Saturday, 23 July 2016

Post 16: Making Gains Fast(ed) (plus should women fast?)


Hi Guys,

Today we are going to be addressing something fast and furious; something which is going to swap your diesel out for some rocket fuel!* Today we are going to look at fasting and intermittent fasting, how it can fit into your fat burning, how it can contribute to your muscle gains, and the gender differences of fasting.

* I thought I would name this article “The Fast and the Furious”, but fasting contributes to your fury and I don’t want to mislead...



The conventional wisdom

Let’s take a quick look at what conventional wisdom says: you should eat six small meals a day to maximise metabolism, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, breakfast stimulates your metabolism, if you don’t eat every few hours you will lose your muscles, and if you don’t eat every few hours you’ll lose your energy and experience brain fog.

That’s what the conventional “wisdom” says, but wait a second, let’s think about these statements a little more. There can only be a constant amount of energy in a confined space (i.e. the universe), so how could eating six small meals a day increase the amount of energy in the universe (via a higher metabolism)?

Your metabolism is not an on/off switch and it increases in proportions to the amount of food you eat.

Consider this: if you think that eating breakfast “turns on” your metabolism, does that mean that pre-breakfast your metabolism is non-existent? Therefore your basal metabolic rate is zero? Therefore all that breathing and general living that you’re up to is powered by nothing but dew and air?

Next: breakfast being the most important meal. Either a) this is meant in a time sense i.e. a meal in the early morning is the most important meal of the day. In that case, why is it that people who fast can see so many benefits when they don’t eat before midday? We already know that eating in the morning won’t stimulate your metabolism any more than eating the same food at other times. Or b) this is in reference to the first meal of the day, i.e. the one that breaks your fast. This would imply that the statement “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” actually is saying “eating food is the most important meal of the day”.

Next up in line we have the warning that you will lose muscle mass. If you eat an adequate and healthy level of protein (which you should be having already, fasting or no), this will not occur. Once in the fasted state your body will turn towards fat stores to generate energy, hence sparing muscle; and this process is even more pronounced as you become better fat-adapted.

Furthermore, fasting can even spur muscle gains (more on that later).

Having low energy and brain fog while fasting is a high-carb dieters self-fulfilling fallacy. If you eat a high carb diet (particularly a high refined carbohydrate diet), you’re setting yourself up for blood sugar peaks and troughs. These troughs send a signal to your brain: we’re starving, we need to get our blood sugar up again!


When you fast and you rely on fat stores for energy, your body knows it has fuel conveniently deposited all over your body.

Don’t forget as well that conventional “wisdom” is driven by a profit incentive: there’s not much to be gained from telling people to not eat anything! We’ve been told by marketers that small meals and a morning meal (full of “healthy” whole grains!) is good for us, and over time we’ve trained our body to expect these inputs. Remember that six meals, three square meals, and breakfast are simply constructs. We choose whether or not to accept them.

So overall I just want to assure you that fasting and intermittent fasting isn’t something to be scared of! While we need to approach it from different perspectives (gender differences later on), it can be an effective tool for weight loss and body re-composition.

Fasting makes more sense from an evolutionary perspective too: there wasn’t food available 24 hours a day when we were hunter-gatherers, and sometimes it just feels natural to skip a meal. If you’re not feeling hungry, then it doesn’t make sense to eat unless you see a famine coming. Let’s fast forward to the modern day: carrying three Tupperware boxes, fruit, protein powder, and protein bars around with us is just an inconvenience.

Today I ask you to do me a small favour: to forget what you know about meal timing and overall when to eat. Read this article, then revisit the conventional “wisdom”. Have you been blindly following what multinational corporations tell you for your whole life?

Now that we’ve shaken off what you thought you knew, we need to know a couple of things: what is fasting and what styles of intermittent fasting are there? Let’s take a look…

The different types of fasting

Eating windows:
You give yourself an eight or ten hour window a day to eat all of your calories. Commonly the eating window will be from around 10am/midday through to 8pm/10pm. You can take this to extremes, with some people compressing their windows down to four hours. In the non-eating window coffee, tea, water, etc. is fine as long as no calories are consumed.

5:2 fasting:
You don’t eat any calories on two non-consecutive days of the week. This strategy can be very effective at resetting hormonal profiles.

Alternate day fasting:
Similar to 5:2, but you don’t eat any calories every other day.

Bulletproof Intermittent Fasting:
The same as intermittent fasting using eating windows, except you begin the day with high quality coffee blended with butter and MCT oil. You can read my experience of a week on BIF here.

