How to Master Intermittent Fasting
When I finally cracked the fitness code and achieved the six pack I had always wanted, the key component wasn’t doing 1,000 crunches a day (in fact, I do zero), but rather it was my discovery of Intermittent Fasting. I don’t remember where I had heard about it, or from whom, but I recall sitting at my desk one day (most likely trying to find something to distract me from work) and Googling the term. Out came a boatload of information, and I spent the next few hours poring over articles, blog entries, Reddit posts, progress pictures, and testimonials. I was fascinated. The more information on this radical (at least, to me) method of eating I could find, the better. The guys who were lauding the effects of I.F. had obtained the physique I wanted, and everyone who had practiced it claimed that it was simple, straightforward, and easy to get accustomed to. That next day, I decided to try it for myself, and I’ve been fasting ever since.
So let’s answer the most obvious question: what is Intermittent Fasting?
First off, let’s get this out of the way: I.F. is not a diet, but rather a method of timing your meals. One of the most common implementations of I.F. (and what I practice) is what’s known as the 16:8 method. Simply put, everything that you eat in a day falls within an 8 hour window, and for the other 16 hours of the day, you’re not eating, AKA fasting. You can arrange the window however you want, but the simplest way to go about it is to skip breakfast, eat lunch around noon or 1:00pm, and have your last meal around 8:00 or 9:00.
There are other modalities of I.F. you can try out (such as fasting for 24-hours once or twice a week, or eating 500 calories twice weekly and eating normally the rest of week) but the 16:8 method is the simplest, and is quite effective.
What are the benefits of Intermittent Fasting?
So it’s not a diet…why would anybody do this? No, though not technically a diet, there may be a TON of benefits that come along with practicing I.F. The first one being that it may improve insulin sensitivity.
Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas, and one of its functions is to carry the glucose molecules found in your bloodstream after you eat into the cells of your body to either be used as energy or stored as fat. In most people with type 2 diabetes, the cells have become resistant to insulin, and are unable to absorb and/or store the glucose floating in their bloodstream. If mismanaged, the results can be devastating, including (but not limited to) diabetic ketoacidosis, retinopathy, kidney damage, and a whole host of other issues. Practicing Intermittent Fasting may help protect against type 2 by lowering overall insulin levels and improving your cells’ insulin sensitivity.
Want another reason why lower insulin levels is a good thing? Because lower insulin levels makes stored body fat more accessible, which means YOU lose WEIGHT. Pretty sweet, right? (No pun intended.)
Other benefits of fasting include an increase in Human Growth Hormone, which is beneficial for those attempting to build muscle, improved cellular repair, reductions in risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and improved gene expression.
But one of the BIGGEST benefits is that, if you’re not a big fan of counting calories, I.F. could help you eat fewer calories by accident. If you’re limiting your feeding window, chances are you’re going to eat less in general, plus you’ll be less susceptible to that midnight snack craving. (Get outta here, Haagen-Dazs).
Okay Steve, this whole fasting thing sounds fine and dandy, but how can I cope with skipping breakfast?
Your body is amazingly adaptable. Even though we’ve been taught that eating three square meals a day is healthy and natural (not true), or, for bodybuilders, that eating six small meals is necessary to keep your metabolism elevated (also not true), fasting is probably closer to how our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate in the Paleolithic era. Back in the day (like, way back), food was relatively scarce, and therefore our bodies become increasingly efficient at performing well, both physiologically and cognitively, during long periods when food was unavailable. In reality, it wasn’t until quite recently that we started eating more than once a day.
But I get it. It’s hard for people to quit breakfast when they’ve been eating it all their lives. All I can tell you is what gets me through the morning, and that’s Coffee with a capital “C.” Black of course. (That shot of cream is going to add extra calories you don’t need and I KNOW you ain’t trying to add SUGAR to your coffee!)
Caffeine will act as an appetite suppressant, and since coffee has virtually 0 calories, it won’t break the fast. On top of that, coffee has a myriad of benefits, including potentially reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes (I guess we’re double protected!), reducing your risk of liver disease, Alzheimer’s, skin cancer, and Parkinson’s, as well as being the largest dietary source of antioxidants.
If you’re used to eating a big, hearty breakfast every morning, it’s definitely going to be a bit of a challenge at first, and may take some time before you become fully accustomed to skipping it altogether, but I promise you, once you get used to it, it’s smooth sailing. Six years in, and I don't even CRAVE breakfast anymore.
If you’re having a hard time, try playing around with your fasting window. If making it until 1:00pm is too large an order (pun intended), maybe try starting the feeding window at 11:00am. Then, after a few days, if that goes well, push it a little further to 11:30. Then a little more, and a little more until it ain’t no thang. Ultimately the timing of your feeding window is going to be up to you, and is going to be influenced by your lifestyle, your job, your commitments and your needs.
Riddle me this, Steve: Is Intermittent Fasting safe for women?
While there hasn’t been a whole lot of studies dedicated to the difference in the effects of I.F. on males versus females (at least not human ones, anyway), the studies that have been done suggest that Intermittent Fasting may not be as beneficial for some women as it is for men, due to a difference in hormonal balance. So ladies, if you’re thinking about trying out I.F., start with a 12-hour approach (eating everything for the day within a 12-hour window) and ease into it slowly. And you don’t necessarily have to do it every day. Pick three nonconsecutive days to fast, and eat like normal the rest of the week. See how well you do, and ramp it up as you feel is appropriate.
Do I have to practice Intermittent Fasting to lose weight?
No, absolutely not. Intermittent Fasting is not the ONLY way to lose weight. In fact, it’s entirely possible to maintain or even gain weight while you intermittently fast. At the end of the day, the only governing factor determining weight loss or gain is calories. It’s that old hard and fast rule you’ve a thousand times: if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight; if you burn more calories than you eat, you lose weight. Simple as that.
Apart from all of the added potential health benefits, the main reason I choose to fast is simplicity. When I’m cutting, I’m under-eating on a daily basis in order to lose body fat. Some days, I’ll eat only 1500 or so calories, and, quite simply, if I eat 200, 300, or 400 of those first thing when I wake up, it makes getting through the rest of the day that much more difficult. Since I’ve been fasting for years and have grown quite accustomed to it, it’s a lot easier to save all of those calories for the afternoons and evenings when I actually feel hungry, as opposed to burning a few hundred of them in the morning when I don’t. I even workout in a fasted state. Plus coffee helps. Tons and tons of coffee.
If you’ve read my entry on going vegan for a year, you’ll know that for a good portion of my life, I was in search of a simple set of rules to follow in order to be “automatically healthy.” Finally, in Intermittent Fasting, I may have found just that.