I was asked to do a quick blurb on Intermittent Fasting (IF) for a popular health & fitness site. As always, I want to release it to my followers first to keep you in the loop! Given that we are nearing the end of Ramadan, a discussion on fasting seems timely as well. Probably the most famous recent example of IF is Hugh Jackman’s cutting down to play Wolverine in the X-men movies. Remember he has done this over a 15 year period, so WOW!
“Eat breakfast, because it’s the most important meal of the day.” How many times have you heard that one! This is a belief & mantra that has dominated the last 50 years of media, medical & nutrition education & tips for fat loss. I mean the good people of the cereal grains companies (for example rhymes with smellogs) spent billions to relay this message to us, so it must be truth-filled & high-minded! RIGHT? DEAD WRONG!
Now I could just ask you the million dollar Doctor Phil question – how’s that working out for us? Specifically, how is eating 3 squares + snacks daily working for our weight & fat management as well as our health, longevity & performance. If you are taking the time to read this, I suspect you already know the answer! HORRIBLY. I mean, we are facing more obesity, metabolic syndrome & full blown type 2 diabetes than ever before in the Western world. Additionally, we are at a point in history where almost 35% of the western world need help conceiving to bear children, which is absolutely the genetic purpose of our species (to reproduce). What gives? Now I’m not going to over simplify this fiasco & say that breakfast is the reason, but like everything in nutrition & lifestyle, it’s one aspect that is certainly not helping & it’s more because of the content of the typical breakfast vs. the actual meal itself.
Think about it, if you eat the typical western breakfast it would breakdown something like this:
Breakfast 1: So, obviously that’s a huge sugar load on the system that keeps our pancreas churning out insulin for at least a few hours (and once it’s all out, we start to crave more & our energy plummets). No wonder our liver eventually puts up a shield to stop insulin from working (insulin resistance) because the constant oversupply can damage the cells (glycation). “Wait a minute” you say, “I don’t eat cereal, I’m not an animal!” I eat a good breakfast like # 2.
Breakfast 2: The fruit & nut butter are a step in the right direction, so a bit better, but still as laid out, really high in sugar & pro-inflammatory compounds (omega-6 fats). Whatever anyone tells you, whole grain breads, pastas & cereals are highly refined and turn into sugar in your system & the process of refining them (machine milling) makes the particles so small that they can actually penetrate your gut wall and cause significant inflammation that can lead to leaky gut & other issues. See my previous post here for more on that.
Breakfast 3: Now let’s turn things around for a minute & think about what would happen if someone was eating less refined carbohydrates (like none). Eggs –> protein. Chopped Spinach (sauteed) + Chopped Onion (sauteed) –> minimal sugar (low conversion) & high phytonutrients. Coconut oil (a few tablespoons) for sauteing the vegetables –> anti-inflammatory & stable fats mostly saturated from medium & short chain fatty acids. These actually act as a fuel for cells and help people jump start ketosis even when they are consuming more than 25 g of carbs (not sugar) per day. So that would be a great breakfast. Right? But here’s the thing, if you’re eating less refined carbs & more protein & healthy fats & vegetables then (eventually) your appetite will drop significantly. Both because you’re eliminating the addictive foods (highly refined & processed carbs) that we tend to over consume & you’re eating the foods that are much higher in the their nutritional value vs. empty calories. This means that you might not wake up starving every day, which could be just fine. As long as when you eat you eat good real food & enough of it to satisfy yourself! This brings us to the Q & A on Intermittent Fasting.
There are tonnes of resources out there with a lot of well researched info on this topic from some of the leaders in this field including my fellow Canadians Brad Pilon & John Berardi, as well as Ori Hofmekler, Martin Berkham, Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf & Chris Kresser. I’m creating this post to give you my thoughts on this concept based on my take of the literature at this time. I’m NOT trying to rewrite their work which I think was well done in all cases. I simply hope this post will be enough to inform you on the topic & give you some insights on how to integrate this practice into your lifestyle if that’s something you choose to do. Obviously, feel free to send me or comment with your questions and I’ll be happy to expand further.
What is Intermittent Fasting? In a nutshell, IF is based on the evolutionary biology principle that humans would have undergone feast/famine cycles. One of the keys to remember is that the period of no food available (famine) would have been unpredictable & likely highly variable. Think about it, it could have been days during the summer months but weeks during the winter months. Essentially, in modern day IF is when a person will eat food during a specified time window & then abstain from eating (FAST) during the rest of the 24 hour cycle. The weight loss industry & nutrition research are both ripe with several contradictions. IF represents one of these possible issues. A concept that is sound & has been shown to provide many benefits to adopters but that would be ignored or not promoted by many due to the fact that many (poorly designed) studies show that eating breakfast is an important for everybody to fuel themselves best. Unfortunately, there are many factors at work & as usual the research ignores most of them to get across one clear, but unfortunately inaccurate message!
What the heck… Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? Is it even necessary? It depends on what fuel source your body is well adapted to. If you are a sugar burner like most people (i.e. someone following USDA or HC food pyramid/guide) & want to stay that way the yes; If you are a fat-burner then NO. Specifically, if someone is adapted primarily to carbs as a fuel source then you will need to continue to provide carbohydrates on a regular basis in order to prevent the “crash” & dips in performance that we feel when we are running low on usable glucose. This is why when people undertake a ketogenic protocol with the goal of adapting to fat as a fuel (see my prior post here for more on that), they experience an unpleasant period known as the “low carb” or “keto flu” that can last anywhere from 1-4 weeks in most people. However, once someone has programmed their genes for fat burning (using epigenetic means) then they are well primed to be able to use IF as a tool that can reap some beneficial results.
