Intermittent Fasting 101: An Effective Way to Lose Fat?
Fat loss occurs when the body is at a caloric deficit or a level of calorie consumption that fails to meet the body’s maintenance level required for operation. An engine, for instance, stops running when it’s out of fuel. Luckily, we’re superior to machines and can create fuel in the absence of caloric intake in a number of physiological processes.
Breaking down stored body fat happens to be one of those processes, and your body will continue to break down body fat as long as your maintenance needs exceed caloric intake (food/drink). Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong.
Or at least that’s what you hear from a lot of health and fitness professionals these days. Some say that eating fewer carbs will make fat melt away, while others say that blending butter into your coffee will turn you into a superhuman. The worst of the lot will tell you that your liver needs to be detoxified and cleansed with special juices to reset your metabolism.
The truth is, most of their methods aren’t that bad and have scientific research supporting their claims. A ketogenic diet (high fat, moderate protein, almost no carb) works for fat loss. An “If It Fits Your Macros” approach (high protein, moderate to high carb, low fat) also works for fat loss. They all work for fat loss.
The problem occurs in the decision process to go with a specific diet. For starters, there are so many that analysis paralysis sets in for many, causing their decision process to be delayed inevitably. Once the decision has been made, there’s a constant temptation to switch to another diet when progress doesn’t come as quickly as expected (it never does). This “diet hopping” leads to people running in circles and unknowingly mixing high-fat diets with high-carb diets, leading them to weight gain and the conclusion that no diet works for them.
Okay, enough doom and gloom. There’s hope in the form of an eating strategy (not a diet). This strategy allows for a ton of flexibility and incorporation of other diets or preferences. There’s no set diet to pair with this strategy, so feel free to continue the diet you’re on or pick up an old one you’re familiar with.
This eating strategy goes by many names, some insinuating that it’s a diet. I, however, know it as Intermittent Fasting, and it’s not a diet but rather a way of living.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a nutrition strategy that regulates how often you eat, simply put. It has less to do with what you eat, and more to do with when you eat. A common example would be the 16:8 ratio, in which you fast for 16 hours of the day and consume all of your food within an 8-hour window. You could start/stop your fasting window at any point that suits your schedule and preferences. If you experience more hunger late in the day, your feeding window might look something like 12 PM to 8 PM. Meaning you wouldn’t consume any food between 8 PM and 12 PM the next day.
Who could benefit from Intermittent Fasting?
- If you struggle with snacking or grazing
- If you enjoy eating bigger meals
- If your hunger is strongest at day’s end, causing you to consume most of your calories at dinner/night
- If you don’t want to track calorie/food intake
- If you don’t want to follow any specific diet or style of nutrition
- If you have a sedentary job or don’t move much in the first half of your day (think: student)
- If you’re not hungry in the morning and only eat breakfast because “it’s the most important meal of the day”
- If you have issues with digestion
- If you find yourself less productive or sluggish after eating
The Physiological Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Research on fasting, while in its infancy, has shown benefits such as:
- Increased fat oxidation
- Potentially burning more calories and fat during fasted states
- Increased insulin sensitivity (great for fat loss and body composition)
- Reduced cholesterol and triglycerides
- Increased HDL
- Increased growth hormone (GH) levels (great for fat loss and body composition – won’t cause you to look like a bodybuilder unless you’re injecting massive endogenous amounts)
Note: If you want to go down a scientific rabbit hole, research fasting and autophagy (cell turnover).
The list of potential benefits from fasting alone could be worth implementing IF. However, I feel the biggest reasons to implement IF lie on the psychological front.
The Psychological Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
I love food and think about it all the time. Who’s with me?
One of the biggest benefits of IF is the thinking break it provides. When I’m not following an IF protocol, I find myself finishing a meal only to begin thinking about the next. This still occurs with IF, but the magic is in the reduced time window. Instead of thinking about your next meal for the 16+ hours you’re awake, that time is cut in half. Some take IF a step further by using an 18:6 or 20:4 protocol as they gain experience with IF. With food being a focal point in the American diet, spending less time thinking about food is a win.
