The regular readers of you know that I’ve been an intermittent faster for the past couple of months now (click here for a primer). There are many things that are great about it. I decided to give it a whirl some time ago and decided that I liked it, so I stuck with it. Just last week, however, I woke up in the morning and said to myself, “I would really like some bacon right now.” And so with a side of eggs (over easy!) and a bowl of oatmeal with berries, I very merrily consumed my very first real breakfast of the year 2012.
It wasn’t entirely on a whim, however. Ever since I started interning at Cressey Performance, I’ve had to make the adjustment from being a sedentary, full-time student sitting on my butt for most of the day to standing on my feet for the better part of 10 hours. Talk about a boost in NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Unsurprisingly, my body was in for a shock and I found myself fatigued during the first week. I felt... depleted. All the time. It probably didn’t help that my first calories weren’t consumed until 3p.m. after a 10:30a.m. training session (and yes, BCAAs were consumed before, during, and after.
So I made the logical decision that I would try the whole eat-breakfast deal again. Perhaps, if I was lucky, Breakfast and I could once again become fond friends. Maybe rekindle our long lost companionship?
I’ve noticed something lately, and there’s no denying it now. Some of you are not going to like what I have to say, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that there’s at least some truth to this. You know that relatively new “sport” in which you throw weights around for time, oftentimes with egregious technique? You know that fad that has people who don’t even know how to squat or deadlift properly flinging several pounds over their bodies and has consequently caused a whole host of unnecessary injuries? Well... intermittent fasting has recently taken over the reigns of that throne. [Tweet "Intermittent fasting has become the new CrossFit."]
I know it sounds enticing, the idea of a novel way of eating. “The data is pretty clear that meal frequency has no impact on body fat loss one way or the other,” notes Dr. Layne Norton, PhD Nutritional Sciences, natural pro bodybuilder and the face behind BioLayne, “and that keeping carbs to one or two isolated time points may actually have beneficial effects on body composition.” But be careful not to blow this out of the water. What’s that, you ask, I get to eat more food at fewer meals and still lose fat? Yes, yes, you are correct. Maybe you do it because you think it makes you hardcore. Or maybe you can’t fathom going a day without eating your favorite Poptarts, and intermittent fasting allows you to do just that. It’s also possible that you accidentally stumbled across it on the information reservoir that is the Internet. Whatever your reason - and also if you’re still in the midst of deciding whether or not intermittent fasting is for you - I strongly encourage you to weigh the pros and cons to find out whether or not you’re a good match.
Speaking strictly from a lifestyle standpoint, I’ve outlined what I’ve found to be the main indications (pros) and contraindications (cons) of following this type of diet.
You have a lot of things to do. I wish I’d taken a day just to time how many total minutes I spent preparing and consuming my meals on days that I intermittent fasted versus ate several meals. Regardless, I think we can all agree that food preparation can be a pain in the ass, and stopping whatever you’re doing to break out your tupperware six times a day can interrupt your work/productivity flow. If coffee, tea, and/or water are the only things you’re putting in the stomach for the first couple hours you’re awake, though, there’s not much that gets in the way of everything you need to accomplish that day (well, besides Facebook, but that’s a whole different animal).
You have a big appetite. I can really pound the food down if I want to. One of my meal staples of the past has been an entire pound of chicken breast topped with a whole avocado and some veggies on the side. I may be stuffed, but I’m also equally content, and the thought of food won’t even cross my mind until well into the next day. Additionally, any lover of junk food (cheesecake and ice cream included) will be thrilled to know that these sweets can make a regular (semi-regular?) appearance without much, if any, aesthetic physique consequence. Swedish Fish lovers, unite!
You have a sedentary job. Whether you’re a full-time student or working in a cubicle, if you’re sitting on your rear end for most of the day, then you don’t really need to have breakfast. You don’t necessarily need those morning calories to shuffle off to class or step on the accelerator on your commute to work. They’re simply not nearly as important.
