Experiments in Speed: Intermittent Fasting
Everybody seems to be doing it, but you. Women, depending on the time of the month, handle it differently than men. From weight loss to the solution of the world’s greatest problems the benfits are many. In short, is intermittent fasting for you and how much is too much?
Why the Fat?
For our bodies, no matter what the ‘big sugar,’ the fitness and without forgetting the weight-loss industries keep telling us, body fat is premium fuel and healthy fat burning is the hallmark of a well-functioning aerobic system and ultimately health. This ability can be summarized in the term endurance; while we might not run very fast, we can run much longer and further than most species (coupled with the fact we can regulate our body temperature through sweating). Even the leanest of us have 40,000+kcal (roughly 40+ hours of cycling at a moderate pace) that we carry so we all have many miles worth of fuel. Therefore a logical question is:
Why do we have to eat 3 times a day (at regular periods) if we have on tap such great resources instead of just relying on solely on stored energy/fat?
In the Experiments in Speed, I document less than obvious solutions that (can potentially) lead to big positive changes in life and athletic performances alike. Going down the nutrional ketosis road the obvious ‘next level’ if you can put it that way is the true metabolic efficiency – being able to utilise solely stored body fat for all of your body (athletic) energy needs essentially taking out having to eat unless absolutely necessary. Why would anyone want to do that though, I already had to cut refined carohydrates and sugar out I am NOT giving away food, food is good!
Digestion takes approximately 300kcal (or 16%) out of an average daily need of 2000kcal .
Out circulatory and lymphatic system is what carries nutrients around therefore when having to digest it is largely residing in the gut (lookup figures), therefore less of it is available to fuel moving muscles. The opposite is true when exercising – most of the blood is supplying the muscle tissue with oxygen. You can see how it is a either one or the other type of situation. A logical conclusion here is that you should not be doing vigorous exercise after a meal or you should not be eating while doing vigorous exercise. No problem here, right? Sleep is paramount for recovery (it is a mostly a brain process), therefore you don’t want extra energy going other places while you sleep. No big meals right before going to sleep or so the popular wisdom goes.
The above we have hardcoded into our survival. As they say the color of adrenaline is brown… In extreme danger every bit of energy must go for outrun said challenge, so anything not necessary at the moment gets dumped (another pun intended). In the wild, male bears fighting (to the death) have been observed doing the exact same thing. Being able to carry our fuel (as body fat) is a massive advantage and you don’t want to have to be eating/digesting all the time and hence using precious energy. With fat though, there is more than meets the eye.
Fat and the Human body
Fat has many roles in the human body, among them being:
- Insulation both from cold (such as the blubber of polar animals) and from heat in order to prevent evaporation of water and hence dehydration
- Immune system a large part of the cells in the immune system are made of fat, hence why frequent colds indicate a poorly functioning immune system (for example due to too much stress and/or disbalance of fat in the body)
- Hormones and hormone like substances (such as eicosanoids) are responsible for controlling important body wide processes such inflammation and healing (anti-inflammation)
- The Brain is 70+% fat by content and it is pretty much our brain and creative ability that define us as being human.
- Energy – 9kcal per gram of fat as compared to 4kcal/gram+2g of water weight from carbohydrates (glucose). And yes protein also gives 9kcal/gram though this means muscle breakdown (rarely a good thing) and the broken down protein follows a similar metabolic pathway as glucose (with all associated drawbacks, more on that below)
Therefore you probably realize why even when healthy (and by healthy I mean having healthy fat burning, not whatever crazy images (of people popping anti-depressants for example) you see in the media) fat is precious and a certain minimum must stick around (pun intended) since energy for performing daily tasks, while a priority is not among the top of the list I just mentioned.
The most obvious, though misguided reason is to lose weight. Misguided why? Being overfat is largely a *hormonal* problem. Insulin being the main culprit (in probably 75-90% of all cases) with thyroid deregulation accounting for the rest. What does insulin do? It causes us to store energy (fat) and not burn it. What causes insulin secretion? Refined carbohydrates (flour, bread, pasta, corn starch, table sugar etc.). Therefore not eating *anything* will certainly cause insulin levels to drop, though calorie restriction (aka starving yourself) is the WORST possible way to lose weight AND keep it off in the long term AND stay a healthy and a functional human being. Why you ask? More on that in the following paragraphs =).
