What is Fasting Intermittently?
Intermittent Fasting is a bit of a thing these days, it has been a rising ‘fad’ for the last couple of years. I didn’t call this article ‘Intermittent Fasting’ because I am not a fan of gimmicks and faddy diets, instead I wanted to write about it for what it is-fasting intermittently if-and-when it suits you.
What I am referring to in this article is developing your own pattern of eating (an eating window, if you like), that matches your daily hunger pangs and obligations. You ‘cover your weak spots’ by being savvy with when you take on your calories, and when you don’t.
Another good name for this way of eating could be ‘Optimal Food Timing’, because ultimately you are covering your weak spots by planning your meal times to suit your life – not what society dictates your meal times to be.
The idea is that you look at your current eating pattern and habits, then devise a plan to fit your day.
“Intermittent fasting (I.F) relates to any diet that cyclically restricts energy intake for a predetermined time period” Martin MacDonald, ISSN DIP, 2013.
To be clear, ‘diet’ is just a way of eating – I’m not suggesting that this is a short-term diet in the sense of the word that we are all accustomed to.
This is not about starving and bingeing
To be extra clear, this is not about starving yourself sometimes and eating everything in sight at other times. You must have a sensible, balanced diet based around unprocessed, high nutrient foods which supply you with calories that (if you want to lose weight) are a little bit less than you are burning each day. The fact still stands that if you take on more calories than you burn throughout the week, then you will gain weight regardless of the times of day that you eat. It is just a useful tool to help you manage your hunger levels, gain some control and make a calorie deficit as pleasant and easy to stick to as possible. And my gosh does it do that in spades!
Potential dangers of fasting intermittently (Can anyone use it?)
Intermittent fasting could be termed as ‘meal skipping’ in many instances. However, the premise of this ‘windowed eating pattern’ is that you aim to take in the same number of calories (amount of food) as you would otherwise, just in a shorter space of time. The issue can be that people simply remove a meal or a snack and their calories drop too low, too quickly.
Like any ‘way of eating’ not everyone should or would benefit from using this method. The two main situations where intermittent fasting is NOT suitable are 1) when you are pregnant and 2) when it doesn’t suit you.
There are many proposed benefits of I.F, however, most are based on animal studies therefore may not be applicable to humans. Remember that, when using this method as a way to reduce body fat, we can’t distinguish easily between the effects of IF and the weight loss that is occurring as a result of a calorie deficit.
So why use it?
It is a way to get to know your TRUE hunger signals
“A period of abstinence from food may retrain habits or even physiological perceptions of hunger that may make a calorie-reduced diet more sustainable”. I have found that fasting has re-awakened my hunger cues and I can now distinguish between knowing when I’m really hungry or when I am just wanting to eat.
Helps you to adhere to your meal plans
“I.F brings a new lease of life to those who once believed that skipping or missing a meal would have detrimental effects on a fat loss diet”.
· Gain control of your eating habits
· More pleasant way of maintaining a calorie deficit to help you reach your goals. “You don’t feel like you are ‘dieting’ because you are eating the correct amount of food at times that suit your body”.
So, where do you start? Know your stats
As a complete starting point, if you are serious about changing your body, then you need to know 2 pieces of information:
1. what your body needs to maintain its current weight (in calories)
2. what your calories need to be in order for you to lose weight healthily
To find out your numbers use this handy calorie calculator from Mike Matthews at Muscle for Life
Next, Identify your ‘weak spot’
We all have a time of day that we are at our most hungry, and most vulnerable to raiding the snacks. This shall be known hereafter as ‘your weak spot’
For me, it was 6-8pm every weekday evening. It happened because it was a time of day that I was just finishing up working, my mind and body were tired and all I wanted to do was get into relaxation mode. For me, food is relaxing. Had I been able to have dinner at this time (like I used to, before my lifestyle changed), I would have swerved the snacks and been satisfied by dinner, and my urge to eat everything in sight dissipated.
However, because I couldn’t eat dinner until about 8-9pm (due to circumstances that I couldn’t change) I started snacking, which quite often turned into uncontrollable binging. Over the course of 3 years I piled on 2 stone in weight, and that was with a VERY active life. I had identified my weak spot 6-8pm every weekday. What is yours? Do you find that you get really hungry mid-afternoon? Or is yours the 11am munch monster? From working with many Clients, I see that the evening munchies is the most common, either before dinner or that after-dinner-sat-in-front-of-the-telly-boredom munch. It’s important to ask yourself why this is your weak point, is there any adjustment you can make to your circumstances before playing about with your eating habits.
Next, take your Weak Spot Time and draw up a menu planner which covers that time with a meal.
