Intermittent fasting (IF) is one of the most talked about diets right now. It is gaining popularity despite many opposing assumptions about intermittent fasting nutrition and health value. For example, many experts still promote the importance of breakfast and 5 meals spaced out throughout the day.
Fans of intermittent fasting claim the benefits range from boosting immunity and increasing metabolism to improving insulin sensitivity and fat loss. As a personal trainer, I have also taken on the role of professional guinea pig, and enjoy experimenting with pretty much any diet or eating philosophy I come across. As a fitness model, it's important to look my best, so finding the most enjoyable and effective diet is critical. Plus, if I am going to advise a client on a specific diet, I like to have practical experience to complement my studied knowledge.
Since intermittent fasting's unconventional methods go against what most people (including myself) have commonly heard about achieving fat loss, I'll cover how it works and how I practice it to stay in fitness model shape.
What Is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a complex dietary concept that simply means alternating intervals of not eating (fasting) and times of eating (feeding). The fasting and feeding windows vary based on which type of protocol you follow, and can range from 14 hours to 36 hours.
The idea of fasting may seem foreign to some, however, it's important to note that everyone already fasts. Anytime you are not eating -- for instance in between meals or while sleeping -- you are fasting. Breakfast got its name because you are "breaking the fast" after sleep with the first meal of the morning. Intermittent fasting takes it a step further by structuring your fasting and feeding windows so they are constant instead of unsystematic. Some protocols of intermittent fasting simply extend that fasting period past usual breakfast times (for example, the Lean Gains-style 16/8 fasting schedule), while others involve fasting for 24-hour periods every week (for example, the Eat-Stop-Eat-style).
How Does Intermittent Fasting Differ from Commonly Held Nutrition Beliefs?
Most trainers and nutritionists recommend eating small protein-dense meals every three-to-four hours for optimal fat burning and a fast metabolism. I agree that for many people this method leads to fat loss success by increasing satiety, while controlling cravings and blood sugar levels. However, my personal success with intermittent fasting encouraged me to challenge my beliefs about two of the most commonly held rules of weight loss: the importance of eating breakfast and the importance of eating something every three-to-four hours during the day.
If you listen to your doctor, the Internet or cereal commercials, you've most likely heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The thinking goes that skipping breakfast leads to increased hunger throughout the day, which in turn leads to overeating and eventual weight gain. Since most people practicing intermittent fasting extend their fast by delaying their first meal (aka skipping breakfast) — you can imagine that this is the first sticking point for intermittent fasting opponents. However, most of the studies surrounding the correlation between weight gain and skipping breakfast may have been misinterpreted. In fact, a recent report concludes that skipping breakfast has little or no effect on weight gain and that most studies done on the subject fail to show a direct causal relationship.
Breakfast, in my opinion, is not the most important meal of the day. Your first meal is the most important meal of the day. Breakfast supporters attribute the benefits of the meal to increased insulin sensitivity in the morning, which makes your food more likely to be used as energy than stored as fat. In reality, the increased insulin sensitivity is a result of the 8 hours or so of fasting you experienced during sleep. Intermittent fasting merely extends the fasting period from sleep - along with all the benefits that come with it — until the first meal breaking the fast.
Another common recommendation intermittent fasting defies is eating five to six small meals every few hours to lose weight by "increasing your metabolism" or "stoking the metabolic fire" (my favorite). Without getting too scientific, these claims are just not true. The claim of increased metabolism from more frequent meals originated from the thermic effect of food (TEF), which is the amount of energy used to consume and process the food we eat. Studies show that there is no increase in fat loss with an increase in meal frequency, because TEF is based on the total amount of food consumed, regardless of how often you eat. While eating small, frequent meals may not "stoke your metabolic fire," it's still a viable weight-loss strategy because it helps increase satiety and avoid blood sugar spikes, keeping dieters on course.
Intermittent Fasting Experimentation and Tips
My experimentation with intermittent fasting developed out of an unpredictable schedule and curiosity in a lifestyle that went against everything I had learned about eating for fat loss, as discussed above. As a fitness model, my schedule is constantly changing. Flexibility, ease of adherence and enjoyment are important factors determining my success on an eating plan. After years of following advice and commonly recommended strategies, such as: eat five small meals a day, follow a strict meal schedule, and set macronutrient goals, I was curious if there was a strategy more agreeable with my lifestyle.
Enter intermittent fasting. The protocol I practice is a daily 16-hour fast and 8-hour feed, and my day typically looks like this:
Wake-up at 7 a.m.: water with lemon or green tea
First Meal at 11am: large breakfast with proteins and complex carbs
During Feeding Time: I eat when I'm hungry. My meals consist of proteins, vegetables, fruits and few complex carbs.
Last Meal at 7 p.m.
Sleep by 10 p.m.
When I first started eating this way, I didn't know this was actual intermittent fasting protocol — it was just convenient for me. I usually have clients or auditions in the morning and getting in 1-2 meals by 11 a.m. (which I used to do) was not practical and made me feel full and bloated at the gym and at auditions. If I had a photoshoot to go to, that made eating early even less desirable. After some research, I refined my strategies according to the 16/8 style of fasting and became more systematic about it.
Pretty soon I realized that staying lean was easier than ever before. I started to recognize and listen to my body's hunger cues, which led to a healthier relationship with food. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my next meal or watching the clock to make sure I eat on time, I listen to my body and eat real, whole food when I am hungry and stop when I am satisfied. My food choices can be less strict since the shorter feeding window means I am eating less calories overall, which makes maintaining the calorie balance ideal for fat loss easier. I now enjoy training in a fasted state and benefit from the increased insulin sensitivity when I have my first meal post-workout.
The most important thing I learned is that intermittent fasting isn't a diet; it is a way of eating that has allowed me to reach my goals in a convenient way and effective at maintaining my physique. It may not be for everyone, nor is it the perfect plan, so I encourage you to experiment first to see what works.
Remember, the best way of eating is the one that works for you. Consistency and balance are more crucial to success than any specific plan can provide. Be your own guinea pig and find the nutritional lifestyle that makes you happy and healthy.