Fasting – Part One

“There is nothing new, except what has been forgotten”
Marie Antoinette

For a long time I was a firm believer in two points when it came to eating:

  1. Never miss breakfast. Starting the day with a good breakfast is essential for firing up your metabolism, and giving you energy for the day.
  2. Eating lots of smaller meals throughout the day keeps your metabolism operating at an optimum level.

These are persuasive arguments that you will hear repeated throughout the world of fitness, and they did not serve me badly by any means. Or so I thought at the time, but you don’t know what you don’t know, until you know it! What if there’s science and research that shows having restricted periods of eating can help with optimum human performance, mental and physical health improvement, maximum muscle retention, and body fat loss?

I abandoned these practices and adopted a regular fasting protocol several years ago and now feel and perform better than ever. I’ve increased lean muscle mass, decreased body fat, increased strength and endurance and decreased recovery time.

In other words, I’m stronger, leaner, and more explosive without changing any of my training.

When fasting is mentioned the reactions are usually along the lines of how is this possible? Isn’t skipping breakfast bad for you? Why would anyone fast for 16 hours every day? What are the benefits? Is there any science behind this or are you just crazy? Is it dangerous?

In short fasting is easy to implement into your lifestyle and comes with a series of health benefits. It may not be right for everyone but in the modern world where we are in a constantly fed state, completely at odds with how the body is designed to function, most people will benefit from some form of fasting.

Fasting has gained popularity in the past few years through celebrity endorsements, and several books on the topic. Hugh Jackman famously powered his Wolverine physique by a form of fasting known as the 16:8 method (more on this later).

But fasting is not new. It is one of the most ancient healing traditions in human history, and has been practiced by virtually every culture and religion on earth. Fasting for spiritual purposes is still widely practiced today, and remains part of virtually every major religion in the world. Fasting developed independently among different religions and cultures, not as something that was harmful, but something that was deeply, intrinsically beneficial to the human body and spirit. Thus fasting is ingrained into human heritage, and as old as mankind itself.

From an evolutionary perspective the environment would have chosen our diet rather than us. Our body would have had to have adapted to how often the food was available. Modern day wisdom has been that you need to get 3 balanced meals a day to stay healthy. But the eating patterns and ideals we’ve inherited are relatively recent inventions, the products of complex social and economic forces, as well as the efforts of ambitious inventors, scientists and health gurus. Eating three meals a day was basically invented due to culture, not out of biological necessity, it is not based off of our biological needs.

‘Breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ is a great example and in fact originated from a 1944 marketing campaign named “Eat a Good Breakfast—Do a Better Job”. It was launched by General Foods, the manufacturer of Grape Nuts, to sell more cereal.

Before cereal, in mid-1800s America, breakfast was not all that different from other meals. Middle- and upper-class Americans ate eggs, pastries, and pancakes, but also oysters, boiled chickens, and beefsteaks. The rise of cereal established breakfast as a meal with distinct foods and created the model of processed, ready-to-eat breakfast that still largely reigns. And it all depended on advertising that suggests that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

If as a species, like every other animal in nature, we could not survive without food for extended periods we probably would not be here today. Tribal cultures that survive today still follow this natural pattern of eating. The Pirahã people, an indigenous hunter-gatherer group of the Amazon Rainforest was extensively studied by an anthropological linguist named Daniel Everett. He found they do not eat every day or even attempt to do so. They were even aware of food storage techniques yet never used them except to barter with Brazilian traders.

When you talk to people about fasting the initial response can be quite skeptical, especially from men who find it hard to believe that you can build a strong and muscular physique this way. Ironically the opposite is true namely because it is one of the best ways to boost levels of growth hormone (sleep being the other).

There are also various health benefits that have been associated with fasting, including reduced risk factors for ageing, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke. And although the initial research is promising too few studies have been done to be conclusive. (This mainly comes down to the lack of money to be made. With no drugs to sell, drug companies are not testing it).

Fasting should not be seen as a miracle diet or as an excuse to eat rubbish the rest of the time. But if you practice fasting combined with a mostly whole food diet, you will see changes, and those occasional splurges on chocolate or treats won’t have as big of an impact as they might.

I have personally found this combination to be incredibly powerful. My training sessions are stronger, my recovery is faster, I feel full of energy, mentally alert and find it easier than ever to maintain a lean, muscular physique.

There are a lot of myths around fasting and some of the common questions I get asked include:
Should I use an eating window like the 16:8 protocol or fast for 24 hrs once a week?
What if I work shifts, can I still fast?
Does fasting affect women differently?
Will I lose muscle? How will I get enough nutrients?
How will I feel? What about energy levels?

These are all valid questions, and anything that seemingly goes against conventional wisdom means it can be difficult to discern the fact from the fiction.

Fasting can be a great tool, but it needs to be part of a well balanced approach that works for your life. Depending on when you work, when you exercise, if you have a family to prepare meals for, it can get tricky to navigate. Not to mention that fasting is just a piece of the puzzle – you also need to eat well and make exercise a priority!

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