Now we know that caloric restriction is seemingly the best proven method for extending healthy lifespan, losing weight and improving health.
We also know that it sucks to have to diet for beach season, let alone our whole lives.
Luckily scientists have reverse-engineered the effects of caloric restriction and found another diet protocol which is just as, if not more effective: intermittent fasting.
And it appears to have all the same beneficial health and life-extension effects, without having to reduce the amount you eat.
Intermittent Fasting Benefits
Like caloric restriction, intermittent fasting improves some of the most important health biomarkers such as weight loss, reduced oxidative damage, anti-inflammation, improved insulin sensitivity and stress resistance.
It’s funny how something as small as a break from eating can make you near totally invulnerable right?
A lot of these health effects are due to increased autophagy, the process by which cells remove or recycle waste material and repair themselves. This process also improves brain health, is necessary to maintain muscle mass and is responsible for the anti-ageing benefits.
Furthermore it enhances our vitality and physique by increasing hormone production including testosterone and growth hormone, fat loss without any negative effects on metabolism and helps to retain muscle mass whilst dieting.
This explains why there is fat loss – anabolic hormone production ensures we don’t lose muscle and instead we preferentially burn stored fat instead. So by intermittent fasting, you’ll walk around looking ripped.
Did I mention that once adapted you gain mental clarity and it improves memory and learning? And that you won’t be hungry during the fast due to adrenaline and fatty acid release, which also boosts concentration and productivity.
This all occurs without reducing overall caloric intake and intermittent fasting might even be better than caloric restriction for certain health benefits. Plus it’s without the undesirable side effects of CR such as loss of muscle, libido, bone density and still being able to gorge on your food!
This makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms. Food wouldn’t always be in plentiful supply, so when we did have it we would feast.
Then we’d have to survive hours or days fasting until the next big kill, but this wouldn’t be possible if we got all sluggish after not eating for a few hours. Instead we get a boost in metabolism and psychomotor performance to help us continue to find food.
The lack of nutrients is enough to shift our body into high-gear to overcome obstacles, which appears to be a health-boosting adaptive response over the long-term. During this time we burn our stored fat for energy, which is otherwise not possible if we’re constantly eating.
So what’s holding us back doing intermittent fasting and receiving all these massive benefits? Myths.
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Let Me Tell You a Secret
Breakfast is not ‘the most important meal of the day’. It’s not even essential.
So why do we believe it? One common rationale is that skipping breakfast will somehow make you fat.
It’s true that there is evidence that breakfast-skippers are more likely to be overweight, but that evidence is correlation not causation.
People who skip breakfast usually have bad health habits such as a high sugar diet, low nutrient intake, poor quality sleep, more fast food and less fruit or vegetables which is more likely to be causing the weight gain.
Which makes sense, because if you’re always getting up late you probably have a lot of late nights full of junk food and alcohol. Or you may always be in a rush to work in the morning, and if you can’t manage your time you most certainly won’t be managing your nutrition well either.
Another myth is that late night eating is more likely to be stored as fat.
Well what happens when a normal healthy person chooses to change their eating pattern? Turns out whenever a controlled study is used to test this misconception, having most of your daily calories late at night has the same biological effect as eating in morning.
One more superstition disproven. Onto the next: there is no truth to the ‘eat often to keep metabolism high’ myth.
This has been demonstrated by a study that compared all eating frequencies from 1 meal to 17 meals which demonstrated no difference in effect on metabolism. This is because metabolism does increase in response to eating, but if you have less meals you will still burn the same amount because larger meals = higher metabolism boost.
Another glaring fact is that metabolism doesn’t slow down for the first 72 hours of a fast. In fact, it might even be slightly increased for the first 36 hours, so you can save yourself making loads of those little meals.
So it seems that there are massive benefits for intermittent fasting and all our delusions about why we shouldn’t do it are wrong.
So how do you actually do it?
How to Do Intermittent Fasting
The natural way we do intermittent fasting is by simply skipping a meal. You have to just listen to your body.
We often eat because we always eat at set times – it’s a social norm and ingrained habit despite the fact our hunger peaks at different times each day. So learn to listen to your body and if you don’t feel hungry, skip a meal.
