Mark Sisson, author of Primal Blueprint said: “One thing is certain in the field of health: what is common wisdom today can easily become “misapplied science” tomorrow.What’s “in” this year may be “out” next year. Often it’s hard to arrive at the right answer.”
This couldn’t be MORE true. And one recent trend which caught my ear a little while back was this concept of intermittent fasting for weight loss. As a physique athlete taught to never go more then 3 hours without consuming something, this flew in the face of everything I had come to recognize and accept as FACT. Going 12, 14,16, even 48 hours without eating??? Then eating BIG meals? I was super confused. But after doing digging (which for me involves a myriad of book research coupled with creative googling and internet surfing) I began to grasp at what the CONCEPT was all about. Much like the Paleo approach, I find the concept of intermittent fasting to be a framework- a structure, within which you have room to maneuver, rearrange and find a method of implementation that works for you. This post is me sharing MY method, and how I put the concept of intermittent fasting to work for me- with outstanding results.
In order to talk about intermittent fasting, I have to discuss blood sugar first and why its so stinking important when it comes to weight loss and body recomposition efforts. The basic definition of blood sugar is simply the amount of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstrem of your body. Sounds basic but the ability of your body to stabalize blood sugar and keep it within normal/low ranges is imperative to weight loss and body composition efforts. Glucose comes from carbs- you eat a muffin, you eat some wheat bread- it turns to sugar in the body (glucose) and enters the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone that helps your body’s cells use the glucose. Insulin is produced in the pancreas and released into the blood when the amount of glucose in the blood rises. High blood sugar levels typically means insulin resistance which is not a good thing- insulin reistance happens when your body CANNOT clear glucose from the blood stream fast enough. The logical question that follows is, what causes one to have perpetual high blood sugar? Well, aside from someone who just eats the typical American diet, the individual most prone to high blood sugar would be someone who ate large amounts of food several times a day and who never allowed himself to go hungry– who was KEEPING his blood sugar levels “steady” over a period of years. Um sound like anyone you know? To me this sounds like a ton of bodybuilders or physique athletes I know. In fact this is the typical “style” of feeding that most athletes subscribe to. So what gives?
Well I decided to delve a bit more into the concept of intermittent fasting for the answers. To further explain where I’m going with this, I need to ALSO explain the three main stages of being “fed”: ISOCALORIC (when we consume as many calories as we need), HYPOCALORIC (fasted state) and HYPERCALORIC (overfed). First I’ll talk about the ISOCALORIC state….
ISOCALORIC: When you’re in an isocaloric state the glucose is stored in the form of glycogen which is important for maintaining blood glucose BETWEEN meals. The glucose that is not used by the liver is used by your brain, red blood cells, and other tissues as a source of fuel. An example would be glycogen storage in the muscles, which can be used as energy when performing explosive short activity (think plyometrics!). If your carb intake is SMALL, then this is pretty much the end of the story. However if we’re in a FASTED or OVERFED state then the story’s ending changes….
HYPOCALORIC: Fasted can mean a variety of things, and this is where intermittent fasting comes into play so sit up and pay attention. Fasted can mean going without food for a period of time OR it can mean reducing your caloric intake relative to energy expenditure. How our body responds to a caloric deficit is largely dependant on our hormonal state. The reason most physique athletes, bodybuilders and the like fear the fasted state (and why I was apprehensive over the concept of intermittent fasting) is because in a fasted state your body is more concerned about avoiding a blood sugar crash then it is maintainign your muscle. This is called a CATABOLIC or muscle wasting state- when the body converts large amounts of amino acid into glucose, which is stored in the liver as glycogen and then released to maintain blood sugar levels. In other words, when you’re in a fasted state your hard earned muscles are converted to glucose. Now your hormonal state and the presence of ketones (I’ll get to it in a minute) will change how much protein you convert to glucose, which is highly important.
In a fasted state all carbs you consume are initially sequestered in the liver. The adaptable tissues shift to fat and ketone metabolism, saving the glucose for vital tissues. Which leads me to what your body does with FAT in a fasted state- it uses stored fat as fuel. As the body shifts to fat as a primary fuel source, a by-product of fat metabolism happens- KETONES. Ketosis isn’t a reason for panic, tons of dietary plans are centered on this concept. Now I should put this disclaimer: I DO NOT ADVOCATE OPERATING IN A KETOGENIC STATE for long periods of time, but as you’ll see throughout this post, when you fast intermittently you can reap some benefits of this fat burning state without dipping too much into the muscle wasting aspects. Don’t let doctors sway you either- ketosis is not ketoacidosis (a life threatening metabolic state), there are MAJOR differences. Ketones are small pieces of water soluble fat, and given a few days (usually) most of our tissues can make the shift to metabolizing ketones. One interesting point is that several studies have shown that the heart, kidneys, and intestines function BETTER on ketones then glucose.
