
These statements are what conventional wisdom dictates to be true. Do they work? Maybe, but what if I tell you there is better way to eat that will not only save you time, but will make you stronger, leaner, and healthier at the same time.
Interested? I bet you are.
So what is intermittent fasting and how can it help you build a lean, sexy, healthy physique and in the process save lots of time and effort?
IF is not starvation!
Starvation is restricting calories severely to fewer than 1000 per day in order to lose weight quickly. Intermittent fasting is about decreasing the frequency of meals while keeping the required number of calories intact. Essentially what it means is that instead of eating, say, 2000 calories over five to six smaller meals throughout the day you’ll be eating three or even two meals a day (sometimes just one).
Fasting for more than 24 hours is something I have not done. However, the benefits of prolonged fasting on health are significant, and there is enough evidence to support that it does more good than harm.
As I strictly preach what I practice, in this section I will only discuss two types of eating patterns (limited to a 24-hour period only) that I have been following for the past year and half.
One meal a day
This type of meal plan is comprehensively explored in Ori Hofmekler’s fascinating book, The Warrior Diet.
The gist of the Warrior Diet is to eat only one meal a day, preferably at night, without any restriction of calories or macronutrient content. During the day, Ori recommends eating fresh vegetables, fruits, and a little protein that doesn’t included any carbs like breads or grains.
The Warrior Diet guarantees you several hours a day of fat- hormones burning (read: no insulin) percolating throughout your body. Ori further states that during these hours, your body is at peak capacity to remove toxins and generate energy while staying alert and resisting fatigue and stress. Long periods of undereating increase protein efficiency, so when you do eat protein, it will be utilized much more efficiently.
Not eating for long periods also improves insulin sensitivity, so when you do eat, your blood sugar doesn’t fluctuate wildly, and your body won’t store carbohydrate calories as fat.
Eating only one meal a day works perfectly well for me, as I usually research and write my articles in the morning for a few hours when I know my creativity is at its peak. I don’t want to stop to cook breakfast, which I know will take away an hour, and who knows if I will feel like writing again after my meal? So I skip breakfast and simply sip water, black coffee, or green tea until lunch.
When lunchtime arrives, if I decide I need to keep working but I am feeling slightly hungry, I have something light like a whey protein shake or boiled eggs, etc., and at the same time, I plan my sumptuous dinner. (Planning the dinner becomes really important as that one meal will decide how healthy you will eat for that day.) This kind of intermittent fasting means eating all of your required calories in one meal, however, you need to build to it slowly. At first, eating this many calories at once can be intimidating and tough for the body to accept.
Also note that during the undereating periods you are allowed to eat light foods that are not taxing on your digestive system, like whey protein, boiled eggs, and tea/coffee without milk or cream. So yes, you do get some calories from these foods.
There are three times I practice this one meal a day pattern of IF:
During my off workout days when I work the whole day and don’t have time to plan, prepare, and eat meals.
When I plan to eat a buffet at my favorite restaurant and I can’t help eating over 2000 calories.
When I am traveling most of the day and can’t get access to good food.
Two or three meals a day
When I follow this as a pattern, I simply skip one of my main meals (usually lunch). I routinely have whole eggs in the morning, as my two-year-old son loves them, and it’s a good way to bond with him—a wonderful start to my day. Then I usually skip lunch, as eating in the afternoon makes me sleepy. Skipping lunch also allows me to work productively until early evening and prepare for a sumptuous dinner.
Now, on days when I work out with weights, I usually eat three square meals. I opt for a heavy breakfast made of oats, milk, and eggs. I then again have a high carb meal before and after my workout, making sure that I am close to my required calorie range each time.
The best part about IF is you don’t have to be hell-bent on doing it a particular way or in a pattern. You can choose whatever way suits your mood and your lifestyle. But if you are looking for a structured approach, Martin Berkhan from Lean Gains does a good job recommending a structured approach. He suggests a 14-hour fast for women and 16-hour fast for men, then “feeding” for the remaining eight to ten hours. So you are fasting the entire night and eating only after five to six hours of being awake. During the feeding window, you can have a few meals to fulfill your required caloric intake.
