What is Intermittent Fasting and Does it Work?
If you spend any time following health and fitness blogs or websites, you may have heard of intermittent fasting already. Intermittent fasting is also frequently shortened to IF and is the concept of restricting your day to a short feeding window and a longer fasting window. According to supporters of intermittent fasting, it’s a great way to cut fat, build lean muscle, increase productivity and spend less time thinking about and preparing food.
Does it really work though? More importantly, is it safe? We are going to be exploring the concept of intermittent fasting today, starting with how you can give it a try.
The concept of intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting pretty accurately describes the practice already – fasting intermittently. There are a few different ways you can do this, but the most common ways are the daily fast and the twice weekly fast.
Daily fast – With the daily fast, you will spend a good portion of every day in a fasted state. This means consuming no calories during your fasting window. This does NOT mean fasting entirely, without water or anything else. The point is to not consume any calories during the fast.
The most common way to do the daily fast is with a 16-8 split, where you fast for 16 hours and eat for 8 hours. What this looks like for most people, is they eat their last meal at 8pm, and don’t break their fast until 12pm the next day. Some people who are already well adjusted to intermittent fasting will choose to take things to the next level and instead do an 18-6 fast, where they fast for 18 hours and eat all of their meals within a six hour window.
Twice weekly fast – The twice weekly fast is more intense but less frequent, making it a better choice for some people. The twice weekly fast has you fasting for 24 hours at a time, twice a week. 24 hours sounds like an incredibly long amount of time for most people to go without food, but don’t worry, because you never have to go a full day without food.
What most people do on the twice weekly fast, is to have their last meal at around 6pm and fast until the next day at 6pm. This means you never go to bed hungry, you just have a slightly longer fast than the people who are following intermittent fasting on a daily basis.
What are the benefits to intermittent fasting?
Depending on who you are, there could be a ton of benefits to intermittent, or almost none at all. It all depends on your goals.
Most people who try out intermittent fasting are trying to get leaner. This either means they are overweight and are trying to lose the weight, or they are already at a normal weight, and want to get leaner to show more muscle definition.
By using intermittent fasting, your body runs through its glycogen stores and begins using fat as a fuel source. In essence, instead of burning carbohydrates as a fuel source, your body begins burning its fat stores which has a direct effect on making you even leaner.
Another benefit for most people who use intermittent fasting, is that it becomes much easier to manage how much you’re eating. When you eat all day long, all your meals add up pretty quickly and you have to really watch what you eat in order to not eat more calories than you should.
With intermittent fasting, the opposite is true. You have to make a real attempt to eat enough calories to fuel your body. It takes a bit of effort to get all the food in that you need, within that 6-8 hour window. Keep in mind, that both take effort – but for some people it is much easier to use that energy on making sure they eat enough, than to make sure they aren’t eating too much.
Intermittent fasting has also become extremely popular with people who work from home or are entrepreneurs. Instead of having to wake up, cook breakfast, eat it, do the dishes and clean everything up, they are able to wake up and get right to work.
Many people also talk about an increased feeling of mental clarity during their fast. This allows them to get more work done during their fasted state, and some people even prefer to do the entirety of their work during their fasted. Once they break their fast, they are done with work for the day and have lots of time to enjoy other aspects of their life.
Intermittent fasting for physically active people
One thing that causes people to become concerned is the idea of how they are supposed to continue leading an active lifestyle, all while intermittent fasting. This is especially true for people whose workout routine has them working out in the morning, when they are supposed to be fasting. They wonder how this could possibly be healthy.
Some supporters of intermittent fasting actually recommend doing your workouts in a fasted state. They claim that fasted training burns more fat and actually increases lean muscle growth. There is one caveat to this though – if you plan on working out in a fasted state, then you should be using BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids) in the amount of about 10 grams pre-workout.
When you work out in a fasted state, you’re burning fat as an energy source, but you also run the risk of your muscles breaking down as well. The BCAAs help to not only prevent that, but to increase their growth at the same time. BCAAs are not some dangerous chemical, or bodybuilder drug. BCAAs are simply an element found in animal protein (better known as meat) that has been isolated and broken down to be more easily ingested. If you eat meat, then you’re already eating BCAAs on a regular basis. Only difference is that eating meat would cause you to break your fast and taking BCAAs won’t.
As for whether you should train in a fasted state or not, it’s all up to you. We recommend easing into intermittent fasting and getting used to how your body reacts to it, before adding in the extra element of exercise on top of it. Once you get more used to the effects that intermittent fasting has on you, then you can begin training in a fasted state and see how that feels. If you get through your workouts just fine, then you may want to continue training fasted. If training in a fasted state is torturous for you, then don’t continue.
You don’t need to train in a fasted state for intermittent fasting to work for you, but it can add another huge benefit to the already long list of benefits intermittent fasting offers.
Won’t the body go into starvation mode?
Many people worry about starvation mode when they start to consider intermittent fasting. What they don’t realize though, is that 16 hours (or even 24 hours for the twice weekly fast) is nowhere near long enough for your body to go into starvation mode. That happens after several days to a week, something which no supporter of intermittent fasting would ever recommend.