Burning ketones for fuel protects scarce blood glucose by shiting our metabolism to a limitless fuel supply. We have a day or two of liver glycogen, but even if we’re really lean we have MONTHS of stored body fat. Ketosis also halts gluconeogenesis. The by-products of ketosis block the conversion of amino acids into glucose which spares MUSCLE MASS!! Keep all of this in mind when I begin to get into the intermittent fasting concepts further down….
HYPERCALORIC: The overfed state is a big problem, which I’m sure isn’t shocking. Physiologically speaking we are actually WIRED to exist in a caloric excess, despite nutritionists and dieticians telling us we need a calorie balance to be slim. Metabolic studies have shown that figuring out a caloric balance is virtually impossible if left to the individual because there has been ENORMOUS variance displayed between people and how they handle calories. One person can over-eat several hundred calories per day and never gain a pound yet other people seem to gain weight by looking at food. This is REALLY where hormones and hormonal signals come into play- it’s never just a calories in versus calories out equation. What does all this have to do with overfeeding- well, certain foods affect our satiety. Think about the different affects produced by protein (very satiating) and in carbohydrate (low satiety and actually acts an appetite stimulant). What if we are OVERFED on the wrong types of foods and for some reason our brain no longer gets the “I’m full” signal from leptin? What if, despite being overfed we STILL think we’re hungry?
Well for starters when I say “overfed on the wrong types of food” I don’t mean protein. It’s virtually impossible to overeat on protein because of the satiety signals sent to the brain. Even at your hungriest I bet you can’t eat more then 6-8 ounces of protein without feeling “fuller”. Given the same level of hunger how many cookies can you eat? EXACTLY. Well, where carbs are concerned (bad carbs) we run into problems. If your liver glycogen is completely full but there is still excess free glucose in circulation then the excess carbs are converted to FAT in the form os a short chain saturated fat called PALMITIC ACID. This PA then latches on to a glycerol molecule, links up with proteins and cholesterol and the result is a VLDL (very low density lipprotein). This molecule is released from the liver and heads out to be stored as fat on our behinds. No lie. to make matters worse this VLDL has a potent affect on our metabolism (think domino affect here) because it DECREASES our sensitivity to leptin. When the brain becomes leptin resistant it loses sensitivity to the “I’m full signal”. We remain hungry, despite elevated blood glucose levels and continue to eat beyond our needs. We develop a “sweet tooth” which is really just our response to not being able to sense the normal “full” signal from leptin. All this is from excess dietary carbohydrate.
Now that I’ve discussed the different caloric states hopefully you have an idea of blood glucose, insulin and what happens in our bodies when we are fed, underfed and overfed. This will help as I get into intermittent fasting…..
In normal, healthy individuals, glucose is taken up by the blood stream and moved into the interior of cells where it’s burned as fuel. The whole thing is mediated by insulin, which is produced and released by the pancreas after you eat a meal. However (keeping in mind all the different “fed” and “unfed” states listed above) when glucose builds up in the blood and cells are unable to utilize it properly, it leads to a condition known as insulin resistance. Over time, the pancreas peters out and can no longer produce sufficient amounts of insulin to successfully transport glucose into insulin-resistant cells. As the disease progresses, the pancreas produces inadequate or zero quantities of insulin, which leads to horrific health and physique problems. Someone who is insulin resistant virtually CANNOT lose weight, their body is working AGAINST them. Mind-blowingly, it’s estimated that between one in three and one in five Americans will become dietabetic by mid century. Type 2 diabetes is an ENTIRELY LIFESTYLE ORIENTED DISEASE. This means it can be CONTROLED by diet and lifestyle.
A good number of those Americans, maybe you among them, are only in the insulin resistant state now, years away from approaching a state that’s virtually indistinguishable from Type I diabetes. Regardless, you’re probably already experiencing some of the negative side effects, and it could well be because of the presumed “healthy” way you’re eating, the cornerstone of which is your super anal very structured 6 meals a day. Well, I’m a six meal a day gal myself so this information is scary for me. I had to know more. BUT FIRST- another side track onto blood sugar history…..