But we can take advantage of ingrained habits by instead creating new set times to eat.
My recommend approach is daily intermittent fasting, where you eat only during a set number of hours each day and don’t eat outside of that window. Most users of this method use an eating window between 4-10 hours. I myself use a window of 7 hours (12pm-7pm) and have two large meals during this time, no snacks.
I recommend daily fasting above other approaches because habits you commit to every day are much easier to create and stick to, as well as the fact that appetite regulation only changes when you eat a set schedule every day.
Start off with a 12-hour window at first, then every 2 or 3 days of successfully sticking to that window close the gap by 30 minutes. Try to close it as much as possible and you’ll soon find a window that works best for you.
If that doesn’t appeal to you then another popular option is alternate day fasting , which much of the intermittent fasting research is based on. As the name suggests you fast every other day which results in 32 hour fast/12 hour eating window, which people often do once or twice a week.
There are other modifications to this, such as alternate day caloric restriction where instead of completely fasting on the ‘off day’ you simply reduce calorie intake to 20-35% of normal intake for weight loss and 50-60% for maintenance.
Or there are 24-hour fasts where you might for example stop eating at 7pm on one day, fast throughout the night and day then eat again at 7pm.
As you can see there are many ways to do intermittent fasting but what’s most important is that you choose one of them and trial it. The mental and physical health benefits are incredible, so pick one of these and run with it for a while to see how it can improve your life.
Tips for Intermittent Fasting
During the eating window you set, eat as many times as you wish but preferably have at least 2 main meals at the same time each day. This is because it’s time consuming to cook constantly, plus you’re more likely to consume a variety of nutrients and make better food choices with meals rather than many snacks.
The second tip is to truly experience hunger. People rely on different cues of when to eat or stop eating e.g. in one study it was found that French people relied on internal cues such as food no longer tasting as good to stop eating, whilst Americans relied on external cues such a TV show finishing or their plate being empty.
Our ‘hunger’ is as determined much by habit and social norms rather than a real biological need. Next time before you give in to an urge to break your fast early, as a self-discipline experiment try to delay it for at least 30 minutes.
You also may be mistaking thirst for low-level hunger, so drink a glass of water and see if your hunger levels remain the same. On the other hand don’t let your hunger get out of control, otherwise you’re more likely to gorge on heaps of junk food rather than a nutritious meal.
The beautiful thing is that with a few days adaptation, your appetite regulation alters so you don’t get hungry whilst fasting and appetite is suppressed. This is because the release of the hunger hormone ghrelin can be conditioned depending on meal patterns (which is why snacking at all times of the day will mean you continue to be hungry all the time).
Finally don’t obsess about food during your fast, go do something! Due to increased adrenaline concentration is at all-time high first thing in the morning during the fast, so these are peak hours of productivity before getting tired after a heavy lunch.
I continue to use intermittent fasting for the simplicity and focus it provides, but researchers studying IF and CR may have found an even more fundamental explanation for why they work. Carbohydrate restriction may be the underlying mechanism as it has been found to be responsible for at least the short-term metabolic response.
It would explain why some people struggle with hunger from fasting just a few hours. In normal healthy metabolism, appetite regulation helps us maintain a healthy weight but this mechanism is impaired by excessive carbohydrate consumption.
This makes blood sugar spike and in response there is excessive insulin release to reduce it, which makes blood sugar plummet and we become hungry all over again.
Carbohydrate restriction will be further explored in the next post, and why it is key to supercharging your fat loss and improving health.
But for now, let’s wrap up:
- Benefits – We know that we can lose weight, extend healthy lifespan and improve our physical and mental performance by intermittent fasting.
- Method – Start daily fasting by eating only in a 12-hour window daily e.g. 10am-10pm. Every few days reduce the window size by 30 mins until you find the best window for you
- Tips – Have at least 2 main meals during your fast, drink water if you think you’re hungry first, do something productive during your fast
Good luck with this habit, it’s one of the most important in transforming your health and productivity.
Now I want to hear from you – have you or your friends had any experience with intermittent fasting? Or are you just looking forward to trying this dietary intervention? Share in the comments your experience with this habit below.