Is Intermittent Fasting Right for You?
No matter what fitness magazine you open, what health chat room you belong to, or what talk show you watch, you’ve probably heard the term Intermittent Fasting (IF) mentioned. If you haven’t, then let me briefly go over a few IF basics.
What is IF?
No matter which IF protocol you decide to follow, this style of dieting is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. It isn’t concerned so much with what foods you eat or how much you have to eat within your non-fasting window; rather, it’s focused more on when you should and shouldn’t eat. Something else Intermittent Fasting isn’t concerned about? It isn’t concerned about what kind of weight you lose; the only concern is that you drop pounds. And just like any diet you decide to follow, you will lose pounds.
How is IF so popular?
As with many diets, books with titles such as Intermittent Fasting: A Nutritionist’s Guide to Lose Belly Fat Whilst Eating What You Want—It’s Simpler Than You Think and news headlines that scream, “Fasting: A Trending Food Idea and New Frontier in Longevity Science,” managed to capture the attention of an audience desperate to find the “magic pill” to quick and permanent weight loss. The books and articles ensure that IF will help increase energy, renew vitality, improve memory and focus, and boost weight loss, just to name a few of the promised benefits IF will provide.
Is IF Right for You?
The first question you have to ask yourself is this: “What are my goals and what am I looking to create from the food I eat?” If you don’t really care about adding muscle, creating muscle tone (females), gaining muscle size (males), or building endurance and greater stamina, then IF can be a viable option for you. However, if you do care about having a really good-looking body and achieving weight loss that is sustainable, then read on.
Understanding Nutrient Partitioning
For starters, if you are seeking to build more muscle, then you also want greater cell volumizing. This means that you want to push as many nutrients into the muscle as possible and have them stay there. This is where it becomes important to understand Nutrient Partitioning. Nutrient Partitioning revolves around the understanding that your body can only utilize so many calories, grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats at one time. Whenever you over consume more than your body can utilize at that one sitting, the excess calories are simply deposited as fat cells. Since your body is only capable of utilizing so much fuel at one time, stuffing more and more food into each meal isn’t going to help you gain muscle. Instead, to get your body to utilize more fuel, you have to add additional meals of equivalent size in order to actually put the fuel to use, as opposed to putting the fuel in fat.
Calorie Quality Counts
Another fact to consider is that the type of calories you eat really does matter. Let’s face it, if you ate 500 quality calories of white fish, sweet potato, and veggies as your meal, your body would use those calories very differently than it would if you had consumed the exact same number of calories from chocolate chip cookies. The balanced meal would control blood sugar; provide a good balance of amino acids and glycogen; and be partitioned toward muscle and away from fat. The cookies, on the other hand, would provide very little in the way of muscle-supporting amino acids. Also, as the cookies provide simple sugars that will enter the blood stream quickly, you would experience a sudden spike in insulin levels, which in turn would cause more calories to be deposited as fat.
Calorie Quality/ Hormones/ Fat Connection – Your Body’s Response
Keep in mind that feedback loops will work one way or another, but they will never work against themselves. For example, if you start taking thyroid medicine and you don’t need it, your body will simply stop producing as much of that hormone to offset the additional thyroid coming into your body. Think about how unhealthy you’d be if you took thyroid that you didn’t need and your body just kept producing more. The same thing would happen if you took testosterone and didn’t actually need it. Your body’s feedback loop would simply shut down the pituitary to testicular axis to ensure that your body would maintain a healthy equilibrium. What do these feedback loops have to do with insulin? You see, insulin is a fat storing hormone and when it goes up in the blood stream, the fat releasing hormone (called glucagon) has to go down. In other words, you can’t be storing fat and releasing it at the same time. So by comparison, the meal made from quality calories like fish and sweet potato will elicit a very different hormonal response than the meal from the cookies would elicit. And because it elicits a different hormonal response, the food would be partitioned differently by the body than the cookies would be.