FIRST A LITTLE BLOOD SUGAR HISTORY: Between 1979 and 1997, the medical establishment said that one of the criteria of diabetes was a fasting glucose rate of 140 mg/dl. Then in 1997, they reevaluated their numbers and moved the diabetic ceiling to 126 mg/dl, but added that anyone who had a level over 110 showed “impaired fasting.” Jump again to 2003 and they then asserted that no one should have a level over 100 mg/dl, which is where the bar rests today. Clearly, they’re freaked out by elevated blood sugar and its potential problems and they don’t know exactly where to erect the milligram-per-deciliter bulwark. A hundred seems like a logical number, but there are a couple of problems with this number. For one thing, it seems that glycation, seems to rear up at blood sugar levels over 85 mg/dl. Furthermore, the whole “fasting glucose” number might be skewed, anyhow. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, fasting glucose refers to your blood sugar level derived from a sample of blood taken after a night of not eating. The trouble with that is that not eating, especially for those of us who are 6 meals per day weightlifters, is kind of a rare situation. Most of us eat virtually all the time. Besides, even normal people eat during the day, and they experience chaotic blood sugar peaks and valleys, and to really get a decent idea of how your body handles food, you’d have to take several blood samples during the day and analyze the varying results. So we really don’t know our blood sugar levels, although you COULD buy a glucometer and test it several times a day but who has the time and who is that anal. I can tell you that if you’re a BIG GUY, eat several meals a day, if you cannot see your abs and if you cannot see your veins then you’re probably a little glucose intolerant and insulin resistant. And, perhaps more important to you, is that getting lean is becoming more and more improbable with each carb-loaded, elevated blood-sugar day.
Now, logic tells me this, I don’t have any “proof” persay although the evidence out there advocating intermittent fasting is staggering, but I personally think that logic tells us that challenging your system with a perpetual flood of blood sugar, over time, desensitizes the cells to insulin. That’s just the way the body works. I’ve also experienced it personally. I’d been doing the six-meals-a-day thing since I was 18, only to watch my weight sometimes appear to be “stubborn”. I wasn’t eating crappy. I haven’t had a McDonald’s burger in over a decade and I don’t even remember what doughnuts taste like. Nor do I have a genetic predisposition towards high blood sugar. So when I began reading about the intermittent fasting phenomenan it occured to me that MAYBE, just MAYBE it was my 6 meals a day thing…. but again, I wasn’t sure and had to know more.
(INSERT: a good study to look into is called ”Effect of meal frequency on glucose and insulin excursions over the course of a day” (Holmstrup, et al, 2010) Rather than bore you to tears with the particulars of the study, I will say simply that the long and short of it is that a group of normal-weight test subjects who ate 6 meals a day exhibited significantly higher blood sugar values than those who ate 3. Despite eating the same amount of calories, the fewer meals group had 30% lower blood sugar values than those who ate 6 meals. HMMMMM. )
Additionally, there are several studies out there that suggest that fasting, which is, after all, a term that translates to eating fewer meals, increased insulin sensitivity markedly. A REALLY good website to visit if you want to read more about intermittent fasting is www.leangains.com. Now keep in mind this site advocates the services of Mark Berkhan and the Intermittent Fasting Diet so there is a wealth of propaganda on there in the form of client photos and testimonials. Sift through it if you want, but keep an open perspective- make up your OWN mind based on the info provided not the pretty photos.
Other books advocate intermittent fasting such as The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson and Free the Animal by Richard Nikoley. However these books both advocate fasts as long as 24 to 48 hours then followed by huge meals. This seemed a bit counterproductive to me based on my knowledge of blood sugar and the ways in which it rises, falls and stabalizes. I ALSO was concerned about going in an unfed state for that amount of time- since I’d read people fast as often as a few times a week (WTF) I didn’t think 48 unfed hours was condusive to muscle retention or energy for that matter! So I started looking into other ways in which to incorporate the CONCEPT of intermittent fasting into my protocol so that I could still reap the benefits of fasting without risking my hard earned muscle or being forced to eat up uncomfortably. The easiest methods of manipulation I found which also proved to be effective are as follows:
1- Do a dietary downshift from 6 meals to 4 or even 3. You don’t need to necessarily eat less, just less often. If it’s a non workout day I might do a larger breakfast comprised of protein, smart fats and functional carbs. I’d follow it up a few hours later with a lunch involving a similar macro nutrient profile and then I’d then follow that up with a sizeable late dinner of protein, fats, and as a few carbs as possible. This is one way to “fast” because when you’re dealing with a body that’s used to several smaller meals throughout the day, this is a staunch difference. It throws a wrench in the gears of your metabolism and sparks change. Now if it’s a training day, I have to look at nutrition a bit different. I’d still do the same thing except that I’d possible add in a super small post workout meal (I usually opt for 3 ounces chicken/3 ounces yam or sometimes 3 ounces yam and an egg white protein powder shake)
2- Another way in which to fast for a longer period of time is to simply ELIMINATE your last meal of the day. I typically STOP eating around 7:30 p.m at night. If I remove that meal from my daily caloric intake, then my last meal of the day is usually 4:30. So let’s say I STOP eating at 4:30 p.m. I go to bed around 9p.m so that’s already 4.5 hours int he fasting hole. I wake up around 4:15 a.m daily, so if I ate at 4:30 a.m the NEXT morning that gives me a 13 hour fast total which is a pretty solid fast. Since I’m sleeping through it, it puts me at less risk to overeat. When I get up the next morning I eat as I normally would I don’t subscribe to the “eat big post fast” trend. This is by far my FAVORITE way in which to incpororate fasting as I find it to be the easiest, I can do this NO PROBLEM 2x a week.