The other top reason is to “cleanse” yourself and pretty much all religions involve some kind of fasting (Ramadan, 40 day no meat fast, etc.). While fasting can do that, why did you put the poisonous stuff in your body in the first place? Again, while noble it is a touch misguided and counterintuitive. It has its practical applications.
The current state of information is that we are glucose based creatures and we need to eat to ‘keep our blood sugar up.’ Yes it is true we can burn various macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, protein and ketones) in order to have energy and ultimately survive and there is an optimal way we obtain our daily energy
- Fat – predominant energy source for all activities
- Glucose – high bursts and/or high intensity (fight-or-flight)
- Protein – mostly during state of starvation and/or depending on diet (ie lots of meat)
- Ketones – brain fuel (keto clarity) as well as universal fuel for all cells; starvation fuel.
We can manage in extreme conditions such as starvation or as aforementioned eating refined carbohydrates in order to ‘avoid low blood sugar.’ The caveat especially with predominatly carbohydrate (glucose) based metabolism is that it is quick and dirty. Quick because it is short lasting (~2000kcal) and dirty since it is pro inflammatory and it is literally stressful. It is no surprise that most (chronic) diseases such as sclerosis, cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s start as a mild inflammation. In addition high levels of glucose accelerate the glycation of proteins (an irreersible process) – or in simple terms they speed up the aging process on a very basic cellular level. We are simply not designed to survive in prolonged and constant release of insulin. Furthermore such metabolic efficiency for a lack of lighter and better sounding term causes less cell division – which in overly simplified terms means the following: our cells have only a limited number of times they can divide and multiply in our lifetime – it is a natural process of senescence or as mentioned above aging.
Therefore in order to avoid all the negative effects (including glycation/aging) you should be eating at very prolonged intervals and restricting calories. Hence the term intermittent fasting. Overall the idea is that your body becomes very efficient since there is no ready supply of food at all times, as well as not constantly using energy for digestion, while that energy can be used to do other things (recover, etc.). Simple
Sidenote: (Intermittent) fasting is NOT a first step if you have been eating the currently accepted Western diet consisting of grains (bread, pastas, etc) and various corn starch derived products as well as sugar laden snacks. By starving yourself you will end up hungry, angry (aka hangry) and overall disatisfied with life in general. It is a process starting cutting out refined carbohdyrates and junk food FIRST. Intermittent fasting (potentially) comes afterwards. Why? More on that below…
How Did I go About I?
Dr. Rhonda Patrick (https://www.foundmyfitness.com) is among some of the people at the forefront of high-quality health, nutrition and fitness research. Her conversations on Joe Rogan’s Podcast are always eye opening and in a way give a quick summary on a lot of the topics she has been researching. Intermittent fasting is one such topic more precisely getting all your food within a 10 hour window with the remaining 14h spent in a fasting condition. As a comparison, some of the pioneers of low carbohydrate diets and lifetime health and weight Loss – Dr. Robert Atkins suggests 4 with nor more than 6 waking hours with no food and another pioneer in the field of health, fat-burnign and fitness Dr. Phil Maffetone suggests 2-4h between meals with 12h of ‘fasting’ after your last meal/during sleep. As such bringing it to 14h is not too far fetched. Hey intermittent fasting (boy what a fancy sounding name) it is the latest thing all the cool kids are doing, right?
Intermittent Fasting – My Experience
I decided that my 10h window would be from 9am-7pm in order to actually sit down with my wife and son in the evening rather tha having to eat my last meal at 16h (4pm). On a typical day it allowed me to leave earlier since I didn’t eat breakfast. Since I have a 16km (10mi) one way commute to work by bike, it meant a fasted workout and I had to pack both breakfast and lunch which on a hilly commute is extra weight. Though I got even less traffic than normal so less air pollution (at least in theory) and overall calmer state of mind – both are not to be ignored in our fast-paced and constantly busy world.
While I was fully functional until 9am, it was quite challenging, it did not feel normal. Obviously, the initial adjustment period is a stress and it took some time to find a rhythm. Overall it didn’t get easier after some time either – by some time I mean 3 weeks which is usually a sufficient period for the body to adjust to new habits. I still ate lunch and dinner with an occasional small snack. My food did NOT change, just the window for eating got smaller.