Fasting/ Hormones/ Muscle Loss Connection
I have worked with thousands of athletes over the course of 40 years and during this time, I have consistently taken and documented their body compositions to discern what happens when we add more quality foods into an athlete’s diet. In each case, the one constant was the fact that their body fat levels dropped while their lean muscle levels increased. The opposite of this is fasting for long periods of time or dropping meals. In either case, there’s no way your body can sustain the muscle mass that it currently has because the body constantly needs fuel. Keep in mind that the only two places your body can instantly access amino acids and glycogen when it needs them are from your muscles and your liver. How is this so? You’ve probably been led to believe that fat stores are the go-to source of energy during cycles of fasting. Well, that’s not necessarily 100% accurate. Fats are only used as a source of long term fuel, so when you under eat and start skipping meals, you’re not losing only fat; you’re more prone to losing the amino acids and glycogen from within the muscle. And when you don’t eat the proper balance of fuels, then your body simply goes to the muscle to remove the amino acids and glycogen it needs so you can walk, talk, and think during the day. I have a vast number of my clients’ body composition records that prove every time an athlete eats 3 meals a day, the amount of muscle they can gain is limited by the three meals. However, when you add another meal containing the right balance of nutrients and the right amount of calories, their muscle mass goes up. Why do you think bodybuilders eat 6-8 times a day? It’s because they’ve discovered that with each added meal of equal proportions, they add more muscle size.
Caloric Intake and Frequency of Each Meal Matters.
Think about this for a minute. Let’s say that someone tells an athlete to eat 2,000 calories a day. The athlete decides to eat 2 meals that contain 1,000 calories each so at the end of the day, he has eaten the correct number of calories prescribed. The question you have to ask at this point is this: was the athlete’s body capable of utilizing the entire 1,000 calories at one sitting? The fact is that the average male athlete can utilize about 500 quality calories in one sitting, while the average female that works out can utilize about 300 calories. Since this is the case, what will our athlete’s body do with the excess 500 calories his body can’t use? It ends up being partitioned into fat cells or oxidized off as heat. This is why the majority of the “1-2 meals a day eaters” that come to see me are overweight. It also explains how a person that doesn’t necessarily overeat calories can become overweight. Bottom line: if you can’t utilize all the fuel you consume at a feeding, the excess is most likely to be stored.
Fasting/ Hormones/ Metabolic Rate – Your Survival Mechanism
Something else to think about is how fasting or under eating affects your hormones. First, understand that Intermittent Fasting is nothing new; you’ve been doing it your whole life! When you sleep 6-8 hours every night you are fasting, and 6-8 hours seems to be about the right window to do a fast … before your body starts to work against you! You’ve most likely heard that when you go too long without eating, your body’s metabolic rate slows down. It does this as a survival mechanism; your body is trying to conserve energy. One of the first ways the body slows down the metabolism is by dropping its levels of T3, the active thyroid hormone. Your body doesn’t know whether you’re sitting at home and not eating or if you are lost out in the desert and the truth is, it doesn’t care. All your body knows is that it doesn’t have enough fuel to operate. If your body just kept your metabolism cranked up at its peak, you’d wither and die fairly rapidly. So your body will conserve energy by dropping its level of T3 so that you can live 3 times longer without food than you could if it remained operating at peak levels. Your thyroid has an effect on other hormones as well and once you go long periods of time without food, it can wreak havoc on estrogen and testosterone levels.
IF/Hormonal Imbalance Connection
Even some of IF’s biggest supporters admit that this style of dieting can cause huge hormonal imbalances, especially among women. For example, John Berardi, PhD of Precision Nutrition, is a huge supporter of IF and presented a lecture entitled Intermittent Fasting: Science or Fiction? However, in spite of his support of the diet, he ends his lecture with a “heads up” to women: only 20% of women are typically successful on this type of plan. Why? Because female hormones are much more sensitive to periods of fasting and he even admits that, “[women’s] systems will shut down to protect [them] from dying when [they] don’t get food.” He also points out that IF is not for those who are athletes, for those who have a stressful life, or those that are new to diet/exercise, just to name a few of the contraindications he listed. If an actual IF supporter is sending up warning flares about the possible adverse effects the diet can have on one’s hormones, then it may be advisable to really reconsider whether this diet is the right path to follow.
