In this special guest blog, strength and conditioning coach, Alex Backhouse, who has over 10 years industry experience, talks us through the basics of Intermittent Fasting; What it is and how you could benefit from this tried and tested eating approach.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
I’m sure you’ve heard all about it. You may be even experimenting with it already. The world seems to love things that have got technical sounding titles, especially when it comes to health, fitness and weight loss.
High Intensity Interval Training? We could just call that sprints. But it doesn’t sound as good. Intermittent fasting- sounds ten times better than skipping breakfast doesn’t it?
So to take the mystique out of fasting, let’s give it a better definition.“Non-sequential extended periods without calories.” From time to time, you don’t eat – at all. There are several different ways to apply this caloric restriction, including the 5:2 method which involves 2 days of the week with severe calorie restriction.
There are some that favour the occasional 24-72 hour fast, where you only drink water and other calorie free drinks.
I’ve found the ‘windowed eating’ approach easiest to use personally, and the one I’ve had great success with my clients with. You eat all your food within a timed window: usually 8 hours or less. The easiest way to do this is to skip breakfast, and carry on your day as if nothing happened.
How does Intermittent Fasting work?
“But breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” I hear you cry.
For me there’s a massive disparity with the type of things we were eating, 20, 50 or 100 years ago compared to the plethora of calorific delights at our disposal these days. Let alone the difference in lifestyle: transport, jobs, exercise, and recreation. My point is this: A day of working hard in the fields and coming home to a meager portion of meat and potatoes before bed is very different to how we live our lives today.
At some point, maybe breakfast really was the most important meal of the day. But not any more. I’m not even going to go down the route of whether Mr. Kellog invented that phrase as a marketing slogan and got the whole world hooked on carbs for breakfast. But it’s definitely a possibility.
So let's look a bit more at what happens to your body when you don’t eat. If you don’t believe in fasting, technically you’re already doing it every time you go to bed- this is where the magic happens. We recover from the day’s grind, the day’s workout. We soak up all the calories and nutrients we’ve absorbed from our food. Cells repair. We grow a little bit. We get older.
We burn fat too, because after a while, all the calories we’ve eaten have been assigned to different storage areas – muscle, liver, fat stores, and we enter the fasted state aka the post-absorptive state. We’re no longer digesting and absorbing calories, we’re now using them and burning them. So when we wake up, we’re burning fat. I’m pretty sure most of us would be happy with that. “But my metabolism will slow down if I don’t eat small regular meals” Allow me to paraphrase Kaiser Soze when I say “The greatest trick the food industry ever pulled, was convincing people they had to eat more food in order to lose weight.”
I’m well aware that in extreme cases this may be true, but I think most of us would agree that if we’re overweight, it’s because we eat too much in general. And a consistent, mild caloric deficit is essential for weight loss (I’ll come back to this bit later). Then there’s this phrase “stoking the metabolic fire”- implying that you need to eat to increase the rate at which your metabolism burns calories.
Well, metabolic rate is king when it comes to daily caloric expenditure. If we can be burning more calories at rest, or throughout the day in general, then this is our most powerful tool in the battle to drop some fat. But we do not significantly increase our metabolic rate by eating. We increase it through exercise and by having more muscle mass.
You can fast for up 72 hours before experiencing any drop in metabolic rate, providing calories are kept above BMR before and after the period of fasting
What are the benefits?
So we’ve established that a fasted state is safe for our hard earned muscle and that we probably don’t need to be topping up our glycogen levels to 100% to go about our day- unless we were mid-way through Royal Marines selection. We can now come back to your daily calorie allowance and how much we need to restrict this by to lose weight.
As a regular exerciser weighing 92kg, my basal metabolic rate is around 3400 calories. If I subtract 500 off this (the accepted sensible amount for consistent weight loss,) I get 2900. Following a windowed eating approach, breaking my fast at noon, I now have 8 hours to consume nearly 3000 calories. Which is nice.
However, if I divided this into 5 meals of 600 calories each, the first of which I ate at 7am, I’m just going to feel hungry, deprived and grumpy for pretty much the whole day. Are you starting to see the appeal? Fasting is not for everyone and not for every situation. Adding muscle mass would favour being in a fed state as well as a reasonable (500) surplus of calories per day. But for weight loss, maintenance or even a simple system to enjoy food without obsessing over macros and calories, a windowed eating approach can be a valuable tool.
It’s not ALL about weight loss though is it?
Human Growth Hormone, a favourite of Hollywood celebrities as a ‘fountain of youth’ substance has been shown to increase during periods of fasting. Insulin levels get reset to a healthier level by restricting any rises in blood sugar.
And there are the ‘non scientific’ benefits… You have more energy. Strange but true. You’re not constantly craving food or worrying about where you can get some protein- you learn to survive with a slight hunger pang in my belly. Personally, I’m actually more productive on it.
To summarise, hopefully my fresh perspective on 21st century life, coupled with the biological processes involved in fasting have allayed some your concerns about experimenting with what is probably the easiest method of reducing your daily calories and feeling better throughout the day.
Black coffee or black tea is fine.
Plenty of water.
Your lunch is when you’ll ‘break your fast’.
Try it tomorrow!
Note: Please seek advice from your doctor if you are on any medication or have any medical issues, prior to attempting to follow or trial any of the above advice.