For example, my eating plan now looks like this:
Breakfast – 11am- 12noon
Lunch – 5pm (which keeps me satisfied over my weak spot)
Dinner – 8.30pm
Through some trialling of what worked for me, I found that I actually don’t get hungry in the morning, nothing bad happened when I didn’t ‘stoke the metabolic fire’ immediately on rising, as I used to believe it would. In fact, I find I am much more focused, calm, and clear headed to crack on with my work, than I used to be. I am not physically hungry until about 11am so depending on work I will then eat my protein packed healthy variety of a breakfast.
Change your food timings to cover your weak spot
Jot down your current commitments, work schedule and times of day that you like to eat (Dinner with your family, or breakfast with your kids etc). Be aware that this may be different on certain days. To use myself as an example again, all my 7 days are quite similar in pattern, so I realised that I needed to save my daily calories up so that I could legitimately eat more in the evening when I needed it (mentally) the most. Which meant that I had to experiment with shifting my breakfast up the day a bit*
Plan your foods according to your calorie goal and track your intake. Keep a diary of how you feel and adjust as you go along. It’s a learning experience. Remember to drink enough water throughout the day to keep you hydrated.
Types of eating protocols that you could try (or design your own!)
16 hour daily fast (or other eating window) (this is what works best for me)
This was made popular under the name of ‘Lean Gains’ by Martin Berkhan. It is a windowed eating protocol whereby you fast for 16-18 hours (including the time you are asleep) and then eat for the remaining time period. Repeat daily.
Alternate day fasting
Eat on Monday, fast on Tuesday, eat on Wednesday. You get the idea. This is quite extreme, people get very hungry using this method, but if it works for your schedule (perhaps you work shifts of travel a lot or are very sedentary) it may work for you.
Eat, Stop, Eat
Brad Pillon wrote a book on this, which made it popular. It is a single 24-36 hour fast per week with other days set up as required by your goal.
This involves eating 2 very low calorie days per week, and eating at maintenance calories for the rest of the week.
This diet got a bit of a bad reputation by how it was portrayed in the media (eating as much junk as you like on your ‘off days’) however, if used properly, just like all the other protocols, it can work very well for managing your calorie deficit.
You might already fast without realising it!
Over the years, Clients of mine have been adopting I.F without really realising what they were doing. One of my older gentlemen finds that he isn’t hungry throughout the day and chooses to eat in the evening when he is hungry. This suits him, and he has maintained a bodyweight that he is very happy with for the last 2 years, we haven’t labelled his way of eating as Fasting, but essentially that is what he is doing.
You may notice that you inadvertently do it when you have been out for a big meal in an evening – you have a lie in and don’t surface for breakfast until about midday the following day. That’s a 16-18 hour fasting period. It doesn’t have any effect, unless you do it consistently and manage the calories that you are taking on board.
But won’t skipping meals put me into ‘starvation mode’ and slow down my metabolism?
Myth Number 1: Skipping meals will put your body into starvation mode
I hold my hands up and say that I used to believe that this was true. I was wrong. And so were millions of people who all stated this. What does the research say? When studies use “doubly-labelled water to assess total 24 hour energy expenditure (they) find no difference between nibbling and gorging”. Bellisle et al (1997)
“There is no evidence that weight loss on hypo energetic regimens is altered by meal frequency”.
Myth Number 2: Eating little and often will boost your metabolism
Another pointless thing that I’ve said in the past, along with many other professionals.
What does the research say? Comparing 3 meals vs 6 meals: “we conclude that increasing meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss” Cameron et al (2010).
Myth Number 3: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
I was brought up to eat breakfast as soon as I got up. That was our routine in my family home, and I was extremely grateful for the structure. Our bodies like routine, and this one worked for me – it was all I knew. So, when I moved out and started being responsible for my own eating pattern, I held the belief that I HAD to eat breakfast pretty much as soon as I’d jumped out of the shower in a morning – or my body would somehow spontaneously combust if I didn’t! For many years I drove myself mad by not being able to have a lie in or be anywhere too far from food if was away away from home, because I just HAD to eat. The health and fitness industry at that time told us that eating breakfast within an hour of waking was a what we all should be doing. It was a hot topic, and if you didn’t do it, your metabolism would grind to a halt and fat would start popping out all over your tummy and hips!
As we now have evidence that it is a myth that your metabolism will slow if it’s not regularly ‘stoked’ with food every few hours, we can all relax a bit and start thinking about what time of day actually works for us and our different lifestyles.
“A recommendation to eat (or skip) breakfast had no discernible effect on weight loss in free-living adults who were attempting to lose weight” Dhurandhar et al (2014)
The bottom line
The bottom line is, the amount that you eat is more important to your weight than WHEN you eat. So even if you did only eat for 5 hours of the day, then you can still gain fat if you eat more than your body can burn. The handy thing is though, if you manipulate the hours in which you do eat to fit with when you are at your most susceptible to over eating, then you can better control the amount you eat, which over time will lead to the fat loss that you want.
Do you need help with this? Have you had experience with this? I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a message.