3- The other great way to incorporate fasting is to do what I call “My Fasted Cheat Saturday”. Saturday night is my cheat night, which for me means I go out to eat at Outback. Now I’m a clean eating freak so even my “cheat” is clean, but this is what I typically get: 6 ounce sirloin (dry prepared plain), roasted asparagus, plain shrimp, and the blue cheese pecan chopped side salad (that 1 ounce of chopped blue cheese is oh so delish). So this is what I’d do Saturday- I’d have a large protein based breakfast, maybe some healthy fats and then I don’t EAT ANYTHING, save for maybe a post workout if I’m training until that dinner, which is typically 6pm. I’ve fasted throughout the day, which increases insulin sensitivity and theoretically, at least, allows my physique to weather the evening caloric increase. If I eat breakfast around say 5 a.m (sometimes I eat later on the weekends) and then don’t eat until 6pm that gives me a solid 13 hour fast as well.
I think the bottom line is to find a plan that works LONG TERM for you with regards to fasting and in my mind, 24 and 48 hours fasts are just ludacris especially when muscle retention is of a concern. Not to mention let’s face it, most of us lack the mental willpower to successfull endure that amount of time without food. The ways in which I incorporate the fasting framework are specifically designed to bring blood sugar down to healthful levels and keep them there. Fat loss and improved body composition are some might nice side effects too.
My plan is a bit unorthodox and I’m sure many out there who are more authoritative on intermittent fasting then me would maybe even say these methods don’t “qualify” as intermittent fasting, but they work. And that counts. I don’t preach that I follow intermittent fasting and I don’t preach jamming in multiple meals during an 8-hour period and then fasting for 24 hours. That type of thing might work for improving insulin sensitivity, but it’s my personal theory that it invariably leads to loss of muscle – going 16 hours without eating forces your body to rob muscle of protein. Besides, this type of plan isn’t practical in real life. In other words, fasting for 12 hours or so seems legit to me, 16 or more, eh not so much. I I cannot seem to wrap my head around that.
The main problem with my methods and with the concepts of intermittent fasting as a whole is that eating only 3x a day makes it a challenge to consume adequate calories especially if you’re a bodybuilder/powerlifter looking to gain muscle. Of course the benefit is that you’ll lean out nicely, feel less bloated and food compounded, become more efficient in handling carbs, and you’ll feel ELECTRIC as opposed to LETHARGIC.
Keep in mind too, that a bodybuilder trying to mass gain on 7000 calories a day HAS to eat more frequently just to get it all down, which is the premise for where that whole meal frequency thing came into play to begin with. If you’re NOT a bodybuilder looking to pack on the size in the offseason then chances are you can EASILY swing some form of intermittent fasting into your protocol 1-2x per week with ease. The multiple-meals eating plan may have originally been devised with the best intentions, but that’s really NO comfort to all the insulin-resistant, definition-challenged beefy people out there who can’t, for the life of them, figure out why food is often their greatest obstacle to creating a lean, muscular, energetic, fuel-burning machine.
Still not sold? Try maybe doing it just ONCE- pick one of my methods and give it a whirl. See how your body takes to it. Pay attention to how you feel, look, digest, and function. I’m willing to bet at least one of the methods I use will be one you can do successfully- effectively reaping ALL the rewards of intermittent fasting and not putting yourself at risk for losing any of your hard earned lean muscle!