Ancient Knowledge for Modern Well-Being
You may have heard of intermittent fasting (IF) as a nutritional strategy touted in the media as an effective diet with a host of benefits, including excess weight loss, improving gut health, and even slowing down the aging process. More recently, IF has been shown to be beneficial in the prevention of advanced neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson's. Moreover, fasting has been successfully implemented as an effective nutritional strategy in the performance arena, specifically in sports where body composition determines weight class (e.g. martial arts).
Although this alternating pattern of eating and fasting ( understood as the willing abstention from all food intake) may sound radical to some, it is certainly far from new.
Billions of people follow religious fasts today and have done so across diverse cultures throughout the millennia.
Intermittent fasting is becoming more commonly used for weight management, with fasted periods lasting anywhere between 12-36 hours. Some extended fasts carry on from 72 hours to many weeks or even months.
Not all fasting is the same, however, and there are as many ways to do it right as there are to doing it wrong. However, if you are willing to pay mindful attention to some key concepts - and weight loss, improved digestive tract health, enhanced blood sugar regulation, and preservation learning and memory function sound appealling to you- IF is one method that has shown to correlate positively to all of these health benefits.
Buddhist monks have observed fasting for over two thousand years as part of an ascetic practice, or "dhutanga" practice. Dhutanga means "to shake up" or "invigoration."
Benefits of Fasting
Among the many evidence-based benefits of fasting, the current body of research suggests fasting may result in:
- Improved use of fat as a fuel source (fat oxidation)
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Improved body composition
- Improved autophagy
- Improved brain health/ cognition
- Improved digestion
- Slowed/reversed signs of aging
- Improved biomarkers of disease
Unfortunately, many have equated fasting to another proverbial magic pill, with which they can release food choice inhibitions and eat to their eye's content.
It is shown that "intermittent fasting represents a valid-albeit apparently not superior-option to continuous energy restriction for weight loss." In addition, clinical research studies of fasting with robust designs and high levels of clinical evidence are sparse in the literature.
In truth, for this strategy (or any nutrition strategy) to be effective, we want to remain focused on our daily habits andd the quality and quantity of the food we consume. Consider the old adage, "you are what you eat" and it's easy to see why some clichés are but simple truths in disguise.
You are what you eat, so avoid eating fast, easy, cheap, or fake.
Methods of Fasting for Body Recomposition
In reality, we all fast on a daily basis. The very term breakfast suggests this notion.
Even though we may habitually fast, it is clearly not done in a way that confers much in the way of fat loss, lean mass gains or any of its various benefits. Special attention and forethought are what make this approach effective.
How effective? You can be the judge and easily find endless testimonials on the web regarding variants of IF can be not only beneficial for fat loss but also for promoting lean mass gains and even boosting cognitive function.
As shown by Martin Berkhan, intermittent fasting is a viable strategy for visibly improving your physique.
Aside from traditional or religious practices, these are some of the most common ways fasting is implemented:
- The 5:2 Diet- a method taught by author Kate Harrison where you eat regularly for 5 days and fast or reduce calorie intake (<500) for 2 days.
- Eat-Stop-Eat- nutritionist Bob Pilon promulgates that we should complete a 24 hour fast, 1 to 2 times per week.
- Alternate Day Fasting-James Burris Johnson tells of boundless health if we eat every other day.
- The Warrior Diet-former Israeli Special Forces Agent Ori Hofmekler promotes we should under eat for 20 hours per day, then consume as much food as desired at night and is a form of time-restricted fast.
- Spontaneous meal skipping- popularized by everyone from people working successive shifts, to video game bingers, to CEO's and just about everyone you ever knew (including yourself), meal skipping is simply that: skipping a meal from time to time.
- Leangains:-Body builder Martin Berkhan (pictured above) popularized this for of time-restricted fasting in which you fast for 16 hours, followed by an 8-hour period of eating known as the "feeding window", in which you perform the bulk of your training.
Which Protocol is Best for You?
I encourage you to do your own homework on whichever approach sounds the most palatable to you. Remember, the "best diet" is a myth: no two people will respond the same to any of these protocols. Experimentation is part of the process to discovering the ideal strategy for you.
The principle of creating a calorie deficit, and not your diet preference, determine whether you gain or lose fat. There is no "best diet for fat loss."
In addition, we must bear in mind that over-eating and under-eating both defeat the purpose of food: to nourish the body and mind and keep us healthy so that we can carry on benefiting the world around us.
