Fasting, whilst being an ancient practice, has gained a great deal of popularity within the fitness and health circles recently due to it supposed benefits to health and weight management. This week's article comes from one of my clients, Eric, who's story and transformation can be seen here. In this article, Eric gives a great insight into how he felt during a recent 3 days fast. Enjoy!
"I’ve read a lot about the benefits of intermittent fasting and fasting in general (If Terry Crews does it, it can’t be that bad for muscle deterioration!) This week I had been battling neck pain and couldn’t really work out so I decided maybe I’d try an intermittent fast (16 hours fasting and eating for only an 8 day window) for a day. After all, I don’t think I’ve ever gone 16 hours without eating. When I got to 16 hours, I thought I’d push it to 24 hours. When I got to hour 20 or so, I felt great and had been reading about the health benefits of a three day fast (purging pre-cancerous cells and immune system reset) and thought I’d go for it!
A bit about logistics:
- I started at Wednesday night at 7:21PM. Starting at night is the easiest because sleeping through the 8 out of the first 12 hours makes for an easy start.
- This wasn’t a water fast- I allowed black coffee, unsweetened tea, and water (with and without a pinch of salt and lemon.) Sparkling water is a nice change of pace
- Drinking MCT oil with your morning coffee goes a long way toward preventing muscle loss- I blended a teaspoon with my morning coffee on day 1 and used a tablespoon on days 2 and 3.
Here’s what I learned:
- Its not that hard- I wasn’t starving and daydreaming about food all the time. My stomach growled all of 5 times in 72 hours. Everyone online writes about a time that they almost broke their fast- surprisingly for me the only time I almost broke it was the two hours into the first night when I really wanted a snack before bed.
- Day 2 was the hardest- Days 1 was easy- I was mentally tired on day 2. Physically, tasks weren’t demanding once I got started with them, I just didn’t want to start anything. My primary advice for the fast is to know that the lethargy goes away once you get started. Day 3 was a breeze - I had to leave the room when my Fiancée was eating one of my favourite snacks (apple slices with peanut butter.) Other than that, I had a light energy knowing I was close to the end.
- I didn’t get “Hangry”- There was no anger associated with not eating- in fact I was very, very calm. My Fiancée liked me a lot more during this three day period. The mind sort of goes into preservation mode and I didn’t feel the need to fight or nitpick about little insignificant things. Usually my mind is racing with anxiety, worries, and unfinished tasks. I meditate for about 10-20 minutes daily and I found that it was a lot easier for me to clear my mind during the fast—on days 2 and 3, I was clear headed the entire time. My mind didn’t have the energy to devote to stress.
- I wasn’t useless- I was productive with my work on days 1 and 2 (day 3 was a Saturday) and I walked 13.7K, 10k and 21K steps respectively. I think this the key to a fast- make sure you have a lot to do so you don’t think about food....and take lots of walks.
- My calves (not my stomach) were the only thing that hurt- I think I did a lot of walking and my body couldn’t repair itself fully. I ended up buying a three in one foam roller ($25) from Kmart which has a massage stick which helped with the calf pain.
- Food is a big part of my life- Between going to the grocery store a couple of times a day, cooking food, eating, cleaning up etc, I realised I spend about 2 hours a day around food. During the fast, I had more time for work, exercise, etc.
- I lost fat, not muscle- This may seem obvious, but I lost fat while fasting. However, I didn’t lose muscle mass. Paul (Physique Wise) measured me at the end of day 2 and my muscle mass was exactly the same as it was a couple of days earlier. My weight was down, but only because of fat that I had lost.
- I worked out- I mostly walked, but at hour 42, I scheduled a workout with Paul. The two main exercises were slow tempo bench press and deadlift. It wasn’t an easy day. Interestingly, it was more mentally than physically tough. However, you can and will get through a big workout if you chose to, just take your time and rest as much as needed between sets.
- Go easy when you break the fast- After finishing, I had my first meal planned out at Bodhi in Hyde Park. I probably injested 2000 calories. I felt energised from the food and wanted to keep it going so I had a couple more drinks with friends and that’s when my stomach started getting itself into knots. Maybe combining curry, dumplings, cheesecake, tequila, vodka and whisky on a stomach that hadn’t seen food in three days wasn’t the best Idea!
Looking back, I didn’t intend to do a three day fast, but its definitely something I’ll do again. If you’ve read any of Tim Ferriss’ books, a lot of successful people and thought leaders tend to fast. In fact, Tim does a 3 day fast once a month! It may or may not be something that you incorporate into your plan, but know that if you do, you’ll come out on the other side better for it!"