You may or may not look six months pregnant, and it probably won’t be a very good look on you. The size of your meals will of course depend on how many meals you’ve allotted yourself as well as what and how much food you’re eating. But if you push the envelope enough, you’ll find yourself frequently looking like you’ve swallowed a watermelon whole. If you’re staying in for the night, it may not be a big deal, but if you’ve got a cute, fitted dress you’re trying to squeeze into for a party later on, that pregnant look may just have to go.
You use it as an excuse to eat like shit. Calories don’t matter anymore because of the magical eight-hour feeding window. Oh, oh wait - yes they do. Of course they still matter! There’s a whole lot of hype about how fasting increases insulin sensitivity, how it does this and it does that. But chowing down on an entire pizza under the supposed premise that those calories will all go straight to your muscles and not to your hips is the wrong way to do it. You may be dismayed to learn that you can still gain fat while intermittent fasting, and it’s actually not as difficult to do as you’d think. Calories are still relevant. Control yourself!
You really can’t stop at just one. If you’ve been intermittent fasting for a while, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve become so used to feasting at every meal that when there comes a time when you happen to eat outside of your feeding window, it’s all over. I know some individuals who have sat down to eat a “light” breakfast in the morning with their families on special occasions, which has quickly spiraled into an all-out cheat day. Well, that day is shot.
You have a disordered eating mindset - or you’re going to. IIFYM can be awesome, but it can also lead down a very dangerous and scary path. If an accidental cheat day occurs (see above), it is not uncommon for intermittent fasters to swiftly wave away the guilt by telling themselves they’ll simply fast the entire next day to re-create the calorie sink. Or perhaps worse, individuals will justify themselves right before a binge that it’s perfectly fine to gorge today because tomorrow’s calories are simply being shifted back a day. Does this sound familiar? Kind of like the unhealthy cycle of binge and starve, binge and starve.
On a related note, it’s not optimal to shift your macronutrients, namely protein, around during the day - underconsuming earlier to make up for it later. Dr. Layne Norton chimes in:
“One problem with IF for people who are looking to optimize muscle mass is that fasting decreases protein synthesis significantly and you cannot simply make up for a lack of protein throughout the day by overconsuming it at a few others. There is a cap on the effective dose of protein to stimulate muscle anabolism and above that you are really getting no added benefit. One of the experiments we did for my PhD thesis (which we are currently in the process of attempting to publish) actually examined protein distribution and found exactly what we suspected... that eating low protein early in the day could not be made up for by eating a very large protein meal later in the day. After 11 weeks the subjects eating unevenly distributed protein intake actually had smaller muscles than subjects fed relatively equal doses of protein. I personally believe that many of the fat loss benefits of IF can be had consuming protein only meals throughout the day and then just bolusing intermittent carb intake rather than just all out fasting.”
Your job keeps you highly active all day. If you’re constantly on your feet from sun up to sun down, it might be a good idea to get some food in you when you wake up. The more physically active you are throughout the day, the more it’ll make sense for you to have breakfast. Moreover, if you’re an elite level athlete who is training multiple times per day, you probably don’t want to be intermittent fasting.
You’re a hardgainer. I shouldn’t have to elaborate on this one. If you’re having trouble getting in enough calories within a 24-hour period, why restrict your eating to an eight-hour window?
You have health complications. It may seem silly to have to make this a point, but it must be said. You’d be surprised at how many people will ignore their health issues and engage in blatantly discouraged behavior for the sake of amusement. It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt - and if your health is not optimal, you’ll be the first to go down.
You’ll notice above that I’ve listed three indications and six contraindications of intermittent fasting. That’s a 1:2 ratio, and there’s a reason for that. I personally am of the strong belief that intermittent fasting is not the best option for most of the general population - either because they don’t understand it fully or, even if they do, something will go awry. My main concern, unsurprisingly, is the mental aspect of this diet and how it can warp your relationship with food (though for some, it may actually help).
Intermittent fasting is just another way of eating; it’s no magical formula and it certainly isn’t the holy grail. I urge you to take a careful read through the list above and consider your current lifestyle. Do your reading, ask questions, and become well-versed in the subject before plunging ahead.
(By the way, Breakfast and I have become best pals again. We're quite happy together.)