If you read this blog, then you know I love fasting.
It’s simple. It’s incredibly effective. And it puts an end to diets with one, swift skip of a meal.
We’ve been indoctrinated with religiously kept meal timing, with breakfast taking pride of place as “the most important meal of the day.”
The fact that some observational research on breakfast skippers noted that they were more likely overweight and obese allowed this message to be hammered home.
The problem with these breakfast skippers was that they were skipping breakfast as part of an overall picture of disordered eating. Recent research has actually demonstrated that purposefully skipping breakfast leads to better appetite regulation at subsequent meals (more on the research in another post – this one is a “how to guide”).
We slavishly adhere to meal timing, over the factors that should regulate your food intake, namely appetite and need.
What if you’re not hungry in the morning? Or in the evening? You eat anyway, because you think you should.
And while regular meal timing is important, the implication of being convinced that we’re unable to go without food for anything more than 3 hours is a big barrier to simple strategies, like intermittent fasting (IF), that can help regulate weight and improve health.
In the post, I’m going to put forward three simple reasons why introducing IF to your life will change your concepts of food for the better. Then I’ll give you simple ways to start adding it to your daily, weekly, or whenever you feel like it, schedule.
There is physiological hunger, and there’s psychological hunger, and most people don’t have a clue how to distinguish between them. Hunger is simply perceived as hunger, and like a good little Pavlovian dog, we respond to it automatically.
With IF, you begin to learn how to make distinctions between your emotional state driving you to eat, and your body actually needing to eat. You learn that there is no such thing (in the Western world) as starving.
Contrary to what you might think, food stops becoming a preoccupation.
When you eat, you eat, and when you fast, you don’t.
There is a mental clarity that comes with fasting, possibly mediated by subtle increases in your catecholamines (adrenaline), that heightens your sense of alertness.
Add some ergogenic aids like caffeine into the mix, and your focus will be laser-like.
Anyone in practise that I’ve introduced to fasting has reported the same effect: more focus, more concentration.
You’ll also begin to make better food decisions. You see, once you remove automatic eating behaviour, you begin to think more purposefully about food.
By going without, you’ve brought food into your conscious awareness. At the end of any fasting period, you know you’ve achieved something positive, and that mindset carries over to your subsequent food decisions.
Put this way, no one breaks a fast with McDonald’s.
Fasting is the simplest means of detoxification. Giving the body a break lets a process known as autophagy to take place, which is your body clearing out dead and damaged cells.
You’ll likely live longer too, as the mechanisms that are triggered by fasting are associated with longevity.
You’ll lose weight easily.
And unlike weight loss diets, where any diet will help you lose weight, fasting will keep you there.
The problem, all too well documented in research, is that 90% of people who lose weight on any given diet will regain, often with interest.
The reason fasting is, in my opinion, the most effective method of weight loss is because it removes the “diet” element from the equation. The focus is on the process of going without food, not worrying about whether you can have carbs with dinner.
It’s also the simplest means of achieving maintenance, a simple system of checks and balances.
Or, to quote Dr Michael Eades:
“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.”
So let’s execute. Here are a number of different fasting methodologies you can start playing with.
Purposefully skip breakfast.
To begin with this, try it for one whole workweek – Monday-Friday. See how you find it.
This is an easy introduction because you still go to bed full, and satiated, and half of your fast is while you sleep.
All you have to do is get up, and go about your day.
Black coffee, herbal teas, water, calorie-free drinks are all fair game. Just don’t eat until lunchtime.
Popularised as Martin Berkhan’s Leangains, this difference is that Leangains is the sum of its parts: macronutrient counting, weight training, calorie and carb cycling. If you are interested in the full Leangains methodology, see the ‘Resources’ section below.
Otherwise, you’re simply following a 16/8 fasting/feeding schedule, defined by skipping breakfast each day and eating between 1 and 9pm.
Leangains is my base approach to fasting. Breakfast is a distant memory, and I’ve never felt better, stayed leaner, or been more productive through the mornings.
This method, popularised by Brad Pilon and his Eat Stop Eat protocol, can be daunting for people to consider.
