Not so fast

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Intermittent Fasting (IF) has become quite popular recently and is one of the ‘new’ up and coming nutritional approach that people are taking more of an interest in.

It’s safe to say that this isn’t a new concept, humans have fasted for most of their history whether it’s during a typical overnight period, limited time or for religious reasons. In today’s blog I will delve deeper into the subject and hopefully give you a better understanding of IF.

Types of Fasting

There are still a lot of unanswered questions in regards to IF, as a result, a lot IF proponents have come up with their best guesses of different methods.

  • Alternate Day Fasting: 36hr fast/12hr feed
  • Meal-skipping: Very flexible/Random
  • Eat Stop Eat: 24hr fast, 1-2 times per week
  • Lean gains: 16hr fast/8hr feed
  • Warrior Diet: 20hr fast/4hr feed

There’s a lot of variation, don’t focus too much on the differences but on the similarities. They’re all based on simple themes:

  • Shrink the ‘eating window’, expand the ‘fasting window’

Simply draw out your normal overnight fast for a specified time (16, 24, or 36hrs) and narrow your normal feeding window to 4, 8, or 12hrs.

  • Balance advantages and disadvantages

Some IF proponents believe that longer fasts equal greater health and disease prevention benefits. These are a double-edged sword. Gaining – and preserving – lean mass is a critical part of healthy living and aging. Longer fasts may harm muscle health and negatively affect nutrient intake, think fewer vitamins, minerals and beneficial phytochemicals. The benefits to your chosen method of IF will have both advantages and disadvantages. These will be discussed in more detail below.

  • Keep it Real

There’s always the compliance challenge. When choosing your IF method make sure its achievable and your setting yourself up for success. A 36hr fast every other day will suck especially if you exercise regularly which makes you hungrier and increases your calorie and nutrient needs.

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Benefits for health and longevity

Clinical research on IF is beginning to catch up in regards to health and longevity. Data shows that IF, when done properly, might help extend life, control blood glucose levels, control blood lipids (fatty acids and cholesterol), manage body weight and gain or maintain lean mass. You can also experience improved appetite control, cardiovascular function, effectiveness of chemotherapy and neurogenesis and neuronal plasticity.

Managing hunger

Many people think hunger is an emergency and panic when it kicks in. Hunger is just a feeling. Nothing really bad happens if you miss a meal or two. You won’t die of starvation, shrivel up or lose muscle mass, you may even lose a bit of body fat. Often when people think they’re hungry, they’re not experiencing true physiological (body) hunger, but rather psychological (head) hunger. The better you know the difference between the two the better you understand your body’s signals and not feel the need to act compulsively to those feelings. This is an essential skill for anyone who want to get in shape and stay healthy and fit.

Fat Loss

New research suggests that a short, periodic fast may help rev up your fat-burning machinery while helping you control your glucose and insulin. Exercise also has some of these benefits but most researchers believe the combination of these is most effective.
With regular exercise comes an increased demand for calorie and nutrient needs. You have to consider energy balance and deficit, life stress and simply what works in your schedule.


Research in IF looks compelling but…

Research using animal models

Although animals are convenient test subjects we cannot extrapolate this data to humans.

IF is often compared with “normal” eating

Comparing study participants using IF strategies to those using suboptimal dietary intakes without fasting, we are “stacking the deck” in favour of IF. The standard diet is hyper-energetic – eating more than we burn – which leads to weight gain over time. Often IF protocols lead to a calorie deficit, the comparison isn’t exactly fasting vs. non-fasting but under-eating vs. over-eating. This limits what studies can actually tell us about IF.

IF or Simply Limiting Processed Foods?

Right now, it’s equally plausible that:

  • eating fewer calories than you burn; and
  • eating a diet lower in processed foods, chemicals, and pollutants
    … may offer most of the same benefits as IF. Add in a good exercise program and you might be able to match benefit for benefit.

In Summary I believe IF is good but not necessary. It can be helpful for in-shape people (who ideally have a healthy and sane relationship with food) who want to get lean without following conventional bodybuilding diets, or for anyone who needs to learn the difference between body hunger and mental hunger. It’s not the be-all end-all of nutrition or fitness.

People have been getting in awesome shape — and staying in awesome shape — for decades without the use of intermittent fasting.