Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Intermittent Fasting

I'm a fan of self experimentation. When it comes to training and nutrition, I enjoy trying new and often extreme approaches out on myself. Even if they are not practical for use with our clients the act of trying new methods out on myself is one way to keep training fresh and fun. Last month I tried performing the power snatch every day. The result? My shoulders and traps grew, my snatch technique improved dramatically and I absolutely mangled my wrists.

This month it's the turn of intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting (IF) is having a bit of a "moment" right now in the fitness industry. If I'm honest it's the type of thing I would have dismissed but enough trainers who I respect have been raving about it for me to finally crack and give it a go. I have to say so far I'm a bit of a convert.

The benefits of intermittent fasting are supposed to be increases in growth hormone and improved insulin management, both of which will help shed fat and keep it off. Are these definitely genuine, proven benefits? I don't know. I think there are a number of other benefits however.

1- it teaches you what actual hunger is. I got into training and grew up with the mentality of "you must eat 2-3 hours or your muscles will disappear." I don't still believe this and the research doesn't really support it. I do think it has an application when trying to build a lot of muscle, but for a weight loss client I think it can be counterproductive. Despite this it's a very deeply ingrained habit, in the past I would find myself ravenous just a couple of hours after a meal . The interesting thing about fasting however, was that I was not actually that hungry at all. The act of deciding not to eat and being motivated to stick to the plan seemed to help and in fact I had great energy all day. Oddly though, when I finally decided to eat at 7 in the evening I was immediately starving. The lesson? How much hunger is genuine and how much is simply a Pavlovian response?

2- it's a simple method that leaves no room for interpretation or grey areas. You just choose a period of time (generally 16-24 hours) during which you decide not to eat. Hard and fast rules are more powerful than "guidelines" when you are attacking fat loss. Guidelines can be easily twisted to suit a hungry stomach and reduced willpower, but strict rules are harder to justify breaking.

3- you remove a significant amount of calories from your week in the simplest way imaginable. Calories are always going to be part of the picture. They may be less important than food quality, macronutrients ratios and other factors, but they are always going to be one leg of the fat loss chair. Even if all the claims about hormonal benefits turn out to be false or greatly exaggerated the simple act of removing a chunk of calories from your week in one move will without fail produce significant changes.

If you want to try it out here's what I suggest.

- Don't put too much pressure on yourself to go a full 24 hours. The first time I tried it I said I'd go till lunch time and assess from there. As it turned out I felt great and ended up not eating till the evening. The point is this shouldn't be about suffering through or punishing yourself. It's simply choosing not to eat for a slightly longer period of time once a week.

- go dinner to dinner. Maybe it's just a personal preference, but I think eating as normal the day before a fast is easier than going lunch to lunch or breakfast to breakfast and going to bed hungry.

- If you're quite overweight or a beginner to exercise, this approach is probably using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. I would also be very wary of using it with any client with a history of disordered eating (In fact, I haven't used this with clients at all yet, just myself)

- when you break your fast, don't over compensate. Just go back to eating as normal.

Anyway those are my thoughts. If you want to learn more about intermittent fasting , do a search for Brad Pilon and his book "Eat Stop Eat".

Now, to decide on next month's experiment .

Zack Cahill

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