A long, long time ago, on a webpage far far away, I wrote a couple of articles on intermittent fasting (IF). In the first article I talked about the physiological benefits fasting may have, and in the second article I broke down the different versions of IF and how they could be used to help you lose fat.
(If you haven’t read those, or don’t know much about intermittent fasting, then please go read them now)
At the time I wrote those articles because IF was a topic very near and dear to my heart. If you’re new here, my background is that I was a fat kid growing up, and all the way through college. For most of my life I struggled to lose weight and just couldn’t seem to find a method that worked for me.
Then one morning I stumbled upon this article by my now friend, John Romaniello, about the benefits IF has for fat loss. And I don’t know why, but for some reason something just clicked in my head, and I thought to myself “Hey! This is something I can do, no problem.”
And I did. That article was the start of my fitness journey. I started implementing IF protocols, lost over 80 pounds, increased my strength, developed healthier habits, became a fitness coach, saved a bunch of school kids from a fiery bus crash, and returned the One Ring to Mordor.
Okay, maybe not the bus crash thing…
Anyway, IF was a huge catalyst for me and my fitness. And not just me, but thousands of other people across the interwebz. And while this type of hype and notoriety about things – especially in the fitness industry – means that claims tend to get blown out of proportion, IF still continues to be a very popular method for fat loss.
But does it really provide all the physiological benefits it claims to? We’re going to back up and take a 10,000-foot view on intermittent fasting, what it actually is, and why it still works so well for fat loss.
IF claims to have a whole host of benefits, including:
Now, on the surface, all that shit sounds pretty awesome, right? But is it really that awesome?
As you’ll notice, I included links to studies that back up some of the claims about intermittent fasting. So there is a decent amount of evidence that IF can provide you with some or all of the benefits above.
But all these claims need to be taken with a grain of salt.
The biggest problem with data surrounding intermittent fasting is a majority of the studies have been done on animals; specifically rats or mice. And while animal studies are a good precursor for human testing, they are not great for predicting exactly what will happen when a human tries something.
Not only that, but getting humans subjects into research trials on IF is also difficult, because who the hell wants to go starve themselves without being well compensated.
Self-reported studies are also inconclusive because the people reporting are not always honest or accurate.
The other, and possibly bigger issue with IF studies is that they don’t often compare apples to apples, so to speak.
IF is typically associated with a negative energy balance diet. So not only are you fasting, but you’re also taking in fewer calories than you burn. The problem is that the diets they are often being compared to are not non-fasting, negative energy balance diets; but rather, non-fasting, positive energy balance diets; or diets where the subjects are eating more calories than they burn.
Where issues arise is that negative energy diets – fasting or no fasting – have shown to improve not only fat burning, but overall health markers as well; whereas positive energy balance diets (also known as hyper-energetic diets) have shown to increase fat storage and decrease overall health markers while increasing risk for diseases.
So it may not be the fasting at all that provides the health benefits, but rather the negative energy balance and decreases in body fat.
Whether IF provides any of the physiological benefits above is actually irrelevant. If it does, great. Then when you fast, you’re getting those benefits.
But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. Because you can still use IF to lose fat and improve your overall health, and get most, if not all of those benefits anyway.
In its simplest form, IF is just another method of caloric restriction. By reducing the amount of time in the day you spend eating, you naturally reduce the amount of calories you’re eating as well.
In fact, if you’re following a strict IF protocol, you can lose a good amount of fat without ever counting calories; provided you don’t eat like an idiot during your feeding window.
Whether you’re doing a 24-hour fast, once or twice per week; or following a daily 16/8, Leangains-like protocol, simply reducing your meal frequency can help decrease your overall calorie intake.
Because you’re eating less often, the meals you do eat during your feeding window can be larger. This is beneficial for fat loss because a) you have the illusion that you’re actually eating more food, and not “dieting”, and b) the larger meals will help keep you fuller, longer, leading to less hunger.
Note that this is really only applicable to daily fasting. If you’re only fasting once or twice a week, you should keep all your meals the same size as you would if you weren’t fasting.
One of the best things about IF is that it can be fit into nearly any lifestyle or schedule. If you’re not a morning person or hate making breakfast, that fasting upon waking would probably work best for you.
If you work later in the day, or don’t get home until late, then fasting before you go to bed may work better.
Or, if you’re just super busy during the day, and find it easy to keep yourself occupied and your mind off food, an all-day fast may be suitable.
If you want to lose fat, but hate counting calories or macros, then IF would probably be the best way to go. As long as you eat sensibly, following the 80/20 rule – where 80% of your food comes from whole, minimally processed sources, and the rest from whatever you enjoy, – and you don’t stuff yourself, IF can work great.
After a few days, your body adjusts quite nicely to fasting. Once that happens, it becomes very easy to implement and stick with. And when something is easy to stick with, it makes it much more likely you’re going to stay compliant, and therefore, see results. Like with anything, consistency is key.
Intermittent fasting is not for everyone. But the only way to know that for sure is to give it a try for yourself.
It’s also not a magic pill. If you want to lose fat, you still need to be in a caloric deficit. But IF does make it easier and simpler to put yourself into that deficit, eat in a way that fits your lifestyle, and get the results you want.