Is Intermittent Fasting what you need to lose more fat and build more muscle, quickly?
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. At least that what they tell us. Intermittent Fasting has gained popularity in recent years and is bringing that notion into question. So, is it still the case that your bowl of Sugar Puffs in the morning is the most critical food that will pass your lips all day. Or was The Honey Monster wrong all along? And is Intermittent Fasting the meal timing strategy you need to get those big results?
To answer that question, this article is going to pick through the detail and confusion for you. Because you're going to find out all the information on Intermittent Fasting you'll ever need. Now, some of you will know about the concept already. But for others it will be an alien concept that requires further explanation.
Without doubt, when I first heard about the idea of Intermittent Fasting (IF for short) I was immediately sceptical. Going without food for a lengthy period of time and then 'feasting' for a fixed period of time sounded like just another fad diet approach, pedalled by some celebrity.
However, my initial scepticism may have been misplaced. Because there is evidence to show that it might have some legs.
What you'll discover in this article
This definitive guide to Intermittent Fasting is my way of giving you the answers to those burning questions. Ultimately, I'm aiming to help you decide if Intermittent Fasting is something you want to try for yourself. Because it might not be for everybody, but it could be the nutrition strategy you've been looking for.
Here's what we'll cover:
- What the whole Intermittent Fasting concept actually is.
- What the weight / fat loss benefits associated to Intermittent Fasting are.
- If there are any additional health health benefits with Intermittent Fasting
- How to figure out if Intermittent Fasting is right for you.
- When you should and shouldn't you use Intermittent Fasting
Let's get right into the detail and find out if Tony the Tiger was right. Is breakfast really "ggggggggrrrrrrrrreat"?
The UK government introduced something called the Eatwell Plate in 2007. The main purpose of the Eatwell Plate was to give the general public a visual guide to eating healthy. It looked a little bit like this.
This concept was slightly modified in 2016 to the Eatwell Guide, incorporating some updates and changes (although broadly speaking it contains the same message).
The Eatwell concept is designed to be a very generic messages that a wide variety of people can understand without too much complication. But it's not optimal for everyone. Particularly, those following a resistance training programme.
The problem with the Eatwell Concept
Firstly, there is a dominant lean towards vegetables and carbohydrate, with a much smaller focus on protein. Don't get me wrong, vegetables, fruit, oats, bread, and pasta are great (I love them for a start). However, research has proven that a high protein diet is scientifically proven to be effective. And it's effective, not just for building muscle, but also for losing weight, cutting body fat and leading a generally healthy lifestyle.
So, the proportions of the eatwell plate need some work for us lifters.
Secondly, the impact of calories is crucially not mentioned at all. And this is arguably the most important piece of advice that should be given. Because you can still get fat eating 'healthy' foods if you eat too much of them.
Without doubt, over-eating is single most common problem that prevents people from achieving they're fat loss goals. And this is true for people that eat healthy and those that binge on ice cream and pizza.
These people feel like they're doing the right things and eating the right foods, but they don't seem to be losing weight. Sound familiar?
More often than not it comes back to the same old equation. Eating too much and not exercising enough.
Finally, there's the 8th rule of the Eatwell Guide, 'Don't skip breakfast'.
Well, if that is true then I might as well stop writing right now and tell you that Intermittent Fasting won't work and it's bad for you. But you and I both know that it's not all as it might seem.
Digging into the detail could unearth some hidden gems of information that could just add some weight to Intermittent Fasting being more than a fad diet concept. So, let's do just that and get stuck into the detail.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting is a series of regular short-term fasts over a given period of time.
There are a number of different approaches to intermittent fasting. And there are also varying rules on timing and what you can and can't eat during the 'feasting' times.
In fact, there are some approaches that have no real restrictions on the foods you get to eat during the non-fasting periods. That's right, you get to eat whatever you want as long as you stick to the fasting periods. Because there's much more focus on when you eat, rather than what you eat.
In this sense, Intermittent Fasting is often considered to be an 'eating pattern' as opposed to a 'diet', in the traditional sense of the word.
