The End of Dieting?
About 9 months ago I set out with a simple challenge: I wanted to find "the perfect diet." The project was simple--try all the various ways of eating and share the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. I started with a plan that I figured would be the most difficult and least desirable: Intermittent fasting.
Yes--fasting is a style of eating. And much to my surprise, it had a good amount of research that supported its health benefits. But it also meant longer-than-normal periods of not eating. For a guy who spent the last 15 years eating anywhere between 4 and 6 meals per day, every 2 to 3 hours, I figured the first stop on my journey would be short. Only I was shocked by what I discovered.
I loved intermittent fasting. And for the first time in my life, I was uttering the words that I always thought were cliché: "It's a lifestyle." You see, I think dieting is one of the most misunderstood concepts. A diet is a style of eating. It's not weight loss, or muscle gain, or anything in between. It's eating, and we all need to eat. Saying you want a "lifestyle" and not a "diet" makes no sense--a diet (eating) is part of your lifestyle. Unless you plan on starving yourself. And let's be honest, there's nothing healthy about that.
Which is why fasting is so intriguing: Fasting is not starvation. It's planned periods of not eating, followed by periods when you do. Dietary visionaries like Brad Pilon and Martin Berkhan paved a road that was then followed by people like Mark Sisson, John Romaniello, and Jason Ferruggia. Each had their own take on the best approach, with the bottom line sharing a unique message: Forget low carb, low fat, or low flavor. This is a schedule--and one that you create. And when you consider that how many meals you eat per day doesn’t matter, this approach allowed anyone to plug and play with any type of eating–whether it’s paleo, vegetarian, or gluten free. That unprecedented flexibility is exactly why I gravitated towards intermittent fasting. Combined with great results, better mental clarity and improved workouts, I was sold.
Is this the final solution? Not for everyone. But it is a different, simple, and effective way to approach food. To help you determine if intermittent fasting is right for you, I consulted with Dr. John Berardi, nutritionist, and founder of Precision Nutrition. Dr. Berardi is one of the world's most-esteemed experts in fitness and nutrition, who has also experimented with intermittent fasting. Here is his overview, and how you can determine if a variation of this lifestyle is right for you.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent fasting (IF) is the practice of occasionally going for extended periods without eating. While the name might suggest something complicated, it really isn't as we all do some form of IF every day during sleep. In essence, the time between your last meal of the current day and first meal of the next day is your fasting period.
IF proponents, however, advocate extending this normal overnight fast anywhere from a few hours to a full day (or more) to accelerate fat loss and improve health and well being.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
IF disciples argue that eating 5-6 times a day is inconvenient, unnecessary, and even counterproductive. They contend that going very long periods between feedings - up to 16 to 20 hours in some cases - stimulates some interesting physiological reactions, including:
• Faster fat loss
• Easier to maintain low body fat levels
• Better muscle gain, through a rebound effect
• Improved appetite and blood sugar control
• Reduced blood lipids, blood pressure, improved markers of inflammation, cardiovascular function, and oxidative stress.
• Much less time spent prepping food.
The Right Plan for You?
There are several variations of intermittent fasting. Here are the most common that have also shown beneficial results.
Alternate Day Fasting (36-hour fast/12-hour feed)
With this plan you simply eat every other day. So on Monday, you'd eat within a 12-hour window, say 8am to 8pm. Then you'd fast overnight on Monday, and all day/overnight on Tuesday. You'd eat again from 8am to 8pm on Wednesday.
While good food choices are encouraged, alternate day fasters are allowed to eat what they want on the non-fasting days.
Positives: Lots of flexibility in terms of food choices.
Negatives: 36-hour fast may be too long; not enough emphasis on healthy foods.
Meal Skipping (Random)
Some IF proponents believe we should behave like our ancestors did. As humans evolved to get their food randomly, so should we. This plan stresses Paleo-type food choices while randomly cycling daily calorie intake, along with skipping breakfast or dinner several days a week. This variation is a favorite of the Paleo crowd.
Positives: Emphasis on Paleo foods is very healthy.
