I constantly get asked about fasting, especially intermittent fasting, usually by people looking to shortcut the initial stages of acquiring better health or trying to lose weight quickly. Fasting and intermittent fasting are often used by those trendy personal trainers or supposed health experts as a quick fix technique without knowing the theory and premise behind these strategies. There is a physiological reason why fasting works and is a natural progression in the Primal/Paleo lifestyle. That is, if it is done correctly.
This topic is usually very confusing, especially for those just starting a weight loss or exercise program. That is why I never recommend that beginners incorporate or start an intermittent, periodic, or any, fasting program. That being said, I do think such a program has many benefits for those who have mastered the basic principles of the Primal lifestyle.
I have personally experimented with fasting over the last several years and consistently use intermittent fasting as a way to stay in fat-burning mode. This being said, I do not do it every single day, but I do it a majority of the time depending on my physical exercise exertion and how I feel.
What I discuss in this article will be a far departure from the usual information concerning proper nutrition, which is also why I created the Primal Power Method. For those of you unfamiliar with this concept of fasting, I only ask you keep an open mind, as there is no specific program that works for everyone. When it comes to health and wellness, this is simply another tool to add to your knowledge base.
What is Intermittent Fasting?
So what is intermittent fasting? It is often called periodic fasting, and both terms are interchangeable, as they basically refer to the same concept: Periods of not consuming any foods (usually only consuming water or unsweetened tea) followed by eating fewer larger or smaller meals than usual, during a certain time frame. This is not to be confused with actual fasting, which is when you do not consume any food for 24-36 hours. There are many theories of how to schedule eating during intermittent fasting, but we will stick to the most basic and widely used schedule of 16-8. 16-8 basically means 16 hours of fasting, followed by eating all your meals in an 8 hour window. Usually people who follow this type of schedule eat their last meal anywhere from 5-8 PM, then fast until late morning usually between 9-12 PM, or until roughly 16 hours of fasting completed. Everyone schedule is different, so you have to figure out what works for you.
How does It Work?
The basic premise is that intermittent fasting kick starts your metabolism by keeping your body in a fat-burning state for longer periods of time. By not eating for 16 hours, your body will burn through its glucose stores and will use available glycogen (when needed) and stored fat as the body’s main source of energy. Of course, this only works if you are eating a healthy diet. If you are eating a diet high in sugar and processed white flour or carbohydrates, you will never obtain your health and weight loss goals, no matter what type of fasting or exercise program you follow. If you have constant elevated blood sugar, thus elevated insulin levels, you will store more and more body fat over time.
In 2011, researchers at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute demonstrated that routine periodic fasting burns body fat and is good for your health:
“Fasting causes hunger or stress. In response, the body releases more cholesterol, allowing it to utilize fat as a source of fuel, instead of glucose. This decreases the number of fat cells in the body,” says Dr. Horne. “This is important because the fewer fat cells a body has, the less likely it will experience insulin resistance, or diabetes.”
In order to get the full benefits, people should combine intermittent fasting with a solid exercise program. Upon waking, instead of eating breakfast, you go to the gym or incorporate some type of exercise prior to your first meal of the day, which is technically lunch. By exercising near the end of your 16-hour fast, you kick your body into fat-burning overdrive, as you no longer are using readily available blood glucose as fuel. The concept is this: When you eat consistently throughout the day, you are constantly dumping glucose in your blood stream, never allowing it to drop low enough for your body to go after your stored body fat as an energy source. In order to avoid going into a prolonged catabolic state, which is breaking down muscle for fuel, I do recommend you consume a recovery meal 30-90 minutes after you exercise, especially if you are trying to build muscle. This can get a little tricky if you are exercising first thing in the morning, so you will need to plan your fasting hours accordingly by properly timing your last meal of the day.
I usually carry a protein shake in my gym bag, consisting of egg or whey protein, coconut/almond milk, almond butter and some fruit. This recovery meal contains a quick-digesting protein, healthy fats, carbohydrates and fiber. These vital macronutrients give my body what it requires to maintain and repair muscle and restore energy levels. If you feel you have low energy before your workout, I recommend eating a small snack or drinking some green tea with a teaspoon of coconut oil; this will ensure you have enough energy for a good workout. It is essential you eat something before exercising if you feel lightheaded; even I have experienced this from time to time, and I have years of fasting experience.
Can Intermittent Fasting Slow the Aging Process?
In the last several years, more research has been done on 24-hour and intermittent fasting and how it relates to stomach fat loss, anti-aging, increased HDL levels (good cholesterol), reduced blood pressure, reduced blood sugar, and improved insulin sensitivity.