The only thing you need to ensure is that you eat the same number of calories in each 24-hour period so that your body doesn’t slows its metabolism down or start burning down lean muscles.
Other Patterns of IF you can follow for even more flexibility
In his new book, The Fast Diet, Dr. Michael Mosley suggests the best way to lose weight is to eat normally for five days a week and fast for two. On fasting days, he recommends cutting down to 25 percent of your normal daily calories or about 600 calories for men and 500 for women, along with plenty of water and tea. He claims to have lost 19 pounds in two months by following this eating pattern.
Brad Pilon, author of Eat Stop Eat suggests fasting for 24 hours once or twice a week. After the fast, he says to then go back to eating normally. “Act as if you didn’t fast,” Pilon says.
The reason this may work is there will be a reduction in total average calories that you eat in a week, which will give your body a break and allow it to heal itself and of course lose fat.
The main reason I practice IF is that it saves me time and effort in planning, cooking, and eating meals. For me, every meal needs to be healthy with the low-moderate carb macronutrients according to my preference (and high carbs around my workouts).
I feel following any kind of diet is restrictive. Your hunger, your lifestyle, and of course your goals should dictate what you do or do not do.
Five awesome health benefits of IF
1. It saves lots of time and effort. As you must have figured out, fewer meals means less time planning, preparing, and cooking.
2. It improves insulin sensitivity. A limited number of trials have been done on humans, but early results have shown that IF can significantly improve insulin sensitivity83.
3. IF helps reduce total caloric intake overall and therefore can be beneficial to heart health and chronic disease prevention. Periodic fasting is also associated with reduction in coronary heart disease.
4. It helps you be consistent with your diet plan. When you have fewer meals to plan, you will tend to stick to your eating schedule better over the long term, which ultimately leads to a leaner, stronger physique. Fasting is no mystery to us humans. Muslims fast during their holy period of Ramadan, Hindus fast for various religious reasons, and we instinctively don’t eat when we are sick. Our genetics were built 2.5 million years ago when humans alternated between periods of feast and famine.
5. Over time you will become more successful. Although it’s pretty hard to quantify, with periods of undereating (or complete fasting), I feel powerful, alert, more aware, relaxed, creative and raring to take on the world. This is when my sympathetic nervous system is dominant. The sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight system, which promotes alertness and energy expenditure and is mainly catabolic, hence productivity is improved. With a lighter body and a clear mind I also become more self-aware and grateful for things around me.
These periods of undereating or fasting are also the times when my insulin levels are the lowest, and of course we know what happens when insulin is low. The body burns fat like crazy. On the other hand, when someone eats, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes dominant. This system is responsible for digestion and sleep. It promotes relaxation and replenishment of energy reserves and is mainly anabolic. That’s why people often feel sleepy after eating lunch.
Intermittent patterns of eating work in synergy with both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems without compromising one or the other.
My not-so-good experience with eating five to six meals a day and my recommendation
I consider myself quite disciplined when it comes to training and eating right. I was willing to eat boiled chicken with broccoli all the time. I was willing to cook all of my day’s meals in advance, and I even set an alarm for every three hours to remind me to eat and avoid breakdown of my muscles. I enjoyed the process, as conventional wisdom (top bodybuilders and veteran trainers) convinced me it was the only way to achieve a perfectly lean and sculpted body. I followed through, but then eventually it started to affect me. I started to become obsessed about it. It started to affect my work, as the moment I finished a meal I started thinking about the next one. Worst of all, I hardly saw any results.
With IF, my recommendation is to try out this method slowly. If you are eating five or six meals a day now, cut down to three and then two. The idea is to give your body a break long enough for it to heal itself.
What do you think about intermittent fasting? Would you like to add anything? Let me know in the comments below.
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