All philosophy aside, and considering simplicity, effectiveness, and my own experience with clients, let's examine the 16:8 method of fasting.
Under this condition, if your last meal is at 7 pm, you would have only water until 11 am the following morning (16 hours later). In this example, you would fast through the night (hopefully in deep sleep) and upon waking you would consume only water until your first meal at 11 am.
When paired in conjunction with a sound, evidence-based approach to training, active recovery, sleep, and mindfulness, intermittent fasting can illicit incredible physiological adaptations for those seeking for a simple way to improve their overall health.
How to Get Started with Intermittent Fasting
Getting the physique you desire using IF comes down to not only what you're eating, but when you're eating.
Eat Real Food
Nutrition experts from Harvard University put together The Healthy Eating Plate , seen below, as a simple to use dietary guide designed to address the nutritional deficiencies apparent in the U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s MyPlate. You can find more detailed guidance on Harvard's website.
I have created a brief grocery list of quality foods derived from The Healthy Eating Plate you can find here, but remembering these 4 simple keys will ensure your nutritional habits enable your desired outcome:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Eat real food.
- Not too much, but enough
- Mostly vegetables
Believe it or not, it is possible to have a few indulgences while following this eating pattern. You will never have to abandon your favorite foods, as long as you mind your complete nourishment.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner puts it simply: "it's not about the foods you remove from your diet, but about the foods, you add to your daily routine". True health rests in daily enjoyment and mindful choice of foods.
Although intermittent fasting is safe for most healthy individuals, certain individuals should avoid IF altogether.
- Individuals with a history of eating disorders
- Women who are trying to conceive, pregnant women, nursing mothers
- Individuals who are malnourished
- Children and young adolescents
- Type 2 Diabetics (without physician supervision)
- Skeptics/people looking for shortcuts or "the best diet"
One of the biggest reasons why this style of eating is so effective for body recomposition is that it promotes your body's usage of internal fat stores as a source of energy, especially when paired with a caloric deficit.
For my own clients, I always recommend starting with a 2-3 week personal experiment where we account for an honest, consistent effort. This means sticking to an appropriate range of calories and macronutrients, as well as accounting for all adaptation errors(e.g. adequate sleep, hydration, mindfulness practices, etc.)
You can try this 2-3 week time frame for yourself, and it will abe plenty of time for you to notice how fasting works with your body, if you need to make any adjustments, and most importantly, if it fits into your life.
A few things to keep in mind for intermittent fasting:
- A 12-18 hour fast is long enough for most people to benefit from fasting, although you can gradually increase time in between meals across several weeks
- Prioritize adequate hydration during fasted periods
- I recommend drinking only water or plain coffee/tea when fasted, although some proponents IF suggest the use of BCAA's
- Ensure your training sessions are within your feeding window and focus on getting stronger in multijoint exercises(e.g., deadlift, bench press, pull-ups, squats, etc.)
- Focus on eating quality food- mostly veggies, protein, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Be sure to take pleasure in your nourishment and find the food you enjoy!
- Don't chase perfection- but try for it. Missing a meal or eating past your feeding window isn't a catastrophe. Don't guilt trip.
- If you stumble, ask yourself what you can do to better your chances in the future, and you'll be better prepared. Continue where you left off and make sure you are striving for adherence in your nutrition plan.
The Best Kind of Diet
Intermittent fasting is growing in popularity because it is effective, easy to implement, and has many evidence-based benefits from improved focus, to improved digestion and has even been shown to aid in the treatment of certain cancers. There is a growing interest and need for research in intermittent fasting, although the most current studies all point toward its benefit.
Although there are many ways to implement this strategy, I believe that the methods outlined above are easy-to-follow, no-nonsense, actionable points for improving your body from the inside out. Remember, no one dietary strategy is best. What works for one person, may not work for another.
Resolve to follow the method that works best for you. The best kind of diet is free of judgment or anxiety, is intuitive, and is based on your hunger cues and your nourishment needs for that day. In any endeavor, consistency is key. Pursue progress, and remember, the road to success is best enjoyed!
To your health,
More on Fasting:
Intermittent Fasting for Beginners by Dr. Jason Fung, M.D.
The Profound Benefits of Fasting and Autophagy by Graham Ryan
Why Fasting Bolsters Brain Power by Mark Mattson