What are the benefits of IF? That depends on where you are in your health, performance & longevity journey. However, at a molecular level IF can help jump start epigenetic switches to turn on fat-burning and turn-off fat-storing and these changes can benefit someone who might be overweight/obese trying to start burning fat and reduce insulin levels, as well as someone who is already lean who is trying to further lean out (for competition) or to boost performance by stimulating adaptation to fat burning for fuel. These epigenetic changes are absolutely critical for weight loss. The other thing that I’ve seen IF do, is make the whole process of paying attention to the food you eat much more manageable. Mainly because you are only eating for so many hours per day & this could translate into 2-4 meals/snacks per day but spaced differently. Especially when you are eating closer to 2 meals per day, then planning out your life becomes so much more relaxed. Interestingly, research suggests that IF or alternative day fasting are more effective (& sustainable) than calorie restriction for improving metabolic biomarkers for type 2 diabetes risk in overweight/obese populations including reductions in body weight, fat mass, fasting insulin, and improved insulin resistance. One study in mice revealed molecular mechanisms how IF protects against obesity, hyperinsulinemia & inflammation, improved motor control, by lowering mTOR, CREB & AMPK activation in IF mice vs. regular pattern of eating mice (non-IF). Furthermore, it has been suggested that IF (like Calorie restriction) actually preserves the length of our Telomeres, which has been shown to directly correlate with expected length of life. These changes suggest that IF could improve metabolism & increase longevity and quality of life.
Are the effects of IF different for men & women? Absolutely YES! There have been studies that show men adapt better to IF vs. women, likely due to alterations in circulating hormone levels. However, if someone is overweight/obese with high fat tissue, then IF could be used to help jump start the fat burning process. A recent study revealed that intermittent fasting & calorie restriction combined are effective for weight loss & cardiometabolic protection in obese women. This suggests that when someone has metabolic perturbation (messed up metabolism) then they can benefit from this strategy, at least in the short term. Research shows that IF works very well in men, even for a longer time. One study found IF + calorie restriction combined improved metabolism body composition in older men, as well as improving mood regulation & energy levels, while another study showed IF alone improves metabolic biomarkers in otherwise healthy older men. Another study showed that the IF that occurs during Ramadan decreased circulating inflammatory compounds & immune response elements in healthy men & women, suggesting that IF can decrease inflammatory responses that are normally higher in a steady eating pattern. One study found that IF during Ramadan improved body composition except in women aged 36-70, and mildly improved all other markers. Importantly, this population was otherwise healthy & the measurements were done 1 week before the start of Ramadan and 1 week after the end of Ramadan. One last study comparing IF to calorie restriction (continuously) revealed that both strategies resulted in decreased body weight, waist circumference, percentage fat mass, and fat mass weight; both also decreased plasma total cholesterol and triglycerides, all of these changes would benefit someone’s overall health. Interestingly, the continuous calorie restriction resulted in lowered LDL amount, which has been suggested recently is NOT a good biomarker compared with particle size for cardiovascular risk anyway. HDL & metabolic rate remained stable in the IF group, which is definitely a plus. I also touch on the real deal behind cardiovascular risk in my previous post here. Importantly, the quality of the REAL FOODs that ARE eaten could be the most important part of how well someone responds to IF. Some people might need a bit more carbohydrate intake (closer to 150 g daily), but that can still come from vegetables & fruits and when doing IF, would have to be consumed during the eating window only.
How is IF usually done? There are few common patterns used. 1) Regularly eat during a specific time window (i.e. 1100-1900); Other windows used commonly include 6 and even 4 hour ones; 2) Skip 2 meals on one day, to take 24 hours off from eating. 3) Ori Hofmekler uses a variation of IF in the Warrior diet that you can check out here. There are many others variations, but you get the point.
Final Thoughts Overall, I believe that Intermittent Fasting is a great tool to include in your health, performance & longevity arsenal along with no sugar/no grains, lower carb & the paleo/primal nutrition strategies. The one unsung benefit that I believe IF has over simple continuous calorie restriction, is that it takes a lot of the pressure off the user so that we don’t have to obsess over calories from every morsel of food & as someone who uses this in my weekly nutrition plan, I can say it’s nice to get up some morning & not have to worry about making breakfast & NOT feeling I want/need to eat. It’s a great way to jump start fat burning & keto-adaptation when you are starting a lower carb lifestyle. One final thing is that once you’ve tried it for a couple of weeks to a month or so, you might want to start varying it a bit, because that’s really the way it would have happened in nature, right? I’ve seen this strategy work for myself & for many clients, some of whom wanted to burn fat & others wanted to maintain their lifestyle without having to obsesses about meals for the bulk of their day. And I’m all for that. If a strategy can decrease neuroticism in this world of information overload, then give it a shot. Just be smart about it. You know your situation better than anyone, so talk to a professional if you need to, and if not, then go for it, but be sure to record your baseline outcome measures (what you want to see changed) & compare them against those at the end of your n=1 trial.
Please comment with your thoughts and share any experiences you’ve had with IF through the comment area under this post (on my website).
Till next time.
Have an awesome weekend!