Intermittent fasting is the new Paleo in terms of diet and nutrition. Whilst researchers and dietitians were debating over whether Paleo was good for us a new plan popped up called intermittent fasting, which like paleo claims to be taking us back to our caveman or primal roots.
About intermittent fasting?
In the days when we hunted and gathered for food, we’d expend energy to find food and wouldn’t always be successful. Sometimes we’d go for long periods without food, and occasionally skip eating completely for whole days while we struggled to hunt and find edible plants.
However now we’ve grown accustomed to eating around the clock with high calorie, low nutrient dense foods. Convenience stores are at every turn, and we’re eating because it’s “lunchtime” rather than because we’re hungry. We eat to be social, to cover emotion and because we simply have nothing else to do. Instead we should be listening to our bodies and let our bodies dictate when we eat.
Weight Loss Myth 1: One rule that dietitians and fitness professionals spout is that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and should never be skipped. The idea was that if you want to lose weight, control your hunger, and burn fat that you had to make sure your start off your day with a healthy morning breakfast. This was supposed to get your metabolism firing first thing in the morning.
Unfortunately most of us have accepted this as fact when the truth is we’ve become conditioned to eating by the clock rather than our own hunger levels. Our bodies are amazing things and we have a built in trigger that lets us know we’re hungry. Ask yourself if you’re eating breakfast just because it’s “breakfast time”, or because you’re truly hungry for food.
Weight loss myth 2: We’ve been told that if you want to lose weight then you have to make sure to eat six small meals throughout the day. According to some this is so your metabolism is raised throughout the day, so your body can keep burning calories and keeping your blood sugar balance. There is however, no research to back up this claim. Weight loss happens with a calorie deficit. Whether this calorie deficit occurs with 2 or 6 meals a day doesn’t matter as long as the deficit occurs.
What is fasting?
Fasting put simply is abstaining from eating food. Many different religious and spiritual groups have fasted for centuries so the fasting concept is nothing new. Many of the religious fasts also have a feasting post-fast to nourish the body and provide nutrients missed during the fast. Fasting is definitely not a new ‘flash in the pan’ type diet.
What is intermittent fasting?
Whether you’re fasting for religious, spiritual or health reasons there are many ways to fast. Some simply omitting certain food groups, an example would be Lent where people give up a food vice for 40 days. Other might fast from sun rise to sunset like Ramadan, or fast for full days such as Yom Kippur.
Intermittent fasting is not a diet per say, but more of a pattern of eating incorporating different elements of fasting. For some this will be skipping breakfast, or perhaps just eating one or two meals a day. For others it will be eating only in a set eight hour time period, for example 11-7pm. For others it may be fasting completely every few days, or just eating a light meal.
How does not eating can help you lose weight and burn body fat?
Naturally, because you skip meals you may eat fewer calories on fasting days so you may end up with an overall calorie deficit which can lead to weight loss. When we eat our body spends time processing the meal, separating the food into molecules of carbohydrates, protein and fat. When we move our body needs energy and rather than grab energy from fat or glycogen stores, because it’s efficient, it uses the food we just ate, specifically the carbohydrates.
So the real science comes into play on fasting periods. If you haven’t eaten for a while your body has no digested energy, so it’s more likely to pull from fat stores. This happens when we exercise in a fasted state too. Our bodies haven’t replenished the glycogen stores depleted since our last meal, so it looks for alternative energy sources, our fat stores.
What is that insulin sensitivity I’m hearing about?
Insulin sensitivity has recently become a buzz word in nutrition circles, and rightly so. More and more research is being done on insulin sensitivity and its relationship to weight loss and conversely obesity.
When we eat food our bodies produce a hormone called insulin, to regulate the level of glucose in the body. Our bodies have an ideal range and once we get either side of that range we can get health problems. The more sensitive our body is to insulin, the more efficient our body becomes.
This means it will use the consumed food more efficiently, leading to potential weight loss. The glycogen stored in our body in the liver and muscles is depleted during sleep and fasting, and even more so during exercise (which can further increase insulin sensitivity).