Intermittent Fasting and Evolution
Those that support the Intermittent Fasting theory believe the approach is more akin to the needs of our bodies from an evolutionary standpoint. Whilst the world (and our role as humans in it) has changed massively since our hunter-gather days, the body itself hasn't really evolved a significant amount. I mean, it's not like we've grown wings to soar through the sky and fins to swim like a shark. We pretty much have the structure, organs, etc as we did back then.
On that basis, Intermittent Fasting harks back to the days when there were no supermarkets, refrigerators, and food wasn't available at the push of a button on your smartphone. Therefore, the question is, are bouts of fasting on a regular basis more natural than grazing at your desk in the office all day long?
The counter argument to that theory could be that the life expectancy of our Cro-Magnon brethren was pretty crap back then. So surely they would've have killed for a Tesco Metro two caves down the street, right?
"If I can eat whatever I want, how the hell will I lose weight?"
A good question. The over-arching perceived benefit is that by restricting yourself to a smaller window for eating, you'll actually end up consuming less calories. Because the desire to cram in a full day of eating into a small time window will be diminished.
What are the benefits of Intermittent Fasting?
I'm going to take a wild stab in the dark that you're reading this article because you either want to lose weight or build muscle (or both). And you want to find out if Intermittent Fasting can help you along that path.
1. Positive changes to cellular processes and hormone levels
Studies have shown the fasting process causes changes to a number of cellular processes, as well as a change in hormone levels. These changes make stored body fat more accessible.
- Insulin decrease: As you move into the fasted state, insulin sensitivity increases, which results in a decline in insulin levels. What does all that mean? Basically, with a decline in insulin levels, your body is going to look to your stored body fat for fuel. (1)
- Growth Hormone increase: Studies have shown that there can be up to a 5 fold increase in natural testosterone levels following periods of fasting. Increased GH is proven to be beneficial for both muscle building and fat loss.
- Cellular repair: The fasting process triggers a process in the body called Autophagy. This relates to the destruction of cells in the body. Autophagy can be beneficial for the retention of muscle mass as well as removing waste products from cells.
- Long-term health: These two studies also show that there is a wider benefit to short periods of fasting that go beyond preventing muscle breakdown and reducing body fat. Fasting can potentially support the anti-ageing process and provide protection against disease. (2) (3)
2. Fat Reduction
Everyone wants to lose that bit of extra body fat. You to want to find that one method that will get results as fast as possible. So let's see how Intermittent Fasting might be able to help you with that.
- Fewer Calories: As I mentioned before the general feeling is that the Intermittent Fasting approach leads to the consumption of fewer, but much larger meals during the allotted eating periods. Therefore fewer calories are consumed throughout the day, providing a positive energy balance equation for weight loss.
- Increase Rate of Body Fat Breakdown: The fasting process lowers insulin, raises Growth Hormone levels and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). This combination is akin to the perfect storm for body fat reduction. During the periods of fasting the nervous system sends norepinephrine to the fat cells. The signalling of this process results in body fat being broken down so that it can be used for energy.
- Increased Metabolic Rate: At this point there's an important distinction to make between short-term fasting and fasting for longer periods of time. Starving yourself for days on end won't necessarily make any of these benefits more pronounced. In fact, it's quite possible it would have the opposite effect. Increases in metabolic rates have been evidenced to varying degrees in the scientific research that's available on the subject. These two studies indicated that there was an increase in metabolic rate of between 3.6 - 14%. (4) (5)
Is Intermittent Fasting superior for fat loss?
Don't abandon you're current diet just yet.
This 2011 study conducted by the University of Illinois showed that there was very little difference between Intermittent Fasting and a traditional calorie restricted diet. The participants following the calorie restricted approach experience overall weight loss of 4-8%, with fat loss of 11-16%. This was compared to the Intermittent Fasting participants who experienced weight loss of 5-8% and fat loss of 10-20%. Whilst there is some difference in the numbers, it's not statistically significant enough to say that one approach was superior to the other.
However, the same study did conclude,
"...intermittent CR (Calorie Restriction) may be more effective for the retention of lean mass."
3. General Health Benefits
In point one, we touched on the benefits of Intermittent Fasting for long-term health. In addition to those benefits, fasting has also been shown to help prevent chronic disease. Research highlights a number of health benefits to fasting.
