To fast or not to fast, that is the question.
Intermittent fasting has been a dietary approach for millennia, with its most far back roots stepped in religious practices.
Recently, fasting has been given a deeper look as a way to optimize fat loss and increase longevity.
Concurrently, there are a lot of arguments against fasting, especially from the health and fitness world as there are claims that fasting can ruin your gains.
Now I was highly skeptical of the intermittent fasting literature when I started looking into it several years ago so I went into my examination with my own biases, but I feel as though I have emerged on the other side with a decent perspective.
It turns out that despite all the hype, hyperbole, and mythical creatures surrounding this diet we can cut through the noise and learn a lot from intermittent fasting.
1. Meal frequency doesn’t matter
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away a wise Jedi once told his Padawan that if he ate 6 small meals a day he would stroke his inner fire and get super shredded. This information was passed on for generation after generation and eventually made it to Earth. Sadly, the Earthlings neglected to realize they were not Jedi and this magical secret did not apply to them.
Ok, Star Wars story aside, there is zero evidence that eating many smaller meals has any benefit on fat burning or even satiety. In fact, some evidence suggests eating fewer, larger meals is better for satiety and consuming fewer calories overall than trying to eat many small meals1,2.
Intermittent fasting adopts the idea that you can just consume a large amount of food in one feeding window. This allows you to simplify your diet and eat one large meal or two fairly large meals during that window and not eat the rest of the day.
The length of that window depends on which protocol you follow, but the truth is it doesn’t really matter. Your metabolism remains “intact”2. So intermittent fasting is a legit option and doesn’t do anything bad to your metabolism.
2. Fasting doesn’t have negative consequences on your gains
Did you know if you don’t eat immediately after you train you die and all your gains are lost? Kidding. Clearly kidding. However there have been some very cogent arguments about why fasting may not be best for an anabolic environment and limit your gains.
Fortunately there is some data to tell us that short periods of fasting (8 weeks of following a 16 hour fasting, 8 hour feeding) protocol doesn’t result in any meaningful decrease in strength over an 8 week time period2. This strength maintenance was important as it was during a calorie deficit as they lost about 3 pounds.
Additionally, the same study showed that arm and thigh muscle cross sectional area stayed the same, suggesting that their true gains (those biceps and wheel gains) were also not impaired2.
Now we have literally ZERO idea what happens with intermittent fasting during periods of overfeeding (being in a calorie surplus). Is it more beneficial for optimizing the lean muscle:fat mass gain ratio?
We have literally zero idea from a scientific perspective but we do know 8 weeks of intermittent fasting doesn't hurt your gains and can be used to drive a caloric deficit fairly effectively.
3. You don’t have to pack a million to go containers for work
There is an old saying, “there are a dozen ways to skin a cat”. While very strange, it applies very tightly to dieting. For 98% of the results we are all after (e.g. weight loss, muscle gain, etc.) we can use basic principles to construct a diet that works for us in a wide variety of situations.
Intermittent fasting has some very interesting facets to it that we can use in our own diets under certain circumstances to get good results when we otherwise would not have been able to.
If there is one pragmatic thing we can learn from intermittent fasting and the research behind it is that you can use it quite successfully and should be a tool in your arsenal.
Let me use my own story to highlight this point.
During my normal, very regular schedule I prep my meals ahead of time, count macros fairly closely, and take my meals with me to work and sometimes when I travel. I eat 3-5 meals a day depending on my schedule and almost never fast.
However, I was away from home in a foreign country this week for a conference and due to logistics it was virtually impossible to take my own food, prep my own food, pack my own food, and eat my own food each day. I had to leave the hotel at 6:30 AM every morning and would get back around 8:00PM at night and there was virtually zero food at or near the conference center.
So instead of losing my mind and trying to meal prep and pack or scramble to find food, I did the simplest thing I could. I practiced intermittent fasting for the week.
Well, really I just purposefully only ate one large meal at night when I got back from the conference. I made sure the meal hit my total calorie goals and was relatively close the macronutrients I needed for the day.
The Wrap Up
Intermittent fasting has taught us quite a bit about dieting and you can take some key points home:
- There is no secret to meal frequency and you can use intermittent fasting for periods of time with no detriment to your metabolism.
- You can also use it during periods of caloric deficits and maintain muscle mass while losing weight, but it doesn’t appear to be magical, just an effective tool.
- The other main benefit to intermittent fasting is it makes life much more practical when your food environment is difficult and you can’t prep and bring your meals with you for logistic reasons.