Cheat day and fast:
This one doesn’t have a catchy name but it refers to having a cheat day and then immediately fasting for 24 to 36 hours. It makes sense to me that you fill yourself up one day then don’t feel as if you need food afterwards, but I am not a fan of this one for two reasons. One, having a cheat day implies eating everything you can get your grubby mitts on, including foods you really should never be eating. These foods then lead to cravings in the following days when you’re supposed to be fasting. The second reason is that it makes more sense to me to do the long fast first, then workout and have the cheat day and in doing so reaping more of the fasting benefits.

My experience:
After learning about intermittent fasting I decided to try out the eating windows approach, and in the past three months I’ve been using Bulletproof Intermittent Fasting. I’m the sort of person who can jump straight into these sort of things, so it worked well for me, but it might not for others. You might have a different schedule to when I started, and you might not be as well fat adapted. I think the key is to find a strategy which you think will work well for you and ease into it over three weeks. This list is not exhaustive: find what works for you and then experiment; you have very, very little to lose.

At this point, you’re not frightened to consider fasting, and you’ve got the tools to put into action. Now let’s look at why you should be using these tools.

The benefits


  • Aided fat loss and muscle gains (more on this later)
  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Improved mental clarity
  • Improved energy
  • Healthy hormone regulation including ghrelin regulation (the hormone that makes you feel hungry)
  • Aids in resetting and maintaining healthy circadian rhythms leading to better sleep
  • Better time management
  • Allows for feasting!
  • Autophagy, detoxification and reduced inflammation and oxidation (i.e. anti-aging)
  • Decreased triglycerides and LDL cholesterol
  • Aids in the effectiveness of chemotherapy and fighting cancer
  • Neurological benefits (i.e. brain health)
  • Improved immune function
  • Resistance to stress
  • It’s quicker and simpler than preparing meals
  • You can reset and improve your relationship with food

That’s a pretty hefty list of benefits, let’s dig into the one we all know you’re here for… ;-)

Fat loss, muscle gain, and body recomposition

We can explain improved body recomposition via fasting using an understanding of  the hormone insulin, and the protein mTOR (mammalian target of  rapamycin, a name which just rolls off the tongue...).

Insulin is the hormone which regulates blood sugar levels, shuttling energy from the blood off into muscle and fat stores. Because of this its presence inhibits lipolysis. Lipolysis is the process of mobilising fat stores for use as energy.


mTOR is a protein whose presence actually increases protein synthesis, and can be suppressed by things like fasting, coffee, and exercise. Now, why would we want to suppress mTOR? Because when you release the pressure it actually springs back in much greater quantities just at the opportune moment. Insulin has a synergistic relationship with mTOR, as insulin promotes its production.

Together, insulin is going to be sending energy to your muscles and promoting mTOR production, which in itself is going to improve protein synthesis i.e. muscle gains.

Now let’s take our understanding and apply it to fasting. You fast for 16 hours and finish your fast with a heavy workout. In those 16 hours, at some point, your body switches to primarily using fat as an energy store by entering ketosis. At the same time, you are improving your insulin sensitivity because you’re not jacking up your blood sugar levels all the time, and therefore cells will respond more efficiently to insulin. You end your fast with a workout, and eat your post-workout meal. This meal stimulates insulin release and mTOR springs back, leading your body to shuttle your meal into muscles where synthesis (i.e. healing and growing) can occur.


Well done! You just stimulated fat loss and muscle gain, and hence body recomposition.



Consuming fat or practicing Bulletproof IF fits in here too. Fat is non-insulinogenic in men and only slightly in women. What does this mean? It means that consuming fats on their own, without proteins or carbs, does not stimulate insulin release. If insulin is kept extremely low, then we won’t promote the storage of fat as discussed earlier (remember that insulin sends energy into muscles and fat stores; if your muscles are full… you know the rest…). The consumed fat must therefore be used in energy output! Hello smarter and more energetic me! Fat is circulated by the lymphatic system, rather than the blood, until it is directed to the blood in the form of blood ketones. These ketones can then be used as a clean fuel for the brain to burn. You need to know, also, that our brains only truly need a small amount of glucose, and this can be taken from liver glycogen stores. Therefore, we accompany the practice with weekly carbohydrate refeeds.

Woah, that got heavy, but it’s science which is useful to know. It also segues into training intensity well...