Make sure that during your fasts you are still drinking plenty of water, and you’ll quickly realize how your body doesn’t need to fed every couple hours on the dot in order to run efficiently.
Lots of people simply can’t wrap their head around the concept of intermittent fasting, since they have been told all their lives that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. There are even studies that show people who don’t eat breakfast tend to weigh much more than people who do. What gives?
If you look a little further into those studies though, you’ll see that it’s because those people didn’t eat breakfast, that they ended up making poor food choices before lunch. Usually this means donuts at the office or fast food on the way to work, which has a much bigger effect on their waistline than simply skipping breakfast.
Common mistakes with intermittent fasting
Just like any other type of diet or regimen, when people start intermittent fasting for the first time, many mistakes can be made. The first of which is eating a poor diet while intermittent fasting.
This is not meant to be a free pass to eat whatever you want, if you do that you’ll just stress your body out. The best way to go about it is to reduce your intake of processed foods and simple carbohydrates while doing intermittent fasting. Continuing to eat a surplus of those foods will just mean that your body will have excess glycogen stores, meaning you won’t be burning pure fat during your fast, negating most of the benefits of doing intermittent fasting in the first place.
Another big mistake, is thinking you can skip breakfast, and then just eat the same amount for lunch and dinner that you usually do. Trying to do that will only result in you being undernourished, sluggish and could even cause you to gain weight. Yes, eating too little can cause a person to gain weight, because it puts unneeded stress on the body, raising cortisol levels (the stress hormone which causes weight gain). It also causes the body to hold onto that excess energy, as it believes it’s going to need it, as all signs point to there not being enough food available – due to you purposely restricting it.
This means you need to eat a larger lunch and a larger dinner to make sure your body is getting enough to fuel itself on. Some people love this aspect of IF as it means they get to eat large meals every day. Other people struggle to get that much food down in two sittings.
Will I be ravenous with hunger on intermittent fasting?
You’ll probably be pretty surprised at how easy intermittent fasting is, although it probably won’t seem that way in the very beginning. Initially, for the first week or two you’ll feel pretty hungry as you get used to doing it. Our best advice is to just stick it out, because it does get easier. After a week or two, your body will start to become accustomed to your new eating schedule and it won’t be difficult to maintain at all.
Make sure to stay hydrated during your fast, just doing so will help you to feel full. If you feel hungry, just drink some water and it should go a long way in curbing your cravings.
An extra benefit of intermittent fasting is that it teaches your body to respond to real hunger cues, not perceived ones. Most people somewhere along the line have truly forgotten what it feels like to be actually hungry. They convince themselves that they are hungry all the time, eat at the slightest little “sign” of hunger and then wonder how they’ve gained so much weight over the past few years.
Once you begin intermittent fasting, you’ll know exactly what hunger feels like, and you’ll stop mistaking other feelings for hunger. This helps people to repair their relationship with food, which for some people is already seriously damaged at this point, in a very unhealthy way.
Are there any dangers of intermittent fasting?
Not many. If you look up intermittent fasting online, it’s quite interesting to see just how little information there is trying to debase it. In fact, some of the sources where you would expect to be bashing something like intermittent fasting are reporting on it as being a very viable strategy for many people. The same types of places that try to debunk more natural diets like the Paleo diet have, for the most part, not been able to find many negatives surrounding intermittent fasting.
One caveat though, is that intermittent fasting works best for men. While proper studies still need to be conducted to figure out exactly why this is, the consensus is that the difference in hormones between men and women cause intermittent fasting to be a much better strategy for men, who react to it positively. Many women are not able to handle intermittent fasting as well, and aren’t able to gain nearly as many benefits from it.
For women that are interesting in trying intermittent fasting, it is recommended that they don’t go past a 14-10 fast, where they fast for 14 hours and then eat during a 10 hour feeding window.
Should I give intermittent fasting a shot?
It’s all up to you, but we think all the proof is there to at least give it a try for a couple weeks. With the lack of danger surrounding intermittent fasting (especially in the short term), seeing how your body reacts to it is an experiment that is worth trying out. It could have great benefits for you, or you could decide that it doesn’t fit in with your lifestyle. You’ll never know until you try though.
Just remember to make sure you’re eating enough to fuel your body for your level of physical activity. Many people burn out on intermittent fasting because they simply aren’t getting enough calories in, and this makes everything a whole lot harder than it really needs to be.
Also, be aware that you don’t need to be overly exact about things, down to the minute. If for example, you start your fast at 8:06pm and then break your fast the next day at 11:51, don’t sweat it. While that would technically mean you’re only fasting for 15 hours and 45 minutes compared to 16 hours, it’s not enough to get worked up about. Try to make sure your fast lasts for 15 hours at an absolute minimum, but there’s no reason to get yourself too worked up about things down to the exact minute.
Things come up, dinner arrives late, and your lunch break is usually at the same time. Just do the best you possibly can, and everything else will fall into place. Trying to adhere too strictly to things will only cause you to become stressed out and stray away from the program.
So, give intermittent fasting a try for a couple weeks and see how you feel. If you can manage it well and you’re leaning out, then you’ve just discovered one of the best hacks out there for getting leaner while maintaining your strength. Who wouldn’t want that?