When you incorporate fasting into your health and wellness program, you need to realize that you are putting your body into a catabolic state, which means your body is feeding off its tissues to maintain energy and life-supporting needs. Research shows that when you combine fasting with exercise, your body is forced to break down its tissues, and it always prefers to sacrifice its damaged proteins and old or sick cells (such as cancer cells) first. Immune cells will tag damaged proteins and old, sick and cancerous cells, and those cells will be digested and recycled back into new cells and tissues. As a result, you are fighting the main cause of aging, which is the failure of your body to repair or replace damaged cells. This does not mean the aging process stops; this process slows down the proliferation of damaged or aged cells in your body.
During the same above referenced study in 2011, researchers at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute found the following:
“This recent study also confirmed earlier findings about the effects of fasting on human growth hormone (HGH), a metabolic protein. HGH works to protect lean muscle and metabolic balance, a response triggered and accelerated by fasting. During the 24-hour fasting periods, HGH increased an average of 1,300 percent in women and nearly 2,000 percent in men.”
We now know that healthy levels of HGH are important to the anti-aging process. I’m sure you have seen those commercials peddling HGH level optimizing supplements, because companies know the importance of HGH as well. Now, that is not to say certain natural-based supplements can’t be used to assist with HGH levels; however, most of the ones you see advertised, making outrageous health claims, are pure junk. I can guarantee you will not lose drastic weight and gain hard, lean muscle by taking their magical health supplement.
Helpful Primal Suggestions and Info
1. Work your way up to the 16-hour fast. First try going 4 or 5 hours between meals and then work your way up.
2. Remember you naturally go into fat-burning mode while you sleep; this is the reason you fast from your last meal in the evening until the 14-16 hour mark is reached the next day. The main concept of intermittent fasting is to prolong the natural fat-burning mode that occurs during your sleep cycle.
3. Coconut oil is your friend during fasting. It is comprised of medium-chain triglycerides, which are easily converted into ketone bodies and have a glycemic index of 0 (all healthy fats have a 0 glycemic index)—thus no insulin response—but are used for quick energy.
4. If you feel light headed during your fast, eat something. This could mean your blood glucose is extremely low (hypoglycemic).
5. If you are pregnant or trying to conceive, you shouldn’t use fasting techniques.
6. Yes, it is safe for athletes to use intermittent fasting, you will not bonk if fully fat adapted. I often road or mountain bike for several hours without carb-loading or sucking down packs of sugar filled goo, just water that is it. But being a competitive athlete has far different macro-nutrient requirements than the everyday Joe and Jane, so you will have to experiment and adapt to your level of training.
Remember this is not for Beginners
Why don’t I recommend beginners use intermittent fasting? Here is the simple answer: The average American is a pure sugar-burner for the most part. Meaning, they have continuous elevated insulin levels, thus inhibiting their ability to release the hormone glucagon. Glucagon is responsible for releasing stored glycogen (stored glucose in the liver and muscles) and converting stored triglycerides (fat tissue) into usable energy. So when a sugar-burner tries to use intermittent fasting or fasting to lose weight, their body goes into starvation mode because they no longer have the constant glucose in their blood stream. Your body has to first become fat adapted, meaning it takes time for your metabolic pathways to be able to readily use fat as a more constant energy source. So the result is you go into ketosis, which is when you have too many ketone bodies (fat used for vital organ and brain function in place of glucose) in the blood stream that your body cannot use. This is what causes strange breath odor in people who are not fat adapted. The results are twofold: First, sugar-burners become ravenous when they attempt intermittent fasting because their main fuel source (sugar) has now been cut off and they cannot use their stored fat to take its place. Second, they go into severe detox mode, experiencing headaches, achy joints, moodiness, fatigue and mental fog.
With any program that uses fasting, you have to be very careful. If you do not follow the principles correctly, as outlined in this article, you can do a great deal of damage to your body and health. Only people with advanced knowledge in health and nutrition should attempt this technique. This article is intended for educational purposes only. Those interested in intermittent fasting should seek the advice of a healthcare professional.
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Carlson, Olga, et al. “Impact of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction on glucose regulation in healthy, normal weight middle aged men and women.” Metabolism 56.2 (2007): 1729-1734.
Halberg, Nils, et al. “Effect of intermittent fasting and re-feeding on insulin action in healthy men.” Journal of Applied Physiology 99.6 (2005): 2128-2136.
Heilbronn, Leonie, et al. “Alternate-day fasting in non-obese subjects: effects on body weight, body composition, and energy metabolism.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81.1 (2005): 69-73.
Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute. “Study finds routine periodic fasting is good for your health and your heart.” Eurekalert. 3 APRIL 2011. Web. 4 APRIL 2012.