Intermittent Fasting for Beginners: The Complete Guide [Part 1]
This is a two part article series on intermittent fasting. I was forced to split it up due to its length. I hope you can get something useful from it 🙂
Please note that a lot of the information in this post is referenced from various sources, including Brad Pilon’s book Eat Stop Eat, Martin Berkhan’s website Leangains, Mark Scisson’s book Primal Blueprint and website Mark’s Daily Apple, and a number of other sources that I will reference as we go along. Enjoy!
It’s kind of been the buzz word this past year, hasn’t it?
But the interest in it hasn’t seemed to die down one bit. I’m still getting tons of questions about the topic. People want to know what intermittent fasting is all about. They want to know how it works. They want to know if it works.
And, above all, they want to know if it can really help them build a better body.
I planned to write this post a long time ago, but I figured it would be wiser to let the dust settle a bit before I shared this.
If you’ve ever contemplated intermittent fasting, here’s your complete beginners guide.
Let’s get rolling…
What is Intermittent Fasting?
There are numerous definitions of intermittent fasting (mainly because there are so many different fasting protocols), but let’s keep it general for a second.
Brad Pilon, the author behind one of the most popular books on intermittent fasting (Eat Stop Eat), has a very unique definition which I tend to agree with.
Intermittent Fasting: the act of willingly abstaining from some or all food (and in some cases drink) for a period of time.
The word ‘willingly’ is very important here because it differentiates the concept of fasting from that of starvation.
But, either way, it all comes down to this: caloric abstinence for a set period of time.
Fed vs Fasted State
If you break things down a little, you’ll realize that your body can only be in one of two states:
Fed or fasted.
Either your body is consuming (or storing) energy from food, or it is burning this energy to fuel its daily activities. At any moment in time, you are in one of these two states.
This is exactly what our bodies were designed to do. Eat food when it’s available and use stored energy (read: calories) when it’s not.
But here’s the problem.
According to studies cited in Pilon’s book, we spend as much as 20 hours a day in the fed state! We are consistently eating and storing energy, yet rarely putting ourselves in the fasted state to burn all that energy off.
“Imagine a hunter who has caught and eaten an animal, and foraged around and found some berries. Once the meat is gone and the berries have all been picked, the hunter has no choice but to move on in search of more food. This is how our bodies were designed to function.” – Brad Pilon (Eat Stop Eat)
Now you may be thinking “but don’t we burn off that energy with exercise”? Well, yes and no. But I’ll get into that later.
Let’s first discuss this imbalance.
Why Fasting has gotten a bad Rap
If our bodies were truly designed to function this way, why are the majority of us ignoring the fasted state?
Well, it might not all be your fault.
It might have something to do with good ol’ supply and demand.
If you recall in my article about water, I mentioned how difficult it is to trust any health initiatives you hear. I told you about the new international health initiative called “Hydration for Health” that promoted drinking more water for a healthier lifestyle. Little did people know that the company that sponsored that initiative was the same company that markets two of the biggest bottled water brands in the world. Hmmm.
Essentially, everything always comes down to money.
And so is the case with fasting.
Here are the facts.
Each day in the United States, the food industry produces enough food to supply every single person with almost 4000 Calories [ref]. Recall that the average person is to consume 2000. Many are way above that.
More so, 10 BILLION dollars a year is spent on food advertising [ref].
That’s a helluva lot of money spent trying to convince you to eat (something).
Now imagine this for a second…
What would happen if all of a sudden people in the United States introduced fasting into their lifestyles and stopped eating one day a week?
Food consumption decreases by nearly 15%.
And the profits follow.
You see where I’m going with this?
Improving the health of our community has never been the priority. At least not when dollars and cents are at stake.
But then again, most of the research that is done today is not done to better our overall health and well-being.
It’s done for the purposes of marketing.
It’s done to make us buy one product over another.
Just like the water bottle example above, the money that funds the nutrition research quite often comes from food and supplement companies who are looking for useful health claims that they can stamp onto their packaging to entice you to make the purchase.
Low on trans fat.
Health claims sell products. Period.
Now think about this for a second. Can there be a health claim for fasting?
What food company would want to fund research on fasting?
The fact is that you simply cannot package fasting and sell it. If you could, you’d have a billion dollar drug in your hand.
Because the benefits are through the roof…
Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
Short term intermittent fasting (IF), even after as little as 24 hours, boasts a broad range of health benefits. Here I want to give you a quick overview. Please note that these have been pulled from studies, research papers and various sources. I haven’t yet tested it for myself (although I am in the process).
We all want to live longer, but never at the stake of a life that’s not full of joy and excitement. Intermittent fasting lets us accomplish that.
One study (full PDF) from the 1940s found that varying amounts of twenty-four hour IFs (every other day, every fourth day, every eighth day, etc) prolonged the lifespan of rats without retarding or stunting the growth (as occurred with calorie restricting them). Female rats responded best to every eight day fasts, while males responded best to every other day fasts. – Mark Scisson (Mark’s Daily Apple)
Improved Mental Well-Being and Clarity
When you bring your body back into a proper fed-fasted balance, your mind is no longer thinking about that next meal.
You are no longer at food’s mercy (see more in next benefit).
When you fast, your body releases more of catecholamines (a stimulant hormone). As a result, mental focus is increased, productivity increases, and you feel like you can take over the world.
According to this source, many find this particularly pronounced during the last 4 hours of the fast.
Not Being a Slave to your Food
Many of us can’t go more than three hours without feeling hungry. So we eat. Regularly.
We’re always in that fed state.
We’re enslaved by our food as it constantly lingers in the back of our minds.
Introducing short periods of intermittent fasting into your routine will eliminate those thoughts. Those cravings.
