If you have considered fasting for weight loss (sometimes known as Intermittent Fasting) here are some general thoughts on fasting regarding body composition. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve not reviewed very much of the science behind this concept or read any books on the subject of fasting.
That being said, I think it’s worthy of a discussion for those interested in the concept.
Let’s be honest, if people report weight loss from fasting one or two days a week, every other day or whatever the schedule is with Intermittent Fasting, there’s probably no scientifically extravagant reason for this that makes this particular protocol any better than any other type of nutritional manipulation… technically speaking of course.
The simple explanation you ask? By not eating one or two days out of the week, you’ve increased your caloric deficit significantly. With an increase in the calorie deficit, you will lose weight faster than somebody who eats every day or several times a day with a much smaller deficit. It would not be a far fetched assumption to argue that this isn’t a “lifestyle” but just another diet that tricks you into eating less. This begs the question if there’s any value in Intermittent Fasting?
You could have just as easily eaten “less” but still eaten every day and increased your daily caloire deficit. Somebody else could eat every day and just eat significantly less and come close to that same deficit. In the end, if you are eating less than you need, you’ll lose weight (let’s not discuss actual body composition changes).
With any type of nutritional protocol, some people will gravitate towards this type of activity and they will have the determination to stick with it and actually like it. The majority of people will probably be able to do it for a short period of time but won’t be able to stick with Intermittent Fasting as a lifestyle because of one big problem.
What’s the biggest potential problem with Intermittent Fasting?
Think about this for a moment. Hunger and maybe excessive hunger can be the biggest reason for weight loss failure in an extented period of time. Some advocates of Intermittent Fasting claim that hunger does not bother them and the results are worth it. It’s true that hunger can go away in extremely low calorie diets and even in starvation. And while some hunger is normal in such diets, again, excessive hunger can lead to hormonal triggers that are much stronger than willpower.
But let’s suppose just for a second that maybe there’s superior hormonal response or insulin changes or anything along those lines that might make Intermittent Fasting a better nutritional protocol for not just weight loss but healthy living. Even if it’s more effective in the short run it is the diet that works in the long run that makes it the most effective. The one you can stay on for the long haul. Unless you are a competitive athlete who must change their nutrition for various reasons, it’s best to pick a lifestyle plan. Effectively making whatever you are doing, not a diet. If the excessive hunger becomes a problem, even after being on this option for years, you’ve effectively just been on a really long diet and it was never a lifestyle.
“The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.” ~ Dr. Brian Wansink; Ph.D; author of Mindless Eating
But don’t a lot of bodybuilders recommend eating 5-6 times a day? That doesn’t seem very realistic either. It sounds like a lot of food preparation, planning, frequent meals and it sure seems like that’s a diet as well. I’ll agree, the true bodybuilding type, 5-6 pre-planned meals is a diet as well. Eventually the average person gets tired of that and falls back to 3 meals a day. Thus, it sure looks like a diet. But it’s laughable to discret the 5-6 meals a day as being a diet and excessive and flip to the other side and not eat for one of two days out of the week. It creates the same concern surrounding nutritional compliance issues.
Personally I thrive on 5-6 meals a day. I have better workouts, I feel energized pre-workout and I’m never really too hungry or too full. My meals are simple and easy to prepare. However, the whole 5-6 times a day eating may not be what some people want or can do and they seek out alternatives. If you can’t eat that many times a day, then it’s not a maintainable lifestyle for you and hence, just another diet. Here’s what they don’t tell you.
“Nutrition plans do need to built based on lifestyle and personal preferences.” ~Tom Venuto; author of Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle
If eating 5-6 times a day seems to be a a turn off, a burden or a major inconvenience, I’d highly suggest you don’t flip to the other extreme and not eat one or two days out of the week. What you could do is find a happy medium! You’ve heard the term everything in moderation right? It works for nutrition too.
Suggestions for Finding the Plan that Works for You
Would you agree that most people could eat 3 traditional sit down meals a day? Would you go as far to say that those same people could have small snack in-between those meals? If so, you’re eating 5-6 times a day but you are only preparing 3 of those meals. If this seems reasonable for a lifestyle, then it’s much easiser to eat 3 prepared meals per day and just snack for the other 3. More importantly is that whatever meal frequentcy you ultimately choose, is that you are consistent rather than haphazardly eating at random.
Won’t Intermittent Fasting slow down your metabolism?
It’s highly unlikely that not eating one or two days a week will damage your metabolism. Mebatolic adaptation or starvation are more chronic (long term) than acute. Your metabolism isn’t going to crash in a day. You won’t ruin all your gains and mess up your metabolism if you skip a meal. If you are more concerned with the long term effects of a very low calorie diet and that it might decrease your metabolism in the long run, that does warrant some concern. Up to this point, only weight loss has been mentioned but as a reader of this blog, you know body composition is about fat mass and muscle mass in relation to weight. We are rarely just concerned with weight loss. How does intermittent fasting affect maintenance of lean body mass and what effect does it have on body composition in the long term?
Have you ever gone an entire day without eating? Do you get pre-occupied with thougths of food at some point? When it is time to eat, are you very careful of what you eat or does binge eating occur as hunger gets the best of you?
All the data shows that more frequent meals help with appetite control and blood glucose stability. There’s even research to show that skipping breakfast is a major contributor to late day binge eating. Did you know that binge eating is more common than anorexia?
Taking a step back, there isn’t much doubt in my mind that small, frequent meals is the ideal way to fuel a performance athlete or very active person. There’s a huge difference between a sendentary person who does short intermittent fasts and an active bodybuilder training for a competition or trying to build muscle as efficiently as possible. In general, performance and energy will drop on the day of your fasting (which won’t be all that fun if it turns out to be a leg workout and you’ve got heavy squats and deadlifts on the docket). There are people who say that their performance is not affected on the day of a fast but my guess is they are the exception, not the rule.
The bottom line is that I don’t recommend intermittent fasting for the purpose of body recomposition or building muscle. There’s some data to support it but I do not see a consensus in the fitness community. Intermittent Fasting is a relatively new concept while the bodybuilding nutriton plan is time tested. That’s not to say that bodybuilders who using this fasting protocol are not showing good results, or that it cannot work or that it’s unhealthy and damaging in any way. However, it seems to suit their dispositions and lifestyle which does not make intermittent fasting superior to another nutrition protocol but an option for those people just like 5-6 meals per day is an option for others.
Here’s a fun little cartoon that gives some information about Martin Berkhan and Intermittent Fasting.
Intermittent fasting diet for fat loss, muscle gain and health
How to: Intermittent Fasting
Marc David – CPT
“The NoBull Muscle Guy”
Author of NoBull Bodybuilding