The key thing to bear in mind at this point is that the studies are very much in their infancy. Research into Intermittent Fasting and the prevention of disease is limited. More often than not it's conducted over a short period of time, or carried out on animals, so should be treated with caution.
Here's what fasted could help with:
- Reduced inflammation. This is beneficial as low level chronic inflammation leave you more susceptible to disease. (6)
- Reduced risk of heart disease. As well as reducing inflammation, Intermittent Fasting can potential reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), blood sugar and insulin resistance. These are all factors that can increase the risk of heart disease.
- Cancer treatment and cancer prevention: A series of studies conducted on animals seem to suggest that intermittent fasting may help prevent cancer as well as prolong the survival of those diagnosed.
- Brain Health: Another study on mice showed that there could be a connection between Intermittent Fasting and the prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.
On face value it sounds like Intermittent Fasting is the ultimate dieting strategy.
You get to eat what you want as long as it's at a specific time of the day, you'll reduce fat, build muscle, improve your long-term health and even reduce the risk of cancer.
Whilst it sounds great, I still have a degree of doubt, especially over the long-term benefits. After all, if Intermittent Fasting was the cure for cancer, surely everyone would know about it and be shouting it from the rafters.
But who knows, further tests and trials might prove that it is exactly the case. We will have to wait and see I guess. For me, the jury is still out.
What types of Intermittent Fasting are there?
If you like the sound of the Intermittent Fasting approach it's worth taking a little time to understand a few of the approaches that are out there. As with most things in the fitness industry, there's never one theory. So you need to pick through what's out there and decide what works best.
When you Google Intermittent Fasting, the most common approach you'll see referenced is Leangains which was created by Personal Trainer and Nutritionist Martin Berkhan.
Leangains is sometimes also referred to as the 16/8 method. This is due to the fact that you fast for 16 hours (14 for women) and feed for 8 (10 for women). Once you've eaten the last meal of the day the clock starts ticking on your period of fast. That 16 hour period ends at the point you eat your next meal.
On face value, not eating for 16 hours straight might sound to some people like a hell not worth contemplating. However, when you think about it a little more, it's not THAT bad.
If you were to eat your last meal of the day at 8pm, all you would need to do would be skip breakfast and start eating at 12pm. This opens up you 8 hour window, which would again end at 8pm, allowing you to repeat the cycle continually. Obviously, you'll be asleep for the majority of the fasting period. So the process might not be as bad as first thought.
During the periods of fast, it's not a case of total 'nil by mouth' either. You can drink water, sugar free soda, and black coffee. And you can also chew on sugar free gum to help combat the hunger feeling.
You do need to apply some general rules during the feasting periods. This is mainly because in the bodybuilding and fitness world body composition is key, so you still need to look after those macros. Of course, if you don't give a hoot about body composition then by all means eat whatever you want. Although, I can't imagine there'll be many people reading this article that fit in that category.
- Maintain a high protein diet for building and preserving lean muscle.
- Prioritise carbs over fat on training days and vice versa on non-training days.
- Consume your largest meal of the day after your workout. This should be 30-50% of your daily calories and c.50-100g of protein.
- Eat a form of slow digesting protein in the last meal of the day.
- Whole foods should dominate food intake, unless circumstances prevent it.
My thoughts on Leangains?
If you're going to opt for Intermittent Fasting I'd pick the Leangains approach. It's designed with fitness types and people that want to look good in the buff in mind. It's not about pure weight loss alone, it's more targeted than that.
#2. Eat Stop Eat
Eat Stop Eat was first introduced by Brad Pilon. The approach is more simple and straight forward than Leangains, but might not be as palatable. The simple principle is:
- Fast for a full 24 hours, once or twice a week.
- You can choose the start time of your fast, but it must last for a continuous 24 hours.
And these fasts are proper fasts. You can have calorie free drinks, but your 24 hour fast, must be totally food free.
Now, I don't know about you, but I'm a guy that loves my food and the mere thought of voluntarily going without food for that length of time is difficult to contemplate. I can just imagine by about the 12th hour, staring down at my arm and thinking how good it would be to chew a bit off. And as someone that trains 6-7 days a week, I couldn't ever see it fitting into my training regime.
Within Brad's approach he also recommends that the meal with which you break your fast is 'normal', ie you don't binge eat to make up for lost time. Easier said than done!