Negatives: Randomness might not suit serious dieters who crave structure.
Eat Stop Eat (24-hour fast, one or two times per week)
On this plan, made popular by Brad Pilon, you fast for a full 24 hours once or twice per week, while eating sensibly the rest of the week. It's flexible: You can choose whichever 24 hours you want. Want to fast from breakfast to breakfast? No problem. Prefer to fast dinner-to-dinner? Go ahead.
Positives: Lots of flexibility for when to fast.
Negatives: 24-hour fast may be too long, especially for exercisers.
Lean Gains (16-hour fast/8-hour feed)
This brand of fasting--created by Martin Berkhan--is based on an 8-hour feeding period followed by a 16-hour fast. In this approach, it’s recommended that you follow a diet that’s high in protein, cycles carbohydrates, and has you eating the bulk of your calories during the post-exercise window.
For example, on this plan, you'd fast from 9pm on Monday night until 1pm Tuesday afternoon. If you're going to exercise, you'd do so Tuesday afternoon, consuming 10g BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) before training. Following training, you'd eat 2-3 meals before 9pm, with your biggest meal coming right after exercise. The fast begins again Tuesday evening until Wednesday at 1pm, and repeats every day.
Positives: The most "anabolic" of the programs, often leading to muscle gains while losing fat.
Negatives: More structured than other models.
Warrior Diet (20-hour undereating/4-hour feed)
While not technically an intermittent fasting plan, it's very close. On this plan you eat very lightly for the first 18 to 20 hours of each day, working out during this period of under eating. Then, you'd eat the majority of your daily intake within a 4-6 hour over feeding window. Most place their over feeding window at the end of the day as it's more convenient for family dinners and after work training sessions.
Positives: Flexible with food choices, and an excellent option for practicing Muslims during Ramadan.
Negatives: Long-term sustainability is questionable.
As noted, Intermittent Fasting is very attractive for certain populations. Eating a good breakfast, much less eating healthy meals throughout the day, is a real challenge for many busy people. A system that allows eating less frequently while still building a lean, strong, healthy body sounds appealing.
But just because you say you're too busy to prepare food doesn't mean IF is the best option for you. Based upon my hands-on experience, a good fit for IF should:
• Have a history of monitoring calorie/food intake. In other words, you have "dieted" before.
• Be used to dealing with cravings and, at times, extreme hunger.
• Be legitimately too busy to eat and prepare small, frequent meals - not just too lazy or bored.
• Understand how to make good food choices.
• Be in a relatively low-stress world (single and no kids, or with a very supportive partner).
Granted, exceptions can always be made, but for those who don't fit the above criteria, I suggest focusing on "the basics" more than anything.
What Are The Nutrition Basics?
• Eating fresh, unprocessed, good quality food. Choosing bags over barcodes is a good start.
• Eating slowly. It not only improves your enjoyment of eating, it helps control intake. Try putting your fork down between bites.
• Eating reasonable portions. Whether it's low carb, low fat, or IF, when calories are controlled, progress is made. Try keeping track of your food intake for just three days - the number of calories you're really eating might surprise you.
• Eating when you're hungry, and not eating when you're not. The next time you find yourself on the couch craving chips or crackers, ask yourself: "Am I hungry, or just bored?"
• Exercise. Those who've won the fat loss war exercise regularly, usually a combination of resistance training and cardiovascular exercise. Trying to get in shape without it is a lost cause.
I've seen a lot of fads come and go in my 20 years in the field. They all follow a similar pattern, starting as "underground diets" that gain popularity quickly yet fizzle out once dieters realize they're either unhealthy, unsustainable, or just less effective than simple healthy eating.
But Intermittent Fasting is different. While not superior to the basics mentioned above, it certainly works. And for many folks, it's a plan they can confidently follow with a high degree of compliancy — which, in the end, is the most important thing of all.
If you're intrigued by Intermittent Fasting and would like to learn more, check out Experiments with Intermittent Fasting, which details Dr. Berardi's experiences with all the different variations of IF, as well as exercise programs and diet plans.