He thinks too much; such men are dangerous"
- Julius Caesar
There’s a lot a buzz around fasting these days, at least in the health and fitness sphere. Sites, programs and e-books such as Leangains, Eat Stop Eat, The Warrior Diet, etc. have been both applauded and criticized by fitness devotees. I’m certainly not going to wade into any real debates on the topic (I’ll leave that to my betters). Rather, I’d like to just briefly summarize my own personal experiences with fasting, for whatever their worth, and some of the things I’ve learned.
For about a year or so, I’ve been pretty consistently following a Leangains-style eating pattern – that is, I fast for about 16 hours of every day and eat only during an 8-hour window (usually for me that between about 2pm and 10pm). I’m not militant about it, but I’d say that’s the case 95% of the time. Now to understand what a difference this has been for me, you must understand where I came from. Since about the age of 17 or so, I had always subscribed to the oft-held belief, disseminated by muscle magazines, mainstream health experts and common gym parlance, that one must eat regularly throughout the day to maintain a constant and efficient metabolism and to add muscle. This was taken to extremes in my early twenties when I would eat 8-9 meals throughout the day and then wake myself up in the dead of night to scarf down a plate of roast beef and potatoes! It worked in terms of weight gain (i.e. I got north of 280 lbs) but, compared to now, my strength-to-weight ratio was shit.
Even once my quest to occupy my own zip code gradually diminished, I still subscribed wholesale to the prevailing dogma of eating every two or three hours (albeit smaller amounts) to ‘stoke the metabolic furnace’. It’s a compelling analogy – that a person’s body essentially functions like a fireplace. Put too much wood on at a time, or wait too long between adding logs, and the fire dies (and by extension, metabolic disaster ensues, resulting in fat gain and muscle loss).
There’s only one small problem – the human body is infinitely more complex than a bloody fireplace! Any attempt to reduce the multiplicity of overlapping processes and regulatory systems at play to some kind of simple mechanical clockwork is doomed to failure. I stumbled upon this realization through a lot of reading on ancestral diets, paleo, primal, that kind of stuff. It just doesn’t make sense that the human species could have survived and thrived throughout our prehistory by sticking to a rigid, eat-every-three-hours style of feeding. Ours is a history of feasts and famines, both short and long term. Is it really conceivable that ancient hunters on the savannah were stopping midway through stalking a gazelle to quickly down a protein smoothie or grab a handful of almonds from a Tupperware container? No dammit, they just went hungry until they eventually caught the gazelle, dragged its ass back to camp, butchered it, and then had a big party (likely gorging themselves until they fell asleep) and then got up and did it all again next year. There was no, “Sorry Lothar, I’d really love to go hunting with you today but I really need to stoke my metabolism first with a hearty breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal.” If you were that guy, you probably didn’t want to turn your back on all your buddies with the pointy sticks.
Now this is all anecdotal of course. I’m no more an anthropologist than I am an exercise physiologist, but I can tell you what the benefits of intermittent fasting have been for me:
- I get hungry less in the mid-morning. When I used to eat a solid breakfast (and I’m talking substantial stuff like eggs, dairy, oatmeal, etc. – not the typical bagel or muffin bullshit that some people call breakfast), I’d inevitably be starving again by 10am. I still wake up hungry now, but I find that if I can push past that initial 15 minutes of hunger, it subsides and I don’t even think about food throughout most of the morning. I find this also results in a higher degree of focus at work.
- I can maintain a slightly lower bodyfat percentage, with minimal effort. I haven’t reached any kind of completely shredded levels like many have on Leangains or similar programs, but I’m a bit more cut than I was in the past on a more frequent, yet stricter, eating pattern. Certainly I worry less, when I do eat, about specific macronutrient ratios and stuff like that, and yet the results are slightly better from a body composition point of view. Muscle certainly hasn’t melted away (as some fear will happen if you skip a meal).
- My eating window coincides well with a noon-hour workout (I almost said lunch hour there! See how like conditioned little lab rats we’ve become). As I mentioned in a previous post, I like to get my workouts in wherever possible, and this often includes the typical midday break in a traditional workday. There a lot of pretty solid evidence out there for the fat loss benefits of training while fasted, as well as the advantages of a substantial post-workout meal for muscle growth. Since I usually eat my first meal of the day around 2pm, at which point I usually am famished, I can use this as a post-workout gorge-fest.
- It works well with a busy family. Like many parents, mornings with two young children are a shit-show. My wife and I can spend our time getting a healthy breakfast for them (no, I don’t force my dietary predilections on my kids, especially since it seems logical that babies and children would need much more stable, consistent nourishment) and enjoying their company, rather than scrambling to feed ourselves too.
- It provides a daily dose of humility. So many of us exist in such a well-fed, indulged state most of the time, never experiencing genuine hunger. It’s easy to forget that huge numbers of people throughout the world (let alone in our own country) go without food on a daily basis, involuntarily. I have the supreme luxury of not having to worry where my next meal is coming from, but at least a daily experience of hunger, voluntary and minimal as it is, serves as a reminder that not everyone is so fortunate.
- It makes food taste better. Connected to the last point, I suspect that much of the reason why people often turn to over-sweetened, over-salted foods is that a lack of true hunger has effectively deadened and desensitized our societal taste buds to simple food and simple flavours. I’m not sure who coined the phrase “Hunger is the best sauce”, but it’s strikingly true. After 16 hours without food, a simple apple tastes infinitely better than a sickeningly sweet pastry would after just a short time.
- I think it ultimately means spending less money on food, due to a gradual caloric deficit over the long term. This seems a propos to the whole Hobofit gestalt. Simpler, less money, better results – not to mention not worrying about stopping to mix up a protein shake the next time you have to chase down a passing boxcar.