Another psychological benefit is the flexibility that comes with IF. Whether you believe it or not, the mechanism that makes any and every popular diet work is a calorie deficit. Paleo, low carb, no carb, Atkins, Whole 30, Advocare challenge, Weight Watchers, cleanses – they all result in consuming fewer calories by restricting one macronutrient (or all, in some cases). There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these diets, other than cleanses, they just have the tendency to push people towards zealotry and developing unhealthy habits with certain types of food.
IF can remove the neurosis associated with a strict or particular dietary regimen by allowing you to eat anything you want, within reason. Though you’ll still need to follow “healthy” eating guidelines. You know:
- Eat a ton of colorful vegetables and fruits
- Lean meats and dairy
- Good sources of fat
- Minimal starchy carbs (depending on activity levels)
- Minimal processed foods
- Drink lots of water
- Save 10% of calorie intake for “fun” foods or
beerwhat you love (10-20% depending on current body composition and goals)
In all honesty, if you followed this list and stuck to it you wouldn’t need IF or any other strategy to maintain a healthy body composition. The problem is that most people allow the “fun” foods to creep up, especially over the weekend. IF allows this number to creep up while keeping total calorie intake under control. How? By satiety and the regulated eating window.
The beauty of having a smaller window for eating is the satiety (read: physically full and mentally satisfied) level that comes with eating larger meals while keeping overall calories in check. While eating small meals can be satiating for some, it’s psychologically unfulfilling for most. We’re wired to enjoy eating and to eat until we’re full, and there’s no reason to fight it. With IF, you’re able to eat a satisfying amount of food, remain full, and get food off the brain for a while.
Let’s say you break your fast with a satisfying meal at 12 PM and remain full/unfocused on food until your 5 PM meal. It’s going to be difficult to fit another meal in before 8 PM. Let’s say your calorie goal is 2,000 calories/day. Your two meals could be 1,000 calories each (a huge meal) and you would still hit your target. You simply have less time to screw up and justify nutrition missteps.
A Final Word on Tracking Nutrition
I always say that tracking your nutrition is the 100% foolproof way to guarantee results. That said, I understand that tracking can be a hassle, especially when you’re eating unprocessed foods and weighing servings for every meal. While tracking isn’t necessary for fat loss, it’s worth mentioning that intermittent fasting makes tracking easier by reducing the frequency of meals and food logging.
Frequently Asked Questions
What if I work out early in the morning? Won’t the absence of food/protein hurt my gains?
It very well could. If you train in the morning or well outside your feeding window, it would be wise to supplement with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). They have been shown to have muscle-sparing effects during fasted states or low-calorie diets. Meaning, the majority of your body’s workout fuel will come from stored body fat and/or glycogen from prior meals. Ideally, your training sessions will fall in the middle of your feeding window, but life is far from ideal.
What about coffee or diet soda during my fasting window?
The hardcore IF supporters will tell you that anything other than water could cause insulin spikes and negate some effects of true fasting. I’m a bit more relaxed and feel black coffee and diet sodas are fine. Personally, my pre-fast period would be a lot less enjoyable without them. And technically, BCAAs have calories from the amino acids (building blocks of protein) and even artificial sweeteners (a few calories per gram). Going back to the psychological benefits outweighing the physiological benefits, I think the ultimate goal is to get the food intake under control. Don’t sweat the small stuff too much.
What about hunger before breaking my fast?
If you’re used to eating a large breakfast, gradually increase your fasting period. Starting with a 14:10 isn’t the worst thing in the world. After the initial adjustment period, I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to avoid hunger before your feeding period. It makes things even easier if you’re most productive in the morning. Staying busy will help keep your mind off food/hunger. You could also play around with different windows and start/stop times. In the end, however, you’ll want to pick a window and stick to it.
Can I have snacks during my feeding window? How many total meals should I eat during my window?
You can have as many meals or snacks as you want within your feeding window, as long as your total calorie intake stays within your target range. I will say that consolidating meals/snacks and having fewer opportunities to overeat helps me stay on track. If you have a big appetite like me, it’s easy to over snack between meals or before you fasting window begins.
What questions do you have about Intermittent Fasting? Drop a comment or email me at email@example.com and I’ll do my best to answer any questions you have.
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