Aside from a 3-day fast, such that Eric completed, there are numerous other ways to incorporate fasting into your schedule. Here is a run-down of some other popular fasting protocols: -
- The '5:2 Diet' Popularised by doctor Michael Moseley: The 5:2 approach has gained perhaps the most momentum and popularity over the past few years, perhaps because of the sheer simplicity of the approach. In essence, for 5 days you eat 'normally' - there are no prescriptions here. Then for 2 (non-consecutive) days, you only consume 500 calories across the day. You could have this in 1 meal, or spread throughout in small snacks.
- The 16:8 'Leangains' approach popularised by Martin Berkhan: The 'Leangains' approach to fasting sees you eating during an 8-hour window each day. So for 16 of every 24 hour day you are fasting completely. Most people choose to set this type of diet up like so:
6.00am: Wake Up - Water/Black coffee
12.00pm: Break Fast - meal 1
4.00pm: Meal 2
7.30pm: Meal 3
This schedule works well for those who train in the evening and aren't big eaters in the morning. All you do is push breakfast back a few hours and eat within a smaller time frame.
- The 'Feast:Fast' approach popularised by John Romaniello: John Romaniello is the author of several bestselling fitness books, including 'Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha'. This approach to fasting includes a cheat day, followed by a full day of fasting straight afterwards. A 'cheat day' can be considered a day of higher calorie eating, with the inclusion of foods you would not normally include within your normal diet, such as ice cream, donuts, cookies, or all 3 at once!
- The 'Eat-Stop-Eat' approach popularised by Brad Pilon: Eat Stop Eat works in a fairly simple way: You fast once or twice a week, aiming for a complete break from food for 24 hours at a time. For example, you might eat normally until 7 p.m. on a Saturday, then fast until 7 p.m. on Sunday, resuming regular eating at that time. If you can’t make it the full 24 hours, Pilon says 20 to 24 hours will also work. For the next couple of days, eat approximately 2,000 calories a day for women and 2,500 for men; never fast on consecutive days. After several normal eating days, you can have another fast and repeat the schedule. Do not exceed two fasts in any one week. By doing even one fast a week, Pilon says you will create a calorie deficit of 10 percent.
As you can see, all of these approaches have similarities:
- Simplicity in rules and execution: Sometimes it is far easier not to have to deal with the stress of counting calories or getting exactly 5 meals in each day. These approaches make the dieting experience far more simplistic as there is a lot less to have to think about
- Periods of Low/No Food Intake: All of these approaches use periods of between 16-24 hours of complete abstinence from food. This might be difficult to adjust to if you have been used to eating to a set schedule for a long period of time. However, your body soon adjusts.
- Periods of higher calorie intake: As a result of abstaining from food for a set period of time, your reward is other periods where you get to eat higher calorie foods and meals. The great point about this is that it allows you to include foods that you otherwise might have had to restrict or completely cut out if sticking to a set number of calories per day.
So, it seems pretty clear that Intermittent Energy Restriction (IER) is the way to go right? The above paints a rather compelling picture that IER is the much easier (and better) way to try and drop body fat. So case closed.
But wait! What does the science tell us?
Conley et al (2017) sought to examine whether the 5:2 method of IER was better than a standard energy restricted diet (SERD). In their study, 24 obese participants were randomised into 2 groups for 6 months. One group followed the 5:2 IER approach, while the other group was given a SERD of 500 calories per day (i.e. they were eating 500 calories below their maintenance levels of calories).
So what happened?
- The SERD group lost an average of 5.5kg and 6.4cm from their waist.
- The IER group lost an average of 5.3kg and 8cm from their waist
- Both groups saw reductions in blood pressure and subjective quality of life markers
- Compliance rates were similar between groups
Harvie et al (2011) carried out a similar study in 107 overweight or obese pre-menopausal women and found the 2 diets to be comparable in terms of weight loss, was it circumference, fat loss and numerous health biomarkers.
So what to conclude?
It is clear that fasting/intermittent calorie restriction can provide a viable alternative to Standard Energy Restriction Diets (SERD). As always, much of it comes down to context. For example, if you are an individual that has a very irregular eating schedule, has very social weekends (or days during the week), then perhaps an IER approach might work better. You can fast on non-social days and utilise those calories for when you need them without feeling like you have to miss out or forgo all the food and drink everyone else is consuming.
However, if you are very regimented, are good at maintaining good portion control, can count calories, then SERD would probably work well for you. The point is, THERE IS NO ONE BEST WAY. If you have tried a certain approach and it hasn't worked for you, then why not try something different? As you can see from the above, what ultimately matters is your ability to reduce overall energy intake. Whether this is achieved from IER or a standard energy restriction approach is down to you as an individual and your own unique set of circumstances. I do believe that fasting can be very beneficial purely from a health stand-point, and I will post on this topic at a later date.