I did not notice any positive recovery benefits and/or improved sleep or any weight loss (ever since I discovered Dr. Maffetone’s work my weight has been scarily constant in a good way). It bears repeating that after all the cause of extra fat is HORMONAL (insulin is a hormone) and when there is a slight suggestion of energy shortage, your body would enter into energy survival mode rather than dropping fat. Fasting and/or restricted-calorie diets are the WORST way to lose weight and keep it off in the long term. Though in my case we are talking intermittent fasting, not something extreme like a famine or starving yourself for days. What did happen though was the following:
- I got a cold for the first time in probably 2 years with the mother of all sore throats in probably more than 10 years.
- Took me a week to recover and around 10 days until my speed/aerobic condition was back to where it was.
- While we treat chefs as rockstars and as a consequence posses a vast (and often health damaging) reverance for food, by stressing about meal times and schedules, eating becomes literaly a process of getting ingredients inside your stomach and is no fun way to approach life.
You win some and you lose some – as such this experiment in speed was not a truly positive one.
Why? Maybe there are ways to optimise it, why 14hours and not 13 for example? Why not eat smaller meals or 2 bigger ones instead of 3? Does this mean I will get old and wrinkly faster?!?! This is beyond the point I am trying to make.
Oh Clarice, your problem is, you need to get more fun out of life.
I am what you can call average guy with a wife and a kid, with performance oriented athletic pursuits (I have an 8h day job on the side), I spend 10+ h/week riding my bike and overall trying to be as active as possible. A good number of you overlap a to a greater or lesser degree with me.
From, *personal experimentation* in today’s life peppered with many activities (such as job, family, commuting, etc.) intermittent fasting is a step too much. In the words of the health practioner Brie Wieselman, stress is system by which the brain interprets the world outside of us and inside our bodies and adjusts our hormones in order that we are best prepared to respond, given the situation, life challenges (bosses, deadlines, bears, crying babies, etc.).
In the modern industrialized world, there are simply too many things (air pollution, noise, computer screens, etc.) that needs dealing with and that requires energy, whether it is a conscious effort or something we do on autopilot. Being metabolically efficient (burning predominantly fat for fuel) provides the FREEDOM to be able to defy rigid food schedules; lunch at noon, why, says who?; slept in once so had to skip breakfast – no problem, 12h flight so you avoid the junk food screaming at you from all sides – no big deal. Had to skip lunch in order to finish that project, sure thing! It is a modern day survival if you’d like to call it. You can deal with it without much negative effects such as the ‘low blood sugar headache,’ brain fog and such wihtout a second thought. In the end we need energy to keep everything running optimal before things start shutting down/slowing down and alarm bells (aka stress) starts going off.
If you are professional athlete on a lucrative contract (I am theorizing here) without too many publicity commitments and you can pick and choose your travel schedule as you see fit, so all you can do is eat/train/sleep, or you live off the grid, or anybody along that continuum, most likely you can push fasting further, you simply have less things that ‘stress’ you. For most of us intermittent fasting is an unnecessary and easily avoidable stressor. I have been mentioning that before, though I had to test it – gotta be your own test monkey=).
Seeing babies develop is a HUGE eye opener. We all have the necessary firmware hardcoded into our genes. Whether we evolved from primates or a higher power/race put it there, is beyond the point. Our bodies KNOW what is good and have been doing so for many thousands of years. Hunger among other things is a potent signal, we should learn to respect it. We have a perfect system to regulate energy expenditure – if you don’t need a lot of energy you just get less hungry. If you overeat one meal you just eat less the next one, just don’t force feed yourself. Granted refined carbohdrates and hyperinsulin secretion can trick us (and hence why as of today 75% of the WORLD’s population is overfat). Having healthy fat burning is largely synonymous with being healthy allows us to separate and isolate hunger from being able to function and make informed, reasonable and quite often creative decisions. Yes we can run on fat quite well when food supply is short or even totally absent. The most important take home message here is: It is not so much an intermittent fasting, though a step towards body awareness – what does your body need to function optimally given YOUR everyday situation. Even when pushed to extreme we know how to endure. Your body and your freedom to experiment and decide.
The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living – Dr. Stephen Phinney and Dr. Jeff Volek
The Real Meal Revolution – Prof. Timothy Noakes, Sally Ann-Creed, Jonno Proudfoot, David Grier
The New Atkins for a New You – Dr. Eric Westman, Dr. Stephen Phinney, Dr. Jeff Volek
For further information check the ever-increasing Reading List
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