Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Intermittent Fasting

I've been thinking about whether I should conclude the Foundations series with Intermittent Fasting or leave it at Food, Exercise and The Three S's.  As much as I believe in Intermittent Fasting for health and beyond, it's not truly essential and I will therefore let it stand on it's own.

We all Intermittently Fast whether we like it or not.  The time between your meals, and in particular from your last meal of the day until your first one the next day, is technically a Fast.   Your body uses this time to fully digest and utilize the nutrients from the food you've consumed.  If you don't give yourself enough time between meals to accomplish this basic task, you'll fall behind on other important things such as repair and removal of unwanted cellular material (Autophagy).  This is where Intermittent Fasting (IF'ing) comes in.  It's essentially a tool that gives your body a chance to sort things out properly and deliver a shot in the arm to your immune system in the process.

My Breakfast yesterday
Many people have a knee jerk reaction to the idea of Fasting.  You hear things like ... 'But I don't want my body to think it's starving and hold onto fat'  or  'If I don't eat every few hours my blood sugar will tank and I'll flop around like a wet mop'  or my fave 'breakfast is the most important meal of the day'.  If any of these were the case, the human race would not have made it this far and we wouldn't even be here having this discussion.  Our ancestors ate what they could, when they could.  What they ate was totally dependent on animal and plant availability where they were currently living.  And when they ate was a matter of whenever they could get their hands on anything edible.  I don't think I'll stretch your imagination to have you believe that most of the time they likely didn't have three squares a day.  Maybe sometimes they did.  But I'd bet more often than not, their eating schedule was very erratic.  Something we could possibly term as Random Intermittent Fasting.  I imagine this is the way it was for a long, long time.  Not until the agricultural revolution and the rise of civilization did we begin to have enough food to even think about consuming it on a regular, scheduled basis.

Does this mean that if you don't implement some IF'ing into your lifestyle you're screwed?  No.  Plenty of people don't make a habit of it and do just fine.  I personally use it because I think it has some serious potential upside for health and longevity and little, or no, downside.  If you think you might want to give this technique a try, there are a number of different ways to go about it.  I'm going to list a few methods, but I don't think any one way is better than the rest.  Ultimately, the best method is the one that is the most comfortable and sustainable for you personally.

Random IF'ing.  Going without food whenever you feel like it.  Skipping a meal here and there.  Skipping food for a whole day now and then.  Mixing it up.  Our genes are probably wired up for this method as a result of our ancestors eating habits.  And as fortune would have it, random fasting probably fits right in with most people's unpredictable, hectic schedules.

Daily IF'ing.  Having an 'eating window' each day.  A 16 hour fast followed by a 8 hour window is popular.  I'd say anywhere from a 16 to 20 hour fast each day would be ideal.  If you're more active, lean toward the 16 hours, if not so much, 18 to 20 might work better for you.  There are even some people who like to eat only one large meal every 24 hours.

My Breakfast today
Weekly IF'ing.  Fasting for a 24 hour period once a week.

Monthly IF'ing.  Fasting for a 36 to 48 hour period once a month. 

There are many more ways to try this stuff.  For instance, you could do Daily IF'ing during the week and then eat three squares on the weekends.  Or you could do the Random option while also incorporating Monthly IF'ing.   I do want to mention here that with Intermittent Fasting, I'm not talking about going 72 hours or more without food.  I would call that straight up Fasting.  Perhaps this type of long Fasting serves a purpose in some situations, but I don't think it's anything you would want to do on a regular basis.

I've personally been doing the Daily IF'ing protocol for over two years now.  I eat two large meals a day, starting my eating window at noon and finishing my evening meal between 6:30 and 7.  If I'm out with friends and end up eating later, or for some reason I need to have lunch at 11:30 ... I don't sweat it.  I just resume my regular timing the next day.  Giving up breakfast has been a wonderful thing for me.  As Forest Gump said 'It's one less thing I have to worry about'.  It's that simple.

My Breakfast tomorrow
Back in my chronic cardio days I was in the 'eat every two to three hours' camp.  Gotta keep fueling those muscles you know.  This is partly why I ate so many energy bars.  With so many mini meals a day, I didn't exactly have enough time to prepare all of my food from scratch.  Looking back, it was mentally draining to be thinking about eating all of the time.  What to eat for Breakfast?  Before training?  During training?  Post workout?  Lunch?  Snack?  Dinner?  Geeesh.  When I first made the switch, I was worried about performance drop off and losing muscle mass, especially since I would be (and still am) training in a fasted state in the mornings.  Well, no such thing happened.  If anything, I have more energy and focus in the mornings with an empty stomach.  Instead of me going into the specifics of why this is the case, I'll let a professional handle this one.  Martin Berkhan has a site called leangains where pretty much all he does is dismantle the notion that Intermittent Fasting will shrivel you up into a shell of your former self.  And quite the opposite, you can easily gain muscle this way - if that's your goal.

So let me sum it up.  Intermittent Fasting is a powerful tool you can use to improve your overall health.  It's gives your body a chance to recharge your immune system and clear out some of the junk in your cells.  You can do it daily, sparingly, or not at all.  It's works well for some people and is just too much trouble for others. And it won't sap your energy or shrink your muscles.

As with anything new, if you try Intermittent Fasting for the first time, you can expect your body to encounter a learning curve.  When I first ditched breakfast, I was hungry when lunch rolled around.  This happened for a week or so, but faded quickly.  I think hunger is something most people don't truly experience very often ... usually they eat just because 'it's time'.  Anyways, have fun with it and remember it's just a tool.  A very powerful tool.

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