In practise, it’s really not that difficult. I would, however, get comfortable with 16-hour daily fasting first.
There’s two ways of working up to a 24-hour fast: gradual build-up, or straight for the jugular.
Going straight for the jugular, I find a dinner-to-dinner fast works best, because during the day you’re active and it’s easier to work toward the goal when you’re occupied.
So if you have dinner on Monday at 7pm, you fast until 7pm Tuesday and eat.
The key to making 24-hour fasting an effortless weight loss solution is to eat as if the fast never happened i.e. just eat the meal you’d ordinarily eat for dinner. Don’t try to compensate or eat any more than you ordinarily would.
For a gradual build-up, take your 16-hour fast and increase the fasting period in 2-hour increments, 3-4 days apart.
So if you fast for 18-hours on Monday, fast for 20 on Thursday.
The following Monday, fast for 22, and then hit the full 24 that Thursday.
In terms of frequency, the 24-hour fast would be 1-2 times per week.
Crunching some numbers, you can see why it’s an effortless weight loss solution: if you need 2000 calories a day to maintain your weight, and you fast for 24 hours 2 times per week, that’s a 4,000kcal per week deficit and 1.25lbs of fat you’ve lost.
And you didn’t have a single person shout at you about what they think you should be eating. Refreshing, huh?
With the 24-hour fast, you don’t have to be also using 16/8. You can be eating a regular breakfast, lunch, dinner etc. on your other 5-6 days per week, incorporating the 24-hour fast as it fits your schedule.
The Warrior Diet, popularised by Ori Hofmekler, incorporates daytime undereating with a main meal in the evening.
As such, it’s not a “true” fasting regimen, but it can be used as such if the daytime undereating is skipped in favour of fasting through to the 4-hour eating window.
If that’s the choice, then it’s really the same application as any extended fasting.
Using the actual Warrior Diet method, you can eat raw vegetable salads, berries, or a handful of nuts during the day. You then eat one main meal in the evening.
5-2 is similar in concept to Eat Stop Eat: fasting for 2 days each week. The difference is that 5-2 allows up to 500 calories on the fast day, so more a form of controlled fasting or controlled undereating than the full 24-hour fast. There is calorie counting involved on the fast days.
Like all IF structures, this is a means to and end: a simple framework in which overall calories can be reduced.
I like applying Warrior Diet principles particularly over a period like Christmas…if you know you’re going for a massive eat out or dinner later, then you can just fast or snack light until then.
For example, you might eat dinner at 7pm on Sunday, and then you would fast until Tuesday.
This is something that I do recommend trying, once you are very comfortable with fasting generally and fasting for 24-hours is no longer daunting.
Currently, around once a month, I fast for 40 hours. Starting with dinner around 8-9pm on a Sunday, and finishing around 1pm and resuming my normal 16/8 on a Tuesday.
So the question is, why? Well for one, it’s a challenge.
But more than that, I started to notice that this overwhelming sense of calm beyond the 30 hour mark. Those last few hours (the morning of the Tuesday), there’s no hunger. No food pangs. And this incredibly calm, focus and purpose that is hard to explain.
My personal anecdote aside, this is worth trying once, just to really know what going without food for an extended period of time is like.
For women, particularly in reproductive years, full fasting is not recommended, as fasting places a different physiological stress on the female body as a threat to reproductive capacity.
Controlled fasting is a more appropriate approach, hence the success of 5-2 for women (and men). The Warrior Diet would also be a form of controlled fasting, and a cycle of eating light during the day emphasising greens, berries, and healthy fats
So for women, any of the really extended fasting would not be a good idea.
Advice for women would be not to do any daily fasting beyond 14 hours (per Martin Berkhan’s experiences with clients).
The other option is to utilise a form of undereating cycle like the Warrior Diet, or 5-2.
For those of you who want to implement the full Leangains method, go here.
To go more into the science of IF, Brad Pilon’s e-book is the best there is (this is not an affiliate link: it’s a fist bump).
Dr John Berardi’s free e-book on his IF experiments is a great personal account of experimenting with IF methods.
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