Training intensity

So at this point you’re fasting and therefore entering workouts in a carb-depleted state. What’s great about our bodies is that they will adapt and become more efficient at using our glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates). If you consistently train in this state your body will become much better at sourcing glucose from glycerol (breaking down triglycerides) and from gluconeogenesis (breaking down proteins - but make sure they're exogenous proteins i.e. eat a health level of protein!).

At first the intensity of your workouts will suffer, but eventually they’ll come back, and at the same time you’ll be promoting fat loss and muscle gains. Also, if you’re aiming to hit that PR, you can always carb up before the workout and the results will be incredible! You learn how to train more efficiently and you will be rewarded in the long run.

So is fasting a free (delayed) lunch?

No, it’s not. What we can’t sidestep is that fasting is a stressor on the body, but it can be a beneficial stressor. Remember that stress can either be chronic and debilitating, or we can adapt and improve. Thinking about it from an evolutionary perspective again, it makes sense: not having food makes us temporarily smarter and more able to catch and find food.

Fasting has a tonne of benefits, but we can’t do it for the rest of our lives. Therefore we need to manage the stress it puts on our bodies, for example, by taking a week or a month off here and there.

Fasting isn’t a good idea if you’re ill or suffering from certain diseases (although it helps with some). You want to minimise stress on your body in these times.

It might also initially release stored toxins into your system: this is because the body will store toxins in fat cells, therefore when you open them up for energy, these toxins are re-released into the body. Until they are expelled by sweating or through the digestive tract, you will see negative side effects. But then again, it hardly makes sense to say “I won’t do fasting because of toxins making me feel bad”; they’re toxins, you don’t want them inside you!

Lastly, you need to take care of your adrenal glands and therefore consume enough salt! Salt is another demonised entity, just like fat, but it would be near impossible to get too much salt if you aren’t eating processed foods! The adrenal glands produce catecholamines which aid in fat burning, something you’ll be doing a lot of while fasting. However, the adrenals also regulate salt and potassium levels in the body, and therefore depriving yourself of salt causes them to work extra hard. If you are requiring your adrenals to over-regulate salt/potassium levels and produce catecholamines, you’re heading for adrenal burnout!


Lastly, there’s the fact that to begin with you are going to feel hungry. That’s because you’re currently part of a ghrelin pattern which makes you feel hunger at certain points in the day. This is a pattern which improves over time. Eventually you’ll only start to feel hungry when you’re eating windows begin (if you’re following that method). Or like a lot of people, you won’t start to feel hungry at all until you eat something (remember that your body has fuel stores all over itself).

Fasting and its effect on women

So at this point I hope you’re absolutely psyched to start fasting! I was too, but before you dive in heed this warning: women and men react differently to this kind of nutritional stress.

The key is in fertility and childbearing. Men have been blessed by mother nature and are actually benefitted by being able to be homewreckers. Males have no obligation to carry a child and therefore when their body’s suspect a shortage of food, it is more able to say “that’s fine”.

On the other hand, women can react more negatively to fasting done wrong. Their bodies see a shortage of food, and therefore immediately want to hang onto whatever energy stores they have. After all, a childbearing women is much more likely to die in a famine. A shortage of food can lead a woman to reduce her fertility to promote survival, and hence cause hormonal imbalances.


I still believe that women should practice fasting, but they should be even more considerate of their health going in. This is not the time to be comparing one’s self to a guy who used fasting extremely successfully; health, at the end of day, is the name of the game.

Because of women’s response to shortages of food I would recommend taking it slower to begin with, and easing into a pattern which ensures long term health. A recommendation I have made in the past is alternate day fasting windows (i.e. every other day you eat only between midday and 8pm), and to utilise Bulletproof Intermittent Fasting. This is because the person receives adequate food through their morning fatty coffee to signal to the brain that there is no famine, which also stimulates healthy hormone balance.

Takeaways

I hope you enjoyed today’s post. There’s some science in there, which I think is useful to know, but having an understanding of the processes which run your body is always helpful, I believe. It’s been a while since we had three nice compact takeaways, so let’s enjoy them:


  1. Fasting is not harmful if done right, so pick an approach and implement it
  2. Don’t eat before your workouts and train fasted; if you like, consume only fats before a workout
  3. Ease into your fasting approach to maximise the long term benefits, especially if you are female


As always, if you enjoyed this post, like, favourite, and share it, as it helps it to reach more people. Let’s get this message out to as many people as possible! If you’re currently trying out fasting or intermittent fasting, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about your experiences, your results, and how you found it.

Until next time,

Cowlean

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