IF/Nitrogen-Protein/ Muscle Loss Connection
Finally, it’s physiologically impossible to gain muscle when your body goes into a negative nitrogen balance. When your nitrogen balance is in an equal state to your body’s needs, you’ll simply retain the muscle you currently possess. When your body goes into a positive nitrogen balance, you will be in a state of gaining muscle. But once you enter a negative nitrogen balance, your body will begin giving up its muscle. Nitrogen comes from protein, and going long periods of time without any intake of protein means you won’t be able to retain what muscle you have. Sure, you can lose weight by skipping meals. Consider, though, that for every 10 pounds you lose on a restrictive diet, 4 of it can come from muscle! Some of you might be thinking, “But if I weight trained, I would have kept or added muscle.” This simply isn’t true. If you aren’t eating enough to sustain your muscle and you add additional exercise, where do you think your body will get the nutrients it needs if it isn’t available from your diet? That’s right — it will pull even more nutrients from your muscle to give you the energy to train, walk, talk, and think throughout your day.
Since we are talking about skipping meals, let’s talk about the most skipped meal on an IF diet: breakfast. Study after study on children has shown that skipping the first meal of the day leads to hypoglycemia, and this disrupts their ability to learn/perform. Whenever researchers added breakfast to the children’s diets, they got better grades, were far less hyperactive, and paid better attention in class––this extends to adults as well. In my clinic, we noticed that when we added breakfast, people experienced better energy levels and were less likely to snack or binge in the mid-morning.
IF can lead to a loss of muscle and as an athlete who works out, your entire goal is to get stronger, tighter, more toned, and develop more endurance. As every long-distance runner I work with knows, eating fewer meals leads to less energy and endurance. Eating less can also cause binge eating episodes and poor food choices, as hunger is a very powerful driving force. For this reason, IF is not the best way to eat for people that work out, want to gain muscle, and drop body fat. As I’ve always said, under-eating leads to cheating. Our goal is to give our clients control over food, not have food and cravings controlling them. The only way to put people in control is to use food, not avoid it. Oh, and by the way, the pictures shown below are real clients of Lean Body Coaching and all of them added more meals, none of them fasted, they ate carbs at every meal and none of them went high fat low carb!
About the Author
Keith Klein, CN, CCN
Want to get into your best shape ever with Keith Klein? Keith is co-founder of Lean Body Coaching, a results-driven one-on-one nutritional counseling Get Lean™ program. For more information, visit www.leanbodycoaching.com
This 6-month online Get Lean™ program is dedicated to showing people how to eat to be healthy and leaner and includes a 3-month relapse prevention program which teaches the clients how to keep their weight off.
Keith trained in Clinical Nutrition at the Institute of Specialized Medicine during the late 1970’s. He spent five years at the Institute working alongside six of Houston’s most prestigious physicians. He ran the dietetic department of all four Houston locations where he treated various patients with clinical disorders. Disorders like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and other health-related problems.
In 1984, Keith became the Dietetic Director at Houston’s Bariatric Center with psychiatrist Dr.John H. Simms. It was Keith who designed and implemented the dietary protocol and dietetic programs that were used in all four of Dr. Simms’ clinics. The main focus was on treating patients with eating disorders and obesity. It was during this time that Keith developed most of his work pertaining to the Psychology of Eating Management and Relapse Prevention.
After Dr. Simms retired, Keith (in conjunction with Dr. Ron Preston) opened both The Texas Nutrition Clinic and the Houston Sports Medicine Clinic. During this time Keith combined all of his previous experiences in clinical practice with the dietary protocol for a wide range of athletic endeavors and sports.
Today Keith owns and operates The Institute of Eating Management & Relapse Prevention Center which he opened in 1990 -the present. Here Keith has a wide range of various nutritionists trained in all of his principles where they see a variety of different patients each day.
Other Notable Points:
• Chief of Nutrition for the Houston’s Sheriff’s Department
• Nutritionist for the Houston Areo’s hockey team
• Voted Nutritionist of The Year by the North American Natural Bodybuilding Federation
• Voted Lifetime Achievement Award by the NPC bodybuilding federation
About the Author:
Elizabeth Anastasopoulos, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Nutrition Specialist, spends significant time in the gym training her athletes. However, her time as a figure competitor in the OCB directed her passion towards nutrition and nutritional counseling. She is currently pursuing her Diploma in Comprehensive Nutrition, and she plans to continue her education by obtaining a certification in sports nutrition as well.
Her greatest joy, though, is her family. She is a proud wife, as well as the mother of an 18 year-old daughter and of 9-year old twins. As a family, they enjoy multiple outdoor activities and traveling to various destinations.