So a post-workout meal will be stored more efficiently as glycogen stores, burned for energy, used for muscle repair and with minimal fat storage. When we don’t practice fasting the insulin sensitivity is normal, glycogen levels remain full, barely getting depleted, and so the energy is more likely to be stored as fat.
Research from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark studied intermittent fasting and concluded that intermittent fasting increases insulin sensitivity, and had improvements in metabolic function as well as reducing fat stores. Bottom line, intermittent fasting can help teach your body to use the food it consumes more efficiently. This not only promotes lean muscle gains and increases your fat burning hormone, but also heals the body and also promotes weight loss.
Why does skipping breakfast and eating later of the day work?
Breakfast, it’s very name means breaking the fast, however, who decided that it was meant to be at 6am in the morning? Breakfast should simply be redefined as the first meal after fasting. While it’s been said that breakfast jump starts the metabolism, it really doesn’t. All it does is provide a very slight increase in the metabolic rate whilst digesting the food.
You’d get more of an impact on metabolism by skipping breakfast, going for a fasted workout, and breaking the fast with food post workout. This will increased growth hormone secretion, decrease insulin production and thus increase in insulin sensitivity meaning you’re essentially priming your body for lean muscle growth and fat loss with intermittent fasting.
So where the heck does the six small meals a day myth comes from?
Pretty much diet and fitness books contain this myth, but where do they get it from? In theory it does sound plausible. Your body burns calories via digestion, so if you constantly feed your body every three to four hours your metabolism is slightly raised throughout the day.
Well the truth is that whether you eat 1800 calories spread out through the day, or 1800 calories at one time, your body will burn the same number of calories processing the food. So the whole keeping your metabolism firing and working at optimum capacity by continuously eating is a completely myth. Sounds good in theory, but reality and science tell a different story.
Guidelines for experiment with intermittent fasting
As there are many ways to practice intermittent fasting a weekly plan that focuses on trying a few of the programs might be beneficial to finding a plan that works for you. The goal for the end of the week is to push towards an eating time period of eight hours, between noon and 8pm.
Ensure you continue to drink water throughout the day as needed, while paying attention to the hunger and thirst signals or your body. Some individuals may find it beneficial to track food and related hunger levels throughout the week and note any changes.
A way to test the waters, and see if fasting works for you is to simply skip a few meals during the week. This method is perhaps the easiest and allows for a little more freedom, making it suitable for beginners. It also works well for busy lifestyles, if you know you have meetings at work through a lunch hour, skip lunch that day. Being busy will make hunger less noticeable too.
Monday – eat normal
Tuesday – Skip breakfast
Wednesday– eat normal
Thursday– Slip Lunch
Friday– eat normal
Saturday– Skip dinner
Sunday– eat normal
Daily Fasting or Fast & Feast
Due skipping breakfast and fasting in the morning, this is really suitable for those that prefer to workout in the morning. If you struggle to fast in the morning, another method to try is pushing your first meal back an hour each morning, so that at the end of the week you’re eating your first meal at lunchtime rather than first thing in the morning. This may work everyday or perhaps just one or two days per week.
- 7am – Wake up and drink water, tea or coffee
- 11am – Workout
- 12pm – Eat ½ daily calories
- 7pm – Eat ½ daily calories
- 8pm – Fast until 12pm the next day
- 24 hour fasting
Another intermittent fasting method is to fast for 24 hour periods. This is a popular method for days where your activity level is lower. This plan allows for a full 24 hours of fasting. This 24 hours can be split however is convenient to you, maybe it’s 8pm to 8pm the following day, or noon to noon, either way works.
- Monday – eat normal
- Tuesday – Eat until noon, and then Fast
- Wednesday– Fast until noon, then eat normally
- Thursday– eat normal
- Friday– eat normal
- Saturday– eat normal
- Sunday– eat normal
Important things to remember are that the beneficial effects of intermittent fasting are not a pass for eating junk food. A good diet, high in nutrients is essential not only for the health benefits, but also for the weight and fat loss. It’s also important to continue working out, and adjust the intensity of the fasting workouts if needed.
As with any dietary change, consult a medical professional to ensure the program is right for you and that you have no underlying medical conditions that would contraindicate intermittent fasting, such as: pregnant woman, diabetics and people taking certain medications.