“There is nothing new, except what has been forgotten”
For a long time I was a firm believer in two points when it came to eating:
- Never miss breakfast: Starting the day with a good breakfast is essential for firing up your metabolism, and giving you energy for the day.
- Eating every 3 hours: Lots of smaller meals throughout the day will keep your metabolism operating at an optimum level.
These are persuasive arguments that you will hear repeated throughout the world of fitness, and honestly I was by no means out of shape. In fact at the time (6 years ago) I thought I was on point with the way I was eating.
BUT you don’t know what you don’t know, until you know it!
There is a lot of marketing around that says we should never be hungry, that we need to be eating throughout the day, and that if we miss meals the body will start storing fat.
Well what if that simply isn’t true?
Or that at the very least there is an alternative that is worth experimenting with. Because if you don’t try different approaches how will you ever know what works best for your own body?
In fact there is science and a strong body of 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.
Personally I 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, and feel far better on a day to day basis in terms of energy and mental clarity.
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?
- 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 we are constantly in a fed state, and this is completely at odds with how the body is designed to function.
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.
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 chicken, 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 that 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.
Initial research also points towards increasing longevity but 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 some great positive 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.
What Are The Benefits Of Fasting?
- Simplicity – Fasting is remarkably easy to implement once you get over the idea that you don’t need to eat all the time. There are no expensive supplements or foods to buy, you can do it anywhere, anytime, and the ways to implement it are varied enough to find one which works for you.
- More Focus – Many people, myself included, find they are most productive during periods of fasting. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If our ancestors hadn’t eaten for a few days they would need to be as alert as possible to do something about it.
- Increased Insulin Sensitivity – The more sensitive your body is to insulin, the more likely you’ll be to use the food you consume efficiently. Fasting is the most efficient and consistent strategy to decrease insulin levels, and increase insulin sensitivity.
- Higher Levels Of Growth Hormone – Not only that, but growth hormone is increased during fasted states.
- Fat Loss & Muscle Growth – Combine increased growth hormone secretion, with the decrease in insulin production (and thus increase in insulin sensitivity) and you’re essentially priming your body for muscle growth and fat loss with fasting.
- Better Gut Health – Fasting is beneficial for your gut microbes: “When you’re not eating, a whole different set of microbes comes and cleans up your gut wall, eating the sugars and things there, and that’s important in keeping a good immune balance.”
- Less Hunger – Fasting can normalise ghrelin levels. Ghrelin is also known as the hunger hormone, because it is responsible for telling your body that it is hungry. Dieting and restrictive eating can actually increase ghrelin production, which will leave you feeling hungrier. But when you fast you are actually normalising ghrelin levels.
- Resistance To Disease And Stress – Chronic stress has been associated with just about every major disease known to man. Multiple studies have shown that using fasting helps to enhance the body’s resistance to harmful stress. It helps to fight free radicals by improving the body’s protective chemicals.
Ways To Fast
There are a number of ways to actually perform fasting, and the best one to do is the one which suits you and your lifestyle.
I currently use an eating window each day: I fast for 16- 18 hours and eat all of my food in a 6 – 8 hour window.
In practice this means skipping breakfast and having my first meal around 11 or 12 o’clock in the morning and my last meal around 7-8pm. But I have also experimented with doing it the other way around, eating breakfast (8am) and having an earlier dinner around 4pm.
I might also throw in a 24hr fast once every 7-14 days.
However, I listen to my body and on some days I won’t fast at all or switch around the timings. Being flexible and not becoming rigid with this is the key to success I believe. If it begins dominating your thoughts and causing stress then I suggest you take a break for a while.
When you first start out with fasting use “baby steps” rather than throwing yourself straight into longer periods without food. Gradually experiment with increasing the length of time without food until you find a sweet spot that works for you. And remember that sweet spot may change from day to day.
Fasting is not for everyone, and you will need to use trial and error to see if, and how, you can make it work for you.
The following are what I would consider to be the two most popular approaches:
- The 16/8 Protocol (Leangains) – As popularised by Martin Berkhan, and is by far the most popular method of fasting intermittently. The idea is to fast for 16 hours, then eat all your calories in an 8 hour window.
- 24 Hr Fasts (Eat Stop Eat) – As popularised by Brad Pilon, involves fasting for an entire 24 hours, usually one to two days per week (not on consecutive days). Let’s say you eat your last meal of the day at 8:00 p.m. the day before. You fast overnight and then all the following day, skipping breakfast and lunch, and then pushing dinner out to 8:00 p.m. (for a full 24 hours).
- Can I have drinks during my fast? In terms of what you can consume during the period of fasting there is some disagreements amongst the community but it is generally seen to be okay to consume non-caloric drinks such as black tea or coffee. Personally I only drink water and make sure I am fully hydrated.
- Does fasting affect men and women differently? Virtually all case series of the past 100 years have included both men and women and they point to the fact that women and men respond more or less equally except in the underweight situation. This is an easy problem. Should anybody who is seriously underweight fast? No. If you are severely underweight and fast, you could become infertile, yes. Martin Berkhan (16:8) has found that women respond to using a 14:10 protocol (14 hours fasted:10 hours eating). “It turns out that women has lower plasma glucose concentrations than men after the same time spent fasting. In practical terms, this means that women in general are more likely to get moody and hungry if they go too long without feeding, while men can go longer without experiencing any negative effects, and this is exactly what I’ve been seeing. Men can do 16 hours quite easily, not so with women; for them, 14 hours is the sweet spot.”
- Should pregnant women or children fast? No.
- Can I still exercise on a fast? In theory, yes absolutely. But this will depend on your training volume and intensity (which is why my fasting varies from day to day). And you must ensure that you are fueling yourself adequately to support your training and recovery.
- I work shifts, can I fast? Depending on your training schedule, lifestyle, and goals, simply adjust your hours of fasting and eating. There is no one way to practice fasting, find a version that suits you.
- Won’t I lose muscle mass? No, not if you are consuming enough food. This would make no sense from an evolutionary point of view, and as point 4 above explains, fasting actually boosts your levels of growth hormone.
- How much should I eat when fasting? Eat for your goals! If your goal is weight loss, you still need to consume fewer calories than you burn every day to lose weight. If your goal is bulking up, you’ll need to consume more calories than you burn every day. Intermittent Fasting isn’t a cure-all, it’s a part of the puzzle.
As that last point says, fasting is not a cure all. Fasting is another tool that you can use on your journey to better health and performance, and is just one part of the puzzle. It is not an excuse to eat badly, and as always, the quality of your nutrition is paramount.
You also need to make sure that you are eating the right amount of good quality food to support your goals. If that means you need a longer eating window to fit all of your meals in then adapt it to meet that need.
As with most things health related fasting requires a degree of self experimentation to find out what works for you. We all have different genetics, lifestyles and goals and a ‘one size fits all’ simply does not exist.
Personally I have had fantastic results from implementing fasting into my life, as have many of our community. And unless you have a prohibiting medical condition then I believe it is at least worth trialling to see if it is beneficial for you.