My thoughts on Eat Stop Eat?
If you think you can endure a 24 hour fast on a regular basis without descending into abject misery then Eat Stop Eat might be the strategy for you. However, there's no real focus on body composition, so if you're looking for washboard abs for summer, it wouldn't be the approach I'd recommend.
#3. Alternate Day Fasting
Alternate Day Fasting (or ADF if you're a fan of the TLA...Three Letter Acronym) is an approach to Intermittent Fasting that is exactly as it sounds.
On the days when you're eating normally, you eat calories that are equivalent to your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). That will mean your energy balance should be around about neutral (give or take a few calories for error). On fasted days you consume about 20-25% of those calories. So, if your TDEE is 2,500, you'll switch between days of eating 2,500 calories and c.500 calories.
The reason why this will work from a weight loss perspective is that you will be in a calorie deficit across the week.
My thoughts on ADF?
ADF has several flaws as an Intermittent Fasting strategy if you're seeking that lean, toned, muscular look. On the days when you are fasted you are simply not going to be able to consume enough protein to build muscle or prevent muscle degradation. Your workouts are going to bit pretty shitty and I imagine you'll feel like crap at the end of the week.
Is Intermittent Fasting right for you?
My take on Intermittent Fasting is the same as it is for meal timing in general. It's not the most important aspect of your diet to get right. But a meal timing strategy that works for you and fits your lifestyle is very important.
Adherence to your training and nutrition programme is one of the biggest keys to success. Get this right and you're on to a winner.
If you like the concept of skipping breakfast and eating infrequent larger meals then go for it and try it out for yourself and see if it works. If you do, I'd always recommend the Leangains approach. Because it's more achievable for the majority of people.
Going down the road of Intermittent Fasting? Here's a few key points to remember:
- Food sources: Stick to the core principle of basing your diet on whole foods. Food quality is still very important, so make sure you're not just eating junk.
- Calories: Calories matter. Energy balance matters, even with an IF approach. When you're feasting, try to eat normally. Don't treat it as a complete blow out each and every day.
- Consistency: This is a universal rule for most things. If you want to see results, you're going to have to stick at it. Don't expect ground-breaking changes in 2 weeks.
- Patience: This goes hand in hand with consistency. You need to allow your body time to adjust to the fasting approach. Make sure you allow enough time for results to show before abandoning it.
- Training: Don't be tempted to ditch the strength training. It still important for fat loss and muscle growth, so keep grinding at the gym.
If you don't like the sound of fasting for long periods of the day (and I'm with you on that one), then don't feel like you're missing out.
Whilst there are indications of other health benefits, you can still achieve fat loss and a great physique using a more standard calorie calculated diet.
Is Intermittent Fasting Safe?
Periodic feelings of hunger are the most common side effect of any Intermittent Fasting approach. In the initial stages of switching to this type of eating pattern you may feel week and have a bit of a 'fuzzy' head. If problems like this persist, then you should abandon the Intermittent Fasting approach.
It's also probably not a good idea to try Intermittent Fasting if you have a medical condition. If you suffer from anything within the list below, you should consult a doctor before starting.
- Type 1 0r 2 diabetes.
- Low blood pressure.
- Female who is trying to conceive.
- Pregnant or breastfeeding.
- On medication.
If you're fit and healthy, there's nothing inherently “dangerous” about not eating for a short period of time.
How do I put an Intermittent Fasting plan together?
Whether you choose to following an Intermittent Fasting approach or a more traditional method, a well-structured training and nutrition plan is crucial.
There are no miracle solutions out there. But the combination of hard work and the right guidance is the most effective way of getting great results.
If you're struggling to make sense of it all. I get it. I was where you are right now. Confused by all the conflicting information and not really knowing if I was doing things right or not.
So if that's you, why not register for my free '7 Steps to Get Lean' online nutrition workshop by clicking the image below?
This is a webinar I recorded to guide you through the process of setting up an awesome nutrition plan. The workshop covers everything from calculating calories and macros, to supplementation, meal timing, and much more.
Setting up that meal plan from day 1 is going to be crucial to your success. Don't spend any more time spinning your wheels or heading in the wrong direction. Let's put you on the right track now.
I’m looking forward to helping you make that transformation a reality!