As you re-program your cells to derive most of your day-to-day energy from fat instead of stored glycogen (as we are constantly feeding on carb heavy foods), you’ll start enjoying life instead of constantly thinking about your next meal.
You will learn how to listen to your body for hunger cues. You’ll learn how to wait.
You’ll learn to be less impulsive.
Autophagy is the process by which cells recycle waste material, eliminate or downregulate wasteful processes, and repair themselves. It helps maintain muscle mass and induces
atrophy hypertrophy of skeletal muscle. It reduces the negative effects of aging as well as the incidence and progression of aging-related diseases.
Fasting flips the switch of autophagy to ON.
This is huge.
There’s some good info about autophagy here.
Decreased Insulin Levels and Increased Insulin Sensitivity
Insulin in itself is a whole other topic.
In short, insulin is a hormone designed for proper nutrient storage. When you eat, especially something sugary or starchy, your insulin levels rise in order to lower your blood sugar levels and shuttle the nutrients from the bloodstream into fat stores (for future use). Prolonged consumption of sugary and starchy foods causes our sensitivity to insulin to drop.
But studies show that fasting for as little as 24 hours decreases insulin levels and increases insulin sensitivity. [ref]
In research conducted on people who fasted for 72 hours, plasma insulin dropped dramatically, reaching a level that was less than half of the their initial levels. What’s even more impressive is that 70% of this reduction happened during the first 24 hours of fasting. – Brad Pilon (Eat Stop Eat).
Increased Lipolysis and Fat Burning
Lipolysis is the process of releasing fatty acids and moving them into the blood stream. Once there, these fatty acids move into the cells and get oxidized.
Fat burning at its finest.
Fasting for a period of 24 hours shifts your body from the fed state to the fasted one. This causes an increase in both lipolysis and fat oxidation.
After only 24 hours of fasting, the amount of fat being released from people’s fat stores (lipolysis) and the amount being burnt for fuel (oxidation) had been significantly increased by over 50%. – Brad Pilon (Eat Stop Eat)
Increased Levels of Glucagon
Glucagon is a mirror image of insulin. It’s a hormone that is dominant in the fasted state. It’s primary role is to maintain your blood sugar levels while you’re in the fasted state.
Glucagon in itself has some amazing effects.
- Maintains blood sugar levels
- Decreased production of cholesterol
- Increased release of extra fluids from body
- Increased fat burning
Remember that we are constantly in the fed state. Fasting helps us regain that fed-fasted balance. This also means an insulin-glucagon balance.
Increased Levels of Epinephrine and Norepinephrine
These are your fight or flight hormones – also known as adrenalin and noradrenalin.
It’s the hormone that floods your body when you’re, say, sprinting for a bus (or perhaps running from a raging rhino 10,000 years ago).
When these hormones are released into the blood stream, they trigger the release of glucose from energy stores and increase fat burning. They also improve your mental alertness and focus.
Fasting has been found to increase the levels of these hormones in your blood.
Increased Levels of Growth Hormone
This is probably the most important part of fasting – the increased levels of growth hormone. This is the shit everyone is looking for. The kind of stuff you can only get at the black market. For thousands of dollars.
Little do people know that fasting gives you the same effects. For free.
Growth hormone is sometimes dubbed the dominant hormone in the fasted state.
Increased levels of growth hormone helps burn fat, build muscle and increase metabolism.
Research has shown that short-term fasting can increase growth hormone levels by nearly six fold [ref].
Fasting triggers what’s known as the “growth hormone response”. It’s what prevents you from losing muscle when you fast. But, as I’ll explain in Part 2 of this guide, your muscle mass is closely tied to your metabolism so, essentially, your levels of growth hormone are also closely tied to keeping your metabolism elevated while you are fasting. More so, growth hormone is important in the process of releasing stored fat to be burned for energy.
It literally does everything. And fasting helps you do it on a level six times greater!
Increased Weight (read: FAT) Loss
Metabolically speaking, fasting puts your body in the perfect state for fat loss. As you’ve read, it increases all the hormones that are required for fat burning.
But there’s also that one thing we’ve kind of stepped over.
Remember that fasting lowers your caloric intake. You are consuming LESS food (how much depends on the protocol you go with).
Essentially, fasting puts you in that necessary energy deficit that is required for fat loss.
Research shows that you will lose 2-3 pounds every time you fast [ref].
Now not all of this is fat. A lot of it is extra body water which you will lose as your insulin levels decrease.
Fasting for 24 hours, once or twice a week may be the easiest way to decrease your calorie intake by 20-30%, without having to sacrifice and restrict what you eat. – Brad Pilon (Eat Stop Eat)
No Feeling of Hunger
Fasting apparently has no effect on hunger (I will have to test this myself). But this is what Martin Berkhan had to say:
“For the dieter, I.F. offers something very unique, in terms of enjoying physically and psychologically satisfying meals while losing weight. The absence of hunger and cravings are also a welcome feature when using I.F. for weight loss. Contrary to popular belief, the fasting phase has a suppressive effect on hunger. Hunger pangs may come, but they disappear quickly, to be replaced by a sense of well being and total absence of hunger.” -Martin Berkhan (Leangains.com)
As you can see, short periods of intermittent fasting are associated with a boat load of health benefits. Most importantly, it shifts your body back into the fed-fasted balance that is necessary for good health. It teaches your body to run on it’s fat stores and not it’s glycogen stores. It teaches you how to listen to your body and not be a slave to your food.
It makes your body more efficient.
In the second part of this IF Guide, I outline different intermittent fasting protocols you can try, what effect intermittent fasting has on metabolism, muscle mass, and exercise.