Disclaimer: I'm not a medical professional. I'm only an interested lay-person with a lot of time spent reading. You should do the same, and consult a doctor. Also drink more water and call your mom.
“Everyone has a physician inside him or her; we just have to help it in its work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well. Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food. But to eat when you are sick is to feed your sickness.”
I recently ended a 5 day fast, and I received several requests to outline my thoughts and experiences on fasting for weight management as well as for health. This isn’t a tactical topic, but if our ultimate goal is to protect and preserve our lives, then we have to consider health and body composition as a topic in our self-defense plan. I’ll try to keep this post short and functional, with lots of links that you can explore if you’re so inclined.
It’s 2010, and I’m a 27 year old sedentary gun guy. I have a few formal gun classes, and am quite sure I have a good handle on things. I am two years past my first stem cell transplant for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and don’t pay much attention to my diet since I am just sort of happy to still be alive. I don’t like to look at myself in a mirror after a shower because I weigh about 235lbs at 6′ tall and I look like a more-pale Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I had been a bit overweight nearly all of my adult life, but I have reached apex fat. Time to do something new.
Luckily I find a guiding light. I read a thread on TPI, Craig Douglas’ discussion forum, about intermittent fasting for weight loss. Larry Lindenmen writes a great thread that inspires me to give this ‘don’t eat for a while and lose weight’ method a try. I start with 3 days a week, 24 hour fasting in conjunction with beginning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and I lose 50 lbs within about 9 months without changing the types of food I ate. Simple. But not always easy.
I had found a method that worked for me. I have continued to use intermittent fasting as a way to maintain body composition in the leaner times, and get back down to a reasonable weight in the chubby times. I’m not an athlete. I’m not special. I don’t have a physically demanding job. I just want to look better naked and avoid avoidable diseases related to obesity.
What Is Fasting?
Fasting is simply not eating. No food in. The duration and purpose is variable, but the principle is as old as humanity. Fasting is in our DNA. When we were living in caves, fasting was the time between finding a berry bush and killing the next antelope. The ancient Greek philosophers advocated fasting for health and mental clarity. There’s fasting in every religion. It’s only recently that we ‘just can’t imagine missing a meal’. America’s waistlines show it.
If you want to try fasting, think of it as chopping out a few meals that you otherwise would have eaten. With only two 24-hour fasts a week, you are hacking 2500(ish) calories out of your weekly intake. Even if you only view it as a way to control calories, you’re still making a profound impact on your caloric intake and you’ll see the fat fall away. No need to alter the foods you currently eat. Pizza and beer is still on the menu, as long as you make up for the splurge with a 24 hour fast somewhere in your week.
There is real evidence that fasting is superior to simple caloric restriction from a physiological standpoint, but I’ll save some of that for later in the post in case you’re in a rush.
It costs nothing. There’s no preparation involved. It’s time flexible. It’s lifestyle flexible. It’s simple. It works.
Is it hard?
Here’s some quick thoughts I have after coming off of my 5 day fast.
- I lost 7 pounds, 3-4 of which was fat, and the remaining is water weight. As you shed glucose, you don’t hold as much water. The water leaves after a day or two, and everything after that is fat being consumed.
- You’ll feel real hunger, not the usual boredom hunger you usually feel. It peaks at about day 2, then after that the feeling of hunger goes away.
- Coffee makes it easier.
- Taking control of your hunger is reassuring and empowering. Don’t be a slave to food.
- Think of calories on a weekly time scale. Know that if you smash 4,000 Calories of wings and beer, that it’s OK. Just eat a little less next week and add an extra 24 hour fast.
- Due to the flexibility of the ‘diet’, you won’t as easily derail yourself with a big cheat day. I’m prone to derailing when the diet is strict. Fasting means you don’t have to say no to birthday cake or a slice of pizza.
- I notice a real mood lift once I go over the two day hump (which is the body changing energy pathways from glucose to ketone bodies)
- Energy levels are steady, but lower than usual
- Glycolytic exercise like martial arts or crossfit workouts become very difficult on an extended fast. I can easily time 24 hour fasts around Jiu Jitsu classes, but 5 days straight made me take a few classes off.
- Feeling real hunger is something we are not used to doing. You will feel real body hunger, not boredom hunger. It’s simple, but it’s not always easy. Remind yourself why you’re doing it and keep yourself occupied with other things. The biggest reason people fail is they sit around fantasizing about eating. Stay busy.
- For me, ‘eating less’ is difficult. ‘not eating’ is easy. I’m pitiful at self-moderation, but I can easily stop eating for a while.
- Don’t tell people what you’re doing. They will try to sabotage you. They usually don’t even know they’re doing it. You will get offered cookies and snacks. Keep your plan to yourself until you start making progress. Trust me.
- You will have a lower food bill and fewer dishes. It’s the diet that pays you to adhere to it!
How Do I Fast?
Most of these fasting techniques allow for black coffee, tea, water, and a diet soda or two. That’s really all you want to ingest. If you sneak a bite, you’re only cheating yourself. As with lots of things, people try to make it more complicated than it is, thus lots of rules and specifics to set their methods apart. When in doubt, don’t eat and only drink water. Easy. Here’s a few variations that I’ve tried.
- Eat/Stop/Eat: My preferred method. You simply eat a meal, say lunch on a Tuesday, then you don’t eat again until Lunch on Wednesday. 24 hours of not eating. Do this 2 or 3 times a week. You’re hacking 4-6 meals out of your weekly diet which adds up to significant caloric reduction in a given week.
- The Warrior Diet: It’s a little more structured but basically you’re eating one meal a day, or only a small snack for lunch, then gorging at night. It’s feeding within a small window of time.
- Leangains: It was designed by a body builder but the crux is that you have an 8 hour window in which you eat your daily calories, and then don’t eat for the next 16. 16/8.
- Extended fasting to encourage Autophagy: This is a process of cellular cleanup that happens when the body isn’t getting any outside fuel/protein. The body scavenges damaged and old cell components and recycles them for building blocks of new fresh cells. It also reduces inflammatory markers which can help with the myriad issues that people can experience with a prolonged inflammation response. My longest is a 5 day fast, but you start benefiting after just 24 hours. This one is especially interesting to me on the cancer mitigation front.
- Link to a list of a few more techniques you can try.
Diets that Might Accelerate Weight Loss Combined with Fasting
I like to dabble in diets because it keeps things interesting. I ultimately credit my weight loss and maintenance to fasting, but I like to experiment with my performance and body by trying different ways of eating.
I have tried all of these diets for a minimum of four months. I did Paleo for two years. One common feature of the diets I list is they all strive to limit insulin release (the body’s sugar storage hormone) to one extent or another.
When I fail at a diet, it has always been in my adherence to the plan. That’s a personal failure. Life got in the way of adherence. Every single one of the listed diets has worked for me while I did them. I never stopped because I was experiencing adverse effects or unexpected results.
Dr. Jason Fung’s lectures (embedded below) make a strong case that by limiting the input of glucose/fructose, and thus minimizing the insulin-response, goes a long way to allowing the body to burn through the cellular reserves of glucose and tap into fat storage. The problem of fat loss seems to go beyond calories in/out.
- Paleo: A popular diet that at its core relies on shopping around the outside edge of the grocery store. Meats, veggies, nuts, fruits. Avoiding (insulin releasing) starches, sugars, and grains. It also tells you to avoid common inflammatory foods like dairy and legumes, which many people have trouble processing and causes an unintended immune response. You can dig for the details if you’re interested.
- Ketogenic: High fat, moderate protein, minimal carbohydrates. No, eating fat doesn’t make you fat. The goal of this diet is to drop carbohydrate (glucose/fructose) intake down the the point that your body changes energy pathways from glucose based to fat (ketone-body) based. The fat that the body uses is a combination of what you ingest, plus mobilized fat from your body’s reserves. This works really well for fat loss for most people. We have good luck with it.
- 4-hour body Diet (Slow Carb): lean meat, beans, and veggies and no white foods like sugar, pasta, rice, bread, cheese. Eat the same few meals over and over again, Don’t drink calories. Start your day with protein, Don’t eat fruit. one “cheat day” a week. My wife and I both had good success with this. The ‘slow carb’ part is the insulin limiting key of this one.
- ChaosAndPain’s Apex Predator Diet: This is a bodybuilder’s diet. A period of strict keto, then daily meat-on-bone meal, protein shakes, one day of fasting a week, heavy lifting, etc.
Why Calorie Restriction Fails
It’s safe to say that everyone has tried the ‘eat less, move more’ type diet for fat loss. It turns out there’s a reason that your weight loss slowed and then halted the longer you were on the diet. It’s the body adapting to a long term self-induced famine. If you severely restrict daily calories over a long period, your body turns down its expenditure of energy to accommodate the long-term shortage. Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) drops to accommodate your caloric deficit.
Fasting is distinctly different than caloric restriction. The total lack of food input actually increases energy expenditure by the body, increases norepinephrine release, and mobilizes fat storage for energy.
If you want to dig deeper into this and see a convincing pile of studies to support this conclusion, I point you towards Dr. Jason Fung. Dr. Fung has a great narrative that is built on 100 years of clinical research. His ‘two compartment model’ makes a lot of sense in explaining why calories in doesn’t always equal calories out. I encourage you to watch his lectures and read his books if this interests you.
If you give it a shot, let me know how it goes. I think you’ll find that it’s a relatively effortless way to lose fat. If you have questions, I’ll answer what I can and refer you to source material as needed.
Resources and More Info
If you have time, please watch this talk:
Dr. Fung also is a big advocate for fasting and actually wrote a book on it. Here he is explaining why fat loss is more than an energy in/out phenomenon.
- The Complete Guide To Intermittent Fasting Dr. Jason Fung
- EAT/STOP/EAT Brad Pilon
- 4 Hour Body Tim Ferriss
- Keto-Diet Primer on Reddit
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